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Happy Birthday, Ebenezer

24 May

My father would be 117 years old today. Eighty years ago his birthday wish was for a typewriter with the same configuration of keys as a Linotype machine.  I wonder what he would think of our writing implements and communications platforms today.  A dear friend recently gave me a bracelet made of typewriter keys. I’m wearing in honor of my Daddy’s birthday today.

 

Immigration nation

4 Jul

“Immigrants signed their names to our Declaration and helped win our independence.  Immigrants helped lay the railroads and build our cities, calloused hand by calloused hand.  Immigrants took up arms to preserve our union, to defeat fascism, and to win a Cold War.  Immigrants and their descendants helped pioneer new industries and fuel our Information Age, from Google to the iPhone.  So the story of immigrants in America isn’t a story of ‘them,’ it’s a story of ‘us.’  It’s who we are.  And now, all of you get to write the next chapter,” President Barack Obama told a group of active-duty service members as he presided over their naturalization ceremony earlier Wednesday.

The ceremony set the perfect tone on Independence Day 2012. As a poisonous strain of anti-immigrant fever runs high in some quarters, the President’s remarks are a powerful reminder that America’s story is at its core the story of immigration.

But it is a complex story; one that the country has been struggling with for decades.

In 1934, one of my father’s fellow New York Age columnists Vere Johns, wrote albeit a bit less delicately:

“Shortly after the Great War, the United States decided that her gates should be closed but for a little crevice where she would allow a few people to slip in each year. In other words, she would keep as many aliens out as possible. But after fourteen years of that policy they are fearing that it was a big mistake and in some way responsible for the depression we are now trying to emerge from . . . .

Speaking of Americans, it is hard to find them. The first ones we claimed to be the Indians and they probably came from somewhere else; then came the Spaniards, followed by the Mayflower boatload of adventurers with no more blue blood in their veins than a cat has. Later came, or rather were dragged here, the Africans, and since then, every country has contributed its quota from Malay to Ireland. The country is one cosmopolitan racial hash, and just try to pick out a pure strain. If everyone were to go back to the land of their origin, all that would be left here is the fleas and the skunks.

But every single one of these groups has made great contributions to the building up of America into one of the world’s greatest and richest nations. America would have been a poor and desolate country with a small population, vast areas of uninhabited land and in a third-rate position,” the Jamaican-born Johns wrote.

My father chronicled his own path to citizenship. In one column published on March 3, 1934, he wrote about the hurdles immigrants scaled to become citizens  — the fees, the educational requirements and some seemingly arbitrary hoops:

“Why all the red tape in a time of peace? We learn that in a time of war ‘citizenship’ is distributed for the asking — the reasons being obvious,”Ebenezer wrote, noting that within just a few years the fees for the process had increased from $5 to $20.

“The educational requirements matter but little to English-speaking Negroes, able to read and write. The questions usually asked are “’What do you know about Abraham Lincoln?’ ‘Who makes the state laws?’ And this writer was asked in addition ‘How many stars are in the American flag? The careful perusal and retention of the contents of a 25 cents book on ‘How to Become a Citizen’ generally solve the educational requirements of becoming a citizen. But there are greater encumbrances and if the theory that that which is easily got is little valued,  citizenship should be valued.”

He goes on to chronicle his path: When he initially tries to begin the process, it’s during a presidential election year. He’s told to come back after the election. On the appointed day, he returns and declares his intention to denounce King George V. He waits three more years, fulfilling the five-year U.S. residency requirement. When it’s finally time for him to make his application, he brings with him two witnesses who can vouch for his character. But one has only known him for three and a half years – the requirement was five. His application rejected, he had to start the process again.  My father arrived at Ellis Island in the autumn of 1923. He became a citizen in the spring of 1930.

Luckily my father was continuously employed, even during the worst periods of the Great Depression. There was talk back then of denying pubic assistance to non-citizens and there were threats to deport them.

So nothing that he went through comes close to what some immigrants face today and the “encumbrances” he described don’t even come close to the sacrifices made by the 25 individuals who were sworn in at the White House Wednesday.

“All of you did something profound,” Obama said. “You chose to serve.  You put on the uniform of a country that was not yet fully your own. In a time of war, some of you deployed into harm’s way.  You displayed the values that we celebrate every Fourth of July — duty, responsibility and patriotism.”

Amen.

‘If I were mayor of Harlem’

15 Apr

Last  Thursday, I got a call from a fellow blogger, Valerie Bailey, who was doing research on a Ted Yates, a black newspaper columnist whose career overlapped with my dad’s. I told Bailey, whose fascinating video blog is febone1960.net, that the name was familiar, and that I would get back to her if I found anything.

