Tag Archives: journalism

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

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.

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.”

‘Lady Lorraine’: Mystery solved

31 Jan

In a column my father published Feb. 10,  1934, he devotes the last paragraph to a young girl he refers to as “Lady Lorraine.” In honor of her ninth birthday, Ebenezer waxed on about her “ladylike qualities,” her accomplishments in the classroom and her big feet. He wrote that she “threatens to outGarbo Garbo’s legendary feet.” How rude, particularly considering that Lorraine was his landlord’s daughter.

Initially, when I posted that column, I was rather curious about who Lorraine was and whether she was some long lost half-sibling. Then I remembered that the 1930 Census record I found a few months ago lists my father as a “lodger”  in the home of Glantis Harris, his wife, Edith, son Harcourt and daughter Lorraine. She was five at the time of the Census, so turning nine four years later makes it all add up.

They lived at 434 St. Nicholas Ave. in New York. The rent for the entire place — I assume it was an apartment since there were other families listed at that address  — was $80! In addition to my father, the other lodgers included Irving Hines, also a printer from Barbados, and a Philip Carrera, who is listed as a musician from Trinidad.

(By the way: He would later marry a woman who sported a size 11 shoe, and two of his three daughters  — not including yours truly  — had feet like their mother.)

‘Emperor Jones,’ ‘Huck Finn’ and that ‘n’ word

23 Jan

Last week, I weighed in on the debate about the novel Huckleberry Finn in my colleague Cynthia Haven’s blog The Book Haven. There’s a current debate over a new edition of the novel in which the word “nigger” is replaced by the word “slave.” While the intention is noble, I think it misses the point.

My argument is that those who teach the novel need to be fully aware of what they are teaching, the feelings the novel and the word “nigger” evoke and the specific classroom context they find themselves teaching in.

The debate over the use of the word is not new. My father wrote about it in the column below in 1933. He did not mention Huckleberry Finn, but he referred to the repeated use of the word in Eugene O’Neill‘s  Emperor Jones, the 1933 film version of which featured Paul Robeson in the lead.

“Brutus, or Emperor Jones, an obviously uncultured Negro, rises from obscurity in his nation’s South to the dizzy heights of self-appointed Emperor. He makes his way [as] a Pullman Porter, a gambler, a member of a chain gang, a coal passer on a steamer, a bartered slave – and even leaves a few murders in his wake. In his ascent he encounters no institutions of learning – his vocabulary is broken and ungrammatical from the onset – yet Negroes expect the word ‘Negro’ in his uncultured diction. . . . Harlemites don’t have to go to see Emperor Jones to hear the profuse use of the objectionable word, just pass by any group of street-corner loafers, or listen carefully from your apartment window.”

He noted that in Barbados, it was the speaker  – not the spoken to  – who was looked upon as uncultured when the word was used. He took issue with  one of his fellow New York Age columnists, who was Jamaican, who generalized that in the West Indies the word was used to refer to the black laborer.

“He has made the same mistake so many of us make – that of characterizing a West Indian by his knowledge of his own native brethren. There are scores of tropical islands and a few colonies, and there are also a few noticeably different though minor traits in each island’s group. In Barbados – and we have them – a Negro laborer is known as a “laborer,” and not as a nigger.
Thousands of Negroes must have lived and died in the island of Barbados without the regretful realization that he was a Negro. Without a doubt we have our racial handicaps, but the fact is not repeatedly thrust down our throats. Our financial status – or lack of it – seems our greatest handicap. A printer is a printer not because he is a Negro, but generally because he as not financially able to be what he might consider better . . . ” (I wonder if he was referring to himself.)

One of the comments on the Book Haven discussion, accused those of us who were concerned about teaching and reading Huckleberry Finn of hypocrisy.

The reader said,  “many who defend the unlimited freedom of artists to create graphically sexual and blasphemous photos at public expense in the name of freedom of speech and against the bugabear of censorship (even though these images hurt and offend many) now seem willing to bend the same principles, for what? Because some people will be hurt and offended by the N word? And the people who will be hurt and offended are who? The same people who listen to music whose lyrics use the N word constantly?Anybody besides me see this as a huge contradiction?”

Talk about generalizations! Is this person suggesting that all of the people who are offended by the use of “nigger’ in Huckleberry Finn are not offended by the use of the word in rap lyrics? Black people have been conflicted about the use of the word in the public sphere for decades. Remember when Richard Pryor came back from Africa and vowed never to use the word again?

Robeson himself stopped singing the word in renditions of  Showboat‘s “Ol’ Man River” that he performed in recitals. (He did not change the lyrics when he appeared in Showboat productions.)  In those recitals, he replaced he word “nigger” with “darkies.”   “Colored folks,” has been used in revivals of Showboat since the mid 40s.

Ebenezer was of the mind that if black folks stopped using the word, perhaps others would stop using it too.

“When Negroes cease to include the word ‘nigger’ in their vocabulary, white playwrights may rally to the cause and exclude it from their scripts,” my father writes. “How soon will that be? How soon? We prefer not to think.”

How about 77 years and counting?

The New York Age, October 7, 1933

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