Thursday, April 21, 2016

Interconnectedness: Artists in Our Midst

Three artists working in our communities today have rich connections with the past. This connectedness allows us to appreciate those who have gone before; teaches us that all art is cultural appropriation; gives us insights into today; and gives youth a path forward.
The artists featured here are Mary Jackson, Kerry James Marshall, and Kehinde Wiley. They have all been widely exhibited in major museums and represented in prestigious galleries.

Mary Jackson & her three foot basket

Mary Jackson is a fiber artist and a MacArthur Fellow. She was born, and still works, in South Carolina, a descendant of the Gullah community. Basketry and fiber arts have been cultural assets among the Gullah people, with linkages back to their West African ancestors. Basket making is a feature of most societies, both as an art form as well as for utilitarian purposes.Gullah baskets tend to be made from sweetgrass, with other materials woven in. The color palette tends to be neutral and the designs derived from functional items.
Mary Jackson and her baskets. Photo by Jennifer Gerardi

Kerry James Marshall is a painter and sculptor born in Birmingham, Alabama, raised in Los Angeles, California, and resides primarily in Chicago, Illinois.  The themes of his work revolve around African American life and history. He and his family have chosen to reside in a working class neighborhood in Chicago because he feels called to paint the richness of black life as it is experienced by most African Americans. His current exhibition is in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's contemporary wing, the Met Breuer.

Kerry James Marshall 2014

 Kehinde Wiley was born in Los Angeles, educated at Yale, and is now based in New York. He is a portrait painter and sculptor. He is interested in shifting people's perspectives and perceptions of black people and other people of color. To achieve this, he takes classic European paintings of aristocrats and religious figures and recreates them using sports stars, hip-hop artists, and often, people chosen right from the street. His paintings have the lush colors and backgrounds and complex
compositions of the 'Masters' of the Renaissance.

Kehinde Wiley, NYT photo

He also explores classic Greek, Roman, and Chinese themes, again using black people as models. He has series based in India, Israel, Sri Lanka, and France amongst other places.
His current exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) features stained glass windows, religious triptychs, sculptures in the style of Houdon, and large format oils.

Left: Ice T by Kehinde Wiley 2005 Right: Napoleon by J-L David 1806

Each of these artists brings such visual joy to the viewer. They address important cultural and political history issues. They look to the past to create in the present and pave the way for younger artists to think critically and look for new ways to express their ideas.

Thursday, March 17, 2016


Change is at the heart of growth and expansion, personal as well as organizational and cultural. And is experiencing both growth and change! As readers know, the website is the repository of an amazing amount of material for both in-depth research as well quick-look information gathering. Now, the organization and website itself have grown so much that several changes are underway to support this expansion and ensure that readers and researchers have easy access to all the data. The founding director of, Dr. Quintard Taylor is retiring from his post and has handed over the reins to Ms Chieko Phillips. Please join me in welcoming Chieko! You can see Chieko in action in this video:

In order for this tremendous growth to be supported, the website will undergo a major makeover. This will allow for easier maintenance, better access, and ease of finding information. The website will also have a new look and a new logo (the new logo is already on our Facebook page: check it out!). These changes will be rolled out incrementally. To learn about all the details, please view the video of Quintard Taylor speaking about the origin and growth of the website and Hillel Cooperman, of Jackson Fish Market, talking about the technical side of the changes

When the new website is unveiled, the banner at the top of the page will contain our new mission statement:

As an organization, BlackPast exists to weave the truths of the black American experience into every American's identity, so that we may make our union more perfect and our society more just.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Photos, Books, Food, Drink: Legacies & Sustenance for the Soul

February is a symbolic month for nostalgia, remembrance, celebration, and the teaching/learning of the past inorder to inform actions in the present and to prepare the young for the future.

Sojourner Truth c.1797-1883
Two books were published in 2015 that are remarkable in their presentation of the sophisticated public relations techniques enlisted by two icons of the abolitionist movement: Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. Both people were very aware of, and concerned about, their public images, how they wished to be perceived, what uses could be made of the photographs taken of them and for what purposes. In September, 2015, a review in the New York Times discusses Enduring Truths: Sojourner's Shadows and Substance by Grimaldo Grigsby and Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American by Stauffer, Trodd and Bernier. Which photographers they gave their business to, what backdrops were used and how they posed, were all part of how they wished to deliver their messages to the public and posterity.

Another book that attests to the both strengths and perseverance of the human spirit and the scholar who did the research is reviewed by chef Alexander Smalls in the New York Times. This labor of love, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks by Toni Tipton-Martin, is a tour de force. Ms. Tipton-Martin has surveyed 150 cookbooks by African American women from the time of slavery to the 20th century. She continues the conversation with a blog of the same name. And, for a discussion of the newest wave of young African American chefs, be sure to check out this article.

Jon Renthrope and his founding crew
This post began with photos, books, then food. And now for the drink! This blog has previously covered African American winemakers, of which there are few enough, but there are currently two breweries in the US that are owned and operated by African Americans: the Harlem Brewing Company in New York City and the Cajun Fire Brewing Company in New Orleans. Read an interview here. A toast to these exciting entrepreneurs and artisans.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking Back and Looking Forward

This last post for 2015 looks back 273 years to the birth of Francis Barber and forward to the hope that children always bring.

Francis Barber by Joshua Reynolds
The 16 July, 2015 issue of the London Review of Books contained a book review of a biography of Francis Barber. Barber (1742-1801) was born into slavery in Jamaica and ended his life in London, a servant and an heir to Samuel Johnson, the famed man of letters. Barber was granted his freedom and a legacy in 1755 by Colonel Richard Bathurst, who brought him to England, before he went into service to Johnson at age ten. Dr. Johnson saw to his education, referred to him with warmth and tenderness. During his tenure in the Johnson household, Barber was remarked upon by members of Johnson's illustrious social circle.

The importance of books, especially ones focusing on positive role models for children, has long been championed by educators, librarians, and social equity activists. Walter Dean Meyers (1937-2014) was a prolific African American author who was one of the first people to write books featuring Black children and young adults, especially Black boys, living ordinary lives.
Walter Dean Meyers
He was the recipient of numerous awards, including ones from the American Library Association and the Coretta Scott King Award for African American Authors. He was the National Ambassador for Children's Literature 2012 and 2013.

In February of 2015, the website Buzzfeed put out a list of 26 children's books which celebrate the accomplishments of Blacks in a variety of occupations. There are many resources available to parents and educators from both libraries and special interest sites. A new year's resolution to bring a positive outlook into the lives of Black children is surely a good thing.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Arts: The Gifts that Keep on Giving

Noah Purifoy 1966 LA Times photo
"I do not wish to be an artist. I wish only that art enables me to be" Noah Purifoy, 1963 (the Noah Purifoy Foundation).

Mr. Purifoy's statement, his philosophy and guiding principle, is an accurate description of what art does for all of us, whether we are the creators, the consumers, or the sellers of art. Noah Purifoy (1917-2004) created installations and art works from found materials and objects. His work was exhibited in galleries and museums around the country. But, perhaps his greatest legacy, is his outdoor museum in Joshua Tree, California. Purifoy's creations are political and social commentaries on his times. Walking through the outdoor museum is an exercise in confronting uncomfortable truths; questions linger and resurface long after departing the site

Eldzier Cortor (1916-2015) was a painter and printmaker who got
his start with support from the WPA (Works Progress Administration. For this project, he was asked to paint black life in the South Side of Chicago.
Eldzier Cortor
Cortor is best known for his paintings of black women who he felt "....represents the Black race, the continuance of life". He traveled to the Sea Islands of Georgia, painting the lives of Gullah people. With a Guggenheim Fellowship, he toured the Caribbean bringing back ideas about the extent of African influence among many cultures, including the USA. Mr. Cortor's work has been shown in major museums around the country and is much sought after by collectors.

 The New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, wrote an opinion piece on November 25, 2015 on the gift and importance of reading. Reading allows the reader to explore, to be exposed to new ideas, to gain insight into the known and unknown worlds. A genre of the book world not often given exposure to the general reader is African American 'street lit'. A recent review in the Financial Times of London, featured the authors K'wan Foye and Ashley and JaQuavis Coleman. These writers create stories about the people, lives, and neighborhoods they grew up in, complete with the problems, issues, and unpleasantness faced by those stuck in the projects. The roots of current street lit go back to Chester Himes, Donald Goines, and Iceberg Slim, (all contemporaries of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler) writing detective, gritty fiction.

