Black History Fun Fact Friday – Dr. Sonnie Wellington Hereford III

Its late but Friday is not over people! Well, not for some of us anyway so we’re going to squeeze this article on in.

Today, we have a special fun fact for you. My maiden name is Hereford and I have a mother, brother, and sisters who still carry this last name. In fact, I’ve met very few people with this name I was not related to. Unlike Johnson, Brown or Jackson (no shade to those with these last names), Hereford is not as common. So when I came across this man online, I was noticeably interested. My mother says that my grandfather, her father, is from Alabama and that Sonnie looks like her dad. This has prompted me to do more research on the man and to plan a visit to Alabama to discover more. It’s possible we had a Civil Rights Activist in the family and didn’t know it. In 1961, Hereford was one of the plaintiffs suing the Huntsville school system to end segregation, and in 1963, his son, Sonnie Hereford IV, was one of the first four black children to enroll in a previously all-white public school in Alabama. But, let’s start from the beginning.

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Dr. Sonnie Wellington Hereford III was born on January 7, 1931, in Huntsville, Alabama. The family had no running water or electricity and Sonnie had to walk seven miles to school. The school, next to a garbage dump, didn’t have a library or cafeteria, much like most black schools at the time. Hereford was a farmer but developed a love for education. Even though his school had no library, the teachers were invested in him as they were in all their students. Though lacking in resources, black schooling at the time was exceptional, involving a strong community spirit and discipline. Teachers took on more than just a role as a teacher but they were also mothers, fathers, and mentors. For this, Sonnie received a good education and decided he wanted to become a doctor.

Sonnie graduated first in his class and applied to the University of Alabama for their pre-med program. However, Sonnie’s application was denied because of his color so he enrolled at Alabama A&M University instead. Hereford graduated from A&M in 2 years and went on to receive his medical degree from Meharry Medical College. He began his career at Huntsville Hospital in Huntsville Alabama and went on to play important roles in the struggle for Civil Rights. Not only was he a doctor but he also helped to aid men and women attacked during the Selma to Montgomery march, welcomed Martin Luther King Jr., to the city in 1962 and helped to integrate the city at various establishments. In fact, school desegregation is what Sonnie became most known for.

Sonnie IV was among four children chosen to desegregate schooling in Alabama and on September 3, 1963, Hereford took his six-year-old son to school but they could not get in. Instead, a mob waited for them and none of the other children were admitted to the other schools either. Sonnie didn’t give up, he returned but the school was locked down and guarded every day with armed troops. Eventually, Hereford contacted the federal judge and over time an order was issued to desegregate the schools in Huntsville. On Monday, September 9, 1963, Hereford successfully enrolled his son at Fifth Avenue School making Sonnie Hereford IV the first African-American student admitted to a previously all-white public school in Alabama. That following week, Sunday, September 15, the church bombing occurred in Birmingham killing four little girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Sonnie Hereford continued to go on to inspire change and even co-authored a book, Beside the Troubled Waters: A Black Doctor Remembers Life, Medicine, and Civil Rights in an Alabama Town.

Sonnie died at 85 years old, two weeks before the ribbon cutting ceremony at the Sonnie Hereford Elementary School in Huntsville Alabama, named for him by the Huntsville board of education. The school ranges from Pre-K to sixth grade.

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Learn more about Sonnie at the informative video below!

https://www.facebook.com/drsonniehereford/

http://wjou.org/huntsville-revisited-dr-sonnie-wellington-hereford-iii/

Hundreds attend funeral for Dr. Sonnie Hereford III, Huntsville civil rights pioneer

Huntsville City Schools breaks ground on new Sonnie Hereford Elementary

 

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Black History Fun Fact Friday – 3 Facts You Should Know About the Black Panthers

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With the success of the Black Panther movie based on the super-hero comic, I am re-posting this Black History Fun Fact from two years ago based on real life super-heroes for those of you new to this blog (or who missed it the first time around). To understand our present, we must understand our past so that in the future we do not make the same mistakes. The Black Panther Organization actually did more community-outreach than they did protest. The protest is what we saw the most on television however it is not the bulk of their work. They were not a hate group, they were not supremacists and they were not a “black only” group. The Panthers promoted ALL POWER to ALL PEOPLE with an organization comprised of many nationalities of people.


Has history been accurate in its portrayal of the group affectionately known as The Panthers?

In Whitewashing the Black Panthers, Michael Moynihan argues that PBS’s documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard for The Revolution, tries to excuse a “murderous and totalitarian cult” saying, “Almost anything that reflects poorly on the Panthers is ignored or dismissed and no critics of the party are included. The story is told entirely through the testimony of former Panthers and sympathetic historians.”

(Umm, so is every European, Western focused story ever made, but we won’t go there).

Often portrayed as a militant, black supremacists hate group, it’s amazing to me that this group of people wrote a ten-point program outlining the details of their belief system and there are still misconceptions about who they were and what they stood for.

For the record, I did not set out to write about The Panthers based on Michael’s article (I actually came across it much later), or because of the documentary. After doing some reading I decided today’s Black History Fun Fact Friday will focus on three basic principles that everyone should by now, understand about The Panthers. But first, we must cover some additional facts.

Black History Fun Fact Friday – 3 Facts You Should Know About the Black Panthers

The Freedom Movement have always been portrayed as a southern only movement on television and even in some books. Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia are states where trees no doubt bore the remnants of strange fruit. We could see it on the news, the newspapers, and from the mouths of relatives who grew up there. If we didn’t see it, the whole world did when Chicago native Emmett Till went down south and never came back and the whole world saw the ugly face of America. In that time, I am sure, we all had the same consensus on our hearts (among other things): “If only he’d stayed home, this would not have happened.”

This is because seldom did we then, and even today, hear about the racism and discrimination that took place in Northern cities like New York, Chicago, and California. Many blacks, no doubt, escaped the southern states for better opportunities in the North. Still, even this part of history is only a half-truth as not all blacks left because they did not have.

There were many African American’s who, after slavery, suffered tremendously economically but not all of them. Not every black family sharecrop or endure poverty but many families started their own businesses, educated their own people, and founded their own communities. From the Mound Bayou in Mississippi, Blackdom of New Mexico or the famed Black Wall Street in Tulsa it is clear, not all blacks were financially incapacitated. For this, it is only a half-truth that blacks escaped the south for a better financial and economic opportunity in the North and it is only a half-truth that they all left to escape Jim Crow. In truth, many of us sold what we did have to flee North because we were told (both by whites and black elites) that it was better. Many blacks were told that the North was the land of “Milk and Honey” so we sold our land, packed up our families and left the Jim Crow South only to run into the police brutality of the North.

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Martin Luther King, Jr., is hit in the head with a brick Marching in an all white Chicago neighborhood

It was Martin Luther King Jr., who said his trip to Chicago’s segregated Cicero was worse than Alabama and Mississippi. “I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hateful as I’ve seen here in Chicago,” King told reporters. That statement is saying a lot considering what we know about the brutality of these states and had I not been born and raised in the city (Chicago), I’d doubt King’s words were true. But as I was born in Chicago and spent the first nine years of my life in the concentrated poverty-stricken projects of The Robert Taylor Homes on Federal Street, the most segregated and poorest urban city in the United States at the time, I can tell you that what King said was no exaggeration.

The truth is that while many segregationist laws were abolished in the South, poverty increased in the North. Black unemployment was higher in 1966 than in 1954, 32% of Black people were living below the poverty line, 71% of the poor living in metropolitan areas were Black, and by 1968, two-thirds of the Black population lived in ghettos, or impoverished communities, also known as slums. And so, it was for this hushed truth concerning the brutality of northern cities that two young men from Oakland California founded what would one day become the most hated black revolutionary organization of its time.

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Founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland California, The Panthers took notice of the police brutality taking place in their own lives and in the lives of members of the black community. They saw black men, and women, being beaten (some of them to their deaths) and nothing being done about it. They saw children who were malnourished because they didn’t have food at home and families denied access to proper medical care and education. Having met at The Meritt Junior College and being active in political movements there, Seale and Newton came together to form the Panthers. Following the passion of men like Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael, who were against the passive resistance movements of men like King, Newton, and Seale set out to be examples of what they saw was needed.

This leads me to three basic truths concerning why The Black Panthers were started and while I’m obviously not a black panther or black nationalist enthusiast (nor do I agree with their beliefs), I thought this would be a great way to re-introduce to you what this organization was initially built on and the things that they did that rarely made, and rarely make, the news:

Community Protection

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One of the first reasons for the organizing of this group was to assist in the protection of members of the black community. Specifically, the Panthers wanted to protect blacks from police brutality, whether it was literally helping the elderly across the street, being human traffic signals, or literally standing between police and civilians to ensure the laws of California, of the time, were being adhered to. Being students of history and discipline, The Panthers were aware of the laws governing where they lived and they made sure both civilians and the police understood those laws and acted accordingly. Bobby Seale recounts, in Seize The Time: The Story of the Black Panther Party:

“He (Huey) defended himself in court and had beaten a petty theft case, and he was running it down how he got Olsen. Olsen was the dean of Merritt College. Dean Olsen had got up on the stand and testified to the fact that he had called the police in to have Huey P. Newton arrested, and had the police bring Huey to his office because some paddy boy over in the store had accused Huey of stealing a book. Huey explained to me that Olsen had asked him if those were his books. Huey said:

“Yes, this is my property.”

Olsen: “Well, I’ll just keep these books.”

Huey: “No, you won’t keep those books. That’s my property and I’ll keep them myself. You called me in the office for something. I don’t know what you want me for, but I’ll keep my property.” And Huey snatched the books back out of his hand and said, “If you want to arrest me, you’ll have to arrest me, but I’m not going to stand here talking.” And he walked right on out of the office. So, the same thing came up on the stand, and Huey asked Olsen on the stand, “Dean Olsen, why didn’t you have me placed under arrest if you thought I had stolen the books?”

Olsen: “Well, at that time, I just didn’t know my rights as to whether or not I had the right to arrest you.”

Huey: “Mr. Olsen, you’re a dean at a college; have a Ph.D. in education. Here I am a student in the college, learning my rights, and you’ve got a Ph.D., and you tell me you didn’t know your rights?”

(Caution. Dear Young People, I post this excerpt as an example that The Panthers were aware of the laws of their state, not for you to show how hard you are and try and mimic this. You must use wisdom in all that you do. With the number of black men gunned down for nothing, do not try this at home. This was in 1966, this is 2016. I would not want anyone being hurt for trying to mimic the actions of Huey as stated above. It’s important to obey the governing authorities, diffusing the situation if it is at all in your power to do so).

Free Breakfast Program and Medical Care

In 1966, students were not given free lunch like they are given today. Part of that revolution was due to the free breakfast program set in place by The Panthers where they fed children who would otherwise not have anything to eat. The Panthers had a lot to do with why the Public schools offer free lunches to students today. In addition, they implemented their own schools and system of medical care. The Panthers were, in short, of service to their community for no one knows the trouble we see and no one knows our sorrows. Preaching can only go so far, for if a man is hungry physically he won’t hear you spiritually. There must be physical action to accompany the spiritual and that is what The Panthers instilled in their communities: Physical and practical action.

All Power to All People

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I do not want this article to be too long as I believe I’ve said enough, but I don’t want to leave without reiterating that despite all the black, The Panthers were not a black only organization. Having recruited members of all nations they recounted repeatedly that they stood for restoring “All power, to all people”. In fact, they were separate from the black nationalist groups often associated with them and conflicted often with them. In his own words, Bobby Seale states: “Cultural nationalists and Black Panthers are in conflict in many areas. Basically, cultural nationalism sees the white man as the oppressor and makes no distinction between racist whites and non-racist whites, as the Panthers do…Although the Black Panther Party believes in Black nationalism and Black culture, it does not believe that either will lead to Black liberation or the overthrow of the capitalist system and are therefore ineffective.” – Bobby Seale

The truth is indeed stranger than fiction and for that most conscious grassroots organizations have to be deemed cults and militant to prevent, what Cointel pro deems, “the rise of a black messiah”. The Black Panthers were  seeking to empower black people and that in itself is dangerous, for in the words of the poet Brook Yung, “They used to put to death people like me.”

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To learn more about The Panthers, Lilly Workneh, Senior Editor of Black Voices and Taryn Finley, Associate Editor, wrote in The Huffington Post 27 Important Facts Everyone Should Know About the Black Panthers.

Black History Fun Fact Friday – Willie James Howard

Welcome back to Black History Fun Fact Friday.


Willie James Howard was born on July 13, 1928, in Live Oak Florida. At fifteen years old he was in the 10th grade and worked at the Van Priest Five and Dime Store downtown.

According to the story, Willie sent Christmas cards to employees of the store for the Christmas Holiday. One of the employees, a popular white girl named Cynthia, was offended by the gesture. According to the account (which has just as many variations as Emmett’s story), at the bottom of the card for Cynthia, Willie indicated the letter “L” for love.  Later, Willie wrote Cynthia a letter, this time apologizing. He signed this one with a little poem:

“I love your name. I love your voice, for a S.H (sweetheart) you are my choice.”

(Source of poem: Documentary Trailer https://vimeo.com/105289596)

On January 2, 1944, Cynthia’s father Phil Goff, who saw the letter (most likely by Cynthia showing it to him as some accounts suggest) and two of his friends arrived at Willie’s home and the three men dragged the boy from his mother’s arms. They also kidnapped his father. They drove to the Suwannee River and bound Willie James by his feet and hands and made him stand at the edge of the river where, according to his father’s testimony, he was told he could either jump into the river or be shot. The boy jumped in and drowned.

The Suwannee County sheriff ordered Ansel Brown, the local black undertaker, to retrieve the boy’s body from the river and bury it immediately. To cover up the incident, Phil and his friends forced Willie’s father to sign a document alleging that Willie jumped into the river on his own accord. According to their written statement which was included in the Lanier Report, the three men admitted taking the boy from his home and tying him up on the way to the river but they said he fell in accidentally. This conflicts with the first story that the boy jumped into the river. Either the boy jumped into the river on his own or he slipped accidentally. It was obvious the men were not telling the truth but there was never an arrest.

After signing the document, Willie’s father (also named James) packed up his family and moved to Orlando. No death certificate was ordered for his only son and the grave was unmarked for 60 years.

Thurgood Marshall demanded a full investigation and after hearing about Willie’s case, it was picked up by Harry T Moore of the NAACP who had gone to school with Lula Howard, Willie’s mother. Moore received documented proof from Willie’s parents explaining what really happened. They stated that Willie’s father had been threatened and forced to sign the document. However, a grand jury did not indict Goff and his friends and prosecution were never achieved.

Moore continued fighting for the case and in 1947 wanted to reopen it but Thurgood Marshall was unwilling to dedicate any more NAACP funding.

I found that Howard’s story mirrors that of Emmett Till’s in chilling ways. Though Emmett’s death was far more brutal, Willie is one of those unfamiliar faces we do not hear much about. Like Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks, Emmett Till and Willie Howard are on the same side of History.

  • Willie James Howard was born in July (7/13)
  • Emmett Louis Till was born in July (7/25)
  • Willie was 15 years old when he died
  • Emmett was 14 years old when he died
  • Willie wrote a letter to a white girl
  • Emmett whistled at a white girl (allegedly)
  • Willie was taken from his home
  • Emmett was taken from his home
  • Willie died in the Suwannee River
  • Emmett ’s brutally beaten body was found weighed down by a cotton gin in the Tallahatchie River
  • Willie died in 1944
  • Emmett was only 3 years old when Willie was murdered. He would be killed exactly 10 years later in 1955.
  • Both boys murderers were acquitted

The similarities here are chilling so when you remember Emmett  Louis Till this August, remember Willie James Howard too.

Black History Fun Fact Friday – Selma Burke

Welcome back to Black History Fun Facts where I am still not finished with my original article (lol), but I got you covered.

Now, we are familiar with Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and many of the writers and musicians of The Harlem Renaissance Movement. What we are not always familiar with are the painters, photographers, and sculptors. That is why when I find someone great, I like to highlight them.

Before we go on, take a moment and dig into your purse, wallet or coin jar (or coin purse….I know some of ya’ll still have them!) Wherever you keep your change, pick out a dime.

In the 1920s, Selma Burke became one of the African American women of the Harlem Renaissance through her relationship with the writer Claude McKay. The two shared a Manhattan apartment but McKay was mean, destroying her work when he didn’t like it, and the relationship was a strange one. Nonetheless, it was through Claude that Burke got introduced to the Harlem community. She studied under another black woman sculptor of the movement, Augusta Savage.

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Selma Burke in her studio, Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum J0100403.

An educator, Burke later taught at the Harlem Community Art Center and founded the Selma Burke Art School in New York City and the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh. (This makes her one of my heroes since I do want to start my own school one day.) Burke is most famous for her 1944 sculpture of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which was the model for his image on the dime, though she never received credit for it. Only now are people starting to recognize that she was the inspiration behind the image.

Burke’s sculpting of the image came about as part of a contest, where she wrote the White House stating that she could not sculpt the image from a photo alone. The White House responded and granted her a sitting with the president. The credit for the plaque was given to U.S. Mint Chief Engraver John Sinnock but it was Burke who created the original design. Burke also sculpted Booker T. Washington and later, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Burke made sculpture by shaping white clay from her parents’ farm as a child. After being educated at what is now Winston-Salem State University and trained as a nurse at St. Agnes Hospital Nursing School in Raleigh, Burke moved to New York City to work as a private nurse.

“Selma Burke was born on December 31, 1900, in Mooresville, North Carolina, the seventh of 10 children of Neil and Mary Colfield Burke. Her father was an AME Church Minister who worked on the railroads for additional income. As a child, she attended a one-room segregated schoolhouse and often played with the riverbed clay found near her home. She would later describe the feeling of squeezing the clay through her fingers as the first encounter with sculpture, saying “It was there in 1907 that I discovered me.” – Wikipedia

After completing a Masters of Fine Arts at Columbia University in 1941, Burke began to teach art, first at the Harlem Community Art Center and later at schools she founded in New York and Pittsburgh.

Burke’s last monumental work, a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Marshall Park in Charlotte, was completed in 1980. Selma Burke died in 1995 in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

Black History Fun Fact Friday – How I Almost Learned an African Language

Welcome back to another Black History Fun Fact Friday. Technically, I am still doing research on the article I had hoped to finish in time for you today. (I am actually sitting here trying to finish it.) Instead of publishing anything, I am going to push it back to next week. However, I don’t want us to miss out on any episodes! So, with Black Panther as the latest craze, here is how I almost spoke an African language. (This is also a lesson in not giving up!)

When I was in College I mistakenly signed up for a Twi class. I walked around my house repeating “aane”, “dabi” to my husband (then boyfriend) like my cousin did in first grade when he learned to spell cat, house, and dog for the first time. I eventually dropped the class but I still remember “aane” and “dabi” which means: “yes- aane” and “no-dabi”. Twi is a dialect of the Akan language spoken in Ghana by about 6–9 million Ashanti people as a first and second language. I had no idea.

The Ashanti Empire was a powerful Akan empire and kingdom in what is now modern-day Ghana and they were rich in gold (i.e. The Gold Coast). According to Wikipedia:

“The name Asante means “because of war”. The word derives from the twi words asa meaning “war” and nti meaning “because of”. This name comes from the Asante’s origin as a kingdom created to fight the Denkyira kingdom.

The variant name “Ashanti” comes from British reports that transcribing “Asante” as the British heard it pronounced, as-hanti. The hyphenation was subsequently dropped and the name Ashanti remained, with various spellings including Ashantee common into the early 20th century. An alternative theory is that the name derives from the Hindi word Shanti, meaning peace, the opposite of which is Ashanti, meaning war.”

Ashan was also the name of a city located in southern Israel. The word Ashan in Hebrew means “smoke” “smoke city” or “burning city” which makes Ashanti “the people of Ashan or the people of the smoke city”. This was a reference to the city of Ashan after the Israelites took it over during the conquest of Canaan (1 Ch 4:32, 1 Ch 6:59) but that’s not all. The Ashanti people also had many Hebrew customs and traditions as part of their way of life. For example, for eight days after the birth of a child, the Ashanti mother is considered unclean. It is only on the eighth day that the child receives his/her personal name, and on the 40th day, a still further ceremony has to be observed. This mirrors Leviticus Chapter 12. Further, the Ashanti women were also unclean during their menstrual cycles as instructed in Leviticus 15:19-20.

In brief, the Ashanti were an organized and disciplined people who spoke both Akan or Twi and I sometimes wish I’d endured the class a little while longer. In 1701 Osei Kofi Tutu, chief of the small Akan city-state of Kumasi helped form the Ashanti Empire by unifying other Akan groups under the Golden Stool which is the Ashanti Seat of Power. He unified the people and conquered several other neighboring states, expanding the Ashanti wealth, power and influence.

If ever you have an opportunity to do something, do it! Even if you don’t end up liking it, there is still something you may learn from it in some way. You can also mark it off your bucket list as something you did.  Although I only know two words, it still feels awesome to say: “I know how to say yes and no in Twi!”

Black History Fun Fact Friday – Eugenics and The Caged Man

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Welcome back to another episode of Black History Fun Fact Friday. It’s been a long time and we have a lot to cover today.

If you’re new to this blog or this segment be sure to visit the BHFFF page HERE for more EPs.


The Caged Man

Mbuti or Bambuti are one of the several indigenous pygmy groups in the Congo region of Africa. One famous Congolese Mbuti, who was made famous in a horrific way, committed suicide 100 years ago. On May 20, 1916, Ota Benga put a gun to his heart and pulled the trigger. Depression and sadness are modest terms we use to understand the spirits that troubled him. But who was he and why is knowing his story important in our time?

In the early 1900s, a “businessman” (more appropriately speaking a slave trader) named Samuel Verner, tasked with the responsibility of acquiring pygmies for a cultural evolution display at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, encountered Benga in 1904. Paid by the St. Louis Exposition Company a year earlier to hunt men instead of monkeys, he was to bring African Pygmies to America for the St. Louis World Fair.

Ota’s family were killed by a Belgium militia group who set out to control the natives of that land for the large supply of rubber in the Congo. Ota had a wife and two children who were killed in such raids on villages and survived because he was on a hunting mission. To make a long story short, Ota was kidnapped and taken to America by Samuel along with other pygmies who were kidnapped as well and brought to America.

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Clockwise from top left: Ota Benga at the Bronx Zoo holding a chimpanzee. An article from the New York Times announcing the new exhibit at the zoo. Another photo from the zoo of Ota Benga and the chimpanzee. The Reverend James Gordon who protested Ota being exhibited in the monkey house and who took custody of him after he was released.

Benga’s physical appearance, as is most Mbuti, astonished onlookers who immediately compared him to an animal, specifically for his short stature and razor-sharp teeth. Displays of humans were very common in the early 20th century to prove the theory of the evolution of man. Most specifically, men and women of color from the Eastern part of the world were used as examples of the lower class of humans and often put on display. They were usually those with abnormal features and deformities. It’s no surprise then that Ota and his fellow men became an instant attraction. Ota’s personality was also said to have been lively and the men attracted spectators wherever they went until Ota was eventually caged at a Bronx Zoo in 1906. He eventually became fond, allegedly, of a monkey and so began The Caged Man in the Monkey House.

Identity

Ota’s story is worth telling because Africa is a continent with over fifty countries and comprise many different people and cultures. There are just as many cultures and nationalities of people as there are languages and just as many languages as there are colors. But when you group a people together and call them “Blacks” you deny them their right to heritage and nationhood, because Black does not properly define a people. While I use these terms (Black, African American) for understanding sake, the Bible says nothing about race, nor is the word or concept of different “races” found in the Bible at all (See Gen Ch 10) despite the fact that the term has been used to cause divisions among man. More appropriately, some of the Black “races” of the world are Israelites, some of them Egyptians, Ethiopians, Ghanaians, Senegalese, Congolese, Libyans and so forth. Thus, this story is important to the understanding of identity as well as the medical field and how it fits in with the racial oppression of Blacks in America going back for centuries.

Eugenics

Contrary to popular belief, Eugenics did not start with Margaret Sanger and The American Birth Control League but the concept started much earlier.

Coined by the cousin of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton, Eugenics comes from the Greek word eugenes, meaning “well-born.” It is a racist scientific process that set out to prove, through alleged psychological and medical evidence, the inferiority of Blacks. From 1924 – 1936, thirteen states in the U.S. utilized Eugenics programs that ranged from isolating those deemed “feeble-minded” from the general population to forced sterilization.

“When the infamous German eugenic sterilization initiative began in January 1934, seventeen U.S. states were already performing sterilizations routinely, and that year between two thousand and four thousand Americans were sterilized. Indiana passed legislation requiring the sterilization of the mentally unfit in 1907. By 1911, six states had passed laws providing compulsory sterilization of the mentally unfit. In 1935, twenty-seven states had such laws for the feeble-minded, those on welfare, or those with genetic defects. Forced sterilization was made legal in the infamous 1927 Buck vs Bell.” (Medical Apartheid, Harriet Washington, The Black Stork, pp 202)

Galton, in short, took Darwin’s philosophies and ideas on Evolution and put them into practice in what became known as Eugenics. He proposed that the poor, the sick, the weak and the untalented should be prevented from multiplying. Leonard Darwin, Darwin’s son, was also one of the supporters and proponents of eugenics in Britain. Galton maintained that the principle of the “survival of the fittest” had to be complied with and that only the strongest should be allowed to participate in the world.

“… modern eugenics thought arose in the nineteenth century. The emergence of interest in eugenics during that century had multiple roots. The most important was the theory of evolution, for Francis Galton’s ideas on eugenics – and it was he who created the term “eugenics” – were a direct logical outgrowth of the scientific doctrine elaborated by his cousin, Charles Darwin.” – Ludmerer, Eugenics, In: Encyclopedia of Bioethics, Edited by Mark Lappe, New York: The Free Press, 1978, p. 457

A reviewer of the time said:

“After 1859, the evolutionary schema raised additional questions, particularly whether or not Afro-Americans could survive competition with their white near-relations. The momentous answer was a resounding no…. The African was inferior—he represented the missing link between ape and Teuton.”

John C. Burnham, Science, Vol. 175, February 4, 1972, p. 506.

Nineteenth Century scientists were convinced that the white race (something that doesn’t actually exist) were superior to other races and that this superiority can be found in Darwinian Theory. One key person in the perpetuation of this was Thomas Huxley who said: “No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the white man.”

And while Darwin claimed to be opposed to slavery and the horrors of the brutality, his own words are questionable. He presumed that man evolved from ape-like creatures and surmised that some races developed more than others:

“I could show fight on natural selection having done and doing more for the progress of civilization than you seem inclined to admit…. The more civilized so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world.” – Charles Darwin: Life and Letters, I, letter to W. Graham, July 3, 1881, p. 316; cited in Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, by Gertrude Himmelfarb (London, Chatto and Windus, 1959), p. 343.

 And of course, the most debated statement of all:

“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes… will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as the baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla. – Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 2nd ed., New York: A.L. Burt Co., 1874, p. 178

In short, it is a fact that White Supremacists supported Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and used it to further racism. For them, the white race had, in short, moved up the evolutionary ladder and was destined to eliminate the other races in the struggle to survive.

Certain African Americans are not to be excluded. Many prominent Blacks also supported Eugenics. Fisk University’s first Black President and critical contributor to The Harlem Renaissance Charles S. Johnson, said that “Eugenic discrimination was necessary for blacks” and that “the high maternal and infant mortality rates, along with diseases like tuberculosis, typhoid, malaria and venereal infection, made it difficult for large families to adequately sustain themselves.” – Charles S. Johnson, A Question of Negro Health, The Birth Control Review, June 1932, 167-169

He later became an integral part of Margaret Sanger’s Negro Project, but he’s not the only one, many blacks agreed. According to Margaret Sanger’s most infamous quote:

“The most successful approach to the Negro is through a religious appeal….we do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population, and the minister is the one who can straighten out that idea if it occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”

Sanger said this in a 1939 letter where she outlined her plan to reach out to black leaders — specifically ministers — to help dispel community suspicions about the family planning clinics she was opening in the South. It must be noted that Sanger was not the progenitor of this idea but reaching out to ministers and black leaders in the community was the idea of another very prominent man.

“The mass of ignorant Negros still breed carelessly and disastrously, so that the increase among Negroes, even more than the increase among whites, is from that portion of the population least intelligent and fit, and least able to rear their children properly.”

– National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Founder, W.E.B. Dubois, The Birth Control Review, 1932, Black Folk and Birth Control, pp 166

Dubois went on to say that the Black community were open to “intelligent propaganda of any sort”, and “the American Birth Control League and other agencies ought to get their speakers before church congregations and their arguments in the Negro newspapers.” It worked. Black pastors invited Sanger to speak to their congregations. Black publications, like The Afro-American and The Chicago Defender, featured her writings and the lines between Eugenics and Birth Control became blurred.

Sanger merged the Southern Clinics, the Clinical Research Bureau and The American Birth Control League, to form the Birth Control Federation of America (BCFA) and recruited black leadership as Dubois and others advised. Soon, BCFA clinics started popping up in poor black neighborhoods. The first clinic was The Bethlehem Center in urban Nashville, Tennessee (where blacks constituted only 25 percent of the population and no one made more  than $15 a week), opened on February 13, 1940, and the second opened in rural Berkeley County, South Carolina. This site was chosen because South Carolina had been the second state to make limitations on the number of children part of its state public health program after a survey revealed 25 percent of infant deaths occurred in mothers deemed unfit for pregnancy. (These terms: Unfit, Feeble-minded, Poor, Poverty Stricken, Urban, Welfare, Disease Stricken, and the like have been used as code words to refer to the so-called African American since the end of Chattel Slavery.)

