The rich history of black people and tennis in the United States goes back close to 110 years. It includes names such as Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Zina Garrison, and Venus and Serena Williams. It also includes some who were little-known that carried the passion of tennis to small communities across the country. Those who infused a love of the game and its roaring competition to Black children and adults alike.Jimmie “Doc” Horne, public teacher, former FAMU competitor was one.
‘ “Doc” Horne’s passion was to help kids play tennis’
Jimmie “Doc” Horne Sr., a tennis standout once barred from white courts in an era of segregation, did not wait for somebody else to design a program to expose city kids in West Palm Beach to the sport. Nor did he wait to be paid. Retiring after 34 years as a teacher in area schools, he just showed up and did it.
In March 2021, he will be inducted into the US Tennis Hall of Fame of the American Tennis Association.
In 1990, the city of West Palm Beach proclaimed March 17 as Jimmie “Doc” Horne Appreciation Day. The tennis facilities at Gaines Park are named for him. In 1994, he was one of six recipients of the U.S. Tennis Association’s Community Service Award in the nation.
Early in their careers, Venus and Serena Williams and their father practiced at Gaines Park, said son Jimmie “Bo” Horne.
“He was referred to by Venus and Serena as their tennis grandfather,” he said. “My daddy was resilient. He used to say, ‘If you want to be something in this life, you’ve got to start it.'”
Mr. Horne, who attended Florida A&M, won a state tennis championship in 1947 in the “all black division.” He became the first registered black tennis pro in Florida, according to a family-supplied biography. After serving as a quartermaster in the U.S. Army, he taught woodworking and carpentry for more than three decades at the former Roosevelt High School and North Tech Institute.
“He was an icon of the community,” said Reed Daniel, the campus manager for youth empowerment centers in West Palm Beach. “I’ll always remember him on the court with 10 or 12 kids standing at attention like a little army. He was holding a sign, ‘Tennis is a Quiet Sport.’ I loved that. Some of those kids were too young to read. But they did what he said.” Only years after he started did Mr. Horne receive even part-time pay for his efforts, Daniel said.
Jimmie “Doc” Horne Sr., a tennis standout once barred from white courts in an era of segregation, did not wait for somebody else to design a program to expose city kids in West Palm Beach to the sport. Nor did he wait to be paid. Retiring after 34 years as a teacher in area schools, he just showed up and did it. His generosity and commitment helped make him a community legend, say those who gathered to remember him before his burial. Mr. Horne passed on December 2, 2008, at age 88. There are few in the WPB Black community who played tennis who didn’t learn it or at least, in part from “Doc” Horne. In March 2021, he will be inducted into the US Tennis Hall of Fame of the American Tennis Association.
Tonight, we pay tribute to his untiring pursuit and passion for tennis in our community, extending it to the children in our community. The broadcast will feature a discussion about the Horne Center at Gaines Park named in his honor, discussion with some of his tennis students, his tennis partners, and his son, a celebrated R&B vocalist, performer, and music producer. The Jimmy “Doc” Horne Tennis Center is located at Gaines Park in West Palm Beach. New programs and renovations are under City planning and will be able to accommodate more tennis programs and player convenience. Joining us will be his son, the renowned music icon, “Bo” Horne and, we will talk with Rick Easley and James “Boneman” Marion about their love for the game and the man and how that came about.
We hope that you will join us in our tribute to “Doc” Horne to remember his contributions to tennis in Palm Beach County, West Palm Beach, and the State of Florida. You are invited to call-in (3473-838-9852) and share your recall about the role he played in our community, at school, and on the courts. As a near two-decade tennis student of his, I am proud to have the opportunity to continue and support his work.
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This is longer than a 140-character Tweet, but I respectfully ask that all who participated in exchanges over a statement I made on Twitter on February 4, 2021 concerning #PureReparations, that aroused a firestorm of responses, please read this from start to finish.
This is longer than a 140-character Tweet, but I respectfully ask that all who participated in exchanges over a statement I made on Twitter on February 4, 2021, concerning #PureReparations, that aroused a firestorm of responses, please read this from start to finish. Some of the responses to my statement were serious, thoughtful, and critical, but others were so hostile. I am convinced many of them were written by people who only had, at best, second- or third-hand knowledge of the content of my message.
Let me be clear, I remain steadfast that African American reparations in the United States should be designated specifically for black Americans who are descendants of persons enslaved in the United States. It is a position that I have maintained for upwards of 20 years, first articulated with the eligibility criteria I presented in an article published with Dania Frank in 2003 in the American Economic Review.
The criteria expressed at the time were twofold: 1. An American citizen would have to demonstrate they have at least one ancestor enslaved in the United States. 2. An American citizen would have to demonstrate that for at least ten years before the adoption of a reparations program they self-classified as black, negro, or African American. The first criterion is a lineage standard; the second is an identity standard. Both standards must be met to merit receipt of reparations payments.
In our recent book, From Here to Equality (FHTE), Kirsten Mullen and I modify the identity standard to lengthen the time to at least twelve years (two Senatorial terms) and to include the adoption of a study commission for reparations as one of two events that would trigger the time count on self-classification.
The core objective always has been to include all persons, and their descendants, who have been subjected to the cumulative, intergenerational effects of slavery, legal segregation and white terrorist violence, and post-Civil Rights Era mass incarceration, police executions of unarmed blacks, and ongoing discrimination in the justice claim. This is the community whose ancestors were denied the promised 40 acres as restitution for the years of bondage and as a material springboard for entry into full citizenship in the United States.
Kirsten and I argue further, in FHTE, the best economic indicator of the combined effects of these atrocities is the racial wealth gap. We propose that elimination of the gap yields the baseline value for a reparations plan—demanding a federal government expenditure of $10 to $12 trillion. It is a key aspect of our project to generate a research-based standard for determining the size of the bill that is due. We do not identify an upper bound for the bill.
We also insist that priority be given to mobilization of the funds in the form of direct payments to eligible recipients, whether cash transfers, trust accounts, other types of endowments, or some combination thereof.
The two eligibility criteria necessarily exclude many Americans. The lineage standard will exclude all blacks in the United States who migrated to the United States and became citizens after the end of the Civil War. Their descendants also will not be eligible, in the absence of a parent’s or grandparent’s intermarriage with black Americans having ancestry anchored in US slavery. Counting among blacks excluded would be the relatively small group that migrated to the United States during the Jim Crow years (estimated to be, according to a Smithsonian study, to the right of the decimal point). Also excluded is a much larger group of black immigrants (now approaching ten percent of the nation’s black population) who arrived after 1964, especially coming in large numbers from the 1980s onward.
The identity standard excludes all persons who self-identified as non-black, inclusive of all white Americans, at a point where there was no apparent financial benefit from classifying oneself as black.
Meeting the lineage standard necessitates serious genealogical research. As a result, in FHTE, Kirsten Mullen and I recommend the federal government establish an agency with genealogists with expertise in African American ancestry to provide free services to all persons seeking to establish their reparations claim. Despite that recommendation, we continue to get substantial push back from those who say many black Americans with ancestors enslaved in the US will hit a wall in getting past the 1870 Census to identify their particular ancestors who were held in bondage before 1865. Therefore, I have been giving more thought to modifications in the criterion that would make it easier for all black American descendants of U.S. slavery to be assured of inclusion.
One possibility that seemed reasonable is the one I advanced that stirred the pot to a boil—include black immigrants who came during the Jim Crow years on the eligibility list. Let me emphasize, I advanced this to prompt discussion. I even referred to this in a later post as a “trial balloon,” which left me open to the somewhat humorous charges that the balloon popped or, quite the opposite, the balloon was made of lead.
Here is the thinking that I pursued: Allowing pre-1950s black immigrants onto the reparations roll eases genealogical proof required of black American descendants of U.S. slavery to establish their lineage claim. You necessarily have a tradeoff between letting a small number of otherwise excluded black folk in the door versus keeping the strong genealogical standard that will demand going past the 1870 “wall.” Under the former case, with the relaxed lineage standard, a person would have to demonstrate, say, that they have at least two black ancestors who were citizens of the USA before 1950 or 1960.
Then, eligibility would be much easier to establish for all black American descendants of U.S. slavery at the “price” of including a small number of black immigrants who arrived during legal segregation. Let a few in who do not meet the original lineage standard to ensure that all make it in who meet the original lineage standard.
No Mission Creep
I reject the “slippery slope” argument that has it that making this exception opens the gates for every other group to piggyback onto the reparations’ claim. Conditions can be drawn so precisely that no additional groups will become eligible.
Nevertheless, I do take seriously, the following critical response to my “trial balloon”: The limitation of African American reparations to black American descendants of US slavery is a matter of principle that should not be compromised. America’s history of racial injustice has targeted this community so consistently and with such ferocity that we should brook no modification in the criteria, even it remains more difficult for each individual to establish eligibility for the merited compensation.
In fact, I take it so seriously, in a later message, I indicate that I would not advance as an option the proposal any longer, and I will stand committed solely to the original criterion. Unlike what is suggested in a number of messages on Twitter, I never proposed that recent black immigrants should be eligible for reparations from the U.S. government. Nor do I anticipate reneging on that position. . . ”
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. Photograph: John Sonderman
In the spring of 2012, we sat in the lobby of the Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center. My father, sister, and I had just left an appointment with his oncologist. My father was tired. He sat slightly hunched over in the chair with his arms crossed. His breathing was labored, and his head was slightly raised, looking ahead. We were waiting for my sister to return from handling some paperwork.
“Well, I think this is it,” he said.
“Oh don’t say that,” I responded.
He shrugged, as he often did, when there was little point in debating the reality of things.
Basic bodily movements consumed so much of his energy. But he managed to turn his head toward me: “Make sure your mother gets my money.”
“You did alright for yourself. You did what you were supposed to do. And you didn’t let the man stop you. I guess it’s all how you looked at it.”
All of this was my father’s way of telling me two things. First, it was my responsibility to take care of his affairs once he was gone. Second, he was proud of me. But his claim that I didn’t let “the man”—white folks—stop me was significant.
What America ‘really’ is, what it amounts to, is something that we can never know precisely. Indeed, worrying too much about it may miss the point.
My father was born in Union, South Carolina, in 1932. He was of a very different generation—a time when racism and exclusion were the hallmarks of daily life for black folks, especially in the South. He never fully let go of that past. It didn’t haunt him minutely, but to a significant extent it shaped his views about what was possible. For example, when I was a junior in high school, he began to wonder what trade I would take up. I told him I wanted to go to college and he responded with familiar language: “The man ain’t gonna let you in his school. You need a trade so you can open up a storefront. Am I wrong?”
I pushed back quickly: “I’m not saying you’re wrong, I just don’t know if you’re quite right.” We disagreed, and, as he had done on the occasion of many other disagreements, he shrugged.
My father was not trying to destroy my dreams; he was trying to put them on solid footing, properly connected to the reality he thought we lived. I understood this even when I thought he was wrong. I admired it in him, and I loved him for it. To have him, confronted with the certainty of his end, tell me that I did “alright” for myself was, to say the least, an important moment for the both of us. But for him to suggest that the possibility of my success was partly tied to how I looked at things was even more significant. He was acknowledging an important difference between us—a difference between his past and my present.
Since the 2012 death of Trayvon Martin, we find ourselves confronted daily with the enormity of our racial reality. The killing of black men and women by police officers, the arms of the state, is not the only thing. Black Americans continue to struggle disproportionately in employment and education. The depth of these problems led journalist Ta-Neshi Coates to describe the situation as the logical and natural consequence of what American society is about. In The Atlantic in 2013, he observed:
When you have a society that takes at its founding the hatred and degradation of a people, when the society inscribes that degradation in its most hallowed document, and continues to inscribe hatred in its laws and policies, it is fantastic to believe that its citizens will derive no ill messaging. It is painful to say this: Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended.
In his recent book, Democracy in Black, Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., reinforces this claim when he remarks that valuing white people more than others in this country is “in our national DNA.” Glaude’s book is a sober reflection on our racial reality. On the one hand, it seeks to explain the deep-seated nature of racial disregard that distorts the outlook of both whites and blacks. On the other, he tries to distill from anti-racist activism the energy to reimage the values that orient American life. Unlike Coates, Glaude aims for a radical transformation of American society. But it is not clear what one is to do if one begins with the notion that the nation’s DNA makes it unresponsive to the pain of non-whites, especially blacks.
Little can be denied in Coates’s and Glaude’s analyses; it is fashionable these days, and understandably so, to wear one’s despair on one’s sleeve. After all, since the founding of this country we have seen white supremacy mutate and evolve to frustrate progress toward racial equality. Claims of white supremacy’s death—of the post-racialism supposedly evidenced by Barack Obama’s presidency—have proven premature. In the failures of Reconstruction, the eruption of lynching in the South from the 1880s through the 1960s, the rise and fall of Jim Crow, and the reconstitution of Jim Crow in the carceral state, American society has found new and inventive ways of reminding black Americans of their unequal worth.
There is no need to be naïve. The success of some black Americans in no way indicates what is possible for all black Americans. But the persistence of racial inequality demands a response. And as my father understood near the end of his life, how we respond depends on how we see our racial reality. In other words, how we frame the problem is a critical choice.
We—and here I mean black Americans engaged in struggle as well as white Americans who stand in alliance—must confront some crucial questions. Can American democracy only work if some are privileged while others are oppressed, or are we justified in our hopes for a truly inclusive and fair society? Is American democracy constitutionally at odds with our goals, as Coates seems to suggest? Or might it be conducive to building a society in which we all can live equally and at peace with one another?
How we answer these questions depends not only on which histories we consult, but also the weight we accord to the ones we use. In our historical calculus, we might emphasize the reconstitution of white supremacy, but we could just as easily emphasize the ways in which it has been foiled through multiple waves of racial inclusion. Those who embrace the former as our “true” racial reality find themselves trying to prove to those of us who have benefited from racial struggle why our success is illusory or, at best, temporary. But those who locate America’s identity in its resistance to white supremacy have another problem. They are often unable to see the evidence of systemic racism, or they readily describe it as anomalous, foreign to the structure of our institutions. If the first posture seems unsatisfying because it denies human agency and gives the past too much power over the future, the second risks turning a blind eye to the ways white supremacy is often bolstered by institutional support and state violence. Both sides fail to distinguish between the somewhat different tasks of studying the past and narrativizing the past in a way that is useful for moving society in an auspicious direction.
What America “really” is, what its history amounts to, is something that we can never know precisely. Indeed, worrying too much about this may miss the point: we ask such questions of the past less to understand who we have been than to aid us in making decisions about who we should become. This is, we might say, the aspirational quality of the American imagination. The best of the tradition of anti-racist struggles in the United States, including our current Black Lives Matter movement, is nurtured by this idea.
We should stop trying to pinpoint the “true” or “real” identity of the nation as it relates to the status of people of color. Rather, the only question worth asking, if an inclusive democratic society is our goal, is how we should interpret the history of our racial past in order to sustain our hopes. Responding to this question will capture what democracy has always been about: people trying to determine for themselves the kind of society they want to inhabit. This is a utopian—dare I say revolutionary—impulse because it sees democracy as an exercise of our moral imagination, struggling to be realized in practice. We need not look despairingly upon the past because it overdetermines our present; neither do we need to see the past as anchoring a long arc of justice or an inevitable march toward progress. We can instead say simply that there is work to be done and it is ours to do. This is our trade.
Image above: Portrait of Mollie Williams (Mississippi), taken as part of the Federal Writers’ Project
This article was published online on February 9, 2021.
On a rainy Thursday afternoon in November, I stepped inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. On past visits, I’d always encountered crowds of tourists and school groups, a space bursting with movement and sound. But on this day, the museum was nearly empty. It seemed to echo with all the people who had been there but were no longer. For the few of us inside, social distancing was dictated by blue circles scattered on the floor.
I made my way down to the bottom level, which documents the history of slavery in America. Masks were mandatory, and something about the pieces of cloth covering everyone’s mouths seemed to amplify the silence and solemnity of what surrounded us.
I walked past the statue of Thomas Jefferson standing among bricks bearing the names of people he’d enslaved, past a cabin that enslaved people had slept in, and past the stone auction block upon which enslaved people had been sold and separated from their families.Toward the end of a long corridor was a dimly lit room with sepia-toned photos on the walls. Photos of enslaved people holding their own children, or their enslaver’s children. Photos of fresh wounds on the backs of those who’d been beaten. Photos of people bent over fields of cotton that hid their faces.
But what was most striking about the room was the voices running through it. The words of people who had survived slavery were running on a six-minute loop. Their voices floated through the air like ghosts.
“My father was not allowed to see my mother but two nights a week,” said a woman in the voice of Mary A. Bell. “Dat was Wednesday and Saturday. So he often came home all bloody from his beatings.”
“I had to wok evva day,” said a woman in the voice of Elvira Boles. “I’d leave mah baby cryin’ in the yard, and I’d be cryin’, but I couldn’t stay.”
“My mudder word in de field,” said Harrison Beckett. “Sometimes she come in 9 or 10 ’clock at night. She be all wore out an’ it be so dark she too tired to cook lots of times, but she hafter git some food so we could eat it. Us all ’round de table like dat was like a feast.”
When I’d first encountered these floating voices years before, I was fascinated by how ordinary their stories were. These were not tales of daring escapes like those of Henry “Box” Brown, who in 1849 contorted his body into a wooden crate for 27 hours as it was delivered from the slave state of Virginia to abolitionists in Pennsylvania—mailing himself to freedom. Nor were they the stories of Frederick Douglass, who as a teenager, in 1833, fought his white slave breaker with such force that the man never hit Douglass again. Nor were they the stories of Harriet Jacobs, who, in an attempt to escape the physical and sexual abuses of slavery, hid in an attic for seven years.
Brown became a global celebrity who turned his escape routine into a one-man show that traveled throughout the United States and England. Douglass and Jacobs wrote autobiographies that became best sellers, and that today are staples in classrooms around the world. Theirs are the stories I learned as a child, and there’s great value in teaching kids stories of resistance, of Black people not being passive recipients of violence. But I remember how, after reading them, I found myself wondering why every enslaved person didn’t just escape like these famous figures did. The memory of that thought now fills me with shame.
The stories swirling about the room weren’t famous accounts of extraordinary people; rather, they were the words of all-but-forgotten individuals who bore witness to the quotidian brutality of chattel slavery. These stories were the result of the Federal Writers’ Project—a New Deal program that was tasked with collecting the oral histories of thousands of Americans. From 1936 to 1938, interviewers from the FWP gathered the firsthand accounts of more than 2,300 formerly enslaved people in at least 17 states. The members of the last generation of people to experience slavery were reaching the end of their lives, and so there was an urgency to record their recollections. In scale and ambition, the project was unlike any that had come before it. The Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave narratives produced tens of thousands of pages of interviews and hundreds of photographs—the largest, and perhaps the most important, archive of testimony from formerly enslaved people in history.
While many of these narratives vividly portray the horror of slavery—of families separated, of backs beaten, of bones crushed—embedded within them are stories of enslaved people dancing together on Saturday evenings as respite from their work; of people falling in love, creating pockets of time to see each other when the threat of violence momentarily ceased; of children skipping rocks in a creek or playing hide-and-seek amid towering oak trees, finding moments when the movement of their bodies was not governed by anything other than their own sense of wonder. These small moments—the sort that freedom allows us to take for granted—have stayed with me.
When I first came across the narratives, I was confused as to why I had never, not once in my entire education, been made aware of their existence. It was as if this trove of testimony—accounts that might expand, complicate, and deepen my understanding of slavery—had purposefully been kept from view.
For many black americans, there is a limit to how far back we can trace our lineage. The sociologist Orlando Patterson calls it natal alienation: the idea that we have been stripped of social and cultural ties to a homeland we cannot identify. I have listened to friends discuss the specific village in Italy their ancestors came from, or the specific town in the hills of Scotland. No such precision is possible for Black Americans who are the descendants of enslaved people. Even after our ancestors were forcibly brought to the shores of the New World, few records documented their existence. The first census to include all Black Americans by name was conducted in 1870, five years after slavery ended. Trying to recover our lineage can be a process of chasing history through a cloud of smoke. We search for what often cannot be found. We mourn for all we do not know.
But the descendants of those who were interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project have been given something that has been denied to so many Black Americans: the opportunity to read the words, and possibly see the faces, of people they thought had been lost to history.Because these narratives are not often taught in school, many people come across them for the first time later in life. Several historians told me that their encounters with these stories had shifted the trajectory of their personal and intellectual lives. Catherine A. Stewart, a historian at Cornell College, in Iowa, and the author of Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project, remembers sitting in the basement of the university library as a graduate student, making her way through reels of microfilm. “I will just never forget this sensation I had of these stories—of these life histories of these individuals, personal stories and experiences of enslavement—just leaping off the page,” she said.
For years, the collections had been largely ignored. As Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven F. Miller note in Remembering Slavery, an edited volume of selected narratives, historians throughout the mid‑20th century came up with a range of reasons not to take them seriously. Some argued that because the people who were interviewed, in the 1930s, had been children when slavery ended, their memories were unreliable. Others claimed that the narratives couldn’t be trusted because they weren’t an adequate statistical sample: Those who were interviewed represented approximately 2 percent of the formerly enslaved population still alive in 1930.
Perhaps the most insidious reason to dismiss the narratives came from the historian Ulrich B. Phillips, whose conception of slavery as a civilizing institution for the enslaved shaped many Americans’ understanding of it in the early-to-mid-20th century. Phillips complained of “Negro bias,” believing that Black Americans were “too close” to the subject of slavery and thus unable to be objective about it—a criticism that has been used to undermine Black writing and research on issues of racism since the earliest days of Black life in America.That view began to change with the civil-rights movement of the 1960s, when historians, intellectuals, and activists came to see slavery as the root cause of racial inequality. Interest in the Federal Writers’ Project narratives grew.
The Black Lives Matter movement has further pushed historians to revisit these stories. The past several years—and particularly the months since last summer’s racial-justice protests—have prompted many people to question what we’ve been taught, to see our shared past with new eyes. The FWP narratives afford us the opportunity to understand how slavery shaped this country through the stories of those who survived it.
My mammy Martha an’ me we ’longed ter Mister Joshua Long in Martin County, an’ my paw, Henry, ’longed ter Squire Ben Sykes in Tyrrell County. Squire Sykes lived in what wus called Gum Neck, an’ he owned a hundert slaves or more an’ a whole passel of lan’.
Noah lewis had been doing genealogical research for years, trying to learn as much as possible about his family history, when he discovered that his great-great-grandfather, a man named William Sykes, had been interviewed as part of the Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave-narrative collection. He wanted to see the original documents himself, so he traveled from his home in Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., to visit the Library of Congress.
“It was an amazing experience,” he told me. “I had never seen photographs of him before … That was just mind-blowing all by itself.”
In the black-and-white photograph of William Sykes that accompanies his narrative, he is 78 years old and facing the camera, his eyes hidden behind a pair of dark glasses. He has a white mustache that stretches over his mouth and a long goatee that hangs from his chin. He appears to be furrowing his brow.
“He kind of reminds me of my older brother, Jimmy,” Lewis said.
Lewis had read books that detailed the physical and psychological violence of slavery; he had seen photos of enslaved people and understood the brutal conditions in which they worked. But there was something different about reading the narrative of his direct ancestor—someone from his own family who, only a few generations earlier, had been in chains.
In his narrative, William Sykes describes being a child in North Carolina and seeing the soldiers of the Union Army make their way into Confederate territory. Sykes’s enslaver, fearful for his own life and worried that the Union soldiers might confiscate his human property, escaped with his enslaved workers into the mountains.
While we wus dar one day, an’ while Mr. Jim Moore, de Jedge’s daddy am in town de missus axes my cousin Jane ter do de washin’.
Jane says dat she has got ter do her own washin’ an dat she’ll wash fer de missus termorrer. De missus says “you ain’t free yit, I wants you ter know.”
“I knows dat I’s not but I is ‘gwine ter be free’ ”, Jane says.
De missus ain’t said a word den, but late Sadday night Mr. Jim he comes back from town an’ she tells him ’bout hit.
Mr. Jim am some mad an’ he takes Jane out on Sunday mornin’ an’ he beats her till de blood runs down her back.
Sykes was a child; the detail of blood running down Jane’s back stayed with him the rest of his life.
Lewis said that, like me, he’d grown up with an incomplete understanding of slavery. “As a young child, I remember thinking to myself, You know, hey, if slavery was so bad, why didn’t my people fight harder to try to get out of it? ” Jane’s story showed that it wasn’t so simple.Lewis himself was born in 1953 on an Army base in Heidelberg, Germany, where his father was stationed. His family returned to the U.S. when he was just 10 months old. When he was 13, they moved to Aldan, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. As far as Lewis knows, his was the first Black family in Aldan, and he says they were not welcomed with open arms.
“A couple days after we moved in, we woke up that morning, and somebody had written on our car windshield i hate niggers.” His father came out of the house with a shotgun and yelled loud enough for everyone in the neighborhood to hear: “I don’t care if you don’t like me, but if you start playing with my property, there will be trouble.”Lewis said that while the FWP narratives can be emotionally difficult to get through, he’s also found “a certain joy” in reading them. “This is your relative, and it’s them speaking, and it brings them to life. They remind you that they were a person, not a stat, not a little side note, not a little entry in a genealogical chart. They were a real, living, breathing human being. That’s what that document kind of really hits you with.”
But not everyone feels the way Lewis does. Six years ago, he attended a family reunion in New Jersey and decided to share what he’d discovered. Standing in front of about 30 people in folding chairs in a relative’s backyard, Lewis read Sykes’s words. Some of those present were old enough to have known Sykes when they were children—and some felt deeply hurt, and embarrassed, by parts of what Sykes was portrayed as having said.
For example, some sections of his narrative implied that life under slavery was good:
I knows dat Mister Long an’ Mis’ Catherine wus good ter us an’ I ’members dat de food an’ de clothes wus good an’ dat dar wus a heap o’ fun on holidays. Most o’ de holidays wus celebrated by eatin’ candy, drinkin’ wine an’ brandy. Dar wus a heap o’ dancin’ ter de music of banjoes an’ han’ slappin’. We had co’n shuckin’s, an’ prayer meetin’s, an’ sociables an’ singin’s. I went swimmin’ in de crick, went wid old Joe Brown, a-possum huntin’, an’ coon huntin’, an’ I sometimes went a-fishin’.
