Tag Archives: african american history

Who do we think we are?

9 Apr

Last  Friday morning, one of my Facebook friends and a favorite genealogist, Lisa Lee,  posted a “press release”  on her wall announcing that the Walt Disney Company had made a deal to purchase Ancestry.com. The company planned to create a thrill ride called “Memory Lane,” which would “take guests on a magical journey through their own ancestral history.”  The ride would require an advance booking and a three-generation pedigree chart to give  operators time to “create a customized experience,” complete with photos, sounds, images and historical facts about their ancestor’s lives.

Some Facebook visitors saw through it right away. I, following the journalistic tenet, “Even if your mother tells you, check it out,”  searched for other evidence of the acquisition.

It was an April Fool’s joke. But  good one.

Later that evening, I watched the NBC version of Who do You Think You Are? a program in which celebrities trace their roots.  I’ve learned a lot about Lionel Richie, whose great-grandfather J. Louis Brown, was a principal organizer and Supreme Grand Archon of the Knights of Wise Men, a fraternal organization for black men that formed after the Civil War. It was affirming to hear Richie talk about his community in Tuskegee, Ala. The adults who surrounded him and his sister, Deborah, were  doctors and lawyers  and holders of PhDs. These adults protected their children from the horrors of Jim Crow. “If the Klan was coming to protest through the streets of Tuskegee, our parents put us to bed early,” said Richie, who was raised on the campus of Tuskegee Institute. (That episode got me thinking about, Richie’s  daughter Nicole, and what the experience of tracing one’s ancestry must be like for adopted children. )

Other episodes this  season have featured Sex in the City’s Kim Cattrall and character actor Steve Buscemi.

The April 1 episode on actress Gwyneth Paltrow hit home  when it revealed that her maternal great-great grandmother, Rosamund Stout, was  born in Barbados. It was fun to see genealogist Pat Stafford walk Paltrow though Barbados historical documents at the country’s national archives, which we visited in December looking for clues to my father’s family. With Stafford’s help,  Paltrow learned that her great-great grandmother was orphaned at 13 years old and at 18 boarded a commercial ship to the United States.  Pedro Welch, a professor at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill,  offered Paltrow some background on the social climate on 19th-century Barbados and helped her understand why Rosamund and her older sister , the only passengers  –  and perhaps the only females  –  boarded  a ship carrying salt and Colonial products. The commercial vessel was less expensive than a passenger ship, Welch explained. He added that after  slaves were emancipated in 1934, lower-middle-class white women lost their  jobs to free black women with the same skills who were willing to work for much less. Welch also noted that the male-female ratio was so out of proportion on the island that the prospects for marriage for these young white women would have been limited.

“So they were competing with other white women for the few available men,” Paltrow concluded.
“And  with some black women as well,” Welch pointed out.

It made me think about the factors  at work when my father, skilled as a printer, took off for Bermuda  and then Harlem in 1923, while his brother, trained in the same profession, remained in Barbados.

NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” is an American adaptation of a BBC documentary series. I have not seen any of the BBC episodes. They are not available on Netflix, and when I try to watch clips on the web I’m told it’s not available in my area.  (Maybe I’ll catch a few episodes when I get to London tomorrow.)

The NBC program is sponsored by Ancestry.com.

The Disney/Ancestry “press release”  may have been an April Fool’s ruse, but with the resurgence of interest in tracing our roots, don’t be surprised to find a “Memory Lane”  center theme park near you where visitors could begin to fill in their family trees.

In the meantime, my own  journey is far more thrilling than any roller coaster ride. With every turn of a page, microfilm reel or conversation with a relative, I never know what I’m going to find. Who knows, Gwyenth  might be a distant cousin!

Questioning Clarence Thomas’ compassion, again

3 Apr

Last week, a majority in the U. S. Supreme Court rubbed salt in a decades-old  wound. It denied John Thompson, a man who spent 18 years in prison  – 14  on death row –  for crimes he did not commit, $14 million in damages awarded him after he was exonerated.  Thompson’s case sounds like something that took place in the  1920’s and 30’s, not  the 1990s.

