Two Stories to Reflect Upon as 2016 Comes to a Close

Two profoundly affecting interviews highlight the power and importance of the imagination, art, endurance, hope, and hard, hard work. As 2016 comes to a close, please listen to the interviews below.

Anthony Ray Hinton (left)
The first is an interview conducted by John Hockenberry of WNYC with Mr. Anthony Ray Hinton who was released in 2015 after spending 30 years on death row in Alabama. Mr. Hinton is an innocent man. I cannot do justice simply telling his story, it needs to be heard in his own words.  Please, please take the time to listen. I will, however, share some of the comments about the interview, as they are instructive.

Krista from Oregon

My soul is deeply touched by this broadcast. Hope his story promotes change.
Dec 20, 2016, 8:58 PM
BigGuy from Forest Hills NY
Hinton spent 30 years on death row. After 14 years imprisoned, he waited another 16 years for the court to review the exculpatory evidence of a ballistics test analysis. Hinton rose above his horrific circumstances by using his imagination. Down to earth, he stayed true to his faith in God and strengthened his character. Before he was arrested, he was a good man, and after 30 years in prison, he has become a better man. He is a good example for us all. He strives to do what is right. He has forgiven those who have done him wrong, even though those wrongdoers of the Alabama justice system have not admitted doing him wrong and have not apologized at all. May God bless us to be able to handle adversity as well.
Dec 20, 2016, 11:33 AM
Judy Lerner from 11570
Mr. Hinton's story is tragic-denied the ability to live a full life. But, no one has mentioned that the real murderer has gone FREE. No justice anywhere in this story.
Dec 20, 2016, 9:52 AM
Wm. H. Evans, Media, Pennsylvania from Media, Pennsylvania
John, Thank you for reporting this travesty against Anthony Ray Hinton. His is just one of many similar stories. America's prisons are full of these stories. The imprisonment of Leonard Peltier is one; the attempted murder of Judi Bari for her out-spoken protests and leadership against the rapacious timber industry in California is another; the atrocities in Syria and Aleppo with no response to Assad's crossing that red line Obama laid down; the appointments to high government office being made by president-elect Donald Trump is opening the flood gates to even more. Hope has become just another 4-letter word.
Dec 20, 2016, 6:20 AM
Doug McCanne from Portland, OR
I'm a regular listener to your show and enjoy the topics. This interview was so moving and heart touching I felt I wanted to respond. One of many things that stood out in this interview was that NO ONE in Alabama said they were sorry. I wonder where Jeff Session, the nominee for Attorney General and Alabama Senator was when this man was convicted and sentence so wrongly. Where does he stand on an apology. Was he part of that system that wouldn't hear the truth and kept that man in a cage for so long. I think I know the answer to this, it would be great if you would follow up on this and let the world know. This is the power of the media. But mostly I hope Anthony gets to meet the queen in person.
Dec 19, 2016, 7:55 PM
Steve Carle from Edina, MN
John, you closed this story with an admonition of what can result from an "overzealous criminal justice system." Please don't use the euphemism "overzealous." Call it what it is: racist. I recently sat on an all white jury in a criminal case with an African-American defendant and was astonished at the blatant racism among jurors, even in "liberal" Minneapolis.
Dec 19, 2016, 4:10 PM
antwuan wallace from brooklyn, ny
a most profound lesson in humanity. the intersections of his beliefs, actions and recursive actions are seamless. And, all of it earned in the most difficult of situations. incarceration, in general, and the death penalty, in particular, has a most pernicious impact on the ethos of and our material justice system. the best of journalism is presented here: a person telling his story in his own unvarnished language with clarity and purpose. this was a most profound story.
Dec 19, 2016, 3:22 PM

Edith Brown from Lisle, Illinois
I heard this on the program today, Mr. Hinton's statements were so compelling that I had to hear him tell his story again. It brought to my mind how I first discovered that I did not believe in the death penalty. I was 8 or 9 years old when the Rosenbergs were put to death for spying. I just could not believe that they were going to kill these two people. Ever since that day, when someone is put to death, I feel that a small part of me dies as well because I sense that I am personally participating in a murder. I feel that people are being murdered in my name. Because the prosecution always represents the people of the state or of the United States. I was out of town when the Chicago Tribune finally said in a Sunday editorial that the death penalty in Illinois should be abolished. I searched until I found the paper. Thankfully, we do not have the death penalty in Illinois. However, I realize that it can be reinstated at any time.
Dec 19, 2016, 2:20 PM

The second interview was conducted by Brent Bambury of CBC, the Canadian public broadcasting company, with a former high school principal, Liz Dozier, in Chicago trying to address the enormity of the problem of youth violence and death in that city. She highlighted an innovative organization, Storycatchers. One of their programs is in the juvenile detention system and is designed to help these young citizens recognize who they are, their potential, the power of story telling to change lives. Theatre and storytelling are transformative experiences for all people in all societies, but especially those in dysfunctional settings.


Cutting Edge: Politics and Art

Art is political whether purposefully or inadvertently. Art can be manipulated, can make a statement through what is created or the mere creating of it. It is possible to enjoy and appreciate art regardless of its intent; it is possible to fulminate against the message no matter how beautiful the object. But art, its creation, display, ownership reflects and projects power.

The independence of Senegal in 1960 and the election of Léopold Sédar Senghor as president was the beginning of Dakar becoming both the center and the jumping off point for promoting and celebrating art from Africa. While studying in France, beginning in the 1930's, Senghor was one of the leaders of the Negritude Movement, a movement of black Francophone writers and intellectuals who used language (French) to explore their cultural heritage. Upon his return to Senegal, Senghor was determined to see artists and countries in Africa on the world art stage, engaging with European artists with excitement and equity. He established Dakar's École des Beaux-Art (School of Fine Art) in 1960, hosted the World Festival of Negro Arts in 1966, all of which culminated founding of the prestigious DakArt Biennale in 1992 and exhibiting in Harlem, USA in 2000.

The African art explosion and influence continues  and is manifested at such events as the fourth annual 1:54 (this name comes from 1 fair, 54 countries) in London (October 2016) and New York (May 2016). One hundred thirty contemporary artists are represented.
Check out the virtual tour, right, of the exhibition space in London and be sure to tour the website of 1:54 for some great eye-candy and thought-provoking art work!

The arts and artists cannot exist without support, whether from the public or from private collectors. Collecting, too, becomes a political act: if no one appreciates and values the works of any particular group of artists, by genre, geography, ethnicity, then those artists, their message, and their works languish. Here is one list of the top 200 collectors in America of Black art. One of the most powerful proponents and collectors of art of the African Diaspora and Africa is Pamela Joyner. Reading the link about Joyner (left), the most striking impression one gets is her intentionality about what it takes to collect and support art: knowledge, passion, money. And, as the first President of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, knew, unless patrons of the arts support arts in the schools, artists in their studios, exhibitions for artists to show their work, advocate with museums and donors to purchase art, artists who do not have political power/support cannot compete on the world stage, no matter how talented they are.
Addendum: check out this great opinion piece here about the need for museums in all countries in Africa.


Interesting News (you may have missed)

The summer of 2016 was dominated by news from the Rio Olympics (where African Americans scored in the medal department) and the 100th Birthday of the  National Park Service (where African Americans and other minorities are in short supply, but there is hope). 

Thomas' The Splashdown of Apollo 13, 1970
The artistic life of Alma Thomas was celebrated in an exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Ms. Thomas (1891-1978) was a teacher and modernist/abstract artist, the first to graduate in fine arts from Howard University in 1924. Two of her paintings have hung in the Obama White House.

Another artist of note was in the news lately. The poet, playwright, and award-winning children's author Joyce Carol Thomas passed away August 13, 2016. Her first book, Marked by Fire (1982) was a National Book Award fiction winner in 1983. Ms. Thomas was born in rural Oklahoma and moved to California when she was 10. Her books dealt with rural black life because she felt that so few African American children had an appreciation for the richness and complexities of the stories from these black communities.

Middle schoolers at Seward Park
"Birding while Black". That is the mantra of Joey Manson, Director of the Audubon Center at Seward Park in Seattle, Washington. His goal is to get more families of color into the great outdoors and figures the best way to do that is to involve the children and engage the parents with their enthusiasm. In a radio interview, Mr. Manson discusses the need to expand love of and appreciation for wildlife and environmental concerns, as well as to increase the diversity of people and political opinions in conservation. If more people of color do not take up the mantle of concern and care, he fears for the future of conservation because up until now, that has primarily been the concern of older white people and they will be an increasing minority in this country's future.

Be sure to learn about the adventures and exploits of Outdoor Afro: they are sending the first all-black team to climb and summit Mt. Kilimanjaro!

Niki Okuk of Rco²
The young entrepreneur Niki Okuk has been making waves in the business world on three fronts: black female business owner, green/recycling business, employing people with prior criminal convictions. Ms. Okuk's company, Rco² Tires keeps used tires out of dumps and landfills and recycles them into a variety of useful industrial products. The company is located in Compton, California, where Ms. Okuk grew up. She returned after getting degrees from Columbia and MIT and began the company in 2012 and as of 2016 had grown to 16 employees.


The Postal Service, Philately, & African Americans

Blacks have been involved in the delivery of mail since the beginning of slavery. Trusted enslaved blacks had been delivering parcels and letters between plantations. It wasn't until a Congressional Act in 1802 that only free whites were allowed to deliver the mail. Concerns about communication and rebellion amongst enslaved (black) and indentured (white) people were the impetus behind this new law. According to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, the ban was expanded in 1828 "to include the regulation that 'if negro labor was required to 'lift the mail from the stage into the postoffice', it must 'be performed in the presence and under the immediate direction of the white person who has it in custody.'" This particular regulation remained in effect until 1862.

William H. Carney 1840-1908
Postal records did not keep data on race in the 19th century. However, it is known that during Reconstruction nearly 500 blacks were employed in the postal service, including 116 postmasters. The earliest known black postmaster was James W. Mason, Sunny Side, Arkansas in 1867. He later served as a delegate to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention and became a state senator. Despite the fact that many African Americans "experienced hardships in their jobs, the Post Office Department continued to appoint African Americans to high level positions."  These people included Joshua E. Wilson, George B. Hamlet, and John P. Green. William H. Carney, the first African American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, was a letter carrier in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and served there from 1869 to 1901.

Minnie M. Cox
The early 20th century saw both increased opportunities (that began with the Pendleton Act Civil Service Act of 1883) for blacks in the postal service as well as increased segregation (President Woodrow Wilson's segregation of employment in the federal government). Minnie Cox, (1869-1933) was the first black female postmaster in the United States in Indianola, Mississippi, appointed to this position by President Benjamin Harrison and reappointed by President William McKinley and again reappointed by President Theodore Roosevelt. Significant controversy erupted over her appointment and she resigned, but President Theodore Roosevelt asked her to remain on. However, the situation was so threatening that  President Roosevelt suspended all mail delivery to Indianola. Mrs. Cox chose to leave in 1903 before the end of her term. The post office reopened in 1904 but at a demoted rank of class 3 rather than class 4 (who knew post offices had class rankings!). In October 2008, the postal service facility in Washington, D.C. was named the Minnie Cox Post Office Building in honor of Mrs. Cox.

The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was made up of 855 enlisted African American women and officers and managed the military's mail amongst other duties. They were lead by Major (later lieutenant colonel) Charity Adams Early (1912-2002), the highest ranking black woman by the end of the war. The battalion was first deployed to Birmingham, England and later to Rouen, France.

In spite of large employment numbers of blacks in the postal service and their long history of service, there is much evidence into the 1990's that African Americans were assigned to lower paying jobs and dismissed at a higher rate. Despite this, a number of individuals have made it into the upper ranks of the service. Among them was Henry W. McGee, the first African American postmaster of a major facility in Chicago, Illinois in 1966. And,  Emmett E. Cooper, who held the positions of "Chairman of the Board of Appeals and Review, Director of the Postal Management Branch, Bureau of Operations, Manager of the Postal Service’s Detroit District, and Postmaster of Chicago. Cooper held his position of Regional Postmaster General of the Eastern Region from 1977-1983."
first African American Postmaster of a major postal facility, - See more at:
first African American Postmaster of a major postal facility, - See more at:
first African American Postmaster of a major postal facility, - See more at:

The year 2016 marked the 70th year that African Americans have been featured on stamps of the United States Postal Service; a complete list through 2014 can be found here and here. And images here. For those interested in philately (stamp collecting), they should explore ESPER, Ebony Society of Philatelic Events and Reflections.
The United States Postal Service has been an integral part of African American history and lives.


Memorial Day: A History of Honor and Service by Black Troops

Memorial Day is time to remember and honor the troops who have defended the principles underlying the foundations of the United States of America, in conflict after conflict. There were individuals in each of the conflicts who overcame great obstacles to serve and to be recognized for that service and a list of many of those firsts can be found at website here. In this post, the sheer numbers of black citizens who served in each of the conflicts, beginning with the Colonial era and ending with the Vietnam War, will be observed. The sheer numbers of black people, going back to the beginning of "old world" settlement in the "new world", who have invested their blood in this history, should give pause for thought, reflection, and appreciation.

Colonial Period (1528-1774)
1. Initially, scattered black individuals fought with the Dutch, English, French armies and settlers in various conflicts with each other and the indigenous Native nations.
2. In 1706 in North Carolina, a militia was formed to fight against Native Americans and, in the event of conflict, all males, black, white, enslaved, free, were required to serve.
3. In 1711, blacks fought in the Tuscarora War in North Carolina.
4.The Yamasee War of 1715-1717 in colonial South Carolina had 400 black people and 600 white people fighting fourteen Native American tribes.
5. In 1730, blacks constituted 10% of a (French) force that clashed with Natchez warriors near Pointe Coupee, in what is now Louisiana; freedom was recommended for those who fought.
6. In 1736, blacks accounted for 19% of the Spanish forces that were engaged in another conflict with the Natchez, this time in Mobile, Alabama. Accompanying the Spanish was a separate company of blacks with free blacks serving as officers, a first in a colonial military unit.

American Revolution (1775-1783)
Blacks constituted 20% of the colonial population of 22 million people. Fear of slave revolts meant that there was resistance on the part of whites to arming blacks. However, blacks were needed to fill out the militias. Black minutemen fought at Lexington and Concord, but there was concern about having them in the regular army. By December 1775, 300 blacks signed up to fight with the British, who had promised them freedom for doing so. The response by the Colonists was to request participation by free blacks only; slaves were not encouraged/allowed to enlist. By the end of the war, 5,000 black soldiers had served in the Colonial Army of 300,000 and 20,000 had served with the British. Many who had served in the Colonial Army were given land grants for their service and those who were enslaved were granted freedom. There were a few blacks in the small Continental Navy, but race was not often noted on the ships' rosters.

War of 1812 (1812-1815)
New York was the first state to recruit blacks to fight and 2000 free and enslaved people signed up. A battalion of blacks was also formed in Philadelphia, but the war ended by the time they were ready to fight. Because the war was largely a naval war, blacks were in great demand for two reasons: 1) their experience in the Revolutionary War and 2) their relatively unlimited access to jobs in shipping businesses. Blacks were 10-20% of most ships' crews.

Seminole Wars (1816-1842)
The British built a fort on the location of an old Spanish fort in Florida during the War of 1812. They recruited Native Americans and runaway blacks to staff this fort. Raids were conducted into Georgia for recruits, thus encouraging more runaways. This was a major irritant to Georgia slave owners and an assault on the fort by the army was the beginning of the wars. Blacks constituted one-quarter to one-third of warrior strength that resisted the US Army in the removal of blacks and Seminoles from Florida.
Union Army Surgeon William P Powell (1 of 13 black surgeons)

Civil War (1861-1865)
More that 180,000 blacks served in the army during the war, this was 10% of the total Union strength. Plus, 200,000 blacks served in service/support units. In the navy, 30,000 blacks served out of a total of 118,000 enlisted personnel. By 1865, over 37,000 black soldiers died, comprising almost 35% of all blacks who served in combat.

Indian Campaigns 1866-1890
The US Senate passed a bill in 1866 establishing the Regular Army at 67 regiments (at 1,000 to 2,000 soldiers each), six were composed of black troops with white officers. This was the beginning of the era of the Buffalo Soldiers. These six regiments were reduced to four during a reorganization in 1869.

Buffalo Soldiers, Spanish American War
Spanish American War (1898)
When the battleship Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor in 1898, 22 black sailors died. There was a call to action by black leaders, though many black civilians were very sympathetic to the cause of the Cuban rebels. The regular army had only 28,000 troops in 1898; Congress authorized the activation of ten black regiments, but only four were mobilized.

369th (15th NY) recipients of the Croix de Guerre 1919

World War I (1914-1918)
In the regular army, the four black regiments were still active in the West, not for the Indian Campaigns, but for for the Mexican Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa and for border patrols and these four regiments never went to Europe. Two divisions of black soldiers were formed plus stevedores and support services. Over 400,000 blacks served in uniform in WWI, with 10% assigned to combat units; 1300 were commissioned as officers (less than 1% of all officers).

First African American WACs to go overseas 1943

World War II (1941-1945)
Over 2.5 million blacks registered for the draft in WWII. Despite segregation in the navy, 150,000 blacks served. The Air Force had 145,000 black airmen, a remarkable increase from zero in WWI. Almost three-fourths of all enlisted blacks saw service in the army, this ranged from 5.9% of all enlistees at the time of Pearl Harbor to 8.7% in 1944. The same percentages used in WWI were used in WWII: 15.5% of all units were black combat support positions and 2.8% were combat arms.

Korean War (1950-1953)
Black troops were 13.5% of total US strength (5.7 million) and 80% of all black soldiers were assigned to all-black units and almost two-thirds were in support units.

Vietnam War (1960-1973)
Black citizens were 16% of all those drafted (over 9 million served during the Vietnam era and 2.7 million served in Vietnam), although only 11% of the US population. Young black men had fewer deferments than white young men and blacks were underrepresented on draft boards. Blacks had a higher casualty rate because they stayed in longer and volunteered for more elite units and therefore more dangerous missions.


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. See his upcoming show at the Seattle Art Museum February to May 2018.

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

Wiley 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. And HERE, in the August 17, 2017 of the New York Review of Books, is an excellent discussion by Daryl Pinckney of how black artists today see themselves and how this has/has not changed through time, including commentary about Kehinde Wiley.


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, so there will be many more changes ahead.

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.


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.