Tag Archives: Black History Month

Videos for the Classroom: Interview about “Slavery by Another Name”

A few nights ago, PBS showed a documentary that chilled me to the bone.

Slavery by Another Name is a documentary based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon.  It details an often-overlooked chapter in African American history: the  “convict lease” system that placed thousands of Southern Blacks in a state of virtual slavery after the Civil War.

When the Reconstruction occupation forces left the South in 1877, Southern whites retook state governments and forced Blacks into a secondary status.  Part of this process was a series of laws that entrapped Black men under seemingly innocent conditions, such as looking at a white woman, walking on a railroad, etc.

Once in custody, these men faced exhorbitant fines and were forced to pay for the cost of their arrest.  Unable to pay such “debts”, these prisoners are leased out to plantations, mines, brickyards, railroads, quarries, steel mills and road building contractors.  State governments made millions in revenue leasing prison inmates to private companies as a source of cheap labor.

These men endured brutal conditions and backbreaking labor in a state of bondage thanks to a loophole in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which does not bar slavery in the case of punishment for a crime. 

It was a system that persisted until World War II.

The video is a conversation that takes place at the National Museum of American History between Blackmon and Bernard and Shirley Kinsey about the book.  For those unfamiliar with the period, the conversation is a real eye-opener to Blackmon’s award-winning research.

Also, read his book and watch the documentary.  You’ll be just as shocked as I was.

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Video for the Classroom: “Joe Louis was a Fighting Man”

It’s almost criminal that over a week has passed in Black History Month, and the Neighborhood has no posts about important African Americans.

Today’s post is a more fun aspect of history, but important nonetheless.  It can be argued that more musical tributes were written about Joe Louis than any other athlete in American history–a Black athlete accepted by both whites and Blacks.

The longest-running heavyweight boxing champion in history, from 1937 to 1949, Joe Louis was among the greatest and most influential athletes of the 20th century.  A hero to African Americans beaten down by the Depression, discrimination and Klan violence, Louis would also become the first Black athlete widely accepted by whites as well.

The culminating moment of Louis’ career was the second fight between Louis and Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938.  Schmeling, a symbol of Nazi Germany, was immediately cast as the villain (despite his own antipathy towards Hitler).  Louis, incredibly, became an American hero overnight. 

His defeat of Schmeling in two minutes and four seconds sent Black neighborhoods across America into wild celebrations, and create something of a mythic hero in Joe Louis.  It would be a heroism belied by the still-rampant discrimination in American life through World War II.

Today’s video is a montage of Joe’s greatest hits.  Yet it’s the audio that’s most important.  Listen to the great blues ballad “Joe Louis was a Fighting Man” and you can get a glimpse of how much Joe Louis meant to people.

It’s also a pretty good tune.  Enjoy.

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Movies for the Classroom: Crisis in Levittown, PA

I’ve been pretty silent about commemorating Black History Month this year, but I aim to correct it with this groundbreaking documentary.

In the years following World War II, millions of Americans moved to the suburbs, thanks to lavish grants to building contractors, cheap loans from the GI Bill, and a Fair Housing law that forced down property values in urban areas if minorities were living there.  The result was the all-white suburbs seen in TV sitcoms throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

These places were clean, manicured, happy–and almost exclusively white, even by design.

Though there was no law barring blacks from living in the suburbs, their entrance would often cause harrassment and unrest, mostly due to fears that minority ownership would decrease property values.  In fact, the Federal Housing Authority‘s manual explicitly redlined–or devalued–minority families in suburban areas until 1966.

In August, 1957, the Myers family, a middle-class Black family no different than other suburban families, moved into Levittown, Pennsylvania, a suburban planned development located outside Philadelphia.  Levitt and Sons designed the first Levittown on Long Island in 1952: the Pennsylvania project would be the second of many.  They were designed with an unwritten proviso that it would remain completely white.