Read one way, these sorts of details might be seen as softening the horrors of slavery, making the gruesome nature of the institution more palatable to readers who aren’t prepared to come to grips with what this country has done. Read another way, though, they might reveal the humanity of those who were enslaved, and show that despite circumstances predicated on their physical and psychological exploitation, they were still able to laugh, play, celebrate, and find joy.
Other sections of Sykes’s account, however, are more difficult to reconcile. Toward the end of the narrative he’s depicted as having said:
We ain’t wucked none in slavery days ter what we done atter de war, an’ I wisht dat de good ole slave days wus back.
Dar’s one thing, we ole niggers wus raised right an’ de young niggers ain’t. Iffen I had my say-so dey’d burn down de nigger schools, gibe dem pickanninies a good spankin’ an’ put ’em in de patch ter wuck, ain’t no nigger got no business wid no edgercation nohow.
After Lewis finished, some of his relatives told him that he shouldn’t have read the narrative to them. They felt that Sykes’s words reflected poorly on them as a family and on Black people in general. But they didn’t just blame Sykes; they blamed the white person who’d interviewed him, who they believe must have manipulated Sykes or changed his words. “A typical example of white people trying to make us look ignorant,” they told him.
This issue of manipulation in the interviews is something historians have had to wrestle with. The narratives were rarely verbatim transcriptions. Many interviewers altered their subjects’ dialect to make it seem more “authentically” Black. As Catherine Stewart writes in her book, “FWP decisions about how to depict [dialect] on the page reveal more about how the black vernacular was used to represent black identity than about the actual speech patterns of ex-slave informants.” And historians have worried that in a violent, segregated society, when white interviewers showed up on a Black person’s doorstep, the formerly enslaved might have told the interviewers what they thought they wanted to hear, rather than what had actually happened.
The project did employ some Black interviewers, but the majority were white southerners. Some were the descendants of slaveholders—in certain cases, descendants of the families that had enslaved the very same people they were sent to interview—or members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization known for pushing a narrative of slavery that was sympathetic to the Confederate cause.
When Stephanie Jones-Rogers, a historian at UC Berkeley and the author of They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, showed early portions of her book to friends, some questioned why she hadn’t changed the language of the interviews. They worried that the narratives portrayed formerly enslaved people as uneducated and illiterate. “There may have been some manipulation,” Jones-Rogers told me, and that should be accounted for and taken seriously. Still, she felt that changing the language would risk changing the specific meaning behind how these individuals wanted to tell their story. And it would ignore the fact that, unfortunately, many of them were, by nature of circumstance, uneducated and illiterate—a reflection of the way the insidious legacy of slavery had continued to shape their lives.
Daina Ramey Berry, the chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin, told me that there is no source a historian can use that isn’t compromised by bias in some way, and the notion that we should ignore the narratives because of their imperfections would mean applying a standard to them that is not applied across the board. “The big excuses that people have as to why they push back against them is that they’ll say, ‘Well, they’re biased,’ ” she said. “And I’m always like, ‘I don’t understand why you can read a plantation owner’s letters, or his journal—or her journal—and not even question that.’ ”
Lewis understood his relatives’ concerns. Still, he couldn’t help but feel disappointed that they didn’t appreciate how remarkable it was that this narrative existed at all. For Lewis, it was a piece of history, a piece of them. It was like finding treasure—even if the jewels aren’t cut as cleanly as you’d like, they’re still worth something.
Lewis’s interest in history would ultimately change the course of his life. As he was doing his genealogical research, he went all the way back to the American Revolution, trying to discover whether he had relatives who had been enslaved in the British colonies. He came across the book Black Genealogy, by the historian Charles L. Blockson. There, Lewis encountered the story of a man named Edward “Ned” Hector, a Black soldier who fought in the Revolutionary War, one of thousands of Black people to fight on the side of the Americans. During the Battle of Brandywine, in September 1777, Hector and his regiment were under attack and ordered to abandon their guns and retreat for safety. Hector, however, seized as many abandoned guns as he could, threw them in his wagon, and warded off British soldiers to salvage the only equipment his company had left.
Learning about Hector was transformative for Lewis. He thought this history of Black contributions to the American project should be taught in his children’s classrooms—but not just through books or lectures. The history had to be brought to life. It had to be made real. “So I figured it would be a much better way of getting across to the kids about Hector if I came as Hector,” he said.
His first presentation was in his daughter’s fifth-grade classroom, in a makeshift costume that he still laughs about today. His pants were blue hospital scrubs, with a pair of long white socks pulled over the bottoms of the legs. He wore a yellow linen vest, a souvenir-shop tricornered hat, and a woman’s blouse. “It was very bad, extremely bad,” he said. Still, the teachers and students loved his presentation, and he was asked to come back again. And again. “After a while, one of the teachers said, ‘You got something really good here. Maybe you might want to consider taking this more public, out to other schools and places.’ I thought about that. And I said, ‘You know, that’s not a bad idea.’ ”About three years later, Lewis decided to leave his full-time job running an electronics-repair shop so he could dedicate more time to his reenactment work, which he had begun getting paid to do. Since then, he’s performed as Ned Hector in classrooms, at memorial sites, and at community festivals and has become a staple of the colonial-reenactment community.
In a video of one performance, he’s dressed in a blue wool jacket—typical of those worn by American soldiers during the Revolutionary War—and a matching tricornered hat with a large red feather. In his hands, the musket he holds is not simply a musket, but an instrument that helps him transport the audience back more than two centuries. It becomes a paddle, rising and falling in front of his chest as he tells the story of Black soldiers helping other American troops cross a river during battle. He places it just below his chin as if it were a microphone amplifying his story, or a light meant to illuminate his face in the darkness.
In another video, Lewis stands in front of a school group. “How would you like to have your families, your loved ones, dying for somebody else’s freedom, only to be forgotten by them?” He pauses and scans the crowd. “If you are an American, you share in African American history, because these people helped you to be free.”Watching Lewis, I was impressed by how he brought the Revolution to life in ways that my textbooks never had. How he told stories of the role Black people played in the war that I had never heard before. How in school—except for Crispus Attucks’s martyrdom during the Boston Massacre—I don’t think I had ever been made to consider that Black people were part of the American Revolution at all. It reminded me of how so much of Black history is underreported, misrepresented, or simply lost. How so many stories that would give us a fuller picture of America are known by so few Americans.
The horn to git up blowed ’bout four o’clock and if we didn’t fall out right now, the overseer was in after us. He tied us up every which way and whip us, and at night he walk the quarters to keep us from runnin’ ’round. On Sunday mornin’ the overseer come ’round to each nigger cabin with a big sack of shorts and give us ’nough to make bread for one day. I used to steal some chickens, ’cause we didn’t have ’nough to eat, and I don’ think I done wrong, ’cause the place was full of ’em.
In the photograph accompanying the interview of Carter J. Johnson, he stands in front of a wooden cabin in the town of Tatum, Texas. He wears denim overalls and a collared shirt. His head is cocked, his brow furrowed. On the porch behind him is a woman in a patterned dress.
Janice Crawford had never seen a photo of her mother’s father. When she saw this picture, she told me, it was listed under the name Carter J. Jackson, but Crawford couldn’t find a Carter Jackson in the census records for that area. She recognized some of the names he mentioned in his narrative from her genealogical research, and showed the photo to her mother, who immediately recognized her father. Carter J. Jackson was in fact Carter J. Johnson. The interviewer must have made a mistake.
Crawford’s mother was born to two unwed parents. They lived nearby, but the man she called Papa, the man she always thought of as her father, was Carter Johnson. Johnson, a deacon in the local church, and his wife, Sally Gray Johnson (whom Crawford called Big Mama, and who is the woman on the porch in the photo), took her in and raised her as their own. Crawford never knew her grandfather—he died nine years before she was born—but his presence was still in the air as she grew up.
Crawford’s mother didn’t have a photograph of her father, and it meant a great deal to Crawford to be able to give her one. “It was very emotional to me,” she said.
She remembers her mother telling her a story, long before she read it in the narrative, about how Johnson and other enslaved people had been forced to walk from Alabama to Texas while guiding their owner’s cattle and horses and a flock of turkeys the entire way. She couldn’t understand how someone could make other people walk so far, for so long.In the narrative, Johnson says that his mother, a woman named Charlotte from Tennessee, and his father, a man named Charles from Florida, had each been sold to a man named Parson Rogers and that he’d brought them to Alabama, where Johnson was born.