In 1984, Thompson was arrested in the murder of  a man from a prominent New Orleans family. According to NPR, another man, Kevin Freeman, also was arrested for the murder, but he made a plea deal in exchange for testimony that he saw Thompson commit the crime. Prosecutors in the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office, then run by Harry Connick Sr. (Yes, the singer’s dad)  needed more ammunition to seek the death penalty against Thompson, who had no violent felonies on his record. So they trumped up a carjacking charge against him and railroaded that case through.  Once Thompson had a violent felony on his record, the carjacking conviction, prosecutors were able to convict him of the murder and send him to death row.

A  team of lawyers from the law firm Morgan Lewis, took on his case. They thought they had exhausted every one of his appeals. (A date for Thompson’s execution was set seven times.)  He was just weeks away from execution when a legal team investigator found evidence  (on microfiche!) that ultimately resulted in Thompson’s exoneration, not only for the murder but in the carjacking case as well.

Here’s the legal background on the case described by Dahlia Lithwick  in Slate: “In 1963, in Brady v. Maryland, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors must turn over to the defense any evidence that would tend to prove a defendant’s innocence. Failure to do so is a violation of the defendant’s constitutional rights. Yet the four prosecutors in Thompson’s case managed to keep secret the fact that they had hidden exculpatory evidence for 20 years. Were it not for Thompson’s investigators, he would have been executed for a murder he did not commit.”

Once exonerated, Thompson sued the district attorney’s office arguing  that it was liable for failing to properly train its employees on the requirements of Brady. A jury awarded him  $14 million, which was upheld by federal district and appeals courts.  Connick, Sr. was among the petitioners who challenged the lower court rulings in the Supreme Court.

In writing the majority opinion,  Justice Clarence Thomas acknowledged that prosecutors have an obligation to see that justice is done, and agreed that in the case of John Thompson they fell short. However, Thomas, who once portrayed  himself as a victim of  high-tech lynching,  said prosecutors should not be held responsible for training  – and thus the corrupt conduct  – of the attorneys under their authority.

Thompson is coming out  the better man in all of this. He says what bothers him most is that the Supreme Court decision  opens the door for district attorneys to turn a blind eye to misconduct on their staffs.

“My life was spared despite the efforts of many prosecutors from Harry Connick’s office who sought my conviction and execution over 18 years. They’re the criminals they made people believe I was,” Thompson told the Associated Press.

“If I’d spilled hot coffee on myself, I could have sued the person who served me the coffee,” he told The New York Times. “But I can’t sue the prosecutors who nearly murdered me.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, left, and Elena Kagan with President Obama. What would my father have made of this photo?

My father, Ebenezer Ray,  would have inveighed against Justice Thomas’ cruel and convoluted decision. He would, however,  have stood with the  female justices on the court, particularly Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, in an unusual move, read her dissent  aloud:

“From the top down, the evidence showed, members of the District Attorney’s Office, including the District Attorney himself, misperceived Brady‘s compass and therefore inadequately attended to their disclosure obligations. Throughout the pretrial and trial proceedings against Thompson, the team of four engaged in prosecuting him for armed robbery and murder hid from the defense and the court exculpatory information Thompson requested and had a constitutional right to receive. The prosecutors did so despite multiple opportunities, spanning nearly two decades, to set the record straight. Based on the prosecutors’ conduct relating to Thompson’s trials, a fact trier could reasonably conclude that inattention to Brady was standard operating procedure at the District Attorney’s Office.

“What happened here, the Court’s opinion obscures, was no momentary oversight, no single incident of one lone officer’s misconduct. Instead, the evidence demonstrated that misperception and disregard of Brady‘s disclosure requirements were pervasive in Orleans Parish. That evidence, I would hold, established persistent, deliberately indifferent conduct for which the District Attorney’s Office bears responsibility . . . “

Ginsburg was joined in her dissent by fellow justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer, (Who also took the lead in the discussion of the merits of the gender discrimination class-action suit against Walmart this week.)

When my father was writing his columns and covering the courts in New York, the idea of female  justices serving on the highest court in the land would have been a fantasy.  In fact,  he wrote a column published Feb. 22, 1936, in support of women serving as jurors in New York:

“Women’s fight for equal suffrage was a desperate and historical one. She won it,” he wrote. He credited Jane Todd, a Westchester County assemblywoman, with securing passage of a bill in the state assembly that would enable women to serve on juries in New York state.

“Negroes are not barred from jury duty in New York, yet there is almost total absence of men of color in jury panels. Should Assemblywoman Todd’s bills become law colored women might exhibit a different tendency. We could well appreciate a few colored faces in the present all-white atmosphere of the criminal courts jury box,” Ebenezer wrote.

Unfortunately,  having “a few colored” faces in the jury box or even on the highest court of the land guarantees nothing.

In 1991, after Thomas was nominated to the Supreme Court,  I wrote an editorial for the Boston Globe titled “A question of compassion.” I had written extensively about the sexual harassment charges made by Anita Hill, however,  this editorial was about how he had publicly and dishonestly, castigated his own sister and her children for their “dependence” on public assistance.

“As the Senate Judiciary Committee conducts hearing on Thomas’ confirmation, questions regarding his dishonest portrayal of his sister will not come up,” I wrote. “But his failure to appreciate the difficulties of overcoming racism, poverty and male privilege –  difficulties he has witnessed firsthand   –  suggests that he will have even less compassion on the bench for strangers who appear before him.”

Almost 20 years later, Connick v. Thompson stands as a reminder that Justice Thomas has not changed.

Ellen-Marie Ray, March 23, 1949 – September 25, 2001

23 Mar "To Ellen-Marie, Love forever."

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Months after my sister, Ellen-Marie, died of a  heart attack, some of her friends and family members  received pre-programmed birthday wishes from her via email.  It was creepy at first,  then it was funny.  Ellen-Marie  never forgot a birthday  — even from the Great Beyond!
She would have laughed too. Probably still is. She had a sick sense of humor. One of her favorite movies was Harold and Maude.
Searching through a box of old correspondence, I was blown away by the number of cards and letters we exchanged, especially during the 70s and 80s, before there was such a thing as email. I’ve got a pile of  letters filled with commentary on men, movies and more. Most of the letters  are not appropriate for reprint.  For one thing, it requires a well-trained eye and years of practice to decipher her handwriting. Secondly, much of the content would have to be redacted to protect the innocent and the guilty.
Ellen-Marie would be 62 today. To celebrate she would  likely have yellow cake with chocolate frosting. She would  be proud of every candle. She’d  take her daughter and son Kamaya and Jeremy, out for Brazilian food. She might listen to  Smokey Robinson or  watch ET or Jeopardy! or Law and Order. On the weekend, she would look for a dance party. She would be surrounded by friends from every walk of life.
She was a super mom, a dedicated attorney and my best friend.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. marries an actress

15 Mar

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. is sworn in to the New York City Council by Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia. From left, Joe Ford; Powell's mother, Mattie; Powell; Powell's wife, Isabel; Powell's father, Adam Clayton Powell Sr., and La Guardia, January 1942. Copyright All rights reserved by La Guardia and Wagner Archives

On  this day in 1933, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the assistant minister of Abyssinian Baptist Church (The church where my ex and I married, by the way) wedded  a “showgirl” named Isabel Washington.
According to my former Boston Globe colleague and Powell biographer Wil Haygood, the relationship caused a stir. “The older deacons recoiled, as did his father. Showgirls stayed out late, danced with gangsters, drank gin. Adam Junior knew better. There were veiled threats that his father would not give him money.”
In  my dad’s  “Xcuse Me” column published three days after the wedding, you have to get to the penultimate paragraph before he even mentions the names “Adam” and “Is,” but it is clear before then who the column is about.
By the way, in Roman mythology, Jupiter Pluvius was the rain-giver who ended droughts.
I didn’t have any luck finding a photograph of the wedding, but I did find this photo from Powell’s swearing in to the New York City Council in 1942.  That was in nine years after the wedding.  From the look on his mother’s face, she still had not gotten over it. :)

