Tag Archives: journalism

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

The ‘racial ills’ of the Episcopal Church

28 Nov

“The Episcopal Church might find an antidote for its racial ills by first cleaning house, and then by directing its evangelistic and missionary activities toward those barbarians in the South who ruthlessly violate the constitutional rights of Negroes, denying them fair and impartial trials when accused of offences they seldom commit. Toward this appalling condition, the Episcopal Church has been noticeably apathetic,” Ebenezer writes.

Here is a link to information on Rev. Alexander McGuire, who founded the African Orthodox Church in response to racism in the Episcopal Church.

The New York Age, February 16, 1935

Black airmen, then and now

21 Nov

Ebenezer Ray's grandson Lamman Rucker, "Black Angels Over Tuskegee" Photo: MarkGlennStudio.com

In the middle of this column, under the heading “The Goodwill Flight “Ebenezer  talks about a goodwill flight to the Caribbean and South America that was undertaken by Dr. Albert Forsythe and C. Alfred Anderson. They were dubbed the “first transcontinental Negro flyers.”

New York Times obituary on Forsythe in 1986, said: “In 1933, Dr. Forsythe and C. Alfred Anderson became the first black pilots to complete a cross-country flight, traveling from Bader Field in Atlantic City, N.J., to Los Angeles. The flight, along with trips to Montreal and the Caribbean in 1934, was made in an attempt to break down the color barrier in aviation.”

An obituary of Anderson, who died in 1996, recalled: “He and Forsythe made the first land plane flight from Miami to Nassau in 1934. They island hopped throughout the Caribbean, to the Northeastern tip of South America. They overflew the Venezuelan straits and landed in Trinidad as national heroes.” It described Anderson as a mentor to Tuskegee Airmen.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt with C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson, a pioneer black aviator and respected instructor at Tuskegee Institute. (U.S. Air Force photo)

I also found a 1933 Time magazine story about their trip.

The itinerary did not include a visit to Barbados, which was a disappointment to those, including my father,  with connections to the island.  The column and the letter make it sound like the pilots were black Americans, but according to his obituary, Forsythe was born in the Bahamas. Perhaps there was a little bit of Caribbean rivalry.

The connections here are a little uncanny. Lamman Rucker, Ebenezer’s grandson, is co-producer of  Black Angels Over Tuskegee, a play about the Tuskegee Airmen. Lamman, who plays Elijah in the production,  is a founding member of the company, The Black Gents of Hollywood, an all-male ensemble devoted to redefining the images of African American men in entertainment.

The cast of "Black Angels Over Tuskegee"

In a few weeks I’ll be headed for Barbados, my father’s birthplace. I’ve been there only once, back in 1984 and only for a couple of days. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with the place, perhaps beginning the journey of finding family. It is interesting that while in his thirties, my father’s emotional connection to the island still seemed very strong. My impression was that later in his life, by the time he was married and living in Pittsburgh, that connection seemed to be lost, or at least frayed.
I can’t tell whether “The little Englander” my dad  quotes is him or someone else. (Editor’s update 8/3/11: It’s possible it is his brother, Noel, who worked at the Barbados Advocate.) Perhaps I can find the archives of the Barbados Advocate while I am there.

The New York Age, January 12, 1935

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