The Myers would endure harassment, threats, snubs and worse, simply due to fear and prejudice.  A similar pattern happened in “Levittowns” across America.  In 1963, it was Levittown, NY‘s turn to integrate, with the same painful results.

The film attached is the 1957 documentary about the Levittown affair, Crisis in Levittown, PA. It shows the citizens of Levittown in its showdown with their black neighbors–a showdown that required intervention by state authorities.  The Myers became a symbol of resistence in the civil rights movement–Daisy Parks was even hailed as the “Rosa Parks of the North.”

This film is a great way to show that the way “up” was often not open to many people, for reasons both official and unofficial.

 

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Unknown African-American Heroes: The Healy Family of Georgia

February is Black History Month, and the Neighborhood will be highlighting some African-Americans that may not readily come to mind for students. 

First off is a family from Georgia that achieved many notable firsts as African-Americans, even though many Blacks still belittle their accomplishments, due to their mixed lineage and religion.  In 1818, Michael Morris Healy emigrated from Ireland and settled in the “bottom” country of Jones County, Georgia, near the town of Macon.  He would become a successful cotton planter, with 1,500 acres and 49 enslaved Africans.  Among them was a 16 year old girl named Mary Eliza, who Healy took as his common-law wife in 1829.  Even though their “marriage” was illegal, they lived as husband and wife, rearing 10 children.

It is these children, these “bastard” children of an illegal union that are the heart of this story.  Under Georgia law, children of slaves and masters were considered enslaved, and thus prohibited from receiving an education.  The Healys were thus educated in northern schools and abroad, always in strict adherence to their father’s Roman Catholic faith.  Among the nine children were:

James Augustine Healy (1830-1900)

 

 

 

 

 

1. James Augustine Healy (1830-1900) -Though not as documented as his brothers, James did found the Healy legacy of achievement.  He graduated from the College of the Holy Cross in 1849.  In 1875, Healy became the first African-American Roman Catholic bishop, as he was installed as Bishop of Portland, Maine.   James oversaw the establishment of 60 new churches, 68 missions, 18 convents and 18 schools.

Patrick Francis Healy (1834-1910)

 

2. Patrick Francis Healy (1834-1910) – Patrick Healy is a personal favorite of mine, as he is connected to my alma mater.  Patrick graduated Holy Cross in 1850, and then entered the Jesuit order.  The Jesuits, fearing that his race would be an issue in the states, sent Patrick to the University of Louvain, in Belgium.  He became the first African-American to earn a PhD–NOT W.E.B. Du Bois as commonly believed.  In 1866 Healy became dean of Georgetown University.  In 1874, Patrick became president of Georgetown, the first African-American of a major, white-majority university in the United States.  As president, Healy modernized the curriculum by requiring courses in the sciences, particularly chemistry and physics. He even expanded and upgraded the schools of law and medicine.  Patrick’s influence was so far-reaching that he is hailed as Georgetown’s “second founder”, after founder John Carroll.

 

Michael Augustine Healy (1839-1904)

3. Michael Augustine Healy (1839-1904) -Michael, who ditched Holy Cross for a life at sea, did not follow his older brothers’ path to the priesthood.  Michael joined a British ship as a cabin boy in 1854.  In 1864, Abraham Lincoln signed Michael’s commission as a Third Lieutenant in the Revenue Cutter Service, which would later become the United States Coast Guard.  Healy patrolled the 20,000 miles of Alaskan coastline for more than 20 years, earning great respect of the natives and seafarers alike. After commercial fishing had depleted the whale and seal populations, his assistance with introduction of Siberian reindeer helped prevent starvation among the native Alaskans.  He became the first African-American to attain the rank of captain of the Coast Guard in 1880.  In 1882, he became the first African-American to captain a US government ship.  His life inspired Jack London’s novel the Sea-Wolf, as well as James Michener’s Alaska.

All of these men achieved “firsts” for African-Americans, yet few scholars and even fewer African-Americans acknowledge their accomplishments.  The reasons are simple: they often did not openly recognize their African roots, and they were Catholic. 

