Saturday, June 6, 2015

Exploration and Travel

James Beckwourth
Little is known about exploration by people from Africa to other parts of the world, both 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); 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.

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 at 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.

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
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 University (Baltimore, MD), and Virginia Union University ( Richmond, VA). He designed and built civic structures for Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Beverly Greene (1915-1957) was born in Chicago, Illinois, 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, 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!