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Tag Archives: The “Missing Pages”

UNFORGIVINGLY BLACK: Recollections of “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali

By William “Duke” Smither

“Rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, oceans all have different names, but they all contain water. So do religions have different names, and they all contain truth, expressed in different ways forms and times. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family.” (Muhammad Ali: Prizefighter, Poet, Philosopher– and, Humanitarian)  Muhammad Ali

Time stood still for me, on June 4, 2016… That’s when I first heard of Muhammad Ali’s death from the day before.  Initially, only one word came to mind:  “Genuine.” 

Simply put, Ali was a sincere, authentic human being and the world is better off from knowing him, in my opinion. However, being from Kentucky, I can recall times when our segregated world wasn’t so keen on Muhammad Ali—known to us, then, as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (in honor of Cassius Marcellus Clay, a white, 19th Century Kentucky politician and abolitionist). But, Ali’s universe—and, our world, too— was changed forever, when he returned home, to Louisville, with an Olympic gold medal from the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy.  He had competed in the light heavyweight division, at age 18, winning all four fights, defeating thrice-European Champion Zbigniew Pietrzykowski (Poland), to win the gold medal. And, America was chest-thumping proud.th052IXO2V

WORD ON THE STREETS…  (“It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Muhammad Ali)

Young AliAli first came to our attention within his amateur “Golden Gloves” competition, winning 6 Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, 2 national Golden Gloves titles and an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national title, to boot. The effort compiled a record of 100 wins, against 5 losses, according to most sources. Quite an accomplishment, considering it was the theft of his brand-spanking new, red-and-white Schwinn bicycle, when he was 12 years old, that kick-started the performance.

As I recall the story:  In 1954, a white cop and boxing coach (Joe Martin) at Louisville’s  Columbia Auditorium gym, encountered a fuming 89-pound Ali and friend (attending a merchant’s bazaar for free popcorn and ice cream), pissed off that someone had stolen his $60 bike, ranting about what he was going to do to the thief. A brash, trash-talking Ali said he was going to “whup” the guy whenever he found him. But, Martin, who later became Ali’s trainer for the next six years, pulled in the reins a tad and asked if he could even fight. As the storyline goes, Ali joked, “No, but I’d fight anyway.” Martin cautioned him against making “…any hasty challenges” and asked him to come back to the gym to learn how to fight. Ali returned. Weeks later, young Ali (still Cassius Clay) had his first fight, which he won… and, the rest is history.

Back then, boxing reigned supreme.  And, the long list of black boxing legends was good conversation fodder for neighborhood juke joints, barbershops and street corners, too.  Even around kitchen tables, powerful black legacies, like Jack Johnson’s, Joe Louis’ and “Sugar Ray” Robinson’s, always stirred the gab. No offense intended but, for black kids, most white boxers were simply “villains in the ring,” during the long ebb and flow of Old  Jim Crow—yet, fair-minded, competitively skilled white fighters were highly respected, just the same.

By the time of Ali’s bicycle rant, many of us were already boxing fans, glued to the handful of neighborhood televisions in the waning years of racial segregation, rooting for the various shades of blackness in the ring.  Kentuckians were also fans of welterweight Rudell Stitch, who Ali once sparred with at the famed Bud Bruner’s Headline Boxing Gym.Rudell Stitch  Stitch, another amazing Louisville fighter destined for greatness, died a hero at age 27, three months before Ali’s Olympic Gold Medal win, trying to save a friend from drowning on a river fishing trip. Married with six children, he worked full-time at a local meat-packing plant while boxing to support his family. Posthumously, according to boxing archives, the “Carnegie Hero Fund” awarded Stitch its silver medal, given to “…civilians who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others.” Plus, the National Boxing Association subsequently created the “Rudell Stitch Sportsmanship Award,” for fighters best demonstrating sportsmanship, inside and outside the boxing ring.

CHANCE MEETING/ LASTING IMPRESSIONS (“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” Muhammad Ali)  

That fall (1960), I was a 16-year old senior and the first African-American sports editor for the Frankfort High School “Panther” newspaper, in Frankfort, Kentucky, about 49 miles east of Louisville. That’s when I first met Ali during his ceremonial visit to our hometown.  He was in town to receive the “keys-to-the-city” honor from Governor Bert Coombs, the highly respected dad of one of our classmates, Lois Combs.

Lacking a common school cafeteria, students were spilling out of the building, in all kinds of directions, heading for lunch.  I was in a small group of eight or nine black students heading back to our South Frankfort neighborhood. Along the way, Ali, joined us for the 10-to-12 block trip, blending in like any other 18-year-old homeboy. Despite the notoriety, he quickly put everyone at ease with humor. The guy had constant jokes. Right away, you could tell he might have been the ‘class clown,’ from any school he attended. His facial expressions, alone, would sometimes crack you up. But, the fellas were getting kind of irked over the way the girls were swooning and fussing over his presence. Yet, truth be told, Ali did seem more respectful than the way we often joked around with them. Apparently, more worldly-wise and somewhat spiritual, the guy was a natural comedian with perfect timing and tempo.  He could dish out the jokes, as well as take them.

Back from RomeWe took him to a neighborhood restaurant, where we chatted about his Olympic and early-life experiences, giving off more clues into what made Ali tick. It also made me appreciate, even more, the moral stands and ethical leadership he adopted later in life. He was unique and unmoved by the lopsided rules and pea brain etiquette of Old Jim Crow. It’s why we loved him. He was spirited and proud, not snooty. And, no matter the audience, he was unforgivingly black.

After lunch, we went our separate ways, back to various classrooms, after pointing Ali in the direction of the principal’s office.  But, within 10 minutes of the start of my first, after-lunch class, I was shocked to see Ali standing outside my classroom, making characteristically funny facial expressions, pressing his nose against the door’s window pane. Then, the principal cracked open the door and motioned for the Journalism Class instructor (Mrs. Clark) to come outside. Moments later, she returned with Ali and introduced him around.  In the process, the class voted me as the person best suited (as the school newspapers sports editor) to take him around to visit other classes. It was an honor. First, I escorted him to the history class, where my high school football coach, Ollie Leathers, was teaching.  The classroom went wild, totally unruly, but Coach Leathers, as well as Ali, had everything under control and seemed to enjoy the experience. Similar antics were repeated in other classrooms we visited, too.

During the escorting, though honored, I was nervous the whole time, thinking Ali might carry some of his joking a bit far, where I (or, other black students) might have to straighten out some wise-mouthed student, later.  We sometimes had to “re-educate” a few numbskulls, to maintain the respect we demanded in those awkward desegregation years. But, even then, Ali was a skilled entertainer with good, crowd-pleasing instincts and such an aftermath never even came close to fruition.  In fact, the escorting was one of the best moments of my high school years (after certain football and track victories). Afterwards, I turned Ali over to one of the staff members of the principal’s office, knowing he had a previous commitment. But, the whole encounter probably left me ‘hooked for life’ on Ali, also dubbed “the Louisville Lip,” for his colorful pronouncements and annoyingly true fight predictions. How could you not like this guy(?), I often wondered.

SHAKING UP KINFOLK– IN AFRICA, TOO…  (“I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man. I had to show the world.” Muhammad Ali) 

It was just a couple of months following the 1960 Olympics that Ali, still only 18, signed a two-year professional/ managerial contract with a group of 10 Louisville area businessmen. It took care of all management, training, travel, and promotional expenses, including a trainer’s salary, and provided for a percentage of Ali’s income to be set aside in a pension fund, untouchable until he was 25 or retired from boxing. But, it wasn’t long afterwards, when Ali’s ring experience and unique personality began commanding sums into the millions, much of which he quietly gave away, supporting charitable causes. And, through the magic of television and closed-circuit theater productions, I witnessed many of his bouts. Even after 50 years of marriage, those fights remain highlights within the shared experiences, for me and my wife.

Each bout was unique, with its own special footnotes. Against Ken Norton (March 1973), Ali proved he could take a lickin’—and, keep on tickin’–when Norton broke Ali’s

Jaw Breaker

Jaw Breaker

 

Ali - Spinksjaw (some say as early as round 1; Norton thought the 11th round), in the 12-round bout (Norton won by decision).  In Ali’s second fight against Leon “Toothless” Spinks (September 1978), Ali’s persistent jabs and rights made him the first fighter in history to win the World Heavyweight Championship three times! But, 11 years earlier (February 1967), Ali’s merciless punishing of Ernie “What’s My Name” Terrell (Ali’s taunt), forever warned the world never to use his former “slave name”—Cassius Clay– ever again. The 15-round fight was ugly with Ali taunting Terrell, shouting, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom… what’s my name?” Before the “whupping,” Terrell had repeatedly called Ali by his birth name, What's My Name?offending Ali.

Against “The Black Destroyer,” Earnie Shaver (September 1977),  the 15-rounder left me so exhausted from watching Ali taking a beating that I almost had to walk away. Yet, in the final round on wobbly legs et al, Ali found his heart, some legs to stand on and a way to win, by unanimous decision.  Later, he was heard saying Shavers was the hardest puncher he ever faced and claiming, “Earnie hit me so hard, it shook my kinfolk back in Africa.”Ali v Shaver

The Bear is DownIt was after snatching the World Heavyweight Championship from Sonny “the big ugly bear” Liston (in 1964), as Ali use to taunt him, Ali actually shed his “slave name,” converted to Islam and began calling himself “Cassius X” (until renamed ‘Muhammad Ali’ by Nation of Islam’s leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad) — which made him even more controversial– given Black America’s emerging black consciousness, the Civil Rights Movement and the awestruck bewilderment of diehard white supremacists, covert or overt.

RUMBLIN’ BUT NO CRAWLIN’(“I didn’t want to submit to the army and then, on the Day of Judgment, have God say to me, ‘Why did you do that?’ This life is a trial, and you realize that what you do is going to be written down for Judgment Day.” Muhammad Ali)

In 1966, he shook up the world by refusing to be inducted in the U.S. military, further angering whites and blacks, citing his religion as the core of his conscientious objector reasoning in refusing to fight in Viet Nam, proclaiming “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong…”. He was later arrested and convicted for draft evasion and, in 1967, stripped of his heavyweight title for five critical years and all boxing license were cancelled at, perhaps, the peak of his boxing career (his conviction was overturned four years later). I remember it well, since I was then a recent, proud recipient of an Honorable Discharge from the U.S. Navy and initially befuddled by Ali’s stance. Like many African-Americans, notwithstanding our own controversial decisions to serve in the military, I simply felt we were helping the cause by having some ‘skin in the game,’ so to speak.  Yet, knowing a little about Ali’s mettle and code of ethics from our chance meeting before my military service, I grew to admire and respect his gutsy line-in-the-sand and willingness to suffer the consequences. We needed folk like Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But, I still feel we need some ‘skin in the game,’ in the military, too.

Ali v ForemanBy October 30, 1974, when the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” rolled around to Zaire (now, Democratic Republic of the Congo), the world seemed to have forgiven Ali. The historic fight was featuring then-undefeated, power-punching, World Heavyweight Champion, George Foreman, against the ‘People’s Champ,’ Muhammad Ali, with promoter extraordinaire Don King funding the ritzy event.

Yet, something was different with Ali:  the way he moved (or, didn’t move), the way he danced (or, didn’t dance), more cunning/ less speed, etc., compared to his old self, prior the stripping of his title. And, the famed Ali-Shuffle footwork within this newfangled ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy truly worried me, since it seemed Foreman was using him as a punching bag, with some unforgiving blows to the kidneys and head, while Ali relaxed on the ropes.

But, it was the other way around!  Ali was using him instead, resting on the ropes—scheming– while Foreman was getting increasingly arm-weary from power-banging the body.  Ali finally put him down in the 8th round and won the fight by knockout. I was so happy that it brought me to tears.

The following year, September 30, 1975, Don King promoted another historic event, the “Thrilla in Manilla,” in Manila, Philippines, the final of three fights between Muhammad Ali and “Smoking Joe” Frazier. Before the fight, Ali used to chant that it will be a “killa and a thrilla and a chilla, when I get that gorilla in Manilla,” referring to Frazier. Also, Ali repeatedly called Frazier an “Uncle Tom” and the “White Man’s Champion,” infuriating Frazier even more.  The fight was vicious.  It was bloody. Exhausted, both ring warriors Ali v Fraziershowed heart and resolve. But, by the 14th round, Frazier’s legs were rubbery. His corner threw in the towel. Ali, too, suffered from exhaustion, but won by technical knockout. Ali later describes the battle in his memoir, “The Greatest: My Own Story, Muhammad Ali” (w/ Richard Durham, Random House; 2nd Edition, 1975):

“So I’m going to talk about it, the hardest fight I’ve ever had in my life—the deadliest and the most vicious… Should I say that the fight we had tonight is the next thing to death? That I felt like fainting and throwing up?  Frazier is a helluva fighter and when Carlos Padilla, the referee, looks at Joe’s face, and his manager, Eddie Futch, won’t let him out of his corner for the fifteenth round, I’m so relieved, so tired, and in so much pain that my knees buckle and I stretch out right where I am—right in the middle of the ring… Joe’s words come back to me: “You one bad n’…. We both bad n’s… We don’t do no crawlin’.”

Bees and Butterflies“SHE BEES,” BUTTERFLIES… AND PEACE (“I believe in the religion of Islam. I believe in Allah and peace.” Muhammad Ali)

When Muhammad Ali began his 30-year+ battle with Parkinson’s disease, I felt maybe his legacy might someday drift into oblivion, until I saw him in Atlanta, Georgia, 1996, when he not only lighted the flame at the 1996 Summer Olympics, he re-lighted the hearts of America– and, the world. Then, I realized his life work will never be forgotten.  It was clear to me that Ali was already living in the hearts of sports fans and citizens around the world.Atlanta

His daughter– Laila Amaria Ali—stepping into the professional boxing arena (October 1999) was great news, despite the hoopla surrounding women boxers at the time. She thULFIH9EJnot only had the looks and persona of a champion, she had all the ring skillsets, too. Obviously “her father’s daughter”– and “pretty”, too– she could back up her own trash-talking, as well. With super-middleweight and light-heavyweight titles (IBA, IBF, WIBA, IWBF belts), Laila (nicknamed, “She Bee Stinging”) retired from boxing, undefeated thNSLBMUDEwith 24 wins (21 by KO). I saw her last professional fight, and 2nd against Gwendolyn the “Stealth Bomber” O’Neill, televised from Cape Town, South Africa (February 2007).

She dropped O’Neill in round 1 so fast, that she apologized to fans and former South African President Nelson Mandela, for being so brief. The “whupping” further confirmed for me that the name, “Ali”– dad and daughter– will never fade from boxing. It’s an idea which was later affirmed on Saturday, June 4, 2016, that day when time stood still, for me.

While I was listening to retired boxing champ, Chuck Wepner (who fought Ali in March 1975, but lost by technical knockout, in the 15th round), in his CNN telephone interview, from his Bayonne, New Jersey home, about Ali’s passing, I heard his wife, Linda, in the background crying, first muffled, then somewhat hysterical. Wepner asked what was wrong. She said, “There’s a butterfly in the room!”  It was in the bathroom and she stressed, like in “float like a butterfly…” Wepner said he’d take care of it, once he got off the phone. Obviously, its significance hadn’t registered right away.

Reportedly, after catching the butterfly, it must have hit him. Wepner said he’d like to release it at Ali’s funeral or put it in the casket, since he never saw a butterfly in their apartment, during their entire 23 years of living there… and that the windows were closed. He then told his wife that “maybe it was Ali, transformed into a butterfly, saying goodbye to us,” because they were close friends. Ali and Wepner became good friends, after they fought 41 years ago. Apparently, their respect for each other was beyond boxing, without regards to race, creed or color.

That’s not hard to believe. Muhammad Ali affected folk that way, beyond the ring, friend or foe, black or white.  And, I can’t help but chuckle when I think of him in heaven, or on the Day of Judgement, proudly inching his way to the front of the line, looking for his friend, Howard Cosell, and a ‘ringside seat,’ cracking jokes and reciting poetry for whomever would listen, like, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see… Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will, but I know he won’t…”.

Rest in peace, Champ. And, thank you for the memories of a time when boxing truly reigned supreme. And, may God continue to watch over Lonnie Ali– and, bless the entire Ali family.Lonnie Ali

Ali's Funeral

 

 

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“TUSKEGEE OF THE NORTH”: New Jersey’s Racially Isolated ‘Bordentown School’

by William “Duke” Smither

“For a seventy-year period, when America cared little about the education of African-Americans, and discrimination was law and custom, The Bordentown School was an educational utopia. An incubator for black pride and intellect, it taught values, discipline, and life skills to generations of black children…” (Anonymous)

 

Sometimes, you just have to shake your head and laugh—I mean, a deep down-in-the-belly howl– at how America often looks at itself through misty, racially-tinged lenses of deep-rooted cultural bias. These awkward sensations just seem to creep into the room whenever those touchy “conversations on race” entered certain interpersonal, spatial zones. Though not surprised, I’m often amazed how we easily arrive at different, pigheaded conclusions, given the same evidentiary findings– historical, archeological and geological— while trying to be sensitive to the feelings of others. Instinctively, being the compassionate nation we’ve proven to be, with the intellectual courage we claim to have, we ought to know better. But, I’m beginning to think that our feeble-minded ‘political correctness’ has seriously altered our ability to be straight-up about our past—like with the “Bordentown School,” founded in 1886, an educational and cultural oasis for African-Americans, when segregationist politicians were scheming to keep academics out of black schools (see, http://www.pbs.org/aplaceoutoftime).

Human Rights Manipulated

Tack on the volume of ‘missing pages’ from our classroom history books– especially the chapters and related footnotes on school segregation, desegregation and, in many cities, re-segregation— and you get some idea of what caused the blurry childhood looking-glasses that many of us—black and white— were peeping through, while growing up, during the waning years of Old Jim Crow.

A recent research project, involving the passionate pride and purpose associated with various all-black schools in the United States, reminded me of those years when African-American educators, in particular, were indeed Black America’s unsung “heroes” and “sheroes.” I recalled my own experiences with the vital, nurturing role they played in developing young black minds, effectively undermining systemic racism and inequality, while planting the seeds for the ultimate demise of skin-deep white privilege and make-believe White Supremacy. This particular probe highlighted the cultural and social landscapes of an institution– the “Bordentown School” of Bordentown, New Jersey— appropriately dubbed, the “Tuskegee of the North.”  The Bordentown School assembly

Following the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era gave the genteel South’s white ruling class a fit, at a time when the legal and mental constructs which separated the races were easing up. On paper, slavery was abolished. And, the 1870 parchment-paper’s 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, preventing federal and state government from denying the right to vote (based on race, color or prior servitude) was sending the cultural-manipulating, ruling class into a tizzy. The so-called “Enforcement Act,” The Civil Rights Act of 1875, passed by the last biracial U.S. Congress of the 1800s, “guaranteed” African-Americans equal treatment in access to public transportation, facilities, accommodations and the right to serve on juries. But, the walls came tumbling down again, in 1883, following judicial review by the U.S. Supreme Court which declared the 1875 statue unconstitutional.

With the federal government now in retreat from earlier civil rights enforcement activities, and a white-controlled bureaucracy back behind the nation’s steering wheel, the doors to America’s hyper-segregation were pried open even further. Although legislation and abolitionists namely in the North spoke loudly against segregation, America’s black-and-white duality intensified and racial animosities became entrenched.

On the run-up to America’s so-called “Separate but Equal” doctrine, another tier of freedom-suppression tactics entered the picture, blanketing the nation’s political landscapes. Back then, folk were taught that Heaven itself was segregated. It’s when thousands of African-American Civil War veterans were routinely buried in segregated cemeteries, with vanishing headstones, now forgotten or lost to the scourge of time and overgrown bushes and weeds.

Separate but Equal—to What?

The “Bordentown School” started as a self-sustaining, co-educational, vocational school, from a two-story residence in Bordentown (Burlington County), New Jersey. It was unique because most schools like Bordentown were located below the “Mason-Dixie Line,” which distinguished “slave” and “non-slave” states.

Originally established as a private institution under the name, “The Ironsides Normal School,” by Rev. Walter A. Rice, a college-educated, former slave and minister with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, it was later co-opted by the state of New Jersey as the “Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth,” in 1894 (Born in 1845, Rev. Rice was from Lauren, South Carolina and fought in the Union Army, during the Civil War, but went to New Jersey to complete his education, following his military service). In 1896, the boarding school relocated to the city’s outskirts where sixth- through twelve-grade boys and girls were instructed in various trades, based on the customary gender roles of racial segregation and “Jim Crow”-sanctioned public education.

Bordentown SchoolAccording to archives, Rev. Rice initially modeled the school on Alabama’s famed Tuskegee Institute (now, Tuskegee University), within the vision and industrial-training-focus provided by Tuskegee’s first president, a beloved former slave and energetic educator, named Booker T. (Taliaferro) Washington. However, between 1897 and 1915, Bordentown was led by James M. Gregory, a Howard University graduate and follower of W.E.B. DuBois’ “Talented 10th” hypothesis, a more progressive view that one in 10 black men would become leaders of their race, stemming from scholastic/ classical education, writing books and social activism, in order to “…guide the mass away from the contamination and death of the worst, in their own and other races” —NOT the industrial education, as proposed by Booker T. Washington and white benefactors. (***Note – Also see WEB DuBois viewpoint/ Sept 1903: http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/the-talented-tenth/)

Yet, perhaps the most influential leader at Bordentown was Dr. William R. Valentine, a graduate of both Columbia University and Harvard University. He was Bordentown’s principal from 1915 – 1948, who sought to create a curriculum balance between DuBois’ theory and Washington’s concerns. And, everyone was expected to pitch in to run the school, no matter what their focus happened to be. But, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, 1954), declaring that the state-mandated “separate but equal” policy for public schools was unconstitutional, the school closed in 1955, allegedly from its inability to attract white students.