Gifts that can be shared, revisited, talked about, that expand horizons, are welcome any day of the year.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Fleeting Glimpses

Looking for evidence of Africans in the wider world is often a serendipitous experience. I was recently traveling for 18 days in Iran. While there have been articles and videos documenting Afro-Iranians and I have mentioned them in this blog before, I was not specifically on the lookout for these people as I was traveling in different areas. I did not expect to find evidence of African notables paying tribute to Darius the Great (550-486 BCE) in Persepolis! The Apadana, a main hall of the kings, is accessed by two monumental staircases. These are carved with figures of the delegates of the 23 nations paying tribute Darius, their ruler. The stairs are carved in black limestone. At the far left side are the delegates from Africa, as shown here:

Africans paying tribute to Darius the Great at Persepolis

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo 1701-1773
The British historian, Simon Schama, has a new book and BBC series out called The Face of Britain: The Nation Through Its Portraits. One of the portraits he features, currently on exhibit at London's National Portrait Gallery, is described as the first portrait of an African in Britain. The key word here is 'portrait': there were depictions of Africans in Britain (see the blog post Early Black British on 9/6/13) earlier than this. The portrait is of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, an aristocrat who was enslaved by Mandingoes and who ended up in Maryland.  With assistance from numerous people who learned of his plight, he eventually made his way to Britain and then back to his homeland in what is now Senegal. His story is awe-inspiring and most unusual for its time. For more information about a smaller version of this portrait and its current status, see this article here.

This portrait was painted by William Hoare of Bath, England in 1733, a year before Diallo returned to Senegal.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Reflections on Heroes During these Dog Days of August

There is no shortage of people who, during both ordinary and extraordinary times, are heroes to be celebrated because of their quiet courage, determination, and perseverance in the face of racism and obstructionism. Three of these heroes have just recently passed away. They fought and achieved and rose to prominence on the shoulders of those who came before and have become supports for those coming behind them. The three featured today are Amelia Boynton Robinson (August 18,1911 - August 26,2015), Frank E. Petersen Jr. (March 2,1932 - August 25,2015), and Augusta Chiwy (June 6,1920 - August 23,2015).

ABR crossing the Pettus Bridge with Pres. Obama, March 2015
Amelia Boynton Robinson (ABR) was a leading civil rights activist. She was a teacher in Georgia, a demonstrator/instructor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in rural Alabama, and, later in life, a controversial member of the Lyndon LaRouche Schiller Institute. She received the Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Medal in 1990 for her work in advocating for voting rights. Amelia Boynton Robinson was a character in the 2014 movie Selma.

General Frank E. Petersen, Jr.
General Frank E. Petersen, Jr. was the first black aviator and the first black general in the Marine Corps. General Petersen flew 64 combat missions in the Korean War and 300 missions in the Vietnam War and earned twenty medals for bravery, including the Distinguished Service Medal. He combated racism and obstacles place in his path with valor and never stopped fighting to prove the worthiness of African Americans in the services. His many "firsts" can be learned about in the links above attached to his name. He remained active after retirement as an adviser and educator at the Tuskegee Airmen headquarters and the National Aviation Research and Education Foundation.

Augusta Chiwy 2011 honored for her service to Americans in WWII
 Augusta Chiwy was a nurse in Belgium, the daughter of a Congolese mother and Belgian father and was born in what is now Burundi. She saved hundreds of American soldiers wounded at the Battle of the Bulge. At the time, black nurses were not allowed to treat white soldiers, but a U.S. Army doctor overrode regulations inorder to enlist her much needed help. She was a character in the book and movie Band of Brothers.
Susie Baker King Taylor

Black nurses, especially those in the armed forces, have had to fight for their right to serve with dignity. Susan (Susie) Baker King Taylor  (1848-1912) is considered the first black nurse to serve in the military. (The first black graduate nurse was Mary Eliza Mahoney, 1845-1926). She was born enslaved in Georgia and claimed her freedom in 1862 after Fort Pulaski fell to the Union Army. Her first husband, Edward King, was a black non-commissioned officer in the Union Army. She served with her husband in the First South Carolina Volunteers, 33rd Regiment for the next three years. After the war, she established a school for freed black children. Her husband died shortly thereafter. She moved to Boston, remarried, and became president of the Women's Relief Corps, which gave assistance to soldiers and hospitals.

