Black Family Seeks Return of Its Beach Resort Land Near L.A. – The New York Times

This could also be titled, “How Imminent Domain was used as a tool to steal Black land ownership”.
Janice Graham

In 1912, Willa and Charles Bruce bought a plot of land on the Southern California coast.

It was an oceanside lot in an area dotted with sunny blossoms of evening primrose and purple clusters of lupine. The land, made accessible by red trolley cars that trundled to and from the growing metropolis of Los Angeles, was ripe for development.

The Bruces and their son, Harvey, came from New Mexico and were among the first Black people to settle in what would become the city of Manhattan Beach. They built a resort where other Black families could swim, lounge, eat and dance without being subject to racist harassment.

The harassment came anyway, and the resort thrived despite it. But city officials shuttered the enterprise by condemning the land in 1924, claiming to need it for a public park. The Bruces fought the move through litigation, but failed. The city paid them $14,500, and they left their beach and lost their business.

Nearly a century later, their descendants are still seeking restitution.

“I just want justice for my family,” said Anthony Bruce, 38, a descendant of the Bruces who lives in Florida and has childhood memories of visiting the California land his relatives once owned.

Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times
Visitors to Bruce’s Beach in 1920.
Credit…Miriam Matthews Photograph Collection – UCLA

“It’s been a scar on the family, financially and emotionally,” said Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, 69, a relative of the Bruces who lives in Los Angeles and is a chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of the Pokanoket Nation.

“What we want is restoration of our land to us,” he said, “and restitution for the loss of revenues.”

While the city is not seriously considering the possibility of monetary restitution — officials have said public funds cannot legally be used to pay such claims — property restoration is now on the table. Last week, Janice Hahn, a Los Angeles County supervisor, said she was open to returning the land to the family, ABC7 Eyewitness News reported. The land has been owned by the county since the 1990s and is now the site of a training center for lifeguards.

“This was an injustice inflicted upon not just Willa and Charles Bruce but generations of their descendants who would almost certainly be millionaires if they had been able to keep that beachfront property,” Ms. Hahn said in an emailed statement. She added, “I want the county to be part of righting this wrong.”

Both Mr. Bruce and Mr. Shepard said that restitution was about more just than their family. They pointed to the long history of racism in the United States, and to stories of Black people being robbed of their land or the fruits of their labor.

“We’ve been stripped of any type of legacy, and we’re not the only family that this has happened to,” Mr. Shepard said. “It’s happened all over the United States.”

Charles and Willa Bruce on their wedding day.
Credit…Anthony Bruce

Manhattan Beach has been reckoning with the story of the Bruces’ shuttered resort for years. A park there was renamed “Bruce’s Beach” in 2007, and the city erected a plaque to tell the family’s story.

But the plaque credits a white landowner, George Peck, with making it possible for the Bruce family to settle there. It omits reports of Mr. Peck’s attempts to obstruct Black beachgoers’ paths to the shore.

“We definitely need to change the plaque,” said Kavon Ward, 39, an organizer and resident of Manhattan Beach. “But that’s not going far enough for me. We need to figure out how to get this land back to the family it was stolen from.”

Last year, amid nationwide demonstrations prompted by the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis, Ms. Ward, who is Black, arranged a picnic at Bruce’s Beach to celebrate Juneteenth.

“I started thinking about the generational wealth that was stripped from that family,” she said. “It happened everywhere around this nation. We keep getting up, but why do we have to keep getting kicked down? Why? For me, it was time for reparations.”

Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times

Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian based in Los Angeles, wrote about the Bruces and other families in a book, “Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites During the Jim Crow Era.”

“Many people only think about African-American civil rights through economic and political power,” Dr. Jefferson said. “They sometimes forget about the fact that recreation was a big part of the struggle.”

When Willa and Charles Bruce first opened their property to visitors in 1912, it had a small stand that sold food and fizzy drinks. By 1923, the property had a lodge and a beachside cafe, with space upstairs for dancing. Mr. Bruce was often out of town, working as a dining car chef on trains to Salt Lake City. It was Ms. Bruce who bought the property and handled much of the business at the resort.

“Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused,” Ms. Bruce told The Los Angeles Times in 1912. “But I own this land and I am going to keep it.”

Willa Bruce, left, with her daughter-in-law and her sister in Manhattan Beach in the 1920s.
Credit…California African American Museum

Margie Johnson and John Pettigrew in Manhattan Beach in 1927.

Credit…LaVera White Collection of Arthur and Elizabeth Lewis

The Bruces made their investment in the era of Jim Crow, amid a resurgence of Ku Klux Klan activities across the United States and campaigns of white supremacist terror and lynchings that drove millions of African-Americans away from the South. There was less violence against Black people in California at the time, but discrimination was rampant.

Still, the resort at Bruce’s Beach appeared to prosper. Black-and-white photographs from the era captured beachgoers wearing bathing suits and bright smiles, couples lounging in the shade and families playing in the surf.

In time, a small community of Black landowners bloomed around the resort. According to Dr. Jefferson’s book, these included George Prioleau, a formerly enslaved retired Army major whose family developed a duplex along the shore; Mary Sanders, a caterer from Canada who was known as a skilled entrepreneur; and John and Bessie McCaskill, who hosted elaborate beachside breakfasts.

But some white neighbors and city officials were intent on dismantling the community. Black visitors to the beach endured harassment, slashed tires and arbitrary regulations. The California Eagle, a Black-owned newspaper, reported that the Ku Klux Klan was active along the California shoreline during the 1920s.

Credit…Gabriella Angotti-Jones for The New York Times

And in 1924, the city condemned the Bruces’ property, claiming eminent domain in order to use the land as a park. The couple, both of whom were in their 60s, eventually moved to Los Angeles.

The land they left behind would not be developed as a public park for more than three decades.

Tourists continued to visit Bruce’s Beach after the resort was shuttered. So did members of the N.A.A.C.P., who participated in a “swim-in” to assert their right to the sea in 1927, according to Dr. Jefferson’s book. Several Black beachgoers were arrested that year.

As the decades passed, Manhattan Beach grew to become an affluent city of about 35,000 people, a vast majority of whom are white. According to 2010 census data, less than 1 percent of the population is Black.

In October, Manhattan Beach convened a task force of 13 residents to come up with recommendations for the city to right historical wrongs. Next week, the City Council will meet to discuss those recommendations, which include changing the plaque, erecting an art installation and issuing an apology.

“That’s fine,” Ms. Ward said. “But there are things they could address if they were thinking creatively — if there really was a will to become a more diverse, equitable and inclusive place.” She suggested that officials consider forward-looking measures like a commitment to affordable housing.

At the county level, officials are expected to meet with Bruce family descendants next week to discuss handing over the property, which could also involve monetary restitution or an agreement to lease the land from the family.

But Mr. Shepard said the city that condemned the land should be the one to make amends.

Los Angeles County “is talking about restoring the land to us,” he said. “But the restitution and punitive damages, Manhattan Beach is going to have to pay. We’re going to keep up with them until we get it.”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

The Value of the Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narratives – The Atlantic

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.
grid of 14 photographs of formerly enslaved people from FWP
Portraits of formerly enslaved people, taken as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. Left to right, top row: Willis Winn (Texas); James Green, seated, with an unidentified individual (Texas); Ben Kinchelow (Texas); Charles H. Anderson (Ohio). Second row: Mary Crane (Indiana); Daniel Taylor (Alabama); Orelia Alexia Franks (Texas). Third row: Harriet Jones (Texas); Simp Campbell (Texas); Patsy Moses (Texas). Fourth row: Gus Johnson (Texas); Ben Horry (South Carolina); Maugan Shepherd (Alabama); William Henry Towns (Alabama).

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.

Noah Lewis
Noah Lewis discovered that his great-great-grandfather William Sykes was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project. (Hannah Price)

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.

archival photo of William Sykes; Noah Lewis’s parents, 1952
Noah Lewis’s great-great-grandfather William Sykes (left) was interviewed for the Federal Writers’ Project. Above right: Lewis’s parents in 1952, before moving to Germany. (Library of Congress; courtesy of Noah Lewis)
“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.

Janice Crawford
Janice Crawford had never seen a photograph of her grandfather before she came across his narrative in the FWP archive. Through her research, she also got in touch with a descendant of the family that had enslaved hers. (Hannah Price)

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.

Johnson says that in 1863—the year President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation—Rogers brought 42 of his enslaved workers to Texas, where the proclamation was not being enforced. There, they continued to be enslaved by Rogers for four years after the war ended.

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.”

Carter J. Johnson archival photo; photo of Emma Lee Johnson as a child
Carter J. Johnson (left) described watching with his siblings as his mother was sold. Later, he took in Janice Crawford’s mother, Emma Lee Johnson (right), and raised her as his own. (Library of Congress; courtesy of Janice Crawford)
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?”

Gregory Freeland
“This is the link to the past,” Gregory Freeland says of the FWP narrative from his great-great-grandmother Lucy Brown, who was a young girl when slavery was ending. (Stephanie Mei-Ling)

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.”

CLINT SMITH is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent and the forthcoming nonfiction book How the Word Is Passed.

Source: The Value of the Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narratives – The Atlantic

How Black Composers Shaped the Sound of American Classical Music | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian Magazine

How Black Composers Shaped the Sound of American Classical Music

A new project seeks to elevate artists like Harry T. Burleigh and Florence Price, whose work has been ignored by white audiences

Harry T. Burleigh
Musician Lara Downes aims to highlight the work of composers like Harry T. Burleigh, photographed c. 1938. (Granger)
SMITHSONIANMAG.COM

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.”

Lara Downes
Lara Downes’ new Rising Sun project hopes to reframe the history of American classical music by embracing its diverse origins and composers of color. (Jiyang Chen)

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.”

Source: How Black Composers Shaped the Sound of American Classical Music | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian Magazine

OUR COMMON GROUND with Janice Graham :: “Ashes to Ashes: Addressing Racial Injustice in America” :: Dr. Shirley J. Jackson, MD, Artist, Author and Filmographer :: February 6, 2021 :: 10 pm EST

“Ashes to Ashes: Addressing Racial Injustice in America”

Saturday, February 6, 2021 ∞ 10 pm EST ∞ LIVE

Tune In LIVE Here: http://bit.ly/OCGTruthTalk

Listen & Call In Line: 347-838-9852

About this Episode of OUR COMMON GROUND

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.

Watch the film here:

http://ashes2ashes4ever.com/video/Award-Winning-Rees-Films-Shirley-Whitaker-Winfred-Rembert-Ashes-to-Ashes-US-Lynchings-and-a-Story-of-Survival-Al-Jazeera-Witness.mp4

About Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker

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.

 About Winfred Rembert

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”

Janice

Join us for the OUR COMMON GROUND BHM Special

“A History of Black Political Movements in America”

Four-Week Lecture Series

Presenter, Dr. James L. Taylor, Ph.D.

Each Session: Thursdays 8- 10 pm EST :::

February 4, 11, 18, 25, 2021

“The History of Black Political Movements in America” ::: Four-Week Lecture Series ::: An OUR COMMON GROUND BHM Special :::

An OUR COMMON GROUND Black History Month 2021

Special

“A History of Black Political Movements”

A Four-Week Lecture Series

Presenter, Dr. James L. Taylor, Ph.D.

Each Session: Thursdays 8- 10 pm EST ::: February 4, 11, 18, 25, 2021

LIVE & InterActive: http://bit.ly/OCGTruthTalk

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.

Series SCHEDULE

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

      Reading Recommendations

      Timeline References

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.

 

A Broadcast Product of OUR COMMON GROUND Media

What should we do with plantations? – The Boston Globe

Black Lives Matter signs have popped up nearly everywhere. In June this slogan, or judiciously crafted approximations of it, began flooding my email inbox in the form of company statements that fell into a gray area between corporate responsibility, virtue signaling, and free advertising. During a 4th of July road trip to Vermont after I turned onto the wrong highway and found myself lost in New Hampshire, I saw the slogan painted in massive letters on the front of an aging barn. I thought then that a barn in a white, rural area took the prize for the most unexpected placement of a rallying cry for the fight against anti-Black racism, police brutality, and the lack of funding for social services. But the strangest place I have yet encountered the political mantra is the home page of a lavish Southern plantation house museum.

Berkeley Plantation, a National Historic Landmark that bills itself as “Virginia’s Most Historic Plantation,” is situated along the James River in Virginia, a colony and then state that enchained thousands of African Americans to produce lucrative tobacco crops before feeding, in the early 19th century, a massive forced migration of nearly one million Black people into the formerly Indigenous cotton lands of the Old Southwest. Berkeley Plantation’s home page features the romanticized lexicon and imagery that tourists anticipate and scholars of plantation tourism have long catalogued and criticized: genteel white owners, ornate architecture, splendid gardens, fine antiques, and decorous housewares. At Berkeley, the wealthy former residents who are extolled include Virginia Governor Benjamin Harrison and two of his descendants who became president, William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison. The idealized domestic setting is enlivened, the home page text promises, by “enthusiastic guides in period costume.” Visitors here, the website suggests, will step into an Old South fantasy that obscures how slavery in its myriad grotesque realities shaped the site economically, socially, politically, and culturally. But in this moment of public foment, the Berkeley Plantation website now fronts a bold banner across the top of the screen proclaiming: “Berkeley Plantation believes that Black Lives Matter.”

I was stunned to see this claim appearing above photographs of grounds once maintained by enslaved people and formal parlors with slaveholder portraits hanging on walls. It struck me as the most supreme irony, and even as a cruel joke, that an estate built on the chewed-up and spat-out lives of Black people was now purporting to cherish Black existence. Given that we live in a time when not saying something of this sort exposes businesses and cultural institutions to the scrutiny of public opinion, this plantation was disingenuous at best and opportunistic at worst, I thought.

Then I clicked on the banner and discovered a direct statement indicating the harm done to Black and Native people on those grounds. The statement opens with an affirmation, “We believe that Black Americans, Indigenous People and their descendants deserve justice,” and continues with an admission of responsibility as well as an aspirational action plan. “We recognize that enslaved people were present at Berkeley plantation,” the statement reads. “We are working with researchers and historians to uncover all aspects of this site’s past and there is much work and responsibility ahead to make this site a place for healing and awareness.” I was persuaded that Berkeley Plantation’s current operators care about this past and its legacy.

Nevertheless, they are stewarding a racist landmark among an entire class of public memorials — plantation homes and landscapes — with a grandeur and impact equal to or greater than the Confederate statues currently being toppled or secreted away in our summer of national reckoning with anti-democratic symbols. As Patricia J. Williams stated in a September 2019 piece in The Nation on plantation weddings: These iconic homes and landscapes are “monuments to slavery.” The relevant question is not whether any site staff believes in their hearts that Black life is valuable — but rather, what caretakers of plantation sites and visitors to these historic places will do differently as a result of this belief.

Visitors took a close look at a slave cabin at Whitney Plantation.
Visitors took a close look at a slave cabin at Whitney Plantation.DOUG WARREN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

NUMEROUS STUDIES OF plantation tourism, such as Jennifer Eichstedt and Stephen Small’s classic 2002 sociological study, “Representations of Slavery,” have found that plantation sites (especially those that are privately owned) tend toward Eurocentric portrayals of the past that participate in a process of “symbolic annihilation” in which Black presence is ignored or marginalized. Geographers E. Arnold Modlin, Derek Alderman, and Glenn Gentry argued in the journal Tourist Studies that even when plantation museums incorporate African Americans into tour narratives, they often do so in a distant manner that reduces Black experience to a cold recitation of population numbers, ages, and work tasks, rather than elevating Black residents to the level of white owners through stories that induce empathetic responses in visitors. The National Science Foundation has funded a team of geographers and historians headed by David Butler to conduct the most systematic study to date of a famous cluster of cotton estates known as the River Road Plantations spanning the Mississippi-Louisiana border. The team members are finding, as detailed in the Journal of Heritage Tourism, that even at sites that have made an effort to interpret enslaved people’s presence, features of the built environment, such as the location and size of the front-facing “big house” in comparison to “slave quarters” in the rear of a property, emphasize elite white experiences to the detriment of others.

