Tag Archives: african american history

Happy 120th birthday

24 May

 

May 24 would have been my father’s 120th birthday.

I don’t know what would resonate with him today, but back in the 1930s, when he was in his mid-to-late 30s, he was given to quoting Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on his birthday.

For three consecutive years, in columns that ran near May 24, Ebenezer would quote the same lines from Longfellow’s “The Spanish Student,” a play in three acts.

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“Approaching one of those inevitable milestones imposed by Father Time, this paragrapher pauses in reflection and does a little audible thinking. Methinks Longfellow was correct when he wrote of persons born on May 24. ‘The strength of thine own arm is thy salvation.’ But I think he stretched his optimism a bit far when he said, ‘Behind those riftless [sic] clouds there is a silver lining [sic]; be patient,’” my father wrote in the New York Age, May 28, 1934.

Longfellow actually wrote “rifted clouds,” and in at least one edition, that one line was not about a silver lining. It was, “there shines a glorious star!” Also, I could not find any verification that the 19th-century poet and essayist was specifically referring to those who were born on May 24.

But, ok, Dad.

More often than not, my father used his weekly column for a little of this and a little of that. In one paragraph, he would rail against racially discriminatory hiring practices in Harlem and in the next, he would chide an acquaintance for falling under the spell of Father Devine. Then he’d wax about a social event or musical performance that moved him. Often, he used his column to express his outrage about lynchings and the trumped-up charges against the Scottsboro Boys. During the years when my father was quoting Longfellow in his birthday columns, the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression; Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party had begun their reign. You couldn’t fault him for seeing no rift in the clouds.

These days, the press is literally being punched and kicked simply for the “crime” of asking questions.

A Republican Congress is poised to denude health care, the environment, public education and women’s agency over our bodies.

Our president and his family are raiding our treasury.

Law enforcement officers who kill unarmed black and brown civilians, including children, do so with impunity.

Immigrants are being harassed, deported and maligned.

White supremacists in this country have been given license to spew hate and kill.

Has anyone seen a glorious star lately?

Actually, yes.

When a Supreme Court majority (that includes Justice Clarence Thomas!) rejects North Carolina’s voter suppression efforts.

When reporters fight back with fierce investigative journalism.

When constituents yell “you lie” at those to try to sell us alternative facts.

When we forge authentic alliances strong enough to demolish and deconstruct silly walls.

When we vote like our lives depend on it, because apparently, they do.

So, in honor of Ebenezer’s 120th birthday, I will take a few liberties of my own with Longfellow:

Only the strength of [OUR] own [COLLECTIVE] arm[S] will be [OUR] salvation.

Let’s get to work.

 

It happens here, and now

20 Jun
In this photo taken June 19, 2015, photos of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., are held during a vigil at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington. The black church has long been the cornerstone and sanctuary for African American life. It has also long been a target for racists and white supremacists trying to strike blows against the African American psyche. The latest attack came Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina, when 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof joined a prayer meeting inside historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and shot nine people dead, including the pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, and other ministers. (AP Photo/Glynn A. Hill)

In this photo taken June 19, 2015, photos of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., are held during a vigil at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington. (AP Photo/Glynn A. Hill)

From his columns, I know my father as someone who believed America thought too much of itself when it came to racial justice.

He often used his writing to remind readers that while the United States was promoting itself around the world as the land of the free, it had a lot to answer for at home. He chastised white American leaders who responded vocally to the scourge of Nazism, but were mum on “the many injustices to which Negroes of America have been subjected during the past many years.”

“Truly, the oppression of Negroes in America is of a more subtle nature than the present ruthless persecution of Jews by the Nazi regime,” he wrote, but “there are individual cases which compare remarkably well with the deeds perpetrated by proponents of the brown shirt and swastika.”

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The New York Age, January 7, 1939

Much of that column, published in the New York Age on January 7, 1939, was devoted to an incident a few weeks prior involving a wealthy black Chicago businesswoman  — Noblesse Boyd  — who was racially profiled, jailed and charged with vagrancy in Indianapolis for the crime of wearing an expensive coat.

But that weekly offering also referenced lynchings, including one notorious case in which several members of a family — the Lowmans — were brutally murdered by a mob in Aiken, South Carolina, in 1926.

“It Happens Here!” was the title of that column.

And it happens still. It happened in America on June 17, 2015, when nine black women and men were gunned down during bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by a white supremacist who allegedly spewed racial epithets along with his bullets.

The dead are Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr., 74; Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45, and Myra Thompson, 59.

I refuse to utter this terrorist’s name or publish his photograph, as it will just give him another platform for his hatred. But photos show him wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia. His neo-Nazi and Klan inspired diatribes appear to be well documented. His terror indeed compares, as my father said, “remarkably well with the deeds perpetrated by proponents of the brown shirt and swastika.”

“It happens here,” Ebenezer Ray reminded his readers in 1939. As we approach Father’s Day 2015, I am forced to say, “Daddy, you were, and still are right.”

