Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Surprise! Magicians

Kenrick "Ice" McDonald
The world of magicians, also known as illusionists, is not one that most of us enter, other than to be entertained. There is a long history of magicians in the African American community. The most recent entry into the history books is the election in July 2014 of Kenrick "Ice" McDonald as president of the Society of American Magicians, one of the most prestigious and oldest societies in the world. Mr. McDonald is the first African American to hold this post. An interview with Mr. McDonald can be heard at this link. Mr McDonald pointed out several important obstacles and links for Black magicians: the role of religion as a deterrence to young magicians; the legacy of Black magicians in African American in US history.

Admission ticket to a Potter performance
The first known African American magician was Richard Potter, born in Hopkinton, New Hampshire in 1783. His father was a white British tax collector/baronet and his mother an African servant. He was educated in Europe and then had a successful 25 year career performing throughout New England and Canada. He died in 1835, aged 52.

Henry "Box" Brown
The most well known African American magician was Henry "Box" Brown. Mr Brown's legendary status was born when he shipped himself, in a box, from Richmond, Virginia to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born in 1816, a slave on the Barret plantation in Richmond, Virginia, he is believed to have died in 1889. While Mr. Brown did not practice the arts of illusion after his most amazing first act, that singular success sealed his reputation.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Thinking of Travel 2014: World War I

Trench Warfare: Soldiers with Gas Masks
The summer of 2014 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I. Armchair travel, virtual travel, and physical travel are each a means to learning about and understanding the resonance WWI still has for us today.

While the USA did not enter the war until 1917, a good place to start your armchair  journey of understanding can be found in a newly released book, The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark (your purchase of this book through Amazon Smile will benefit just click here). There are also some excellent works of fiction that will provide an emotional context to your learning experience as well as offering reliable information, including Pat Barker's trilogy Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, and Ghost Road. Other voices and opinions can be explored here.

President Wilson had tried to steer the USA on a course of neutrality, refusing to send troops and other forms of assistance to Europe. A variety of events and decisions caused him to take positive action to support the alliance of Britain and European nations against Germany. As a nation made up largely of immigrants from different ethnic, religious, and geographic backgrounds, America found itself in a very awkward position. There were pacifists and objectors who continued to advocate for non-involvement. In terms of geographic breakdown in the US, the North generally opposed the war and the South supported it. The African American community, most of whom lived in the South, were neutral. However, the country eventually rallied. A month after Congress declared war, W.E.B.DuBois urged African Americans to "fight shoulder to shoulder with the world to gain a world where war shall be no more".**  The draft began and black men were called up: this became the game-changer in the lives of African Americans that continues to reverberate today. As blacks fought and died for their country and for the larger cause of peace and democratic principles, they began to demand the equal treatment at home that they found abroad. On the home front, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing (on the main page of, search for 'Harlem Renaissance' for detailed listings of history, art, culture, and politics) as well as the Great Migration; this contributed to intensifying the knowledge that not only was change possible, but that it was imminent.

Black Troops in the Trenches
This same phenomenon was evidenced during and after World War II. It took going abroad to galvanize the black troops into realizing that not only was change at home necessary and possible, but that they now had a moral force behind them: their contribution to the war effort on behalf of their country.  For more information and interesting links check here. Also, if you search 'WWI' on, you will find four pages of links to information about African Americans and WWI. If you click under the 'image' tab on that same search page, there are many photographs of interest. 

Because America's involvement in World War I was less protracted than Europe's, much less literature and poetry was generated. One group of soldiers were the inspiration for both non-fiction and fiction and that was the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. A new graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks and illustrated by Caanan White, was published this year.

 If you are now ready for a virtual WWI experience, there are many documentaries and film clips at the Smithsonian, Library of Congress and, of course, YouTube and the History Channel.

To make an actual excursion to visit the sites where these brave men fought and many died, one of the best places to start is the Imperial War Museum in London. There you will get a full overview of the War, walk through a trench, view art that expresses the horrors, sorrows, and few joys of that war. If you prefer to travel within the US, the National World War I Museum in Kansas City offers similar experiences, including information on African American soldiers. There are many organized tours of battlefields. But once you have done the reading, watched the videos, been to a museum of two, buy some travel guides and map your own tour based the documented experiences of African American soldiers such John Henry "Doc" Hamilton of the 92nd Infantry Division and the 93rd Infantry Division (which included the Harlem Hellfighters).

**Panayi, Panakos,"Minorities in Wartime: National and Racial Groupings in Europe, North America, and Australia During the Two World Wars" (1992) p.170.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Remembering Maya Angelou: An Occasion for Reflecting on the Importance of Poets

Maya Angelou 1928-2014
Maya Angelou spoke words, wrote words, sang words, danced words, taught words. Everything she did underscored the importance of words: words to express anger, joy, sorrow. Words to connect people to their history, their past and their present. Words of wisdom to young women; words of caution to an uncaring public; words to live by to two Presidents of the United States of America. A list of her poems can be found here.

Receiving The Medal of Freedom, 2011, from President Obama
The importance of Maya Angelou, the poet, reminds us of the importance of poetry as an art form and a political form in the Black community. The first known Black poet in America was Lucy Terry Prince, born in 1732.There is a list of 46 poets at this link: take some time to explore how the words of these thought leaders shaped views, values, and conversations. An article in The New York Times May 27, 2104 reports on The Dark Room Collective. Formed in the late 1980s, building on the legacy of "the Beats Generation, the New York School, the Fugitives, the Black Arts Movement, even the Harlem Renaissance", this group of dynamic young poets and artists realized the need and the importance of shared criticism, mentoring, and growth that can only be found in a group, not in isolation.

Maya Angelou was unique among artists: she excelled in a variety of media and was active in social and political change. She lived on the world's stage. She spoke truth to power. She showed no fear or fear of criticism. She appeared to not care what anyone thought of her manner of living. She was a lesson in a life lived well.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

May Day

Haymarket Massacre May 4 1886 Chicago
May Day is celebrated on May 1 each year. The holiday has a long history in European culture, celebrated in Roman times as the Festival of (the goddess) Flora (flowers); in pagan cultures as a welcoming of spring, renewal, and rebirth. As Europe became Christianized, many of the religious underpinnings of  these festivals were merged or subsumed into Christian holidays. However, May Day itself remained and is still celebrated in many cultures around the world. In the 19th century, with the emergence of workers' rights, demands and manifestos, May Day also became a commemoration of those lives lost in the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 (May 4) in Chicago. The Russian Revolution in 1917 added further layering of this holiday, celebrated in industrial areas, as workers demanded better pay, working conditions, and benefits.

T. Thomas Fortune
T. Thomas Fortune was an African American journalist (and newspaper owner), editor, and writer. He  was one of the first intellectuals to posit the thesis in his book Black and White: Land, Labor, and Politics in the Old South (1884), that class conflict rather than racial strife was central to the struggles of African Americans after the Civil War. On April 20,1886, Fortune delivered a speech titled The Present Relations of Labor and Capitol. Two weeks after this speech, over 350,000 workers across the United States went on strike, people sacrificed their lives. Fortune's speech was published on May 1,1886 in his newspaper, The New York Freeman.

 An influential leader in the early 20th century was Benjamin Harrison Fletcher in his role in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW also known as Wobblies). He was a longshoreman, leader, and orator. The IWW was the most radical of unions, the most racially integrated, and the most committed to working on behalf of all workers regardless of race. Most unions were segregated and most non-white unions suffered from lack of support in the broader society. African Americans have played a major role in advocating workers' rights and instrumental in the history of the growth and development of labor organizations in this country. This history continues today, despite the general decline in the size and power of labor unions.

Most of the links/references in this blog post will take the reader to The contents of are the result of hours of volunteer time and energy. The website for requires a major overhaul inorder to continue to give readers a rich, valuable experience and resource. In order to raise money for this endeavor, is participating in The Seattle Foundation's GiveBIG campaign on MAY 6. Donations from readers and supporters will be matched by The Seattle Foundation. Please consider making a donation at this LINK: your support is most appreciated. Thank you.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Black Women: A Proud Legacy

February has been designated the month to celebrate Black History in United States of America. March has been designated the month to celebrate Women's History in United States of America. has designated every month to be a celebration of the history of  Black Women in United States of America. Fortunately, there is a wealth of sources to mine. The National Women's History Museum  presents an online exhibit called Claiming Their Citizenship: African American Women From 1624-2009. Examples of women and their achievements are documented through thirteen historical periods. has a section called 101 African American Firsts. A small sample of the legacy of Black Women in America is listed here in an approximate chronological order. Checking the above sources will provide the reader/researcher with many hours of satisfaction.

Court document re: Anthony Johnson
In 1623, Mary (Johnson) arrived from England to work on a Virginia plantation. There she met an indentured servant, Anthony Johnson, hailing from Angola. They married and lived together for over 40 years. Sometime after 1635, they earned their freedom. The Johnsons and their sons were the first prominent landholding blacks in the colonies, owning land first in Virginia and then in Maryland. After Anthony's death, Mary renegotiated the land lease on the Maryland property for 99 years, thereby ensuring a future for her family.

Lucy Terry Prince
Lucy Terry Prince was born in West Africa between 1724 and 1732. She authored the first known poem by an African American woman, Bars Fight, published in 1855 but written over a hundred years earlier. The poem can be read the the above link.

Ida Gray Nelson Rollins, born in 1867 in Clarksville, Tennessee. She was the first African American woman to become a dentist, graduating from the University of Michigan with a Doctorate of Dental Surgery in 1890.

 Bessie Coleman was born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas. In 1921, she became the first black woman to earn become a civil aviator and to hold an international pilot's license. Her life was cut short in a plane accident in 1926.
Crystal Bird Fauset was the first African American female state legislator, based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Born in Maryland in 1894, she grew up in Boston, and lived her political life in Pennsylvania. She was elected to office in 1938, beginning a long career in national and international public service.

Georgiana Simpson 1921
Three women hold the title of first PhDs earned by African American women. Sadie Tanner Mossell (1898-1989), Georgiana Simpson (1866-1944), and Eva Beatrice Dykes (1893-1986) all received their degrees in 1921. Sadie Tanner Mossell received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in Law; Georgiana Simpson received her PhD from the University of Chicago in German; and Eva Beatrice Dykes received her PhD from Howard University in English.

Hattie McDaniel was born in 1895 and became the first African American woman to receive an Oscar. The award of Best Supporting Actress was bestowed on her in 1940 for her role as "Mammy" in Gone with the Wind. In her long career, she appeared in over 300 films, receiving credit for only 88 of them.

Constance Baker Motley, born in 1921, was the first black woman to be argue a case before the Supreme Court and to be appointed a Federal judge. Her other firsts also include being the first black woman to be elected to the New York State Senate and the first woman of any ethnicity to be elected Manhattan Borough President.

Alice Marie Coachman, born in 1923, was the first black woman from any country to win an Olympic Gold Medal in the 1948 Summer Games, leaping five feet six-and-an-eighth inches. Her teaching, coaching, and athletic careers put her in nine Halls of Fame, the first black woman to endorse an international product (Coca-Cola), and to start The Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation.

General Hazel Johnson
Hazel W. Johnson was the first African American woman to become a general in the U.S. Army. Born in 1927, she had a long and distinguished career in the field of nursing in the military as well in academia. She held a doctorate in education administration from Catholic University; taught at Georgetown University; and received honorary degrees from Morgan State University, Villanova University, and University of Maryland.

The twelve women featured in these vignettes made long, and lasting, contributions to the growth and welfare of the United States of America. As stated in the National Women's History Museum, they claimed their rights, against all odds of their times, to be full and productive citizens who were due honor and respect.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Oratory and Debate

Joseph C. Price 1890
The art of debate has a long history that can be traced back to the philosophical debates of Ancient Greece. Its current history, however, goes back to the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century. Debating societies began cropping up in London by the mid-18th century and debate topics touched on all aspects of public life and thought. Interestingly, and importantly, major African American speeches date from this era as well, when thought leaders began addressing the public on issues ranging from slavery to education to involvement in public life and educating society on moral imperatives. Oratory and debate are vital skills in any community, but especially one that strives to galvanize action to redress grievances.

Melvin B. Tolson, poet, educator, columnist, and politician, created and nurtured an award-winning debate team at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. The Wiley Forensic Society had a ten-year winning streak and broke the color barrier when, in 1935, they competed against the University of Southern California and won.

BUDL at the White House, 2013
The rich tradition of debate and oratory in America continues today. Many people think of debate only in terms of candidates running for political office. However, formal debate is an integral part of the education system and plays an important role in the intellectual growth of a new generation leaders. In 2008, two young men made history by being the first African Americans to win  a national college debate championship. Dayvon Love and Deven Cooper were the products of the Baltimore Urban Debate League (BUDL). BUDL was founded in 1999 by the Open Society Institute. BUDL is the largest of the urban debate leagues, which now include over 400 schools in 16 of the nation's cities. Engaging in the art of debate has turned around the lives of many young people and enriched the communities in which they reside.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Automobile Design & Manufacturing: A Different History

This week, the North American International Auto Show opens in Detroit, Michigan. While Detroit has been synonymous with the auto industry, both in its hey day and in its decline, there was another city where automobiles were designed and manufactured by, so far, the only African American family in that business. Today, there are black engineers and designers involved in the auto industry. In fact, the latest breakthrough in transportation technology is an African American PhD candidate at MIT: William Lark, Jr. is chief designer of a "small stackable car that folds".