Detached Functionality

That’s about the time I was already attending one of the nation’s many “Rosenwald Rosenwald-School-Frankfort-KY-1957[1]Schools,” Rosenwald Training School, in Frankfort, Kentucky, across the road from Kentucky State College (now, Kentucky State University). It was a “training school” because we were the cross-the-road practicing ‘laboratory’ for KSU’s elementary education majors. “Rosenwald Schools” grew from the partnership between Sears, Roebuck & Co. CEO, Julius Rosenwald, and Booker T. Washington. Similar to Bordentown, these were important institutions within Black America’s unique quest for educational and sociocultural development within the politico-economic system which kept them in a brutal, mostly poverty-stricken underclass. Yet, they became breeding grounds for pride and excellence within the African-American community. And, I’m forever grateful for KSU’s student-teacher brigades and the extra nuggets or wisdom and inspiration they eagerly shared.

In the 10th grade, I was fortunate to attend another school, even more akin to the “Bordentown School”– Lincoln Institute“Lincoln Institute”– an all-black boarding high school in Shelby County, Kentucky, but never fully appreciated its impact until long after I departed for newly mandated desegregated schools. Like many all-black schools, founded after Reconstruction, “Lincoln Institute” was originally intended to be a college, as well as a high school, but wound up offering vocational and academic high school classes. While there, I also worked in the cafeteria and on the dairy farm that produced its own food for the 444-acre campus. It’s when I began to realize the value of my earlier childhood experiences of growing up, working summers on my grandparent’s farm in Zanesville, Ohio, where I herded cows and played with hogs– perhaps, more than most folk played with pet dogs.

Although attending Lincoln for only one year, it was a significant part of my preparation for the desegregated high school, and associated racial realities, in my hometown of Frankfort, Kentucky, the following year. Lincoln’s principal back then, Whitney Young, Sr. (the school’s founder), was a friend of my deceased Baptist-minister dad. But, it was my mother, feeling Lincoln was better suited to steering me away from budding juvenile delinquency, who orchestrated my attending Lincoln. She was right. It had many positive influences.

But, frankly, I was more interested in public schools back in my hometown, where I could play football and run track again, while not having to work for my tuition or room-and-board. Thus, with one of my sister’s help, I sold my mother on the idea of staying with my elder sister and her husband– and their six kids– while my mother continued working and going to nursing school in Pennsylvania. Besides, with my new, surrogate “two-parent family”– with three new ‘brothers’ and three new ‘sisters’ (nephews and nieces)– I felt better-armed for the internal struggles ahead with school desegregation. Unwittingly, black athletes had a unique role within the reawakened fight for Civil Rights. And, like many athletes of the late 1950s, I willingly accepted the bit-part as one of the legions of “soldiers” drafted into the Civil Rights Movement– at least, that’s the visualization which was fixed in my mind, mentally preparing for what lay ahead.

Similarly Proud & Disciplined…

But, before the pivotal years of school desegregation, institutions like the Bordentown School and Lincoln Institute played an important role, too.  They were similar in many ways. As with Lincoln’s environs, except for dress codes, Bordentown was long nestled in the 400-acre, Georgian-architectural style campus, overlooking the Delaware River, before the shifting legal landscapes of the 1950s, the Bordentown School became an elite campus community, fostering black pride and intellectual discipline, with a unique camaraderie between black students, from working class families, and the scholarly the black teachers who taught them. It was an environment where boys, in military uniforms, and girls, in neatly tailored white-and-black uniforms, marched in step to high academic expectations and elevated performance standards, graduating to become entrepreneurs, tradespersons, educators, lawyers and doctors.The Bordentown School steps

In its heyday, it was nicknamed the “Tuskegee of the North,” after Booker T. Washington’s famous historically black university, in Tuskegee, Alabama (according to archives, it was also known as the “Black Forest Hills” because its tennis facilities attracted black athletes barred from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association). It included two working farms, 30 uniquely designed campus buildings— built by students and staff– plus, an auto shop, seamstress department and other vocational instruction, as well as college preparatory programs (Lincoln had only one working farm and half the buildings, but similar-size acreage).  Its academic reputation for excellence attracted visiting dignitaries and lecturers, such as theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, and civil rights activist-actor, Paul Robeson. But, Einstein not only gave lectures, he was moved to sponsoring scholarships to its brightest students, as well. Its invigorating mix of classroom, cultural and social training was stimulating.

…And Inspirational, Still

Even its initial name, “The Ironsides Normal School,” was inspirational. It came from the US Navy’s famed three-masted, wooden-hulled warship, the U.S.S. Constitution, widely known as “Old Ironsides,” during the War of 1812. Sitting on the farm site purchased in 1816 by the U.S.S. Constitution’s commander, Commodore Charles Stewart, the school’s alma mater was metaphorically dubbed “Mother Ironsides.” According to a Delaware Heritage Trail brochure (at http://www.delrivgreenway.org/heritagetrail/Bordentown-School.html), it says:

Bordentown School Alma Mater

“Proudly stands our Mother Ironsides
Framed against the sky,
Overlooking field and river
From her hill-top high.

Ironsides, Mother, School we love!
Loud we sing to thee.
Pledging thee thru all the ages
Love and loyalty.”

Included among Bordentown’s distinguished faculty was Judge William H. Hastie (1904 – 1976), the first African-American federal district court judge, in 1937, who notched another ‘first’ as a federal appellate judge, in 1950, and a contender for the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1961. He taught at the Bordentown Manual Training School between 1925 and 1927, before attending Harvard Law School, becoming the second African-American (behind Charles Hamilton Houston) to serve on the Harvard Law Review where, in 1990, and like President Barack Obama– the Harvard Law Review’s first African-American president in its 104-year history— he was lightyears beyond the mental grasp of white supremacists, further debunking their sickening rhetoric of racial superiority and white-skin privilege. Hastie, a recipient of the NAACP’s prestigious “Spingarn Medal,” was also among the group of committed attorneys and jurists who worked on case strategies that led to the momentous decision in “Brown v. Board of Education,” in 1954.

Interestingly, Simon Haley, the father of author Alex Haley (author of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” 1976, and “The Autobiography of Malcom X,” 1965), also taught at Bordentown. Alex Haley’s brother, George W. Haley, past U.S. Ambassador to Gambia (who died in May 2015), graduated from the Bordentown Manual Training School. And, I imagine that deceased, die-hard bigots are scratching to get out of their silky satin-lined coffins.

Storied pasts like the “Bordentown School,” as well as associated faculty and alumni, will be inspirational for generations to come, in spite of the schemes to suppress its mission or mere existence. Of the many lessons learned from racially isolated environments of the past, a quote often attributed to pro-football’s Hall of Fame Coach, Vincent “Vince” Lombardi, stands out for me the most: “Life’s battles don’t always go to the stronger or faster man. But sooner or later the man who wins, is the man who thinks he can.”

Understanding America’s inherent, cognitive biases and social realities is complicated—but, not impossible. Getting beyond our feeble-minded ‘political correctness’ is another matter. Sometimes, you just have to shake your head and laugh… and, keep on stepping.

(Also, see:  http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/bordentown-school-1886-1955)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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CRUSHING THE DOUBLE WHAMMY OF BIGOTRY: The Pluck of Katherine Goble Johnson

Backstreet Djeli 5By William “Duke” Smither

“When the human race neglects its weaker members, when the family neglects its weakest one–it’s the first blow in a suicidal movement. I see the neglect in cities around the country, in poor white children in West Virginia and Virginia and Kentucky–in the big cities, too, for that matter. I see the neglect of Native American children in the concentration camps called reservations. The powerful say, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps….’ What they’re really saying is, ‘If you can, do, but if you can’t, forget it’…” (“Maya Angelou,” American “Poet Par Excellence,” Author, Activist, Actress & Playwright— from her 1995 Interview with “Mother Jones Magazine”)

* “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses…” 

Before the Interstate-64 straight-through-connector, in the Appalachian-Blue Ridge Mountains, between Sam Black Church, West Virginia and Big Sandy River, Kentucky, road trips from Richmond, Virginia to my hometown in Frankfort, Kentucky used to be an arduous task. I’ve long been familiar with the rugged beauty of the Appalachia, as well as the sociocultural challenges of growing up there, since my own family hails from the Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio regions of Appalachia. Yet, until a recent research assignment for BlackPast.org, I never knew that an African-American pioneer in Aerospace Engineering– Katherine Goble Johnson— a lion-hearted soul in the face of bigotry, came from those mountains, too (See:  http://www.blackpast.org/aah/johnson-katherine-g-1918).

Image Credit: Katherine Johnson

Image Credit: Katherine Johnson

It seemed to me that the Katherine Johnson story was not unlike the narrative of the life journey for many African-Americans, growing up in the Jim Crow South. It was a journey that saw many parents of black, white and Native American families, including my own mom and dad, struggle and sacrifice, not just to survive but to make sure their children charted a course to steer clear of the bigotry and hate within their own pursuits of happiness, in the illusive American dream.

But, it was a “dream” which often became an undeniable “nightmare” for African-Americans– as well as poor whites and Native Americans, too– before, during and after Old Jim Crow’s conjured up legal and social color barriers which continue to plague our nation, today.

You see, in my opinion, the well-kept secret in America is that racism and discrimination not only impacts the African-American, it goes to straight to the bone of its perceived poor, as well– like some invisible and fixed, “fifth dimension” of bigotry– and, like Pawns on the sociopolitical chessboard of life… even like the double whammy of racism and sexism against African-American women in America!

For me, traveling home through the Appalachian-Blue Ridge region was often a stunningly alluring trip back in time. Frankly, words alone cannot express the breath-taking beauty associated with the area’s rising mountain tops and plunging lush-green valleys. Yet, as I approached the various highway signs along the way, my mind often raced back to certain childhood experiences, pleasant and not-so-pleasant, easily triggered under certain circumstances.

The way I saw it, they must have been similar sensations to what Katherine Johnson experienced on her journey– especially after taking the old Route 60 scenic trail, passing White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia where she was born in 1918. She was only seven years younger than my mother, but her life observations weren’t all that far apart. Mother often spoke of racism with joke-filled warnings, as she once spoke of the Antebellum South’s Greenbrier resort area, not far from White Sulfur Springs, where the rich and famous, “…and not-so-famous, sick folk and sicker minds” have been hanging out since the American Revolution. Of course, things are much improved, today.

* “Keep Ancient Lands, Your Storied Pomp…”

On trips home to Kentucky, while snaking through the Blue Ridge Mountains and zigzagging across the Appalachian’s, historic roadside markers, highway signs and names of towns would pop up, like little virtual, on-line advertisements. Though somewhat annoying from the memories it triggered, it was a kaleidoscope of history just the same– like Katherine Johnson’s story– like the story of other accomplished African-American or so-called ‘minority’ professionals in the United States.

Without a doubt, she was a whiz kid!  Heralded as the first African-American woman in Aerospace Engineering, Katherine Johnson was born in a city where schooling for “colored” people then ended with the eighth grade. She was the daughter of Joshua and Joylette Coleman. Her dad, a farmer and janitor who quit school after the sixth grade, moved the family 125 miles from their White Sulfur Springs home to Institute, West Virginia so that Katherine and her older siblings, Charles, Margaret, and Horace, could attend school beyond the eighth grade.  Her father returned home to work the farm while her mother, a former teacher, became a domestic worker and stayed with the children in Institute.