Tourists who enter these landscapes often carry romanticized notions of the Old South that find affirmation in the spatial arrangement of the plantation that aggrandizes white mastery. I have found in my own research on ghost tourism in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Georgia, recounted in my book “Tales from the Haunted South,” that a handful of privately run plantation sites and walking tours market Black suffering in the form of horrific tales of sexual abuse and murder trivialized as ghost stories. It is heartbreaking and noteworthy, as well, that plantations can be heritage sites for white supremacists. Dylann Roof, who killed nine people participating in Bible study at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church in 2015, visited South Carolina plantation sites in the months leading up to his racially motivated attack.

Whitney Plantation tour guide Mikhala Iversen answered questions from visitors.
Whitney Plantation tour guide Mikhala Iversen answered questions from visitors.DOUG WARREN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Plantation tourism has changed slowly but substantially over the last decade, particularly with the 2014 opening of the innovative, privately owned Whitney Plantation in Louisiana that consciously centers African and African American experiences and with the 2015 opening of the McLeod Plantation in South Carolina, which is operated by Charleston County and interprets Black experiences before and after the Civil War. These sites are models for how the plantation museum experience has been reimagined, and yet, they have remained in the minority of Southern estate museums. The gradual shift at Whitney and McLeod has provoked resistance from white visitors who have expressed resentment at tours that address racial subjugation. Most plantation sites dependent on tourism dollars and public funding have tended not to risk the discomfort of their majority white visitors by highlighting Black experience and the trauma of slavery. In this fraught context, the Berkeley Plantation statement that openly engages contemporary racial politics seems rather courageous.

As public debate continues about commemorations to the Confederacy in the built environment, we should ask what is to be done with the hundreds of monuments to a pre-Civil War culture of racialized power that proliferate across the Southern landscape — and indeed, the Northern terrain — in the form of the plantation and country estate. How do we turn these homages to slavery into stages for meaningful dialogue? Not, I would suggest, by pretending they do not exist or taking aim with the wrecking ball.

The latter approach seems to have been adopted this July in South Carolina on the former Oaks Plantation of 18th-century ricing patriarch Arthur Middleton, where, according to The Post and Courier, a late 19th-century plantation revival home built on the original grounds was recently demolished by the corporate owner under the cover of night. Instead, we should push ourselves as visitors and stewards of these sites to reinvent them as spaces of facilitated conversation at the nexus of multiple social histories, as places of homecoming and meaning-making for descendants of the enslaved, and as sites where managers and tour guides of color have equal employment and advancement opportunities as well as shared authority to research and incorporate fresh interpretations. This vision might include any number of concrete actions. Among them could be a reversal of how visitors enter and experience physical places. Rather than entering a mansion first, tourists might be welcomed into the comparatively humble quarters to learn about the unfree population who built the wealth of others but also sustained their own lives and families.

Jim Smith and Paula Barry of Conway, Mass., examined names of Louisiana slaves recorded on the 18 monument walls in the Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall at Whitney Plantation.
Jim Smith and Paula Barry of Conway, Mass., examined names of Louisiana slaves recorded on the 18 monument walls in the Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall at Whitney Plantation.DOUG WARREN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Visitors might be invited to walk fields and survey outbuildings where many enslaved people spent the bulk of their time, to traverse any remaining wooded areas where enslaved people secretly met to practice their faith or temporarily escape corporal punishment, to tarry in work yards and kitchens where unfree workers practiced the range of skills necessary for supplying the white household. This approach would reveal not only the human strivings of Black and Indigenous people, but also the intricate, intimate, and violent relations that entwined the worlds of enslaved and enslaver.

