Lonnie Bunch, museum director, historian, lecturer, and author, is proud to present A Page From Our American Story, a regular on-line series for Museum supporters. It showcases individuals and events in the African American experience, placing these stories in the context of a larger story — our American story.
Transforming Dance around the World
“Each movement is the sum total of moments and experiences.” These are the words of dance legend Alvin Ailey. The “moments and experiences” he expressed through his decades-long dance career reflected the African American journey, changed modern dance, and revolutionized African American participation in the art form.
Ailey was born in 1931 in Rodgers, Texas, during the Great Depression. Although he left the area for Los Angeles in 1942, his earliest experiences in rural Texas—from juke joints and his Southern Baptist church, to living with a survivalist mentality during the Jim Crow era—would go on to feature prominently in his work.
As a teenager in Los Angeles, Ailey was highly athletic, but didn't find his primary mode of self-expression until he discovered dance. In 1949, classmate and future collaborator Carmen De Lavallade introduced him to the dance studio of renowned dancer Lester Horton. Horton’s studio heavily influenced Ailey’s lifelong emphasis on running a progressive, multiracial studio with a keen focus on research, preparation, and production values in lighting, music, costumes, and storytelling.
At first, Ailey resisted committing himself to the field and attended three different colleges before immersing himself in dance. By 1954, he moved to New York and just four years later founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, a dance company with a vision that would transform African American involvement in modern dance.
The cultural heritage of the American Negro is one of America’s richest treasures. From his roots as a slave, the American Negro—sometimes sorrowing, sometimes jubilant but always hopeful—has touched, illuminated, and influenced the most preserves of world civilization. I and my dance theater celebrate this trembling beauty.Alvin Ailey
In 1960, Ailey mesmerized the dance world with his masterpiece “Revelations.” It told the African American story from slavery to freedom and remains the best-known and most-performed work of modern dance today. Ailey was immediately recognized for his talent, and his dance company performed for eager audiences throughout the United States and around the world.
In 1962, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater toured the Far East, Southeast Asia, and Australia as part of President John F. Kennedy’s “President’s Special International Program for Cultural Presentations.” Other groundbreaking tours included countries for which the United States sought to build relationships, such as a 10-country tour of Africa for the State Department in 1967, the USSR in 1970, and China in 1985. In addition, it performed at the White House for Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter, as well as at memorable engagements like opening of the famed Studio 54, the Opening Ceremonies of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and at 3:00 a.m. on New Year’s Day for the Prince of Morocco in 1978. Not surprisingly, the company gained the nickname “Cultural Ambassador to the World.”
Even with extensive travel, Ailey never strayed far from his roots. As his company embraced greater diversity and invited interracial perspectives into its performances, Ailey never lost his commitment to the African American community. In 1969, he established the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, which became the Ailey School; formed the Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble; and pioneered programs promoting arts in education, particularly those that benefited underserved communities.
His artistic range included ballets, modern dances, and productions for television and musical theater. Ailey’s talents and contributions to the dance world earned him the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, a Kennedy Center Honor, several honorary doctorates, the Samuel H. Scripps Award of the American Dance Festival for Lifetime Achievement, and the United Nations Peace Medal.
Ailey made an immeasurable impact around the world of dance. By weaving African American themes into his dances, he ushered in a new era of concert dance. In 2014, President Barack Obama selected Ailey to be a posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today, his influence prevails in a body of work that continues to be performed more than 50 years later and a dance theater company that continues to flourish.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is honored to possess the Jack Mitchell Ailey Collection. The collection is comprised of approximately 10,000 black and white negatives, 600 contact sheets, 1,300 color slides and transparencies, and 350 black and white prints that tell the story of Alvin Ailey and his lasting impact on American dance culture.
The Color of Blood
America’s national blood bank systems might operate very differently—or not at all—if not for African American surgeon, researcher, educator, and advocate Charles Richard Drew.
Born in 1904, Charles Drew grew up in Washington, DC. Although the city was racially segregated at that time, it hosted a vibrant African American community, and Drew was fortunate to attend an excellent public school. Drew attended Amherst College on an athletic scholarship, and later, after his eldest sister died of tuberculosis in 1920 and he was hospitalized for a college football injury, his interest turned toward medical science.
At the time, it was difficult for African Americans to pursue most medical careers. Some prominent medical schools accepted non-white students, but the opportunity was only offered to a handful of individuals. Then, after receiving their training, African American doctors faced added challenges, often because white patients would refuse care from black physicians.
Although Drew was accepted to Harvard, he attended medical school at the McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montreal, Canada. Drew pursued his interest in transfusion medicine—the basis for his later work in blood bank research—during his internship and medical residency. Drew then joined the faculty at Howard University College of Medicine. He also completed a fellowship at New York’s Presbyterian Hospital while further distinguishing himself as the first African American to earn a doctorate of medical science from Columbia University.
Yet what would define Charles Drew’s career—and serve as his greatest contribution to humankind—would be his development of a national blood bank. Drew was completing his doctoral thesis, “Banked Blood,” just as World War II began in Europe. In 1940, in response to Great Britain’s desperate need for blood and plasma to treat military and civilian casualties, an association of New York City’s leading hospitals, surgeons, and blood researchers asked Drew to direct the Blood for Britain project. Drew successfully supervised the collection of 14,500 pints of plasma for the British.
Then, in 1941, Drew was appointed director of the first American Red Cross blood bank. Among his innovations were mobile blood donation stations, later called “bloodmobiles.” His appointment was an honor, but the position was not without challenges: Drew tirelessly campaigned against the US Armed Forces policy to reject blood donations from African Americans. Although the policy was soon revised, it still stipulated that African American donations be segregated from those of white individuals. Drew was outspoken about this unscientific approach to medicine and was ultimately asked to resign.
Drew spent the next several years working as the head of Howard University’s Department of Surgery and then as chief surgeon at the university’s Freedmen’s Hospital. As a faculty member of the Howard University College of Medicine, Drew educated the next generation of African American physicians, built Howard’s reputation, and changed medical education for future generations. Drew believed medical education for African Americans would open doors. As Drew said:
“We believe that the Negro in the field of physical sciences has not only opened a small passageway to the outside world, but is carving a road in many untrod areas, along which later generations will find it more easy to travel.”
Charles Drew’s contributions to medicine and education were recognized with numerous awards during his lifetime, including the NAACP’s 1944 Spingarn Medal; he also was the recipient of multiple honorary doctorates. His life, however, came to an abrupt end when he died tragically in a car accident in 1950, shortly before his 46th birthday. A false story circulates to this day that white doctors refused to treat him due to his race; in fact, the African American doctors traveling with him confirm that everything was done to try to save Drew.
Charles Drew continues to be remembered for his far-reaching influence. Numerous public sites and institutions are named for him, including the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in California. In 1981, the United States Postal Service issued a first-class postage stamp in Drew’s honor, including him in its Great Americans series. The medical field today reflects Charles Drew’s steadfast commitment to medical and educational equality—and his powerful legacy is evidenced by the millions of individuals of all colors who have benefited from the American blood bank system.
An Experience Like No Other
When President Barack Obama speaks at the dedication ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 24, 2016, it will mark a historic step forward in the way Americans view our shared history –– finally elevating the African American experience to its rightful place at the center of our nation's story.
Seeing the African American experience presented in its entirety –– from the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow to the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement and the election of our nation's first black president –– will be an eye-opening experience for many visitors.
Our nation has always been uncomfortable confronting dark parts of its legacy. But people trust the Smithsonian Institution and consider it a safe space, so it will be easier for visitors to come to terms with this difficult history in the Museum's setting. By providing a tension between painful and inspiring moments, the Museum will help Americans of every age, race, and background see the African American experience in a new way –– and find common ground that will lead to better understanding, healing, and reconciliation.
This transformative journey will begin before visitors even step inside the Museum. The exterior of the building sets the Museum apart from every other structure on the National Mall, with its beautiful landscaping beckoning visitors to enter, and its shimmering, architecturally dramatic corona reaching up to the heavens. The building’s interior is just as striking, dazzling the eye with features like the imposing Central Hall, the serene Contemplative Court and, of course, the state-of-the art interactive galleries showcasing the Museum's permanent collection and special exhibitions.
The Museum's permanent collection of more than 36,000 historical and cultural artifacts is unmatched in the world and reflects the diversity of the African American story. The 4,000 objects from the collection that will be on view in the Museum's inaugural exhibitions include an entire slave cabin from a South Carolina plantation, child-size shackles and an entire segregated railroad car from the Jim Crow era. There are also unique objects from African American sports heroes, such as Muhammad Ali's robe, and amazing items from black entertainment stars, including James Brown's electric organ. And there are artifacts that celebrate groundbreaking triumphs, like posters from Barack Obama's history-making campaign for president.
These amazing pieces of African American history, presented in such a stunning setting, will leave visitors with a strengthened faith in the potential of America, a belief that together, we can make this country a better place through sacrifice and perseverance. And the experience will help to nurture a new generation of activists, engaged citizens who understand that all of us have a personal responsibility to play a role in making America the country we want it to be
As the Museum's Founding Director, I am proud that we are fulfilling a more than century-old dream to build a living monument to people whose experiences and contributions have so often been left out of our national story. And I am proud that as a nation, we are delivering on a sacred promise to so many generations of African American ancestors –– that we will tell and honor their stories, and celebrate their remarkable perseverance that kept African American culture alive through hundreds of years of daunting challenges.
It is both humbling and empowering to finally reach our goal of creating a national Museum that explores and celebrates the African American story that for so long has been neglected, forgotten, and even actively suppressed. And we could never have reached this day without the steadfast commitment and persistence of so many thousands of Americans who simply would not give up on the dream despite the many obstacles placed in our path. I am especially grateful for the Museum's more than 112,000 folks who have become Charter Members since the membership program was launched in September 2009, whose generosity and leadership have brought us to this historic moment. But while the September 24th Grand Opening will be an important milestone for the National Museum of African American History and Culture –– and for every American –– it will be just the beginning of our journey.
When the Museum's doors open, our mission will enter a new phase, as we test new ideas and continue to explore the evolving dynamics of African American history and culture. And everyone who has helped to bring this extraordinary vision to fruition will have a continuing role in charting that course, to give every American a fuller understanding of our shared heritage and help to build a brighter future for our nation.
Two Landmark Decisions in the Fight for Equality and Justice
The National Museum of African American History and Culture marks the anniversaries of two landmark United States Supreme Court decisions that profoundly impacted access to education - one that legally sanctioned an era of appalling discrimination, and the second that resulted in a major step toward equality and justice for African Americans.
The first case was the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, which upheld the constitutionality of state laws requiring racial segregation in public facilities. It came about after the state of Louisiana passed the Separate Car Act in 1890, which mandated separate railway cars for blacks and whites. In response, a group of prominent black, white, and creole New Orleans residents formed the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) to fight for repeal of the law.
The Comité recruited Homer Plessy, a mixed-race man, to take part in a case challenging the law. On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket on an East Louisiana Railroad train in New Orleans and took a seat in a "whites only" car. He was asked to move to the blacks-only car, arrested when he refused, and remanded for trial. He was convicted and ordered to pay a $25 fine. Upon appeal, the Supreme Court of Louisiana upheld the ruling, setting the stage for a challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Oral arguments in Plessy v. Ferguson were held before the Supreme Court on April 13, 1896. Plessy's attorneys built his case upon violation of his rights under the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits slavery, and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal rights and the protection of those rights to all U.S citizens.
In the seven-to-one decision handed down on May 18, 1896, the Court rejected Plessy's arguments, holding that as long as the separate facilities for the separate races were equal, segregation did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote a scathing dissent in which he predicted the court's decision would become as infamous as the notorious 1857 Dred Scott ruling that no African American, free or slave, could claim U.S. citizenship or petition the court for their freedom.
The impacts of the "separate but equal" doctrine established by Plessy ruling were immediate and far-reaching - erasing legislative achievements of the Reconstruction Era, legitimizing state laws establishing racial segregation in the South (the Jim Crow system), and inspiring the spread of segregation laws and practices northward. These developments exacerbated already vast differences in funding for segregated school systems. As with other segregated facilities and institutions, schools for African Americans were consistently inferior to those for whites, contradicting the claims of "separate but equal" underlying the Plessy decision.
"Separate but equal" remained standard doctrine in U.S. law until the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Court ruled that segregation in public education was unconstitutional. The case began in 1951 as a class action suit filed in the United States District Court for the District of Kansas that called on the city's Board of Education to reverse its policy of racial segregation. It was initiated by the Topeka chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the plaintiffs were 13 African American parents on behalf of their children. The named plaintiff was Oliver L. Brown, a welder and an assistant pastor at his local church, whose daughter had to walk six blocks to her school bus stop to ride to her segregated black school one mile away, while a white school was located just seven blocks from her house.
Citing the precedent set in Plessy, the District Court ruled in favor of the Board of Education, leading the plaintiffs to mount a U.S. Supreme Court challenge. The Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education combined the Brown case and four similar cases from various states, and NAACP Chief Counsel Thurgood Marshall, later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, lead the team of attorneys that argued the case for the plaintiffs.
The Court heard the case in spring 1953 but was unable to decide the issue, and asked to rehear the case in fall 1953 at the urging of Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, who wanted to build a consensus for an opinion outlawing segregation. After the September 1953 death of Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson, who had been a major obstacle to securing such an opinion, President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren as Chief Justice. Warren told the justices that the Court had to overrule Plessy unanimously to head off massive Southern resistance, eventually convincing the remaining holdouts on the Court. Warren himself drafted the basic opinion, circulating and revising it until all the justices endorsed it.
On May 17, 1954, the Court handed down its unanimous 9-0 decision overturning Plessy as it applied to public education, stating that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." As a result, racial segregation laws were declared in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, paving the way for integration and winning a major victory for the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.
Many people today may not remember the details of these two landmark cases in the struggle for equality and justice. The National Museum of African American History and Culture was founded to ensure that this story and other important chapters in the African American experience are never forgotten. When the Museum opens its doors on September 24, 2016, we will bring major milestones like Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education to life through compelling interactive exhibitions and our unsurpassed permanent collection of African American historical artifacts, including an entire Jim Crow-era segregated railway car and the dining room table that was used by Brown family and NAACP Legal Defense Fund during preparation for the Brown case.
Remembering a Milestone in Entertainment History
The recent announcement of an upcoming Broadway re-imagining of Shuffle Along – one of the earliest hit musical comedies produced, written and performed entirely by African Americans – is shining a spotlight on this largely forgotten piece of African American history.
The musical revue was written by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyle, with music and lyrics by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake – all vaudeville veterans who met for the first time at an NAACP benefit in Philadelphia in 1920. In early 1921, Shuffle Along toured through New Jersey and Pennsylvania, with little money left over to pay the cast after covering travel and production expenses. But all that changed when the show arrived on Broadway.
Shuffle Along had its Broadway premiere on May 23, 1921 at the 63rd Street Music Hall, which was renamed Daly's 63rd Street Theater the following year. The show quickly became a major hit, so popular that it caused curtain time traffic jams that led police to convert 63rd Street into a one-way thoroughfare to ease the gridlock.
The groundbreaking musical was unique in the wide array of talent it brought to the production, including choral conductor Hall Johnson and composer William Grant Still, who played oboe in the orchestra. The show gave several stage legends their first big breaks, including Paul Robeson, Adelaide Hall, Florence Mills and a 16-year-old Josephine Baker, who emerged as an instant star. The show featured hit songs like "Love Will Find a Way" and "I'm Just Wild About Harry" – which President Harry S. Truman later chose as his 1948 campaign anthem – and its jazzy, modern musical style distinguished it from the mainstream song-and-dance shows that predominated on Broadway at the time.