What Johnson describes was not uncommon. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation, enslavers throughout the Confederacy continued to hold Black people in bondage for the rest of the war. And even after General Robert E. Lee surrendered, on April 9, 1865, effectively signaling that the Confederacy had lost the war, many enslavers in Texas and other states did not share this news with their human property. In the narratives, formerly enslaved people recount how the end of their bondage did not correspond with military edicts or federal legislation. Rather, emancipation was a long, inconsistent process that delayed the moments when people first tasted freedom.
Johnson’s narrative opens and closes with stories of separation. Near the beginning he says:
I had seven brothers call Frank and Benjamin and Richardson and Anderson and Miles, Emanuel and Gill, and three sisters call Milanda, Evaline and Sallie, but I don’t know if any of ’em are livin’ now.
Then, toward the end, he speaks about the last time he saw his mother:
Me and four of her chillen standin’ by when mammy’s sold for $500.00. Cryin’ didn’t stop ’em from sellin’ our mammy ’way from us.
“The fact that his mother and several of his siblings were sold away, and he was standing there watching this happen,” Crawford said, her voice cracking. “That’s just—that’s just heartbreaking.”
I asked Crawford about the first line of Johnson’s narrative, a line striking in how direct it is:
If you’s wants to know ’bout slavery time, it was Hell.
“Well, you know, it’s just kind of gut-wrenching, isn’t it?” she said. “It was hell. And that’s the word. When my mother saw that word she just kind of jumped. Because she said she’d never heard him curse. And to her, he wasn’t talking about heaven and hell, in the way that, you know, a preacher or minister might. And it was jarring to her.”
Crawford’s genealogical research was driven in part by a desire to trace her biological lineage, because her mother had been adopted. But she also began searching for those who had enslaved her family. In the census records, she found a Rogers who matched her grandfather’s description of “Massa Rogers.” Then, in a Texas newspaper, she found an article written by one of Rogers’s descendants that celebrated the family’s local history, despite all that that history included.“These folks are proud of their heritage,” Crawford told me. “Even though it includes the fact that their people enslaved other people.”Crawford wrote to the newspaper, which put her in touch with the article’s author. She didn’t say that his family had enslaved hers. She simply said that, based on her research, the two families were “connected.” But she believes he understood. It was a small town, and the names she mentioned should have made the nature of the connection obvious.
I wondered what Crawford had been hoping to get from these exchanges. Did she want an apology? A relationship? Something else?
She told me she’d been looking for information about her family, trying to recover names of ancestors that had never entered the public record. The man promised to send her some documents from his family members but never did. More important, she added, “I was hoping that they’re acknowledging our humanity. And that just like he is interested in and proud of his ancestry, so am I.”
“I would like to say that I’m an observer, and that I can be emotionally detached,” she said, but “it just brings tears to my eyes, how they were treated.” One of the things that left Crawford most unsettled was that the Rogers family back then had claimed to espouse the principles of Christianity. “The people that enslaved my ancestors were ministers, pastors, preachers.”
For Crawford, reading Johnson’s words was the entry point into an entire world of ex-slave narratives. “They really weren’t fed well. They weren’t housed well. They were just required to work from sunup to sundown. They were whipped,” she told me. “It is horrendous. But still, in all, I feel so blessed to have found that document.”
“Why is that?” I asked.“Because it’s a link to our shared history,” she said. “We existed. We conquered. We overcame.”
My mammy said dat slavery wuz a whole lot wusser ’fore I could ’member. She tol’ me how some of de slaves had dere babies in de fiel’s lak de cows done, an’ she said dat ’fore de babies wuz borned dey tied de mammy down on her face if’en dey had ter whup her ter keep from ruinin’ de baby.
Lucy brown didn’t know her age when she was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project on May 20, 1937, in Durham, North Carolina. She had no birth certificate, no sense of what year she’d come into this world. Brown’s testimony is shorter than many of the others, in part because she was so young—perhaps only 6 or 7—as slavery entered its final days.
“I wuz jist a little thing when de war wuz over,” she said.
We belonged to John Neal of Person County. I doan know who my pappy wuz, but my mammy wuz named Rosseta an’ her mammy’s name ’fore her wuz Rosseta. I had one sister named Jenny an’ one brother named Ben.
The narrative is a mix of small memories she carried with her from her early childhood and memories that had been passed on to her from her mother.
Gregory Freeland, like both Lewis and Crawford, came across the narrative of his great-great-grandmother while researching his family history. He was raised just outside Durham, where he lived with his mother and his great-grandmother—Lucy’s daughter. He found the narrative only after she had died.
When Freeland was a child, his family members would tell stories about their lives, but he wasn’t interested in hearing them. “I was sort of ready to get away from that, that slavery thing,” he told me. “So I never paid attention. It seemed like schoolwork.”
Now he wishes he’d asked his great-grandmother about her life, and her mother’s life. He felt grateful for having stumbled onto this narrative, and for how connected it made him feel to a history that he’d previously taken for granted. “This is the link to the past,” he said.Freeland was drafted in 1967 to serve in the Vietnam War. He was stationed in Korea when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and according to Freeland, the Army worked to “keep the temperature down” after King’s death so that Black soldiers—who were fighting a war for a country that still didn’t afford them basic rights—wouldn’t get too upset. The strange dissonance of being sent to the other side of the world to fight for a country that had just killed the leader of your people stayed with Freeland long after he came back to the U.S.
The GI Bill paid for him to go to college, and covered most of graduate school, where he studied political science. For the past 30 years, he’s been a professor at California Lutheran University, where he teaches courses on race, politics, and the civil-rights movement—subjects he feels are urgent and necessary for students at this college with a tiny Black population.
He told me he’s “trying to keep this history alive, because it’s getting further and further away.”The Durham of Freeland’s childhood smelled of tobacco. He remembers the ubiquity of chicken noises, mixed with music from people’s houses as they sang while they cooked or listened to the radio on the porch. His family grew fruits and vegetables in their yard, and Freeland helped kill the chickens and hogs they raised. “I had to go out and wring the chickens’ neck,” he told me. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it happen, but you grab the chicken by the neck and wring it, wring it, wring it until the body pops off. And when the body pops off, it flops around for a while.”
“My students,” he said, “they can’t fathom that life was like that.”
Freeland grew up in the same town where his great-great-grandmother had settled after the Civil War. Known then as Hickstown—named for a white landowner, Hawkins Hicks—the community had begun as an agricultural settlement for the formerly enslaved on the western edge of Durham. Over the course of several decades, it became a self-reliant Black community where the formerly enslaved, their children, and their children’s children all lived together. This history is reflected in Lucy Brown’s narrative:
I can’t tell yo’ my age but I will tell yo’ dat eber’body what lives in dis block am either my chile or gran’chile. I can’t tell yo’ prexackly how many dar is o’ ’em, but I will tell you dat my younges’ chile’s baby am fourteen years old, an’ dat she’s got fourteen youngun’s, one a year jist lak I had till I had sixteen.
As nearby duke university grew, so too did Hickstown, which became known as Crest Street. Residents served as food-service workers, housekeepers, maintenance staff. By the 1970s, the community had more than 200 households, and more than 60 percent of residents worked for the university, according to the Southern Oral History Program at the University of North Carolina. This included Freeland’s mother, who walked every day from the dirt roads surrounding their home to the paved streets near Duke. And though many of the jobs available did not pay much, it was a tight-knit community of people deeply invested in one another, and in the history of the community their ancestors had built.
Crest Street came under threat in the 1970s with the planned expansion of the East-West Expressway, which would slice directly through the center of this century-old Black community. The residents decided to fight the plan. They hired a team of lawyers and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Transportation, citing Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination “under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” In 1980, the U.S. Department of Transportation ruled that the highway project could not move forward as proposed, because it would disproportionately affect Black residents.
Representatives from the North Carolina Department of Transportation and members of the Crest Street community began meeting to see if they could come to an agreement. Crest Street residents invited officials to visit their homes, so that they could see what the construction project would have demolished. Ultimately, a compromise was reached in which the residents would all move to an area that was adjacent to their original neighborhood, keeping the community largely intact.
Listening to Freeland tell this story, I thought about how remarkable it was that in this same place where formerly enslaved people had built a community for themselves after generations of bondage, Black people once again had to defend themselves against a government that was attempting to take away a sort of freedom.
For Freeland, stories of towns like Crest Street, and the activists who kept the community together, are just as essential to document as the stories of his formerly enslaved great-great-grandmother. “I’d like to interview people who lived through the segregationist era,” he told me. “And I’d like to interview those people who participated in making change—Black people who are maybe my age, who grew up in this kind of community—before we pass on.”
“Who is going to remember,” he said, “if nobody’s there to tell it?”
Freeland is right. There are other stories of the Black experience that should be collected—and soon. Recently, I’ve become convinced of the need for a large-scale effort to document the lives of people who lived through America’s southern apartheid; who left the land their families had lived on for generations to make the Great Migration to the North and West; who were told they were second-class citizens and then lived to see a person who looked like them ascend to the highest office in the land. Their stories exist in our living rooms, on our front porches, and on the lips of people we know and love. But too many of these stories remain untold, in many cases because no one has asked.