The New York Age, March 18, 1933

A King’s reach: My father’s take on the Royals

26 Feb

When I suggested to my daughter, Zuri, that she would love the Oscar winning The King’s Speech and that it would be great for her to see it in London, where she is studying abroad, she revealed that her drama professors were not so keen on it. “They see it as propaganda for the monarchy.”
There is also a lot of buzz in the American and international press about the accuracy or inaccuracy of the film. Bertie’s stutter was not really that bad, Winston Churchill was not really that fat and  he was not so forcefully opposed to King Edward VIII‘s relationship with a twice-married Wallis Simpson. More seriously, some argue that throughout the late 1930s the royal family and much of the British establishment favored appeasement of Hitler’s regime.
My father was a bit of a gusher when it came to the Royals.

“A King Dies,” Ebenezer proclaimed in a column on Feb. 1, 1936. The far-flung British Empire, with its approximately 500,000,000 inhabitants of all colors mourns today! George the Fifth, its ‘Sailor King’ is dead! He passed away in his 71st year of life and in the 26th year of his reign. From far-off New Zealand and Australia to the Dominion of Canada, from India to the remote Falkland Islands and the West Indies, flags are at half-mast; bells have tolled, theatres closed, night clubs darkened — business had come to a standstill, all in reverence to a departed monarch, loved by his people, and of whose greatness historian will testify.”
But in true fashion, Ebenezer brought the king’s death back home to America.

King George V

“The passing of the British monarch had its repercussion here in the House of Representatives when Speaker Byrns [Joseph W. Byrns, D-Tenn] put forward a resolution that the body adjourn out of respect to the dead king. Representative [Martin] Sweeney of Ohio was the dissenting voice. His objection was based on the grounds that his kin lost their lives during the time of the Blacks and Tans (Britain opposing the independence of the Irish Free State) and according to the New York Times Washington correspondent, Mr. Sweeney ‘is unwilling for the legislature of a democracy to honor the memory of a king in whose names the bullets went winging’  Speaker Byrns ignored Mr. Sweeney. Negroes might sympathize with Mr. Sweeney in the loss of his kin, but it is natural that they at the same time reflect on the atrocities which are committed under America’s ‘democracy” In the first place we have hundreds of lynchings which have taken place in the direction from which Mr. Sweeney hails and against which Congress up to its last session refused to enact legislation. Many a Negro has lost his innocent kin by these barbarous methods. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the constitution as they apply to Negroes are openly violated in the South. Under the shadow of the Capitol’s dome, Negroes have been denied use of the House Restaurant and even in the North Negroes are systematically and occasionally discriminated against in government and private institutions. Lastly, we come to the persecution of the nine Scottsboro lads. Within the columns of the issue of the New York Times which voices Mr. Sweeney’s objection we read that the trial was being conducted for the fourth time amidst the most prejudiced atmosphere perhaps known to any court in a civilized country.”

As for the brief reign of Edward VIII and the Wallis Simpson scandal, my father initially had high hopes for the young king whom he described as a “super-salesman, athlete, flier, sportsman and one of the most socially beloved princes, whose magnetic personality was already evident. “

But upon Edward’s abdication, he was less charitable. “I still think Edward strayed somewhat from the ‘manor born.'” he wrote in a later column. He was born heir-apparent to a throne when the world respected it. He could easily have lived closer to its shadow.  Love intoxicates a man; marriage sobers him up, someone once said. And what if the inevitable hand of retribution moves to arouse Eddie from his intoxication, brought on by Wallis Simpson’s potion of third-rate ‘love!'”

My father was wrong about that love affair. Edward and Wallis stayed together until Edward, who became the Duke of Windsor after his abdication, died of cancer in 1972.

