Tag Archives: african american history

Harriet Tubman at the Crossing

18 Mar

Artist Cheryl Derricotte created an eight-foot, larger-than-life likeness of Harriett Tubman, who was five-feet tall. The project was a collaboration of the the City of Milbrae, San Mateo County NAACP, BART, and Republic Urban Properties.

On Thursday morning, I heard an announcement on KQED, my local pubic radio station, that there would be a dedication of a monument to Harriet Tubman at the Milbrae, Calif. train station.

“That’s interesting,” I thought, as I hustled to get dressed and out the door to make it to the unveiling, which was taking place in a couple of hours. Milbrae is a Bay Area town just south of San Francisco with a Black population of 0.5 percent. I’ve always regarded it as a pass-through place where I park to take the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train into San Francisco or San Francisco International Airport. Or it’s where I switch from the Caltrain to the BART train to go to Oakland or Berkeley. Interesting that the town would honor Tubman with a permanent monument.

And that, it turns out, is the point.

In February, in recognition of Black History Month, a street at the BART station was renamed Harriet Tubman Way.

The monument, created by Cheryl Derricotte and titled “Freedom’s Threshold,” is a 12-foot aluminum A-frame “house,” featuring an eight-foot-tall image of Tubman printed on powdered-glass tiles.

Derricotte explains that in addition to Tubman’s many heroics, from freeing countless enslaved people via the Underground Railroad, serving as a scout and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and being active in the woman’s suffragist movement, Tubman was a property owner, rare in her day. The sculpture represents Tubman in her home.

Of course, Tubman is not only a hero for Black America. She is a hero for all of America. So the demographics of the city of Milbrae are irrelevant. Millions of travelers from all over the world make connections at that station. Placing the monument at the intersection of real trains is a perfect metaphor.

Inside Essence: “Zuri Adele Is Teaching, Learning, And Storytelling Through Her Role On ‘Good Trouble'”

13 Apr

Growing up in a household with a newspaperman, our coffee table displayed the full range of publications: Of course, there was the Pittsburgh Courier, where my father spent the last years of his career. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette landed on our front porch every morning, and the Pittsburgh Press arrived in the afternoon. My parents were subscribers to Life and Look magazines and to Ebony.

I was a freshman in high school when Essence published its first issue. in May 1970. A magazine devoted solely to the concerns of Black women? That was major.

These days, seeing Black women on the covers of so-called “mainstream” publications is not such a big deal. The May 2022 issue of Vogue features a resplendent and pregnant Rihanna. But she’s been on the cover of Vogue alone more than a few dozen times. We’ve become accustomed to all kinds of magazines featuring the full range of Black women from Beyoncé to Michelle Obama.

Even back in the day, there were rare sightings of Black beauties on mainstream covers. I still have a copy of Life published Nov. 1, 1954, the week I was born. It features Dorothy Dandridge on the cover. Black model, Donyale Luna, appeared on the cover of Vogue UK in 1966. But it was not until 1974 that Beverly Johnson became the first Black model to appear on the cover of American Vogue.

Still, beginning in May 1970, Essence was the one publication I could count on to embrace every aspect of our unique experience as a Black women — as political activists, as artists, as romantic parters, as parents, as professionals. Essence celebrated and examined our beautiful and unique bodies, our hair, our skin and our style.

When I was an undergraduate at Chatham College, Marcia Ann Gillespie, then the magazine’s editor-in-chief, gave a keynote, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps. I would not have imagined that in less than 10 years, I’d be working on the editorial staff of Essence myself.

And now, 35 years after I moved on from the magazine, Zuri Adele is featured in its pages in an article titled “Zuri Adele Is Teaching, Learning, And Storytelling Through Her Role On ‘Good Trouble.'”

Essence‘s impact has always been personal, and that legacy continues.

Zuri Adele (Photo Credit: Jennifer Johnson Photography @JenJphoto)

Living History

5 Apr

In the months leading up to a tour titled “On the Road to Freedom: Understanding the Civil Rights Movement,” I was on the fence. Despite the waning Covid infection numbers, the easing of mask mandates and the fact that my fellow travelers would all be fully vaccinated and boostered, I wasn’t sure. After all, we were traveling by bus through Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee, states with lower vaccination rates than California. I’d managed to dodge the Covid bullet for two years. Was I ready to let my guard down?

I like to think of myself as an intrepid traveler, but the thought of navigating airports and ground transportation, all in an N 95 mask, gave me pause. Still, I was intrigued by the idea of a trip to U.S. historical sites I’d only read about.

In the end, I decided to go for it. After all, I told myself, you’re not getting any younger.

What occurred to me once the trip began, was that the people we would meet, foot soldiers who had been on the front lines of the movement, weren’t getting any younger either. As I note in my op-ed, “What Happens to Rage Repressed?” published in The Boston Globe on April 1, I got to meet Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine. But she was just one of the treasures who shared their time and wisdom with us.

Elizabeth Eckford

There was Hezekiah Watkins, who describes himself as Mississippi’s youngest Freedom Rider. His first arrest and incarceration at 13 years old is a harrowing tale.

Hezekiah Watkins

We spent several hours with Rev. Carolyn McKinstry as she recounted how at 15 years old she was handling Sunday School paperwork at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, when the Ku Klux Klan set off the blast that killed four of her friends, injured others and terrorized the Black community.

Rev. Carolyn McKinstry

We visited the Montgomery, Alabama, home of Dr. Valda Harris Montgomery, which was down the block from the parsonage of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. served as pastor from 1954 to 1960. Dr. Harris told heartwarming stories of the two families socializing in each other’s homes and how her own home was a sanctuary and a strategizing space for civil rights activists.

Dr. Valda Harris Montgomery

The tour, sponsored by the Commonwealth Club of California, included time to take in good music and enjoy delicious food. The state-of-the-art interactive museums that document the history of the African diaspora alone were worth the trip. Still, it was the living monuments to this history that I will remember the most.

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.


“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.”


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.”

%d bloggers like this: