Archive for the ‘Lessons in Black History’ Category

Freedom, Slavery & the Things We Don’t Like to Talk About

July 2, 2011

With celebrations of Independence Day raging all across the country this weekend, I though it might be a good time to talk about what it means to be free in a country that pounds its chest and roars of freedom like it was King Kong. Don’t get me wrong, because what I’m about to write is not some anti-American screed about how little freedom we all have. I believe, that despite existing limitations to our freedom—not to mention limitations some would like to manifest into reality—I do believe that we enjoy unprecedented levels of freedom. At the same time, many people don’t really understand the history of this nation, especially when it comes to the complex ideologies of race and racism or the true dehumanizing nature of slavery, which is a wound of shame on this nation that has yet to heal. (more…)


February 28, 2011


* NOTE – I posted this Lesson in Black History last year, but people either missed it or forgot. As a result, I got several requests to write something about David Walker, so I’m re-posting this one.

DAVID WALKER – Not to be confused with yours truly, this other David Walker, with whom I proudly share a name, was the legendary abolitionist born in North Carolina on September 28, 1785. The son of a slave father and a free mother, Walker was not a slave, but still witnessed the life of slavery. He traveled throughout the country, eventually settling in Boston. In 1829 he wrote and published Walker’s Appeal, a scathing commentary on slavery and racism in America that ignited great controversy and earned the label of sedition. Among other things, Walker advocated violence as a means to end slavery, even if it meant death. A price was placed on Walker’s head by those that supported slavery ($10,000 alive, $1,000 dead). Southern states banned the seventy-six page pamphlet, and possession of Walker’s Appeal by blacks was often met with violence or jail. Despite efforts to suppress the publication, it was heavily distributed throughout northern cities, and smuggled throughout the south. Walker was found dead under mysterious circumstances on the doorstep of his home in 1830, at the age of 44. Towards the end of Walker’s Appeal, he wrote, “If any are anxious to ascertain who I am, know the world, that I am one of the oppressed, degraded and wretched sons of Africa, rendered so by the avaricious and unmerciful, among the whites.”


February 27, 2011

Ken Gampu—Born in South Africa in 1929, actor Ken Gampu rose to prominence during the height of apartheid, and helped pave the way not only for black actors in South Africa, but the entire content as well. Gampu is probably best remembered by American audiences for his role as the president in The Gods Must Be Crazy or the tribal leader in The Naked Prey. He never got much of a chance to play lead roles, but frequently turned up as the bad guy in a lot of African-lensed films, and he was one of the only black actors to get any kind of fame during the oppressive apartheid era of South Africa, when segregation was still legal. Despite the critical praise he received for both his stage work in plays like No Good Friday or films like Dingaka, which brought him international recognition, Gampu was still a victim of the racist government of his homeland. At the same time, he was an inspiration who served as a symbol of hope that blacks in South Africa could break free of the oppressive system that held them down. In 1975 Gampu made history when he was granted special permission by the government to share the stage with white actors in the play Of Mice and Men. “For the first time the black man was on an equal footing with the white man, and you know, the heavens didn’t fall,” said Gampu during an interview, looking back on something that meant everything and nothing at the same time.


February 26, 2011

Bill Pickett—The son of former slaves and one of thirteen children, Bill Picket is considered not only one of the greatest cowboys of all time, but also the greatest rodeo star of all time. Born in Texas in 1870, Pickett began working as a ranch hand at an early age. Pickett is credited with coming up with the rodeo move known as “bulldogging.” This is when a cowboy takes control of a steer by talking hold of its lip with his teeth. He learned the trick from watching how bulldogs, or catch dogs, were used by cowboys to catch stray steers. Also known as steer wrestling, Pickett became world renowned for his bulldogging prowess. In modern rodeos bulldogging consists of the cowboy riding up alongside the bull, jumping off and wrestling it to the ground by twisting its horns. But in Pickett’s time, he actually bit into the lip of the bull. He was a performer in the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West Show—one of the more popular of the touring Wild West shows—from 1905 to 1931. Pickett showed off his cowboy skills all over the world, and appeared in several films during the silent era of movies. He retired from performing in 1932, and was soon after killed when he was kicked in the head by a bronco. Pickett’s legacy as a rodeo star continues to this day with the Bill Picket Invitational Rodeo, the only touring black rodeo in the United States.


February 25, 2011

The Vanport Flood—Vanport City was founded in Oregon, just north of Portland, in 1943. A makeshift community that was built to house the shipyard workers who had come to work in Portland and Vancouver, Washington, during World War II, Vanport was the second largest city in the state of Oregon. It was also home to approximately 6,000 blacks, who made up rough a third of the city’s population. At the time, Portland had a reputation of being incredibly racist and unwelcoming to blacks, which led to the formation of Vanport City, a public housing community that served as a means to keep the “undesirables” out of the rest of the state. Although the Vanport was never meant to be an actual community, it thrived in the years after World War II, with its own school system—including Vanport College which would go on to become Portland State University—and local business community. Unlike Portland, Vanport was a heavily integrated city, with blacks and whites going to school together and living in the same neighborhoods. After a winter of heavy rainfall and snow, the Columbia River that bordered Vanport on the north was in danger of flooding. On Sunday, May 30, 1948—Memorial Day—the river broke through the railroad dike and the river came rushing in. Within hours the city of Vanport was wiped off the face of the Earth. There were only 15 reported deaths, but urban legends of hundreds of deaths, including a school bus full of children and a warehouse full of corpses hidden from the public, still persist in the Portland. With almost the entire black population of the state displaced by the destruction of Vanport, the city of Portland and the state of Oregon was grudgingly forced to desegregate.


February 24, 2011

Ida B. Wells—Born in Mississippi just before the Emancipation Proclamation, Ida B. Wells would go on to become one of the foremost advocates for equal rights, a pioneer of the modern civil rights movement, and a tenacious anti-lynching activist. Orphaned at the age of 16, Wells took it upon herself to raise and care for her siblings, and still managed to get an education, leading her to additional careers as a teacher and journalist. Wells began crusading for the rights of others at an early age, and her list of accomplishments is impressive. By the 1890s she was one of the most prominent black leaders in America, as well as a highly regarded advocate for women’s rights. Wells founded the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, as well as the National Afro-American Council, which would go on to become the NAACP. Wells is also known for her anti-lynching campaign, and her militancy when it came to defending against white attackers. Between 1892 and 1894 she wrote and published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and A Red Record, both of which dealt with lynching. Wells asserted that lynching was primarily a response to the economic progress of blacks, which threatened the white way of life and defied notions of black inferiority. In Southern Horrors she wrote of how to respond to the threat of lynching by white people: “The lesson this teaches and which every Afro-American should ponder well, is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give. When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged and lynched.”


February 23, 2011

Fannie Lou Hamer—A sharecropper and the youngest of 19 children, Fannie Low Hamer became became of controversial figure in the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960s. Known for being equally plan-spoken and out-spoken, Hamer became politically active in 1962 when SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) began encouraging blacks in Mississippi to register vote. Despite the threat of violence and even possible death, Hamer was the first to sign up. A co-founding member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, she incurred the ire of President Johnson when she demanded that members of MFDP be seated at the 1964 Democratic Convention. Johnson was concerned that seating black delegates would alienate Southern whites, who would vote for his Republican adversary. The MFDP was never granted the respect and status that asked for during the 1964 convention, but Hamer was seated at the 1968 convention as an official delegate from Mississippi. She became a vocal opponent to the Vietnam War, and continued to work for a variety of community-based causes until her death in 1977 at the age of 59.


