Archive | 1934 RSS feed for this section

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.

Telling it like it is

8 Aug

At an outdoor concert featuring Aaron Neville in San Francisco’s Stern Grove yesterday, I was taken back to being 11 or 12 years old when  my sister Ellen-Marie asked me to pick up Neville’s first hit, “Tell it Like it Is,” from the neighborhood record store. My friend Rosalyn and I were headed there for our own 45s, probably something along the lines of the Marvelettes or the Supremes. (Rosalyn and I were part of our own junior girl group called the Trangualettes  – don’t ask – and we lip-synced a mean “Don’t Mess with Bill.”)
Rosalyn and I were barely out of  elementary school. Ellen was in high school.  And even though WAMO, the one black radio station in all of Pittsburgh, played everything from R&B to blues to jazz  —  the white radio stations didn’t play black music back then —  we didn’t really have our ears tuned to Aaron Neville . . . yet.

On Sunday, as I listened to Neville’s still silky rendition of that 1967 ballad, I searched my memory for all of Ellen’s teenage crushes and suitors. I wondered who she might have been thinking about as she played that record. It could have been that she simply knew then what we’d all come to know, Neville’s capacity to make us swoon.

Romance aside, I suspect that song spoke to Ellen-Marie because it got to the core of who she was — direct and honest. Aggravatingly so. Sometimes brutally so. And not only did she take truth-telling seriously, she did not understand why others were incapable of doing the same.

Our mother, who was often given to being coy and indirect, used to drive Ellen-Marie crazy. I’m sure I did too, as I have a tendency to bury my ledes. Editorial writing was good training for getting to the point.

Ebenezer, on the other hand, was not one to mince words. Here are some gems I’ve found so far. All are excerpts from his “Dottings of a Paragrapher” column in the New York Age.

Dec. 22, 1934:  “When the white man ‘lifts his foot off the neck’ of Negroes and when the Negro in turn lifts his own tiny foot off his own neck, when a Negro reporter, writer, cartoonist,  or etc. can go to the News office and apply for a job with the  assurance that he has the same chance as his white brother, his color regardless, then it will matter whether he is called colored, Negro,  or Aframerican.”

June 1, 1935: “Although time often permitted, I have never availed myself of the opportunity to attend the hearings of the  Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem, firstly because I could never clearly see why five white men should be appointed on such a committee when it is highly improbable that even one Negro would be appointed to any committee to inquire into conditions in any white community.”  [Note: The 14-member commission, appointed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia following a 1935 race riot in Harlem, included several prominent blacks.]

May 30, 1936: “On a recent evening, what was scheduled to be an ‘all-star artist recital’ turned out to be just a parade of the ambitious, plus a little stardust.
How a promoter of this affair ever got together such a mixture is beyond imagination. It was little short of capital offense to associate the beautifully voiced Doris Trotman-Earle and Constance Berksteiner White with some of the other untutored apologies for singers. It was little short of a capital offense to place one sartorial blunder, in particular, on any program. He murdered ‘Then You’ll Remember Me’ — and all who had to listen to him certainly will.
Liberal applause followed all the efforts. It must have been admiration for their ‘nerve’ — or maybe the audience was made up mainly of relatives.”

Ouch! Ellen-Marie got it honest.

The Claude Neal lynching

5 Jun

In The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson‘s hard-to-put-down chronicle of the Great Migration,  she describes the lynching of Claude Neal in Marianna, Florida in 1934.

It is  a gruesome tale of unspeakable acts, including the mutilation, hanging, rehanging, dragging and shooting of one  man.

And though we can only hope that this orgy of gratuitous hate and voyeurism was what Wilkerson says was “perhaps the single worst act of torture and execution in twentieth-century America,”  we know it was illustrative of the reign of terror, humiliation and intimidation that prevailed in the American South well into the 1960s.

“Across the country, thousands of outraged Americans wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt demanding a federal investigation,” Wilkerson writes. “The NAACP compiled a  sixteen-page report and more files on the Neal case than any other lynching in American history. But Neal had the additional misfortune of having been lynched just before the 1934 national midterm elections, which were being seen as a referendum on the New Deal itself. Roosevelt chose not to risk alienating the South with a Democratic majority in Congress at stake. He did not intervene in the case. No one was ever charged in Neal’s death or spent a day in jail for it,” Wilkerson adds. Continue reading

The Maryland, D.C. connection

17 Apr The Williams house on the Farm

Recently,  I left what my father would have referred to as an unkind “Jupiter Pluvius” behind in California to attend a professional meeting in D. C. While I was in the area, I took a bit of a trip down memory lane. My first stop was a visit with my oldest friend, Melana – we’ve known each other since we were eight  –  and her husband Derek. Then I hung out with my niece M’Balia and her sons, Shomari and (Little) Ron. M’Balia and I drove up to Havre de Grace, Maryland, where my mother spent many a summer with her cousins   – the Williams branch of the family. This family of 10 kids was legendary in our household.

Clockwise from top row, My mother's cousins Mildred, Irving and Ruth, my niece M'Balia, yours truly, Cousin Jimmy, husband of Cousin Catherine (seated next to him), Cousins Eva and Mary.

They grew up on a farm on Old Robin Hood Road.  Their mother, Hattie,  and my mother’s father, John Henry Brown, were brother and sister. The Williams’s were highly educated with doctoral, medical and other professional degrees many, but not all, from historically black institutions. And they called my mother “Willie,” short for Wilhelmina, her middle name. This probably had to do with the fact that there were a lot of Marys on both sides of the family.  When M’Balia and I made our plans to visit the farm in Havre de Grace, we expected to visit with the three cousins who now live in the house they grew up in and their sister, Catherine, who built a home on the land after she and her husband, Jimmy, retired.  But they must have sent out the word, because every living sibling showed up to greet us. They shared family stories, read this blog with fascination and encouragement, cheered on M’Balia, who was on the cusp of earning her first degree in criminal justice with high honors. And they insisted on treating us to lunch.

I found out some things: Why their eldest sister, Ruth, was not listed on the 1930 census document I found. (She was already married and had left home.)

I also learned that my mother’s nuclear family was the second for her father. That John Henry had had a first marriage and that I  have a living cousin named Rosie  I never knew existed.

The Williams house on the Farm

As for my father, my mother’s cousin Eva said, surprisingly, that she had only met him once, when he and my mother came for a visit to the farm. “He was very quiet,” she recalled.

On to D. C. I had a chance to visit with my friend Laurence, who I met when I first came to Stanford in 1995. Back then,  her oldest son, Benjamin, and my daughter, Zuri, were just five years old. The last time I’d seen Laurence, she and I, her husband, Michel, and their daughter, Chloé, braved the frigid January weather to witness Barack Obama’s inauguration.

And speaking of  D. C., I found this column my father wrote following his first visit to the nation’s capital in the fall of 1934. Unlike the chilly but glorious weather I enjoyed the weekend I was there, he saw the city on what sounds like a particularly rainy day.
I wonder what he would have thought about the fact that the nation has its first black president. I passed the Old Executive Office Building, which he mentions was under construction in 1934 and is covered with scaffolding today.

“Washington, with its tree-bedecked boulevards, is a beautiful city  – even on a rainy day,” Ebenezer wrote.  “Au revoir, I hope not goodbye.”

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 662 other followers

%d bloggers like this: