"From oysters to eggs, one black lawyer's quest to dine out in D.C," John Kelly's column in this morning's Washington Post t is about the day when Emanuel Molyneaux Hewlett went to a famous Washington eatery to get some oysters.


Hewlett was a rather prominent man at that time. He had grown up in Boston where his father, Aaron M. Hewlett, was the first African American instructor at Harvard University.  He oversaw the state of the art gymnasium there. Emanuel Molyneaux Hewlett was the first black graduate of the Boston University School of law; he had a thriving legal practice in DC.  Kelly writes that Hewlett was "a leading citizen in Uniontown, as Anacostia was called then and his sister Virginia was married to Frederick Douglass's son."  Later in his career Hewlett was a justice of the peace and a judge in Municipal Court in DC and worked on ten cases that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So he was well known and well behaved and you'd think he would be able to get a meal in a restaurant.  But the date was December 5, 1887.  On that day Hewlett and his similarly distinguished African American guest were told they couldn't eat at Harvey's. They were asked to leave.  Kelly tells the story.  "Hewlett filed a complaint against Harvey's, claiming it had violated the Equal Services Acts of 1872 and 1873, which forbade racial discrimination in D.C. restaurants." The restaurant was fined $100.

There it might have ended -- but Harvey's decided to appeal on the grounds that, while the law obliged them to serve any "well-behaved and respectable person," Hewlett was NOT well behaved.  "The defense attorney produced a story from the Washington Evening Star newspaper recounting a trip Hewlett had taken two months earlier to French's, a lunch room in the Center Market...Hewlett had ordered three eggs, a cup of coffee and some biscuits, for which he was charged three times what the meal should have cost.  He asked for the price list...and was told there was none."  When he tried to leave, Hewlett found the doors locked. The black attorney had to climb out a window, then walk along a balcony before entering another room that had access to an elevator.  This proved, Mr. Harvey testified, that Hewlett was a known check skipper. Knowing that, what restaurant would serve him?"

A jury (from which the lone black member had been stricken) deadlocked and the case was ultimately dropped by the prosecution. The Evening Star editorialized that "the inexorable Hewlett will not relent" and went on to ask -- if restaurants are to be integrated, what is next?  Mixed Schools?  Kelly quotes the editorial.  "The Star believes that the mass of our colored people favor separate schools."

It really is useful to be reminded how entrenched racial segregation was and how widespread were the painfully condescending attitudes that supported it.

I actually remember eating at Harvey's restaurant with my mother sometime in the 1960s. We had she crab soup and it was delicious.  I was impressed by the white tablecloths and excellent service. Now I wonder -- were they serving African American customers then?  It is a question it would never have occurred to me then to ask.  I am grateful to John Kelly for writing up this story. 



"Mama, I Have to Learn to Read"

In observance of Black History Month my grandson's elementary school is asking for book donations. For me, the only question is which ones shall I give? I've been collecting picture books about Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald ever since I started research for my book.  I have some good ones! I can't part with any of them but I have already ordered copies.

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Fifty Cents and a Dream is the story of Booker T. Washington's life and work and it retells one of my favorite stories from his childhood (as he recounted it in his memoirs). When he was a child, enslaved on a small Virginia farm, one of Booker's jobs was to ride on horseback with his owner's daughter to her job as a teacher at a small school and then to bring the horse back so it could spend the day working in the fields. Booker tells about how each morning he would get off the horse, go up to the schoolhouse and stand on tip toes to look through the window so he could see the children inside. There they sat with slates and books and an attentive teacher.  Booker thought it looked like "paradise" but he knew that, for him, it wasn't allowed. This book, eloquently written by Jabari Asim, beautifully illustrated by Bryan Collier, takes Washington to Hampton Institute where he got the education he had dreamed of and began his career as a teacher and leader.

More Than Anything Else sensitively told by Marie Bradby and with lovely images by Chris K. Soentpiet is short and compelling and deals with another story about Booker as a child. This book picks up after emancipation when Booker and his family have left the farm in Virginia where they were enslaved and moved to a salt mining town in West Virginia. There Booker sees a sight that amazes him -- a man, a black man, reading aloud from a newspaper as people crowd around him to hear what he is saying, to hear the news that he is reading. Booker knows that the longing inside himself that he feels is for that -- to BE that man, understanding written words, telling people things they need to know.  His life's course is set. He WILL learn to read and he will help others. 

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And then there is Dear Mr. Rosenwald by Carole Boston Weatherford, the author of many wonderful children's books, gloriously illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, another gifted artist.  Written in the first person, this book tells the story of the creation of a Rosenwald school from the perspective of a child.  It starts in 1921. The young narrator, Ovetta, goes to a tumbledown school with a leaky roof and often has to miss class to help her family pick cotton. "Harvest break -- just when I memorized the times tables.  Instead of learning long division, I'll be working in the field."  But then her Uncle Bo comes to dinner and tells her Mama and Daddy that there is going to be a meeting at the church and folks are talking about a new school.  At the new school rally Ovetta's parents hear about Booker T. Washington, who thought there weren't enough schools for African American children, and about Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck, who "has millions and believes in sharing."  Before they know it, "Everyone in church stood, clapping.  How on earth will poor people find money to give away?"

The book answers that question -- the church deacons give land for the new school, Mama donates pies to the Box parties where Daddy plays the harmonica. Uncle Bo talks to folks about taking up a collection.  At a church service Miss Etta Mae speaks and tells that she was born a slave and "never had time for book-learning." She gives a dollar she had been saving for her burial and says, "Hurry and build that school so I can read my Bible."

It happens!  White Oak school opens. The crowd of neighbors and parents and children sings "Lift Ev'ry Voice," Uncle Bo introduces the new teacher and then Ovetta makes a little speech.  "Thank you, parents and neighbors," she says, "for building this brand-new school. Your sweat taught us a lesson. Tomorrow is in our hands."

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These books are so beautiful and the stories they tell are so inspiring.  I hope the children at Miner Elementary school here in Washington, DC will enjoy them.  I will certainly make a point of reading them to my grandsons -- to Julius, named for his great-great-great grandfather Julius Rosenwald, and to Leon, named for my father, and to Arlo and William and Harvey.  They all need to know these stories.

Reflections — on Segregation and Desegregation

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Two new books have landed on my desk and they are on the same fascinating subject -- how school desegregation played out in different places.  Shade in the Sunshine State, Reflections on Segregation in Florida is by Elizabeth Huntoon Coursen.  Trails and Trailblazers, Public Education and School Desegregation in Lunenburg County, Virginia 1870 - 1970 is by Shirley Robertson Lee, who graduated in that county's first integrated high school class.  Each one has a wealth historical background and extensive quotes from oral histories of people who participated in school desegregation.

We all remember Brown v. Board of Education and tend to think of that -- 1954 -- as the end of segregated schools in our country.  The truth is, of course, infinitely more complicated.  The transition from segregated to integrated schools played out differently in every state and, to some extent, differently in every county.  We remember dramatic stories like the painful integration in Little Rock -- white mobs jeering as nine black students were escorted into Central High School by the National Guard.  What we may be less aware of is that in the years after the Supreme Court decision the transition from two school systems to one happened in counties everywhere. Many people still alive participated in that transition.  Authors Coursen and Lee have performed a valuable service by capturing some of their voices.  

"I did not want to go to Central High School (in Lunenburg County, Virginia)," says Violet Johnson Harris.  "But my father told me I had to go to get a better education and, of course, I did as I was told. It was my last year in school and I wanted to make it my best."  She remembers isolation and discomfort.  "There were times when doors were closed in my face as I was about the enter the classroom.  I don't know if it was accidentally or intentional.  Some things that I experienced in school are difficult to forget.  I had never been award of racism until I came to Central High School because people in my community knew and respected each other."  Another student, Frances Price Wilson, said that "fear of the unknown" caused her great anxiety as she prepared to transition from an all-black to an integrated high school.  "My parents assured me that all would go well and that I should remember to always be respectful to the other students, and especially the adults in my new school, whether black or white....Ironically, it was the other adults -- outside of the school -- that seemed to have the biggest problem with integration; not the students."

Writing about integration in Gainesville, Florida, Coursen notes that teachers were surprised -- "the black teachers because the white school had so much, and the white teachers because the black teachers made do with so little." Marie D. Adams, in her role as a new black teacher at Gainesville High, remembers how easy it was to receive what she ordered for her classroom.; there was "plenty of everything there."

Joel Buchanan moved from Lincoln High School (a Rosenwald school) to integrated Gainesville High School in 1963. He noted "the hush" that descended on the cafeteria the first time he and two girls came in to get their lunch. As they approached a table where there were three empty places the folks sitting there "just got up, left their food and moved back...for the first few days we ate lunch at the faculty's table...." But he also records notes he got from fellow students. "I'm glad you're here," said one.  "I want to be your friend, but I can't because of my friends." "Another said, "I am praying for you." He remembers a day when "it got nasty" in one of his classes and his teacher, Mrs Philpott, "got her Bible out and read the Bible to the students. She had a few tears in her eyes about the way things were, and reprimanded a student for his very vulgar words with me. After that things became much better."

Both books mention the importance of Rosenwald schools.  Gainesville is in Alachua County, Florida where there were ten Rosenwald schools.  Lunenburg County, Virginia had 4. In 1923 Lucy Morrison, Supervisor of Colored Schools for Lunenburg County, wrote of the West End Rosenwald school, above, "This is a splendid building!  I wish every person in the county could see it. The School Board contributed a desk and heater."  The Rosenwald Fund had given $500 towards construction of the school; black county residents gave the land, the labor and $1,000 cash.

Both these books are full of painstakingly collected documentation and vivid personal voices.  They are self-published.  There is little glory in doing this work but it is so, so valuable.  I, for one, am grateful!

Liz Coursen will be speaking about her work in Gainesville later this month -- on February 16 at 3:15 at the Cone Park Branch Library and at 10:30 am on February 17 in the Teen Space room at the Alachua County Library Headquarters.  Wish I could be there to hear her!


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Claudia Stack says she came to her interest in sharecropping via the Rosenwald schools she had come to know near her home in southeastern North Carolina. "I knew that African American sharecroppers had contributed greatly to school building, and that these schools played a central role in their communities," she writes in the study guide that accompanies her new documentary film, Sharecrop.  As in her previous films, Under the Kudzu, about Rosenwald schools, and Carrie Mae: An American Life, about a woman educated in a Rosenwald school who went on to forty years of teaching, Claudia lets the story unfold in the words of the people who lived it.

"When do you work on the farm?  All the time!  When is there not a time to work? Never!" This is how Dr. Richard T. Newkirk talks about his childhood on his grandparents' North Carolina tobacco farm.  He remembers fearing there might be reprisals if local folks found out that his grandparents had actually managed to purchase the land they had initially worked as sharecroppers.  He recalls getting up at 3:30 am and being in the fields and barns all day. And deciding early on that he would get an education so he wouldn't spent the rest of his life working like that. Sylvester Hoover, born in 1957, describes his earliest memory -- of being dragged on a cotton sack through the fields while his mother picked cotton in the heat of the Mississippi Delta.  He talks about how families felt trapped in the sharecropping system, knowing that if they scraped together enough money to buy a bus ticket north the agent who sold it to them could call the plantation manager who might well say that the family owed money and, therefore, could not leave. Again and again interviewees talk about the cycle of indebtedness created by sharecropping.  Farmers shared the land, the tools and the expertise with the farm owners.  The system had the advantage of allowing them to farm without access to capital and without owning land.  The only thing they never seemed to share was the profit from their backbreaking work.

The people interviewed in Sharecrop are black and white, Cherokee Indian, Southerners and residents of Appalachia, men and women. They describe hard work and unfair practices.  But they also recall strong families, friendships that reached across racial lines, kindnesses exchanged. M.C. Ausbon, whose grandfather was a Cherokee fur trapper and whose father was a sharecropper, recalled his parents being community leaders.  His father organized and advised other farmers; his mother led the local women in cooking and preserving food that would be shared among all members of the group.  Standing in a windblown field, M.C. says "I thought that was how everyone was." Then he adds, wistfully, "Boy, was I wrong."

 The world evoked in Sharecrop is gone but it touched many lives including of forebears of mine.  My Aunt Ivy, born in 1908 in West Texas, wrote in a letter of how she worked all summer to earn the money to buy material so she could make a new dress to wear when she went off to teachers college.  What was the work she did?  She picked cotton. The photo at the top of the page is Ivy's grandparents on the porch of their home in Garden City, Texas. In the foreground -- cotton.

You can see the trailer for Sharecrop and links to the study guide here.

Frederick Douglass


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.

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.

But 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.

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.

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.

As 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!

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.”

I 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.