We give the shortest month of the year to black history, so please excuse me if I say “Fuck that” and extend our history into March.
In this edition, I’ll be introducing you to some incredible folks. These are people who survived slavery, and then thrived. These are folks who made the civil rights movement happen.
Slavery and Freedom
This remarkable woman, who had been given as a wedding present to a Mormon couple, acted fast when she found out that California law forbade slavery. She used the courts to win freedom for herself, her daughters, and other slaves, and went on to have a long, prosperous, and generous life in LA. Such an awesome lady!
You’ve got to meet this man. He was clever, resourceful, and so determined to win freedom for himself and his family that he stole a riverboat with other slaves and made a break for the Union lines. He fought for the Union in the Civil War, and then spent his life afterward making life better for countless former slaves. He served in Congress, and left an enduring legacy.
How bad was slavery? Bad enough that some slaves would go to almost any lengths to free themselves – including being packed and shipped North as “dry goods.”
Mr. Anderson had obtained freedom for himself and his family and was making a decent wage in Ohio when he got a letter from his former owner, asking him to come back and work. The letter he sent back is sheer genius, and damn near British levels of dry. Several sentences had me giving a standing ovation.
Most slave masters didn’t want educated slaves – education can open the doors to freedom, can plant ideas of liberation and the means to obtain it. So the few slaves who did learn to read would try to pass that knowledge on.
Slavery was a horrific, brutal institution. So brutal that slave owners thought nothing of putting iron masks on their starving slaves to prevent them from eating the sugarcane crop they were harvesting.
As a child, I was taught that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation, but that wasn’t quite the truth. Slavery continued in a variety of forms (and still continues) – it’s just been driven to disguise itself as other things. In some cases, slaveowners just didn’t tell the people they victimized that they were actually free. Mae Miller didn’t find out slavery had been abolished until she escaped from the people who were illegally keeping her and her family enslaved.
If you’re on social media, then you may see your “not racist” white friends and family posting memes or articles about Irish slavery or even slightly more recent “Irish need not apply” signs as some sort of argument that it wasn’t just Black people that went through hard times. Although historically, the Irish did have a bit of a rough start in America, in some places, what these memes are leaving out is that in 2016, there’s no trace of that history left in the average everyday life of people of Irish decent, not because they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, but because eventually they were just accepted into general whiteness. Which is important to note because when we talk about slavery, we’re not actually talking about the past, we’re talking about today.
They are black and white, men and women, Southerners and Northerners, rich and poor.
They came together to fight oppression, to fight history, to fight the times. They came together to stand up; they came together to sit in. They came together to disobey; they came together with discipline.
They came together to be beaten; they came together to be humiliated. They came together to go get arrested.
They came together to show the country itself, unvarnished and ugly. They came together to teach. They came together with nonviolence.
They came together as Americans. And they came together willing to die.
Elizabeth Jennings Graham was simply trying to get to her father’s church where she was an organist. She didn’t likely wake up that summer’s day in 1854 looking for an altercation, but through it, she became a symbol of Civil Rights a century before Rosa Parks’ landmark case.
In those days, Blacks were subject to more than segregation on transportation, they were blatantly discriminated against at will. If the presence of an African American on a streetcar was objected to by a White, then he or she would have to leave Graham, who was in her mid- to late 20s at the time, stepped onto a horse drawn streetcar in Lower Manhattan, but when the conductor saw her, he ordered her off.
But she refused, asserting her right to board the vehicle, prompting the conductor to try to remove her by brute force. She tried to fight to stay in the car, but a policeman came along and helped the conductor take her off the streetcar.
The Martin Luther King Jr. that we celebrate every year is no longer a man or a movement. The annual holiday is no longer a remembrance. Like the creation of the Christmas holiday to pacify, assimilate, and eventually control pagan populations by twisting their sacred truths into brightly colored lies, the narrative of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (along with the oversimplified, whitewashed chapters of civil rights history only opened in schools during this week and the month of February) work to distract and weaken black Americans while strengthening white supremacy.
Here are some of the most damning myths that have marred the holiday.
There was another front line in the 60’s that’s overshadowed by specific narratives that’s been rehearsed throughout the years. This front line was every bit as bloody, stringent and contested, and yet we don’t consider it in the same way as the habituated cultural imagination of the Civil Rights Era.
Racial inclusion in higher education isn’t something we really consider in the same context as other campaigns for equality insofar as its depth and significance. However, just as many people were killed in struggles at universities as were killed over voter rights. Presidents of elite universities called the police to perpetrate the same kind of “order” we saw on Bloody Sunday (Selma) and the “maintain the peace” work that Bull Connor was notorious for.
Yet it’s uncommon to think of these things on the same register…Why might that be?
Clara Belle Drisdale was born in Plum, Texas in 1885. She was the valedictorian of the graduating class of Prairie New Normal and Independent College, now (Prairie View A & M University) in 1908. Williams enrolled at the New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in the fall of 1928, after taking some courses at the University of Chicago. While she worked as a teacher at Booker T. Washington School in Las Cruces, she also took college courses during the summer.
Most of Williams professors did not allow her inside the classroom because she was Black. But that didn’t stop Clara. She had to take notes from the hallway–standing up! That’s right, she wasn’t even given a chair to sit in many of those classes. She was also not allowed to walk with her class to get her diploma because of the segregation laws. Despite what they did or said against her, [s]he still graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from NMSU in 1937 at the age of 51.
On this day, Feb. 1, 1960, four college students went to the local Woolworth store, purchased some items, then sat down at the lunch counter to order coffee. They were denied service because of the color of their skin. The manager asked them to leave. The students decided to stay, seated, politely waiting for their coffee, until closing time.
The next day, the four students (Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair Jr., and David Richmond) returned, ordered coffee again, and were refused again.
“I certainly wasn’t afraid,” said Franklin McCain. “And I wasn’t afraid because I was too angry to be afraid. If I were lucky I would be carted off to jail for a long, long time. And if I were not so lucky, then I would be going back to my campus, in a pine box.”
At any rate, this is why there is Black History Month. Because basically, a 9/11 happened in 1920, and I’m 45 and never even heard of it until a black person on twitter I follow tweeted about it. Fer fuck’s sake, a couple dozen yokels got killed in a land grab (I’m simplifying a bit) in Texas and every kid in the nation “remembers” the Alamo. Here, 500 Americans were murdered, and it’s crickets.
A master strategist and tireless activist, Bayard Rustin is best remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, one of the largest nonviolent protests ever held in the United States. He brought Gandhi’s protest techniques to the American civil rights movement, and helped mold Martin Luther King, Jr. into an international symbol of peace and nonviolence.
Despite these achievements, Rustin was silenced, threatened, arrested, beaten, imprisoned and fired from important leadership positions, largely because he was an openly gay man in a fiercely homophobic era.
In a 43-part tweetstorm on Tuesday, Doucette recounted a recent experience defending a 17-year-old black teen from claims by a police officer that the teen was doing 360s in the middle of the street. Over the course of the story, Doucette demonstrates many of the problems black people face in the U.S. court system and why changes never seem to stick.
That’s all for this week. Next week, we’ll close the series with some final thoughts on Black History Month.