On July 15, 1922, Shuffle Along closed on Broadway after 484 performances, an unusually long run at the time. Once the show left New York, it went on a successful three-year tour across the United States, the first black musical to play in many white theaters nationwide. The show was briefly revived in the 1930s and 1950s, but neither production was successful and the show quickly slipped from the public consciousness.
While forgotten by many, Shuffle Along inspired a new interest in black musicals and was a breakthrough for African American theater, proving that audiences – both black and white – would pay to see African American talent on Broadway. The show also helped pave the way for the desegregation of theaters – black audiences sat in orchestra seats rather than being relegated to the balcony – and gave many black actors their first chance to appear on Broadway. And Shuffle Along played a key role in launching the Harlem Renaissance, according to observers like renowned writer and poet Langston Hughes, who believed that by spurring widespread interest in black creativity, the show helped to advance African Americans' social status through excellence in the arts.
A new musical based on the making of Shuffle Along – entitled Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed – is scheduled to officially open on April 21, 2016 at Broadway's Music Box Theatre. This new production will be directed by George C. Wolfe, who has won Tony Awards for directing Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk, and is choreographed by world-renowned tap dancer Savion Glover, who also won a Tony for choreographing Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk.
This re-imagining, which will feature the original music from Shuffle Along, will tell two stories – the original show's plot about a corruption-riddled mayoral election, as well as the real-life story of the impacts of the musical's success on the actors and writers involved. The production is slated to star six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, fellow Tony winners Brian Stokes Mitchell and Billy Porter, and twice Tony-nominated Joshua Henry. McDonald recently remarked that she thought it was important for her to do this show, saying, "This is a part of my history, and I didn't know it."
While much of the original Shuffle Along would be considered offensive by today's standards – including comedy based on demeaning racial stereotypes and African American actors wearing blackface – many African Americans embraced the show's self-conscious parody of the minstrel show tradition, juxtaposed with more modern and authentic music and dance elements. The renewed interest in this pioneering musical, which ushered in a new era for blacks on Broadway and in all creative fields, helps us all to understand the full African American experience and the influence it had on the development of our shared culture.
Spotlight on African American Military Heroes
As the National Museum of African American History and Culture celebrates Veterans Day on November 11th, we'll be focusing attention on the often forgotten sacrifices and contributions of African American patriots. These heroes include the men of the USS Mason, which made history during World War II as our nation's first ship manned by a predominantly black crew.
Launched on November 17, 1943, the Evarts-class destroyer escort carried an enlisted crew of 160 serving under Lt. Commander William M. Blackford and five other white officers. Prior to the Mason, black men in the Navy had been limited to support roles such as cooks, stewards and laborers, and even had to wear different uniforms than those worn by other sailors. The commissioning of the Mason came about as a result of intense pressure from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and others to integrate the armed forces.
But the transition wasn't easy, with the Mason's crew forced to confront intense racism in the naval ranks and a widespread belief that the "social experiment" would fail. The men of the Mason responded to the hostility and doubts by performing their duty, which often times was dangerous, with extraordinary bravery and dedication. Their exploits while escorting supply ships and intercepting German U-boat messages in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea were chronicled by African American journalist Thomas W. Young, who was commissioned by the Navy as a war correspondent aboard the Mason.
The Mason's story might have remained lost to history if not for the efforts of a small but determined group that included the Destroyer Escort Sailors Association, the USS Mason Association, Congressman Charles Rangel and author Mary Pat Kelly, whose book Proudly We Served helped bring attention to the men of the Mason. In 2004, the book was made into the movie Proud, starring renowned actor and activist Ossie Davis in his final film role as Signalman Second Class Lorenzo DuFau, the last surviving member of the Mason crew.
The growing clamor to recognize the contributions of the men of the Mason resulted in the Navy finally awarding the long-delayed commendation to surviving crewmembers in 1995. And in 2003, the Navy commissioned a new ship in honor of the heroes of the Mason the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Mason, the only U.S. Navy ship ever named for a crew, whose motto is "Proudly We Serve."
The courage and commitment of the Mason's crew helped pave the way for the integration of the armed forces by President Harry S. Truman in 1948. By countering the prevailing notions of black inferiority, the men of the Mason helped to win both the battle against the Axis powers and the battle at home against racism and discrimination. This notion was enshrined in the Double V (for "Double Victory") Campaign, a national effort that called on African Americans to give their all to win a victory overseas, while calling for a victory for equal rights in the U.S.
As a nation, we have been made better by the determination and skill of the crew of the Mason. As the National Museum of African American History and Culture joins the rest of our nation in saluting our nation's veterans, we move forward with our mission to ensure that military heroes like the crew of the USS Mason and history-making African Americans from every field of endeavor receive the recognition they deserve. When the Museum opens in fall 2016, our inaugural Military History Gallery will feature artifacts from this exciting chapter of the African American story, including Lorenzo DuFau’s naval dress jacket and medals, as well as materials from the Double V Campaign.
A New African American Identity: The Harlem Renaissance
With the end of the Civil War in 1865, hundreds of thousands of African Americans newly freed from the yoke of slavery in the South began to dream of fuller participation in American society, including political empowerment, equal economic opportunity, and economic and cultural self-determination.
Unfortunately, by the late 1870s, that dream was largely dead, as white supremacy was quickly restored to the Reconstruction South. White lawmakers on state and local levels passed strict racial segregation laws known as “Jim Crow laws” that made African Americans second-class citizens. While a small number of African Americans were able to become landowners, most were exploited as sharecroppers, a system designed to keep them poor and powerless. Hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) perpetrated lynchings and conducted campaigns of terror and intimidation to keep African Americans from voting or exercising other fundamental rights.
With booming economies across the North and Midwest offering industrial jobs for workers of every race, many African Americans realized their hopes for a better standard of living—and a more racially tolerant environment—lay outside the South. By the turn of the 20th century, the Great Migration was underway as hundreds of thousands of African Americans relocated to cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, and New York. The Harlem section of Manhattan, which covers just three square miles, drew nearly 175,000 African Americans, giving the neighborhood the largest concentration of black people in the world. Harlem became a destination for African Americans of all backgrounds. From unskilled laborers to an educated middle-class, they shared common experiences of slavery, emancipation, and racial oppression, as well as a determination to forge a new identity as free people.
The Great Migration drew to Harlem some of the greatest minds and brightest talents of the day, an astonishing array of African American artists and scholars. Between the end of World War I and the mid-1930s, they produced one of the most significant eras of cultural expression in the nation’s history—the Harlem Renaissance. Yet this cultural explosion also occurred in Cleveland, Los Angeles and many cities shaped by the great migration. Alain Locke, a Harvard-educated writer, critic, and teacher who became known as the “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, described it as a “spiritual coming of age” in which African Americans transformed “social disillusionment to race pride.”
The Harlem Renaissance encompassed poetry and prose, painting and sculpture, jazz and swing, opera and dance. What united these diverse art forms was their realistic presentation of what it meant to be black in America, what writer Langston Hughes called an “expression of our individual dark-skinned selves,” as well as a new militancy in asserting their civil and political rights.
Among the Renaissance’s most significant contributors were intellectuals W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Cyril Briggs, and Walter Francis White; electrifying performers Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson; writers and poets Zora Neale Hurston, Effie Lee Newsome, Countee Cullen; visual artists Aaron Douglas and Augusta Savage; and an extraordinary list of legendary musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Eubie Blake, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Ivie Anderson, Josephine Baker, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and countless others.
At the height of the movement, Harlem was the epicenter of American culture. The neighborhood bustled with African American-owned and run publishing houses and newspapers, music companies, playhouses, nightclubs, and cabarets. The literature, music, and fashion they created defined culture and “cool” for blacks and white alike, in America and around the world.
As the 1920s came to a close, so did the Harlem Renaissance. Its heyday was cut short largely due to the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and resulting Great Depression, which hurt African American-owned businesses and publications and made less financial support for the arts available from patrons, foundations, and theatrical organizations.
However, the Harlem Renaissance’s impact on America was indelible. The movement brought notice to the great works of African American art, and inspired and influenced future generations of African American artists and intellectuals. The self-portrait of African American life, identity, and culture that emerged from Harlem was transmitted to the world at large, challenging the racist and disparaging stereotypes of the Jim Crow South. In doing so, it radically redefined how people of other races viewed African Americans and understood the African American experience.
Most importantly, the Harlem Renaissance instilled in African Americans across the country a new spirit of self-determination and pride, a new social consciousness, and a new commitment to political activism, all of which would provide a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In doing so, it validated the beliefs of its founders and leaders like Alain Locke and Langston Hughes that art could be a vehicle to improve the lives of the African Americans.
Education Steeped in African American Culture: Historically Black Colleges and Universities
Before the Civil War, when the majority of African Americans in the United States were enslaved, educational opportunities for African Americans in the South were virtually non-existent, particularly for higher education. Those like Frederick Douglass who did pursue an education in spite of it being illegal for him to do so --were forced to study informally and often on their own. In 1837, a group of Philadelphia Quakers concerned that African Americans in the North were having a difficult time competing for jobs against the influx of immigrants, created the Institute for Colored Youth. It was the first institution of higher learning for African Americans. We know it today as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.
The next crucial moment for African American higher education came in the years between the Civil War and World War I when the nation made a commitment to university studies across the country, predominately due to the government’s “land-grants” to help states form colleges and universities. Unprecedented funds poured into the creation of public colleges and universities, but few of these emerging institutions were open or inviting to African American students.
This left the African American community to spearhead their own movement toward higher education. With the support of the American Missionary Association and the Freedmen’s Bureau, seven black colleges had been founded by 1870. Many of these, including Fisk University (1866), Howard University (1867), Claflin University (1869), and Dillard University (1869) are still graduating students today.
Over the past 150 years, there have been many notable moments in the evolution of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Among the most striking occurred in the early part of the twentieth century, when two graduates from these fledgling institutions began a debate about the direction African American higher learning should take.
On one side was Booker T. Washington, a freed slave from Virginia who had taken the helm of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, now Tuskegee University. Washington believed that the best way for freed slaves and other African Americans to attain equality in the United States was to focus on preparing themselves for the jobs that were available, mainly agricultural and mechanical trades.
Farther north, W.E.B. DuBois had a very different view. DuBois was raised in Massachusetts and wasn’t exposed to segregation until he was an undergraduate at Fisk University in Nashville. He believed African Americans needed to look beyond vocational training. Equality would only come if African Americans studied the arts and sciences and became thought leaders for the next generation.
Black colleges and universities responded by trying to create programs that reflected both the practical necessities that Washington espoused as well as DuBois’ broader intellectual vision.
By 1943 the struggle for funding led Dr. Fredrick D. Patterson, president of the Tuskegee Institute, to publish an open letter to the presidents of other black colleges and universities. He urged them to pool their resources and fundraising abilities and work together to help all black colleges and universities prosper. Just one year later, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) was created to solicit donations for black colleges nationwide. The UNCF still exists today and has provided $3.6 billion in support to HBCUs and higher education for African Americans in the United States.
Throughout the ups and downs of HBCUs, the students who have attended these institutions have thrived and gone on to influence many important fields. Thurgood Marshall, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Alice Walker and Charles Drew, the physician who organized the first large-scale blood bank in the United States, to name just a few, were all alumni of HBCUs.
Still today, HBCUs are standouts for student achievement. While representing just three percent of the nation’s institutions of higher learning, they graduate nearly 20 percent of African Americans. In addition, the institutions graduate more than 50 percent of African American professionals and public school teachers, as well as the majority of the African American doctoral degree recipients.
HBCUs no longer exclusively serve African Americans. Today’s institutions have a significant percentage of non-African American students, including Asian, Latino, white American and students from many foreign countries. All of these students benefit from the unique education steeped in African American history and culture that HBCUs provide.
Students attending HBCUs are immersed in a nurturing and intellectually stimulating environment that connects them with African-American history and inspires them to carry the indefatigable African American spirit forward. Through rigorous academics and enriching extra-curricular options on campus including an energetic network of fraternities and sororities, students acquire a deep appreciation for excellence, a passion for community service, and a commitment to become leaders and mentors for the next generation.
When African American students have many options for higher learning, HBCUs are still in high demand because of their unique educational environment and their proven record of helping African Americans achieve success. After nearly more than 150 years, HBCUs continue to keep their eyes on the horizon and will surely be reflecting and shaping the African American experience for many generations to come.
African Americans in Full Color
In the first half of the twentieth century, Americans became fascinated with photo journalism. Pictures were literally “worth a thousand words” as full-color magazines and tabloid newspapers became the rage.
Publications targeted to African American audiences that featured illustrations and photographs began appearing in the early 1900s. One of the earliest to effectively use illustrations and photography was The Crisis, the official publication of the NAACP. Seeking to educate and inform its readers with scholarly articles, the covers of the journal and its entertainment section were designed to appeal to the masses of African Americans.
In the 1930s, we see pictorial magazines such as Abbott’s Monthly, published by Robert Sengstacke Abbott, the founder of the Chicago Defender newspaper, and Flash, which billed itself as a “weekly newspicture magazine.” Published in Washington, D.C., Flash contained a mixture of news, gossip and advertisements and articles on racial issues, providing an overview of the highs and the lows of Black life in the 1930's.
In 1942, African American businessman John H. Johnson founded the Johnson Publishing Company, a corporation that would go on to publish the well-known magazines Ebony, Jet, Tan, and Ebony Jr. The magazines promoted African American achievements and affirmative black imagery in popular culture, which appealed to readers … and to advertisers. Mr. Johnson was a savvy businessman and used the statistics of a rising black middle class to persuade companies and businesses that it was in their economic “self-interest” to advertise in his magazines to reach African American consumers.
With the success of the Johnson Publishing Company’s magazines, other magazines targeted to African Americans quickly came on the scene. For example, in 1947 Horace J. Blackwell published Negro Achievements, a magazine highlighting African American success articles and featuring reader-submitted true confessions stories. After Blackwell died in 1949, a white businessman named George Levitan bought the company and renamed the publication Sepia. This publication featured columns by writer John Howard Griffin, a white man who darkened his skin and wrote about his treatment in the segregated South, that eventually became the best-selling book Black Like Me.
Whether featuring positive images of African Americans, inspiration stories, news features or commentaries on racism, the rise of African American magazines defied long-held racial stereotypes through rich storytelling, in-depth reporting, and stunning photography.
Due to a variety of economic, editorial, and other factors, most of these magazines have ceased being published. Yet today some African American magazines are still a thriving part of popular culture. Johnson Publishing Company’s Ebony and its digital sites reach nearly 72% of African Americans and have a following of over 20.4 million people.
The Proud Legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers
In 1866, an Act of Congress created six all-black peacetime regiments, later consolidated into four –– the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry –– who became known as "The Buffalo Soldiers." There are differing theories regarding the origin of this nickname. One is that the Plains Indians who fought the Buffalo Soldiers thought that their dark, curly hair resembled the fur of the buffalo. Another is that their bravery and ferocity in battle reminded the Indians of the way buffalo fought. Whatever the reason, the soldiers considered the name high praise, as buffalo were deeply respected by the Native peoples of the Great Plains. And eventually, the image of a buffalo became part of the 10th Cavalry's regimental crest.
Initially, the Buffalo Soldier regiments were commanded by whites, and African-American troops often faced extreme racial prejudice from the Army establishment. Many officers, including George Armstrong Custer, refused to command black regiments, even though it cost them promotions in rank. In addition, African Americans could only serve west of the Mississippi River, because many whites didn't want to see armed black soldiers in or near their communities. And in areas where Buffalo Soldiers were stationed, they sometimes suffered deadly violence at the hands of civilians.
The Buffalo Soldiers' main duty was to support the nation's westward expansion by protecting settlers, building roads and other infrastructure, and guarding the U.S. mail. They served at a variety of posts in the Southwest and Great Plains, taking part in most of the military campaigns during the decades-long Indian Wars –– during which they compiled a distinguished record, with 18 Buffalo Soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor. This exceptional performance helped to overcome resistance to the idea of black Army officers, paving the way for the first African-American graduate from West Point Military Academy, Henry O. Flipper.
