Tag Archives: black 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 It was fun to see genealogist Pat Stafford walk Paltrow though Barbados historical documents at the country’s national archives, which we visited in December looking for clues to my father’s family.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!

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 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.”

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