What would a new Federal Writers’ Project look like? How could we take the best of what the narratives of the 1930s did and build on them, while avoiding the project’s mistakes?
When I raised the idea with the historians I interviewed, their voices lit up with energy as they imagined what such a project might look like.
“Historians would definitely need to be in charge,” Stephanie Jones-Rogers told me. Specifically, Black scholars should lead the project. “There’s a way in which to not only center the Black experience, but also to privilege Black intellect, Black brilliance,” she said. “It would be a project like none we’ve ever seen.”
Daina Ramey Berry thought family members should conduct the interviews. “Almost like a StoryCorps on NPR,” she said, “because I think you’re going to get a more authentic story about what life was like.” Berry thought that even well-intentioned strangers might re-create some of the same dynamics in place in the 1930s. She worried about the implications, again, of having federal workers going into older Black folks’ homes and asking them deeply personal questions about what may have been a traumatic time in their lives.
Catherine Stewart believes that there would be important benefits to having such a project led by the federal government: “Funding, first and foremost, at a level other agencies and nonprofit organizations simply don’t have.” She added that the federal government already has the infrastructure this sort of project would require—in places like the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Library of Congress. The government also has the ability to ensure that the public has access to it.
When I began reading the Federal Writers’ Project ex-slave narratives, I thought about my own grandparents. I thought about my grandfather, and how his grandfather had been born into bondage. About my grandmother, and how the grandparents who raised her had been born just after abolition. About how, in the scope of human history, slavery was just a few moments ago. I thought, too, of everything my grandmother and grandfather have seen—born in 1939 Jim Crow Florida and 1930 Jim Crow Mississippi, respectively, and now living through the gravest pandemic in a century and watching their great-grandchildren, my children, grow up over FaceTime.
About a year ago, I decided to interview them. I spoke with them each individually, an audio recorder sitting on the table between us, and listened as they told me stories about their lives that I had never heard. My grandfather and his siblings hid in the back room under a bed while white supremacists rode on horseback through their community to intimidate Black residents. As my grandmother walked to school on the red-dirt roads of northern Florida, white children passing by on school buses would lower their windows and throw food at her and the other Black children. For as much time as I’d spent with them, these were the sorts of stories I hadn’t heard before. The sorts of stories that are not always told in large groups at Thanksgiving while you’re trying to prevent your toddler from throwing mac and cheese across the room.
My children will, in a few decades, be living in a world in which no one who experienced the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will still be alive. What happens to those people’s stories if they are not collected? What happens to our understanding of that history if we have not thoroughly documented it?
Some of this work is already being done—by the Southern Oral History Program and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, for instance—but not on a scale commensurate with what the Federal Writers’ Project did. That requires financial and political investment. It requires an understanding of how important such a project is.
Imagine if the government were to create a new Federal Writers’ Project. One committed to collecting, documenting, and sharing the stories of Black people who lived through Jim Crow, of Japanese Americans who lived through internment, of Holocaust refugees who resettled in America, of veterans who fought in World War II and the Vietnam War. And stories like those of the people in Freeland’s great-great-grandmother’s town, who fought to keep their community together when the state wanted to split it apart. There are millions of people who experienced extraordinary moments in American history, and who won’t be around much longer to tell us about them. Some of these moments are ones we should be proud of, and some should fill us with shame. But we have so much to learn from their stories, and we have a narrowing window of time in which to collect them.
I keep thinking of something Freeland told me, and how his words speak to both the stakes and the possibility of this moment.
“We survived,” he said. “And I’m still around.”
This article appears in the March 2021 print edition with the headline “We Mourn for All We Do Not Know.”
Classical pianist Lara Downes knew she was onto something profound when audiences began to react to her show-closing rendition of “Fantasie Negre,” a 1929 composition by the African American composer Florence Beatrice Price. Instead of relying on motifs typical of the time period, Price injected a new musical influence by adapting the melody of the soulful spiritual “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass.”
“People would go nuts,” recalls Downes. “It was this sound that people hadn’t heard before.” Although Price was the first black female composer to have a symphony performed by a major American orchestra, her works remained outside the mainstream of classical concert music, not to mention beyond name recognition of the most casual classical music fan. Downes, who also hosts Amplify with Lara Downes on NPR, first came across Price’s music in the mid-aughts, in a dusty library copy of a collection of compositions by Price and her contemporaries.
Downes’ new project, Rising Sun Music, aims to reframe the history of American classical music by embracing its diverse origins and composers of color like Price, while building a more inclusive future for the genre. The project, created and curated by Downes and assisted by veteran classical music producer Adam Abeshouse, is a series of newly recorded works written by black composers—including many works that have never been recorded before—performed by Downes with guest artists. She plans to release one song per week to streaming platforms, with a new theme every month, beginning February 5.
During an era when American popular music was defined by Aaron Copland’s sweeping fanfares and George Gershwin’s cinematic melding of styles, African American composers brought their own heritage to their music. Inspired by social and artistic movements in Harlem and Chicago, musicians like Price or Harry T. Burleigh took spirituals, a form borne out of a mix of African traditions with Christian themes, and enshrined them in the lexicon of concert performance music. Burleigh’s composition “On Bended Knees,” for example, notably quotes the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”
Such overt references in classical and concert music to spirituals, notes Horace J. Maxile, Jr., a music theory professor at Baylor University whose musicology work centers on African American composers, often came in the rhythms and note choices.
“There could be actual quotes of spiritual tunes, or [they could] allude to the spiritual by way of their melodic content,” Maxile says. “There could also be evocations of the dance by way of lots of syncopated rhythms and snapped rhythms that feel like stomp, clap, stomp, clap.”
That Downes had never encountered Price before finding the library book, despite training at conservatories in Vienna, Paris and Basel, Switzerland, sent her deeper in search of composers of color, and Americans in particular. But for Downes, the daughter of a Jamaican-born father and a Jewish mother who had lived abroad since her teenage years, her quest was as much a search for her own identity.
“I had just come back to this country by myself without my family,” who remained in Europe, she says. “I was living in cities like Berkeley and New York and sort of processing myself through the eyes of other people and just having all of this input about what it means to walk in the world as a person of color.”
Downes’s childhood in California was preoccupied with loss; her father fell ill and died when she was 9 years old. Growing up in a white environment in San Francisco, she says, left her filled with questions about the part of her family she had lost—questions that led her to trace the larger arc of American identity on her 2001 album American Ballads, and then on America Again in 2016, which included her studio performance of Price’s “Fantasie Negre.”
While studying in Europe, where she walked in the footsteps of composers like Beethoven and Mozart, she says she felt the contradiction of feeling at home playing the piano eight hours a day while also being an outsider twice over—both as an American and as a person of color. Likewise, she found that works by American composers were generally ignored by European conservatories.
“Studying in Europe was the first time that I encountered this kind of bias against a certain type of American music,” she says. “I remember wanting to play something American, and … they didn’t know anything about American music. I think they had vaguely heard of Aaron Copland, maybe, but I remember wanting to play ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and it was laughable that I would do such a thing.”
When it came to black composers, the situation she found back home wasn’t much different than the strictures she faced abroad. Maxile says that could be due in part to how classical music is tied to class and race in America. The early consumers of classical music were wealthy Americans with access to leisure tied to European culture and its composers; those associations persist today. For conductors of American orchestras and other classical performing groups, these realities, among others, factor into how they select music for performance, which exacerbates the problem of black composers’ anonymity.
“What are you going to program—are you going to go to the things that are going to get people in the seats, and your wealthy donors, or are you going to take a couple of chances?” posits Maxile. “I think some conductors might be wrestling with that. Some are taking some chances and doing some innovative programming, and putting some things out in schools and that kind of thing, but there’s also that go-to clientele, so to speak, that you might have to continuously cultivate.”
With Rising Sun Music, Downes is expanding on her recent explorations into black classical compositions. Last year, her twin releases, Florence Price Piano Discoveries and Some of These Days, highlighted Price as well as pioneers like Burleigh and Margaret Bonds, the first African American to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a composer and arranger known for her collaborations with poet Langston Hughes.
Downes will begin her series with the theme “Remember Me to Harlem,” a nod to the importance of Harlem Renaissance composers such as William Grant Still, the first African American to have an opera produced by the New York City Opera, and Eubie Blake, who co-authored one of the first Broadway musicals written and directed by African Americans. The monthlong February run is also a tribute to her father, who grew up in Harlem and attended the same church as Burleigh.
The church, of course, had a large influence on the work of pioneering black composers, and not only in the religious sense. At a time when African Americans owned little real estate, churches were one of the few spaces where they could congregate, collaborate and perform. “The church was a central place for cultural development as well as spiritual, and social, and educational development as well during those years,” says Maxile.