Henry Ossian Flipper was born into slavery in Georgia on March 21, 1856. During Reconstruction, he attended Atlanta University, and was then appointed to West Point by U.S. Representative James C. Freeman. Four other African-American cadets were already attending the academy, but faced enormous difficulties due to hostility from the other cadets. Flipper overcame these obstacles, and in 1877 he became the first of the group to graduate. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant, and assigned to the 10th Cavalry Regiment, becoming the first black officer to command soldiers in the regular U.S. Army. But while Flipper served with distinction, he faced intense resentment from some white officers and was targeted by a smear campaign that culminated in a court martial and his dismissal from the Army in 1882. In 1999, President Bill Clinton posthumously pardoned Flipper.
Much attention is given to the irony of African-American soldiers fighting native people on behalf of a government that accepted neither group as equals. But at the time, the availability of information was limited about the extent of the U.S. government's often-genocidal polices toward Native Americans. In addition, African-American soldiers had recently found themselves facing Native Americans during the Civil War, when some tribes fought for the Confederacy.
Buffalo Soldiers played significant roles in many other military actions. They took part in defusing the little-known 1892 Johnson County War in Wyoming, which pitted small farmers against wealthy ranchers and a band of hired gunmen. They also fought in the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars, and played a key role in maintaining border security during the high-intensity military conflict along the U.S.-Mexico border during the Mexican Revolution. In 1918, the 10th Cavalry fought at the Battle of Ambos Nogales, where they assisted in forcing the surrender of the Mexican federal and militia forces.
Discrimination played a role in diminishing the Buffalo Soldiers' involvement in upcoming major U.S. conflicts. During World War I, the racist policies of President Woodrow Wilson (who had already segregated federal offices) led to black regiments being excluded from the American Expeditionary Force and placed under French command for the duration of the war –– the first time ever that American troops had been put under the command of a foreign power. Then, prior to World War II, the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments were essentially disbanded, and most of their troops moved into service roles. However, the 92nd Infantry Division –– known as the "Buffalo Division" –– saw combat during the invasion of Italy, while another division that included the original Buffalo Soldier 25th Infantry Regiment fought in the Pacific theater. The last segregated U.S. Army regiments were disbanded in 1951 during the Korean War, and their soldiers were integrated into other units.
While renowned for their fighting abilities, the Buffalo Soldiers were also recognized for their exceptional horsemanship. Black non-commissioned officers of the 9th Cavalry began training West Point Cadets in riding skills and tactics from 1907 until 1947. The Buffalo Soldiers served as some of the first national park rangers when the U.S. Army served as the official administrator of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks between 1891 and 1913. They protected the parks from illegal grazing, poachers, timber thieves and wildfires. They also oversaw the construction of park infrastructure, including the first trail to the top of Mount Whitney –– the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S. –– and the first wagon road into Sequoia National Park's renowned Giant Forest. While most of their officers were white, Charles Young, the third African-American graduate of West Point, served as Acting Military Superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks –– the first African-American national park superintendent. During his tenure, he named a Giant Sequoia for Booker T. Washington, and another Giant Sequoia was named in Young's honor in 2004.
On September 6, 2005, Mark Matthews, the oldest living Buffalo Soldier, died at the age of 111. Today there are monuments honoring the Buffalo Soldiers in Kansas at Fort Leavenworth and Junction City. They have also been immortalized in popular culture through songs like reggae giant Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldier," television productions like 1997's Buffalo Soldiers starring Danny Glover, and in films like Spike Lee's Miracle at St. Anna, which chronicles the Buffalo Soldiers who served in the invasion of Italy in World War II.
The remarkable courage demonstrated by these proud African-American soldiers in the face of fierce combat, extreme discrimination in the Army, deadly violence from civilians and repressive Jim Crow laws continues to inspire us today.
The Only African American Automobile Company
At the dawn of the Automobile Age in the early 20th century, hundreds of small auto companies sprouted up across America as entrepreneurs recognized that society was transitioning from horse-drawn carriages to transportation powered by the internal combustion engine. Some of these early companies grew to become giants that are still with us today, such as Ford and Chevrolet. Many others remained small, struggling to compete against the assembly lines of the larger manufacturers.
One such company was C.R. Patterson & Sons of Greenfield, Ohio, makers of the Patterson-Greenfield automobile from 1915 to 1918. Though its name is little recognized today, there is in fact a very important reason to ensure that it is not lost to history: it was, and remains to this day, the only African American owned and operated automobile company.
Charles Richard Patterson was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in 1833. Not much is known about his life on the plantation, and historians have to sift through conflicting reports about how he came to settle in Greenfield, Ohio, a town with strong abolitionist sympathies. Some say his family arrived in the 1840s, possibly after purchasing their freedom; others suggest Patterson alone escaped in 1861. In any case, he learned the skills of the blacksmith and found work in the carriage-making trade, where he developed a reputation for building a high quality product. In 1873, he formed a business partnership with another carriage maker in town, J.P. Lowe, who was white, and eventually became sole proprietor of the renamed C.R. Patterson & Sons in 1893. It was a successful business employing an integrated workforce of 35-50 by the turn of the century, and Charles Patterson became a prominent and respected citizen in Greenfield. His catalog listed some 28 models, from simple open buggies to larger and more expensive closed carriages for doctors and other professionals.
When Patterson died in 1910, the business passed to his son Frederick, who was already something of a pioneer. He was college-educated and was the first black athlete to play football for Ohio State University. He was also an early member and vice president of the National Negro Business League founded by Booker T. Washington. Now, as owner and operator of the enterprise his father started, Frederick Patterson began to see the handwriting on the wall: the days of carriages and horse-drawn buggies were nearing an end.
At first, the company offered repair and restoration services for the “horseless carriages” that were beginning to proliferate on the streets of Greenfield. No doubt this gave workers the opportunity to gain some hands-on knowledge about these noisy, smoky and often unreliable contraptions. Like his father, Frederick was a strong believer in advertising and placed his first ad for auto repair services in the local paper in 1913. Initially, the work mostly involved repainting bodies and reupholstering interiors, but as the shop gained more experience with engines and drivetrains, they began to offer sophisticated upgrades and improvements to electrical and mechanical systems as well.
This valuable experience allowed C.R. Patterson & Sons to take the next great step in its own story as well as in African American history: in 1915, it announced the availability of the Patterson-Greenfield automobile at a price of $685. From the company's publicity efforts, it is evident they were bursting with pride:
“Our car is made with three distinct purposes in mind. First — It is not intended for a large car. It is designed to take the place originally held by the family surrey. It is a 5-passenger vehicle, ample and luxurious. Second — It is intended to meet the requirements of that class of users, who, though perfectly able to spend twice the amount, yet feel that a machine should not engross a disproportionate share of expenditure, and especially it should not do so to the exclusion of proper provisions for home and home comfort, and the travel of varied other pleasurable and beneficial entertainment. It is a sensibly priced car. Third — It is intended to carry with it (and it does so to perfection) every conceivable convenience and every luxury known to car manufacture. There is absolutely nothing shoddy about it. Nothing skimp and stingy.”
Orders began to come in, and C.R. Patterson & Sons officially entered the ranks of American auto manufacturers. Over the years, several models of coupes and sedans were offered, including a stylish “Red Devil” speedster. Ads featured the car's 30hp Continental 4-cylinder engine, full floating rear axle, cantilever springs, electric starting and lighting, and a split windshield for ventilation. The build quality of the Patterson-Greenfield automobile was as highly regarded as it had been with their carriages.
The initial hope and optimism, however, proved to be fairly short-lived. In an age of increased mechanization and production lines, small independent shops featuring hand-built, high quality products weren't able to scale up production or compete on price against the rapidly growing car companies out of Detroit. In small quantities, parts and supplies were expensive and hard to come by when major manufacturers were buying them by the trainload at greatly reduced costs. Plus, the labor hours per car were much higher than that of assembly line manufacturers. As a result, the profit margin on each Patterson-Greenfield was low.
In 1918, having built by some estimates between 30 and 150 vehicles, C.R. Patterson & Sons halted auto production and concentrated once again on the repair side of the business. But they weren't done yet. In the 1920s, the company began building truck and bus bodies to be fitted on chassis made by other manufacturers. It was in a sense a return to their original skills in building carriage bodies without engines and drivetrains and, for a period of time, the company was quite profitable. Then in 1929, the stock market crashed and the Great Depression set in. As with many small businesses, sales dried up and loans were hard to obtain. The company, now run by the sons of Frederick Patterson, soldiered on until 1939 when, after 74 years, C.R. Patterson & Sons closed its doors forever.
Sadly, no Patterson-Greenfield automobiles are known to survive today. But we should not let that dim the fact that two great entrepreneurs, Charles Richard Patterson and his son Frederick Patterson built and sustained a business that lasted several generations and earned a place not just in African American history, but in automotive history as well.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act Turns 50
50 years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson signed one of the most historic and sweeping pieces of legislation in our nation’s history the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its passage was the vital tool needed to end segregation and tear down the walls separating the two highly unequal societies in America.
With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. among the distinguished guests, Johnson set into law a means to fulfill the ideal “all men are created equal” penned in the Declaration of independence.
The legislation marked the beginning of the nation’s effort supported by the power of the federal government to bring meaning to the 14th and 15th Amendments.
Following the Civil War, the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868 and was to provide African Americans equal justice under the law. Two years later, in 1870, the 15th Amendment was confirmed to guarantee the right to vote.
Even though the intentions of the two amendments were admirable, the reality was quite different. The decades between those amendments and the passage of the Civil Rights Act were filled with segregation, oppression, violence, and gross inequality.
With the enactment of Jim Crow laws and the 1896 United States Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson, two very different Americas emerged during those years. Virtually every element of society was separated by race from movie theaters to schools to drinking fountains. Perhaps most egregious were the voting restrictions many states had created to keep African Americans away from the ballot box.
President Johnson, in his address to the nation just prior to signing the historic bill, spoke to the hypocrisy of this separation:
“Americans of every race and color have died in battle to protect our freedom. Americans of every race and color have worked to build a nation of widening opportunities. Now our generation of Americans has been called on to continue the unending search for justice within our own borders.
We believe that all men are created equal. Yet many are denied equal treatment.
We believe that all men have certain unalienable rights. Yet many Americans do not enjoy those rights.
We believe that all men are entitled to the blessings of liberty. Yet millions are being deprived of those blessings — not because of their own failures, but because of the color of their skin.
The reasons are deeply imbedded in history and tradition and the nature of man. We can understand — without rancor or hatred — how this all happened. But it cannot continue. Our Constitution, the foundation of our Republic, forbids it. The principles of our freedom forbid it. Morality forbids it. And the law I will sign tonight forbids it.”
The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act came slightly more than a year after Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. That address was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before an estimated 250,000 Americans who were rallying in Washington, D.C. in support of civil rights.
King and others had put mounting pressure on American political leaders to take action. King’s tactic of “civil disobedience” and non-violent protests throughout the South gained the movement growing support throughout the nation.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act did not initially have the enforcement powers needed to make it truly effective. However, Congress progressively strengthened the legislation.
While the 1964 Civil Rights Act opened the door for the federal government to engage in ending race-based segregation, it would take the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to ensure African Americans enjoyed the voting rights guaranteed to all Americans in the Constitution.
An Indomitable Spirit -- Autherine Lucy
The University of Alabama was founded in 1831. For the next 121 years, the school's unwritten "whites only" policy went unchallenged.
That began to change when on September 4, 1952 a pair of young women, Autherine Lucy and Pollie Anne Myers, would begin a long, arduous battle to end segregation at the University of Alabama.
Lucy and Myers met at Miles College in Fairfield, Alabama, where Lucy was earning her bachelor's degree in English. Following their graduation from Miles College, Myers suggested the young women apply to Alabama for graduate school. "I thought she was joking at first, I really did," Lucy told writer E. Culpepper Clark, author of The Schoolhouse Door, chronicling the fight to desegregate the University of Alabama. Myers wasn't kidding.
The pair sent inquiry letters to the university on September 4, 1952, and on September 13, just nine days later, they each received a letter welcoming them to Alabama.
On September 19, when Lucy and Myers submitted applications that indicated their race, admissions officials quickly changed their minds. The next day, September 20, 1952, the Dean of Admissions told the women a mistake had been made and the pair was turned away.
As news of Alabama's actions spread throughout the black community, Arthur Shores and Thurgood Marshall, two of the most prominent African American civil rights lawyers in the nation, immediately went to work on behalf of Lucy and Myers. Shores first wrote to the university president, John Gallalee, and asked for the women to be reinstated. Gallalee refused.
So, as September 1952 came to an end, Marshall and Shores launched what would become a three-year legal effort — Lucy and Myers vs. University of Alabama.
However, a year before the Lucy and Myers court hearing, one of the most significant events in American history took place. On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling in the case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka. The Court unanimously declared segregation illegal. The policy of "separate but equal" was cast aside.
On June 28, 1955, just 13 months after the Brown decision, U.S. District Judge Harlan Grooms heard Myers and Lucy's case against the University of Alabama. He listened to arguments from both sides that day; 24 hours later, Grooms ruled in favor of the young women.
Finally, three years after Autherine Lucy and Pollie Anne Myers had been denied admission into the university, there appeared to be a light at the end of the tunnel for the pair. That was far from the case.
Hoping to discredit the young women, Alabama had hired private investigators to dig into their backgrounds. Shortly after Groom's ruling the school discovered that Myers had been pregnant and unwed at the time she applied. A violation of the school's moral codes, Myers was disqualified from admission.
Now Lucy faced walking onto the all-white campus alone. Grudgingly admitted into the school — she was denied dining and dormitory privileges — Lucy stepped onto the campus on February 3, 1956, nearly four years after she had been turned away.
There were no incidents during her first two days of classes. However, that changed on Monday, February 6. Students mobbed her, initially shouting hate-filled epithets. Lucy had to be driven by university officials to her next class at the Education Library building, all the while being bombarded with rotten eggs.
Once there, Lucy locked herself in a room and prayed, she said later, for strength, fearing she was going to die at the hands of the throng. Finally Denny Chimes arrived to take her home. The mob quickly turned on him. With the horde distracted, Lucy was secreted to a patrol car and taken safely away from the campus. Later that night, the university's Board of Trustees voted to remove Lucy, claiming it was for her own protection.
The event made news worldwide. It was largely felt that local police had simply let the mob rampage. Attorneys Shores and Marshall filed a complaint saying the university had been complicit in permitting the crowd to intimidate and threaten Lucy. The complaint was a tactical mistake.
Unable to demonstrate the school played a role in the mob action, Marshall and Shores withdrew the complaint but not before it had gone public. That allowed the university to accuse Lucy of defaming the school and its administration. This was legal grounds for her expulsion. For all intents and purposes, Alabama had won.
While Lucy felt defeated, Marshall, who would become the first African American Supreme Court Justice in 1967, thought differently. In a letter to Lucy he said:
"Whatever happens in the future, remember for all concerned, that your contribution has been made toward equal justice for all Americans and that you have done everything in your power to bring this about."
Seven years later, Lucy's battle for equal justice finally bore fruit. In June 1963, Vivian Malone and James Hood became the first African Americans to enroll and become full-time students of the University of Alabama. Malone, who entered as a junior, received her bachelor's degree in Business Management in 1965.
Thirty-two years after Autherine Lucy was expelled from Alabama she was asked to return and talk to a history class at the university. Shortly afterward, a pair of faculty members implored the university to reverse Lucy's expulsion. Alabama did just that, sending Lucy a letter in April 1988 inviting her to return.
In 1989, Lucy returned to the university to begin her master's degree in elementary education — the same year her daughter Grazia started her undergraduate studies. In 1992, mother and daughter attended commencement together to receive their degrees. Autherine Lucy was given a standing ovation when she walked across the stage.
