African American News and Genealogy

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Monday, August 29, 2005

Book Says Alan Lomax Neglected Black Scholars

By MARC WEINGARTEN Published: August 29, 2005 A new book asserts that the American folklorist Alan Lomax gave short shrift to the work of black scholars who accompanied him on now legendary trips to the Mississippi Delta to record seminal blues artists like Muddy Waters. Lomax's recordings for the Library of Congress, made during his travels through the South in the 1930's and 40's, make up perhaps the greatest repository of American vernacular music ever compiled. But he was not alone on some of those trips. Three African-American scholars from Fisk University in Nashville, a black college founded in 1865 to educate newly freed slaves, accompanied him on two pivotal trips to Coahoma County in Mississippi in 1941 and 1942. And they continued to work on the project after Lomax left the Library of Congress. But Lomax, in his critically praised 1993 memoir, "The Land Where the Blues Began" (Pantheon Books), gives the three only a few cursory mentions, one in the acknowledgments. In the memoir, Lomax, who died in 2002, also conflates the two Coahoma County trips into a single trip. In the new book, "Lost Delta Found" (Vanderbilt University Press), the editors, Robert Gordon and Bruce Nemerov try to set the record straight by publishing the long-forgotten manuscripts of the Fisk scholars: John W. Work III, a composer and musicologist; Lewis Wade Jones, a sociologist; and Samuel C. Adams Jr., a graduate student. Mr. Gordon and Mr. Nemerov say these manuscripts provide a more balanced picture of the Coahoma County research as well as a more nuanced analysis of the Jim Crow South than is to be found in Lomax's memoir. Published with the three Fisk manuscripts are 158 songs transcribed by Work, ranging from the familiar ("Shoo Fly," "Shortnin' Bread") to the whimsically obscure ("Stuball," "I Am a Funny Little Dutch Girl"). "Work's transcriptions show us that Mississippi wasn't only about the blues," said Mr. Nemerov, a former audio specialist at the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, who unearthed about two-thirds of Work's hand-written manuscript at Fisk University in 1989 and wrote about it in The Tennessee Folklore Society Bulletin. "There are children's songs and other social songs that serve no purpose other than for neighbors to entertain each other." According to "Lost Delta Found," it was Work, the leader of the Fisk research team, who initiated the Mississippi study when he applied to the Library of Congress for money to support a recording trip to Natchez. Alerted to Work's interest in Southern vernacular music, Lomax, who ran the library's Archive of American Song, entered the picture and, Mr. Gordon and Mr. Nemerov say, diverted the project to Coahoma. Once the team arrived in Coahoma, they were told of a blues singer who worked as a farmhand on Col. Howard Stovall's plantation. That farmhand turned out to be McKinley Morganfield, a k a Muddy Waters. Lomax wrote extensively of the Coahoma Country trips in "The Land Where the Blues Began," published long after the fact, but the research was supposed to have been jointly published some five decades earlier by Fisk University and the Library of Congress. The Fisk scholars' manuscripts were somehow lost after they were sent to the Library of Congress in 1943 by Work, who died in 1967, and have been published for the first time in "Lost Delta Found." "Lost Delta Found" is an outgrowth of Mr. Gordon's research for his 2002 biography "Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters" (Little, Brown). Tipped off in the late 1990's by Mr. Nemerov to Work's contributions, Mr. Gordon sifted through Lomax's vast archive at Hunter College in New York, where, after much burrowing, he found a manuscript stuffed in the back of a file cabinet in a powder-blue cover with Lewis Wade Jones's name on it. Also written on the cover were the words "Property of Fisk University." When Mr. Gordon matched up the document to the incomplete, hand-written manuscript that Mr. Nemerov had unearthed, he knew he had discovered a significant contribution to Southern folkloric scholarship. The document was a revelation to Mr. Gordon, describing in vivid detail the ways Coahoma County's residents worked, played and practiced religion. He said Work's manuscript, in particular, is a crucial primer on the region's musical practices, from sermons to children's songs - his careful academic analysis leavened with interviews with the county's citizens. To me, Work is important because he's an academic who sees the value of homegrown, vernacular material," Mr. Gordon said. "Most academics were ashamed of that." Work went into the Coahoma County project with an open mind, Mr. Gordon added. Unlike Lomax, Work took note of well-spoken blacks who owned land, and the fact that spirituals were already on the wane in certain parts of Mississippi - both of which ran counter to Lomax's assumptions about the Southern black man, Mr. Gordon said. "That's the biggest difference between Work's assessment of the South and Lomax's evaluations in his own book," Mr. Gordon said. "One documented what was there, the other focused on what he'd expected to find. Lomax was disappointed to discover that blacks owned land, because it didn't conform to his vision of the South." According to the book, Lomax used a photograph of a sharecropper's cabin in his book without giving proper credit to Work. The picture was found in the manuscript of Mr. Adams, the Fisk graduate student. Asked to comment on "Lost Delta Found," Ellen Harold, an editor and translator at the Alan Lomax Archive at Hunter College and Mr. Lomax's niece, said, "I feel the book makes claims and innuendoes that are ridiculous." "Work wasn't neglected," she added. "Perhaps he would have been a greater folklorist had he had more support. But he had a tenured position at Fisk as chairman of the music department, and Alan never had an academic position. I just don't see him as much of a victim. Gordon and Nemerov claim that Alan used a photograph of Work's that wasn't credited, but I don't see how they can say with certainty that it was Work's." Ms. Harold said she believed that Work had a copy of the manuscript all along, but never bothered to have it published. "My sense is that Work wasn't the most organized person," she said. "He requested the manuscript from the Library of Congress in 1958, and the correspondence from the Library doesn't indicate in any way that the manuscript had been lost or misplaced. He had 20 years to write about the project; he just never did." Ms. Harold said she did not know how the Fisk manuscript wound up in Mr. Lomax's archive. Regardless of the murky circumstances surrounding the mysterious loss and re-appearance of the Fisk research, Mr. Gordon said he hoped that "Lost Delta Found" would draw people to Work's scholarship. "It's really beautiful work," said Mr. Gordon, "and there's a lot more of it." Mr. Gordon and Mr. Nemerov would like to publish a second volume of Work's essays and speeches. As for Lomax and his legacy, Mr. Gordon is of two minds. "I still believe that Lomax was a great folklorist," Mr. Gordon said. "But I do wonder why he had so much trouble acknowledging his peers, especially given the fact that they were African-American. Why would he miss that opportunity?"

