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 War ‘N’ Us

30 May

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

Happy Birthday, Daddy

24 May

My dad, left, with family friend Hughart Wright. I have no idea where this was, since there were no beaches in Pittsburgh.

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

Lamman Rucker and his mom, Nana Malaya, in conversation

16 May malaya-and-lamman

My sister Malaya Rucker-Oparabea, a dancer and storyteller,  and her son, actor, producer and entrepreneur Lamman Rucker, have devoted their lives to their art. On Sunday, May 15,  they talked about their relationship on an online radio program “Phenomenal Saging Mothers.”

Alma Stone Williams: ‘A Choice to Change the World’

15 May michelle_obama_spelman

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.

Zuri_Aunt_Alma
This afternoon First Lady Michelle Obama will give the Commencement address at Spelman College.

Aunt Alma Stone Williams

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.

First Lady Michelle Obama delivers Spelman College’s 2011 Commencement address

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.

What’s a mother to do?

7 May

Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity sponsored a lecture featuring Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture on May 5.

Recently, Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, gave a talk at Stanford about the challenges he has faced as he develops the museum, which is scheduled to be completed in 2015.  Bunch talked about the “treasures” people often bring him as potential items for the museum’s collection.

Bunch told the story of a pillowcase someone brought him that had been passed among family members for several generations. The pillowcase was embroidered by an enslaved African American woman who had just learned the day before that she would be sold.

The embroidery was a message to her daughter:

“In this pillowcase, you will find a dress, you will find some biscuits, but what you will find is that it’s filled with my love. And though I may never see you again, always know how close you are to my heart. “

According to Bunch, that mother never saw her daughter again.

Bunch’s story put into perspective all the chatter about tiger and helicopter moms. There’s even a new one, snowplow parents  – who try to move all the difficulties out of their children’s lives.  I used to say that most of my black friends thought I was a pushover when it came to parenting and many of my white friends thought I was too tough. I’m not sure what my other friends thought.  In the end, all of our children have made us pretty damn proud.

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey and Thande Newton in "Beloved." Winfrey is a member of the advisory board of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In an age when everybody’s got an opinion about how children should be raised, protected, nurtured, etc., the pillowcase story makes it all seem so silly. Who among us would have had the resolve to embroider that farewell before being sold to another slave owner?  Or who would not have been tempted to do what Sethe did in Toni Morrison’s Beloved?

Maybe this is a downer as Mother’s Day approaches.  It’s not meant to be.  It’s intended to be a tribute to mothers who, under the worst and best circumstances, did and do their best with every ounce of what they have.  Here’s to our mothers, who made sure we had clothes on our backs and something to eat and who stitched together a legacy of love that has sustained us through generations.

On a more uplifting note, and speaking of generations, here’s what my father wrote for Mother’s Day in 1937.

The New York Age, May 8, 1937

Dottings on Easter

24 Apr

The New York Age, April 11, 1936

Just returned from traveling and am still in the throes of the  post-vacation dig out, so I’ll just let my father’s words speak for themselves. One item was written the week before Easter in 1936. Not sure what that last word is, but you’ll get his point. Don’t shop where they won’t hire you.

The second item was published a week later, the day before Easter Sunday, which fell on April 19 in 1936.

The New York Age, April 18, 1936

Happy Easter to all

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