Tag Archives: ebenezer ray

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

The Maryland, D.C. connection

17 Apr The Williams house on the Farm

Recently,  I left what my father would have referred to as an unkind “Jupiter Pluvius” behind in California to attend a professional meeting in D. C. While I was in the area, I took a bit of a trip down memory lane. My first stop was a visit with my oldest friend, Melana – we’ve known each other since we were eight  –  and her husband Derek. Then I hung out with my niece M’Balia and her sons, Shomari and (Little) Ron. M’Balia and I drove up to Havre de Grace, Maryland, where my mother spent many a summer with her cousins   – the Williams branch of the family. This family of 10 kids was legendary in our household.

Clockwise from top row, My mother's cousins Mildred, Irving and Ruth, my niece M'Balia, yours truly, Cousin Jimmy, husband of Cousin Catherine (seated next to him), Cousins Eva and Mary.

They grew up on a farm on Old Robin Hood Road.  Their mother, Hattie,  and my mother’s father, John Henry Brown, were brother and sister. The Williams’s were highly educated with doctoral, medical and other professional degrees many, but not all, from historically black institutions. And they called my mother “Willie,” short for Wilhelmina, her middle name. This probably had to do with the fact that there were a lot of Marys on both sides of the family.  When M’Balia and I made our plans to visit the farm in Havre de Grace, we expected to visit with the three cousins who now live in the house they grew up in and their sister, Catherine, who built a home on the land after she and her husband, Jimmy, retired.  But they must have sent out the word, because every living sibling showed up to greet us. They shared family stories, read this blog with fascination and encouragement, cheered on M’Balia, who was on the cusp of earning her first degree in criminal justice with high honors. And they insisted on treating us to lunch.

I found out some things: Why their eldest sister, Ruth, was not listed on the 1930 census document I found. (She was already married and had left home.)

I also learned that my mother’s nuclear family was the second for her father. That John Henry had had a first marriage and that I  have a living cousin named Rosie  I never knew existed.

The Williams house on the Farm

As for my father, my mother’s cousin Eva said, surprisingly, that she had only met him once, when he and my mother came for a visit to the farm. “He was very quiet,” she recalled.

On to D. C. I had a chance to visit with my friend Laurence, who I met when I first came to Stanford in 1995. Back then,  her oldest son, Benjamin, and my daughter, Zuri, were just five years old. The last time I’d seen Laurence, she and I, her husband, Michel, and their daughter, Chloé, braved the frigid January weather to witness Barack Obama’s inauguration.

And speaking of  D. C., I found this column my father wrote following his first visit to the nation’s capital in the fall of 1934. Unlike the chilly but glorious weather I enjoyed the weekend I was there, he saw the city on what sounds like a particularly rainy day.
I wonder what he would have thought about the fact that the nation has its first black president. I passed the Old Executive Office Building, which he mentions was under construction in 1934 and is covered with scaffolding today.

“Washington, with its tree-bedecked boulevards, is a beautiful city  – even on a rainy day,” Ebenezer wrote.  “Au revoir, I hope not goodbye.”

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.

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.

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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