Various biographical sketches show that Katherine possessed signs of being a mathematical genius early in life. She once explained to biographers that she counted “everything”– the steps at home and the plates she washed, as well as the number of steps from her house to the church she attended– citing her father as the one from whom she inherited her love for numbers.  She felt that her gift was inherited from her father. Although he never completed his formal education, she said that when he was working with lumber, he could tell how many boards he could get from a tree, simply by the way it looked to him.

Katherine also explained that she was five years old when she first started school, but went she went straight into the second grade. And, when she was supposed to enter fifth grade, she was selected among the “best” of the fifth graders and placed in the sixth grade for a newly opened school, leap-frogging one grade-level above her older brother.

Skipping grades helped her to start high school at 10. Before graduating at 14, she had also developed an interest in astronomy. Armed with a full scholarship, including room and board, she entered West Virginia State College (formerly West Virginia State College), “across the street from where she grew up.” During her sophomore year, a young professor from Michigan, W.W. (William Waldron) Schiefflin Claytor, the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics, recognized her math prowess and added special courses in advanced math. In one course, analytic geometry, she was reportedly the only pupil. It was Dr. Claytor who planted the seed that she would make a good research mathematician. At 18, she graduated summa cum laude (with highest honor) with a Bachelor of Science degree in French and mathematics.

* “A Mighty Woman With A Torch, Whose Flame Is The Imprisoned Lightning…”

2009 Christmas party

2009 Christmas party

Following in her mother’s footsteps, Katherine began teaching in rural Virginia and West Virginia schools. Her first job was at an elementary school where she responded to a telegram saying, if she could teach math and French, and play the piano, the job was hers. But, on the bus ride to her first assignment, in Marion, Virginia, she ran into a haunting experience with racism.

According to archives, the bus stopped when it crossed from West Virginia into Virginia. Segregation Laws forced Katherine and all of the other black people to move to the rear. Later, when they changed buses, white passengers were allowed on the bus, while black riders were put into taxis. The bus driver’s demand, that “… you colored folk, come over here,” triggered her memory of her mother’s warning, like my mother’s nifty cautioning’s, about persistent racism and “pea-brain” racists.  

A couple of years later, Katherine married James Francis Goble and started a family. They had three daughters, Constance, Joylette and Kathy. She returned to teaching to help support her family, when her husband fell ill with cancer. But, in 1952, the seed that Dr. Claytor had planted began to sprout and, while visiting relatives in Newport News, Virginia, she learned of new job opportunities for black women in mathematics at the Langley Research Center with the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA, 1915-1958), the agency that preceded the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA, 1958-   ).

A year later, she was working there as a research mathematician.  Thumbing her nose at racialized intellectual snobbery, her soft-spoken assertiveness, command for respect and mathematical skills led her to assist NACA’s all-male team of engineers tasked with finding solutions to America’s space-flight navigation problems. Unfortunately, while kick-starting her aerospace career, her husband died from a brain tumor in 1956.

Three years later, she married Lt. Colonel James A. Johnson. And, the rest is history, so to speak…

When Virginia public schools began desegregating, in 1959, Johnson was calculating space-flight trajectories in Hampton, Virginia for Project Mercury, America’s first manned space-flight program.  Between 1959 and 1963, as America raced the Soviet Union in launching a human into earth orbit, Johnson calculated the trajectory for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, on May 5, 1961. When NASA began using computers, she was asked to verify related calculations for the first American to actually orbit the earth, John Glenn, in 1962. Seven years later, she crafted America’s navigational track for the flight landing the first humans, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, on the moon’s surface.

Retiring from NASA in 1986, Johnson’s trailblazing career spanned 33 years of achievements, including: the Apollo Group Achievement Award and the NASA Lunar Orbiter Spacecraft and Operations Team Award, given in 1967, an honorary Doctor of Laws from SUNY (State University of New York) Farmingdale in 1998, the West Virginia State College “Outstanding Alumnus of the Year,” in 1999, and an honorary Doctor of Science, awarded by the Capitol College of Laurel, Maryland, in 2006.

NASA Astronaut Leland Melvin and Katherine Johnson

NASA Astronaut Leland Melvin and
Katherine Johnson

People like Katherine Johnson still make me proud!  The ‘missing pages of America’s classroom history books’ reveals many African-American mathematicians, from Benjamin Banneker, William Waldron Schiefflin Claytor (the third African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics) and Elbert Frank Cox (the first African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics) to William R. Talbot (the fourth African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics), J. Ernest Wilkins, Jr. and Dudley Weldon Woodard (the second African-American to earn a Ph.D. in Mathematics).

But, the trials and tribulations of the inimitable Katherine Goble Johnson are even more compelling, in my opinion, because of the double whammy of deep-rooted racism and sexism against women in America.

(Also, see: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/haynes-martha-euphemia-lofton-1890-1980, regarding the first the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics.)

* Subtitles Credit:   From the sonnet, “The New Colossus,” written by American Poet Emma Lazarus and engraved in bronze on New York’s “Statue of Liberty.”

 

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BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Within the Murky Waters of Global White Privilege…

 by William “Duke” Smither 

Backstreet Djeli 5

“There is no Negro (Black) problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution…”  (Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, a.k.a., “Frederick Douglass,” Abolitionist, Diplomat & Writer, b.1818 – d.1895)

Once again, Black History Month (2015) is front-and-center. For some folk, with all of its reverence, glory and gore, chock-full of falsehoods, sprinkling of lies and distortions- masquerading as “truth”- these 28, sometimes 29, days in the year have become an annual mental excursion, like an African Safari, tippy toeing through the painful landscapes of however we define our past and shape our future.

Goofy Demand?

They’ve become wanderings into an often warmed-over rehash of Eurocentric fables and myths of the inaccurate accountings of accomplishments and behavior of the world’s darker-skinned brethren from Coastal and Central Africa.  Incredulously, it’s also the month which seems to bring about the goofy clamoring for a commensurate “White History Month,” aside from the 11-month point-of-view psychosis historically stoked by the fires of “white privilege,” within the astute observations of Pan-Africanists W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.

On the flip-side, for others, more qualitative and quantitative research analysis has surfaced in recent years,  morphing into higher levels of enlightenment, from the scholarly investigations and collaborative efforts of various historians, sociologists, linguists, paleoanthropologists, cultural anthropologists, archeologists and geologists. From their sifting through the sands of time, the undeniable links to Ancient Nubia and the Sudan, Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa now weave more sensible patterns of assumptions and genetic reconstructions. It’s a premise entangled within the Origin of Man and Cradle of Civilization theories, delivered from the womb of East Africa, some 200,000-plus years ago.

These become the tangible nuggets of straight stuff buried within the reams of “missing pages” and “foot notes” to America’s classroom history books. In my opinion, they are more respectful and factual of the legacy bequeathed by our ancestors.

Chaos in Mandingoland

Such are the roots of the African-American, long before the scholarly research of Dr. Chancellor Williams (“The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race From 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D.,” Third World Press, Chicago, Ill., 1987), Dr. John Hope Franklin (“From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans,” Alfred A. Knopf Publishing, New York, NY, 1980), Drs. Philip Curtin, Steven Feierman, Leonard Thompson & Jan Vansina (“AFRICAN HISTORY: From Earliest Times to Independence, Longman Publishing, London and New York, 1995), and many others seeking the truth and charting the demise of the greatness of Africa.

These were merely a few of the scholars I’ve studied over the years, classroom and independent study, who traced significant portions of Ancient Africa’s journey from the Kingdom of the Kush, the Pyramids of Giza and Great Ethiopian Kings and Queens of Africa to the social chaos and cultural collapse of great African Kingdoms, like ancient Mali (a.k.a, “Mandingoland”) and Timbuktu, following the Portuguese invasions of Africa, as well as the marauding Arab hordes and Jaga warriors (African mercenaries). Mali remains in the news, today, regarding the efforts of African and French forces fighting to repel the incursions of al-Qaeda-linked militants, similar to the African continent’s hostile invasions, centuries earlier.

These invading hordes, armies and mercenaries launched a systematic assault and destruction of a culture on the African continent and its people- in effect, a “holocaust,” pure and simple. In the end, slavery, once the instrument of Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, Portugal, Spain and Great Britain to enslave militarily weaker enemies, now became confined to blacks and a new brand of bondage. This peculiar brand focuses on color, surfaced within the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  It was launched from the bowels of Angola, the Congo and other regions of Africa, rich in sugar cane, diamonds, silver and gold, as well as the “Black Gold” (free labor) of slavery.

Yet, Mali is in the news once again, not for its glorious past, but for some of the same reasons it’s glorious past began to crumble: overpopulation, invading armies, internal political struggles and poverty. It is similar to the marked decline in other great African Kingdoms, like Songhai and Ghana, before the systematic rape and ravishing of the African continent and its gold-and-ivory rich civilizations.

“Black Gold”– for the Colonies  Chains of Slavery

For many Americans, the beginnings of Black, Negro and/or African-American History merely began with the arrival of 20 “Negroes” at Jamestown, Virginia in August, 1619, on a Dutch Man-O’-War.  According to various archives, they were likely the Bantu-speaking Africans stolen in a high-seas raid from the Portuguese merchant-slave ship, the San Juan Bautista, traveling from coastal Luanda, Angola, in West Africa, to Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico. Four years later, they began showing up in the U.S. Census counts as “indentured servants,” some being assigned land, before blacks could not own property, along with the whites who completed their indenture.

For others, Black History, especially the annals of the culturally and resource rich Ancient African past, predates the “African Holocaust” and Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, stemming from the greed, lust and other sins of countries like Portugal, Spain, England, France and Holland. But, this newfound twist on human bondage, based on the race and color of those enslaved, became the basis of Black slavery and Apartheid- A La “Jim Crow”– in America. This included the profound corresponding economic benefit- known as “Black Gold”–   to plantation slavery, as well as the nation.

Power in Psychology

Unfortunately, beyond the whitewashed history of black people in America, and the cooked-up notion that black and brown people were never in the western hemisphere until the Middle Passage, many Americans simply stopped looking for any genetic bonds between African-Americans and Africans or Egyptians, due to the difficulty of wading through the ugly quagmire of slavery where the bloodlines of African-Americans become murky, at best.

For many years, while raising our own family, I often told our children what my parents and grandparents shared with me, that African-Americans were a spiritually strong and culturally rich people who came from royalty, kings, queens and mighty warriors long before the humiliations and denigrations within the “peculiar” Atlantic Slave Trade.  Many times, those conversations were punctuated just the way my mother used to end certain life lessons with me, after my dad had died. She would simply say that, regardless of our humble circumstances and meager means, I could still be anything- “a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g,” she’d often emphasizethat I wanted to be in life, if I only set my mind on the objective.

Of course, being raised in the segregated, “Jim Crow” South, on the cusp of school desegregation, during the U.S. Supreme Court’s  “Brown Decision”  (Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483,  1954), what I saw around me didn’t always square with what she was telling me.  For example, it was still “suicide” for a black woman to get arrested and placed in jail; elderly blacks still seemed to whisper and bow their heads when talking to whites; and, lopsided chain-gang justice was still around.