Today a $25,000 endowed scholarship at Alabama bears Autherine Lucy's name. When her portrait was installed at the university in 1992, it was evident her courage and sense of justice had helped change American society.
Slavery, Hollywood, and Public Discourse
Slavery: perhaps the last, great unmentionable in public discourse. It is certainly a topic that even today makes people very uncomfortable, regardless of their race.
American society has often expressed its internal problems through its art. Perhaps the most powerful medium for important discussions since the turn of the last century has been the motion picture.
For decades Hollywood has attempted to address the issue of slavery. For the most part, films have represented the period of enslavement in a manner that reflected society's comfort level with the issue at the time. Director D. W. Griffith's 1915 silent drama, Birth of a Nation, for instance, depicted African Americans (white actors in black face) better off as slaves. Griffith's movie showed the institution of slavery "civilizing" blacks. Birth even made it seem like slaves enjoyed their lives and were happy in servitude.
That wasn't the case, of course, but it was what white society wanted to believe at the time.
More than two decades after Birth of a Nation, the portrayal of African Americans in films had changed only a little. 1939 saw the release of one of Hollywood's most acclaimed movies, Gone with the Wind. Producer David O. Selznick believed he was serving the black community with respect — he made sure the novel's positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan was eliminated from the film, for example. But Gone with the Wind nevertheless treated the enslaved as relatively happy, loyal servants, a depiction that continued to reflect America's segregated society. History was made, however, when Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award for her role as "Mammy." Still, her part, and the parts of the other black actors drew harsh criticism from major African American newspapers and civil rights groups.
Nearly forty years later, one of Hollywood's most meaningful attempts to portray the period of enslavement came in 1977 with the television blockbuster mini-series, Roots. Based on Alex Haley's 1976 best-selling book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, the mini-series was groundbreaking on many levels. It was a dramatic series with a predominantly African American ensemble that captured a record 37 Emmy nominations — television's highest artistic award.
And Roots marked the first time America witnessed slavery portrayed in detail. Along with the scenes of transporting, selling, and trading men and women, were scenes showing the brutality African Americans often suffered at the hands of slave owners. The depictions of abuse and cruelty were limited, of course, by the medium and by what American society would accept at the time. In keeping with the series' marketing campaign, the show focused heavily on the family's ultimate triumphs. For all of Roots' firsts, and there were many, it was ultimately a story of resiliency.
Fast forward three-plus decades — American society is undeniably changed. African Americans are regularly featured in movies and television shows. The nation elected, then re-elected, an African American president, Barack Obama.
Drawing critical acclaim today is the movie 12 Years a Slave. 12 Years is a watershed moment in filmmaking. Not only does it feature remarkable performances, excellent cinematography, and powerful direction; it also offers the first realistic depiction of enslavement.
Unlike prior motion pictures and television shows, 12 Years does not retreat from the brutality many blacks endured. The movie is not for the faint hearted, as the violence and cruelty it portrays is not the highly stylized violence found in films like Django Unchained. 12 Years is true to the reality that for years many Americans treated fellow human beings with ruthless brutality — and that reality is harder to face.
The film, however, is not only drawing praise from critics — it recently received nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture — but enjoying audience appreciation, as well. With that appreciation comes an opportunity to bring the discussion of slavery to the mainstream.
This, then, is an exciting time for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Among its many virtues, the Smithsonian is a great legitimizer with a long tradition of providing venues for Americans to examine their shared history. One of the over-arching goals of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is to create a place where issues like enslavement can be viewed through an unvarnished lens.
America today needs this discussion and I believe it is ready for it, a sentiment undergirded by a belief in the public's ability to deal with and care about the issue. The great strength of history, and African American history, is its ability to draw inspiration from even the worst of times. No doubt people throughout the nation and around the world will find that inspiration when they visit the Museum and view our major exhibition on "Slavery and Freedom" when our doors open in late 2015.
Before I close, I want to recommend four insightful narratives written by African Americans during this period of American history. The first is Solomon Northup's book, 12 Years a Slave. Next is Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs. One of the first books to describe the sexual abuse and torment that female slaves endured, Incidents became one of the most influential works of its time. Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, by Harriet Wilson, is believed to be the first novel published by an African American in North America. Though fictionalized, Wilson's book is based on her life growing up in indentured servitude in New Hampshire. Finally, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, remains today one of the most important autobiographical works ever written by an American.
Breaking the Color Barrier in the Trenches
African Americans have served in every military engagement in our history — from the American Revolution to today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even though for years they suffered injustice and inequality in the military, they served, as former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell said, because "by serving, you demonstrated that you were as good as anyone else."
This past August marked the 65th anniversary of the integration of America's military. In July 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order mandating fair treatment and equality in government and the armed services. It was long overdue. Yet, even with the President ordering the change, integration was a slow process.
In the American Revolution and the Civil War, African Americans fought on both sides. The British promised freedom for enslaved blacks who took up arms against the Colonies. The same promise was offered by some leaders of the colonies. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, newly freed African Americans were permitted to serve in the army and navy. Still, the inequalities that had existed in the military prior to the Proclamation remained as blacks were always segregated and made to serve under white commanding officers.
Segregation was as institutionalized in the military as it was in American society. Despite serving with distinction in the Spanish-American War and World War I, black servicemen and servicewomen returned to a nation that treated them like second class citizens.
Brilliant Lights: Four Amazing Talents
Talent knows no color barrier, so much so that it has often provided African Americans a path to knocking down racial barriers. In the case of Sissieretta Jones, Lillian Evanti, Hazel Scott, and Lena Horne, their talent opened doors on stages around the world and paved the way for countless black entertainers to come.
Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in January 1868, Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones began formally studying music at the Providence Music Academy in Rhode Island at the age of 14. She is believed to have completed her training some years later at Boston's renowned New England Conservatory of Music.
With her New York opera debut at Steinway Hall in 1888, Jones’ talent was quickly recognized. She toured overseas and became known as the world’s “first Negro prima donna.” Her voice and striking presence led to comparisons with Italian soprano Adelina Patti — considered the premier diva of the day. Jones was nicknamed “Black Patti” — which she resented for obvious reasons — but as Miss Jones proved to all, a woman of color was capable of giving world class performances.
Though racism kept her from performing on America’s most renowned stage, New York's Metropolitan Opera, she did perform at the White House, and gave a command performance before England's Royal Family. In June 1892, she became the first African American to take the stage at Carnegie Hall, and by 1895 she was the highest paid black entertainer in the world. By showing the world that a black woman could perform classical opera, Jones laid the ground work for future entertainers, including Lillian Evanti.
Lillian Evanti was born Lillian Evans on August 12, 1890 in Washington, D.C. She graduated with a music degree from Howard University in 1907. Thirteen years later she left America for Europe. There she became the first African American to sing with professional opera companies in Nice and Paris.
Evanti spoke (and sang in) five languages and critics praised her commanding coloratura soprano. In the 1930s, Evanti returned to Washington, D.C. to perform in the city's premier theater, the Belasco, one of the few major venues that permitted performances before integrated audiences. The Washington Post called her appearance a “home-coming triumph.”
In 1932, the director of the Metropolitan Opera asked her to audition. The Opera's board of directors, however, refused to allow Evanti to join the company, a decision based solely on her race. That, however, did not prevent her from performing in front of tens of thousands at Madison Square Garden and other substantial venues. It would take 23 more years before an African American female, Marian Anderson, would actually perform at the Metropolitan Opera, thanks in no small part to the trail blazed by Lillian Evanti.
A gifted musician and performer, Hazel Scott is an American Jazz legend who used her talent to fight against racist stereotypes and attitudes.
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad on June 11, 1920, Hazel Scott was a child prodigy. After moving to New York City, Scott was given a special exemption to enroll in the prestigious Juilliard School of Music when she was only 8 years old — half the normal enrollment age of 16. By the time she was in high school she was hosting a radio show on WOR and performing in the evening.
Before long, Scott was the premier entertainer at New York's Café Society, the city's first fully integrated club. An accomplished pianist, she also played trumpet, and saxophone — the latter in a stint with Louis Armstrong's All Girl Band. She spoke seven languages, appeared in a handful of movies, and married New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a celebrity in his own right.
Scott didn't shy away from fighting for civil rights. Included in her performance contracts was a clause mandating that the venues be fully integrated. In addition, she was an outspoken critic of the stereotypical roles offered to black actresses.
In June 1950, Scott was wrongly linked to communist-leaning organizations by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In September, Scott voluntarily appeared before the committee. Though she gave a rousing defense of her patriotism, and no ties to communist groups were found, the stain of the HUAC damaged her career. By the time she was able to make a comeback in the early 1960s, jazz’ popularity had been eclipsed by rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. Jazz critics and aficionados consider her critically acclaimed 1955 album, Relaxed Piano Moods, one of the most important jazz recordings of the twentieth century.
Lena Horne's life was a remarkably powerful story of the triumph of the spirit. Born in Brooklyn, New York on June 30, 1917, she became a performer at the famous Cotton Club at 16. Stardom wasn't far behind. In 1943, her sultry, moody rendition of Stormy Weather, from the film of the same name, became her trademark. Horne would win multiple Grammy Awards for singing, and Tony Awards for her performances on Broadway. By 1945, her voice, her beauty, and her electric stage presence had made her the highest paid African American entertainer in the nation.
Throughout her life, Horne stood up for justice. During World War II, Horne refused to sing for segregated audiences of troops, nor would she perform when the troops were split with whites in front rows and blacks in back. On one occasion, disgusted that black GIs were forced to sit behind German POWs, Horne walked through the audience to where the black troops were seated and performed with her back to the German prisoners. It was emblematic of her life.
Horne was outspoken in her call for equal rights. Her friendships with Paul Robeson, along with W.E.B. Dubois, landed Horne on Hollywood's blacklist for a period of time — a list of celebrities and entertainers who were marked by HUAC for alleged communist ties. Still, her talent was far more powerful than rumors and innuendo, and she performed in night clubs and toured to sell out houses. She was recognized as a screen star and her demands — that she never be cast in the role of maid, for example — put Hollywood on notice that African American actresses would no longer endure the stereotypes they had played for decades. When Halle Berry became the first African American to win the Best Actress Academy Award in 2009, she noted that her victory was for those women who came before her, including Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne.
It is a tribute to the indefatigable spirits of these women that they are remembered not only for their tremendous gifts, but for their determination in the face of a society that pitted so much against them based solely on their color. African American actors, singers, and musicians today owe a debt of gratitude to this group of women for clearing a path toward equality.
The Journey to Emancipation: the Germantown Protest, 1688
“Pray, what thing in the world can be done worse towards us, than if men should rob or steal us away, and sell us for slaves to strange countries; separating housbands (sic) from their wives and children.” — from The Germantown Protest (against slavery).
In 1565, the Spanish colony of St. Augustine, in what is now Florida, became the first permanent European settlement in North America. Among the settlement's population were some of the first enslaved Africans brought to the New World.
The first permanent settlement of African slaves in British Colonial North America arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, via a Dutch slave trading ship in 1619. It wasn't long before the American colonies found themselves economically dependent on slave trading and enslaved labor.
More than two hundred years later, on January 1, 1863, in the midst of our civil war, Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation would free slaves in the rebellious southern states. The Proclamation, along with the voices and actions of individuals such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison, and others, would ultimately lead to the passage of the 13th Amendment two years later, ending slavery in the United States and freeing nearly four million African Americans.
Reaching that milestone, however, was a long, painful, and bloody process. One of the earliest recorded actions toward ending slavery was taken by a small group of Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania Colony, in 1688.
Before slavery truly became institutionalized in the colonies, some Africans were sometimes treated more like indentured servants who were freed once their service ended or debt had been paid, a practice employed at times by various early Dutch and Spanish explorers and settlers. However, this changed dramatically in 1641 when Massachusetts became the first British mainland colony to legalize slavery. From that time forward, colonial slave laws became more restrictive, further codifying the institution.
Not everyone was blind to slavery's immorality. Although slavery played a major role in the economy of colonial Rhode Island, there were some who tried to temper the practice with a 1652 law that placed restrictions on slave owning and prohibited enslavement of any person for more than 10 years. However, the effect was limited. Slave holders simply sold anyone nearing the deadline and took ownership of new slaves, thus continuing the cycle.
In 1688, Francis Daniel Pastorius, and three of his fellow Quakers, drafted the first, formal anti-slavery resolution in America. The resolution raised objections to slavery on both moral and practical grounds during a period when Pennsylvania Quakers were nearly unanimous in their acceptance of the practice.
The decree is referred to as “The Germantown Protest,” or “1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery.” It articulated themes of justice and equality that would be echoed throughout the long, painful period of slavery in America.
The authors’ premise was based on the biblical “Golden Rule” — treat others as you wish to be treated. Additionally, the authors recognized that colonial slave treatment mirrored the persecution Quakers had seen in Europe, and, to an extent, in the colonies.
"There is a saying, that we should do to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent, or colour (sic) they are... To bring men hither [to America], or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against.”
Sadly, “The Germantown Protest” did not spark a significant change in the Americas against slavery. Even within Quaker communities the declaration was ignored, at least initially. But a seed had been planted. A belief shared silently by many was given voice.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. While it is tempting to view the Proclamation solely through the lens of Civil War events, in order to grasp the full context and importance of Lincoln’s decision, we must examine the issue of slavery in the North American colonies from its beginnings. From the Spanish colony in St. Augustine, to the first Dutch ship sailing into Jamestown, and to the Civil War waged to end it, slavery was a 300-plus year institution in America, leaving scars, fortunes, and repercussions we deal with still today.
Honor and Recognition Long Overdue
Freddie Stowers, the grandson of a South Carolina slave, holds a unique spot in America's pantheon of war heroes — as the only African American awarded the Medal of Honor for service in World War I. Stowers' story, however, must be told in two parts. The first part of the story is his act of heroism in 1918; the second part is that it took more than 72 years before Stowers finally received the recognition he was due.
The United States was the last major combatant to enter World War I, the “war to end all wars.” The conflict began in Europe in 1914, but in the U.S., isolationist sentiments were strong resulting in a foreign policy of non-intervention. However, on May 7, 1915, a German U-boat sank the British ship Lusitania, killing 128 Americans on board, sparking anti-Germany sentiment in the United States.
In the next two years, a series of events added to American anger with Germany. On April 2, 1917 President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. By the end of June, 1917, American troops were in France.
More than 50 years after the Civil War, America's military was still segregated. The French, however, had no such rules, and Stowers and Company C were sent to the front lines to serve alongside French troops.
On September 28, just days after arriving in France, Stowers' company was in the midst of an attack on Hill 188, Champagne Marne Sector, France, when enemy forces appeared to be giving up.
According to the War Department, German soldiers emerged from their trenches waving a white flag, arms in the air — military actions that signal surrender. It was a ruse, however. As Americans, including Cpl. Stowers, went to capture the “surrendering” Germans, another wave of the enemy arose and opened fire.
Very quickly, Company C's lieutenant and non-commissioned officers were killed in the fight. This left the 21-year-old Stowers in command. Without hesitation, he implored his men to advance on the Germans.
Stowers would be mortally shot during the exchange. Wounded and dying, Stowers continued to fight on, inspiring his men to push the enemy back. With Stowers leading the counter-attack, Americans took out an enemy machine gun position and went on to capture Hill 188.
Following the battle, Stowers' commanding officer nominated him for the Medal of Honor, but the nomination was never processed. The Pentagon said the paperwork was misplaced. Some raise the possibility that the nomination wasn't misplaced at all, but deliberately lost. They point to the fact that American troops were segregated and suggest that racial bias in the military might be the reason for Stowers' missing paperwork.
The final part of Freddie Stowers' story begins in 1990. As the Department of Defense began to modernize its data systems, it ordered a review of all battlefield medal nominations. When Stowers' recommendation was found, the Pentagon quickly took action to give the corporal the long overdue recognition and honor he deserved.
On April 24, 1991, more than 72 years after Stowers made the ultimate sacrifice for his nation, his sisters Georgiana Palmer and Mary Bowens, 88- and 77-years-old at the time, were presented his Medal of Honor by President George H. W. Bush.
Long before Stowers was honored by his nation, he, along with other members of Company C, received recognition from the French government: “For extraordinary heroism under fire.” Stowers and his unit received the Croix de Guerre the French War Cross — the highest military medal France awards to allied soldiers.
Prior to World War I, 49 African Americans had been awarded the Medal of Honor, including 25 men who fought for the Union in the Civil War. There were 119 Medals of Honor recipients in World War I, with Stowers being the only African American. His long overdue recognition in 1991 is a small but important sign of the progress we as a nation have made.
America Sees the Truth
On September 15, 1963, an explosion shattered the quiet of a Sunday morning, blowing apart the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young girls who were getting ready for Sunday School were killed almost instantly.
Denise McNair, 11, Addie Mae Collins, 14, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14 died as a result of a bomb placed under the church by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Twenty-two others, including Collins' younger sister Sarah, were injured.
“I remember Denise asking Addie to tie her belt,” Sarah Collins Cox said in an interview. “And then it happened.”
Most Americans had little idea, or had paid little attention to the fact that Birmingham had been the scene of more than 50 bombings between 1947 and 1963. This bombing, however, would not go unnoticed. The murderous event awakened the nation and effectively galvanized the civil rights movement.
In the months leading up to the bombing, Birmingham had become the focal point of the civil rights front. The city was all too familiar with racial violence. Both African Americans and moderate whites had been long terrorized by the Klan.
Years earlier, Birmingham minister Fred L. Shuttlesworth founded the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) to directly confront racism and segregation in the city. In the spring of 1963, Shuttlesworth's group joined forces with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the largest and best known organization fighting for equal rights at the time. Together, the men formulated a plan that called for months-long protests to end segregation in Birmingham.
In May of that year, after weeks of marches, sit-ins, boycotts, bus strikes, and prayer vigils, an agreement was reached. It had the input of local government leaders, white business owners, African American leaders and civil rights groups. The city would actively begin working toward integration. The agreement did not sit well with segregationists, among the most violent of which was the notorious KKK.
Riots erupted during the summer months, and nightly newscasts revealed to the rest of America the lengths to which Southern racists like Governor George Wallace and Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Conner would go in their fight to keep the South segregated.
Conner ran Birmingham's police and fire departments, and his ruthless tactics against the demonstrators shocked the country. With each evening's news, Americans watched as Conner's police used attack dogs, billy clubs, and tear gas on the peaceful protestors. He turned fire hoses on the crowd with water pressure so high it would “peel away skin,” according to press reports.
Still, it was the 16th Street Baptist Church and the deaths of four innocent children that finally snapped the nation and the federal government into action. All over the country, citizens became angry and ready for change. In June 1963, President John Kennedy introduced a civil rights bill, now known as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to widespread support.
The 16th Street Baptist Church bombing is cited by many historians as the turning point in the civil rights movement. An editorial in the Milwaukee Sentinel said the bombing should “serve to goad the conscience” of the country. “The deaths...in a sense are on the hands of each of us.”
We should always keep in mind that the four girls who died, while immortalized in history, were children with children's dreams. Carol Robertson was a straight A student who loved to dance. Cynthia Wesley excelled in math. Addie Mae Collins was quiet, athletic, and had a flare for art. Denise McNair wrote plays for the kids in her neighborhood.
History is not scripted. In the case of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing it was shaped out of racist hatred that ended four
Unforgettable Nat King Cole, Flip Wilson & American Television
Nat “King” Cole ranks among the icons of American entertainers. His rich, smooth baritone singing voice is immediately recognizable, and his music remains popular today.
Beginning in 1946 with “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)” and “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” and continuing with “Nature Boy,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Too Young,” hit song after hit song made Cole an international star by the mid-1950s.
1950s American audiences loved variety shows, and Cole appeared on all of the big ones, including Milton Berle, Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, Red Skelton, and Dinah Shore, to name a few. He was cool, handsome, and, of course, talented. It only made sense that NBC offer him his own show. And so on November 5, 1956, The Nat “King” Cole Show, initially a 15-minute, prime time variety show, became the first nationally broadcast television show hosted by an African American.
NBC spared no expense, bringing in top-flight orchestra leaders Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins to direct the music. Cole’s guests were the best in the business as well. Mel Torme, Pearl Bailey, Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett, among many others, performed on Cole’s show. Eventually, NBC expanded the show to 30 minutes.
What the show did not have was a major national sponsor. Big companies who backed white entertainers’ shows — “See the USA in a Chevrolet,” Dinah Shore would sing — feared their products would be boycotted, particularly in the South, if they backed The Nat “King” Cole Show.
Oddly, advertisers believed Cole’s urbane sophistication was problematic, as well. White American viewers were more accustomed to blacks being portrayed as racially stereotyped slapstick comics. Black television shows like Amos & Andy, and characters like Rochester, Jack Benny’s wisecracking valet were too often the rule, and, sadly, what made many white television viewers comfortable. Cole wanted none of that. He knew how important it was for an African American to demonstrate to the nation how insulting and racist these stereotypes were. More than anything else, Cole wanted a show produced on par with the Comos, Berles and Shores. To his and NBC’s credit, the show — which ran for 64 episodes — received excellent reviews.
Still, national advertisers ignored Cole’s show. “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark,” Cole is reported to have said. When Max Factor Cosmetics told NBC executives that a “negro couldn’t sell lipstick,” Cole responded angrily: “What do they think we use? Chalk? Congo paint?”
Various episodes were sponsored on NBC affiliates by local companies, and a handful of regional sponsors appeared late in the show’s run. But for the most part, The Nat “King” Cole Show was paid for by NBC and, to some degree, Cole himself, who “plowed back part” of his salary, he told Ebony Magazine. Absent a major sponsor, it was Cole, not NBC, who pulled the plug on the historic effort in December, 1957.
Of course, Cole could not have known what lay ahead for America in the next decade — the powerful civil rights movement, the tragic assassinations, the massive changes coming to our society. In 1970, a glimpse of that change was reflected in the success of black comedian Flip Wilson.
Wilson started out in hotels and clubs in California as a young stand-up comic. By the end of the decade, he was one of only a handful of African American comedians to achieve national recognition, along with Redd Foxx, Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and Dick Gregory. In 1965, after a recommendation from Foxx, Johnny Carson invited Wilson to perform on the Tonight Show. His career skyrocketed and soon Wilson became a regular guest host for Carson.
Wilson’s one-hour comedy special on NBC in 1969 received good ratings, and the network quickly offered him an hour-long, prime-time show of his own. Launched in 1970, The Flip Wilson Show was an immediate hit, soaring to number two in the ratings throughout its first two seasons, and winning an Emmy Award in 1971 for Best Comedy Writing.
The ratings afforded Wilson unprecedented creative development. His “Reverend Leroy,” the somewhat shady minister of the “Church of What’s Happenin’ Now,” drew fire from black groups who said it stereotyped African Americans. “Sonny, the White House janitor,” routinely made politicians look like fools a potentially hazardous sketch with white audiences. Wilson’s most popular creation, the cross-dressing “Geraldine,” however, was almost universally beloved. Geraldine’s catch phrases, “What you see is what you get,” and “The Devil made me do it,” underscored the character’s confidence and wit.
Wilson’s ratings also gave him the clout to feature the entertainment giants of the time, including John Wayne, Lucille Ball, Bing Crosby, and Carson. But Wilson made his show a platform for black entertainers, as well. The Jackson Five, James Brown, Isaac Hayes, Ray Charles, and the Temptations, to name only a few, were regulars.
Thirteen years after The Nat “King” Cole Show struggled financially, The Flip Wilson Show was not only able to secure national advertisers, it was able to charge top dollar for its highly-coveted prime-time slot. Advertisers’ fears that their products would somehow be tainted by association with black artists apparently had diminished as a result of America's changing views on race.
Nat King Cole and Flip Wilson were very different types of entertainers. Yet both faced the challenge of overcoming racial stereotypes and both hold significant spots in our American story: Cole as the first African American star to have his own television variety show in 1956; Wilson for the heights his variety show reached in the early 1970s. And each man demonstrated to America the depths, talent and sophistication that black entertainers brought to the stage.
A Page From Our American Story: Tuskegee Airmen
Not many people know the entire story of the Tuskegee Airmen. The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture is going to change that. The Tuskegee Airmen epitomize courage and heroism. Their story, however, is more than just their legendary success escorting American bombers over Nazi Germany.
Their story begins more than 23 years earlier. In fact, from the early days of World War I, African Americans wanted to serve as pilots in the Army Air Force. They were repeatedly rejected — because of their race. In 1941, when Congress finally forced the Army Air Force to train African Americans, the powers in the Pentagon created a training program with one purpose — wash out the men who want to be aviators.
However, the Pentagon was in for a surprise — the Tuskegee Airmen did not fail. They would succeed and go on to serve in spectacular fashion. Their success would force military leaders to take a hard look at the policies of segregation that treated black servicemen and women as second class citizens.
I offer this brief, brief summary of the Tuskegee Airmen story as a way of introducing a short, but fascinating video that features a treasured object in the Museum's collection — a restored World War II-era PT-13 Stearman used to train many of the Tuskegee Airmen. The video documents this biplane's historic journey across the nation on its way to being presented to the Museum in the summer of 2011.
The addition of the PT-13 Stearman helps bring the powerful story of the Tuskegee Airmen to life. Together they help fulfill the Museum's mission to engage, educate, and bring pride to all Americans.
A Page From Our American Story: Joe Louis
During what is often described as boxing's “Golden Age” — approximately 1930 to 1955 — Joe Louis, the “Brown Bomber,” would become its undisputed king. Not only would Louis dominate his sport during this period, he transcended the color barrier and was cheered by Americans of all races.
Joe Louis Barrow — the grandson of a slave and the great grandson of a slave owner — was born in poverty on May 13, 1914. The Barrow home in Lafayette, Alabama was next to a cotton field. Growing up, Louis and his seven siblings often slept three and four to a bed.
The lack of jobs and the violence waged against African Americans by a revived Ku Klux Klan in the South led Louis' mother, Lily, to take her family and join thousands of blacks in the Great Migration north.
They settled in Detroit, and Joe began learning the craft of cabinet making and taking violin lessons. He was about 11-years-old when a friend introduced him to boxing. As a teenager, Louis gained a reputation as a top-flight amateur fighter. He dropped “Barrow” from his name, hoping to keep his boxing a secret from his mother. But winning 50 of 54 amateur fights – 43 by knockouts — brought headlines on newspaper sports pages in Detroit and around the Midwest. It was impossible to hide his remarkable power, speed, and innate tactical mind — skills that helped Louis become one of the greatest boxers in history.
He soon gained the attention of John Roxborough, head of the illegal gambling rackets in the black communities of Detroit. What Roxborough offered Louis was unique to the sport of boxing at the time. Roxborough had watched countless white managers burn out African American fighters before their prime. He promised Louis the best training and opportunities.
Roxborough quickly brought in boxing promoter Julian Black and respected trainer Jack Blackburn to groom Louis for greatness.
Roxborough was true to his word, guiding Louis with care and, in the process, attaining record prize purses — not just for a black boxer, but for boxers of any color. Roxborough was also a keen marketer. The image white America had of African American boxers had been shaped by Jack Johnson. Johnson, though a powerful champion, was viewed as militant and a womanizer, among other things. With “the shadow of Johnson” stalking Louis, Roxborough created a list of “commandments” that Louis would have to follow. These “commandments” included:
Never be photographed with a white woman.
Never gloat over a fallen opponent.
Never engage in fixed fights.
Live clean and fight clean.
The public relations strategy worked. Louis' talent did the rest. As Louis wrote in his autobiography: “Mr. Roxborough was talking about Black Power before it became popular.”
His first professional bouts of note were victories against Italian giant Primo Carnera, and American Max Baer, both former champions. The bout with Carnera foreshadowed how Louis' life and career would become politicized. Carnera was touted by Benito Mussolini as the symbol of his new, fascist Italy. Louis battered Carnera, winning by knockout in the sixth round.
Louis won 27 professional fights in a row — 23 by knockouts — and was on track to fight “Cinderella Man” James Braddock for the title. However, Louis' surprising loss to German Max Schmeling on June 19, 1936 temporarily delayed a title shot. Schmeling, who was not a Nazi, was hailed by Adolf Hitler as an example of the superiority of the Aryan race.
Eventually, Louis got his title fight against Braddock, knocking him out on June 22, 1937 and winning the heavyweight crown. After the fight, Malcolm X said, “Every Negro boy who could walk wanted to be the next Brown Bomber.”
Now it was time for Schmeling again. By the late 1930s, Hitler had started his attempt to conquer Europe, and the Louis-Schmeling rematch took on even more meaning. It was reported that Hitler called Schmeling just before the fight and ordered him to win for the sake of Nazi Germany. Louis, despite America's racial divide, was seen as freedom and democracy's defender. Franklin Roosevelt invited Louis to the White House. There, more than two years before the United States entered the war, Roosevelt felt Louis' bicep and said, “Joe, we need muscles like these to defeat Germany.”
It wasn't a fight between two men; it was a battle of ideologies.
On June 22, 1938 — exactly one year after becoming world champion — Louis dispatched Schmeling two minutes into Round One. Instantly Louis became more than just a champion. At a time when boxing was at its zenith and the heavyweight champion was considered the greatest athlete in the world, Louis achieved even more. He became a hero to Americans of every race and background.
Louis would hold the crown for 12 years — longer than any fighter past or present has held a title in any weight class. At his prime, Louis enlisted in the Army in 1942, where he rose to the rank of sergeant. He fought hundreds of exhibition matches to entertain the troops and raise money for the Armed Services. Louis even donated money to military relief funds.
After the war, Louis won four more fights — two against Jersey Joe Walcott — and retired. He had defended his title 25 times, another record, and only three of those bouts went the distance.
Almost two years later, Louis had to change his plans. Louis' lifestyle — his generosity to friends and family was well known — coupled with his boxing schedule had left little time for keeping track of the accounting, including filing his taxes. Ignoring all that Louis had done for his country during the war, the IRS demanded more than $1 million in back taxes. He stepped back into the ring well past his prime and was pummeled by the current champion, Ezzard Charles. Then, in 1951, Louis was knocked out by Rocky Marciano.
Louis retired from the ring again, but he still needed money to pay the IRS. He took odd jobs, including a stint as a professional wrestler. His last job was as the official greeter at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.
After his boxing career was over, Louis would become good friends with Schmeling. Sports writers respected Louis as much for his kind, generous nature as they did for his boxing brilliance. When he died on April 12, 1981, President Ronald Reagan said Louis was “more than a sports legend — his career was an indictment of racial bigotry and a source of pride and inspiration for people around the world.” Honoring the family's request, Reagan waived the requirements and Sgt. Joe Louis was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
At the height of his popularity, people said Louis was “a credit to his race.” In response, Boxing Hall of Fame sports writer Jimmy Cannon wrote: “Yes, Joe Louis is a credit to his race — the human race.”
A Page From Our American Story: Frederick Douglass
On July 5, 1852 approximately 3.5 million African Americans were enslaved — roughly 14% of the total population of the United States. That was the state of the nation when Frederick Douglass was asked to deliver a keynote address at an Independence Day celebration.
He accepted and, on a day white Americans celebrated their independence and freedom from the oppression of the British crown, Douglass delivered his now-famous speech What to the Slave is the Fourth of July. In it, Douglass offered one of the most thought provoking and powerful testaments to the hypocrisy, bigotry and inhumanity of slavery ever given.
Douglass told the crowd that the arguments against slavery were well understood. What was needed was “fire” not light on the subject; “thunder” not a gentle “shower” of reason. Douglass would tell the audience:
The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, most likely in February 1818 — birth dates of slaves were rarely recorded. He was put to work full-time at age six, and his life as a young man was a litany of savage beatings and whippings. At age twenty, he successfully escaped to the North. In Massachusetts he became known as a voice against slavery, but that also brought to light his status as an escaped slave. Fearing capture and re-enslavement, Douglass went to England and continued speaking out against slavery.
He eventually raised enough money to buy his freedom and returned to America. He settled in Rochester, New York in 1847 and began to champion equality and freedom for slaves in earnest. By then, his renown extended far beyond America's boundaries. He had become a man of international stature.
One suspects that Rochester city leaders had Douglass' fame and reputation as a brilliant orator in mind when they approached him to speak at their Independence Day festivities. But with his opening words, Douglass' intent became clear — decry the hypocrisy of the day as it played out in the lives of the slaves:
Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?
You can easily imagine the wave of unease that settled over his audience. The speech was long, as was the fashion of the day. A link to the entire address can be found at the end of this Our American Story. When you read it you will discover that, to his credit, Douglass was uncompromising and truthful:
This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn ... What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? ... a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham ... your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings ... hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
Reaction to the speech was strong, but mixed. Some were angered, others appreciative. What I've always thought most impressive about Douglass' speech that day was the discussion it provoked immediately and in the weeks and months that followed.
Certainly much has changed since Douglass’ speech. Yet the opportunity to discuss and debate the important impact of America’s racial history is very much a part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Douglass’ words remind us that many have struggled to ensure that the promise of liberty be applied equally to all Americans — regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. And that the struggle for equality is never over.
So, as we gather together at picnics, parades, and fireworks to celebrate the 4th of July, let us remember those, like Frederick Douglass, who fought and sacrificed to help America live up to its ideals of equality, fair play and justice.
Frederick Douglass' life and words have left us a powerful legacy. His story, and the African American story, is part of us all.
To you and your family, have a joyous and safe Fourth of July and thank you for your interest in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
P.S. To read the full text Frederick Douglass’ speech of July 5, 1852, click here: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=162
The human factor of history — Dred Scott and Roger B. Taney
On March 6, 1857, in the case of Dred Scott v. John Sanford, United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that African Americans were not and could not be citizens. Taney wrote that the Founders' words in the Declaration of Independence, “all men were created equal,” were never intended to apply to blacks. Blacks could not vote, travel, or even fall in love and marry of their own free will — rights granted, according to the Declaration, by God to all. It was the culmination of ten years of court battles — Dred Scott's fight to live and be recognized as a free man.
The High Court's decision went even further, declaring laws that restricted slavery in new states or sought to keep a balance between free and slave states, such as the Missouri Compromise, were unconstitutional. In essence, Black Americans, regardless of where they lived, were believed to be nothing more than commodities.
The Taney court was dominated by pro-slavery judges from the South. Of the nine, seven judges had been appointed by pro-slavery Presidents — five, in fact, came from slave-holding families. The decision was viewed by many as a victory for the Southern “Slavocracy,” and a symbol of the power the South had over the highest court.
The dramatic ripple effect of Dred Scott — a ruling historians widely agree was one of the worst racially-based decisions ever handed down by the United States Supreme Court — reached across the states and territories. It sent shivers through the North and the free African-American community. Technically, no black was free of re-enslavement.
Free Blacks, many of whom had been in Northern states for years, once again lived in fear of being hunted down and taken back to the South in servitude. Southern slave laws allowed marshals to travel north in search of escaped slaves. The ruling was such a concern to Free Blacks, that many seriously considered leaving the United States for Canada or Liberia.
The decision played a role in propelling Abraham Lincoln — an outspoken anti-slavery voice — into the White House. The slavery issue had already created a turbulent, volatile atmosphere throughout the nation. Dred Scott, like kerosene tossed onto a simmering fire, played a significant role in igniting the Civil War. The North became ready to combat what it viewed as the South's disproportionate influence in government.
The court case lives in infamy today, but few people know much about the actual people involved. I suspect Scott and Taney never imagined they would play such powerful roles in our great American story.
Taney was from Maryland, a slave state, but had long before emancipated his slaves and reportedly paid pensions to his older slaves, as well. As a young lawyer he called slavery a “blot on our national character.” What turned Taney into a pro-slavery advocate is not clear, but by 1857, Taney had hardened, going as far as to declare the abolitionist movement “northern aggression.”
It is reported that Dred Scott was originally named “Sam” but took the name of an older brother when that brother died at a young age. Scott was born into slavery in Virginia around 1800 (birth dates for slaves were often unrecorded), and made his way westward with his master, Peter Blow. By 1830, Scott was living in St. Louis, still a slave to Blow. He was sold to Army doctor John Emerson in 1831 and accompanied him to his various postings — including stations in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory (what is now Minnesota).
In 1836, Scott married Harriett Robinson. Reports vary on whether she was a slave of Emerson's prior to the marriage or Emerson purchased her from another military officer after she and Scott had fallen in love. The series of events underscored the painful and difficult lives slaves led. Love, like everything else, was subject to the vagaries of their owners' dispositions.
Emerson died in 1843, leaving the Scott family to his wife, Irene. Three years later, Scott tried to buy his freedom, but to no avail. Scott's only recourse was to file suit against Mrs. Emerson. He did so on April 6, 1846, and the case went to a Missouri court the following year. He would lose this case, but win on appeal in 1850. Emerson won her appeal in 1852, and shortly afterward gave the Scotts to her son, John Sanford, a legal resident of New York. Because two states were now involved, Scott's appeal was filed in federal court in 1854 under the case name of Dred Scott v. John Sanford, the name that came before Taney in 1857.
History is filled with dramatic and strange twists of irony and fate. Those factors can be found throughout Scott's battle for freedom. Peter Blow's sons, childhood friends of Scott's, paid his legal fees. Irene Emerson had remarried in 1850. Her new husband, Massachusetts Congressman Calvin Chaffee, was anti-slavery. Following Taney's ruling, the now-Mrs. Calvin Chaffee, took possession of Dred, Harriett and their two daughters and either sold or simply returned the family to the Blows. In turn, the Blows freed the Scotts in May, 1857.
Dred Scott, a man whose name is so deeply-rooted in our history, so linked to the war that would end slavery, would die just five months later of tuberculosis. However, he died a free man.
Knowing the Past Opens the Door to the Future
The Continuing Importance of Black History Month
No one has played a greater role in helping all Americans know the black past than Carter G. Woodson, the individual who created Negro History Week in Washington, D.C., in February 1926. Woodson was the second black American to receive a PhD in history from Harvard—following W.E.B. Du Bois by a few years. To Woodson, the black experience was too important simply to be left to a small group of academics. Woodson believed that his role was to use black history and culture as a weapon in the struggle for racial uplift. By 1916, Woodson had moved to DC and established the “Association for the Study of Negro Life and Culture,” an organization whose goal was to make black history accessible to a wider audience. Woodson was a strange and driven man whose only passion was history, and he expected everyone to share his passion.
This impatience led Woodson to create Negro History Week in 1926, to ensure that school children be exposed to black history. Woodson chose the second week of February in order to celebrate the birthday of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It is important to realize that Negro History Week was not born in a vacuum. The 1920s saw the rise in interest in African American culture that was represented by the Harlem Renaissance where writers like Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglass Johnson, Claude McKay—wrote about the joys and sorrows of blackness, and musicians like Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Lunceford captured the new rhythms of the cities created in part by the thousands of southern blacks who migrated to urban centers like Chicago. And artists like Aaron Douglass, Richard Barthe, and Lois Jones created images that celebrated blackness and provided more positive images of the African American experience.
Woodson hoped to build upon this creativity and further stimulate interest through Negro History Week. Woodson had two goals. One was to use history to prove to white America that blacks had played important roles in the creation of America and thereby deserve to be treated equally as citizens. In essence, Woodson—by celebrating heroic black figures—be they inventors, entertainers, or soldiers—hoped to prove our worth, and by proving our worth—he believed that equality would soon follow. His other goal was to increase the visibility of black life and history, at a time when few newspapers, books, and universities took notice of the black community, except to dwell upon the negative. Ultimately Woodson believed Negro History Week—which became Black History Month in 1976—would be a vehicle for racial transformation forever.
The question that faces us today is whether or not Black History Month is still relevant? Is it still a vehicle for change? Or has it simply become one more school assignment that has limited meaning for children. Has Black History Month become a time when television and the media stack their black material? Or is it a useful concept whose goals have been achieved? After all, few—except the most ardent rednecks - could deny the presence and importance of African Americans to American society or as my then-14 year old daughter Sarah put it, “I see Colin Powell everyday on TV, all my friends—black and white—are immersed in black culture through music and television. And America has changed dramatically since 1926—Is not it time to retire Black History Month as we have eliminated white and colored signs on drinking fountains?” I will spare you the three hour lesson I gave her.
I would like to suggest that despite the profound change in race relations that has occurred in our lives, Carter G. Woodson’s vision for black history as a means of transformation and change is still quite relevant and quite useful. African American history month, with a bit of tweaking, is still a beacon of change and hope that is still surely needed in this world. The chains of slavery are gone—but we are all not yet free. The great diversity within the black community needs the glue of the African American past to remind us of not just how far we have traveled but lo, how far there is to go.
While there are many reasons and examples that I could point towards, let me raise five concerns or challenges that African Americans — in fact — all Americans — face that black history can help address:
The Challenge of Forgetting: You can tell a great deal about a country and a people by what they deem important enough to remember, to create moments for — what they put in their museum and what they celebrate. In Scandinavia — there are monuments to the Vikings as a symbol of freedom and the spirit of exploration. In Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis celebrated their supposed Aryan supremacy through monument and song. While America traditionally revels in either Civil War battles or founding fathers. Yet I would suggest that we learn even more about a country by what it chooses to forget — its mistakes, its disappointments, and its embarrassments. In some ways, African American History month is a clarion call to remember. Yet it is a call that is often unheeded.
Let’s take the example of one of the great unmentionable in American history — slavery. For nearly 250 years slavery not only existed but it was one of the dominant forces in American life. Political clout and economic fortune depended on the labor of slaves. And the presence of this peculiar institution generated an array of books, publications, and stories that demonstrate how deeply it touched America. And while we can discuss basic information such as the fact that in 1860 — 4 million blacks were enslaved, and that a prime field hand cost $1,000, while a female, with her childbearing capability, brought $1,500, we find few moments to discuss the impact, legacy, and contemporary meaning of slavery.
In 1988, the Smithsonian Institution, about to open an exhibition that included slavery, decided to survey 10,000 Americans. The results were fascinating — 92% of white respondents felt slavery had little meaning to them — these respondents often said “my family did not arrive until after the end of slavery.” Even more disturbing was the fact that 79% of African Americans expressed no interest or some embarrassment about slavery. It is my hope that with greater focus and collaboration Black History Month can stimulate discussion about a subject that both divides and embarrasses.
As a historian, I have always felt that slavery is an African American success story because we found ways to survive, to preserve our culture and our families. Slavery is also ripe with heroes, such as slaves who ran away or rebelled, like Harriet Tubman or Denmark Vessey, but equally important are the forgotten slave fathers and mothers who raised families and kept a people alive. I am not embarrassed by my slave ancestors; I am in awe of their strength and their humanity. I would love to see the African American community rethink its connection to our slave past. I also think of something told to me by a Mr. Johnson, who was a former sharecropper I interviewed in Georgetown, SC: “That though the slaves were bought they were also brave. Though they were sold, they were also strong.”
The Challenge of Confrontation and Perseverance: American revels in its greatness but often fails to confront or come to grips with the darker moments of American history. Exploring African American history could allow America to lance the boil of the past and move towards healing: Take the example of the mistreatment and brutalization of the African American male over the last 120 years. Despite rhetoric that celebrates the docile, childlike quality of black males, white America has always been afraid of them. Tom Jefferson once said the presence of African American males is like having a wolf by the ears, sooner or later it will get you. From 1881 until 1917, nearly 100 black men annually were lynched for crimes real or imagined. And generations of black men found themselves on chain gangs or in prisons.
Yet, the story is not simply negative but also one of perseverance against all odds. The story of the number of black men able to obtain an education, contribute to society, maintain families, and overcome, is an extremely important element of the American past. While America often celebrates the Horatio Alger Myth someone who overcomes the odds rarely are those figures African American. Yet, who better to teach the American story of perseverance and achievement than African Americans. I’d like to see Chicago embrace the story of Emmitt Till. What a treasure is his mother, Mamie Mobley.
The Challenge of Preserving a People’s Culture: While the African American community is no longer invisible, I am unsure that as a community we are taking the appropriate steps to ensure the preservation of African American cultural patrimony in appropriate institutions. Whether we like it or not, museums, archives, and libraries not only preserves culture they legitimize it. Therefore, it is incumbent of African Americans to work with cultural institutions to preserve their family photography, documents, and objects. While African Americans have few traditions of giving material to museums, it is crucial that more of the black past make it into American cultural repositories.
A good example is the Smithsonian, when the National Museum of American History wanted to mount an exhibition on slavery, it found it did not have any objects that described slavery. That is partially a response to a lack of giving by the African American Community. This lack of involvement also affects the preservation of black historic sites. Though there has been more attention paid to these sites, too much of our history has been paved over, gone through urban renewal, gentrified, or unidentified, or un-acknowledged. Hopefully a renewed Black History Month can focus attention on the importance of preserving African American culture.
“There is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history. And there is no higher cause than honoring our struggle and ancestors by remembering.”
The Challenge of Maintaining a Community: As the African American Community diversifies and splinters, it is crucial to find mechanisms and opportunities to maintain our sense of community. As some families lose the connection with their southern roots, it is imperative that we understand our common heritage and history. The communal nature of black life has provided substance, guidance, and comfort for generations. And though our communities are quite diverse, it is our common heritage that continues to hold us together.
The Power of Inspiration: One thing has not changed. That is the need to draw inspiration and guidance from the past. And through that inspiration, people will find tools and paths that will help them live their lives. Who could not help but be inspired by Martin Luther King’s oratory, commitment to racial justice, and his ultimate sacrifice. Or by the arguments of William and Ellen Craft or Henry “Box” Brown who used great guile to escape from slavery. Who could not draw substance from the creativity of Madame CJ Walker or the audacity and courage of prize fighter Jack Johnson. Or who could not continue to struggle after listening to the mother of Emmitt Till share her story of sadness and perseverance. I know that when life is tough, I take solace in the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, or Gwendolyn Brooks. And I find comfort in the rhythms of Louie Armstrong, Sam Cooke or Dinah Washington. And I draw inspiration from the anonymous slave who persevered so that the culture could continue.
Let me conclude by re-emphasizing that Black History Month continues to serve us well. In part because Woodson’s creation is as much about today as it is about the past. Experiencing Black History Month every year reminds us that history is not dead or distant from our lives.
Rather, I see the African American past in the way my daughter’s laugh reminds me of my grandmother. I experience the African American past when I think of my grandfather choosing to leave the South rather than continue to experience share cropping and segregation. Or when I remember sitting in the back yard listening to old men tell stories. Ultimately, African American History — and its celebration throughout February — is just as vibrant today as it was when Woodson created it 85 years ago. Because it helps us to remember there is no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history. And there is no higher cause than honoring our struggle and ancestors by remembering.
13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
On December 18, 1865, Secretary of State William Seward announced to the world that the United States had constitutionally abolished slavery — the 13th Amendment had been ratified.
The ratification of the 13th Amendment, the first of the Reconstruction Amendments, was truly the beginning of the end of one our nation's ugliest and saddest eras. Historically, however, it has always been overshadowed by President Abraham Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation."
While Lincoln's initial pronouncement to his Cabinet on September 22, 1862, formally tied slavery to the Civil War, he repeatedly stated that preserving the Union was his primary objective — not ending slavery.
In essence, Lincoln's proclamation — officially signed and issued on January 1, 1863 — freed only slaves in Confederate states where he and the Union Army could not force the issue, but allowed slavery to continue in states where the Union could impose its will.
The Emancipation Proclamation was a work of political irony. Lincoln understood slavery was wrong, but did not want to anger the border states that had remained supportive of the Union.
However, the Emancipation Proclamation served as a catalyst for abolitionists in Congress to start working in earnest to end slavery in every state.
William Seward (19th century photograph)William Seward (19th century photograph)
It began on December 14, 1863, when House Republican James Ashley of Ohio introduced an amendment to ban slavery throughout the United States. Later that month, James Wilson of Iowa introduced another amendment calling for an end to slavery.
Less than a month later, on January 11, 1864, Missouri Senator John Henderson, a member of the War Democrats — Democrats who supported the Civil War and opposed the Copperheads and Peace Democrats — submitted a joint resolution also wanting an amendment to end slavery.
Now, as civil war ravaged the nation, the legislative battle on Capitol Hill to end the injustice of slavery and treat African Americans as equal citizens was launched on two fronts — the House of Representatives and the US Senate.
On February 10, 1864, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed and brought the 13th Amendment to the full Senate. While in the House, one week after the Senate was moving ahead, Representatives took their first vote on the measure. The House vote well short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass, and it was clear the anti-slavery supporters in the House were in for a long struggle.
On the other hand, the Senate moved quickly. Senators wasted little time following the Judiciary Committee's recommendation for passage. On April 8, 1864, the amendment was overwhelmingly passed, 38-6, eight votes more than constitutionally required.
Four months after the first House vote, in June, 1864, the House tried for a second time to pass the amendment. The vote was closer, but again the abolitionists failed to get the two-thirds majority they needed for passage.
The year drew to a close with Lincoln's reelection. Yet the House had failed to produce a bill abolishing slavery. Lincoln's patience with the House was reaching its end. At the same time, abolitionists declared his reelection as a mandate from the people to end slavery. More pressure was brought to bear on the hold-outs in the House to pass the bill.
At last, on January 31, 1865, the House passed the 13th Amendment. Though not needed, as a symbolic gesture of approval, President Lincoln signed the document and then sent it to the states for ratification.
Initially, ratification seemed a given. By the end of March, 19 states had voted for the amendment. Then the process bogged down, and by April 14, 1865, the date President Lincoln was assassinated, only 21 states were on board.
Suddenly, Vice President Andrew Johnson, himself a War Democrat from Tennessee, was in the White House. Johnson was staunchly pro-Union, but he was less passionate about ending slavery. At this point the question was how much support would he provide toward speeding the end of slavery? Abolitionists were relieved when Johnson used his power as the Chief Executive to force Southern states to ratify the amendment as part of his Reconstruction policy.
On December 6, 1865, nearly twelve months after President Lincoln had ceremoniously signed the document, Georgia became the 27th state to ratify the 13th Amendment. The three-quarters of the states needed to make the amendment law had finally been reached, and shortly afterward Seward made his historic announcement.
Sadly, life for Black Americans did not meet the promise of freedom. Southern states adopted "Black Codes" and "Jim Crow laws" — rules and restrictions that by-passed constitutional requirements — and continued to treat African Americans as second class citizens.
The tumult and grassroots uprising that eventually spawned such famous legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a subject all its own. Today, however, let us remember the tremendous stride that America took 145 years ago with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. Together with the 14th Amendment that afforded African Americans citizenship, due process, and equal rights under the law and the 15th Amendment that gave African Americans the right to vote, a constitutional backbone was provided for what would become one of America's greatest revolutions — the Civil Rights Movement.
A Higher Standard: Patricia Roberts Harris
Patricia Harris in her swearing in ceremony to be the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. Provided by the U.S. State Department.Patricia Harris in her swearing in ceremony to be the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. Provided by the U.S. State Department.
Black women have always served a critical role in the African American community, from the names we all know — Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Rosa Parks — to today's young mother fighting for educational opportunities for her children. Others have quietly broken barriers to open doors that were once closed to people of color.
Patricia Roberts Harris is one of those quiet warriors whose life stands as a testament to excellence, tenacity, and commitment to change.
She was born on May 31, 1924, the daughter of Hildren and Bert Roberts, in Mattoon, Illinois. A product of Illinois public schools, Harris attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., on scholarship and graduated summa cum laude in 1945. From early in her life as a brilliant scholar at Howard, she went on to become the first African American woman to serve as a United States ambassador and later the first African American woman to serve as a Cabinet Secretary. Harris was a powerful influence in American politics and a major figure during the Civil Rights Movement.
After graduation from Howard, she went back to the mid-west and began graduate work at the University of Chicago in 1946. But the opportunity to become actively involved in working for social justice drew her back to Washington, D.C. She continued her graduate work at American University, and, at the same time, served as assistant director for the American Council of Human Rights. She also served as the first national executive director of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., of which she was a member.
At the encouragement of her husband, William Beasley Harris, a prominent attorney in the District, Harris enrolled in The George Washington University Law School, where she graduated in 1960, first in her class.
During this time, while still active in the fight for civil rights, Harris became increasingly involved in the Democratic Party. Her ability to organize and manage did not go unnoticed. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy selected Harris to co-chair the National Women's Committee for Civil Rights, described as an "umbrella organization encompassing some 100 women's groups throughout the nation."
In October of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Harris ambassador to Luxembourg, making her the first African American woman to be chosen as a United States envoy. For Harris the historic moment was bittersweet, saying, "I feel deeply proud and grateful this President chose me to knock down this barrier, but also a little sad about being the 'first Negro woman' because it implies we were not considered before."
With the change of administration in 1968, Harris' diplomatic role ended. She returned to Washington, D.C., and became the first woman to serve as Dean of Howard University's School of Law.
In the early 1970s, Harris' involvement in the Democratic Party culminated in her being named chairman of the powerful credentials committee and an at-large-delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
The election of Jimmy Carter in 1976 thrust Harris into the spotlight, again for another "first." Shortly after taking office in 1977, Carter selected Harris to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Again Harris made history, this time by not only becoming the first African American woman to become a Cabinet Secretary, but also the first to be in the line of succession to the Presidency, at number 13.
During her confirmation hearing, Senator William Proxmire challenged her nomination and asked her if she felt capable of representing the interests of the poor and less fortunate in America. By this time in Harris' life she had established herself as not only a recognized leader for civil rights, but also as a prominent corporate lawyer and businesswoman. Some, including a few black leaders, wondered if Harris had grown out of touch with the very people she was charged with serving.
Harris' answer silenced her critics and perhaps best explains what motivated her throughout her life:
"Senator, I am one of them. You do not seem to understand who I am. I am a black woman, the daughter of a dining car waiter. …a black woman who could not buy a house eight years ago in parts of the District of Columbia. I didn't start out as a member of a prestigious law firm, but as a woman who needed a scholarship to go to school. If you think I have forgotten that, you are wrong… if my life has any meaning at all, it is that those who start out as outcasts may end up being part of the system."
During her tenure as HUD Secretary, she helped reshape the focus of the department. A staunch supporter of housing rehabilitation, Harris funneled millions of dollars into upgrading deteriorating neighborhoods rather than wiping them out through slum clearance. She developed a Neighborhood Strategy Program that subsidized the renovation of apartments in deteriorated areas. In addition, she expanded the Urban Homesteading Plan and initiated Urban Development Action Grants to lure businesses into blighted areas. She poured millions of dollars into renovating deteriorating housing projects throughout the nation.
Harris was so effective at HUD that President Carter appointed her Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) in 1979. When Congress created a separate Education Department in 1980, HEW was renamed Health and Human Services (HHS), and Carter moved quickly to name Harris its Secretary, a position she held for the remainder of his administration.
In 1982, following an unsuccessful bid to become mayor of Washington, D.C., Harris became a full-time professor at The George Washington University National Law Center. She passed away on March 23, 1985 at the age of 60.
In January, 2000, the U.S. Postal Service honored Ms. Harris with a commemorative postage stamp bearing her likeness. Dignitaries from around the nation attended the unveiling ceremony at Howard University, her alma mater, to pay tribute and recognize her contribution to the nation. In addition, Howard created the Harris Public Service Program in her honor to augment its course offerings in public policy and to encourage students to consider careers in public service.
Patricia Roberts Harris' life is a powerful chapter in our American story. "I am one of them…," she said at her 1977 hearing to become HUD Secretary. Those words underscored her commitment to social justice and her sense of responsibility to the African American community and to the nation. Those words serve as testament to her life and legacy: political pioneer, successful businesswoman, educator, and champion for civil and equal rights.
Booker T. Washington and the 'Atlanta Compromise'
In his 1900 autobiography, Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington wrote:
"I had no schooling whatever while I was a slave, though I remember on several occasions I went as far as the schoolhouse door with one of my young mistresses to carry her books. The picture of several dozen boys and girls in a schoolroom engaged in study made a deep impression on me, and I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise."
The vision of that schoolroom and the idea that learning was "paradise" would provide lifelong inspiration for Washington. He is, perhaps, best remembered as the head of the world famous Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, founded in 1881, and known today as Tuskegee University.
His driving personality led a group of businessmen to ask if he would take the lead in creating the school. The Tuskegee Institute was the embodiment of Washington's over-arching belief that African Americans should eschew political agitation for civil rights in favor of industrial education and agricultural expertise.
Washington believed that once it was apparent to whites that blacks would "contribute to the market place of the world," and be content with living "by the production of our hands," the barriers of racial inequality and social injustice would begin to erode. Those words were spoken on September 18, 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exposition held in Atlanta, Georgia, known as the Atlanta Exposition. Washington's speech stressed accommodation rather than resistance to the segregated system under which African Americans lived. He renounced agitation and protest tactics, and urged blacks to subordinate demands for political and equal rights, and concentrate instead on improving job skills and usefulness through manual labor. "Cast down your buckets where you are," he exhorted his fellow African Americans in the speech.
Throughout his adult life, Washington played a dominant role in the African American community and worked tirelessly to improve the lives of blacks, many of whom were born in slavery. He gained access to presidents, top national leaders in politics, philanthropy and education. President William McKinley visited the Tuskegee Institute and lauded Washington, promoting him as a black leader who would not be perceived as too "radical" to whites. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to the White House. A picture was published of the occasion, which angered many whites who were offended by the idea of a Black American being entertained in the White House. Washington was never invited to the White House again, although Roosevelt continued to consult with him on racial issues.
Washington also associated with some of the richest and most powerful businessmen of the era. His contacts included such diverse and well-known industrialists as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and Julius Rosenwald, enlisting their support to help raise funds to establish and operate thousands of small community schools and institutions of higher education for the betterment of African Americans throughout the South.
However, by the early 1900s, other African Americans, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter, were becoming national figures and speaking out about the lack of progress African Americans were making in American society. Du Bois, initially an ally of Washington's, was particularly vocal about what he believed was Washington's acceptance of black's unchanging situation and began to refer to Washington's Atlanta speech as the "Atlanta Compromise" — a label that remains to this day.
The criticism by Du Bois and others diminished Washington's stature for some in the black community. They denounced his surrender of civil rights and his stressing of training in crafts, some obsolete, to the neglect of a liberal arts education. Washington's public position of accommodation to segregation came in conflict with increasing calls from African Americans and liberal whites for more aggressive actions to end discrimination. Opposition centered in the Niagara Movement, founded in 1905, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an interracial organization established in 1909.
Yet there was another side to Washington. Although outwardly conciliatory, he secretly financed and encouraged lawsuits to block attempts to disfranchise and segregate African Americans. Since his death in 1915, historians have discovered voluminous private correspondence that shows that Washington's apparent conservatism was only part of his strategy for uplifting his race.
Even in death, as in life, Washington continues to engender great debates as to his true legacy. He was a founder of Tuskegee Institute, building it into one of the premiere universities for African Americans at a time when few alternatives were available, and he raised considerable funds for hundreds of other schools in the South for blacks. Yet, his 'Atlanta Compromise' speech stressed the need for blacks to accept the status quo and focus on manual labor as a way to economic development. In contrast, Du Bois believed that the "object of all true education is not to make men carpenters; it is to make carpenters men."
Washington's position that "the agitation of questions of social equality is the extremist folly," stands in stark contradiction to his covert support of legal challenges to discrimination. It is difficult to calculate the negative impact that flowed from Washington's unwillingness to speak out publically against lynching and other acts of violence against blacks at the time — even with his extraordinary access to presidents and other prominent whites in the nation.
These two giants — Washington and Du Bois — underscore the fact that there was not a single linear path to achieving racial equality in the nation. The struggle required African Americans to both battle and accommodate the realities of segregation and discrimination to help future generations more fully realize the promise of America.
Vermont 1777: Early Steps Against Slavery
Long before Vermont became our 14th state, its people were known for their independence. They were not excited about joining the new United States; nor did they want to remain a part of the British crown. They liked being independent and made that clear to the other colonies on more than one occasion.
Such an opportunity came on July 2, 1777. In response to abolitionists' calls across the colonies to end slavery, Vermont became the first colony to ban it outright. Not only did Vermont's legislature agree to abolish slavery entirely, it also moved to provide full voting rights for African American males. On November 25, 1858, Vermont would again underscore this commitment by ratifying a stronger anti-slavery law into its constitution.
Vermont's July 2, 1777 action was undoubtedly a historic event. The proclamation underscored the growing discontent many had with slavery and the slave trade, particularly in the colonies of the North where Quaker-led abolitionist movements were taking root.
Earlier, in 1774, New England-area colonies Rhode Island and Connecticut had outlawed overseas slave importation, but still allowed inter-colony slave trade.
Regardless of the good legal intentions of New England legislators, black Americans continued to be treated with disdain and cruelty in the North.
While Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut abolitionists achieved laudable goals, each state created legal strictures making it difficult for “free” blacks to find work, own property or even remain in the state.
Rhode Island, while legally ending slave importation from overseas, continued to have the highest number of slave auctions in the New England states. Additionally, Rhode Island's laws governing the treatment of African Americans — free or slave — were continually revised and updated and were among the harshest in the colonies.
If free blacks associated with slaves, both could and would be whipped. Anyone giving an African American a cup of hard cider was leveled with a heavy fine, whipped or both.
Vermont's July 1777 declaration was not entirely altruistic either. While it did set an independent tone from the 13 colonies, the declaration's wording was vague enough to let Vermont's already-established slavery practices continue.
The harshest treatment for free blacks in New England was found in Connecticut. Through a series of different legislative acts created before and after the Revolutionary War, it became nearly impossible for free African Americans to live in the state. For example, free blacks could not walk into a business without the proprietor's consent, nor could free blacks own property.
In fact, Connecticut lawmakers were so strident in their efforts to push blacks out of their state, the property law was rewritten to be retroactive. The few free African Americans who did own land were forced to void their titles and return property ownership to the town.
More often than not, New England emancipation declarations provided cover for more covert laws that ultimately sought to force African Americans into leaving their states. Whether free or not, black Americans clearly understood that their day-to-day welfare was dependent on their ability to both challenge and accommodate the racism they faced.
African Americans during this period were more often treated — at least physically — better than their kinsmen and women in the South. But they remained discriminated against, unwanted, and, at times, subjected to harsh treatment similar to that suffered by enslaved Africans in the South.
So, while it is important to note the intent of the Vermont legislature when it banned slavery — to send a message of independence from the original colonies — it is equally important to understand that the lives of free black men and women in Vermont and elsewhere in New England remained harsh and unfair.
Play Ball! Paving the way for Jackie Robinson
Ask almost any American on the street who was the first African American to play in modern Major League baseball, and many will say Jackie Robinson. Robinson broke the color barrier when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on Opening Day, April 15, 1947.
