Archive for the ‘African American History’ Category

Paul Robeson: An Extraordinary Man Part 1

Paul Robeson was a phenomenal man. His accomplishments seem to defy human possibility in any era, but particularly during a time when the USA was a rabidly racist country.  He was an outstanding scholar, athlete, actor, singer, freedom fighter and international people’s champion.

Robeson was a citizen of the world who not only fought for the rights of Blacks in America, but for the working-class throughout the globe including the Soviet Union and China.  He also forged close alliances with various trade unions, Welsh and Canadian miners and other groups.  The fact that he spoke more than 20 languages, including Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Yiddish, German and several African languages, made him more effective.  Robeson was also very well-versed in world culture.

He was born in Princeton, New Jersey on April 9, 1898. His father was an escaped slave who graduated from college and became a minister, and his mother was a Quaker school teacher who died when he was young.

Robeson was a bright student who entered Rutgers University in 1915.  He was an outstanding athlete, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and in 1919 the class valedictorian.

In 1921 Robeson married Eslanda Goode. That same year he played for the Akron Pros, an integrated NFL team coached by Fritz Pollard, the NFL’s first Black coach. He ended his career in 1922 and a few months later graduated from Columbia University Law School. Sadly, his law career was derailed by racism.

In 1924 he appeared in Eugene O’Neill’s “All God’s Chillin,” a controversial play that paired his character with a white wife who kisses his hand.  The KKK threatened to kill him because of this.  In 1925 Robeson performed in “Showboat” in London.  “Ole Man River” would become his signature song.

In 1930 Robeson performed Shakespeare’s Othello on the London stage and received 20 curtain calls on opening night. He was invited to perform at Buckingham Place.

In addition to being a Broadway star, Robeson was an international celebrity who enjoyed an illustrious film and stage career that spanned decades.  His performances also include: “Shuffle Along,” “The Emperor Jones,” “Song of Freedom,” Oscar Michaeaux’s “Body and Soul,” and “King Solomon’s Mines.”

In 1937 he founded the Council on African Affairs, an organization that supported anti-colonial movements.  During the Spanish Civil War that same year, he brought about a cease-fire for several hours when both sides stopped to listen to him sing from the front lines in Madrid.

Robeson led a Black delegation before the Baseball Commission in 1943 to petition for the removal of racial barriers in pro baseball. This led to the hiring of Jackie Robinson.

In 1946 he and Albert Einstein co-chaired the 100 Day Crusade to End Lynching, and in 1951 Robeson presented a petition to the UN charging the US with Black genocide.


Another Side of Rosa Parks Part 2

I posted Part 2 late Thursday or early Friday so it has a Friday date.  I will be submitting a second post later tonight on Feb 8.  Also, I made a slight change to Part 1 beginning with the words “In 1944….”

Mrs. Parks, Nixon and other activists formed the Alabama Committee for Equal Justice for Mrs. Recy Taylor.  The Chicago Defender called this the strongest campaign mounted for equal justice in ten years.  The Recy Taylor case  was national news and activists and the Black press throughout the country were involved.

The outcome of the first trial was a forgone conclusion since none of the rapists were ever arrested and there was a racist all-white male jury.  The case was dismissed.  Shortly afterwards Mrs. Taylor received death threats and then white supremacists firebombed her home.  Mrs. Taylor, her husband and child went to live with Mrs. Taylor’s father and her siblings.

After much pressure from the Black community at-large, the case went before a second all white male Grand Jury.   Some of the assailants admitted they raped Mrs. Taylor but none were indicted and the case was dismissed.

The Black community was shocked and outraged a second time.  Although the outcome was devastating, this campaign was so well-organized it helped launch future successful civil rights efforts.  The Montgomery Bus Boycott being one of them, thanks in large part to Mrs. Parks.

Rosa Parks passed away on October 24, 2005 at her home in Detroit, Michigan. She was the first woman to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, the first American non-government official and the second Black person to have this honor bestowed on her since its inception in 1852.

Another Side of Rosa Parks Part 1

I heard a group of Black teenagers talking about Rosa Parks one day.  Most of the teens said they wouldn’t have put up with sitting in the back of the bus. They didn’t understand the racist climate of the times and that Mrs. Parks’ act of defiance could have resulted in her being brutally beat or even killed.  The teens weren’t aware that bus drivers had police powers and that they carried guns and/or black jacks and that drivers were known to brutally assault and even murder Blacks who violated Jim Crow laws or were seen as “troublemakers.” The teens didn’t fully appreciate just how brave Mrs. Parks had been because on its face she performed a very simple act.

Rosa Parks’ name brings to mind an image of a quiet, be-speckled seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in 1955.  What many people don’t know about Mrs. Parks, however, is that she had been involved in civil rights for decades before the bus incident.  She was a longtime member of the NAACP at a time when signing up with that organization could get a person fired from their jobs, harassed, brutalized or even killed by whites.