Then,  while  looking for a column to feature this week, I came across one my father published on April 14, 1934 titled “If I were Mayor of Harlem.” It is one of several “If I were . . . ”  pieces Ebenezer wrote, including “If I were editor ” and “If I were the Hitler of Harlem.” (I’m not quite ready to delve into that one.)

Under the headline of the mayoral column was a note: “With apologies to W.W.” Could that be Walter White, then head of the NAACP? Not sure.  What I did find was a note in another  of my father’s columns that referred to  Ted Yates. That column was likely what led Bailey to me.

In the April 14, 1934 column, my father rails against “soap box orators,” those who used the street corners of Harlem as their bully pulpits. My father, staunch defender of the King’s English that he was, seemed less offended by their opinions and more put off by their imperfect grammar.

“Those allowed on Lenox Avenue would have to pass a grammatical test by answering three questions on the principles of correct speaking. One of these questions would be: Why should IS not be used for ARE, not ARE for IS? Most of them, having apparently paid little attention to such principles, their elimination would be easy.”

Ebenezer also pledged to deal with teenagers who frequented movie theaters on school nights and who “interrupt older patrons  with their premature bits of sophistication” and parents who kept their little ones out past their bedtimes.

“I would give power to police officers to issue summonses to parents and guardians seen hauling tired looking little children behind them from theatres between 10 p.m. and midnight. In court they would be fined. Later than midnight they would be put in a cell without a bed so they could realize what it is to be sleepy and not be able to lie down. “

Further, he would call a press conference for the black press, with editors from the rival  New York Age and the Amsterdam News sitting front and center. “Then I would advise them to bury the hatchet.”

Back to Ted Yates: In a column published a month later, there is a note under the subhead “Petty Larceny.”  It read, “Ted Yates column: If I Were Mayor of Harlem in the Afro-Amer. After all, Ted, there is still something you can glean from an ancient rag.”

I guess Yates, who wrote for the Age and a number of other black papers,  borrowed that line for one of his own columns published in the Afro-American, which was based in Baltimore, but had a national edition. I’ve done a bit of searching in the Afro-American’s archives, but haven’t turned up the Yates’ column in question yet.

Perhaps my dad should have taken his own advice about burying the hatchet.

Click “continue reading” for the full column: BTW: Tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was nicknamed “The Mayor o Harlem.”
Continue reading

And then there’s Maude

26 Mar

Scanning Ebenezer’s columns on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, my heavy eyelids were brought to attention by this line at the bottom of a column dated Feb. 24, 1934.

“News was received Friday last of the death of my sister, Maude Victoria, aged 25 years, at her home in Barbados, B.W.I. May the sod rest lightly on her.”
What?
I know about his brother, Noel (Alkins), also a newspaperman, who lived in Barbados; his mother, Malvina (Chase Alkins). And there was a niece, Carman Alkins, who I assumed was Noel’s child. Sad that Maude Victoria (no last name was given) died so young.

‘I have learned to be racial’ and other observations after 11 years in America

31 Dec

In a column my father wrote on the eve of the new year in 1934, he recalls seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time 11 years earlier. He arrived on Ellis Island aboard the SS Fort Victoria on Nov. 1, 1923 at age 26, 48 hours after leaving Bermuda, where he worked as a printer for six months.

His entry seemed relatively easy. From the sound of it, he passed the physical and intelligence tests and the interrogations immigrants were put through fairly handily and headed straight for Harlem.

The biggest tests were yet to come: As he put it, he had to learn to be racial, to understand Jim Crow, both the southern and northern varieties. He had to weather the Great Depression and witness America’s promise and its shortcomings.

Although I lived in New York for several years in the 80s and still often see the city as a second home, it was not until this week that I set out like a tourist and visited the Ellis Island Museum and Liberty Island, where I finally saw the Lady up close.

It was probably divine intervention that kept me from there until now. It has so much more resonance.

Happy New Year, dear readers. Thanks for taking this journey with me.

Continue reading

Should Negroes be thankful?

20 Nov

In 1934, the United States was still in the throes of the Great Depression. The Scottsboro Boys had been locked up for more than three years. Lynchings were rampant, and many states still denied black folks the right to vote.

Ebenezer was not pleased.

“Three hundred and 11 years ago, a disconsolate group of humans who have since come to be known as the Pilgrim Fathers were facing their second winter of hunger, cold and peril,” my father wrote in his column published Dec. 1, 1934. [In the age of linotype, I suppose it was customary for the Thanksgiving column to come out after Thanksgiving.] “The spring crop of corn had been withered by a long drought; the vegetable gardens had been destroyed by fire. A day of prayers was declared, which was followed by a refreshing rain. Almost simultaneously a ship loaded with friends and supplies was sighted. The Governor proclaimed a day ‘for public thanksgiving.'”