Dottings on a presidential reelection: Hate me if you dare

11 Nov

I’m re-posting an entry I originally published in February of 2011, which seems like ages ago. Last Tuesday, We The People overcame voter suppression campaigns, lies, bungled debates and obscene amounts of campaign spending to reelect President Barack Obama and to put down efforts to make him a one-term president. Now that the Florida vote has been counted, I thought I would add this year’s final electoral map.

The New New Deal, 2008, Photo illustration by Arthur Hochstein and Lon Tweeten. ( F.D.R. photo by Associated Press. Obama photo by John Gress, Reuters.)

“Never before have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt said of Republicans during his reelection campaign in 1936.
Sound familiar? I wish.
Perhaps President Obama will take a page from FDR as he gears up for the 2012 campaign.
After all, these fightin’ words turned out to be winning words for FDR.
In honor of Presidents’ Day, I offer a column published by my father, Ebenezer Ray, on Nov. 14, 1936, shortly after the shellacking Roosevelt doled out to his opponent, Gov. Alf Landon of Kansas,  in 1936. Prior to the election, my father had written columns endorsing Roosevelt. But his support was not a given.  His employer, The New York Age, was a traditional supporter of the Republican Party.  The paper opposed the Democratic Party nationally because of its tolerance  of southern segregation.

FDR’s 1936 landslide.    Credit: 270toWin

Referring to himself in typical self-deprecating fashion, Ebenezer wrote: “This newcomer and political dunce failed to be convinced (1) that President Roosevelt was not the fit and proper person to guide the destiny of this country for the next four years and (2) that the Republican candidate was the better man.
. . . With his avalanche of votes in favor of the New Deal went the Negro vote, local and national, despite the fact that President Roosevelt represents the Party which disenfranchises the Negro in the South. Wherefore the Negro vote?
According to the man in the street, in the barbershop, in the restaurant and other proletariat among whom this writer moves, prosperity is the paramount issue. Up to 1929, they contend there was discrimination in the South, but we also had prosperity. Since 1929, and especially during the last Republican regime, there was still discrimination in the South but NO prosperity. In President Roosevelt is seen the capability of bringing prosperity from around  that elusive corner, made popular by Mr. Hoover.”
To illustrate his community’s support of the New Deal, Ebenezer described the changing atmosphere in the bank at the corner of 135th Street and Seventh Ave.
“In these premises, until president Roosevelt’s bank holiday, was situated the unlamented Chelsea Bank.  During its declining months one could easily race a bull about the premises without harming a depositor.  Nowadays, occupied by the Dunbar National Bank, during business hours the premises resemble a market rather than a bank. Of great concern to the poor man is the knowledge that whatever part of his earnings he is privileged to save is SAFE.
The great majority has reelected Roosevelt. ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God,'” Ebenezer concluded.
Robert Reich, former secretary of labor in the Clinton Administration, who is now a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote a column before the midterm election last fall, titled “Why Obama should learn the lesson of 1936, not 1996,” In it, Reich said: “The relevant political lesson isn’t Bill Clinton in 1996, but Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1936.”

Library of Congress

Reich continued:”By the election of 1936 the Great Depression was entering its eighth year. Roosevelt had already been president for four of them. Yet he won the biggest electoral victory since the start of the two-party system in the 1850s.” Reich wrote that while the key to Clinton’s victory was a booming economy, the key to Roosevelt’s was setting himself apart from the greed of the Republicans and their financiers and standing up for and with everyday people.

Back to Ebenezer’s column: At the end he offers a brief review of the theater adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here, about a Hitler type character who attempts to dominate the United States:
“The capacity crowd which attended the Adelphi Theatre on West 54th Street Thursday evening last . . . is better testimony to the entertainment value of It Can’t Happen Here than any reviewer can write. For, after all, ‘It is the guest who is the judge of the meat,'” Ebenezer wrote.

A Mother’s Day tribute

8 May

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.

The New York Age May 20, 1933


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Happy Birthday, Sis

17 Sep

Today is my sister Malaya’s birthday. She is my parents’ second born, a dancer, storyteller, stage mother, earth mother – an artist in every sense of the word. It was preordained. Before she was Nana Malaya Rucker-Oparabea, the name she uses now, she was Marian, named for Marian Anderson.

Marian-Malaya Rucker-Oparabea

I always knew my mother revered the renowned contralto. My mother  admired Anderson’s quiet dignity in the face of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who refused let Anderson sing before an integrated audience in Washington’s Constitution Hall.  To my mother,  Anderson’s victorious concert on Easter Sunday 1939, before  a crowd of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial was a milestone in black history.

But for my father the connection may have been more personal. Marian Anderson was  his contemporary. They were both born at the end of the 19th century.  I believe he was smitten.