Genetic Strands of Strength

Yet, I always knew that the 20 so-called “Negroes,” who arrived at Jamestown, Virginia nearly 400 years ago,  spoke something other than the “King’s English” or the language of the street and the black idioms we were taught, as part of our “survival skill,” while growing up in the “Jim Crow” South. It was the kind of stuff used to avoid

Crude Worship

Silly Hi-Jinks

the wrath of racist police and jails, the silly hi-jinks of the pea-brain Klan, but to earn the respect of white classroom teachers, fellow students and athletes. It was all reinforced under the monitored guidance of the black church, during school desegregation years and the Civil Rights Movement.

It reminded me of what it must have been like for the waves of new arrivals to America’s shores- African slaves- without the benefit of speaking the “King’s English” and even without the legal status as an “immigrant,” but arriving by ships just the same, while communicating within the complex progression of dialects among themselves. Linguists recorded that some 45 distinct language groups arrived on the slave ships, during the Atlantic Slave Trade. The way I saw it, these captives had to be spiritually and physically strong to survive the horrible stench and hellish conditions of the slave ships, as well as creatively adaptive and highly intelligent enough to deal with the newfound rigors and risks of simply communicating among themselves.

According to historical slave records, the 10 most prominent language groupings were from: (1) the Akan people (Twi-Fante/ Akan languages and dialects, from Ghana), (2) the Chamba people (Leko and Leko-Nimbari languages and dialects, from Cameroon), (3) Gbe speakers (Fon, Adja, Ewe, Mina, Togo languages and dialects, from Ghana, Togo & Benin), (4) the Igbo people (Igboid, Ika, Ekpeye languages and dialects, from Nigeria), (5) the Mande people (Madinka, Manding, Ligbi, Madingo, Malinke, Soninke languages and other dialects, from Upper Guinea), (6) the Makua people (Bantu, Zulu, Swahili, Portuguese languages and dialects, from Mozambique), (7) the Mbundu people (West-Bantu, Kimbundu, Portuguese languages and dialects, from Angola), (8) the Wolof people (Wolof, Fulani, Serer, French, English, Arabic languages and dialects, from Senegal and the Gambia), (9) the Yoruba people (Edee Yoruba, Oyo, Ibadan, Yoruboid languages and dialects, from Nigeria, and (10) the BaKongo or Kongo people (Kongo, Lingala, French, Portuguese, Bantu, Kikongo languages and dialects, from Angola and the Republic of Congo)

Ancestral Wisdom & Elusive Truths

When the storm clouds of life would circle in my own life, I’ve often imagined how my ancestors survived the angst and horrors of the “Middle Passage,” as well as the strength and will to survive the first days and weeks after arriving in this strange land where, like themselves, the indigenous Native Americans were under cultural assault and battery from the colonial exploitation of European exiles and adventurists.

From spending most of my summers in farming life with my grandparents in Ohio, coupled with worship and work experience with the nearby Dutch and German farming community, I could sense the things which helped form real unity in the Christian community, minus the counter-productive focus on race. Meshing my black religious life beginnings in Kentucky, under my activist Baptist minister dad, with the often conflicting experiences, under my devout Pentecostal Evangelist grandmother, gave me new perspectives of possibilities when people earnestly worshiped and worked together in harmony. In fact, later in life, I often told our own kids that this nation’s racial issues would never go away, until people of various races began to worship together. I stand by that idea today, although I continue to worship in the unique oratory and gospel music environs of mostly black religious services, while appreciating the philosophical merit and occassional context of Black liberation theology.

Similarly, the influence of certain professors in college, after my years of overseas military experiences, taught me what it meant to be able to cross over into other belief systems and cultural experiences and, then, come back with an even greater appreciation for your own.  They included a Jewish world history professor, a white religious studies professor, trained for many years as a Buddhist Monk in Japan, and a black graduate student instructor of Ancient African History who had been under the tutelage of history professors, Drs. John Hope Franklin and Edgar Allan Toppin.

Within this backdrop, I was able to face many of my own prejudices, preconceptions and misconceptions regarding the study of history. Like many religious, political and racial assumptions, I’ve learned that it takes quite a bit of effort to sort out the real stories of the past, since they’re often mired in the slimy soils and dingy waters of fiction, fantasy and fallacy.

For me, Black History Month is an opportunity, not only for reaching back to see how far we’ve come, but for seeing how far we, as a “Pluralistic Society,” still have to go.  If the history of black people in the western hemisphere had been commensurate with the “White History” months already in existence, then “our” Declaration of Independence might have been more accurate by saying, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”

But, within the caustic political climate shadowing this nation’s African-American president, coupled with a conspiratorial and corrupt system of justice- with liberty and justice for some, not for all- our nation’s “truths” are still elusive.  Hope

And, in my opinion, the need for Black History Month endures…

“Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s 

                               Reprint from 2013 post

 

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“JIM CROW” BALL: Echoes from the Other Side of Major League Baseball’s Color Line

Backstreet Djeli 5

by William “Duke” Smither

 

“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me … All  I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” (Jack Roosevelt, a.k.a., “Jackie” Robinson, Jan 31, 1919 – Oct 24, 1972, First African American to play in ‘Modern Era’ Major League Baseball)

 

1924 Negro League - 1st “Colored World Series,” Hilldale Daisies vs Kansas City Monarchs
1924 Negro League – 1st “Colored World Series,” Hilldale Daisies vs Kansas City Monarchs

 

Once Upon a Time… Before Integrated Baseball

Way back when African-Americans were conveniently called “colored,” during the pathetic and disgraceful Jim Crow chapter of American history, we had our own baseball heroes and they sure in heck weren’t white—not because we were prejudice, but because we were proud.

Of course, it also had a little somethin’ somethin’ to do with de facto segregation’s— so-called Separate but Equal—“law of the land.” Back then, the term “colored” wasn’t all that offensive and “black” was on the way to being beautiful, like the 1960s culture shock paradox that shook the nation when I was in high school—not because we were prejudice, but because we were learning to be proud, again.

The Eurocentric version of major league baseball history usually suggests that Jackie Robinson was the “first African-American major-league ballplayer.” He was not—not even close! There’s a long line of African-American and other so-called “colored”  Americans after Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker— a purported “Quadroon,” a person with one-quarter black ancestry in slave society’s offensive caste system. He was college-educated (Univ. Of Michigan) and arguably the first African-American to play in the ‘majors,’ on May 1, 1884 (the Society for American Baseball Research claims that another African-American, William Edward White, played one game as a substitute for the National League’s Providence Grays, on June 21, 1879).

When I was a child, baseball was king in black neighborhoods all over America. Other than the black church, it was part of what united us, in the eerie shadows of sophisticated, lily-white justice and a rigid racial caste system, like some newfangled twist on religion, straight out of the same King James Bible that we all read. The unique style of black baseball flowed through our streets, backyards and whatever vacant fields or sandlots we could find, similar to the ancient bloodletting rituals of the great African Maasai warriors. And, we craved for more because it nourished our bodies, as well as our minds.

Wherever we played, we often tried to emulate black baseball’s traveling barnstorming teams. Their entertaining style of play allowed our psyche to soar, punctuating our hopes with spiritual closure, like the aftermath of some passionate, Pentecostal tent revival. Simply put, it was sustenance for the soul. Many times, the only thing white in those games was the doggone ball, consisting of two strips of firmly stitched, bleached-white horsehide, wrapped around a 9-inch cork center, measuring some 3 inches across. That’s when times were good.

When times were bad, its substitute might have been a wad of most anything, wrapped with black electrical tape or no wrapping at all. Just goo-gobs of yarn or rubber bands often served the purpose. Yet, in downright defiance of bigoted white adults’ racist demands, for racial separation in all things, we occasionally played against white kids, in ‘secret’ neutral areas– out of sight and out of mind of grownups. Years later, a few of those kids became good friends and teammates of ours, when school integration shook up the neighborhoods. That’s when white grownups were in a constant tizzy, stirring up trouble and throwing hissy fits all over the place, mostly because white kids would be going to school and socializing with black kids. Surely, Old Jim Crow was dead and gone– at least, we thought so.

Mo’ Better Black?

Integrated baseball became opportunities lost, or aborted, similar to the way many black schools were closed down and black teachers lost careers, as schools began to integrate in the South, still stuck on stupid, longing for the past where only “white is right.” Yet, on the cusp of significant racial and social change, many of us hung on to our belief that baseball was simply mo’ better black, anyway. But, that was only until we became acquainted with bubblegum baseball cards (trading cards) and players like “Pee Wee” Reese, Duke Snider, Ted Kluszewski, Alvin Dark and other white players that we thought had “skillz”— “got game” as we use to say– just as good as some of our black heroes, when we were kids, in the segregated world we came from.

As a child, I recall seeing at least four all-black teams from the old ‘Negro Leagues’ playing in Columbus and/or Cincinnati, Ohio, down the road from Zanesville where my grandparents lived. They were the Indianapolis Clowns, and whomever they were playing, during the time they won back-to-back Negro League Championships, in the early 1950’s. Usually, they played in some white stadium that we traveled to, on the days the white teams were not playing. Other than the Pentecostal church, to which my grandparents belonged (I was their little ‘delinquent’ Baptist), or the occasional tent revivals they attended, it was the only time I recall their joyfully experiencing any outside social function, beyond the area farmer’s collective efforts to help each other out, around planting and harvest times, out of reach from the humiliating insults of Old Jim Crow. Back then, black people found relief and comfort within each other’s trust and company.

The “Indy Clowns” were top-notch, with clowning-around action similar to basketball’s Harlem Globe Trotters. But, they were good– reeeal good. Plus, I recall seeing a couple of women players, too, whom I later learned were “Toni” Stone (infielder) and “Peanuts” Johnson (pitcher). They clowned and cajoled with the fans, just like the guys, and were probably even more entertaining within their choreographed brash and sass. It didn’t matter that they were females. I was more concerned with practicing some of the techniques I saw.

Lady On-Deck!

Mo' Ne Davis - 2014 Little League World Series

Mo’ Ne Davis – 2014 Little League World Series

But, imagine my surprise, while watching the recent 2014 Little League Baseball World Series, televised from South Williamsport, PA.  When I saw this young black girl, an articulate hazel-eyed, 13-year-old, named Mo’ Ne Davis—in front of some 15,000 stadium fans–pitching strikes to the boys, for Philadelphia’s Taney Dragons’ team, my mind raced back to the old days. I was shocked. When I played Little League ball, in my home town, little girls weren’t allowed to play and you probably couldn’t find but maybe 2 or 3 that even wanted to. But, throwing curves and zipping 70-mph fast balls, this pony-tailed little girl reminded me of our 13-year-old granddaughter’s aggressive style of playing basketball, as she smoked some fairly talented boys, with ‘big bats,’ with such class and confidence that simply glued you to your seat. This gurl can hurl! ‘Nuff said!