Robinson almost immediately became the league's best player by virtue of his completeness. While some players were brilliant hitters or had blazing speed on the bases or were remarkable fielders, Robinson had it all.
Baseball fans, in particular, are quite familiar with Robinson's story. They may have seen the famous film clip of Robinson stealing home plate against the New York Yankees in the 1955 World Series.
Robinson was a brilliant player by every measure. His historic accomplishment breaking modern baseball's color barrier was made possible as a result of those who came before him.
When baseball teams initially organized in the decades following the Civil War, there were some integrated teams. Slowly, however, segregation began to take hold in baseball and mirror mainstream culture.
As a result, black players and businessmen began looking in earnest for ways to organize leagues featuring African American players. In 1897, following a number of failed attempts, a group of Galveston, Texas businessmen set out to create what would be called the Lone Star Colored Baseball League of Texas.
The league organizers identified a man whose business acumen and abilities as a player were already well known to both whites and blacks. That man was John W. “Bud” Fowler.
Fowler, well known to baseball aficionados and sports historians, is often overlooked in the larger history of the game. Fowler is considered by some as the first African American to break baseball's color barrier in 1878 for New Castle, Pennsylvania.
Three years later, however, Moses Fleetwood Walker joined the Toledo Blue Stockings of the American Association. The American Association at the time was considered to be a “major” league, and as such, Walker is considered by many of the sport's historians to be the first African American to break the major league baseball color barrier.
Regardless of how “first” is defined, Walker and Fowler were among a handful of black players who established themselves across the country as respected players on integrated teams.
Even as segregation worked its way into baseball in the late 1800s, Fowler's talent kept him in lineups on primarily white teams. But Fowler knew more than just how to play the game. He understood the economics of it, too.
So when Lone Star League founders approached Fowler and asked him to help establish the league, Fowler agreed but only if he was given complete control. The organizers readily agreed. The Lone Star League was quite successful and paved the way for the larger, more renowned Negro leagues that began to be established in the 1920s.
In 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster, often called “the father of black baseball,” successfully united established black teams from around the South and Midwest into what would be the first truly “major” Negro league, the National Negro League.
Major American cities including Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and, eventually Chicago and New York, often featured white and black major league teams, with the Negro leagues featuring the best, most talented players, including power-hitter Josh Gibson and pitcher Satchel Paige, considered by many to be the best hurler in the game's history.
There is little doubt that Jackie Robinson, a brilliant athlete, and, later a successful businessman and civil rights activist, is justly heralded for the courage he displayed when he broke the modern era game's color barrier.
In order to understand Robinson's achievement, it is vital to recognize the African Americans who played with equally brilliant skills but less fanfare. Men like Bud Fowler and Rube Foster, while not as widely known as Robinson, were critical to forcing open the door Jackie Robinson eventually stepped through.
Now, as they receive more recognition, another page in our nation's history becomes fuller and more representative of our great story.
Thank you for your support.
All the best,
A Bond of Brothers: the 1958 Buffalo University Bulls
January is a big month for college football, with 33 bowl games and a national championship on the line. But in the 1950s, before corporate sponsorships and massive television audiences changed the scale of college football, there were only eight bowl games and being selected to play in one was a rare honor.
When the University of Buffalo Bulls finished their 1958 season 8-1, the team was invited to play in the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida. All of the players — including two African Americans — were justifiably proud.
However, there was one caveat: the Bulls could come to Orlando and face powerful Florida State — but they would have to leave the black players, Willie Evans and Mike Wilson, behind. At the time, the Tangerine Bowl stadium was managed by the Orlando High School Athletic Association, which forbade integrated teams to play in their facility.
Try to imagine for a moment what might have been going on in the minds of the Bulls' football players. Here were young men, many still teenagers, who had spent months together, practiced hard, played hard, and expended every effort to become one of the premier teams in the nation. For the first time in the school's history, a bowl game invitation had arrived — an invitation that validated all of the hard work and sacrifice.
But at what should have been a moment of pure joy and celebration, these jubilant young men were asked to validate something else — institutional racism.
Without hesitation, the players voted unanimously to reject the invitation. Evans would later say that his "teammates drew a line in the sand that I have never forgotten."
One of Evans' white teammates, Gerry Gergley, recently told an Orlando reporter that even though going to the bowl would have been exciting, "It was important for us not to go. These were our teammates and our friends. There was no way we were going to leave them behind."
Last November, Evans told a New York Times' reporter that he didn't recall the vote. "Maybe I've blocked it out. You really don't understand how your subconscious works all the time."
Evans did remember reading about the team's decision in the newspaper the following day. "I started reading it and said, 'Damn, this is weird,'" he told the reporter. "I'm saying to myself, Well, I didn't do nothing to these folks."
That bowl officials in 1958 would force such a decision onto these young athletes was reprehensible, but in keeping with the racial mores of the times. On the other hand, the team's response was inspirational. It foreshadowed the growing anger Americans were feeling toward racism that fueled a massive civil rights movement.
Last Fall, fifty-one years later, Orlando community leaders, many of whom were not even born at the time of the Tangerine Bowl incident, saw an ESPN documentary about the Bulls and the racism that prematurely ended their season. Almost immediately city officials launched a plan to make amends.
A committee of area political and business leaders decided to invite the entire 1958 Buffalo team to Orlando for a weekend-long celebration — all expenses paid. And so it happened that 34 members of the original team — a little heavier, perhaps, many with white hair — were honored guests at a University of Central Florida football game. Presented with an award at halftime, they finally received the standing ovation from the fans denied them as young men. "It was a chance to right a wrong," said Gergley.
In the end, the shameful act of bigotry made their friendships grow even stronger. Many of the team members stayed in touch with each other over the years. Evans, now 71, was among those who attended the event; Mike Wilson, however, had passed away. "In talking with the fellahs, we just laugh about it now," Evans said. "And we sum it up and say, 'It was just dumb.'"
For many years America's amateur and professional sports mirrored our segregated society. But sports also provided avenues for change and occasions to advance the cause of equal opportunity when political or social machinations were slow to respond.
The Buffalo Bulls' decision not to validate a racist policy didn't get much attention at the time. But it represented one small step, taken by a very young group of unselfish individuals who knew that the bond of brotherhood they shared was far stronger than the hate that blinded Tangerine Bowl officials in 1958.
All the best,
December 7, 1941 Heroes
"Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date that will live in infamy — the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."
With those historic words to Congress, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war on Japan and the United States entered World War II.
Even today, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor is indelibly etched into the minds of many older Americans, a number of whom fought in that global conflict.
Sixty-eight years ago today, Doris "Dorie" Miller was stationed at Pearl Harbor on the battleship USS West Virginia. As an African American serving his nation in 1941, that meant serving in a segregated Navy. African Americans were rarely detailed beyond the mess — preparing and serving food, doing laundry or other menial tasks. Miller's assignment was no exception, he was a Mess Attendant Third Class.
That morning, as the Japanese unleashed their attack, Dorie Miller would step into our American story by becoming one of the first American heroes of World War II.
When the alarms sounded, Miller rushed from the bowels of the USS West Virginia onto its deck. Amidst the chaos, Miller immediately began carrying wounded men to safety. When Miller was ordered to the bridge, he found Captain Mervyn S. Bennion mortally wounded, and the ship still under heavy attack.
Under intense enemy fire, Miller manned a machine gun and began firing on Japanese planes. His unselfish heroics were praised by his superiors when they petitioned the War Department to award Miller with one of the Navy's highest honors, the Navy Cross, which was awarded on May 27, 1942 at Pearl Harbor.
On the mainland, Miller's actions resonated with not only African Americans, but Americans of every race. Newspapers bannered his story and called on the Navy to bring Miller home for a war bond tour as the War Department had done with many white heroes. The public outcry led to Miller becoming the first African American serviceman sent on a WWII war bonds tour.
In 1942, he became one of the first African Americans to be featured on a Navy recruiting poster. That same year his story was dramatized on the CBS radio series,"They Live Forever."
Miller was serving on the escort carrier the USS Liscome Bay on November 24, 1943 when a single Japanese torpedo smashed through its hull and ignited a bomb magazine within the ship. The massive explosion caused the ship to sink in minutes. Of the 918 sailors on board, 646 were killed, Dorie Miller among them.
In June 1973, Miller's bravery was recognized again when the Navy commissioned a Knox-class frigate the USS Miller, named in tribute to Dorie. At that time, the USS Miller was only the fourth Navy vessel named for an African American.
The United States Postal Service has announced that Miller will be one of four "distinguished sailors" to adorn a 44 cent commemorative stamp to be released in February 2010.
Miller was far from being the first African American to be awarded a medal for his heroic act. Members of the famous "Buffalo Soldiers" during the U.S. Cavalry's western campaigns in the 1800s had won many medals, including our nation's highest award, the Medal of Honor.
However, World War II placed our segregated forces under a microscope, and the actions of men like Dorie Miller served to underscore, yet again, the injustice of our segregated armed forces.
Sixty-eight years later, Americans of all races and gender serve together in defense of our country. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989-1993, Colin Powell served as the highest ranking officer in our military, the first African American to hold that position.
This is just one Page from Our American Story. However, it serves to underscore the mission of the Museum: to open a door to conversation and understanding not only to the African American experience, but also to how that experience has played an integral role in shaping our nation from its very beginnings.
Thank you for your support.
All the best,
Mahalia Jackson: Gospel Takes Flight
To speak of Mahalia Jackson's voice is to speak of magic and mystery and majesty. Hers is not a voice. It is a force of nature. It moves with the power of a tornado and soothes with the tenderness of a spring rain.
In describing the legendary gospel singer, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: "A voice like hers comes along once in a millennium."
He could just as well have been talking about her life's journey and the influence she had not only on gospel music, but on American music itself — from blues to rock and roll — and its impact on the world.
The woman who would one day be called the greatest gospel singer in the world was born in New Orleans on October 26, 1911. Her childhood home was a three-room house in the Black Pearl section of the city. It was a tiny space, home not only to little "Halie," and her mother and brother, but to assorted aunts and cousins, too. In total, thirteen people and a dog shared that home.
Mahalia's mother died when she was five, adding more hardship to her young life. She was raised by her Aunt "Duke," who allowed no secular records in the home and who treated Mahalia and her cousins harshly when they failed to keep the family home immaculate.
Mahalia began singing in church as a child. Quickly it became apparent that she had a tremendous talent and possessed a voice that was rich, strong and impressive. One family member said Mahalia would one day sing before royalty. Eventually, that came true.
After moving to Chicago in 1927 as a teenager during the Great Migration north, word of her amazing voice began to spread — first in local churches, and soon in churches across America. In 1948, she recorded "Move On Up a Little Higher" for Apollo records.
It was a spectacular success — groundbreaking, in fact, because no gospel song had ever achieved such sales on the secular side of the music industry. Stores across the nation scrambled to keep up with the demand for Mahalia Jackson's first and greatest hit.
The song propelled Jackson to worldwide celebrity; she became a force in radio and television, areas off-limits to African American musicians and entertainers. In 1954 she began hosting a popular Sunday night radio show for CBS. Her appearance in 1956 on the Ed Sullivan Show lifted gospel music from churches and revivals into mainstream American music, where it remains to this day.
She performed in the White House for President Eisenhower, sang at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, and travelled with Dr. King throughout the South, singing powerful gospel hymns before many of his speeches, including, at his request, a spiritual just before his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., in 1963.
Just as her family had predicted, she performed before royalty, singing at London's Royal Albert Hall when her first European concert tour brought her to England in the mid-1950s. During that tour she would also sing in France, Germany and Denmark.
Later international tours found Jackson performing before the royal family in Japan and meeting numerous heads of state such as Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India.
Countless singers and other musicians recognized her talent. In 1958, she collaborated with famed African American composer and band leader, Duke Ellington, on the album Black, Brown and Beige. Many music scholars believe this was Ellington's finest and most ambitious work, and certainly the one in which he made his deepest emotional investment. Mahalia Jackson's contribution was substantial. It was on this recording that she gave one of music history's most stirring performances — a heart-stopping rendition of "Come Sunday." Ellington wrote it specifically for her and she made it her own thanks to her deep-velvet voice and her soul-stirring spirituality.
Jackson was frequently offered lucrative deals to sing in more popular secular styles, declining those offers, for the most part, to stay faithful to her gospel roots. Mahalia Jackson passed away in 1972, just a few months after her 60th birthday. Both Chicago and New Orleans honored her, with tens of thousands silently filing past her casket in tribute. It is estimated as many as 6,000 people attended her funeral service in Chicago; among them were Sammy Davis Jr. and Ella Fitzgerald. At service's end, Aretha Franklin sang "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," which had become one of Mahalia Jackson's signature songs.
Gospel music historian Horace C. Boyer wrote that through her voice and personality Jackson enlightened people worldwide to "respect gospel music as an idiom distinct from classical black spirituals." True to the idea that the African American story is an American story, it is hard to imagine contemporary music without the influence of Mahalia Jackson. This point is underscored by her induction into the Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio in 1997.
This is just one Page from Our American Story. However, it serves to underscore the mission of the Museum: to open a door to conversation and understanding not only to the African American experience, but also to how that experience has played an integral role in shaping our nation from its very beginnings.
Thank you for your support.
All the best,
The “Little Rock Nine”
In 1954 the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were illegal. The case, Brown v. The Board of Education, has become iconic for Americans because it marked the formal beginning of the end of segregation.
But the gears of change grind slowly. It wasn't until September 1957 when nine teens would become symbols, much like the landmark decision we know as Brown v. The Board of Education, of all that was in store for our nation in the years to come.
The "Little Rock Nine," as the nine teens came to be known, were to be the first African American students to enter Little Rock's Central High School. Three years earlier, following the Supreme Court ruling, the Little Rock school board pledged to voluntarily desegregate its schools. This idea was explosive for the community and, like much of the South, it was fraught with anger and bitterness.
On September 2, 1957 the night prior to what was to be the teens' first day in Central High classrooms, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus ordered the state's National Guard to block their entrance. Faubus said it was for the safety of the nine students.
On September 4, just 24 hours after a federal judge ordered the Little Rock Nine to begin attending Central High immediately, a belligerent mob, along with the National Guard, again prevented the teens from entering the school.
Sixteen days later a federal judge ordered the National Guard removed. Once again on September 23, the Little Rock Nine attempted to enter the school. Though escorted by Little Rock police into a side door, another angry crowd gathered and tried to rush into Central High. Fearing for the lives of the nine students, school officials sent the teens home. They did, however, manage to attend classes for about three hours.
Finally, 52 years ago today, on September 25, 1957, following a plea from Little Rock's mayor, Woodrow Mann, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized the National Guard and sent U.S. Army troops to the scene. Personally guarded by soldiers from the National Guard soldiers and the Army's 101st Airborne, the Little Rock Nine began regular class attendance at Central High.
However, their ordeal was far from over. Each day the nine teens were harassed, jeered, and threatened by many of the white students as they took small steps into deeper, more turbulent waters. That spring, on May 27, 1958, Ernest Green became the first African American graduated from Central High.
Try to imagine the torrent of emotions that ran through those young men and women. Imagine the courage they had to muster each day. Try to picture the white students who jeered and harassed them. Imagine also what it would have been like to be a white student or teacher who supported the Little Rock Nine.
The task of a great museum is to not merely revisit historic events, but rather to help stir our minds and souls. African American history is vital to understanding America's history. Our nation's epic stories should be presented in a way that enables us when viewing an exhibition to be immersed in the moment, to be able to feel some of the emotion of the event and, perhaps, see it from a new or different perspective. We hope the visitor experience will open the door to conversation and understanding.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture will be far more than a collection of objects. The Museum will be a powerful, positive force in the national discussion about race and the important role African Americans have played in the American story — a museum that will make all Americans proud.
Thank you so much for your support.
All the best,