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Frederick Douglass

Douglass young

He really IS doing good work!  Every time I visit schools, as I will tomorrow with 4th and 6th graders at Capitol Hill Day School, I tell the story Douglass writes in the Narrative of his life about the wife of his master who, when he was an enslaved boy of about 8, taught him to read. When he found out what she had done, her husband berated her saying, “If you teach this boy to read, he will not be fit to be a slave!”  He then added that the child would become “unmanageable.” Overhearing this, Douglass dedicated himself to becoming unfit for the degradation of slavery.  He learned to read.

Here is what Douglass wrote about the Sabbath school where he, surreptitiously shared this knowledge with other slaves:

I succeeded in creating in them a strong desire to learn how to read. This desire soon sprang up in the others also. They very soon mustered up some old spelling-books, and nothing would do but that I must keep a Sabbath school. I agreed to do so, and accordingly devoted my Sundays to teaching these my loved fellow-slaves how to read. Neither of them knew his letters when I went there. Some of the slaves of the neighboring farms found what was going on, and also availed themselves of this little opportunity to learn to read. It was understood, among all who came, that there must be as little display about it as possible. It was necessary to keep our religious masters at St. Michael’s unacquainted with the fact, that, instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings. My blood boils as I think of the bloody manner in which Messrs. Wright Fairbanks and Garrison West, both class-leaders, in connection with many others, rushed in upon us with sticks and stones, and broke up our virtuous little Sabbath school, at St. Michael’s—all calling themselves Christians! humble followers of the Lord Jesus Christ! But I am again digressing.

I held my Sabbath school at the house of a free colored man, whose name I deem it imprudent to mention; for should it be known, it might embarrass him greatly, though the crime of holding the school was committed ten years ago. I had at one time over forty scholars, and those of the right sort, ardently desiring to learn. They were of all ages, though mostly men and women. I look back to those Sundays with an amount of pleasure not to be expressed. They were great days to my soul. The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed. We loved each other, and to leave them at the close of the Sabbath was a severe cross indeed. When I think that these precious souls are to-day shut up in the prison-house of slavery, my feelings overcome me, and I am almost ready to ask, “Does a righteous God govern the universe? and for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the spoiler?” These dear souls came not to Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged. Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race. I kept up my school nearly the whole year I lived with Mr. Freeland; and, beside my Sabbath school, I devoted three evenings in the week, during the winter, to teaching the slaves at home. And I have the happiness to know, that several of those who came to Sabbath school learned how to read; and that one, at least, is now free through my agency.

Douglass child

I found this photo on line, identified as the child Frederick Douglass.  I am a bit skeptical — Douglass was born in 1818 so this picture would have been taken in the late 1820s or early 1830s.  Did photography even exist then?  Would an enslaved child have had his picture taken?  Could it be one of Frederick Douglass’s own children?  It does look like Douglass.  And it does look like someone with the determination that would allow him to escape from slavery and become a prominent as an abolitionist speaker and journalist.




Terence — and Other Crutchers

When Terence Crutcher was killed last week in Tulsa I felt the sadness and anger and wish to know more exactly what happened that have become my standard reaction to the sadly all too frequent stories of black men dying in interactions with the police.  But this time I felt something more than that.  I felt a personal connection. My maiden name is Crutcher.

Not only is my family name Crutcher but I already knew that there are black Crutchers and that at least one member of my family owned slaves.  I have a cousin who is an archivist, working professionally at the library at the University of Florida but also interested in family history.  Just a few months ago she sent me a fascinating story.  I already knew the name Thomas Crutcher.  I had discovered several years ago, on a visit to Nashville, that a forebear of mine had been mayor of that city in 1819 and had also served for twenty five years as treasurer of the state of Tennessee.  He died in 1840.

According to the documents that my cousin found through the Digital Library on American Slavery from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Thomas Crutcher owned a “negro woman slave named Temperance…and she has been an industrious and faithful servant.”  He testifies in documents from 1837 that “he [had] promised that whenever she refunded to him the purchase money he would free her.” He stated that he was ready to fulfill the promise, Temperance having paid him back for her purchase.  But the laws of Tennessee required that upon gaining her freedom Temperance leave the state.

Another document shows that Temperance was requesting permission of the legislature to not “be driven from the home of nativity kindred and friends, to seek a home in the land of Strangers.” She promises that if allowed to remain in the state she will “give bond & security…never to become a charge as a pauper upon any county in this state…”

Twenty citizens of Nashville petitioned the legislature of the state of Tennessee to grant Temperance, “a female slave owned by Thomas Crutcher,” permission to remain in the state as a free person of color.  The petitioners included former owners who testified to her “good Character, honesty, industry & fidelity.” They further wrote that they do not question the policy that requires free persons of color to leave the state.  They know, they write “that a majority of them are worthless and destitute, but they believe there are many cases that ought to be exempt from the general rule, and that Temperance is one of those cases.”

There are many questions the file does not answer.  I can’t help wondering what exactly was the relationship between Temperance and Thomas.  Was his interest in keeping her in Tennessee, more than friendly? And what happened to her?  Did she obtain permission to remain in the state?  There is so much still to know.  And, while I don’t question that many former slaves were destitute, I am pained to see so many, my relative perhaps included, so easily dismiss free blacks as, “worthess.”

This weekend is a festive one in Washington, DC where about a mile from where I live the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall will open tomorrow. My friend Barbara Mahone is in town for the opening.  She is chairman of the board of the Shiloh Community Restoration Foundation near Tuskegee and she attended Shiloh School there.  As I walked back from visiting with her this morning I was thinking that I can’t wait to vgo to the museum and see the desks from Hope School in Pomoria, South Carolina, that are displayed there along with the school’s original sign.

Bterence-crutcherut I also found myself thinking about Terence Crutcher and feeling related to him — if not by blood, exactly, then by a  long, long strand of history — family history and national history — that ties us together.

Looking up the details of the incident I found this, from columnist Goldie Taylor:

If Crutcher’s civil liberties do not remain intact, neither do yours or mine. Injustice is injustice, no matter who it touches or who they were. No previous arrest justifies a death sentence. He was entitled to his life—his pursuit of happiness—and that was stolen.”

I couldn’t say that better.  Like the story of Rosenwald schools, this is not African American history.  It is OUR history.


Steamboat School

When I talk about Booker T. Washington I often mention that under slavery, in most places, it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write. The majority of enslaved people lived in enforced ignorance, a fact that helps explain the extraordinary hunger for education that animated Washington himself and the men and women who contributed so much to build Rosenwald schools so their children would have more opportunities than they had had. A new children’s book evokes this terrible history with a story based on the life of someone who, before Washington was even born, was finding a way around the law.Steamboat school

Reverend John Berry Meachum was born into slavery in Virginia 1n 1789 but, as a young man, managed to purchase his freedom and to settle in St. Louis.  There he became a Baptist minister and the leader of a newly built church in whose basement he ran a school.  But the school was forced to close in 1847 when a new law was passed that said, “No person shall keep any school for the instruction of negroes or mulattoes, reading or writing, in this state.” Meachum’s response was to create a school beyond the reach of this dreadful law — on a steamboat that anchored in the middle of the Mississippi River.

Deborah Hopkinson, author of over forty five books for young readers, and illustrator Ron Husband, the first African American animator for Disney Studios, tell this story through the experience of a young boy whose mother sends him first to school in the church basement with Reverend John and then, when that is shut down, to the new school on the river.  “He’s a force like the Mississippi River itself,” Mama say of Meachum.  “And like the river, he’ll find a way.”  This is a simple story beautifully told, powerfully illustrated. Here’s how it begins:

I always thought being brave was for gown-up heroes doing big, daring deeds.  But Mama says that sometimes courage is just an ordinary boy like me doing a small thing, as small as picking up a pencil.


Steamboat school p. 1

Thank you, Deborah Hopkinson and Ron Husband. What a beautiful, well done book!


Kelly Miller

History lives on, I wrote in my last post, not just in museum and books but in stories our neighbors tell and in the names of parks and schools. Well, case in point — an article in this morning’s Washington Post talks about the new longer academic year being instituted at ten DC public schools including Kelly Miller Middle School.  How many people reading the piece know who Kelly Miller was? I wonder.

Kelly MillerAs it happens, I do! I am familiar with Kelly Miller because in 1934 he was awarded a Rosenwald fellowship in creative writing.  Kelly Miller was well known in Washington, D.C. as a professor of mathematics and sociology at Howard University as well as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences there.  But he also enjoyed a national reputation as a writer and scholar who attempted to bridge the acrimonious personal and philosophical divide between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.  He was an early and active member of the Washington, D.C. branch of the NAACP, assisted in editing The Crisis magazine, was the author of many scholarly articles and books as well as of a weekly column that appeared in 100 newspapers.

Miller is in some ways typical of the remarkable first generation of African American intellectuals of which Washington and DuBois were both part.  He was born during the Civil War in South Carolina.  His mother was enslaved, his father conscripted into the Confederate Army!   After emancipation young Miller was noticed for his academic gifts and he  won a scholarship first to Howard University and, later, to Johns Hopkins where he was the first black student to do graduate work in mathematics, physics and astronomy.  Appointed to the faculty at Howard he was instrumental in introducing the new field of sociology to the curriculum in 1895.

Here is a picture I found online that appears to be Miller as a child, front and center, with his brothers.  I want to know more about Kelly Miller.  I guess I really do have to write that book about Rosenwald fellows!Kelly Miller child

History Matters!

A favorite among the t-shirts I cycle through at this muggy time of year is a bright turquoise blue one.  I like its refreshing color but I also appreciate what it says —  on the front ROSENWALD (it promotes the documentary film of that name); on the back HISTORY MATTERS.  I’ve thought of this epigram often in the last few weeks as I absorb the news about shootings in our cities and experience sorrow, disbelief, anger, frustration. I ask myself all the questions many are asking — what can we do as a country, as states, as cities and towns, neighborhoods and individuals, to reduce racial hostility, affirm support for black lives, make people feel safe, honor men and women in law enforcement yet hold them to the highest standards of impartiality? So much feels broken.  How can we make it better?

No quick fix will do it.  If words could mend our fences and our hearts all would be well.  President Obama has been eloquent on too many occasions, calling over and over again for unity, respect for others and for the law, tolerance, forgiveness, love.  Rejection of military grade weapons in our police forces and in the hands and cars of individuals?  Yes, that could help but change in this area will be slow and tendentious.  Americans just disagree so profoundly about the place of firearms in modern life – are they all an essential right or are some of them an intolerable danger? The structured conversations we have had in churches and synagogues and university classrooms have helped some of us to see how, as individuals, we might be biased or even rendered insensitive by our own privilege but have left others feeling unheard and many feeling helpless. Free-for-all discussions over dinner or drinks or backyard fences allow us to vent.  But where does all of this leave us?  Each of us has attitudes formed by our own unique circumstances.

My perspective on issues relating to race was profoundly changed ten or so years ago as I did research for You Need a Schoolhouse, my book about Julius Rosenwald, a son of German Jewish immigrants who made a fortune as president of Sears, Roebuck in the early years of the twentieth century and directed much of his philanthropy towards African Americans.  My work led me from Rosenwald to Booker T. Washington. His was, of course, a name I recognized.  I knew he wrote Up From Slavery.  But who was he really? What was the context in which he rose to prominence?

Finding the answers to those questions was humbling.  I had thought I was well informed.  I of course knew about slavery and the agony of the Civil War and I had lived through the tumultuous days of challenge and change in the late 50s and 60s.  But it turned out there was rather a long blank space in my knowledge, the hundred years between Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent call to generosity of spirit and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream.  After the 13th and 14th amendments and Reconstruction came laws restricting rather than expanding opportunity for African Americans, states rewriting their constitutions to make it more difficult for blacks and others to exercise the right to vote, lynching – in theory I knew about these things but, in fact, I had not really appreciated what they meant. I thought of prejudice as a feeling.  I had no concept of Jim Crow – prejudice enshrined in an ever expanding body of law (one later imitated by the Nazis in the 1930s as they restricted life for Jews). I thought of lynching as a very occasional horror not the gruesome deaths of hundreds of individuals sometimes applauded by gleeful white mobs that included children.

I had an elderly friend who grew up in the neighborhood where I live, just blocks from the U.S. Capitol. He told me that he remembered being a little boy when a Ku Klux Klan member came to his back door and asked for a cup of water. I thought, “Oh, my.  I think Tom must be a bit confused.”  The Klan was long ago, I thought, not in living memory.  I didn’t know about 1926 when 50,000 white-robed Klan members marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, a show of defiance in the nation’s capital.

I turned my ignorance to good use, making it the engine that drove me to write about what happened when Julius Rosenwald, a wealthy man with a social conscience, came into contact with Booker T. Washington, a prominent black leader.  Each man had, among his attributes, an ability to learn from and work with others.  After Rosenwald had agreed to join the board of Tuskegee Institute, the school founded by Washington to educate teachers, he wanted to do more.  He felt that keeping the descendants of slaves in ignorance was not just wrong but posed a danger for the social fabric of the country that he cherished not just as his home but as a safe haven for Jews.  So he invited Washington to his Chicago home, talked with him for hours and, together, they created a plan to work with rural communities to build schoolhouses for African American children in places where, if they attended school at all, they did so in ramshackle barns or people’s homes.  Over a period of twenty years, this program led to the construction of over 5,000 public schools and teachers’ homes.  One third of all African American children in the South during the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s passed through what came to be called “Rosenwald” schools.  A significant amount of the money that paid for them came not from Julius Rosenwald but from the men and women, most of them poor, whose children would benefit from the education they provided.

It is this story that Aviva Kempner tells in her film.  As the t-shirt says, History Matters.  Without knowledge of the extraordinary pressures experienced by African Americans in the hundred years after emancipation it is hard to appreciate their remarkable resilience, their many and varied contributions to our national life and, sadly, the frustration and rage so many are experiencing now.

History matters and learning it doesn’t stop when we graduate from high school. It is not just dates in a textbook.  History is an endless stream of stories told not just in books and movies, and at historic sites. History lives in the memories of our neighbors, our grandparents, the mail carrier, the man down the street, the lady next door. It lives in the monuments in our parks, in the names of our schools, in a Broadway musical, a documentary film and in the lives we ourselves are leading.  History matters.  We won’t find all the answers there but being open to what it has to tell us just might help us make some sense of the present and find a way forward.


Muhammad Ali & Emmett Till

Reading in today’s paper the biography of a writer named Barbara Goldsmith made me think about Emmett Till.  Goldsmith, who wrote a best-selling account of the Gloria Vanderbilt custody trial in 1934, remembered that as a child of wealthy parents she was scared of being kidnapped.  The year after her birth in New York City, the baby of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, was stolen out of his crib in a second story bedroom in the family home in New Jersey. The ensuing two month search,the discovery of the dead child, then the arrest, trial and execution of the abductor were all widely publicized.  Goldsmith is quoted as telling an interviewer that, “I used to go to bed a night and wait for the sound of the ladder plopping against my bedroom window. I’ve since found out that a lot of people who grew during the Depression had these same fears, because of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping.”

This reminded me that just a month ago, in New York Times coverage of his death, I learned that Muhammad Ali “traced his racial and political identity to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old from Chicago who was believed to have flirted with a white woman…” Born early in 1942, Ali was the same age as Emmett Till when he was dragged from his uncle’s home in rural Mississippi, tortured, murdered and his body thrown into a river.  Publicity surrounding the case, especially his mother’s decision to have an open coffin and to allow photographs, was one of the factors galvanizing the civil rights movement.  Just six months after Till was laid to rest Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and a young pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr. agreed to lead a boycott of city buses.

I was particularly struck by Ali’s comment because I had personally heard BOTH Congressman John Lewis and the late Julian Bond say how much Till’s murder effected them.  Both men were born in early 1940 so they, like Muhammad Ali, were about the same age as Emmett Till when he was murdered.  They came from different worlds — Lewis was raised on an Alabama farm so remote he was 12 before he ever saw a white person; Bond was the son of a college president, growing up in Atlanta.  But both were young and black and felt “If it can happen to him, it could happen to me.”