My father went on to add that since that day in 1623, the United States had celebrated other days of thanksgiving in the midst of national crises:

“In the first year of his office, President Washington issued a proclamation making Nov. 26, [1789] [Typo alert! The actual column says 1879] a day of ‘national thanksgiving’ for the establishment of a government designed for safety and happiness. When the Civil War was slowly drawing to an end, President Lincoln set aside the last Thursday of November as a day of national thanksgiving ‘for the defense against unfriendly designs without and signal victories over the enemy who is of our own household.'”

But what did Thanksgiving mean for black people in America in 1934?

“As another Thanksgiving Day approaches, can the Negro as a race really be thankful for many material blessings? . . . Even the individual materialist may have much to be thankful for – he may be in good health, his family as well, he may even have a job and everyone knows that that is much to be thankful for nowadays. Yet the Negro as a race still needs much to complete his reasons for Thanksgiving Day in this anno domini 1934. He is still the victim of ruthless exploitation by an unyielding capitalist system; he is still being denied many constitutional rights as a citizen, including the right to vote in many states; he is still being discriminated against even under the dome of the nation’s capitol; he is still the victim of brutal lynchings. Nine Negro boys are nearing their fourth year of incarceration in an unsympathetic Alabama prison for a crime they did not commit, while a coterie of lawyers strive valiantly, but almost ineffectively to stave off a legal lynching of them.

“The Negro still needs sound reasons for a real honest-to-goodness Thanksgiving — his winter is still on, his ‘corn is still withered’ his ‘ship loaded with friends and supplies’ still to be sighted; his ‘government . .. for safety and happiness’ has not yet been established.'”

So, as Thanksgiving 2011 approaches, those of us fortunate enough to be employed, to have homes, health and abundance should be grateful. We also should continue the fight for those among us who continue to endure the chill of injustice.

Here’s the column in its entirety:

Continue reading

The death penalty debate

1 Oct

At Troy Davis’ funeral today, activist Dick Gregory asked those in attendance to say a prayer or meditation every day at noon that capital punishment will cease.

“You can’t pick and choose when you’re dealing with God’s children,” Gregory said.

Gregory demonstrated that conviction on Sept. 21, when rather than protest outside of the Georgia prison where Davis was executed, he was in Texas, holding an anti-execution vigil outside of the prison where Lawrence Russell Brewer was put to death.

Davis, convicted in the murder of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty police officer, was executed by the State of Georgia for a murder in which there was no physical evidence tying him to the 1989 crime and in which seven of nine witnesses recanted all or portions of their testimonies.

Brewer was one of three white supremacists convicted in the gruesome 1998 lynching of James Byrd.  Brewer also was executed Sept. 21.

I have spent the past week trying to decide whether I could have stood beside Gregory in Texas.  I’m not sure.

What I am sure of is that no one should be executed in cases like Davis’ in which there remains lots of “reasonable doubt.”

My father, who spent a good part of his career covering court proceedings in Harlem, supported the death penalty. He was convinced it was a deterrent.

“Capital punishment for ruthless murderers should stand until something better supplants it . . . . I think somewhere in Genesis we read: Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed,”  Ebenezer Ray wrote in a column in 1934.

Whether my father changed his views later in life, I have no clue. But even he might agree that Troy Davis’ guilt had not been proved and therefore capital punishment was not appropriate in that case.

Based on his writings about Southern lynchings and the railroading of the Scottsboro Boys, I can assume Ebenezer would have been pleased to know that Brewer and his ilk were headed for the death chamber. But then again, it is likely that when my father was writing in the 1930s and 40s, no one would have even been arrested for Byrd’s heinous murder. No doubt, he would have had a lot to say about that.

I would like to think I am one of those who believe that all life is sacred and that as a civilized society we shouldn’t put anyone to death. But I wasn’t unhappy when Navy Seals blew Osama bin Laden’s brains out. But maybe the rules are different in times of war.

Back in September of 1934, my dad engaged in a fierce war of words over the death penalty with a reader, George Streator,  who accused Ebenezer of being a “muddled reactionary.”  I have to admit, Streator’s description was on point, and his views on the death penalty were more in line with mine.

“Capital punishment will not check murder in America, any more than lynching as a means of keeping Negroes in their places is effective except against the individual. Both the instances cited are instruments of the herd.  In the matter of capital punishment, the herd is sanctioned by the law. In the matter of lynching, the herd invokes its own law. Both are sadistic outbursts,”  Streator wrote.

Check out the debate between George Streator and Ebenezer Ray.

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