February 22, 2011

The Blackstones—Today, instead of looking at something historical that happened, we look at what didn’t happen—the integration of cartoons. During the late 1960s and up to 1970, there was a noticeable push to desegregate the world of entertainment by including token black characters in movies and on television. The one notable exception was the world of cartoons, which remained shockingly segregated for many years. Look closely at popular shows like The Flinstones and the The Jetsons, and you will be hard-pressed to find black characters even in the background. Apparently, Hanna-Barbera—one of the leading producers of cartoons—had planned on making a spin-off of The Flinstones with a cast of black characters. Joe Barbera mentioned this in his book, My Life in ‘Toons, while discussing shows that never made it into production. “One of my favorite denizens of the graveyard is a show called The Blackstones which was created about 1966 or 1967 and featured a black Stone Age family who move nextdoor to Fred Flintstone with results so interesting and provocative that no network or syndicator would touch it.” (NOTE: I’ve never read the book.). With all the popular shows Hanna-Barbera had during the 1960s and 70s, they had almost no black characters at all. The notable exception is of course Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats—the first black female character to appear as a major cast member of a cartoon (and possibly the first major black character, period). Interestingly, Hanna-Barbera didn’t want the character to be black, leading to a showdown between the animation company and Danny Janssen, the music producer who put together the recordings used for the show. Janssen insisted that Valerie remain black, and Hanna-Barbera eventually gave in to his demands. Despite appearances by the Harlem Globetrotters on Scooby-Doo, the world of cartoons remained heavily segregated until the 1971 debut of the Jackson 5 cartoon, followed by the debut of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids the following year. But even those shows existed in a largely segregated world. When you look at shows that featured human characters—shows like The Funky Phantom, Clue Club and Wacky Races—almost none of them ever featured black characters.


February 21, 2011

Robert F. Williams—Of all the key players of the Civil Rights movement to make national headlines, few were as influential and now as forgotten as Robert Williams. Born in 1925, Williams was a political activist and community organizer who became actively involved with the NAACP in the 1950s. Williams soon became something of a controversial figure for advocating the use of guns as means of self-defense. Williams founded the Black Armed Guard with the express purpose of defending the black community against racist organizations like the KKK and corrupt cops. In 1957, a KKK group in North Carolina led an attack on the home of a black doctor that was rumored to be helping fund the local NAACP. Williams and the Black Armed Guard were waiting, and returned fire when the Klan attacked, driving the racists off. Williams’s willingness to meet violence with violence placed him at odds with many key Civil Rights leaders, and also earned him the attention of the FBI. When the FBI made a move to arrest Williams, he fled the country and went to Cuba, where Castro welcomed him and helped the militant activist establish a pirate radio station, Radio Free Dixie, which would broadcast to the states. While in Cuba, Williams wrote Negroes With Guns, which would have a profoundly influential impact on Huey P. Newton, who would go on to form the Black Panther Party. Williams left Cuba, relocated to China and eventually returned to America, where he was brought up on charges that were later dropped.

LESSONS IN BLACK HISTORY – Black Basketball Players

February 20, 2011

Black Basketball Players—It seems impossible to believe that there was ever a time when basketball was a segregated sport, but up until the 1950-51 season, the NBA was a white-only league. Before the NBA desegregated, the only integrated basketball league was the National Basketball League (NBL), which had been around since 1937 and became integrated during the 1942-43 season (five years before Jackie Robinson would go on to break the color barrier in baseball). The all-black New York Rens were brought into the NBL during the 1948-49 season, and moved to Dayton to replaced a league franchise that had folded. Before joining the NBL, the Rens (also known as the New York Renaissance) had been one of several all-black professional teams that included the Harlem Globetrotters. The 48-49 season would be the last of the NBL. The next year, the NBA, which had been formed in 1946, became integrated. Earl “The Big Cat” Lloyd (right) played for the Washington Capitals, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton for the New York Knicks, Chuck Cooper for the Boston Celtics and Hank DeZonie for the Tri-Cities Blackhawks were all the first black players in the NBA. Of these four, three had individual distinctions within the NBA. Cooper became the first black player drafted to the NBA, Clifton was the first to sign a NBA contract, and Lloyd was the first black player to actually play in the NBA.