About a decade before my parents tied the knot, another woman took the name of Mrs. Ebenezer Ray. Her name was Lucille. For a long time, that’s all I knew. My mother had told me my father had had a first wife. And after my mom died, I found my dad and Lucille’s divorce papers in my mother’s dresser drawer. When I told a friend that I’d thought it curious that my mother would save the divorce papers from her husband’s first marriage, but none of his writings, the friend suggested that it was by design. My mother wanted to make sure my father was free to marry. Knowing my mother, that is exactly what she was thinking. But knowing my mother, if she’d had copies of his columns, she would have kept those too. Continue reading
It’s the late 60s, and I’m in the backyard of our Pittsburgh home. My mother’s brothers, James and John, and their brother-in-law Frank are back there too. We’re busying ourselves with summer chores my mother has assigned. But Uncle John and Uncle Frank aren’t having it. After all, none of this was their idea. One minute they were out carousing somewhere between Newark and the Bronx. The next thing they knew they were on the Pennsylvania Turnpike headed for Pittsburgh, my Uncle James behind the wheel. Continue reading
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
A little more than a year ago, thanks to the wonders of the web, I stumbled upon my father’s name in a college honors thesis. In 2001 Amy Katherine Defalco Lippert, then at the University of California at Berkeley, submitted an honors thesis for her bachelor’s degree in history titled “The Rationalization of Righteousness: Nazi Ideology, the Holocaust and the African-American Community in World War II.”
On page 94, she wrote:
“From the very beginning, black leaders, writers and educators worked to foster an understanding of the Second World War as a fight for their country and a fight for freedom—for their own, as African Americans, and for others as well.
“As Ebenezer Ray wrote in June of 1940, ‘It is a war of liberty versus enslavement. Of course, here and there comes a voice from this race of ours that the war isn’t America’s, ‘least of all it is the Negro’s.’… Methinks this is America’s war, since it is a war for liberty and freedom, and against racial and religious intolerance. If it is America’s it is the Negro’s. What’s true of the whole is also true of the part.’”
In the footnotes: Ebenezer Ray, “The War ‘N’ Us!” New York Age, 15 June 1940, p. 12.
And the rest, as they say, is history, or at least this blog. Continue reading
Gemini men. My favorite cousins — David Browne and Russell Williams — celebrate their birthdays this week. My ex-husband and fellow co-parent is a June Gemini. My late Uncle James, who stood in in the absence of my father in so may ways, would celebrate his birthday June 10.
And then there is my father himself, who would celebrate his 114th birthday on Tuesday, May 24. (No, that is not a typo!)
The column below, which he published just after his 36th birthday in 1933, is part birthday lamentation and part history lesson. I had no idea that every territory of the British Empire celebrated Queen Victoria’s birthday. Back then it was called Empire Day. (And we thought declaring Kate and Will’s wedding day a bank holiday in Britain was a little much.) My dad apparently didn’t think much of “present horseman and apparently future bachelor king” Edward VIII — even before he abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. Continue reading
11/5/2013: Aunt Alma died this morning. She was a brilliant woman and a bright light. I am so glad Zuri and I were blessed to spend some time with her in February. Rest in peace, Aunt Alma. Yours was a life well lived.
Anybody who talks to me for more than five minutes (OK, two minutes) knows that my daughter, Zuri, goes to Spelman. And if you talk to me for 10 minutes you will hear the story of why, among many of the good decisions she has made in her life, Spelman has so far been one of the best.
But Zuri is not the first member of our extended family to go to Spelman. There is Andrea Williams, MD; Gabrielle Fouché Williams, and Janelle Duckett, who with Zuri is a member of the Class of 2012.
And then there is my Aunt Alma Stone Williams.
Aunt Alma entered Spelman at the age of 15. She was valedictorian when she graduated in 1940. She wrote a lovely letter to me with memories of my mom, who was her late husband Russell’s favorite cousin. I’ll share that letter with you in an upcoming post.
After earning her bachelor’s degree at Spelman, Aunt Alma earned master’s degree at Atlanta University. An accomplished pianist, she planned to study at Juilliard during the summer of 1944 when an opportunity arose that was so compelling she could not pass it up. She was invited to be the first ever and only black student at Black Mountain College, an experimental, liberal arts college in North Carolina. Though the school was founded in 1933 on the principles of democratic governance and community living, it had no black students or faculty for the first decade of its existence. School officials wanted to integrate, but weren’t sure how. In 1944 they decided to admit Aunt Alma as a summer student.
“In attending Black Mountain for their Summer Session in 1944, Alma became possibly the first Black student in the 20th century to attend a predominantly white college in the South. (Most other white colleges did not integrate until twenty years or more later),” her son Russell wrote in a chronology in honor of his mother’s 90th birthday April 26.
In a 2008 profile on Aunt Alma in the Ashville, North Carolina Urban News, she is quoted as saying:
“Pioneering did not frighten me. I was accustomed to studying and living with white teachers at Spelman and to reaching for high standards in all areas.”
Aunt Alma’s decision to take that leap of faith changed Black Mountain College.
“In 1945 the College admitted two African American students to the Summer Session and also two guest faculty members, performers Carol Brice and Roland Hayes,” the Urban News article said. “That fall the college hired an African American faculty member, Dr. Percy H. Baker, and admitted an African American, Sylvesta Martin, as a full-time student for the regular academic year. In the winter of 1947, five black students were enrolled at the college: two men, both veterans of WWII, and three women.
At this point the faculty voted to declare the experimental stage of its interracial program at an end and to release a public statement to the effect that henceforth “admission will be open to all students of all races.”
Spelman’s theme song is “A Choice to Change the World.”
That is exactly what Aunt Alma did.
Congratulations to the Spelman Class of 2011. I’m sure anything I say will pale in comparison to what you hear from First Lady Sister Michelle.
So I will let Aunt Alma’s legacy speak for itself.
- First lady welcomed at historically black college (sfgate.com)
- Returning to Spelman with First Lady Michelle Obama (whitehouse.gov)