According to sports reporters, Mo’ Ne was merely one of about 18 girls who had played in the Little League World Series. She was ‘baad.’ Reportedly, she was the 5th female of all-time to pitch for the Little League World Series, but the first to win a game, hurling a 2-hit shut-out in the series’ opening game. She was also the first little leaguer to be featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated Magazine. She was thrilling. She was even more impressive, after the Little League World Series was over. That’s when I saw her again throwing out the ceremonial first pitch, a perfect strike, just before the game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Washington Nationals, at Dodger Stadium (on Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014), later autographing a baseball, herself, for one of the Dodger outfielders. Yet, in spite of all the fanfare, her Taney Dragons had lost, 6-5, to the all-black Jackie Robinson West team from Chicago, Ill, in yet another exciting Little League World Series game. It knocked them out from further World Series play, but brought back childhood memories of seeing black women playing in the Negro Leagues.

Jackie Robinson West 2014 Little League World Series
Jackie Robinson West
2014 Little League World Series

 

Muffled Glory, Collective Dignity

This was the team- the Jackie Robinson West All-Stars— that probably resembled our childhood little league team (in Kentucky) the most, except for our tattered, makeshift uniforms. Overnight, this hustling, all-black squad simply flipped the news script, from negative to positive, on kids from the streets of Southside Chicago, where they hail from. I’m certain they made the nation proud. And, the way they represented themselves, even in their heartbreaking, 8-4, loss to South Korea in the Little League World Series championship game, certainly made me proud. But, it was their plain ole grit and style of play which brought tears to my eyes in the preceding game, when they whipped Las Vegas, Nevada, 7-5, making them the first Chicago squad to advance to the championship game since 1967. Settling for the U.S. Little League Championship title, after their losing bid for the World Championship title, was definitely nothing to sneeze at.

Even in their losing bid, these guys were cucumber cool. Coming out of the chute as underdogs to just get to the championship game, they had to really listen to themselves, as well as their coaches. But, the thundering chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A…,” filling the stadium when rallying from being behind by 6 points (8-1) in the bottom of the sixth inning, couldn’t help but kick them in the pants, even more. As my eyes began to swell from tears and painful memories of times past (in little league and high school sports), I saw a bunch of little black kids beat back their own tears with a never-say-die spirit, before some 29,000, mostly-strangers crowd of spectators, as they fought like the little Nubian warriors they were, to me. They scored three times but the potential game-tying run died with their hopes, on deck, as the final out slipped into history.

“Even in defeat, they won,” I thought. But, the crowd noise I heard was more like lingering stadium echoes from the Negro Baseball Leagues. It was deafening, drowning out all of the humiliations suffered by African-Americans, within their stifled quests for peace and happiness, on the playing fields of a nation undeniably filled to the brim with institutional racism and blatant economic inequality. Yet, the beat goes on.

It doesn’t matter that the disease of racism lingers, still. What matters is how you handle it, what you do to neutralize the ignorance outside ourselves. It begins with us. What we do matters. Our actions not only strengthen us, it emboldens others—like the little Jackie Robinson All-Stars, as well as teams from black baseball’s gloried past, like: (1) the Atlanta Black Crackers, and the Birmingham Black Barons, or (2) the Chicago American Giants, the Cleveland Buckeyes and the Cuban Stars – East, or (3) the Detroit Stars, the Memphis Red Sox and the New York Black Cubans, or (4) the Newark Eagles, the Philadelphia Stars and the Pittsburgh Crawfords, just to name a few.

‘Canon Street’ Pedigree 

1955 Little League World Series

1955 Little League World Series

Yet, much of the Little League black experience remains an untold story, like the Cannon Street YMCA All-Stars Baseball Team, from Charleston, S.C. They forever formed a part of my childhood memories, during the time I was playing little league ball. They were a bunch of scrappy 11-12 year old kids who also went to the Little League World Series, in Williamsport, PA, in 1955, but became the only team ever which was forbidden to play for the title, once they arrived. They simply sat there, in the doggone stands, and painfully watched the white teams play, listening to the ground swell of chants, “Let them play, let them play…” Some say it was because they were black. It was also because Jim Crow and Massive Resistance shenanigans allowed white teams to refuse in taking the field to play against them. That’s what I remember the most. And, some four years later, I carried those memories with me as I began to play high school football and run track, sometimes with vengeance, during the often hostile years of school desegregation in Kentucky, on a racial landscape where black grownups continually reminded us to remain non-violent, since the issues were much bigger than ourselves.

Newspaper archives reveal that the Cannon Street All-Stars were the only black Little League team in the Charleston City Championships, as well as South Carolina State Championship (in Greenville) and the Southern Regional Championship (in Rome, GA). They did not lose a game, but won all of their earlier titles—by forfeit—because about 75 white teams refused to play them, because they were black. This was a year in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). Of course, “Brown…” was the milestone U.S. Supreme Court decision which clamped down on state-sponsored segregation and sanctioned discrimination and bigotry. But, still, the Little League’s South Carolina affiliate was demanding an all-white tournament, in order to exclude what was felt to be a superior, all-black Cannon Street team, with excellent chances to win it all.

To its credit, the Little League’s national office rejected the South Carolina office’s demand, which would have benched the Cannon Street squad. According to Little League Baseball archives, in enforcing its long-standing non-discrimination policy, the Little League’s national office explained to the South Carolina affiliate that it was a new day in youth baseball and no place for their Massive Resistance tactics. It said, “For the boys of these teams there are no barriers of race, creed or color. . . . For the boys, baseball is a game to be played with bat, ball and glove.” However, citing adherence to a rule which prevented teams from World Series competition after “advancing by forfeit,” the national office invited Cannon Street to attend as guests, only.

1955 SC Team (as adults)

1955 SC Team (as adults)

Much of the hushed history and forgotten cruelties for this period have been recounted by a former Cannon Street All-Star, William “Buck” Godfrey, within his 84-page recollections, in the book, “The Team Nobody Would Play” (Dorrance Publishing Co. Inc., Paperback, April 2008). It was published around the time I had retired and returned to coaching youth track and field at a local middle school (Fairfield Falcons) to assist my daughter, then a track coach and teacher. After years of my coaching in AAU competition, it was felt that I might also have some helpful perspectives to share from the time I competed in high school. Sometimes, before practice started, I was invited to give some motivational talks to the team on that period and I often talked about track and football.

Fruits of the Vine

However, one afternoon, as all of the different teams (i.e., track, baseball, soccer, tennis, etc.) spilled out of the locker rooms, heading to practice fields, my thoughts turned to baseball. I overheard a couple of black track team members teasing a couple of black baseball players for playing a “white man’s game.” Ironically, I was even wearing my Negro League Baltimore Black Sox cap, at the time. Shocked at what I heard, rather than interfering, I simply tried to ignore it, realizing that their world was quite different from my childhood, when baseball ruled. The juxtaposition of the moment made me realize that I had become part of the problem I’ve accused others about, in not sharing enough of our rich, storied past in athletics, during those awful Jim Crow years and school desegregation. And, here I was, sporting my Baltimore Black Sox hat, decidedly tight-lipped!

That very moment, coupled with dealing with some medical issues of my own relatives, caused me to think of the dwindling numbers of living Negro Baseball League members, as well as the fading memories (due to Alzheimer’s, Dementia, etc.) of some still living,

I recalled the death, a couple of years earlier (October 29, 2006), of one of the oldest living Negro League players, “Si” (Silas) Simmons, rumored to have memory problems. He was 111! He died just two weeks after the Center for Negro League Baseball Research had staged a special party for him, at a Florida nursing home, attracting some 300 people, including 39 former players of the shrinking, untold number of Negro Baseball League members.

Expected attendees had included a couple of my own aging heroes from Negro League ball. They were: (1) Monford “Monte” Irvin, from the Negro League’s Newark Eagles, who later played for MLB’s New York Giants and the Chicago Cubs and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1973, based mostly on his play in the Negro Leagues and (2) Johnny “Lefty” Washington, from the Negro League’s Chicago American Giants and the Houston Eagles, who later served in the U.S. Marine Corp in Korea, where he received two Purple Hearts and the Silver Star, the nation’s third highest military decoration for combat valor. He also played on the Marine Corp’s national championship baseball team in 1952. Their stories, and other stories I knew, merely punctuated my thoughts that day.

Johnny "Lefty" Washington's Autographed Baseball

Johnny “Lefty” Washington’s Autographed Baseball

Like rare grapes for fine wine, withering on the vine, Negro League ball players are the “grapes” and we have become the “vine,” the way I see it. From working on the farm most summers in my youth, I’m acutely aware that vines need attention, since they nourish the branches which bear these fruits of the vine.

In a sense, the African-American community were the vineyards which yielded some vintage “fruit,” Negro League baseball players. And, time is nigh that we all help cultivate these “vines” for our children– and our children’s children– not because we’re biased, but because we’re proud…

Damn proud!

 

 

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FADE AWAY TO GLORY: A Black Spy in the Confederate Shadows of an “Un-Civil” War

By William “Duke” Smither

 

“Miss Van Lew (Elizabeth “Crazy Bet” Van Lew) was my best source. She had contacts everywhere. Her colored girl Mary (Elizabeth “Ellen Bond” Bowser) was the best as she was working right in Davis’ home (Confederate President Jefferson Davis) and had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel President’s desk she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made the point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis’ home to drop information…”

Thomas McNiven (a white baker and Union Spy, code name “Quaker,” who supplied the ‘White House of the Confederacy’ with baked goods, during the Civil War)

Crazy, White Man’s War

Whenever I heard the phrase, “black spies” in the so-called Civil War,” from black grownups, I simply scoffed it off, thinking “…how crazy that sounds ‘cause nowadays the street folk, colored and po’ white, that I hung around with, talked about colored being dumber than a po’ azz ‘cracker’.” At six years old, in the dawning of the 1950’s  Jim Crow South, that kind of silly, naive conjecture might have been more prevalent than one would care to admit. America’s peculiar brand of “Apartheid” often coughed up some screwball reasoning and pea-brain rhetoric, within the wretched vomit from racial segregation and discrimination, by blacks and whites, alike.

My working-class neighborhood peers and influences, back home in Kentucky, simply weren’t yet up to snuff on the significant contributions by African-Americans within this epic, bloody struggle which whites somehow termed a “civil” war. Contrary to my Christian upbringing (dad being a Baptist minister, my maternal grandmother, a Pentecostal Evangelist, etc.), the way us young’uns joked about the evil slavery-time goings-on, which grownups talked about, just hearing the term, “black spies,” had to be some sick, sarcastic play on words, the way we thought.

Even so, I was smart enough to know that all grownups had to be crazy as a “June Bug” if they kept calling America’s War between the North and South, “Civil…” Of course, that was long before I learned from various archives that this so-called “War between the States” caused as many American deaths as all of the other wars fought by U.S. soldiers, combined—including some 40,000 “U.S. Colored Troops” (black soldiers). Instinctively, I felt that this disgusting carnage, which my devout, ‘tent-preaching’ grandmother called a “disgrace to the human race,” sure as heck was not something “civil.” If it was anything, from what I was learning, early-on, I imagined it to be “unholy,” at best. In fact, not only did I feel that it was “unholy,” I knew this hideous conflict had to be “Un-Civil” as hell!

Yet, I became fascinated whenever I heard the term ‘black spies,’ usually associated with what my grandmother called, “the stupid white war.” After digging through the volumes of dusty, history-related journals and black newspapers I found in her basement “library,” on summer visits to my grandparent’s farm, I began to appreciate the various roles of many Union spies. It was an odd assortment of old information being stashed, or soon-to-be thrown away; but, the rummaging was magical. It brought to life the daring exploits of several black women spies. This mixed-bag “library” collection spilled out of the musty-smelling cardboard boxes, next to the coal bin and wood pile, beneath our one-story farm home. And, like crazy cockroaches, they seemed to scatter and run for cover, when the lights came on. Later in life, I often chuckled about those private, basement hunts while forming hypotheses for more qualitative historical research, during my independent studies in Ancient African- and African-American history.

Not Crazy, Just Crafty

"Lady Patriot" Stage Play Cast

“Lady Patriot” Stage Play Cast

“Crazy Bet” was one of the names I recall from those curious basement forays, and later research projects, as well as the sophisticated spy ring—the “Richmond Underground”– she created in the so-called “White House of the Confederacy,” a three-story, gray stucco house, in downtown Richmond. She was an interesting white lady—an anti-slavery advocate whose family owned slaves—at a time when owning another human being was as commonplace as springtime’s sweet smells of Magnolia, floating within the sin-sick air and fake elegance of a professed Genteel South. Her real name was Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900). When at her alter-ego’s best performance, Southern archives described her as “…always distracted and muttered when she spoke in order for people to think she was unbalanced and therefore not someone to take seriously”— thus, the nickname, “Crazy Bet.”

According to historians, a visiting Swedish novelist (Fredericka Bremer), once described a thirty-year-old Elizabeth Van Lew as “a pleasing, pale blonde” with much compassion for slaves. Sometime after the 1850s, archives reveal that she freed all the family servants, although most of them remained employed by her family. Then, “hearing that the children or relatives of Van Lew slaves were to be sold by other owners, she bought and liberated them as well,” and later issued her much quoted opinion: “Slave power crushes freedom of speech and of opinion. Slave power degrades labor. Slave power is arrogant, is jealous and intrusive, is cruel, is despotic, not only over the slave but over the community, the state.”

She was a known “Union sympathizer” who opposed slavery and the war, while many Richmonders considered her as fanatical and hysterical, or just plain silly, due to her open support of the North and Union soldiers, according to Civil War archives. Yet, she was quick to point out that she was “…not a Yankee.” Instead, she would explain that she was merely a “…a good Southerner, holding to an old Virginia tradition of opposition to human bondage. She had been the loyal one, she said, they the traitors. . . .” Apparently, her devious, calculating ways—in plain sight– served her well, as she used a sophisticated system of code names within her elaborate network of spies, bribing farmers and sweet-talking clerks, to earn the reputation as the “best (spy) inside the Confederate capital,” according to Northern generals (Spies for the Blue and Gray, “Grant’s Spy in Richmond” by Harnett Kane, Garden City Publishing, Hanover House, 1954).

“Ellen Bond”—the Black Spy

According to Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) journals (Black Dispatches: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence During the Civil War), “Crazy Bet” also coined the nickname, “Ellen Bond,” for one of her secret agents that worked as a servant for the Jefferson Davis house, with an effective alter-ego character of her own: “…a slow-thinking, but able servant.”

Civil War archives reveal that many Union spies were black. Some of the best were black women, as they copped a happy-go-lucky attitude, faked a broad smile, appearing unconcerned, as they secretly gathered valuable intelligence. Secret “Maroon Societies” (runaway slaves and Black Seminoles) also provided valuable information to Union Army commanders, including the location, strength and disposition of Confederate troops. Their intimate understanding of nearby roads, rivers and trails, as well as the general lay of the land, assisted their many unheralded roles as Union couriers, guides for Union raids and leading escaping Union prisoners through the zigzagging lines of Rebel troops.

Within the collective heap of untold stories of “black spies,” the little-known, secret-agent story of “Ellen Bond” is just as unique and gripping. She was an African-American, named Mary Elizabeth Bowser (c.1839- date of death, unknown) and was once a slave, owned by “Crazy Bet’s father (John Van Lew). At the death of John Van Lew, she was one of the slaves that the family freed, but stayed on with the household as a free domestic worker. That’s where “Crazy Bet” became aware of her keen intellect and unique ability to recall information and images exactly as they were. Perfect for “Crazy Bet’s” needs, with the help of various friends of the Union, “Crazy Bet” was able to get Bowser hired full-time by the wife of Jefferson Davis (Varina Davis) at “Confederate White House” functions, during the war years. It was seen as “Crazy Bet’s” biggest espionage accomplishment, according to some historians.

Since slaves were trained to be “invisible,” or not noticeable, Bowser’s alter-ego performances and photographic memory allowed her to obtain huge amounts of information, important to the North, by simply following her normal work routine. The prevailing White Supremacy landscapes, and bogus superiority complex assumptions within slaves being unable to read and write, let alone understand “complex political conversations,” further bolstered “Ellen Bond’s” successes. The extensive education she received at Philadelphia’s “Quaker School for Negros,” after being set free by the Van Lew family, strengthened her cunning intrigue, even more, as she relayed much of the happenings within the “White House of the Confederacy” back to “Crazy Bet” and the Union Army.

Life Becomes Art, on Stage

Much further down the path of my own life journey, with my thinning, speckled-gray hair and “progressive-lens,” bifocal eyeglasses– in my reflective retirement years– just a couple of months back, my wife and I attended a stage-production, at the University of Richmond Modlin Center for the Arts, on the super-resourceful, war-time roles of Mary Bowser (a.k.a., “Ellen Bond”) and Elizabeth Van Lew (a.k.a., “Crazy Bet”). As we sat there waiting for the lights to dim, I really couldn’t recall, from my childhood basement forays, exactly who was black or white, free or slave. Yet, the fuzziness quickly dissipated, as much of what I remembered magically sprang to life again, on stage, in the “Lady Patriot” (as presented by Francis-Emma, Inc., in association with Lange Productions, of Los Angeles, California).

The production was part of the Francis-Emma, Inc. (owned by the sisters of the Blessed Sacrament) initiative to raise restoration funds for the Belmead Mansion, on the former site of the famed St. Emma Military Academy, located at 5004 Cartersville Road, Powhatan, VA 23139 (www.FrancisEmma.org). Built in the 1890s, it housed the storied past and rich legacy associated with educating Native Americans, African-Americans and Europeans on land, containing two schools, located on adjacent plantations (owned by Philip St. George Cocke, a wealthy Virginia Planter), atop a hill overlooking the James River.

I first heard about this famous institution, before moving to Virginia, from friends and relatives, a few who once attended St. Emma. One friend, Robert A. Walker, Jr., whom I met after moving to Virginia, not only attended the school as a cadet, he wrote the history of its storied past in “The Black Military Academy on the James River” (Published by Robert A. Walker, Jr., Richmond, VA, 2006; available at nang67@verizon.net) and performed a lot of the leg-work associated with marketing the play’s recent performance in Richmond, VA. Another friend, Ed Davis, Photographer & Graphic Designer (and, Photo Restoration Services at www.goldeneyepix.com; eddavis3210@aol.com), designed the playbill-advertising and program cover for this event. These two high-energy friends also sing with me in a local gospel group and form part of an informal, retiree and military veterans’ “breakfast club” where we occasionally break bread and share stories, together. They were also in attendance at the play, as well as other ceremonies associated with the stage production.

As for the play, “Lady Patriot” (written & directed by Ted Lange, formerly “Isaac,” the bartender on “Love Boat,” and produced by Mary Lange) seven highly skilled and experienced, film-and-stage actors breathed life into the ‘missing pages’ of history associated with the so-called Genteel South’s “White House of the Confederacy,” home to Confederate President Jefferson F. Davis, between 1861 and 1865. Now a museum (Museum of the Confederacy, 1201 Clay Street, Richmond, VA), created in `1894, my previous tours of this three-story, historical landmark did not prepare me for the way “Lady Patriot’s” talented cast and crew brought to life the refined, well-bred and mannered slice of the rebellious and secessionist side of Dixie—not exactly the way I expected. In fact, I didn’t recall anything about black spies in the Confederate White House, during those tours.

Within two hours, two acts and 18 scenes, from the Jefferson Davis White House garden and kitchen to its office and state room, the Southern take on our ugly past, below the Mason-Dixie Line, leaped from the pages, still missing, from America’s classroom history books. Truthfully, while somewhat intellectually palatable, certain reminders of our nation’s slavery and Jim Crow past remained difficult to swallow, for someone like myself. There’s a seething rage of bitter racial animosity and unfounded fear, stemming from this period, which continues to poison America’s toxic political atmosphere, even now, as an African-American president occupies the nation’s White House, in Washington D.C., in my opinion.

However, the play’s cast of characters, featuring Chrystee Pharris (as Mary Bowser, a.k.a., “Ellen Bond”), Lou Beatty, Jr. (as “Old Robert”), Gordon Goodman (as Jefferson Davis), Anne Johnston-Brown (as Varina Davis), Paul Messinger (as Judah P. Benjamin, Robert Pine (as Mr. Slydell) and Connie Ventress (as Elizabeth Van Lew, a.k.a., “Crazy Bet”), gave a powerful, commanding performance within their interpretation and execution of the play’s overall theme.

In addition to the cast, blue-ribbon creativity and professionalism of Mylett Nora (Costume Designer), Wendell Carmichael (Wardrobe Master) and Jezelle Beatty (Asst. Stage Manager/ Prop Master), was clearly evident in moving the plot along, considering the production’s tortuous timeline and scene constraints. But, special kudos should be extended to Chrystee Pharris (Mary Bowser/ “Ellen Bond”) and Lou Beatty, Jr. (“Old Robert”), as well as Ted Lange (Playwright & Director) who in my opinion captured the composite intricacies and essence of “black spies” in America’s “Un-Civil” War, often lost in the foggy footnotes and ‘missing pages’ of America’s classroom history books, framing them for present and future generations to examine.

As the U.S. Army’s famed, corncob-smoking, 5-Star General, General Douglas MacArthur, once quoted an old Army ballad in his 1951 “farewell speech” to Congress, “…old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”  Mary Bowser’s “last act as a spy” (and “soldier”), according to Civil War archives, “…was an attempt to burn down the Confederate White House. She was not successful.” No record exist of Bowser’s life (or death) after 1867.

However, a U.S. government honor conferred on her, in 1995, for her undercover work during the America’s “Un-Civil” War Between the States, assured that the service of Mary Elizabeth Bowser (a.k.a., “Ellen Bond”) would be rememberedFittingly, she was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, as “…one of the highest-placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War.”  Thus, like old soldiers of famed “U.S. Colored Troop” regiments, she simply faded away to glory, the way I see it. Hooah, Mary Bowser!