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Virginia highway marker honors black oystermen

UNDATED Virginia's oyster industry is all but dead, making sleepy villages along Chesapeake Bay tributaries even quieter.Like Hobson -- on the banks of the Nansemond River near Newport News. But tomorrow the Virginia Department of Historic Resources will resurrect a bit of the town's history, unveiling a highway marker dedicated to Hobson's black oystermen and the community keeping their story alive. Hobson's founders arrived as early as the 1800s, and were largely freed slaves. Whites avoided the murky marsh areas back then, leaving black communities to flourish at the Nansemond River's edge. The river was rich with oyster beds the men would divide and harvest in long hours of backbreaking work and sons toiled with their fathers. But the industry began to unravel by the 1950s. Oyster hauls dwindled as overfishing and diseases decimated the Chesapeake Bay oyster population. Hobson resident Mary Hill is a leader in the effort to preserve Hobson's history. Her plans include a walking tour, state recognition as a historic district and the marker. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Faded Sketch Propels Families Across a Racial Divide

An elderly black woman drove up to the sand-colored mansion of a frail old white man in Prince George's County. She parked and walked slowly to the back entrance, as if by instinct. Under one arm, she carried a framed, faded sketch. Under the other, a roll of genealogy charts. The sketch was of her great-great-grandparents, Basil and Lizzie Wood. They were long dead when Anna Holmes was born, but she had come to know them like her shadow. Oden Bowie had met Basil and Lizzie. They worked for his family and may have been his ancestors' slaves. But until that chilly day in February 2002, Holmes had resisted asking for Bowie's help in writing this chapter of her family's history. For much of her life, reaching out to the white world meant crossing into a forbidding realm. She came of age in an era forged by discrimination, when white people erected far more barriers than they lifted. Long after forced segregation ended, she still felt confined by a sense of otherness. For three-quarters of the past century, the two families lived a few miles apart along Church Road, a thin, rural streak through central Prince George's County. The children never played together. The adults rarely even crossed paths. Bowie's grandfather and namesake was governor of Maryland from 1869 to 1872; Holmes is the descendant of slaves and the daughter of a truck driver and a maid. Yet like many families on opposite sides of the county's racial divide, their pasts crisscrossed beneath the surface like honeycombs. "White people didn't want to talk about slavery. They wanted to push that back and bury it," said Holmes, who has a round face, gray-speckled hair and brown eyes that focus like a sprinter seeing the finish line. "Black people, too. They say it's too painful. A lot of history won't get written down because people don't want to talk about it." So in the winter of her life, she decided it was time to confront her fears. Holmes went to Bowie's door, seeking the last living link to Basil and Lizzie. She was 76 years old. He was 87. But would Bowie let history get in the way? Would Holmes? "Her window of opportunity was like this," said Ambler Bowie Slabe, Bowie's daughter, closing her fingers as if she was pinching salt. "She made contact with the only person on Earth who could show her the graves." The graves. That's how Holmes's quest began.A Child's Curiosity "Grandma, who are these old people up there?" Anna Holmes asked when she was a little girl in the 1930s, pointing to the sketch of her great-great-grandparents. It hung in the living room in a gold-colored frame, looking as if Norman Rockwell had channeled Harriet Beecher Stowe. The man in the picture wore suspenders and a bushy mustache and had a sparkle in his eyes. The woman had on a large apron and a bandanna framing her round face. "Well, that is my grandmother and grandfather," Fannie Johnson replied to the girl who always spent summers on Church Road, where tobacco fields once stretched to the horizon. "That is Lizzie and Basil Wood. "They are buried on the Bowie plantation." At 12, Anna was curious but wary. She knew that the Bowie family estate was just down the road, but the black and white children on Church Road rarely mixed. "I felt like there was an invisible wall," she would recall many years later. So her grandmother's words sank into her mind, like pennies in a fountain. The girl grew up and went on to confront the immense challenges of her own life. Holmes, whose mother dropped out of the fourth grade to help feed her siblings, became the first in the family to graduate from college, now Bowie State University. She then wanted a master's degree in education, but the University of Maryland didn't