For further reading and more general information about the history of black women in the military, click here. For more information about black nurses in the Army Nurse Corps, click here

Monday, July 20, 2015

July: a Month of Milestones

July has been a banner month (so far!) for accolades and entries into the history books. We begin by tooting our own horn:! The National Education Association (NEA) has a 150 year history of advocating for the educational rights of all children and particularly Black children. Each year, at the annual Human and Civil Rights Awards Dinner, the organization recognizes outstanding contributions made by educators. There are various awards named in honor of those whose efforts and achievements have been guiding lights. One of the awards is the Carter G. Woodson Memorial Award. The historian and scholar Carter G. Woodson was a pioneer in establishing the study of African American history as a rigorous discipline within departments of History at American universities. This year, the recipient of this prestigious award was Dr. Quintard Taylor Jr, the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Professor of American History at the University of Washington, in honor of his founding of the website, to which this blog is attached. Congratulations! A video of Dr. Taylor's speech can be found here.

Claudia Alexander 1959-2015
Claudia Alexander passed away this month. She was a brilliant, pioneering planetary scientist who worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. She supervised the Galileo mission to Jupiter and "managed the United States' role in the international comet-chasing Rosetta project". She conducted landmark research on the evolution and interior physics of comets, Jupiter and its moons, solar wind, and numerous other topics.

Renee Powell is one of only seven women, and the only Black woman, to be inducted this past week into the membership of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews, Scotland, the home of golf.
Renee Powell b.1946
After Althea Gibson (professional tennis player and golfer), Powell is the second Black woman to play on the LPGA tour. Powell's start in golf was the result of her father Bill Powell's pioneering efforts in building Clearview Golf Club, in East Canton, Ohio to give African Americans access to golf. He began by acquiring enough land to build a nine-hole golf course and finally a full 18-hole course. Today, Powell runs the Club.

Finally, while not July milestones, two milestones in the golfing sector passed away this year. Charlie Sifford and Calvin Peete. Mr. Sifford was the first African American golfer to play on the PGA tour and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2004. Mr. Peete won more PGA tours than any other African American at the end of the 20th century.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Exploration and Travel

James Beckwourth
Little is known about exploration by people from Africa to other parts of the world, whether on and off the continent. If "African Explorers" is Googled, up comes information about European and Arab explorers to and in Africa. If "Black Explorers" is Googled, up comes information about five Black explorers: Esteban Dorantes also known as Estevanico (c1500-1539) (there is an excellent new work of fiction from his point of view, The Moors Account by Laila Lalami) ; Jean-Baptiste-Point DuSable (1745-1818); James Pierson Beckwourth (1805-1866); Matthew Henson (1866-1955); and Mae C. Jemison (1955-). These five people were/are explorers of water, land, cultures, and space. The common characteristic they share is a curiosity about the world around them and the desire to seek, to see what is out there, to explore.

There has been the implicit assumption that, in general, Africans didn't leave the continent unless on a slave ship. There was, however, considerable exploration, migration, and movement undertaken by Africans for a variety of reasons, the main ones being trade, famine and climate change, and war. There is a plethora of  theories about Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact with people in South America made by Polynesians, Chinese, Japanese, Arabs, Medieval Europeans,Welsh, and one that explorers from Africa also reached there. Africans were in the Roman Armies in Britain as generals and emperors; they were in Medieval and Renaissance Europe; they were present in many far-flung places and times.

There are suggestions each year made in these posts on how to organize ideas and get inspiration for travel: Thinking of Travel: Armchair and Otherwise (via books); Armchair Travel 2013 (via music); Thinking of Travel 2014: World War I (via visiting war memorials). Exploring museums, art museums and galleries, National Parks, libraries, theatres, concert halls are all terrific entries into new worlds.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Black Communities in Surprising Places

The Middle East is home to a variety of ethnic, religious, cultural, and ex-pat communities. Prior to the drawing of national boundaries in the early twentieth century with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, major cities (Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Tehran, Beirut, etc) were the political and cultural centers. Smaller cities and communities were built around tribal, clan, religious sects and based on trade, farming, and other economic activities.

There have always been relations between the Middle East and countries in north and sub-Saharan Africa, through the trade of goods and slaves and the spread of Islam into Africa. However, little has be written about the establishment of communities that evolved into Iraqi Blacks, Afro-Iranians, or Afro-Jordanians. Some of these communities go back to the seventh century when people were brought in as slaves. Slavery was finally outlawed in the region by the 1920's, although many claim it went on until the 1950's.

Jalal Dhiyab Thijeel, assassinated 2013
The largest and best known black community is that in Basra, Iraq. There are roughly 1.5 million black Iraqis. While they have been able to own property, there has been discrimination in all other aspects of life. Black Iraqis rarely marry outside their community and if a white Iraqi woman marries a black Iraqi man, her family usually makes life very difficult for her. There have been no black elected officials. It had been hoped that the fall of Saddam Hussein would lead to increasing visibility for these people: life under Saddam had been very difficult. African American members of the military were very surprised to come across black Iraqis when they arrived in Basra! Explore the links in this post to learn about this community and its attempts to gain political, social, and economic parity.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Science Fiction

Science fiction is an important component of fiction. Often dismissed as not 'serious' or 'literary', nothing could be further from the truth. Within the discipline, there are various sub-genres: highly technical/scientific, fantasy, speculative, and combinations of them. One of the most important aspects of science fiction is the ability of authors to address and deal with current problems in a futuristic or speculative context, allowing for social criticism, creative problem-solving, and clinical dissection of  issues in a way that allows the reader to think about and look at them in a new light. There is a rich science fiction tradition among African American and African writers, including societies, online forums, reading lists and suggestions on Goodreads, magazines devoted to female black writers and female black science fiction writers.

Samuel R. Delany b.1942
Two of the African American "founding stars" of science fiction are Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler. While Mr. Delany accepts the accolades, he points out in his essay Racism and Science Fiction, that there were a number of black writers in the "proto-science fiction" movement going back to the mid-1800's (a list of these individuals can be found in his essay at the link above). Mr. Delany has won four Nebula Awards and two Hugo Awards in his writing career and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, located in Seattle, in 2002.

 Octavia Butler was the recipient of two Hugo Awards, two Nebula Awards, and a MacArthur Genius Award. She was inducted (posthumously) into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010, and was the recipient of numerous other literary awards. 
Octavia Butler, 1947-2006

The following list of authors, with links to information about them, should lead to hours of reading and learning about the this deep and rich literary tradition.
Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, Charles Saunders, N.K. Jemison.
Nalo Hopkinson, winner of a Locus Award for Science Fiction. Milton Davis, Tina McElroy Ansa, Nnedi Okorafor, Balogun Ojetade, Valjeanne Jeffers, and Phyllis Alesia Perry.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Black Farmers in America

The excitement surrounding urban farming in the African American community and beyond (see the post brings to bear the question of what is happening to rural African American farmers. Small farmers (Black, White, Latino) all around the country have struggled in the face of industrial, corporate farming practices. But the plight of Black farmers has been particularly acute in light of various historical circumstances, including the difficulties of becoming landowners rather than sharecroppers, tenants, or farm laborers.  Present day issues have ranged from loan discrimination to ownership/land rights disputes.  Early efforts to organize the African American and White farming communities resulted in the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union in 1934.
Will Scott, National African American Farmers Assoc of CA
Early on in the Obama Administration, promises had been made to rectify the loan discrimination issues in the Department of Agriculture that had been festering since at least the Clinton Administration. It took until early 2014 for settlements to be made. While not satisfactory to all parties concerned, a major milestone was finally reached. However, this lawsuit has highlighted the problems facing the modern Black farmer in the Midwest, South, and the West. These links have really insightful and important information.

One of the earliest successful Black farmers was Junius Groves and his wife, Matilda Groves. Born into slavery in Kentucky in 1859, he made his way to Kansas in 1879 and became a successful farmer, food scientist, entrepreneur. He acquired the title, Potato King of the World for the incredible number of shipments he made. In fact, Union Pacific Railroad built a tract to his property because of his shipping quantity! The Groves founded the community of Groves Center and sold small tracts of land to African Americans. They also built a golf course for African Americans. The successes of the Groves and their descendants underscores just how much ground has been lost over time: in 1920, 14 percent of American farmers were Black; today, it is one percent.

There are signs of hope as young Black families make moves into small-scale farming. Whether in New York State, Washington, DC, South Carolina, or elsewhere, these families are engaging their communities through CSA's (Community Supported Agriculture), farmers' markets, and towns.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year 2015

This past year, 2014, was a year of learning and growth. This blog covered a wide variety of topics, which I hope readers found interesting and spurred them to do further research. The topics showcased African Americans enriching the history, culture, and civics of our nation. Links to the posts of 2014 are listed below. If you missed any, please check them out! And, as always, check out for new additions to the website

The Codification of Freedom
Automobile Design & Manufacturing: A Different History
Oratory and Debate
Black Women: A Proud Legacy
May Day
Remembering Maya Angelou: An Occasion for Reflecting on the Importance of Poets
Thinking of Travel 2014: World War I
Surprise! Magicians
Architectural Design in America
Fruits of the Vine

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fruits of the Vine

The business of wine (growing, making, distributing, selling, serving, teaching, drinking) is complex and competitive. Wine making is nearly as old as farming, 10,000 years! Wine is made, in one form or another, in most parts of the world. In the USA, there are approximately 22 black-owned wineries, a number of joint ventures between black celebrities and wineries, wine tours led by African Americans, wine shops, and other wine-related businesses started by blacks. Most of the wineries are in California, but there are some in New York State, Oregon, and in Virginia. If you travel to any of these locations, be sure to check out the tasting rooms at the wineries, ask your local wine shop to find some of these great products, join a wine club, or go to the websites of these wineries and order directly from them.

Mac McDonald of Vision Cellars
Mac McDonald hails from Texas, where his father made moonshine. His Vision Cellars in Sonoma County is a long way from those humble beginnings! He moved to California in 1963 and started his own business in 1995. Mr. McDonald is an officer in The Association of African American Vintners; The Association was founded in 2002. His wines, along with those of Ernest Bates' Black Coyote Wines, have been served in the White House by President Barack Obama at State Dinners.

Andre Mack, Mouton Noir Wines
Winemaker Andre Mack whose label is Mouton Noir Wines, gets his grapes from some of the best vineyards in the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Oregon. He has been making wine since 2007.

The first African American female winery owner in the USA is Iris Rideau. She started Rideau Vineyards in 1997 in the Santa Ynez Valley in the heart of Santa Barbara, California wine country.

And now, the first African American winemakers in wine-rich Washington State, Dreux and Dain Dillingham, have debuted their label Carter-Lamour with their Chardonnay and soon-to-come Cabernet/Malbec. Be sure to click on the links to learn about their compelling story and how to order their wines.

Nearly all of African American winemakers have been successful in other professions before turning to wine making. They have been surgeons, entrepreneurs, business executives, sommeliers. Their goals have been to not only make excellent wines, but to educate other African-Americans in the art of wine appreciation. There is a Boston-based group of ten African American women, Divas Uncorked, whose aim is to get the wine industry in general to pay more attention to women and people of color. They host an annual Martha's Vineyard Wine & Food Festival, host educational wine dinners, and have their own wine label. Wine makers, vineyards owners, restaurants serving wines by these black wine makers: follow up and find what a great way this is to expand horizons, meet interesting people, and support these pioneers.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Architectural Design in America

There is a rich heritage of architectural design in America by African Americans. While the number of these architects was not large, their influence has been and is far reaching (for instance, in 1930, of the 22,000 architects in the US, only 60 were African Americans). This blog post will feature buildings by 11 historically important architects; others can be found here at  Seven young influential architects in 2010 who have been successful in an industry where success is difficult for many are listed here.

1800 Africa House, Melrose Plantation, Louis Metoyer
Before any professionally trained and registered Black architects, there were skilled free Black and slave craftsmen and artisans in the building trades. Louis Metoyer (1770-1832), however, was trained as an architect in Paris and designed buildings in Louisiana, specifically Melrose Plantation, completed in 1833, a year after his death.

Julian Abele (1881-1950) was born and educated in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as well as in Paris, France. He was the first formally trained African American architect. After returning to the US, he worked and resided in Philadelphia the rest of his life. He never did sign his drawings, but his best known work was for Duke University. He designed the west campus and the graceful Duke University Chapel that dominates the campus grounds.
Duke University, North Carolina, Julian Abele

Holman Field Admin Bldg, St. Paul.CW Wigington

Clarence W. "Cap" Wigington (1883-1967) was the first African American registered architect in Minnesota and the first African American municipal architect in America. He designed schools fire stations, park structures, and municipal buildings in St. Paul, Minnesota as well as elsewhere across the Midwest. The Holman Field Administration Building, a WPA effort, is currently the control building for the St. Paul Downtown Airport.