Frederick Patterson with one of their automobiles
Greenfield, Ohio was home to the C.R Patterson Car Company. Born into slavery in 1833, Charles R. Patterson arrived in Greenfield, Ohio in 1862 where his skills as a blacksmith and wagon repairman were much in demand.

Sometime around 1888, Charles Patterson went into partnership with J.P. Lowe & Co, a carriage maker and eventually bought the business in 1893. The development of an automobile began in 1914 and the first one was completed in 1915.

The company went on to manufacture trucks and eventually specialized in school buses, becoming known as the Greenfield Bus Co. Frederick Patterson, Charles Patterson's son, died in 1932, having run the business after his father's death. Frederick's sons worked in the business until its doors were closed, shortly after Frederick's death.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Codification of Freedom

Slavery has been a component of social and political organization since, at a least, recorded history. January 1, 2014 is the 151st anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation issued by US President Abraham Lincoln. It has been a long struggle, in fits and starts, to end this abhorrent practice of one group of human beings controlling another. Today, slavery still exists for many people in our world. As we contemplate that very sad state of affairs and realize that the struggle never ends, we can hope that many more will celebrate freedom as African Americans did on January 1, 1863, listening to the sermon of Reverend Jonathan C. Gibbs titled "Freedom's Joyful Day".

Reading Proclamation 1863,by H.L.Stephens
One of the most important steps to eradicating this institution, both as an acceptable practice and as an ideology, took place 86 years before President Lincoln's proclamation, in 1777 in Vermont.
Vermont State Constitution
Lawmakers enshrined the abolition of slavery in the constitution of Vermont State. From the 1790s to 1804, the other New England states followed suit to varying degrees: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey. While these actions did not result in the actual freeing of large numbers of enslaved people, they did set in motion the drumbeat of abolition and, ultimately, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movements. The actions by these New England states have come to be collectively called the First Emancipation.

Subsequent to this First Emancipation, there were four more  milestones. In 1862, the District of Columbia passed an Emancipation Act. Various Native American Nations had also engaged in practices of enslaving people defeated in battle. The Cherokee Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 provided safe haven for people fleeing slavery and abolished all slavery on Cherokee territory. The Loyal Creek Council decided, on August 4th, 1865, that African Creeks were considered full citizens of the Creek Nation. African Creeks established August 4th as Emancipation Day. In 1864, the Texas Emancipation Proclamation was declared by Major General Gordon Granger and came to be known as Juneteenth.
Texas Emancipation Proclamation

The importance of all the Emancipation Declarations is the enshrinement into signed documents and the law that the treatment of humans as chattel is immoral, unconscionable, and impermissible. The long term consequences of this are invaluable. In the past, in various parts of the world, slaves and their descendants could be freed, released, incorporated into the population. There were laws in some eras and some places regulating these actions. But codifying freedom, declaring slavery an abomination, this was something entirely different.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

My Nelson Mandela

I say 'My Nelson Mandela' because we all have an intellectual, emotional, political relationship with Nelson Mandela and all that he stood for: as a man, as a leader, as an icon.

Former South Africans have a complicated relationship with their homeland and heroes, especially if they left  for political reasons during what can now be called apartheid's middle years. At the bottom of that relationship is raw emotion and it never goes away.

My parents had been active in the anti-apartheid community from at least the early 1950s: refusing to testify on "the pencil test" and related inanities after enaction of the anti-miscegenation laws; doing free medical rounds in the Locations when Whites were banned from entering; standing with The Black Sash; signing the Freedom Charter; voting for Helen Suzman and the Progressive Party; arousing suspicion because of research on early humans; continuing to teach Coloured university students at University of Cape Town after the government banned them from being educated with Whites. They finally left after being threatened with house arrest.

 I had two personal encounters with Mandela, one symbolic, one experiential. In 1994, the first free election in South Africa took place. All ex-patriots were allowed a one-time, once in a lifetime opportunity to vote, regardless of where they now lived or what country's citizenship they now held. I discussed this with my parents who now lived in Chicago, where there was to be a polling station. My father had always said that he would never return to South Africa until Nelson Mandela was President. I could not believe or understand my father's response to this opportunity: he felt he could not legally vote in this remarkable election because he was now an American citizen! My entreaties to him to do this because it was a healing event, a closure to the pain of having to leave the physical country he had loved, a closure to the pain of being deprived of the life he would like to have lived there, were for naught. Clearly, being able to vote for his hero could not erase all that emotional turmoil.