accept blacks in 1948, so she enrolled part time at New York University and traveled all night by bus to attend weekend classes. Eight years later, she had her degree. She made her home in Southeast Washington because blacks couldn't buy property in many parts of Maryland. She taught at a blacks-only school in Prince George's until the educational system began to desegregate in the 1960s. When she rose to reading supervisor, some white subordinates used racial slurs behind her back. And despite the promotion, Holmes was always referred to as "the helping teacher" or "the reading specialist," never their superior. "They're like scars that you don't get rid of," she said. "No matter what you do or how good you are, you are still inferior in some people's eyes. That's what happened with discrimination. You get programmed. You know you have a place, and you know what your place is." Now and then, the picture of Lizzie and Basil turned up at family reunions, rekindling her curiosity. But with a husband and three children, there was little time to chase family ghosts. Retirement allowed her to change her priorities. When Holmes saw the blank looks from hundreds of younger relatives who viewed the portrait at a 1986 gathering, she decided that it was time to learn more about the family's story and share it. She spent hundreds of hours poring over census reports, dusty court documents and online databases. For all her efforts, she didn't uncover much. She learned that Basil and Lizzie had 14 children. She knew roughly when they were born and when they died. Everything else remained a mystery. Meanwhile, the picture kept changing hands. After Fannie Johnson died, her daughter Clara Brown became its keeper. When she died, she gave it to a young man whom she had raised. When he died, his girlfriend called Holmes one day, 12 years ago, and offered her the picture. It was at once an honor and a curse. "It kept haunting me," Holmes said.Finding a Shared History The man who could quiet her mind was as mild-mannered as a summer breeze, with sun-leathered skin and a regal bearing. Oden Bowie had spent a lifetime surrounded by his history. There's a Governor Oden Bowie Drive in Upper Marlboro. There's Bowie, one of the largest cities in Maryland. As a young man, he entered politics, working as secretary of the Maryland State Senate for more than 30 years. He also ran the family's 360-acre farm, where he raised cattle and bred racehorses. Bowie earned a reputation for treating "everyone precisely the same," said his nephew, Eugene Roberts. Basil and Lizzie worked for Bowie's father, Lizzie in the house, Basil in the fields. When Basil died, Bowie was 5. When Lizzie died, he was 11. They lived in his memory the way you remember a childhood friend. He could still see Lizzie, in her big apron, helping his mother in the kitchen. He could hear Basil talking about everything and nothing as they sat on the stoop on long, hot afternoons. "I'd go and talk with him," recalled Bowie, who is tall and slim, his back hunched with age. "I was a child back then. We'd talk about whatever he wanted to talk about. "They were two fine people. They must have lived here their whole life." In 2000, Holmes, by then a well-known preservationist, joined the board of the Prince George's County Historical Society, which Bowie helped found. There, she met Roberts and his wife, Lynn. They discovered their shared history and urged her to call Bowie. Still, she resisted. "I was not accustomed to dropping in on the people who owned the manor houses," Holmes recalled. She met Bowie briefly at a society gathering and found him approachable. Yet she still didn't ask for help. Two years later, after another friend encouraged her, she finally picked up the phone. Inside a faded, 33-year-old book titled "The American Slave: A Complete Autobiography," Holmes would have discovered a hint of where Bowie came from. On page 75, Parson Resin Williams, born a freeman in 1822 at Fairview, the Bowie family estate, wrote that he was riding his donkey, Dazy, one day when a white gang searching for runaways stopped him. "Dey wuz gwine to give me a coat of tar and feathers when de boss rode up and ordered my release. He told dem dreaded white patrollers dat I was a freeman . . . " The boss was Bowie's great-grandfather. But Holmes hadn't seen this. The weekend before their first meeting, she was a jumble of nerves. A familiar fear emerged. "How's this person going to accept me?" she recalled.Memories but Few Answers She knocked on the door. Bowie, smiling, invited her in. They chatted in his sitting room, about his wife, Laura, their families, their lives. Then Bowie returned to his childhood. He remembered Lizzie as a strapping woman who baked wonderful cookies and helped his mother can vegetables. "I'll never forget your great-great-grandmother, because she would always turn the apron around backwards inside out when she went home," Bowie told her. "Was that because it was soiled and she didn't want to leave with a soiled apron?" she asked. "Oh, no," he replied with a laugh. "She always had something in her pockets." Holmes offered an explanation: "Oh, with 14 children, I guess she had to take some food home to make sure everybody ate," she said. She asked him if Basil and Lizzie had been slaves. Bowie said no. She kept pressing. Do you have their freedom papers? No. Holmes felt that Bowie didn't know the full truth. "At the moment, I felt like I had to dig more, to go to other sources," she recalled. Then Bowie stood up. He took Holmes to the family's small, square-shaped cemetery, nestled on an emerald knoll at the side of the house. On his wife's tombstone is also his birth date. November 21, 1914 -- He passed the grave of his grandfather and stopped at a tidy, unmarked patch at the right-hand corner of the cemetery. "Your great-great-grandparents are buried here, side by side," Bowie told her. Holmes stepped forward, alone with her thoughts. She remembers a long silence passing. She imagined Basil and Lizzie. She felt a powerful force, as if they had risen to greet her. "It was the connection I was looking for," she recalled.A Proper Memorial Using Bowie's birth date and his memories, she tracked down Basil's and Lizzie's dates of birth and death, solving some of the mystery. Then she withdrew $600 from her retirement savings and bought a tombstone. Four months later, Holmes visited Bowie again. She brought two cousins, also descendants of Basil and Lizzie. Ambler Bowie Slabe prepared a lunch of salad, fruits, vegetables, cold drinks and desserts. Then they walked to the cemetery and placed the pretty tombstone etched with images of clasped hands and roses. Wood , it read. Basil - June 5, 1824 - June 11, 1920. Elizabeth T. - July 10, 1834 - Nov. 19, 1926 . Holmes then said a prayer only she, and the dead, could hear. She said she has no regrets about not meeting Bowie earlier, never wonders that if he were younger, he could have shared more memories of Basil and Lizzie. "God opens the doors when you're supposed to," she has always believed. It still moves her to see Basil's and Lizzie's graves in the Bowie family's cemetery. She didn't expect that. Then she remembered Bowie, staring solemnly at the graves, his eyes twinkling when he spoke about them. And she understood. "They were held in very high esteem and regard by the family," she said. "The fact they were buried there told me a lot about the Bowies' character." It also unearthed something within her that had been buried by decades of discrimination. "If you bonded with someone, you're going to be bonded whether they are black or white," she said. Bowie's memories sparked a genealogical chain reaction. Through others in his circle, Holmes found a photograph of Lizzie on a back page of an out-of-print book titled "The Chesapeake Bay Country." The caption describes Lizzie as "a noted character of Prince George's." Now Holmes is trying to figure out why. From Lizzie's death certificate, she found the name of her father -- Holmes's great-great-great-grandfather. His name is Henry Thomas, and now she's searching for his wife and parents, too. Her home has become a family museum, bursting with faded photos and yellowing documents. The picture of Basil and Lizzie hangs in her living room above a picture of Jesus tending a flock of sheep. "Having that picture carried me back to where a lot of people have not been able to go," she said the other day. It is also carrying her forward. She has returned from the West African nation of Senegal, where she believes her family originated. Holmes is convinced that Basil and Lizzie may have been slaves, so she is searching for their freedom papers. She hopes this will help shed light on the role African Americans played in building Prince George's and inspire more blacks and whites to find their connections to the past. Holmes is also slowly strengthening her links to the Bowie family. She visited again last month, carrying a freshly baked pound cake, just the kind he likes. He was resting, so she left her gift with his daughter. Then she made her way to the graves. All this is preparation, like Bowie's tombstone. For she, too, is aware of her own mortality. Her grandmother died at 80, her mother at 86. And Holmes is now 79. She is writing an autobiography to pass on to her descendants. She wants them "to know where they came from," she said, because "this is who they are." She will proudly tell them how they are now connected to one of Maryland's first families. She will tell them how Eugene Roberts now calls her "extended family." One day, she sat her grandchildren down and told them about the kind white man whose gift she unravels every day. "He could have just said, 'Oh, yeah, they are buried over here,' and that's the end of that," she told them. "He could have closed the door. "But he didn't choose to do that." © 2005 The Washington Post Company

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Stadium Developers Threaten Historic Slave-Trade Site

Richmond, VA, Aug 12 - Nearly 160 years ago, enslaved tobacco worker Henry "Box" Brown watched as white captors sold his family off the slave auction blocks in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom section to a plantation owner from North Carolina. Holding the hand of his shackled wife Nancy, Brown walked with her and their three children for several miles out of the city until they had to say goodbye. Distraught and determined, Brown met a sympathetic white shoemaker named Samuel Smith who, for the price of shipping, nailed Brown into a three by two foot wooden crate labeled "dry goods" and placed him on a northbound train to Philadelphia, and freedom. The site of one of the largest slave markets during the early 19th Century, Shockoe Bottom was the scene of many such stories. But today, community groups that have been working for years to uncover more information about this past are at odds with well-connected developers who want to build a $330 million, state-of-the-art baseball stadium and "market village" in this historically vivid area. "Almost any African American in the US who can trace their heritage to [Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, or Alabama] can trace their heritage back to an auction block in Richmond," said architectural historian Kim Chen of Citizens Organized for Responsible Development (CORD). Slave traffickers sold an estimated 300,000 to 350,000 enslaved Virginians between 1790 and 1859. Groups like CORD want to bring this history to public light. Instead of a sports arena, they envision an Ellis Island for African Americans in Shockoe Bottom: a place for reconciliation where African Americans can trace the lineage of their ancestors and where tribute can be paid to the countless people who helped build this country, but who have never been properly recognized. Past racial injustice is not the only stage upon which the stadium debate is set. The involvement of Lehman Brothers, a 155-year-old investment company that recently pledged tens of millions of dollars to fund the stadium proposal, is bringing present-day inequality into play. The company is already a defendant in a class-action reparations lawsuit filed by descendents of slaves against businesses that profited from slavery. Lehman Brothers has also made millions of dollars from two industries that currently disproportionately harm people of color: private prisons and predatory lending. The "Bottom" Today All streets leading to Shockoe Bottom slope down. Just a few blocks from the famous capital building designed by Thomas Jefferson, the district is in the lowest lying region of the city. Last summer, massive floods destroyed historic buildings, swept away cars, and even led to a few deaths. Some Shockoe businesses have failed to rebuild, and numerous empty storefronts indicate that others may be reluctant to move into the neighborhood until the city finds a solution to the area’s severe drainage problems. But Shockoe Bottom is far from looking abandoned, or even "blighted" as some stadium supporters describe it. The majestic, early-20th-Century Main Street train station is one of the most prominent fixtures in the area, standing just a few dozen feet from the former site of Lumpkin’s jail, called "Devil’s Half-Acre" by the slaves once kept there. Adjacent to that is the 17th Street Farmers Market, where produce, flower and craft vendors display their wares in stalls not far from the old slave auction blocks. Civil War-era buildings and homes, some with slave quarters still attached, now house restaurants, apartments and a recording studio. And along the river are a number of rehabilitated tobacco warehouses and factories where many slaves once worked to buy their way to freedom, buildings now converted into condos and lofts. Global Development’s Plan It is in this history-rich area that Global Development Partners wants to build a multi-million dollar sunken stadium for the minor league Richmond Braves surrounded by a mixed-use development of shops, apartments and office space. The city owns about two acres in the four-block development footprint near 18th and Broad streets. Privately owned businesses, like Loving’s Produce and Weiman’s Bakery – neighborhood fixtures for many decades – own the rest. According to Global Development’s figures, the 1.25 million square feet of mixed-used development would create 6,500 jobs in a "flood-damaged and crime-ridden area." An additional 1.2 million square feet of mixed-use space is part of an ancillary development plan to be completed within five to ten years after the three-year-long stadium project is finished. Global Development principals Timothy Kissler and William Lauterbach have also been pursuing stadium deals in Washington, DC, not far from where their Vienna, Virginia offices are located, bidding on pricey stadium plans for both the Washington Nationals and DC United. The developers have pledged to fund the Richmond project without imposing new taxes on city residents or increasing current tax rates or even diverting existing public funds to pay for construction costs. However, their proposal calls for the city to help finance infrastructure improvements – including what could prove to be a costly overhaul of the drainage system – and to create a tax increment finance district, which would use money from increased property taxes that the new development creates to pay back the developers. The NewStandard requested numerous interviews with Kissler and Lauterbach and was finally directed to pose all inquiries to the Richmond Mayor’s office. In an online summary of the project, Global Development states that another benefit of the $330 million plan is ensuring the Richmond Braves stay in the city. The Braves, owned by Time Warner, have subtly threatened to leave unless a new ballpark is built. Combining History and Development One of the final components of Global Development’s proposal is a scholarship fund for low-income youth living in the surrounding community. But some stadium opponents say this falls far short of compensating the history that would be covered up if Global Development sees its plans to fruition. Richmond's cityscape displays a lop-sided version of its past. Many streets bear visual reminders of defeated Civil War leaders. On the West Side’s Monument Avenue, a statue of former president of the separatist Confederacy Jefferson Davis stands before a towering 67-foot obelisk, and Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson are positioned on broad stone pedestals, perched dozens of feet in the air on their cavalry horses. Along the James River, Civil War widows constructed a 90-foot pyramid out of river granite, at the base of which are buried some 18,000 Confederate soldiers. Leading up to the Civil War, free blacks and slaves in Richmond accounted for nearly 40 percent of the population, contributing in large part to the development of the city as a major industrial and trading center. But it is difficult to find sites that commemorate the area’s black history during this time. After the importation of Africans for slavery was banned in 1808, the system was replaced with the breeding of slaves already on American soil. One of the largest slave export centers in the United States, Richmond created such a profitable enterprise that it generated approximately $4 million dollars per year in slave sales during the 1850s, the equivalent of about $90 million today. "We haven’t even begun to consider the impact of that on growth and development in Richmond," said historical preservationist Jennie Dotts. Dotts is the executive director of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods (ACORN), one of several organizations that have been quietly conducting research for the last five years, trying to uncover the missing pieces of the city’s African-American past. "It’s something we owe them and their descendents, and ourselves, to learn about the city and where it came from." Click on the title for the complete story

Saturday, August 13, 2005

"Blacks" and the Disclosure of their Multiracial Roots

(excerpts from an article written by By Eric Schmidt(NYT), Vicksburg, Miss., for the New YorkTimes, National Desk, March 31, 2001)When Milton Heard was filling out the census form forhis family last year, he hesitated where it askedthe race of his two sons, Jacob and David.Mr. Heard, who owns a women's apparel andcosmetics store here, is [categorized as] "black".His wife, Chong Suk, is Korean.His sons, ages 21 and 17, are "black" with distinct Asian features.For the first time, the 2000 census allowed Americansto check more than one category to identify their race...''I thought about it and ... I didn't feel therewas enough information about what the governmentwas trying to do,'' said Mr. Heard, who is 76.More than 550 miles and a cultural world away in Lawton,Okla., in the shadow of sprawling Fort Sill, Neil Domingo,a retired Army staff sergeant, recalled weighing thesame decision and coming to a different answer.''I identify with being "black", but I'm also Hispanic,''said Mr. Domingo, 53, who said he describedhimself both ways in the race category.''Why cast away my 'black' or myLatin heritage when I can mark both?''The suspicion harbored by Mr. Heard and the opennessof Mr. Domingo are attitudes reflected in the census,which found that Mississippi had one of the lowest multiracialresponses in the country, while Oklahoma had one of the highest.And those polar views reflect the [so-called] "black"community' in America, which IS NOT MONOLITHIC in itspolitics, its socioeconomic status, its intermarriagerates or `how it perceives itself racially'.A look at these two places with thriving `African-American'communities underscores how much the concept of race isinfluenced by recent memories of segregation and oppression,levels of integration and different views of history.Census figures show that more than 2 percent of all 281.4 million Americans said they belonged to more than one race.But about 5 percent of all "black" people said they weremultiracial, double what many government demographers and civilrights leaders had predicted based on surveys in 1996 and 1998...[In Comanche County, Okla., which includes Lawton, many"blacks" celebrate their diversity, a result they said ofmore than a century of intermarrying with American Indiansand of the Army's influence in integrating military towns...It is difficult to say whether the differences in twocounties is the cause of their different politicaland social views -- or the result of them...Representative J. C. Watts of Oklahoma, the only "black"Republican in Congress, who is also part Choctaw Indian, said,''It's hard to be from Oklahoma andnot have some native American blood.''For many of the more than two dozen "blacks" interviewedin these two counties, separated by history, geographyand culture, racial identity seems influenced by forcesless biological than social and environmental...In Oklahoma...[the so-called], "blacks" and native Americanshave a racial relationship that spans nearly 200 years...Blacks were freed after the Civil War, and over the years were ableto buy land and established all-black towns throughout the state...

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

John H. Johnson: 1918-2005

A publishing pioneer Businessman `put a human face on black people,' altered media landscape and reached an untapped market By Charles Storch and Barbara Sherlock, Tribune staff reporters. Tribune staff reporter Josh Noel contributed to this article Published August 9, 2005 John H. Johnson was known as the man who turned Ebony into gold.Ebony magazine became the cornerstone of Johnson Publishing Co., a privately held publishing, cosmetics, television production and fashion firm based in Chicago. It became one of the nation's largest black-owned businesses; Black Enterprise magazine recently ranked it fifth among industrial and service firms and put its annual revenues at about $500 million. And its founder and owner came to be considered one of the nation's most influential and honored African-American businessmen.Johnson, 87, a longtime Chicagoan, died of heart failure Monday in Northwestern Memorial Hospital downtown.His daughter, Linda Johnson Rice, who assumed the post of chief executive officer from her father in 2002, said, "He was the greatest salesman and CEO I have ever known, but he was also a father, friend and mentor with a great sense of humor who never stopped climbing mountains and dreaming dreams."Friends said his life was more inspirational than any of the cover stories in Ebony or Jet, his other major magazine. A modest beginning proved to be no obstacle, and his life was filled with achievements and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996.He once said, "I don't see, never did see, failure as an option."U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said his friend of almost 45 years was "bigger than life," yet was "solid, down to earth, never got carried away with what he had accomplished."Rev. Jesse Jackson had a summer job with Johnson 40 years ago selling Ebony and Jet and later wrote for Negro Digest. He said Johnson's "lasting contribution was he put a human face on black people," who until then had been mostly ignored or portrayed degradingly in mainstream media.He said Johnson "gave us our first mirror to see ourselves as a people of dignity, a people with intelligence and beauty."U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) said: "For over 60 years, he told our stories of triumph and success that other media outlets often chose to ignore. By providing a voice for African-Americans to tell their story, he was able to provide his readers with words, pictures and an archive of our history."Mayor Richard M. Daley said Johnson's magazines "helped corporate America realize the vast purchasing power of the African-American consumer.""He virtually invented the black consumer market," said Lerone Bennett Jr., Ebony executive editor emeritus. "He was the first publisher I know of who went to Madison Avenue and persuaded them that they had to address the African-American market and use African-American markets. It paid off."From rags to richesIn the 1980s, Johnson's name appeared on lists of the wealthiest Americans. He liked to remind people that, back in the 1930s in Chicago, his family made only the welfare list.Born in Arkansas City, Ark., on Jan. 19, 1918, Johnson moved to Chicago with his widowed mother in 1933. He enrolled in DuSable High School, and after graduating in 1936, he went to work part time as an office worker at the black-owned Supreme Life Insurance Co.At Supreme Life, Johnson culled newspapers and magazines to prepare a digest of events in the black community for Harry Pace, Supreme Life's president. By 1942, Johnson had the idea of condensing such articles into a monthly magazine, a black version of Reader's Digest to be called Negro Digest (and later Black World before it was discontinued in 1976).His mother borrowed $500 against her furniture, and Johnson had money to mail a charter subscription offer for the magazine to Supreme Life customers. With 3,000 people responding and each sending $2, he had funds for the first issue of Negro Digest, which he published with the aid of his wife, Eunice, whom he had married in 1941.To convince a Chicago distributor there was demand for such a magazine, Johnson had friends go around the South Side and ask for Negro Digest. When the distributor supplied copies to dealers, Johnson paid his friends to buy most of the copies. Johnson then resold the copies to the distributor when dealers reordered.He took the same tactic to other cities and, within a year, Negro Digest was selling 50,000 copies a month.But Johnson's breakthrough came in November 1945, with the first issue of Ebony, a slick-paper magazine modeled on Life."I thought my way out of poverty," Johnson once said. "Ebony was my passport."Ebony, heavy with success stories of blacks, was accepted more readily by readers than advertisers. Johnson personally sold Eugene McDonald, head of Zenith Radio Corp., on the magazine. After Zenith, other corporations slowly joined the ranks of Ebony advertisers.Johnson had difficulty buying as well as selling. In 1949, he offered $60,000 for a South Side funeral parlor that he planned to convert into his first headquarters. But the white owners wouldn't sell to a black man.As Johnson told the story, he had a white lawyer express interest in buying the parlor. When the lawyer told the owner that he wanted his maintenance man to check the building, Johnson showed up in overalls and inspected the premises. His lawyer then bought the building for $52,000."If I had to do it over again, I would," Johnson told a reporter decades later. "I stooped all the time to get what I wanted."Getting what he wanted became much easier for Johnson with the growing success of Ebony, whose paid circulation was about 1.7 million in 2004.His publishing activities expanded to such magazines as Jet, with circulation now at 927,402, and Ebony Jr., and to books.Pushed civil rights movementFour years after it was founded, Jet caused a sensation when in September 1955 it published an open-coffin picture of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicagoan beaten to death by white men in Mississippi and dumped in a river. The boy's death and the picture of his mutilated face galvanized the civil rights movement.Johnson would later write that some on the Jet staff were squeamish about using the Till funeral photographs."I had reservations, too, but I decided finally that if it happened, it was our responsibility to print it and let the world experience man's inhumanity to man."In 1973 he established Fashion Fair Cosmetics, a line of beauty aids and a sponsor of a large touring fashion show. He formerly owned three radio stations.Longtime friend James Compton, president of the Chicago Urban League, noted that Johnson was the first African-American businessman to have his own building on Michigan Avenue. The 11-story structure at 820 S. Michigan Ave. has been the firm's headquarters since December 1971.Johnson served on numerous advisory commissions on the local, state and federal levels. He served on the boards of some major corporations and educational, cultural and philanthropic organizations. Though he attended the University of Chicago and Northwestern University, he didn't complete his college education, but he would later be awarded 31 honorary doctoral degrees and many honors for his business and humanitarian activities.He gave generously to many causes, including $4 million to Howard University in Washington, which named its communications school after him.Johnson, like other powerful men, had his detractors. Some former employees said he was a tough, hard-driven boss. He was once quoted as saying--or joking, as he offered later in his defense--that he would push over a 10-story building on a baby if it meant stopping a threat to his business.Some blacks complained that Ebony was too oriented toward the middle-class and skirted hard news in favor of inspirational, made-it-up-the-ladder success stories. Johnson once acknowledged that "we don't rush to print critical things about black leaders--even if it's true."Jackson said Johnson "wanted to tell good-news stories. That was his niche."Johnson, who retained the titles of chairman and publisher until his death, made Johnson Publishing a family business. His mother, Gertrude, was a vice president of the firm until her death in 1977; her office remains as she left it. His wife is secretary-treasurer. His daughter, Linda, held several positions before she became CEO.Besides his wife and daughter, survivors include a granddaughter. Funeral arrangements are pending.- - - EBONY Founded: In 1945 as a general interest monthly for African-Americans.2004 circulation: 1.7 million JET Founded: In 1951 as a weekly news publication with a black perspective2004 circulation: 927,402 FASHION FAIR COSMETICS Founded: In 1973, named after a series of fashion shows produced by Johnson's wife,

