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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