Price, who will be featured in March as part of the “Phenomenal Women” theme, wrote compositions based on spirituals from the black church, choosing to embrace her roots instead of writing music that adhered to a more Eurocentric tradition.
“It’s an intentional thing… and it’s a surprising thing, because already you’re a woman [and] nobody’s going to take you seriously as a composer,” she says. “Now you’re a black woman, and twice they’re not going to take you seriously as a composer. And you still make that choice.”
Rising Sun Music, which borrows its name from lyrics of the “black national anthem,” the unifying spiritual “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” comes along at a time when Americans are divided along racial, political and class lines more than at any moment in the last half-century. Downes says she wants to set people on a journey of discovery to understand the roots of American classical music, where it has traveled and who it has connected along the way. She hopes it can help others in the same way her journey into the works of black composers brought her to understand her own American identity.
“We’re all just feeling this urgency to find the places where we come together, right? That’s the only way that we can heal all this division,” says Downes. “When you hear the music, you hear that. You hear that we’re all connected, and you hear a song with different references or context or memories than I do. But it’s the same song, and that’s the beauty of it.”
Scholar, writer, editor of The Crisis and other journals, co-founder of the Niagara Movement, the NAACP, and the Pan African Congresses, international spokesperson for peace and for the rights of oppressed minorities, W.E.B. Du Bois was a son of Massachusetts who articulated the strivings of African Americans and developed a trenchant analysis of the problem of the color line in the twentieth century.
Includes over 100,000 items of correspondence (more than three-quarters of the papers), speeches, articles, newspaper columns, nonfiction books, research materials, book reviews, pamphlets and leaflets, petitions, novels, essays, forewords, student papers, manuscripts of pageants, plays, short stories and fables, poetry, photographs, newspaper clippings, memorabilia, videotapes, audiotapes, and miscellaneous materials.
In a time of racial reckoning, a new film looks at a very personal attempt to address racial injustices in this country.
“Ashes to Ashes” are the final words in typical African American funeral services. Many of those who were murdered by the Klan to maintain the reign of white supremacy never received their “Ashes to Ashes”.
Ashes to Ashes, the film, is an endearing portrait of Winfred Rembert, an avid Star Wars fan and master leather-work artist who survived an attempted lynching in 1967. This moving short documentary showcases the incredible friendship he has forged with Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker, as she creates and establishes an interactive art exhibit to memorialize the more than 4,000 African Americans who were lynched during the Jim Crow era. Taking all of her experiences from her love of medicine, art and people, Dr. Shirley J. Whitaker, MD, created the Ashes to Ashes program that will provide for a real memorial (funeral) service for the over 2 million lost during the Middle Passages.
FROM 1882-1968, 4,743 LYNCHINGS OCCURRED IN THE UNITED STATES. OF THESE PEOPLE THAT WERE LYNCHED 3,446 WERE BLACK (72%). THE MAJORITY OCCURING IN THE SOUTH (79%). This too is Black History.
The goal of the project by Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker is to acknowledge and mourn the African Americans who were racially terrorized during the Jim Crow era after the Civil War and until this very day. Some endured lynching and other forms of brutalization and therefore, they never received a proper burial. The ceremony was a celebration of thousands of African Americans. As we must. #BlackHistoryMonth2021
Dr. Whitaker will join us this week. Mr. Rembert is unable to join us tonight. We will host him soon.
Dr. Whitaker is the seventh child of Eddie and Charlie Mae Jackson from Waycross, Georgia. Dr. Whitaker attended Clark Atlanta University completing a BS degree with honors in Biology. She attended Yale University School of Medicine-Department of Public Health and obtained her medical degree form Emory University School of Medicine, the only female African American in her class. A kidney specialist by trade, an artist trained under Leonard Baskin, and a healer by passion, her Ashes to Ashes project was developed to provide hope for a better American future, one in which races of varying color and heritage can understand the importance of each other’s American history, empathize with each other’s sacrifices and tragedies, realize the legacy of impacts from suffered injustices and accept that healing is a process as much a cure, and recognize and lay to rest the 4,000 victims of vigilante justice perpetrated against a predominantly black population for simply desiring the most basic of American rights of obtaining an education, ownership of land, fair competition in commerce, the uniquely American right of voting for our governing institutions and for an equal stake in the American experience. She is currently working on the second phase of A2A: The Noose: Tread of Hate and Resilience. This will center on American history through the lens of lynching and will include an International Speak My Name Day to speak the names of the lynched.
Mr. Rembert grew up in rural Georgia, in a farm laborer’s house and later in the small town of Cuthbert. Raised by his great-aunt, Rembert worked with her in the cotton fields during much of his childhood, and received little formal education. As a teenager he got involved in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Jailed for fleeing for his life in a stolen car, nearly lynched and then cut down to serve as an example to others, Rembert was sentenced to 27 years in the Georgia Penal System. Despite the cruel prison circumstances, Rembert learned to read and write and managed to meet and write letters to his would-be wife Patsy as well as to congressmen, with the hope of gaining early release. He also learned the craft of hand-tooling leather from a fellow-prisoner. After seven years, most of which was spent on chain gangs, Rembert was released from prison, but it wasn’t until 1997, at the age of 51, that he began to work more seriously with leather as his artistic medium, creating tooled and dyed canvases that tell the stories of his life. His paintings have been exhibited at galleries across the country—including the Yale University Art Gallery, the Adelson Galleries New York, and the Hudson River Museum—and have been profiled in The New York Times and elsewhere. Rembert is the recipient of a 2017 USA Fellowship, and in 2015 was an honoree of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative. Rembert’s full-color memoir, Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2021.
“I’ll Be Listening for You”
Join us for the OUR COMMON GROUND BHM Special
“A History of Black Political Movements in America”
The Post-ReConstruction, Civil Rights, Black Power, and “unnamed” Black struggle movements grew out of each other and have steadily gained momentum through 2020. Some were not a formal movement, however, these movements marked a turning point in the meaning of Black struggle in the United States and also in how Black people saw themselves, generation to generation. All of the many Black movements are hailed as significant struggles of Blacks to achieve full equality. They were complex events that took place at a time when society and culture were being transformed throughout the United States, and their legacy reflects that complexity. But what of the interplay and relationship of all Black legacy political movements that occurred since Emancipation? They were all building blocks, learning opportunities, and a continuum of victories for our people. What we do know is that the descendants of American chattel slavery have waged the most successful and effective protests in American, indeed, world history. Our greatest achievements include teaching America the real meaning of justice, freedom, and resistance.
We need to know and understand the networks that compose the many Black struggles and movement that brought us to our current political struggles. It is how we measure our worth and etch out our future
This course of study will review the history of the many Black struggle movements and events that brought us to the election of Barack Obama resistance that brings us to the white supremacy insurrection and riots on January 6, 2021. What we see happening in America, the growth of white supremacy and confederacy politics become clear through the understanding of our journey toward freedom. This lecture series will provide knowledge of where we have been, Black achievement in how Black people have transformed America.
Series Schedule Thursdays, 8-10 pm EST
February 4, 2021
Session 1: Overview of significant Black political movements and events.
Black Politics and the Reconstruction Era
Black Politics of the Jim Crow Era
Black Politics creating the Civil Rights Era
Black Political development during the Black Power Era
February 11, 2021
Session 2: Review of Syllabus Examine why certain sources are most helpful to us to understand the continuum and projection of history forming new generations of struggle. How history informs strategic directions of each of the major movements.
February 18, 2021
Session 3: Black political diversities and ideologies. Examining class, economics, religion, spirituality, art, gender, sexuality, and how they have factored in Black movement history.
February 25, 2021
Session 4: Practical Strategies for 21st Century Black and Peoples’ movements.
About Dr. James L. Taylor
Professor James Lance Taylor is the Chair of the Department of Politics at the University of San Francisco and is from Glen Cove, Long Island. He is the author of the book “Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama”, which earned 2012 “Outstanding Academic Title” – Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. (Ranked top 2 percent of 25,000 books submitted and top 8 percent of 7,300 actually accepted for review by the American Library Association). Rated “Best of the Best.” The hardback version sold out in the U.S. and the paperback version was published in 2014.
He is a former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), an important organization of African American, African, and Afro Caribbean political scientists in the United States, 2009-2011. Taylor also served as Coordinator of the African American Studies Program for 2015-2017 at the University of San Francisco. He served as the Chair for the “Committee on the Status of Blacks” in Political Science for the American Political Science Association (APSA), 2016-2017.
“You ever been here?” Yterenickia Bell asks me as we wait for the door to the Cascade Skating Rink to be unlocked. “It’s historic,” she says, ushering me out of the December rain and into the fluorescent-lit roller-skating spot in west Atlanta’s Adamsville neighborhood. “People have been gathering here for years.”