The Healys were light-skinned: they “passed” for white as long as their lineage was not questioned.  Yet none of them openly denied their mother’s heritage.  Patrick Healy, in fact, was unashamed to acknowledge his African blood if questioned, even though he was president of a college with a large Southern white population. 

The Catholic aspect was part of a general bias against Catholics in America through most of the 19th Century.  In fact, it could be said that the Healys were equally, if not more, held back by their religion as they were by their race. 

Yet regardless of their race or their religion, it was a shame that their achievements have lacked recognition.  This February, let’s hope the Healys attain their deserved place among the pantheon of African-American heroes.

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The Complexities of the “Dream” — Quotes by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When a person becomes famous, or important, he/she often ceases to have any humanity.

 That person becomes marble, a statue, a painting, an inanimate idol to be worshipped and adored like a vacant pagan god.

Yet it is in their complexity that people truly arise as great.  Such is the case with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Much too often, classrooms distill Dr. King’s legacy into a neat little narrative: The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington, the Nobel Peace Prize (and the Letter from a Birmingham Jail, if that teacher’s adventurous) and his assassination.  For must students, King is frozen in time at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, giving his now-ubiquitous “I Have a Dream” Speech.

Yet the King from 1964 to 1968 is even more fascinating.  The civil rights movement shifted towards more militancy, with Black Power and the Black Panthers.  The Vietnam War moved the focus of many young people towards more radical peace initiatives.  Even Dr. King’s rhetoric had shifted, from one primarily of fighting for civil rights for Blacks to one of social justice and anti-war advocacy.

What follows are a collection of quotes by Dr. King from 1964 to about 1968.  Many of the 1967 quotes come from his “Where Do We Go From Here?” address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wherein the group is re-assessing their mission in the wake of the tumultuous decade.  Notice how Dr. King addresses subjects such as poverty, war, science, black nationalism, and global affairs. 

To our ears, these words may seem disconcerting, even radical.  Yet they are important in understanding the path King was to take if he had not met his end by an assassin’s bullet in 1968.

“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. … Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”   – 1967

“Many of the ugly pages of American history have been obscured and forgotten. A society is always eager to cover misdeeds with a cloak of forgetfulness, but no society can fully repress an ugly past when the ravages persist into the present. America owes a debt of justice which it has only begun to pay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes and the country that would be great will lack the most indispensable element of greatness — justice.” – 1967

“I endorse it (banning prayer in public schools). I think it was correct. Contrary to what many have said, it sought to outlaw neither prayer nor belief in god. In a pluralistic society such as ours, who is to determine what prayer shall be spoken and by whom? Legally, constitutionally or otherwise, the state certainly has no such right.” – 1965

“If a city has a 30% Negro population, then it is logical to assume that Negroes should have at least 30% of the jobs in any particular company, and jobs in all categories rather than only in menial areas.” – 1968

“Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary.” – 1963

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” – 1967

“As long as the mind is enslaved, the body can never be free. Psychological freedom, a firm sense of self-esteem, is the most powerful weapon against the long night of physical slavery. No Lincolnian emancipation proclamation or Johnsonian civil rights bill can totally bring this kind of freedom. The negro will only be free when he reaches down to the inner depths of his own being and signs with the pen and ink of assertive manhood his own emancipation proclamation. And, with a spirit straining toward true self-esteem, the Negro must boldly throw off the manacles of self-abegnation and say to himself and to the world, ‘I am somebody. I am a person. I am a man with dignity and honor. I have a rich and noble history.’” – 1967

“Don’t let anybody make you think God chose America as his divine messianic force to be a sort of policeman of the whole world.” – 1967

“The problem (of poverty) indicates that our emphasis must be twofold. We must create full employment or we must create incomes. People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted. New forms of work that enhance the social good will have to be devised for those for whom traditional jobs are not available.” – 1967

“Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.” – 1967

“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.” – 1968

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