Emmett Till historical markerI have been to the now boarded up store in the small town of Money, Mississippi where Emmett Till went with his cousins one evening in July, 1955.  I have seen the court house where his killers were tried and acquitted (though they later rather gleefully admitted their guilt).  It’s eerie and it’s awful.  A terrible memory for this summer afternoon.

Ellison and Parks — Visible Men

American gothicAs I get ready to go on vacation for a few weeks, my eye is caught by an article in the Arts section of today’s New York Times.  It’s about an exhibition in Chicago of a long lost collaboration by two artists I admire, both of them recipients of Rosenwald fellowships, Ralph Ellison and Gordon Parks.  If you have seen the documentary “Rosenwald” you might remember how charming an elderly Parks is in the film describing the taking of his iconic American Gothic portrait of Anna Watson.  You have to find ways to document racial prejudice and injustice, he explained.  “You can’t just take a picture of a bigot,” Parks says, “because they have a way of looking just like anybody else.  Sometimes they look better!”

“Invisible Man: Gordon Parks and Ralph Ellison in Harlem,” on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through  August 28, does just that.  It includes photos and short essays the two men created for a 1948 project called “Harlem is Nowhere,” which was, as the Times reporter Tamara Best writes, “the two men’s counternarrative (the reality, that is) of the living conditions of black American during that time.”  The two men hoped that the photo essay they had created would be a “new departure in photo reporting” but instead it was lost when the magazine where it was supposed to appear, ’48, the Magazine of the Year, filed for bankruptcy and folded.  Ellison subsequently published his text in a book of essays but Parks’s pictures have not previously been published.  The two men did subsequently work together on a 1952 photo essay, “A Man Becomes Invisible,” marking the publication of Ellison’s highly acclaimed Invisible Man.

Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan, said of the relationship between Ellison and Parks, both of whom spent years living in Harlem, “There was a solitary quality about each of them…as Ralph would talk about it, he would say, ‘I could just walk with Gordon, and he wouldn’t expect me to say anything and I wouldn’t expect him to say anything.’ I have a sense that there was an electricity and a casualness to their relationship.”

I hope I can make it to Chicago this summer. I would love to see this show and learn more about these two artists.  Also, very soon, I will finish reading Invisible Man, not an easy book but one that is opening my eyes to so much.




Oseola McCarty

OseolaI just got a copy of the new Almanac of American Philanthropy by Karl Zinsmeister, published by the Philanthropy Roundtable.  Each corner of the back cover has a photo and I was delighted to see that the philanthropist in the lower left is Julius Rosenwald! I had had the opportunity to discuss Rosenwald with the book’s author and knew he was an admirer.  JR was in good company with Andrew Carnegie in the upper left corner and John D. Rockefeller in the lower right.  But who, I wondered, was the woman in the upper right?

I looked it up and discovered that she is Oseola McCarty who was born in 1908 in Mississippi and only went to school up to the sixth grade.  Most of her life she spent as a washerwoman, doing other people’s laundry by hand and ironing into the night. She was frugal and when she retired, in 1995 at the age of 87, she made a startling gift — “$150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to fund scholarships for worthy by needy students seeking the education she never had.”

Zinsmeister explains further that “when they found out what she had done, over 600 men and women in Hattiesburg and beyond made donations that more than tripled her original endowment.  Today, the university presents several full-tuition McCarty scholarships every year.”  Oseola had never visited the campus but it was near her home and she knew that what it offered — education — was something her funding could help make possible for people not unlike the young woman she had been so many years before.

This is a great story and, as Zinsmeister sees it, McCarty is “a representative of millions of other everyday American who give humbly of themselves year after year.  There are Oseolas all across the U.S.”  According to research reported in the New York Times, “between 70 and 90 percent of U.S. households make charitable contributions every year, with the average household contribution being $2,500.” In addition, according to Zinsmeister, “a quarter to a half of all U.S. adults volunteer their time to charitable activities at some point in a year, giving billions of hours in total. The result: a massive charitable flow of more than $360 billion per year with 81% coming from generous individuals.  Only 14% of all annual charity in the U.S. comes in the form of foundation grants.  Just 5 % is contributed by corporations.”

Oseola oldZinsmeister’s conclusion?  “…it is Oseola McCarty and similarly modest partners who make America the most generous nation on earth.”

