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The black press: A beacon of light in the racial darkness

6 Feb

Credit: Library of Congress

If you plan to be in Pittsburgh between Feb. 11 and Oct. 2, check out “America’s Best Weekly: A Century of the Pittsburgh Courier,” which will be on exhibit at the Heinz History Center.  The Courier, where my father worked when I was a young girl in Pittsburgh, is celebrating 100 years of service to the black community.  In its heyday, the Courier had 400 employees and its readership spanned the country.  The Courier was a strong voice against segregation and particularly lynching. Pullman porters were enlisted to surreptitiously “drop” the papers along their Southern train routes.

“These papers were not welcomed in those states and oftentimes were confiscated and destroyed to keep African-Americans from reading newspapers,” Samuel Black, the exhibit’s curator, said in a recent interview with CBS Pittsburgh.

Robert Lavelle, an old family friend, who as a young man was responsible for coming up with those delivery routes,  was interviewed for The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords, a film by award-winning  filmmaker  Stanley Nelson.  Lavelle said that even though Pittsburgh was a relatively small city, the Courier had a name well beyond its borders  “because it had tried to reach out to black people, no matter where they were, and we would try to send papers to those people. And as the people in those places became more numerous in terms of circulation, then those people would get a column in the Courier and maybe even on the front page of the Courier,  and pretty soon that place had an edition of the Courier. So the Courier developed 13 editions and we would send papers to these various,  regional places like the Midwest edition, the New England edition, the Chicago edition, the Philadelphia edition, and the Southern edition  . . .  We’d send them down by seaboard airline, Atlantic coastline railroad, down through Florida and all those places.”

My cousin Russell Williams

On a personal note, my cousin Russell Williams recalls a visit his family made to Pittsburgh:
“Back in 1958, as my father finished his Ph.D. at Michigan State, we traveled back to South Carolina (where he taught at SC State), and we stopped in Pittsburgh to see Ebenezer and Mary Ray and their three daughters (Mary was my father’s favorite cousin).  I remember Ebenezer taking us to the Pittsburgh Courier offices to show us how a newspaper was produced, and I carried home with me a souvenir (a piece of type) from that trip — a very interesting keepsake to my just-turned-seven-years-old
mind.  Years later, I came to understand the important role that the Courier played nationally, and was very proud that I had a relative who had contributed to that impact.”

As I was four years old at the time and have no recollection of that visit, I was moved by Russell’s  story.

Well before my father moved to Pittsburgh and joined the Courier, he tipped his hat to the Negro press as well. In 1935, the New York Age celebrated its 50th anniversary.

 

New York Age Nov. 2, 1935

“For fifty years, The Age has lived; for fifty years it has been an articulate voice of the Negro race; for fifty years it has weathered economic storms; for that period it has outlived its own shortcomings, and the shortcomings of the people it set out to serve,” Ebenezer wrote in a column published Nov. 2, 1935. “On the threshold of its new era, it is natural that it pauses to look back on its past on the path it has tread, a path strewn with pitfalls, a path decorated with the glory of achievement; a path nonetheless dotted with journalistic wrecks. Much of the paper’s success must be measured in the friends it has made; much of its power can be measured in the enemies it has made. No man can get very far without creating a few enemies here and there. The man whom everyone loves is insincere. The Age‘s supporters flaunt its greatness; to many it is a beacon [of] light in this — their world of racial darkness.”

Send the Rockefellers, Fords and Mellons to war first

8 Jan

It’s an age-old argument:

In his March 9, 1935 “Dottings” column, Ebenezer wrote about legislation forwarded by Wisconsin Democratic Congressman Thomas O’Malley, calling for the wealthy to be drafted for the U.S. military first.

“Individuals with the highest income must be sent to the point of hostilities before any other individuals called to service,” the bill read.

The only other reference I could find on this legislation was in a book titled Wealth, War & Wisdom by Barton Biggs.

Ebenezer wrote: “It has long been conceded that munition makers, financers, and all those who hope to profit by war do more to incite such outbreaks than all the assassinations of archdukes put together. But fortunately for them, and unfortunately for others, these men generally stay at home lounging in soft-cushioned chairs and otherwise enjoying themselves while so-called patriots, who have nothing to gain, wallow in mire and are exposed to all hardships, making cannon fodder for ‘the enemy,’ while defending ‘their country.’”

In the latter half of the column Ebenezer offers a counter argument to fellow West Indian writer Donald Moore, whom my father quoted extensively in his “Dottings” column on Jan. 26 of that year.  The column examined the recommendations of what was called the Closer Union Commission, which was considering a West Indian Federation.

“Such a federation, amongst other things, would eliminate the present burden of several high-salaried government officials who are sent out from Downing Street, England and have little interest in the country over which they lord,” Ebenezer wrote.