The King County Courthouse in Seattle, Washington was the designated location of the polling station in our region of the country for this remarkable event. We, ex- and current South Africans, White, Black, Coloured, were to bring our birth certificates and our passports. It was a rainy, cold day that April. As I approached the Courthouse, I just could not enter as I was so overcome with emotion. After walking around the building several times in tears, shaking with excitement and trepidation (of what, I could not say), I walked in. What an amazing sight! There were ANC poll watchers. There were hundreds of South Africans. Everyone's face was streaked from crying, creased with giant smiles. It was such a cathartic experience. We all left that building, no longer unequals because of an artificial racial designation determined by a minority of small-minded individuals who created a monstrous machine to control the lives of millions. We left as current and former South Africans, equal in the eyes of the law and humanity.

In 1999, Seattle University hosted a breakfast for Nelson Mandela. A Boeing colleague of my husband was also a Regent at that university and provided us with tickets to attend. I can only say that watching Nelson Mandela walk into that room was goose-bump inducing. There was silence before a roar of applause. To be seated, not only in the same room, but within 50 feet of this man who embodied the ideals of my parents, a man of such principle and conviction and understanding of what doing the right thing meant, was truly awe inspiring and overwhelming.

Many people died and suffered on South Africa's long road to freedom. People trying to live their lives with dignity. People wanting what we so often take for granted: freedom of self-determination, freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of opinion and thought, freedom to choose where to live, freedom to be a decent human being.

                                            Nelson Mandela is dead. Long live Nelson Mandela.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Photography: Eyes on the Past and the Present

The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) holds one of the finest collections of art from Africa: The Katherine White Collection, supported by The Boeing Company. The curator of Art of Africa and Oceania is Pam McClusky. Recently, Ms. McClusky gave a talk "Take Me: Photography by and about Africans". A great deal of research has been done on the history of Black photographers in America, highlighting such well known figures as James Presley Ball, C.M. Battey, James VanDerZee, Morgan and Marvin Smith, Gordon Parks, Moneta Sleet, Jr., and Carrie Mae Weems. Ms. McClusky's talk focused on some very early photographic links between United States and Africa, the emergence of African photographers, and circled back to contemporary photographic links between the two continents. The overarching theme of her talk was on how people in Africa see themselves, not how non-African photographers and tourists see Africa as a place for safaris, wildlife, exotic locals: as geographers say "the funny people, funny places" mode of (for example) National Geographic Magazine.

The first photographer highlighted was Augustus Washington. Born a free man in Trenton, New Jersey to a former slave and his wife, Washington studied at Oneida Institute, Whitesboro, NY and the Kimball Union Academy before entering Dartmouth College in 1843. He learned to make daguerreotypes during his first year as a means of financing his education. However, increasing debt forced him to leave Dartmouth and move to Hartford, Conn. to teach black students and to open a photography studio. He specialized in portraits such as this one of John Brown taken in 1846-7.
John Brown
He was very successful in his business.
In 1852 he decided to move to Liberia with his wife and two children, which he did in 1853. He opened a daguerrean studio in Monrovia and also took photographs during his travels to Sierra Leone, Gambia, and Senegal.

Urias Africanus McGill, 1854
One of the  portraits taken in his Monrovia studio is of Urias Africanus McGill, the freeborn son of George R. and Angelina McGill of Baltimore. Urias emigrated to Monrovia with his parents when he was eight years old and became a successful businessman with his brother, James.

The next section of Ms. McClusky's presentation focused on the photographic documentation of King Ibrahim Njoya (1860-1933) of Cameroon and the commentary of lecturer and traveler (in the US 1886-87) Jacob C. Hazeley of Sierra Leone. The inclusion of these two men in her talk was to demonstrate that these two men "owned" their presentation of self in the larger world society and were not defined on camera or in books by a colonial message or point of view. These two men were a bridge to the emergence of the modern era of photography in various countries in Africa.

untitled 1959/1960 by Seydou Keita
Seydou Keita of Mali (1921-2001) was a brilliant photographer who came to prominence as Mali was transitioning from a French Colony to an independent state. His portraits of individuals and groups were remarkable for both their formal and intimate nature.

David Goldblatt (b.1930) of South Africa documented the toll of Apartheid on the lives of South Africans. The Goodman Gallery in New York represents him and fine examples of his work can be seen at their website.
Raymond Mhlaba, 1990
Goldblatt photographed people from all walks of life, black, white, coloured; oppressed and oppressor; anti-Apartheid activists and regime enforcers. Apartheid distorted the lives of all these people. Raymond Mhlaba (1920-2005) was a member of the ANC and one of the accused, with Nelson Mandela, at the Rivonia trials.

Fabrice Monteiro (b.1972, Belgium) of Benin specializes in photojournalism, fashion photography, and portraiture.The two photographs below are from his Beauty and Fashion series. M.I.A. Gallery in Seattle carries his work.
from the Fashion series, Fabrice Monteiro

from the Beauty series, Fabrice Monteiro

George Osodi is a Nigerian photographer who has been documenting the effects of Nigeria's oil riches on people and the environment. From 2003 to 2007 he photographed the devastation in the Delta State. He reaches out to marginalized people, photographing them with the dignity we all deserve.

photo by Nandipha Mntambo
Nandipha Mntambo (b.1982 Swaziland) is a South African photographer, videographer, and sculptor. She has been focusing on the constraints and labels placed on female bodies and self-image.

And the last, but not least, photographer featured in Ms. McClusky's talk is Yinka Shonibare (b.1962), the British-Nigerian artist who delves into identity issues, colonial and post-colonial issues, and the effects/impacts of globalization.
Odile and Odette, Yinka Shonibare
He creates amazing tableaux, often inserting himself into historical or cultural vignettes which results in the viewer having to ask all sorts of potentially troubling questions. For those who know the ballet Swan Lake, this photo is a very interesting version of Odette/Odile!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Women & Information Technology

This post celebrates women in technology: African software developers who are helping farmers and African American developers, such as Trish Millines Dziko of Technology Access Foundation (TAF), who are helping their communities.
Trish Millines Dziko of TAF

In the United States, like elsewhere, women make up a very small proportion of the technology sector. Minority women are an even smaller percentage of that. Efforts are under way to encourage young girls to "take up tech" through STEM programs as well as non-profits. One organization recently reported on is Black Girls Code.

A major hurdle facing farmers anywhere is access to information about market conditions: transportation, weather, commodity prices. This is particularly acute amongst small farmers in areas lacking in adequate infrastructure: phone systems, roads, local banks, other government support services. A major hurdle facing women in technology is attitudes towards them based on their gender and a lack of opportunities. This is particularly acute in countries where access to education for girls and women is under supported by society in general.

Judith Owigar of Akirachix
An exciting example of change in recent years, has been the surge of young Kenyan women in the tech sector who decided to take matters into their own hands. A number of women organized into groups/businesses to, amongst other activities, provide tech support to farmers and to mentor young women coming up behind them. Two examples of such efforts are M-Farm and Akirachix. These technology leaders took advantage of the infrastructure void that had been filled by mobile phones. Most farmers had access to mobile phones, since acquiring a mobile phone was easier than getting a land line. Efforts had been made years ago to encourage emerging "communications entrepreneurs": one person in a village would get a mobile phone and rent out minutes to customers. This eventually led to other community members acquiring phones. So, the software developers created apps for cell phones enabling farmers to bypass corrupt middlemen, check on market conditions, and do their banking without needing to make a long trek to the nearest town.

These few examples, as well as the information provided through all the links above, are an indication of just how, when given the opportunity and taking a chance, people create value, excitement, and change in everyday life.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Early Black British

People in Britain of African descent generally refer to themselves as Black British. This includes people from former British colonies in Africa and Afro-Caribbeans. However, Africans appeared in Britain long before the British colonized Africa. The first Blacks in Britain arrived as soldiers in the Roman armies in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. They rebuilt and were stationed along Hadrian's Wall. They were under the rule of Septimus Severus, a Black Roman Emperor based in York.

Severus Septimus, ruled AD 193-211
Archaeological finds also indicate that there were other African people in the upper echelons of society at that time. A Roman grave found in York contains a skull of a Black or mixed-race woman. Her sarcophagus was made of stone and also contained a jet bracelet and ivory bangle, both indicators of great wealth at that time. Later, the Vikings raided the north coast of Africa, taking people as slaves to Ireland and Britain.

There are numerous instances of interest and surprise to be found in the history of Black Britons. Queen Phillipa (b.1313, Belgium) was married to the future King Edward III and descriptions of her indicate African ancestry. Their son was known as the Black Prince, a reference to his appearance.

 Africans arrived in Britain in the 16th century in the entourage of Catherine of Aragon. An illuminated manuscript from 1511 shows a black trumpeter in the retinue of King Henry VIII.

Manuscript 1511

The increase in trade between London and West Africa resulted in the growth in the population of Africans. The first recorded Black resident was in 1593, a man named Cornelius. Another influx of Africans occurred in the 17th century when people were freed from Spanish slave ships.

Portrait, Queen Charlotte, 1762
There is currently much discussion among historians of the African ancestry of Queen Charlotte, consort of King George III (1738-1820), after whom Charlotte, North Carolina is named.

The slave trade and its subsequent abolition in Britain resulted in the arrival of more Africans in the 17th and 18th centuries. For more readings on Black history in Britain, see the link to the website The Black Presence in Britain.

Two museums in Britain dealing with some of the history of Blacks in Britain can be found at this link.

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Geography of Landmarks recently launched a new section called National African American Historic Landmarks. These landmarks have been certified by the National Park Service and are organized by state. As you peruse this list and notice any omissions, please let us know.

Buffalo Soldiers, 25th Infantry, Fort Keough, Montana 1890
There two other aspects of the National Park Service that require us all to pay attention. First, from the very inception of the National Park Service, and the difficulties in getting it established (much attention is paid to this in the excellent book The Big Burn:Teddy Roosevelt and the Saving of America by Tim Egan, purchasing it here benefits, African Americans have been closely associated with its success. Buffalo Soldiers, like their white counterparts, were among the first park and back country rangers in the years following the Civil War, as rangers were an outgrowth of the military.  Colonel Charles Young (died 1923), the third African American graduate of West Point, is considered by many to be the first African American Superintendent of a National Park. For more great photos of African Americans in the National Park Service, click on this link.
Yosemite Ranger Shelton Johnson, 2011, Mariposa Museum

Second, there has been concern by National Park Service administrators and by African American Rangers regarding the low numbers of various ethnic groups, particularly African Americans, as visitors to National Parks. In surveys done by the National Park Service, a significant number of respondents said they felt unwelcome in many parks and felt that safety was an issue. The Park Service is making attempts to redress this situation. One outcome has been the certification of African American Landmarks, mentioned at the top of this post. Outreach by Rangers such as Shelton Johnson is also part of this effort.

A related concern is the low number of African Americans in the sciences in general and environmental sciences in particular. By engaging youth in such places as the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial with young, enthusiastic Rangers, it is hoped that more people will feel an excitement that will translate into a career worth pursuing as well as encouraging their families to visit more National Park sites.
Rangers at the MLK Memorial

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

African Americans Abroad

African Americans have a long history of serving their country in the Foreign Service. The following is a list of 'firsts': this list is by no means exhaustive and presents many people not commonly discussed.

The first such individual was William A. Leidesdorff, who was appointed in 1845 as Vice Consul at Yerba Buena (now San Francisco), when California was part of Mexico. In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Yale graduate Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett as Minister Resident and Consul General in Haiti. From this point on through the 1930s, African Americans served as minisers, consuls, and other officials in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. These officials included such luminaries as Frederick Douglass, James Weldon Johnson, Archibald Grimke, Richard T. Greener, George Washington Ellis, and Henry Francis Downing.

Edward R. Dudley, 1911-2005
Lester Aglar Walton can be considered the first African American Ambassador, even though his title did not officially use that term. He was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Liberia in 1935. His successor, Edward R. Dudley, was appointed Minister to Liberia in 1948 and promoted to Ambassador to Liberia in 1949, thus becoming the first African American to officially hold the title of Ambassador.

The first African American woman to hold the post of Ambassador was Patricia Harris. She was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson as Ambassador to Luxembourg from 1965-1967. Ruth A. Davis is the first African American woman to be promoted to the rank of Career Ambassador, the highest rank in the
Ruth A. Davis
Foreign Service. Ambassador Davis joined the Foreign Service in 1969 and served her country during the Clinton Administrations.

James Carter and William Yerby were the first African Americans to enter the regular career Foreign Service. Their colleague, Clifton Reginald Wharton Sr. joined the Foreign Service in 1925. He became the first African American Foreign Service Officer to become chief of a diplomatic mission to a European country when he was appointed Minister to Romania in 1958 and served until 1960. He subsequently served as Ambassador to Norway from 1961-1964. His son Clifton R. Wharton, Jr. was the first African American to hold the number two position in the State Department as Deputy Secretary of State, 1973.

Dr. LaRae Washington Kemp was the first African American Medical Director, serving as Assistant Secretary of the Department of State for Health Affairs and Medical Director for the U.S State Department and Foreign Service (1991-1994). The first African American Civil Service employee to serve as an Ambassador is Barry L.Wells, who was appointed as Ambassador to the Republic of The Gambia in 2007.

The first African American Secretary of State was Colin Powell, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001. The first African American woman to be Secretary of State was Condoleezza Rice, appointed in 2005 by President George W. Bush. Barbara M. Watson had a distinguished career in the Foreign Service, starting as Administrator of the Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs in 1968. In 1977, she became Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs and served until 1980. She was the first woman to hold the title of Assistant Secretary. She also served as Ambassador to Malaysia, 1980-81.

Edith S. Sampson
Andrew Young is trumpeted as the first African American Ambassador to the United Nations, appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. However, Edith S. Sampson was an African American diplomat who was appointed by President Harry Truman as an alternate U.S. delegate to the United Nations in 1950, thus making her the first African American to be hold this position.

The final entry for this discussion is Pamela Spratlen, Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic. is proud to list her as a contributor to the website. For individuals wishing to peruse a longer list of African Americans in the Foreign Service, the information can be found at the U.S State Department History Archives, some of which is compiled here.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Armchair Travel 2013

The debut post for Blog was July 1, 2012. Happy Anniversary! There has been a variety of topics covered, some more popular than others, thoughtful comments, and positive feedback.

Last August, one of the posts (Thinking of Travel: Armchair and Otherwise) explored how to get the most out of travel planning by using fiction to get ideas, learn about a place, or get lost in imagining a vacation in a place and culture whose physical geography may be out of reach. The topic of armchair travel will be revisited in this post by going on a musical excursion. Music of another place, music in a place we know, music of the diaspora. Any of these categories will be an expedition to people and places worth listening to, reading about, or even planning a trip of a lifetime. Clearly, this list will not be all-encompassing and complete. It is meant to start the reader's own journey of research. Please feel free to add lists, ideas, favorite musicians in the comment section.

Andy Palacio of Belize
Ready? Let's go! The first stops are in Central America: Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and the island of Roatan. One common denominator of these places is the Garifuna people. The Garifuna are descendants of Caribs and West Africans and whose language is Arawak in origin. The musician Andy Palacio (December 2, 1960 – January 19, 2008) has been instrumental (no pun intended) in trying to save the Garifuna language and culture through the medium of his music and that of The Garifuna Collective and The Garifuna Women's Project. Palacio's last album, Watina, is filled with the plaintive longing of home, exuberance for life, and love of his people. Listening to any of the albums found through the links above will take you on a holiday far from your daily life.

Next stop: Mali. Malian music is well-known for its variety, quality, accessibility for a world-wide audience. The music of Mali is ethnically diverse, but one influence predominates: that of the ancient Mali Empire of the Mandinka (from c. 1230 to c. 1600). Mande people (Bambara, Maninke, Soninke) make up 50% of the country's population, other ethnic groups include the Fula (17%), Gur-speakers 12%, Songhai people (6%), Tuareg (the music of Terakraft will leave your head bobbing...desert rock!) and Moors (10%) and another 5%, including Europeans. This link will take the inquisitive listener to ten groups to begin a wonderful audio journey.

Head over to Senegal, listening to Baaba Maal's album Nomad Soul or Cheikh Lo's Bambay Gueej . Never been to Sierra Leone? Don't know enough about the pain and suffering of people living through a civil war? Check out the remarkable stories of survival and hope with Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars in their album Living Like a Refugee. For an evening (140 minutes!) of "The Finest African Ballads from Ethiopia, Sudan, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, Mali, Egypt, Guinea, Western Sahara", check out Desert Blues 1, Desert Blues 2 and now Desert Blues 3! To whet your appetite, below is a brief video from Desert Blues 1.


Before heading south, let's take a quick trip over to Cape Verde, a string of islands off the west coast of Africa. Cesaria Evora's haunting voice will lead you on a side trip to Portugal and will be a reminder of the colonial role played by Portugal in Africa and South America. A list of her albums and videos can be found at this link.  

Now let's head south! Not to the usual music mecca of South Africa, but first to Zimbabwe. Oliver Mtukudze has been performing since 1977. Like many musicians, he is a reminder of the fine line artists often tread when they want to both express the needs/feelings of their communities, but dare not openly criticize a government for fear of reprisal. And now on to Angola. The musician Bonga,considered one of Angola's greatest artistic legends, will take you on a musical, and historical, journey with influences from Angola, Portugal, and Brazil. Ah, Brazil! Virginia Rodrigues.
Virginia Rodrigues
Ms. Rodrigues has produced four albums and, again, she is a reminder of the linkages between African and Portuguese cultures and history.

One final musical stop today will be with The Toure-Raichel Collective, a collaboration between Idan Raichel (of Israel), Vieux Farka Toure (of Mali), Yossi Fine (of Israel), and Souleymane Kane (of Mali). The album was the result of sessions in Tel Aviv. Music is an amazing bridge between cultures, a testament to the ability of people to create and thrive, regardless of the trials of everyday life.