Angela Bassett, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Eric Benet, Kim Coles, Al Sharpton and many other celebrities, including Ebenezer’s grandson Lamman Rucker bring an important message. Rucker, the first to speak, says “Your vote is your voice.”
“Immigrants signed their names to our Declaration and helped win our independence. Immigrants helped lay the railroads and build our cities, calloused hand by calloused hand. Immigrants took up arms to preserve our union, to defeat fascism, and to win a Cold War. Immigrants and their descendants helped pioneer new industries and fuel our Information Age, from Google to the iPhone. So the story of immigrants in America isn’t a story of ‘them,’ it’s a story of ‘us.’ It’s who we are. And now, all of you get to write the next chapter,” President Barack Obama told a group of active-duty service members as he presided over their naturalization ceremony earlier Wednesday.
The ceremony set the perfect tone on Independence Day 2012. As a poisonous strain of anti-immigrant fever runs high in some quarters, the President’s remarks are a powerful reminder that America’s story is at its core the story of immigration.
But it is a complex story; one that the country has been struggling with for decades.
In 1934, one of my father’s fellow New York Age columnists Vere Johns, wrote albeit a bit less delicately:
“Shortly after the Great War, the United States decided that her gates should be closed but for a little crevice where she would allow a few people to slip in each year. In other words, she would keep as many aliens out as possible. But after fourteen years of that policy they are fearing that it was a big mistake and in some way responsible for the depression we are now trying to emerge from . . . .
Speaking of Americans, it is hard to find them. The first ones we claimed to be the Indians and they probably came from somewhere else; then came the Spaniards, followed by the Mayflower boatload of adventurers with no more blue blood in their veins than a cat has. Later came, or rather were dragged here, the Africans, and since then, every country has contributed its quota from Malay to Ireland. The country is one cosmopolitan racial hash, and just try to pick out a pure strain. If everyone were to go back to the land of their origin, all that would be left here is the fleas and the skunks.
But every single one of these groups has made great contributions to the building up of America into one of the world’s greatest and richest nations. America would have been a poor and desolate country with a small population, vast areas of uninhabited land and in a third-rate position,” the Jamaican-born Johns wrote.
My father chronicled his own path to citizenship. In one column published on March 3, 1934, he wrote about the hurdles immigrants scaled to become citizens — the fees, the educational requirements and some seemingly arbitrary hoops:
“Why all the red tape in a time of peace? We learn that in a time of war ‘citizenship’ is distributed for the asking — the reasons being obvious,”Ebenezer wrote, noting that within just a few years the fees for the process had increased from $5 to $20.
“The educational requirements matter but little to English-speaking Negroes, able to read and write. The questions usually asked are “’What do you know about Abraham Lincoln?’ ‘Who makes the state laws?’ And this writer was asked in addition ‘How many stars are in the American flag? The careful perusal and retention of the contents of a 25 cents book on ‘How to Become a Citizen’ generally solve the educational requirements of becoming a citizen. But there are greater encumbrances and if the theory that that which is easily got is little valued, citizenship should be valued.”
He goes on to chronicle his path: When he initially tries to begin the process, it’s during a presidential election year. He’s told to come back after the election. On the appointed day, he returns and declares his intention to denounce King George V. He waits three more years, fulfilling the five-year U.S. residency requirement. When it’s finally time for him to make his application, he brings with him two witnesses who can vouch for his character. But one has only known him for three and a half years – the requirement was five. His application rejected, he had to start the process again. My father arrived at Ellis Island in the autumn of 1923. He became a citizen in the spring of 1930.
Luckily my father was continuously employed, even during the worst periods of the Great Depression. There was talk back then of denying pubic assistance to non-citizens and there were threats to deport them.
So nothing that he went through comes close to what some immigrants face today and the “encumbrances” he described don’t even come close to the sacrifices made by the 25 individuals who were sworn in at the White House Wednesday.
“All of you did something profound,” Obama said. “You chose to serve. You put on the uniform of a country that was not yet fully your own. In a time of war, some of you deployed into harm’s way. You displayed the values that we celebrate every Fourth of July — duty, responsibility and patriotism.”
CHRIST CHURCH, BARBADOS, May 24, 2012 — Zuri, my sister-in-law Tracy and I are in Barbados for a little R&R after a whirlwind Spelman Commencement Weekend. It also happens to be my father’s birthday. He would be 115.
“It is difficult if not at all impossible for ye paragrapher to forget Empire Day, though we may be many years removed from the British Empire, because it was on that day our late beloved mother told us we ‘came from somewhere in a box.’ Most readers of this column think we should have been left in the box.”
Tomorrow, I have an appointment with a specialist in Barbados genealogy who is going to try to help me get to the bottom of that box.
For today we’ll take a tour of the island, hit the beach and pour a ibation in honor of Ebenezer’s birthday.
I queued this up a year ago just so I would remember to revisit it for Mother’s Day 2012. (Apparently, it went live several days ago.) My father never missed an opportunity to sing the praises of he mother, Malvina. It’s clear my grandmother was God-loving and generous to a fault. I wish I had a photo.
Last Thursday, I got a call from a fellow blogger, Valerie Bailey, who was doing research on a Ted Yates, a black newspaper columnist whose career overlapped with my dad’s. I told Bailey, whose fascinating video blog is febone1960.net, that the name was familiar, and that I would get back to her if I found anything.
Then, while looking for a column to feature this week, I came across one my father published on April 14, 1934 titled “If I were Mayor of Harlem.” It is one of several “If I were . . . ” pieces Ebenezer wrote, including “If I were editor ” and “If I were the Hitler of Harlem.” (I’m not quite ready to delve into that one.)
Under the headline of the mayoral column was a note: “With apologies to W.W.” Could that be Walter White, then head of the NAACP? Not sure. What I did find was a note in another of my father’s columns that referred to Ted Yates. That column was likely what led Bailey to me.
In the April 14, 1934 column, my father rails against “soap box orators,” those who used the street corners of Harlem as their bully pulpits. My father, staunch defender of the King’s English that he was, seemed less offended by their opinions and more put off by their imperfect grammar.
“Those allowed on Lenox Avenue would have to pass a grammatical test by answering three questions on the principles of correct speaking. One of these questions would be: Why should IS not be used for ARE, not ARE for IS? Most of them, having apparently paid little attention to such principles, their elimination would be easy.”
Ebenezer also pledged to deal with teenagers who frequented movie theaters on school nights and who “interrupt older patrons with their premature bits of sophistication” and parents who kept their little ones out past their bedtimes.
“I would give power to police officers to issue summonses to parents and guardians seen hauling tired looking little children behind them from theatres between 10 p.m. and midnight. In court they would be fined. Later than midnight they would be put in a cell without a bed so they could realize what it is to be sleepy and not be able to lie down. “
Further, he would call a press conference for the black press, with editors from the rival New York Age and the Amsterdam News sitting front and center. “Then I would advise them to bury the hatchet.”
Back to Ted Yates: In a column published a month later, there is a note under the subhead “Petty Larceny.” It read, “Ted Yates column: If I Were Mayor of Harlem in the Afro-Amer. After all, Ted, there is still something you can glean from an ancient rag.”
I guess Yates, who wrote for the Age and a number of other black papers, borrowed that line for one of his own columns published in the Afro-American, which was based in Baltimore, but had a national edition. I’ve done a bit of searching in the Afro-American’s archives, but haven’t turned up the Yates’ column in question yet.
Perhaps my dad should have taken his own advice about burying the hatchet.
Click “continue reading” for the full column: BTW: Tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was nicknamed “The Mayor o Harlem.”
He also did a nice video for Amtrak’s Black History month series “My Black Journey.”
*Editors note. Lamman mentions in the video that Ebenezer worked for the New York Amsterdam News. He actually spent most of his years in Harlem at the New York Age, the rival Harlem paper at the time. Of course, since this is a continuing journey and we don’t know the whole story, I can’t say definitively that he never worked for the Amesterdam.
In a column my father wrote on the eve of the new year in 1934, he recalls seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time 11 years earlier. He arrived on Ellis Island aboard the SS Fort Victoria on Nov. 1, 1923 at age 26, 48 hours after leaving Bermuda, where he worked as a printer for six months.
His entry seemed relatively easy. From the sound of it, he passed the physical and intelligence tests and the interrogations immigrants were put through fairly handily and headed straight for Harlem.
The biggest tests were yet to come: As he put it, he had to learn to be racial, to understand Jim Crow, both the southern and northern varieties. He had to weather the Great Depression and witness America’s promise and its shortcomings.
Although I lived in New York for several years in the 80s and still often see the city as a second home, it was not until this week that I set out like a tourist and visited the Ellis Island Museum and Liberty Island, where I finally saw the Lady up close.
It was probably divine intervention that kept me from there until now. It has so much more resonance.
Happy New Year, dear readers. Thanks for taking this journey with me.