“With scores of her elated and admiring auditors standing at the footlights literally drinking the melodious strains which flowed from the fountain of her golden voice, Marian Anderson, internationally acclaimed contralto, sang a farewell number on Sunday evening last, he wrote in a review that appeared on the front page of the New York Age on May 14, 1938. “This was Miss Anderson’s final appearance in America this season and was given at the Carnegie Hall.”

After that concert, my father wrote, well wishers “of both races then repaired to her dressing room to shake hands with her and tender their congratulations. She was presented with a beautiful bouquet of tea roses.”  I suppose he witnessed this firsthand. (Did he offer the roses?)

In a Nov. 13, 1943 review of a Pittsburgh concert, also written for the New York Age, Ebenezer called Anderson the “world’s greatest contralto.”

“Miss Anderson was in excellent voice and charmingly gowned,” he wrote. His only complaint was that the “motley” Pittsburgh audience was too subdued.  Yes, there were plenty of compliments from the audience as they left Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque, where the performance was held.

“To this erstwhile New Yorker, however, two things were missing from this recital. There were no shouts of ‘Bravo’ from the ‘peanut gallery,’ which was only two tiers up, and there were no American Beauty roses, nor orchids. In brief, Miss Anderson received no flowers. But this is Pittsburgh!”

Ebenezer would come to love, or at least accept, Pittsburgh. He would fall in love with my mother and out of that love would come three daughters, the second of whom was born on this date.

Malaya is very different from her namesake. She leans more toward classical African and Caribbean beats than Scarlatti or Schubert. Of course, these two women came of age in different times. I can only imagine what Malaya would have told the DAR. She might have even taken over the stage.

I’ve often wondered why the only one of the three of us who was named after a historical figure would change her name. The answer is simple. Malaya always has been, and will forever be, her own person.

Happy Birthday, Malaya!

Telling it like it is

8 Aug

At an outdoor concert featuring Aaron Neville in San Francisco’s Stern Grove yesterday, I was taken back to being 11 or 12 years old when  my sister Ellen-Marie asked me to pick up Neville’s first hit, “Tell it Like it Is,” from the neighborhood record store. My friend Rosalyn and I were headed there for our own 45s, probably something along the lines of the Marvelettes or the Supremes. (Rosalyn and I were part of our own junior girl group called the Trangualettes  – don’t ask – and we lip-synced a mean “Don’t Mess with Bill.”)
Rosalyn and I were barely out of  elementary school. Ellen was in high school.  And even though WAMO, the one black radio station in all of Pittsburgh, played everything from R&B to blues to jazz  —  the white radio stations didn’t play black music back then —  we didn’t really have our ears tuned to Aaron Neville . . . yet.

On Sunday, as I listened to Neville’s still silky rendition of that 1967 ballad, I searched my memory for all of Ellen’s teenage crushes and suitors. I wondered who she might have been thinking about as she played that record. It could have been that she simply knew then what we’d all come to know, Neville’s capacity to make us swoon.

Romance aside, I suspect that song spoke to Ellen-Marie because it got to the core of who she was — direct and honest. Aggravatingly so. Sometimes brutally so. And not only did she take truth-telling seriously, she did not understand why others were incapable of doing the same.

Our mother, who was often given to being coy and indirect, used to drive Ellen-Marie crazy. I’m sure I did too, as I have a tendency to bury my ledes. Editorial writing was good training for getting to the point.

Ebenezer, on the other hand, was not one to mince words. Here are some gems I’ve found so far. All are excerpts from his “Dottings of a Paragrapher” column in the New York Age.

Dec. 22, 1934:  “When the white man ‘lifts his foot off the neck’ of Negroes and when the Negro in turn lifts his own tiny foot off his own neck, when a Negro reporter, writer, cartoonist,  or etc. can go to the News office and apply for a job with the  assurance that he has the same chance as his white brother, his color regardless, then it will matter whether he is called colored, Negro,  or Aframerican.”

June 1, 1935: “Although time often permitted, I have never availed myself of the opportunity to attend the hearings of the  Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem, firstly because I could never clearly see why five white men should be appointed on such a committee when it is highly improbable that even one Negro would be appointed to any committee to inquire into conditions in any white community.”  [Note: The 14-member commission, appointed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia following a 1935 race riot in Harlem, included several prominent blacks.]

May 30, 1936: “On a recent evening, what was scheduled to be an ‘all-star artist recital’ turned out to be just a parade of the ambitious, plus a little stardust.
How a promoter of this affair ever got together such a mixture is beyond imagination. It was little short of capital offense to associate the beautifully voiced Doris Trotman-Earle and Constance Berksteiner White with some of the other untutored apologies for singers. It was little short of a capital offense to place one sartorial blunder, in particular, on any program. He murdered ‘Then You’ll Remember Me’ — and all who had to listen to him certainly will.
Liberal applause followed all the efforts. It must have been admiration for their ‘nerve’ — or maybe the audience was made up mainly of relatives.”

Ouch! Ellen-Marie got it honest.

‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’

23 Jul

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!”

Preach, Daddy!

“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.

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