On July 16, 1938, my father devoted most of his column to James Weldon Johnson, a true Renaissance man who died in a car accident in Maine on June 26 of that year.
“Mr. Johnson’s demise marks the end of a brilliant and varied career. During his lifetime he had wrought in the capacity of lawyer, author, educator and diplomat,” my father wrote. “As a diplomat he represented the United States in Venezuela and at Nicaragua. As author he gave us several interesting books on the life of the Negro. As educator he was instructor on creative literature at Fisk University and New York University. As a composer, he gave us amongst other numbers, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ otherwise known as the ‘Negro National Anthem.‘
After posting the lyrics, Ebenezer wrote: “The late Mr. Johnson’s contributions to the Negro in the form of an anthem clearly reveal the depth to which his thoughtful soul travelled. In it he bade us rejoice, he bade us hope, he bade us pray and, none the least, march on!”
“Set to music by his brother Rosamond Johnson, its melody lingers in your ears. The only ‘blue note’ is that it is not heard more often from the lips of persons for whom the author wrote it,” he added.
By the way, Cameron McWhirter, has an excellent column on James Weldon Johnson on The Root.
“So we married,” my father wrote in his column a couple of weeks after he said, “I do’ to Lucille Manning, his first wife. In an April 29,1939 New York Age article describing the wedding, there was not a hint of sarcasm. But even as a newlywed, Ebenezer could not resist.
“Irrespective of what one hears and knows, yet something gets by you,” he wrote in his column on May 6, 1939. “We hadn’t heard of this ‘carrying your bride over the threshold’ business until very recently. What strikes us is, suppose we had married that hell-cat with plenty of pois — avoirdupois. ‘What strength can’t do art and resolution will,’ they tell us. Art would have failed. Resolution would have gotten us a piano-mover.
“We carried our 120 pounds over. She smiled broadly. We grinned. Who said a man isn’t born a chump?”
I’m sure we will never know who the “hell-cat” was. I trust Lucille appreciated his sense of humor.
The New York Age, April 29, 1939
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
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
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