And how thrilling! I just looked in the section of the Almanac entitled “Essential Books and Articles about Philanthropy” and discovered You Need a Schoolhouse listed along with Peter Ascoli’s fine biography of Rosenwald.  My book is quoted: “Rosenwald schools were a haven from prejudice.  Their black teachers and principals were loving and supportive.  Many children knew their parents and neighbors had raised money and in some cases even done the physical work of building the schools.”  Zinsmeister adds that the net result of this was that “a free education for generations of black people bettered the lives of millions of American, and set the nation on the course to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.” Looking forward to digging around more in this massive tome!

Here’s a photo of Oseola McCarty later in life.



Applauding Rosenwald

094I have been rereading the history of the Julius Rosenwald Fund written by Edwin Embree, the Fund’s president from 1928 until it closed its doors in 1948.  Investment in People is Embree’s account of the Fund’s work.  He also writes about Rosenwald the man.  I was struck by this quote from a Chicago newspaper describing a banquet at which nine hundred leading Chicago businessmen were gathered to honor the Secretary of Commerce, Robert. P. Lamont:

“At the speakers’ table were leaders of practically every industry known to Chicago and the middle west.  These men of affairs, introduced, one by one, by Colonel Robert Isham Randolph, president of the Chicago Association of Commerce, arose as their names were called, took their bows and sat down, without a word, awaiting the speaker of the evening — Secretary Lamont.

All but one — Julius Rosenwald — and when his name was called there was a thundering roar.  In a moment every man of the 900 present at the dinner was on his feet in salute.  Mr. Rosenwald, already back in his seat after his bow, arose once more.  There was a cheer — and the little man who carried on his broad shoulders the love of all Chicago was almost overcome at the ovation.  It was one of the most spontaneous recognitions of real citizenship Chicago has ever seen.”

Embree goes on to describe the outpouring of grief in 1932 when Rosenwald died and to try to explain the intensity of feeling about him.

“He was rich, but not spectacularly so in comparison to modern Croeuses.  He gave liberally to promote human welfare, but the gifts of other Americans eclipsed his in size and scope. he made his own fortune, but many of his contemporaries, starting with just as little, wrought fortunes just as great.  His Jewish ancestry added piquancy to his success, but it is not unusual for Jews to make money or to be generous in dispensing it.  He was not a man of erudtion. he did not live so long as to become a wonder or die so young as to be a prodigy. His appeal cannot be wholly explained in terms of his success, his generosity, or his public service, although it was partly a combination of these. But it was more an indefinable quality of personality, a warmth and friendliness, a simplicity that knew no pretension, an essential humanity that somehow translated itself to all who ever heard of him.”

Embree makes it clear that Rosenwald was no saint — he could be quick tempered and brusque, demanding as a boss, but always available to talk to any Sears employee.  He was both wildly generous and thrifty, occasionally to the point of stinginess.   He traveled by train in upper berths rather than compartments and chose inexpensive hotel rooms.

“A Pullman porter greeted the arrival of Mr. Rosenwald in his car with delight, passing the word along to the other porters that the great philanthropist was traveling with him and basking in their envy. After the train had pulled into the station the porters surrounded the lucky one and asked: “How did you make out?” the answer was rueful: “Guess Mr. Rosenwald is more for the race than the individual.”

I wish I could have known him!



Maya Angelou’s Graduation

Maya AngelouA couple of weeks ago I was in Mobile, Alabama for screenings of “Rosenwald,” the documentary film by Aviva Kempner making the rounds of commercial theaters and Jewish film festivals.  While there I ran out of things to read so, at a charming old-fashioned bookstore in the charming old downtown, I picked up a copy of an American classic I had never read, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.  The author was on my mind because there are two lovely segments of her in the film.  In one she talks about the elementary school she attended in Stamps, Arkansas. Remembering her fondness for it despite its modest size and appearance she says, “I thought my school was grand.  It was the Lafayette County Training School — so there!”