Monday, August 08, 2005

Students at genealogy camp trace their roots

Monday, August 8, 2005; Posted: 1:39 p.m. EDT (17:39 GMT) NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AP) -- Jameel Reese expected to spend his summer swimming, hanging out, goofing off with friends. Instead, he spent it finding family. Jameel discovered his great, great, great grandfather by -- of all things -- going to camp. He and six other black children age 7 to 15 attended Youth Genealogy Camp, which seeks to nurture an appreciation for the struggles of those who came before them. "He was trained to be a casket maker while he was still a slave," the soft-spoken 12-year-old said of his ancestor. "He was sold when he was 11. He must have cried a lot then." The monthlong day camp is the brainchild of Antoinette Harrell-Miller, founder of the nonprofit African American Genealogy Connection. "So many kids have no idea of their own history," she said. "They don't stop and think about how their family got here or how they lived." Harrell-Miller discussed the idea of the camp on her local cable-access TV show, "Knowing Your Family History." She and a group of parents financed the camp, spending about $1,200 on this first year. "Parents started calling me and saying they wanted their kids to attend," she said. The campers pored over records in the library and The Amistad Research Center at Tulane University. They also visited cemeteries and older family members and went to parish courthouses. They dug through birth and death certificates, deeds, registrations and voting lists. "We took them to federal and state offices so they could learn how to get records," Harrell-Miller said. "The thrust of the camp was to teach them how and where to get information." Younger campers, who might have struggled with some of the more difficult searches, were asked to bring pictures of relatives from home. "It's pretty rough to have to get up early in the summer and drag yourself down to the library, but it was worth it," said 12-year-old Jordan Rock. "I found out about 'Wild Man' Rock, who was a Mardi Gras Indian master. And L.C. Beauregard, he was in my family and he was a mulatto policeman in the 1880s." As fascinated as Jordan was with his ancestors, his 15-year-old sister, Amandia, was even more amazed by the discovery of a white member of the family tree. "She was my father's great, great, great grandmother," Amandia said. "I was shocked. I never thought of myself as being white in any way." Akanke McKinsey, 10, said she thought the camp might be boring, but it wasn't: "It was like reading a story about me," she said. Akanke proudly displayed a picture of a 1910 federal grand jury that shows her ancestor Homer Cyprien. "He was the first black man invited to sit on a federal grand jury in Louisiana," she said. Discoveries like that, and the sense of family history they give a child, are important for the city of New Orleans, said Mayor Ray Nagin. "This may be one of the keys for unlocking what is one of the biggest problems in our city," he said. "Our young men, more than anyone else, need to know their history. They are the ones dropping out of school and getting into drugs and crime and shooting each other." Harrell-Miller said she welcomes white campers next summer. She said it is easier for people with European ancestors to trace their genealogy because records have been better preserved, she said. Harrell-Miller has backed a bill filed by Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu that would establish a national archive for the preservation of vital records relating to slaves and their descendants. "I thought about it when I went to Ellis Island," Harrell-Miller said. "There were records there for people of European descent to discover their heritage, but where do African-Americans go?" Records are now scattered in courthouses, county seats and historical societies, she said. "Many times they have been lost or destroyed," Harrell-Miller said. "We need to have a central place for them before more are lost." Meanwhile, the camp has created some junior genealogists. "I've done my family tree on my father's side," said 7-year-old Sarauniya Zulu. "It was a lot of work and I still have to do my mother's side." Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today

PRAISE FOR MISSISSIPPI IN AFRICA "Huffman is a patient, confident storyteller who lingers over the details until they come to life." - The Boston Globe "Mississippi in Africa emerges from its deceptively simple outer garb as a powerful, unsettling and deeply engaging examination of America's past and its position in the contemporary world." - The Los Angeles Times "An amazing tale...the book is a page-turner, illuminating a history little discussed in the United States and deserving of our attention." - Newsday (New York) MISSISSIPPI IN AFRICA: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today by Alan Huffman When Mississippi journalist and bestselling author Alan Huffman received a piano that had survived a slave uprising and fire at the Prospect Hill Plantation, his curiosity about what really happened all those years ago led him to uncover a captivating story that continues to resonate in the present. MISSISSIPPI IN AFRICA: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today, now in paperback from Gotham Books, explores an extraordinary and almost forgotten event of 19th century Antebellum South that has played a significant role in shaping the dire circumstances of modern-day West Africa. Prospect Hill Plantation founder Isaac Ross died in 1836 and stipulated in his will that the plantation should be liquidated and the proceeds used to pay for his slaves' passage to the newly established African colony of Liberia. Though Ross' will was contested by many of his shocked heirs and quickly became the subject of a long court battle, by 1849 it was finally honored and approximately 200 of his former slaves emigrated, taking on new roles as Americo-Liberians. In Liberia, these new settlers not only faced unrelenting hardship, but also caused it for the natives, who quickly became their enemies. The settlers created a new settlement in the image of Southern U.S. culture, building grand mansions in the same Greek revival style, wearing formal clothing and speaking in a stilted language. They saw the native Africans through the eyes of the masters they had just fled and were shortly taking full advantage of them. The settlers subjugated the underclass of native tribes, forcing them to work on their plantations and in their houses. Over the years, the conflict between the Americo-Liberians- the emigrated freed slaves as well as their descendents-and the natives would intensify greatly rages in Liberia today. To pursue the details of this buried episode, Huffman deciphers century-and-a-half-old records and interviews descendents of both the slaves and their owners in both Mississippi and Liberia. Untangling many rumors, Huffman vividly portrays the real story behind the slaves of Prospect Hill and the history of the colonization effort in Liberia. He recaptures the essence of our nation's legacy of slavery and, while doing so, sheds light on the volatile situation in Liberia today. With over 150,000 deaths and close to a million people forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries during the past decade, all attributed to the Liberian civil war, MISSISSIPPI IN AFRICA makes an undeniable assertion that "the conflicts of the old American South not only still matter, they are matters of life and death." ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alan Huffman is the author of the photoessay book Ten Point: Deer Camp in Mississippi Delta, and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including The Los Angeles Times, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Smithsonian, Outside, The Oxford American, The Clarion Ledger, and National Wildlife. He lives in Bolton, Mississippi. Gotham Books is member of Penguin Group (USA) , one of the leading U.S. adult and children's trade book publishers, owning a wide range of imprints and trademarks including Berkley Books, Dutton, Frederick Warne, G.P. Putnam's Sons, Dutton, Grosset & Dunlap, New American Library, Penguin, Penguin Press, Philomel, Riverhead Books, and Viking, among others. Penguin group is owned by Pearson plc, the international media group.