White men had raped Black women regularly and with impunity for hundreds of years in America, particularly in the South, and some of the rapists were policemen.  These crimes were still being committed in the 1940s when Mrs. Parks was working for the NAACP.  She traveled through the South interviewing Black rape victims in the hopes these women might one day receive justice.  It took a lot of courage for her to drive alone to the victims homes, especially because local authorities knew she was retrieving information that could potentially imprison white men.  If Rosa stayed in town too long, authorities would run her out.  She could have been brutalized, raped or killed on any visit.

In 1944, Recy Taylor, a Black wife and mother from Abbeville, Alabama, was kidnapped and brutally gang raped by six white men.  At the time of her abduction, she was walking home from church with her friend Fannie Daniel and Fannie’s teenage son, West. Daniels is the one who initially reported this horrific crime to the police and then Recy came forward.  Both women displayed great courage in an era when whites terrorized and even killed Blacks who reported them to police.  In addition to that, many white police were racist towards Blacks. Ms. Daniels could identify the car and she knew the driver’s name, yet the police refused to arrest the rapists. The Black community was outraged and the Montgomery branch of the NAACP got involved. They told Recy they would send their best investigator, Rosa Parks.

Rosa worked with chapter president E.D. Nixon and others to build a case against the rapists.  Nixon was criticized for a more aggressive approach to securing justice but Rosa was on board.  After all, she grew up watching her grandfather sit in his home with a rifle on his lap to ward off the Klan, and she was the wife of Raymond Parks, a gun-toting activist who helped raise money for the Scottsborro Boys in the 1930s.

Lesser-Known Black History Facts

Harriet Tubman  was still a slave when she married her husband John Tubman, “a free” man, in 1844.  She fled a plantation in Maryland and escaped to Philadelphia via the Underground in 1849.  It was a grueling 90 mile journey.  Harriet said she felt like she was “in Heaven” when she entered Pennsylvania. Despite this feeling, she returned South many times to rescue other slaves from bondage.  Harriet met John Brown in 1958.  When he started recruiting people for the attack on Harper’s Ferry he consulted her.  After Brown was killed she hailed him as a martyr.

Leroy W. Homer, Jr. was a 36-year-old first officer of United Airlines. He was also the co-pilot on Flight 93 on September 11, 2001 when terrorists hijacked this plane that later crashed in a field outside of Shanksville, PA.  The movie “United 93” recreates this tragedy and compounds it by portraying Homer as a white man when in fact Homer was a Black man married to a Black woman and the father of a young girl.

In 1968 Shirley Chisholm became the first Black U.S. Congresswoman.  She represented New York State for seven terms and in 1972 she made a bid for the US presidency.   She survived three assassination attempts while campaigning.  Shirley was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a longtime champion of educational opportunities for inner-city children.  In 1972 she visited her rival George Wallace in the hospital after he was shot while campaigning for U. S. president.  Years later when she worked on a domestic worker minimum wage bill, Wallace helped to get enough votes from Southern congressman to push the bill through the House.

Harry Belafonte, actor/singer/producer/longtime human rights activist was awarded an NAACP Image Award last month. In the 1980s he came up with the idea of bringing celebrities together to sing a song to raise funds for famine relief in Africa.  “We Are The World,” written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, was born and became an international hit that raised more than $20 million for famine relief.  Harry’s activism included serving as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, speaking out against apartheid in South Africa and against U.S. military intervention in Iraq, etc.

The African Company: An 1821 Black Shakespearean Theater Co.

William Henry Brown was a Black man born in the West Indies.   He resided in New York City in the early 1800s and served as a steward on ships that travelled between England, New York and the Caribbean.  He was a “free” man.  Slavery ended in New York in the late 1820s but “free Blacks” were still brutalized and terrorized by whites, and Blacks were still prohibited from attending public schools, voting, traveling freely between states, etc.  In part, as a result of this, Blacks established their own businesses and institutions.

In 1816 Brown resigned from his job on a Liverpool liner and bought a house in Manhattan on Thompson Street.  He started holding soirees in his tea garden backyard where he provided various forms of entertainment (music ensembles, singers, poetry readings or dramatic works) and food and drink as well.  These events were such a big hit that people traveled from all over NY to attend. A theater company grew out these tea garden performances.

Brown moved to a larger home on Mercer Street in 1821 and built a 300-seat theater on the second floor of his home.  Brown hired Blacks to perform mostly Shakespearean plays for Black audiences.  “Richard III” and “Othello” were the most popular.  James Hewett and Ira Aldridge who was a teen at the time, were the principal actors.  The latter went on to achieve international acclaim after moving to Europe where he was a stage actor for more than 40 years.  I’ believe the group was originally The African Grove Company and at some point became The African Company.

Brown wrote “King Shotaway,” a drama about the 1796 Black Carib War against English and French settlers.  It was performed in 1823.  It’s believed to be the first Black play written and produced in America.

The African Company productions were also attended by whites although they were restricted to sitting in the back of the theater.  The more popular the company became, the greater a threat it posed to the larger white theaters.  As a result of its success and racial tensions in general, the Black company was forced to move to new locations more than a few times.

The white owner of the Park Theater (Stephen Price) had hired a famous British actor to star in Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Around the same time it was scheduled to open, Brown rented a hall next door to mount The African Company’s production of that same play and it opened on the same night as the Park Theater’s production. Stephen Price paid whites to stage a riot during The African Company’s performance and the police shut them down.

Although it’s not conclusively known why the company folded, some reports say it may have been due to Brown declaring bankruptcy and others says the company folded because the last theater that housed the company mysteriously burned down in 1926. There are no records about this company after 1923.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson Father of Black History

Dear Subscribers,

I will add a new blog post on Monday, Feb 4.  I decided not to do a part II to my post on rappers because the lyrics and misogyny are too punishing to my soul. Next week I will devote a post to the extraordinary Paul Robeson.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson, “Father of Black History,” is the son of former slaves, Anna Elizabeth and James Henry Woodson.  Woodson was born in 1875 in New Canton, Virginia and started working on a farm at an early age to help his father support their large family.  His schooling suffered for many years because of this, but he was determined to get an education so at age 20 he entered high school in Huntington, West Virginia.  He earned his diploma in less than two years and then five years later he returned to Douglass High School and became the principal.

Dr. Woodson later received a bachelor’s degree in literature from Berea College in Kentucky.  He studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, France  and in 1908 received a M.A. from the University of Chicago.  In 1912 he received a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University.

In 1915 Dr. Woodson and a group of friends founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.  It was an organization established to recognize and preserve Black contributions to America.  ASNLH was initially housed in Chicago and a year later gave birth to the “Journal of Negro History.”   In February of 1926 Dr. Woodson established Negro History Week.  He selected February because it’s the month of Abe Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’ birth.  Dr. Woodson hoped a time would come when Negro history would be included in American history and that there wouldn’t be a need for Negro History Week.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson,  was a scholar, journalist, historian, etc. who wrote several books about Black history. Here are some of the titles:

The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861: A History of the Education of the Colored People of the US from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War. Published 1915

The Mis-Education of the Negro.  1933

A Century of Negro Migration.  1918

The Rural Negro.  1930

Negro Makers of History.   1928

Negro Orators and their Orations.   1926

Free Negro Heads of Families the US in 1830:  Together with Brief Treatment of the Free Negro.   1925

The History of the Negro Church.   1921

Black in Nazi Germany, Hans Massaquoi

Hans Massaquoi, the former managing editor of Ebony magazine, died this month.  Here’s his unusual story.

Hans was born in Germany in 1926 to a German mother and a father who was the son of the Liberian consul general in Hamburg, Germany.   Hans’ mother was a nurse and his father a law student in Dublin who periodically lived with his family in the consul general’s villa. The diplomatic status of Hans’ grandfather afforded him a life of privilege during his first few years.  Hans viewed Black skin as superior to white skin because their servants were white and his grandfather was the man in charge.

When Hans was in second grade he dreamed of joining the Hitler Youth Movement because its members wore “cool uniforms” and “did exciting things – camping, parades, playing drums.”  One day Hans convinced his babysitter to sew a swastika on his sweater, but his mother removed it later that night. Unfortunately, earlier that day his teacher had taken a picture of him wearing the sweater while standing among his classmates.  That photo appears on the front cover of his 1999 memoir, “Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany.”

In 1929 his lifestyle dramatically changed after his grandfather was called back to Liberia.  Hans and his mother went from residing in a villa, to living in a small apartment in a working-class neighborhood of Hamburg. The thing that troubled him the most about their new environment was the fact he was shunned and pointed at because of his “exotic looks.”  He was one of a very few bi-racial children and they were targets of racism and were considered second-class citizens.

Although African pride was something Hans rarely felt, that changed in 1936 when Joe Louis went up against Germany’s Max Schmeling and Jesse Owens won Olympic gold in Berlin, Germany.

Hans said he managed to survive Hitler’s reign of terror because there were so few Blacks in Germany that the Nazis made them a low priority for mass extermination, unlike in the case of Jewish people. He also credits the advancing allied forces with playing a role as well.

Germany barred him from pursuing higher education and from preparing for a professional career, so Hans served as a machinist apprentice.  In 1951 he traveled to the US on a student visa.  Due to a clerical error, Hans was ordered to serve as a paratrooper in the 82 Airborne Division during the Korean War, although not a US citizen at the time. He made the most of the GI bill and earned a journalism degree from the University of Illinois. Hans was a journalist at Jet magazine and then moved to Chicago and worked for Ebony magazine where he served as the managing editor until he retired in the late 90s.

Hans married Katharine Rousseve and their union produced sons Steve and Hans, Jr.  Hans Massaquoi passed away on January 19, 2013.  He was 87-years-old.