 

 

 

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BLACK SOLDIERS IN NORMANDY’S D-DAY ASSAULT: Known, Unknown and “Invisible,” Still

By W.D. Smither

Backstreet Djeli 5

“I am the Unknown Soldier

And maybe I died in vain,

But if I were alive and my country called,

I’d do it all over again.” (From “The Unknown Soldier,” by Billy Rose)

The first thing one notices when visiting the Richmond National Cemetery, for U.S. Military Veterans, is the long, clean rows of marble grave markers smartly aligned, as if at “parade rest,” readied for military in-ranks inspection and review. It’s part of the nation-wide network of hallowed burial grounds for veterans. These particular grounds lie within the Civil War fortification lines constructed by the Confederate army in its defense of this former “Capitol of the Confederacy.” It’s also where the remains of my wife’s dad are interred, following his service during the World War II, D-Day assault and an exemplary civilian family life, afterwards.

Unknown Soldier

The “Known” and “Unknown”

On Memorial Days, the second thing you notice is the large number of delicately placed, miniature stick flags with “Old Glory” proudly waving in the wind, pointing to the gravesites of veterans, known and unknown, in various conflicts, from the Civil War to WWII.

But, this time, during our annual visit, on the 2014 Memorial Day weekend, the third thing I noticed was a nearby, stick flag—the miniature version of our nation’s most revered symbol of freedom– laying on the ground. A veteran myself, I instinctively corrected the disrespectful, although likely unintentional, position of the flag to its proper, upright posture.

Leaning down, I couldn’t help but notice another gravestone marked “Unknown U.S. Soldier.” It was one of many marble and granite headstones, standing at attention throughout this meticulously-manicured graveyard. For a moment, it made me think about the vast number of black soldiers, not only “unknown” but still “invisible,” within the forgotten ranks and missing pages of military service– especially those sacrifices to our nation, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. That’s when the Allied forces invaded Normandy in World War II, during the largest seaborne invasion in history. It was also the real life, blood-‘n-guts application of U.S. military genius planning and execution. But, it was mostly carried out by the determination, sweat and tears of grunt soldiers, sailors and airmen of a nation, ironically, still at war with itself. It was a “war” the African-American soldier knew all too well—before, during and following WWII—in “Jim Crow” America.

Like many of the unsung African-American warriors on D-Day, my wife’s dad served in one of the all-black, stevedore battalions which played a significant role in “Operation Neptune,” codename for the massive airborne and amphibious assault on five Normandy beachheads– Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beach. His unit, the 499th Port Battalion, was at “Omaha Beach” and experienced a special kind of hell, unloading equipment and ammo, 24/7, while under direct, heavy German fire. Yet, like many vets, black and white, who survived the D-day carnage, he didn’t talk much about the invasion, at least, not to his family. But, he spoke often of his time in France, training and working in various roles, before and after the amphibious assault.

Archives reveal that, five days after the invasion, 326,547 troops, 54,186 vehicles and 104,428 tons of supplies were landed. And, just three weeks after the initial assault, over 850,000 men, 148,000 vehicles, and 570,000 tons of supplies had been landed. A better view of Port Battalion soldiers, through personal interviews with soldiers in his “sister company,” the 490th Port Battalion, is available within the History Channel’s Documentary, “A Distant Shore: African Americans of D-Day” (DVD, 2010) and the book, “Longshore Soldiers: Life in a World War II Port Battalion” (by Andrew J. Brozyna, grandson of a veteran of the 519th Port Battalion, Paperback, Apidae Press, 2012).

These may have been some of the American “Black Negro” soldiers I heard about from the French troops and civilian soccer club teams that I played against, and drank lots of “Pastis” (a French, licorice flavored liquor) with, during my years of being home-ported overseas, in Ville Franche-Su-Mer. They always spoke highly of the black troops of WWII, mostly from what they heard through their families. However, what I recalled mostly from those conversations was how we wound up being somewhat “numbed” stiff from the drinks, not “stoned.” You couldn’t just “walk off” the intoxication like when hooched up on bourbon whiskey back home in Kentucky; with this newfangled stuff, the more you walked, the stiffer you became.

Other Frenchmen (i.e., bar-owners and policemen) also spoke of certain exploits by “French Colonial” soldiers, who happened to be black. They called them “Les Africains.”  I thought it must have been their liquor “talking” when I first heard about them, but later learned that France actually had a significant number of black troops in WWII. Many were killed by Nazis, when Paris fell to Hitler’s march through France. Many came from North Africa, who fought in the French Liberation Army, under the famed leadership of General Charles De Gaulle. Their descendants were some of the “French-Algerians” I became friends with and drank warm, home-made beer, chock-full of flies and all kinds of stuff. And, their sacrifices were “invisible” or buried among the reams of “missing pages” to classroom history books in France, just like in America. But, that’s a matter I might further pursue at another time. Perhaps, over some imported “Pastis” or warm, home-brewed beer.

The “Invisible”

Meanwhile, American military records reveal that over 2,000 African-Americans stormed Normandy’s “Omaha” and “Utah” beaches on that violent, bloody assault, on June 6, 1944 (an estimated 125,000 black troops served overseas in WWII). It was a day that the English Channel was said to be experiencing its worst weather in decades— foul conditions for air support. Military historians say some 160,000 men invaded Nazi-occupied France in the first wave. And, the invasion fleet of more than 5,000 ships and landing craft was the biggest armada in history.

The night before, according to military archives, thousands of troops were garrisoned aboard landing craft in the harbor, dogged with seasickness and the ever-present, unmistakable stench of vomit. On the following morning, when the landing craft moved in around 6:00 a.m., the waves were around 6 feet high and the winds had shifted, driving the landing craft into the beaches with the winds at their backs. The conditions were overpowering for many of the landing craft and they were swamped, some wrecked in mid-channel. According to one account, of the 32 tanks going to Omaha Beach, 27 were lost.

Even now, historians say the exact number of deaths on D-Day may never be known. But, some casualty estimates have ranged from 2,500 to over 5,000 dead on D-day, plus, for Allied forces, more than 19,000 French civilian deaths in Normandy, during the Allied bombing to soften up German defenses. Then, according to the D-day Museum, Allied air forces lost nearly 12,000 men in the two months of operations ahead of the invasion. Yet, it was only a portion of the 75,000 originally estimated deaths, if the element of surprise had not been used. But, a narrow, unexpected window of opportunity, with a break in weather conditions, allowed for the invasion to go forward, catching German troops off guard with their grounded planes and missing naval units. Ultimately, it changed the course of the war.

For black GIs who went ashore during the invasion, according to a recent newspaper article, “…their enemies wore not only the gray of the German Wehrmacht, but the olive green of the American army” (Miami Herald: “The African-Americans of D-Day,” by Glenn Garvin, Feb 23, 2007). For some black soldiers, it was worst returning to the United States where their sacrifices in the war were “invisible” and meant nothing at all. According to the Miami article, one soldier recalled that, getting off the ship from France, he wasn’t allowed inside stores on military bases. “The damn German prisoners was going in the PX,” he says. “We couldn’t go in the PX. It hadn’t changed.”

It was similar to other stories I heard from older black GI’s and veterans of WWII and the Korean War, listening to their narratives in colorful barbershop discourses, as well as late summer-night street-corner talks, while growing up in the Jim Crow South, hanging outside neighborhood taverns and juke joints. I was always amazed at the consistency of several stories, from different individuals, about how well the white, German POW’s were treated, compared to African-American GI’s in uniform. I still recall how one popular Marine Corp vet back home, nicknamed “Big John D…,” vividly recounted his experience, I believe somewhere in Georgia, where German POWs were allowed in segregated movie theaters and diners which remained off limits to black GIs returning from the war. It’s an image that still haunts my memories of listening to those disturbingly frank, but lively talks.

Overall, racial conditions had greatly improved, by the time I served in the Navy as an E-5 Radarman/ Combat Information Supervisor, during the Cuban Crisis and Viet Nam Era. Many times in my career, the sting of racism was not entirely foreign wherever I served. In fact, I was darn near grateful for experiencing it up close and personal, growing up in the South, since it tended to cushion the impact for several military-related incidents. Yet, the few years of being stationed in Southern France was long enough for me to appreciate why the French people seemed to think highly of the African-American soldier, as well as their “Les Africains.”

Gone, Not “Erased…”

Another book, The Invisible Soldier: The Experience of the Black Soldier, World War II” (by Mary Penick Motley, Paperback, Wayne State University Press, December 1987), paints the picture of the experience of other African-American soldiers, during WWII. Through the 55 oral histories of black troops, it vividly reemphasizes the “importance” of white supremacy in America’s segregated, “Jim Crow” way of life, with one observer noting that, “At times it actually seemed that the white man would rather lose the war than give the black man the recognition he so clearly deserved.” Some 70 years later, stories are still coming to light for African-Americans killed in combat, during WWII. But, relatively few of the 900,000 black WWII veterans, until recently, ever received the medals for exploits during major WWII battles. None were awarded the coveted Medal of Honor, during WWII, until 1997 when President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to seven African American, WWII veterans, all but one posthumously.

Throughout America’s hushed racial history, “Buffalo Soldier” units and/or the African American have served in every branch of the military, from the Revolutionary War to the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the creeping terrorism around the globe. Yet, the volumes of “missing pages” to their significant accomplishments, combat and support roles, remains a stain on the countless number of Memorial Day stick flags waving in the wind, on the lawns of our nation’s well-manicured, veteran cemeteries..

It’s why I was glad to be in place, this past Memorial Day weekend, to reposition several miniatures of “Old Glory” to its proper, upright posture. I felt that it was karma, my destiny, beyond our annual trek, to be at the Richmond National Cemetery that day. By some strange twist of fate, as if ordained, in addition to honoring the services of my wife’s dad, Joe E. Douglas (WWII, VIRGINIA PVT 260TH PORT CO 499TH PORT BN TC US ARMY), I was able to correct the posture of four “fallen flags” that day. Three belonged to: (1) Howard M. Woodson (WWI, VIRGINIA CPL, 10TH CAVALRY- U S ARMY), (2) Floyd N. Thornton (WWI, VIRGINIA PFC CO L, 807 PION INF USA), and (3) Daniel K. Struble (WWII, WEST VIRGINIA STAFF SGT, US ARMY).

The fourth flag, next to the least-inscribed headstone, probably had the most impact on me. It made my eyes tear up a tad. It was simply marked “UNKNOWN U.S. SOLDIER.” But, while adjusting this flag to an upright position, I thought of a few words from a poem I once heard- a tribute to another unknown soldier- by an unknown author:

“Soldier, here I stand and wonder, thinking of the distant thunder, Of the cannons that once shook the very dirt beneath your feet… None will know the fateful story of your patriotic glory, For your body saw a gory death, and nature showed no care. Hence the war will be remembered yet forget its hero’s fair, Unknown soldiers, don’t despair!” 

I also thought of America’s other “Invisible” soldiers, of all colors, from all walks of life, gone- but, not erased– from our memories, still imprinted on our hearts, gently whispering, “We are forever grateful that you served…”   Then, I prayed, “May God continue to watch over you and the courageous Commander-in-Chief, President Barack Obama, who serves us, today, as well as all of our Commanders-in-Chief, yet-to-come, within all of our tomorrows that Our Almighty God sees fit for us mortals to see.  Amen.”

 

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