Tudor house, Pasadena, California. Paul Williams

Paul Williams (1894-1980) was a star architect as well as architect for the stars. Williams grew up and worked in Los Angeles, California. Williams designed more than 2000 homes as well as public buildings, public housing after WWII, churches, and commercial structures. His most visible 'face' in Los Angeles is the Theme Building at Los Angeles Airport. He worked in successfully in many styles from 'Tudor' to 'Modernist'. 
La Concha Motel, Nevada. Paul Williams

The recipient of awards, honorary degrees, and accolades, he was a socially and politically astute.

Verntner Woodson Tandy (1885-1949) was the first registered Black architect in New York State and the first African American to belong to the prestigious AIA, American Institute of Architects. He studied architecture at Tuskegee Institute before transferring to Cornell University, NY. His most famous commission was Villa Lewaro, the mansion of the millionaire, Madam C.J. Walker.

 Louis A.S.  Bellinger (1891-1946), was born in Sumter,South Carolina, attended Howard University, and moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania after serving in the First World War. His first major commission was to design
Villa Lewaro, NY. Verntner Woodson Tandy
The (former) Pythian Temple, Pittsburgh. Louis Bellinger
Central Park in 1920, the home field of the Pittsburgh Keystones, the African American baseball team. He designed municipal buildings and facilities, commercial properties, as well as public and private housing in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Unfortunately, most of his buildings do not survive. The Pythian Temple, commissioned by the Knights of Pythias in 1927, was Bellinger's most important building. It featured a terrazzo floor, Italian marble, a 5000 square foot auditorium where basketball games could be played.

Buffalo Zoo Entrance. John E. Brent
John E. Brent (1892-1962) was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He earned architecture and horticultural degrees from Tuskegee Institute and Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. He spent most of his professional career in Buffalo, New York. He was employed by an number of architectural firms as well as the Buffalo Parks Department working on municipal, public, and private commissions.
Founders' Library, Howard University. Albert I. Cassell
University (Baltimore, MD), and Virginia Union University ( Richmond, VA). He designed and built civic structures for Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Albert Irvin Cassell (1895-1969), born in Towson, Maryland, received his architectural  degree from Cornell University, NY. He was first hired by the Architecture Department, Howard University. His architectural visions and designed shaped the campuses of Howard University (Washington D.C), Morgan State College in Baltimore, MD.

 Beverly Greene (1915-1957), was born in
Chicago, Illinois. She attended the University of Illinois and Columbia University, NY. She is believed to be the first African American woman registered as an architect. She either worked for or owned firms in Chicago and New York city. Her first employer was Roderick O'Neil, believed to be the first Black architect to have an office in downtown Chicago. While working for Marcel Breuer, she is credited with his firm's design for New York University and UNESCO's headquarters in Paris.

UNESCO HQ, Paris. Beverly Greene

Norma Merrick Sklarek (1928-2012) was born in Harlem, New York and received her architectural degree from Columbia University, NY. She was the first African American woman registered as an architect in both New York and California. Before moving to a successful career in California, she worked for the NYC Public Works Department and the prestigious architectural firm Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill.
San Bernadino City Hall. Norma Merrick Sklarek
Robert Traynham Coles (1929-) was born in Buffalo, NY and received architectural degrees from the University of Minnesota and MIT. His architectural firm is the first and oldest Black owned firm in NYC and the Northeast. He has designed buildings for the public and private sector throughout the Northeast. He has been a leader in civic and philanthropic circles.
Frank Merriweather Library, Buffalo NY. Robert T. Coles

J. Max Bond, Jr (1935-2009)  was born in Louisville, Kentucky and received degrees in architecture from Harvard University. His career centered around New York City but his designs were national and global in scope. He also served as Dean of Architecture at City University of New York. Prior to his death, he was instrumental in the planning for the 9/11 Memorial.
Birmingham Civil Rights Museum. J.Max Bond Jr.

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, 2014 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.