The legacy of Mary Ray

26 Feb mom_portrait

Last Monday, when I found myself having trouble getting out of bed, I just assumed it was the winter pall, or maybe the martinis I had consumed over the President’s Day weekend. But as much as I was inclined to, as Jamie Foxx sings, “blame it on the alcohol,” (By the way, did anyone see the Glee take on that song last week?) It was something more profound.
On Thursday, while I was visiting the local Family History Center searching for more pieces of the Ray family puzzle, I came upon my mother’s death record. Yep. Feb. 21, 2002. Nine years ago last Monday.
I thought about waiting until next year to pay tribute. It will be the 10th anniversary of her death, a milestone of sorts. But the future  is not promised, as we all know, so I’m going to do it now. After all, there is no end to the gifts my mother poured into me. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say next year.
I dug out an article I wrote for Essence in 1986 titled “How to get out of that rut and make life an adventure.” I used my mother as an example of someone who did that every day.
“My mother has always had a positive, energetic spirit and a sense of adventure unmatched in anyone else I’ve ever known,” I wrote in that Essence article. “A firm believer in going for the gusto, she ran track without the benefit of Wilma Rudolph as a role model. She was the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree. And while many of her peers were settling down with their own families, she was relocating to a strange city to take a new job. When she did marry and had my sisters and me, her world and her adventurous spirit simply grew. ‘There is no excuse for boredom,’ she’d say as she dragged us (and any other neighborhood child who happened to be within her reach) to dance classes, music lessons, museums, concerts, libraries and amusement parks  — all on public transportation. And as my sisters and I came of age and began moving around to new jobs, new cities, new countries and new adventures, she was always there with her motherly caution, ‘Please be careful,’ and ‘Get some rest,’  — all the while saying ‘Go head, girl!'”
And I know she’s saying it now: To her daughter Malaya, who is still dancing, teaching and storytelling with a passion; To her granddaughter, M’Balia, who is about to get her degree all while working full time and raising three children and getting them through school and college. She’d say it to my daughter, Zuri, who is getting her acting on in London and will be an intern at  the Cannes Film Festival in May. She’d say it to her granddaughter Kamaya, who has taken her big brother Jeremy, under her wing as he has determined to turn his life around. And, of course, she would say “well done” to her  famous nephew Lamman, not just for his accomplishments as an actor, but for being a man with such a good, good heart.
My mom died on February 21, 2002 at 82. The weekend before, she had attended an AKA luncheon and the symphony. She was so active that when her friends didn’t hear from her in one 36-hour period, they knew something was up. They found her sitting in a comfy chair with her feet up, a cup of tea within reach.
She lived life fully to the end. That’s the best legacy she could leave.

Rethinking my parents’ marriage

11 Feb Mom_rockefeller_ctr

My parents’ wedding certificate

Finding my father’s columns has got me thinking a lot about my parents’ marriage. To be honest, I always thought my mother had been robbed. She was an independent woman, had a career as a social worker. She’d worked her way through junior college, then through Morgan State – the first in her nuclear family to graduate from college. She also was the only one of her siblings who moved beyond Newark/New York area to Pittsburgh. Marriage and babies were the farthest thing from her mind, she one said.
Then she fell in love. And in my mind, that is where it all started to go bad. My mother gave up her career when they started a family. The way she told it, my father told her when she was pregnant with my sister Ellen-Marie, that if she did not quit her job he would go to the YWCA and “quit it for her.” He took his responsibility as a breadwinner seriously.
The only thing was, once Parkinson’s Disease rendered him unable to work, she had to figure out how to make a living. She was mother to my sisters and me; a substitute teacher in some of the most unruly classrooms in the city; and private duty nurse to my father. 24/7. She didn’t complain much, but it looked hard.
I often wondered what she saw in my father who by then seemed an old, sick unhappy man.

Now I know. The man she met and fell in love with was gentleman with an agile mind, a worldly perspective, a love of language, politics and culture and maybe some New York property. A man who had traveled from Barbados, which must have seemed an exotic land, to a New York soon to be in the throes of the Harlem Renaissance. I imagine he wooed her with his stories. He must have been smitten by her spunk and beauty.
I haven’t found many photos of them together. As my mother wrote on the back of this photo he took of her in Rockefeller Center, he was a “camera bug.”

“I was vexed with him. We’d been walking all over New York it seemed. I had on high heels and dressed in my best seersucker suit. Note the gloves and hat. Persons were properly dressed then (smile.) Believe it or not, I was about 26 or 27, well before Ellen was born.”

What a gift to have this memory.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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