The book, a memoir of childhood, is by turns beautiful, horrifying, sweet and sad.   Three year old Marguerite (later Maya) and her four year old brother Bailey are sent by their parents, who are putting an end to the “calamitous marriage,” from California to a small town in Arkansas where they will live with their paternal grandmother. “Momma,” as they call her is loving but very strict.  She and her brother, the children’s Uncle Willie, run the William Johnson General Merchandise Store which turns out to be a great place for kids to hang out and for a future writer to begin observing people. The children spend a lot of time in church, hide in the store’s potato and onion bins when the Klan comes riding through town, spend a disastrous few months with their mother and her new boyfriend in St. Louis, and go to school.

I was particularly taken with the chapter where Angelou describes her 8th grade graduation.  At age twelve, Marguerite is completing Lafayette County Training School, with no absences, no tardiness and academic work that puts her at the top of the class.  She has memorized the Preamble to the Constitution and can recite it faster than her brother, she knows the presidents of the United States from George Washington to Franklin Roosevelt in both chronological and alphabetical order, she is pleased with her braided  hair and the butter-yellow pique dress her grandmother has made for her to wear at the ceremony, with its smocking and shirring. The gifts she receives thrill her — four embroidered handkerchiefs, a Mickey Mouse wrist watch, a copy of the complete poems of Edgar Allan Poe. The excitement leading up to the graduation itself is almost unbearable.

As the ceremony at long last begins Maya has a sudden sense of things being not quite right.  After the graduation march, the singing of the national anthem and the reciting of the pledge of allegiance the students are motioned by the principal and the choir director to sit.  “For a full minute we fumbled for our chairs and bumped into each other awkwardly.  Habits change or solidify under pressure, so in our state of nervous tension we had been ready for follow our usual assembly pattern: the American National anthem, then the pledge of allegiance, then the song every Black person I knew called the Negro National Anthem….finding my seat at last, I was overcome with a presentiment of worse things to come.”

The white superintendent of schools has come for the graduation but, the principal notes in introducing him, “due to the irregularity of the train schedule, he’s going to, as they say, ‘speak and run.'”  The superintendent speaks about improvements that have been made in the white high school in town (an artist coming from Little Rock to teach there, new microscopes for the chemistry lab).  There will be improvements for the black schools too, after all, “one of the best basketball players at Fisk sank his first ball right here at Lafayette County Training school.”  So that’s it, thinks Maya.  “The white kids were going to  have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls weren’t even in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises.”  Maya feels deflated, condescended to, relegated to second class status.  The speaker closes his remarks asking the parents for their vote in an upcoming election, assuring them that if he wins they can “count on having the only colored paved playing field in that part of Arkansas….and some new equipment for the home economics building and the workshop.” Barely stopping to say goodbye, the white speaker leaves.

Diplomas are awarded and the class valedictorian, Henry Reed, makes his speech.  And then he does something completely unexpected.  Turning to his fellow members of the graduating class of 1940 he begins to sing.

Lift ev’ry voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty…

“It was the poem written by James Weldon Johnson.  It was the music composed by J. Rosamond Johnson. It was the Negro national anthem.  Out of habit we were singing it.

“Our mothers and fathers stood in the dark hall and joined the hymn of encouragement. A kindergarten teacher led the small children onto the stage and the buttercups and daisies and bunny rabbits marked time and tried to follow:

Stony the road we trod, bitten the chastening rod, Felt in teh days when hope, unborn had died.

Yes with a steady beat, have not our weary feet, come to the place for which our fathers signed?”

“Every child I knew had learned that song with his ABCs and along with “Jesus Loves Me This I Know.” But I…had never heard it before.  Never heard the words, despite the thousands of times I had sung them.  Never thought they had anything to do with me. On the other hand, the words of Patrick Henry had made such an impression on me that I had been able to stretch myself tall and trembling and say, “I know now what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”

“And now I heard, really for the first time:

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.

“While the echoes of the song shivered in the air, Henry Reed bowed his head, said “Thank you,” and returned to his place in the line.  The tears that slipped down many faces were not wiped away in shame.

“We were on top again.  As always, again. We survived.  The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls.  I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940.  I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race.”

All of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is moving but this chapter really put me into the skin of a bright and eager African American child graduating from 8th grade at a Rosenwald school. It truly helped me understand prejudice and it helped me understand pride.

Lafayette Co. Training School

Thank you, Maya Angelou.











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