With greater attention to plantation grounds, tour guides might even bring visitors into active, productive engagement. Volunteers could tend reproduction gardens of the type some enslaved people kept and, as the historian Peter Wood has often urged, “plant gourds!” The fruits of such gardens might be donated for the benefit of local community food security, connecting physical sites and histories of slavery (including the scourge of hunger that was often part of that trauma) to present-day social issues. Sites might attract diverse visitors with planned conversations, book clubs, poetry readings, and overnight stays — along the lines of Joseph McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project — that openly link past histories with current racial, economic, and political challenges. While such approaches may disabuse tourists of romantic notions about life in the United States prior to the formal end of racial slavery, they yield other and deeper satisfactions: earnest historical investigation, hands-on learning, social connection, and civic contribution. This dramatic summer of mass protest may represent an unprecedented opening for plantation sites to find receptive audiences for this tough work of collaborative reinvention, and indeed, some are already doing so.

FOR EXAMPLE, PUBLIC visits to the Royall House and Slave Quarters, an 18th century estate in Medford, Mass. (home to Governor John Winthrop as well as Isaac Royall, whose fortune built on slave labor and commercial trade helped to establish Harvard Law School), begin in the quarters. Board Co-President Penny Outlaw continually interweaves the activities of Blacks with those of white residents even as the tour moves into and through the main house. Recently, the house museum hosted a poetry reading with Malcolm Tariq, prize-winning author of “Heed the Hollow,” and featured an Instagram Live event with activist and performer Alok Vaid-Menon. Kyera Singleton, the first African American woman to lead the site as executive director, planned these virtual events. Singleton told me about her museum’s special charge in these times: “I cannot stress enough that the Royall House and Slave Quarters is a museum that seeks not only to get the history of slavery right, but also to function as a site of memory. It is a place that memorializes the lives of enslaved people. We do that quite simply by centering their lives, their experiences with violence, and their resistance. I believe one of our strengths is the ability to help people reckon with our current political moment by being honest about slavery and the legacies of enslavement today.”

The Broadway actor Robert Hartwell also had reinvention in mind when he purchased an antebellum house in Great Barrington, Mass., originally built for the Russell family that owned a local cotton manufacture. Hartwell said on Instagram: “I wish I could’ve told my ancestors when they were breaking their backs in 1820 to build this house that 200 years later a free gay Black man was going to own it and fill it with love and find a way to say their name.” Given that Massachusetts began taking steps to abolish slavery in the 1780s in response to Revolutionary-era ideals and legal suits brought by enslaved people, Hartwell’s home was probably not built by unfree workers. Nevertheless, New England mills routinely procured cotton grown and harvested by enslaved people in the South. Northern entrepreneurs shipped textiles woven from that cotton across the Atlantic Ocean to European markets and back down South to cheaply clothe the very people whose stolen labor had produced the lucrative raw material. Hartwell’s personal association of his house with that entangled history reminds us just how close the cultural memory of slavery is for many African Americans.

Black Lives Matter protests, however imperfect, have ignited widespread recognition that symbols we have long accepted as features of local landscapes wear down our potential to weave a new national fabric even as they archive physical evidence of our troubled racial history. Retiring, reimagining, and repurposing misplaced symbols that glorify racial oppression have the potential to open psychic and civic space for the descendants of enslaved people to finally call this nation home.

Tiya Miles is a professor of history at Harvard and the author of five books. Her latest, “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, A Black Family Keepsake,” is forthcoming from Random House in 2021.

Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison Gave Us New Eyes to See | Sojourners

OCTAVIA BUTLER AND TONI MORRISON GAVE US NEW EYES TO SEE

How speculative imaginations are providing tools to act for change.

A FEW YEARS ago, an acquaintance and I found ourselves debating the value of art in a capitalist society—a suitably light topic for a summer evening. My companion believed strongly that art must explicitly denounce the world’s injustices, and if it did not, it was reinforcing exploitative systems. I, ever the aesthete, found this stance reasonably sound from a moral perspective but incredibly dubious otherwise.