The rink is awaiting the night crowd. Video games sit silent in a corner. The snack bar is dark except for a flashing neon sign. But it’s not empty: a handful of people in orange shirts and masks are chatting at the other end of the rink before braving the rain to get out the vote for Senate candidate Raphael Warnock. Bell is the GOTV director for Care in Action, an advocacy group whose members are mostly nannies, housecleaners, and home health workers. “We operate out of here because we have everyday folks that are workers that may have lost their jobs due to COVID, and a saturation of them live in this area,” she says. “It’s the community helping the community.”
I’d come to Georgia to see Democrats’ ground game ahead of the Senate runoff, and in particular, to understand the role that this group of domestic workers, most of whom are women of color, has had in turning the state purple. Right now the rink is the center of the action. From here, Bell has been organizing 250 door-knockers a day to get the word out about the race and voting logistics. “It takes people who are committed to this work, who know what’s at stake,” she says. “They have to get up every morning at eight o’clock to be here by nine for training and then go out to their specific turf and knock on people’s doors.” In the two months leading up to the runoff, Care in Action reached out to 5.85 million voters, either by phone, by mail, or in person, including more than 1 million door knocks. “Georgia is about to save our whole democracy, so we’re all in,” Bell says.
Those efforts paid off. Just after Georgians elected a Democrat for president for the first time in 30 years, they went on to pick Warnock, a Black preacher, and Jon Ossoff, a Jewish millennial, to represent them in the Senate, clinching Democrats’ narrow control of the chamber. In majority-Black precincts, early numbers indicated that the turnout in the January runoff would surpass that of November 2020 and reach a level not seen since Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection. Republican turnout was also strong, but not enough to turn back a second blue wave in so many months.
Though Care in Action is not affiliated with Stacey Abrams, who has been widely credited with turning Georgia blue, its work is a direct extension of Democrats’ decade-long effort to reshape the state by organizing voters of color. “What it takes to win in Georgia is a multiracial coalition,” says Rep. Nikema Williams, who served as Care in Action’s deputy director in 2018 and now holds the US House seat formerly held by Rep. John Lewis. And just as that coalition did not come together overnight, it also drew upon generations of organizing by Black domestic workers. “I do believe that investment in long-term, community-based organizing and power building does pay off,” says Ai-jen Poo, Care in Action’s senior adviser and the founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “Throughout our history, Black domestic workers have organized and have really asserted their dignity through organizing.”
Atlanta is the birthplace of that movement. The first recorded domestic workers’ strike was in 1881, when Black women in Atlanta left their posts to demand better wages. Dorothy Lee Bolden helped create the National Domestic Workers Union of America (a precursor to NDWA) in the city in 1968. It was less a formal union than an education and advocacy effort, which Bolden led for nearly three decades. She built an infrastructure that took the union directly to the people it represented, using public buses to hold informal meetings and recruit domestic workers during their daily commute. There were two requirements to join the union: Members had to be domestic workers, and they had to vote.
Bolden started her career as a domestic worker when she was 9, washing diapers for the family who employed her mother as a housekeeper. As an adult, she cleaned houses and looked after children during the day, and spent her nights watching Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches on television while she sewed for her daughters. She marched with King when he came to Atlanta and she organized a boycott of city schools in 1964 to protest disparities in education quality between Black and white children, and she applied the lessons from her activism to the NDWU. “A domestic worker is a counselor, a doctor, a nurse; she cares about the family she works for as she cares about her own,” she said in 1983. Even so, she noted, domestic workers “have never been recognized as part of the labor force.” She was determined to change that, and in doing so she built a lasting community among domestic workers where there once had been disempowered people working in isolation.
The NDWU eventually spread to 10 more states, won workers’ compensation and Social Security benefits, and helped raise the minimum wage in Atlanta by 33 percent. Bolden also had an influential voice that affected national policy; her expertise was sought by presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter.
The movement fizzled a bit in the ’80s as union power declined but it was revived a decade ago when Poo began organizing home care workers to push for greater labor protections. After notching win after win, she realized that the women she’d helped bring together were an untapped voting bloc. In 2018, she launched Care in Action to get out the vote for women candidates who stand by policies that domestic workers could benefit from. That same year, Abrams ran for governor of Georgia while pushing an unabashedly progressive agenda that included expanding Medicaid, raising the minimum wage, and ensuring quality public education. Abrams received Care in Action’s first endorsement, and the group mobilized 300 domestic workers to canvass for her.
People who worked on that campaign recall there was a beautiful synergy in domestic workers rallying for the possibility of Abrams becoming Georgia’s first Black governor. “We were very intentional about running a program that reached out to people that have been overlooked in the political process for way too long,” Williams recalls. “Our unique skill set was having our membership actually do the canvassing. It really changed the game for us and the way we were able to expand the electorate.”
Though Abrams lost her bid, thanks in no small part to the voter suppression tactics of her opponent, then–Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Poo and others felt they had bottled lightning. Indeed, in terms of people pounding the pavement, Care in Action was the largest independently funded grassroots effort in Georgia during the 2018 election cycle. Since then, it has expanded into Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Nevada, Arizona, and Michigan. It started small, focusing on a few state candidates and the presidential election, with an eye toward expanding its operations in Georgia.
Despite the challenges presented by a pandemic that forced a rethink of its campaign outreach and infrastructure, Care in Action was able to carry the energy from 2018 through two more hard-fought races in 2020. “I think that [Abrams’ loss] was the momentum that we needed, that propelled us to be ready and to be able to launch for the Senate runoff as well as engage in a general,” Bell says. “We were able to essentially flip our state blue.”
The stakes are clear to Melanie Jackson, a domestic worker in the Atlanta area who tells me that canvassing with Care in Action made her feel like she was making a difference in a state whose elections have deep repercussions for the rest of the country. She recalls a recent conversation she’d had with a Black man in his 30s who told her he wasn’t planning to vote—he just didn’t feel like there was any point. She says she stared at him, incredulous. “You’re gonna miss the first opportunity to send a Black man from Georgia to the United States Senate?” she asked him.
He responded, “Sister, just because you said that, I’m going to go vote for the guy.”
“We locked eyes,” she told me. “I know that he went and followed through on that, and he probably thought about me as he was pressing those buttons. No doubt in my mind.”
The Black Power movement grew out of the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT that had steadily gained momentum through the 1950s and 1960s. It was not a formal movement, however, the Black Power movement marked a turning point in Black-white relations in the United States and also in how Black people saw themselves. Both movements were hailed as significant struggles of Blacks to achieve full equality. They were complex events that took place at a time when society and culture were being transformed throughout the United States, and its legacy reflects that complexity. But what of the legacy political movements that occurred right after the Emancipation of slavery? We need to know and understand the networks that compose the many Black struggles and movement that brought us to our current political struggles.
This course of study will review the history of the many Black struggle movements and events that brought us to the election of Barack Obama resistance that brings us to the white supremacy insurrection and riots on January 6, 2021. We hope that you will join us.
February 4, 2021
Session 1: Overview of significant historical Black political movements and events.
Black Politics and the Reconstruction Era
Black Politics of the Jim Crow Era
Black Politics creating the Civil Rights Era
Black Political development during the Black Power Era
February 11, 2021
Session 2: Review of Syllabus Examine why certain sources are most helpful to us to understand the continuum and projection of history forming new generations of struggle. How history informs strategic directions of each of the major movements.
February 18, 2021
Session 3: Black political diversities and ideologies. Examining class, economics, religion, spirituality, art, gender, sexuality, and how they have factored in Black movement history.
February 25, 2021
Session 4: Practical Strategies for 21st Century Black and Peoples’ movements.
About Dr. James L. Taylor, Ph.D.
Chair, Department of Politics, former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), an important organization of African American, African, and Afro Caribbean political scientist community in the United States, 2009-2011.
Professor James Lance Taylor is from Glen Cove, Long Island. He is the author of the book “Black Nationalism in the United States: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama”, which earned 2012 “Outstanding Academic Title” – Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. (Ranked top 2 percent of 25,000 books submitted and top 8 percent of 7,300 actually accepted for review by the American Library Association). Rated “Best of the Best.” The hardback version sold out in the U.S. and the paperback version was published in 2014.
He is a former President of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists (NCOBPS), an important organization of African American, African, and Afro Caribbean political scientists in the United States, 2009-2011. Taylor also served as Chair of the Department of Politics at the University of San Francisco from 2012-2015, and Faculty Coordinator of the African American Studies Program for 2015-2017. He served as the Chair for the “Committee on the Status of Blacks” in Political Science for the American Political Science Association (APSA), 2016-2017.
Professor Taylor is currently writing and researching a book with the working title, Peoples Temple, Jim Jones, and California Black Politics. He expects the book to be completed with a 2018-2019 publication range. The book is a study of the Peoples Temple movement and African American political history in the state of California.
His teaching and research scholarly interests are in religion and politics in the United States, race and ethnic politics, African American political history, social movements, political ideology, law and public policy, Black political leadership, and the U.S. Presidency. He lives with his family in Oakland, California.