“We do not want to be misunderstood.  Our correspondent is justified in being skeptical or cynical because present day Imperialists in Britain as well as overseas distinctly object to sharing the burden of trusteeship with those over whom they have appointed themselves trustees. . .  In each British colony, therefore, the color question has to be tackled and the racial prejudices and  disabilities which arose out of slavery and which are very much alive in spite of Emancipation have to be overcome before concessions which are given to other British subjects are obtained by men of color.”

Guest column: The Closer Union Federation

8 Jan

Ebenezer offers his space to colleague Donald Moore. You’ll see in the “Dottings” column March 9, 1935, that Ebenezer offers his own take on the Closer Union Federation. If there are to be any changes in or of the present system of government which has been, and is still, a system of futility,” Moore wrote, “then let those changes be the elimination of said system and a government as given to the Irish, take its place for the general progress of the islands and their people.”

The New York Age, January 26, 1935

A road map for a new year

1 Jan

Bruno Hauptmann

As the world welcomed 1936, the Lindbergh kidnapping case continued to capture the world’s attention.
“This writer individually but unequivocally thinks the State of New Jersey has the right man in Bruno Richard Hauptmann,” Ebenezer  wrote. He compared the Hauptmann matter with the case of Lloyd Price, a “Brooklyn Negro” who was “convicted and executed for the murder of a white girl. The prosecution’s strongest point, if we remember well, was  the fact that a pencil, supposedly the property of the accused Price, was found near the body of the murdered girl.”
My father also weighed in on Ethiopia, a recurring theme of his in 1935 and 1936, as well as FDR’s fitness for another four years:
“November next will decide whether the people of the United States want Franklin D. Roosevelt to guide their economic and industrial destinies for the next four years. In the meantime, records show a marked improvement in business and industry. the most recent Christmas shopping showed an increase of about ten per cent over that of last year, virtually all sources of individual income headed by wages and salary showed substantially higher yields n 1934 than in 1933, the U.S. Treasury announced last week. The Post office Department handled its biggest Christmas business since 1929. All in all, Prosperity seems to be turning that elusive corner of which we heard so much four years ago. People of the United States would do nothing better than to entrust their national destiny in the hands of Franklin D. Roosevelt for the next four years, even though the shiftless Herbert Hoover and a handful of disgruntled and personally interested Republicans think otherwise.”

The New York Age, January 4, 1936

 

Merry Christmas, Joe Louis, the Communists, the Scottsboro Boys and Mother

25 Dec

Joe Louis 1935

I love the fact that my father gave a shout out to his mom, whom he said was responsible for all that was good in him.  (Sadly, he used the same line nine months later when she died.) He also sent greetings to Joe Louis, the “uncrowned king,” “the Scottsboro lads with a sincere hope for their ultimate freedom,” and  the Communists who took up the Scottsboro Boys cause and saved their lives. There was some reluctance among supporters of the NAACP about whether the Communists efforts on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys would hurt their cause.  Ebenezer did not seem to have those concerns. He did give props to the NAACP for its “untiring efforts on behalf of the Negro race.”

The New York Age, December 28, 1935

Malvina Augusta Alkins

21 Dec

In a post last week, I noted that I found it interesting that the death of Malvina Alkins, my father’s mother, was featured in an obituary in the Barbados Advocate, the nation’s oldest newspaper. Turns out, her death was noted in three Barbados papers, the Advocate, the Herald and  the  Observer, which employed her other son, Noel Alkins. My father included these obituaries in his “Dottings” column on Sept. 5, 1936. In the two weeks preceding that column, “Dottings” featured guest columnists, which suggests that perhaps he’d made it back to Barbados.  Though the Advocate item mentions that Mrs. Alkins had lost her husband just a month earlier, none mention his name. I found a death record for a James Alkins, who died June 30 of that year. More on him later.

The New York Age, September 5, 1936

‘Vacation days are here!’

14 Dec
 

 

The New York Age, July 20, 1935

“Vacation  days are here!,”  Ebenezer wrote in his New York Age column published in July 20, 1935.  “A human current moves toward parks, playgrounds, camps, beaches and other vacation and summer resorts. The dust has been blown from the old lunch kit; the abbreviated bathing suit has been removed from the moth balls; the house holds but little charm; the typewriter, well we’d better skip it!”  Zuri and I arrived in Barbados yesterday on a flight filled mostly with folks headed “home” for the holidays. I envied them.  My seat mate on the JFK to Bridgetown was headed to St. Philip to spend six weeks with her daughter. Of course, I could not let an opportunity pass without asking if she knew any Wrays, Rays or Alkins. She didn’t.  We will head to the archives today. But first, the beach . . .

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