Then, as now, I consider art’s greatest function to be its capacity for expanding our conceptions of reality, not simply acting as moralistic propaganda. After all, the foundational thing you learn in art history is that the first artists were mystics, healers, and spiritual interlocutors—not politicians.

We started making art, it seems, to cross the border between our world and one beyond. Prehistoric wall paintings of cows and lumpy carvings of fertility goddesses serve as the earliest indications of our species’ artistic inclinations, blurring the lines between religious ritual and art object. Even as the world crumbles around us, I am convinced we must hold onto art’s spiritual properties rather than succumbing to the allure of work that only addresses our current systems.

Source: Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison Gave Us New Eyes to See | Sojourners

The support Black men deserve from each other – The Boston Globe

As a Black man, if I claim to love other Black men as I do, I must share in more than anger with my brothers. So when a mentee called me recently, and midway through the conversation began to weep, I gave him room as best I could.

The heaving was a deep bass, both physical and spiritual. He laid his burdens down. He felt, as I have sometimes felt about myself, that his role as familial glue was not holding and he was failing. He could not stitch back what he had let fall apart. He, like me, like so many Black men, has made an incredible and dynamic life for himself. Yet things seem to not be improving in the way and with the speed we want. Freedom feels like an illusion.

All my mentee needed was a good cry and a space to practice a new courage. All I needed was to realize that holding open a quiet space was enough. The silence was not heavy or forlorn, but full of who we were in that moment. That is the kind of support Black men deserve from each other.

It’s hard to find data to say how many Black men suffer stress and depression, because the canon of research on Black mental health is severely lacking. From experience, I know there is a steep cost to being vulnerable enough to admit how hurt cuts bone deep, and that you neither have the answers, nor know how to ask for help. So you bury yourself away. And you keep living with a grief that is quiet to many, but loud to those just like you. The data suggest that this is dangerous, especially for younger people. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among Black Americans ages 15 to 24, according to a 2017 analysis by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Meanwhile, research shows anxiety and depression among Black people has only increased since the killing of George Floyd.

So it was powerful when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott spoke out after his eldest brother died by suicide in April. Prescott and his other brother, Tad, talked with ESPN’s Graham Bensinger about what happened with their sibling and about their own experiences with depression and anxiety. To see an NFL leader, a Black quarterback, speak unflinchingly about needing help? It felt like a triumph. Or at least opening a door to the reality. We speak of depression and anxiety as things we conquer, instead of things we have to manage.

But life is not a game. We do not always get the chances we want to respawn from our defeats, and we still carry psychic wounds. We end up waging wars inside ourselves, which we justify because of the things we secure while doing whatever we think we must. Most of us don’t heal, though, because in a Black man’s world, we can’t show compassion or admit our defeats hurt us — it is too often viewed as weakness.

To speak of pain is to acknowledge it, which is the kind of admission we are too often told is not for us. Few lies have been more successfully translated across cultures than the one that tells men we are only allowed specific types of expression.

What I wish, for myself and the other Black men I hold close, is that we would find each other when our shoulders slump, and hold open space for each other long enough to admit that our ability to bear pain is not the way we prove ourselves. We are born worthy. There is much that would harm us, but we can’t continue to conflate ignoring our ailments with strength. Until we admit this to ourselves we subvert our own freedom at a cost we can never afford, and everyone we claim to love will pay for it.

For generations, a norm for Black people has been to treat depression and anxiety as something to shake off. This is for reasons both historical and cultural; when both science and society conspire to craft a narrative of your being anything but human, the consequences echo across families and communities. We tell ourselves we’ll deal with it after we get through it, often because that’s all we’ve seen; to grin and bear it feels like the right thing to do. But not all things are meant to be suffered through.

This was never supposed to be our normal. A new normal will be to feel fully and not be overrun by our emotions. What will we become if we stop carrying emotions that aren’t good for us? Perhaps a culture in which we feel we can be soft and open, warm and strong, because we created it for ourselves.

__________

Jonathan Jackson is an entrepreneur and writer currently living in New Hampshire. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

%d bloggers like this: