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Monday, August 27, 2012

Labor Day: Summer's Last Hurrah

Autumn does not start officially until September 22nd. Traditionally, families and friends gather for one last big barbeque, family reunion, or day on the beach over the Labor Day weekend, and this signifies the end of summer. It was not that long ago, that a day at the beach for African Americans was as fraught as the back of the bus, the lunch counter, the road trip that required so much planning because so few hospitality facilities were available.

Idlewild Resort, Michigan
Starting in the 1890's, one solution to the "beach problem" was the development of resorts for African American families and the creation of public beaches by successful black entrepreneurs. As always, the poor had to just make do in most places. But for those of means or who were able to plan and make the trip, these resorts and beaches were major holiday destinations. Many of these resorts began to fall on hard times as desegregation offered black families more choices in where vacations could be taken. But until then, they were very successful. Watch a video here called A Place of Our Own: Black Resorts and the African American.

American Beach, Florida
There were at least thirteen beaches and resorts of note. These were Idlewild on the shores of Lake Michigan; Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts; Highland Beach, Maryland; American Beach, Florida; Pacific Beach Club, Los Angeles, California; Gulfside Assembly, Waveland, Mississippi; Freeman Beach, Wilmington, North Carolina; Sag Harbor, New York; Bruce's Beach, near Los Angeles, California; Buckroe Beach, Bay Shore, and Mark Haven, Virginia (click here for information on the previous six listings); and lastly, Lincoln Hills Country Club with the famous Winks Lodge in Colorado.

Highland Beach, Maryland
Each of these resorts has a unique history and starting point. Idlewild was started by two white couples from Chicago who saw a need and a business opportunity. Highland Beach was started by descendents of Frederick Douglass. American Beach was founded by Florida’s "first black millionaire, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, and his Afro-American Life Insurance Company". Famous entertainers, business people, intellectuals, and members of the working class all spent time at these resorts. The links throughout this post contain a wealth of information.


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Graveyards Speak

Knowledge about our history, about our past, can show up in the oddest places and under the strangest circumstances. People trace and record their family history through found documents, government records, photos, and other memorabilia. More and more genealogical data bases are being constructed and added to. Be sure to check the resources at BlackPast.org when beginning a family genealogy search or for refining research already underway. And also check out this genealogy website for more information regarding descendents of the single largest manumission in U.S history until the Civil War: Robert Carter III manumitted 500 slaves on his plantation in 1791.

Graveyards can be tremendous repositories (pun intended!) if they can be found. The New York Times reported in May, 2012 that Walmart planned to build a new store in Florence, Alabama. The building site was situated next to a family cemetery where the grave markers for the white family were apparent but there were no markers for the slaves who had worked for the family. The concern was that the building would be over the graves of the slaves. Read the article to find out how the community rallied, how the City Council made decisions, how Walmart tried to do the right thing.

There have been many such instances of discovering graveyards covered by history and almost forgotten.
African Burial Ground Monument, NYC
Slave cemetery, cotton plantation, Florida
Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Roslyn, Washington
 From New York City's African Burial Ground (the African Burial Ground Monument is worth a visit to Lower Manhattan) to Virginia, all the way to slave cemeteries in Florida, back up to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, then all the way over to Roslyn, Washington where Mount Olivet Cemetery, also known as the Old Black Cemetery, can be found.

 The Chicora Foundation has assembled information on the history of African American cemeteries in the Carolinas. For more information related to cemeteries and segregation, be sure to check out this link at BlackPast.org. National Public Radio (NPR) is running a series called Dead Stop and recently featured Lincoln Cemetery in Montgomery, Alabama which had been established in 1907 for African Americans and had fallen on hard times. Again, community involvement and a sense of saving and understanding the past inorder to move forward into the future, makes for an interesting story.

Monday, August 13, 2012

NASA and the Legacy of Eminent Black Scientists and Engineers

This summer marks another milestone in NASA’s Mars exploration efforts: the landing of the Curiosity Rover. Space craft, space stations, and the astronauts who operate and populate them are the newsflash and news splash people love to read about. Astronauts Mae Jemison, Michael Anderson, Frederick Gregory, Ronald McNair have thrilled many a school child with dreams of space.  The forerunners of these astronauts are the black aviators, whose courage and daring can be read about in these two books by Von Hardesty.
from the book Black Wings
But, none of this would have been possible without the years of dedication, experimentation, and problem-solving by the ‘worker bee brains’ behind the public face of NASA. 

Several years ago, Mae Jemison narrated an audio documentary called Race and the Space Race (the link takes you to the transcript, but you can listen to it by clicking on the title) produced by Richard Paul as part of a larger project called Cape Cosmos: be sure to explore the personal interviews within that site of many of the people mentioned below. A download of those documents may be found here. Jemison explains that the Space Age and the Civil Rights Movement became entwined when NASA chose to “base itself in the heart of the Old Confederacy”, Houston, Huntsville, Cape Canaveral, and therefore became a mirror of social change in America. 

Dr. George Carruthers
The key players in this story who broke the color barrier are Julius Montgomery (the second African American hired at Cape Canaveral and who was involved in building circuits and dealing with missiles and rockets that misfired), Otis King, Theodis Ray, Dr. Frank Crossley, Morgan Watson.  Interviews with Morgan Watson (the first African American engineer at NASA, who worked on heat transfer in rocket engines and helped design the heat shield that protected the liquified oxygen fuel from the heat of the escaping gases) and George Carruthers (who invented the first ultraviolet camera) can be heard and seen here, just click on the Interview tab. Jemison’s conversations with these scientists and engineers covers how they were recruited, the obstacles to promotion they faced, the initial social isolation, and the learning curve both they and NASA had to tackle to make the program and their involvement work. One of the ‘duh/light bulb’ moments occurred when one of the NASA administrators tried to understand why the African American scientists never attended the career development workshops. These seminars were held in hotel conference rooms, these hotels were segregated!
Mary Winton Jackson,1921-2005
Other prominent scientists were Emmett Chappelle (information about his inventions and his NASA career can be found at the linked words); Shelby Jacobs; and Mary Winston Jackson, an early "computer" at NASA, as women mathematicians were called in the 1960s.

And the next frontier? The obvious segue here is to go from someone whose mathematical skills were such that she was called a computer to those pioneering African Americans who are working as software engineers with computers. The torch has been literally passed from Mary Jackson to Trish Millines Dziko first African American woman employed at Microsoft as a software engineer. But, that is a post for another time: stay tuned!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Thinking of Travel: Armchair and Otherwise


There are many reasons to travel. Two of them are relaxation and education. Many people plan trips to countries and/or cultures of origin; trips within their own country to learn about the lives and histories of family and friends; visits to museums and other cultural institutions. If physical travel is not an option, there is much to recommend the practice of armchair exploration through books, both fiction and non-fiction. 

Margaret Busby
Can’t decide where to start? Pick up a copy of Margaret Busby’s magnificent compendium, Daughters of Africa  An International  Anthology of Words and Writing by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present: reading an excerpt from any one of these women, from any place in the world, will be a jumping off place for adventurous travel! Pick a place, pick a time period, and you’re off! 

Traveling in the United States and Canada: the Black Museum page at BlackPast.org is a great resource. The museums are organized by state, making trip planning easier. BlackPast.org also has a Bibliography of 101 African American  novels. There are sure to be inspirations for exploration and travel on this list. These books help create a context and sense of place and people that adds richness to information found in the museums. The website Discover Black America  has current listings for events, exhibitions, tours, restaurants, as well as listings for Black Colleges: visiting colleges is a great organizing principle for a family vacation. Be sure to check out photographer Dawoud Bey’s retrospective Portraits of 1970s Harlem currently showing at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Seeking travel to lost worlds and  back in time? Check out, Once Upon A Time When We Were Colored by Clifton L.Taulbert, about life in small town Mississippi when segregation meant a town was either black or white. Three books by Edward P. Jones, Lost in the City, The Known World, and Aunt Hagar’s Children are stunning in their descriptions of urban life in Washington, D.C. and a fictional county in Virginia during slavery.  

From When London Was Capital of America
 For a different slice of early American life, read When London Was Capital of America by Julie Flavel. Prior to the American Revolution, wealthy plantation owners took their families and slaves off to London for…shopping trips and other forms of cultural enrichment! These visits lasted three months or more. A portion of the book deals with one of these slaves, Scipio, who renamed himself Robert Laurens and ended up staying in London, feeling comfortably at home in a place with the 15,000 other black inhabitants.

Gullah basket, South Carolina
Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God  are good examples of fiction based in and on Gullah Culture in and around South Carolina and the Islands.

Peek into rarefied worlds by reading Stephen L.Carter’s Emperor of Ocean Park, set in Martha's Vineyard. It is both a story of suspense as well as a look at upper crust African American society and an Ivy League law school. Step into the 1960s and identity politics in the black middle class bourgeoisie when reading Darryl Pinkney's High Cotton.

Travel to the Caribbean by armchair, boat, or plane through the eyes of Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak. Britain’s Caryl Phillips’ Crossing the River offers yet another point of view. Jamaica Kinkaid will take you to the West Indies with her highly acclaimed books Lucy and Annie John. Any thoughts of historical Haiti would not be complete without reading Madison Smartt Bell’s All Souls’ Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and biography of Toussaint Louverture.

Paris or Berlin? Check out Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, a book that straddles Baltimore, Berlin, and Paris from the 1930’s to the 1980’s. Based on a true story about a Black German musician and the rise of Nazi Germany. Until the Second World War, there were a significant number of Black Germans tracing their origins back to Germany's colonies in Africa: they were recruited to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Paris is a great place to explore the lives of African American expat artists as well as the rich cultural addition of immigrants from former French colonies in Africa. So much so, that an enterprising travelista has created guided tours for individuals and groups.
For more info on Black Paris Tours click here.

Still need ideas? Find a map, find some books, create your own adventure.

Antique map of Africa