“The BCFA members voted unanimously at a special January 29, 1942, meeting to change the organization’s name to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. By then, BCFA had 34 state league affiliates. The state leagues followed suit in changing their name and bylaws. Particularly, the New York State Federation for Planned Parenthood’s old bylaws stipulated that the object was: To develop and organize on sound eugenic, social and medical principles, interest in and knowledge of birth control throughout the State of New York as permitted by law [emphasis added]. The new bylaws replaced birth control with planned parenthood. Eugenics was dropped in 1943 because of its unpopular association with the German government’s race-improving eugenics theories.”

Robert G. Marshall and Charles A. Donovan, Blessed are the Barren: The Social Policy of Planned Parenthood (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 24-25.

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Joice Heth, enslaved African woman whose birthplace was reported to be on the isle of Madagascar, off the coast of Africa. She was boldly advertised as “the 161 year old nursemaid to George Washington when he was an infant, The Father of Our Country to be.” – Bethel Historical Society

This brings us back to Ota Benga and others like him. Physicians and Scientists were dependent on slavery not just for economic reasons but also for clinical material. Even after chattel slavery had ended, persons like Saartjie Baartman, the first video vixen if you will, Henry Moss, whose leprosy prompted him to exhibit himself, Joice Heth, who racists claimed was the 161-year-old “Mammy” of George Washington and many others were put on display, to argue the “inferiority” and “animalistic” behavior of Blacks.

Finally, Ota’s story is important also to the understanding of the Institution of Chattel Slavery beyond the cotton fields, for in knowledge of what the business of slaveholding was like is a deeper understanding of the magnitude of its influence on American Society. The Slave Market and the “business” of owning slaves was about more than Plantation Life but was a very well thought out and strategic system that bled into every fabric of American life.


Yecheilyah (e-see-lee-yah) is an Author, Blogger, and Poet of nine published works including work in progress and short inspirational guide “Keep Yourself Full.” Learn more by exploring Yecheilyah’s writing on this blog and her website at  yecheilyahysrayl.com. Renaissance: The Nora White Story (Book One) is her latest novel and is available now on Amazon.com.

Black History Fun Fact Friday – Nora Holt

Did you know there was a woman writer during the Harlem Renaissance named Nora? Yup.

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One of the things I wanted to do with The Nora White Story project is to make everything make as much sense as possible. I know how important it is that everything fits the era to include names. Thus, I used names that were familiar with the time. Some of the names, like Nora, jumped out at me from the start. However, some of them were not so easy. To make sure everyone’s name (even minor characters) fit the time, I Googled the census data for popular names of the 1920s and scrolled through male and female names. So, who was Nora Holt?

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Nora Holt

Nora was a singer, composer and music critic. Born Lena Douglas in Kansas City, Kansas; Nora graduated from Western University of Quindaro, Kansas and later earned a Bachelor’s degree in music in 1917. In 1918, she earned her Master’s Degree in music at Chicago Musical College, becoming one of the first African-American women to complete a Master’s program in the United States. Her thesis composition was an orchestral work called Rhapsody on Negro Themes.

Nora was married quite a few times. On the fourth time, she changed her name from Lena to Nora when she married George Holt in 1916.

From 1917-1921 Nora contributed music criticism pieces to the Chicago Defender, a black daily newspaper. In 1919, she co-founded the National Association of Negro Musicians and then spent 12 years abroad in Europe and Asia singing at night clubs and private parties. Although composing over 200 works of orchestral music, one of the reasons Nora Holt is not well known is because her work was stolen. Upon leaving for Europe in 1926, she placed her manuscripts in storage when she returned they were gone. Only one piece survived because it was published prior to the theft and is called Negro Dance, (ragtime-based piano piece).

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Nora

Holt moved to Harlem in the early 1920s, where she became an important part of the Harlem Renaissance. She became good friends with novelist and critic Carl Van Vechten.

(You can meet some of these historical figures when they make special guest appearances in my new novel, Renaissance: The Nora White Story which releases tomorrow. Today (7/14) is the last day to get it at the reduced price of $1.99)

Nora was also a teacher. She studied music at the University of Southern California in the 1930s and went on to teach music in Los Angeles for several years. Nora was well rounded. Not only was she a writer and musician but she also ran a beauty shop. Apparently Nora knew how important it was to stay fly :-).

In 1943, Holt took a position as an editor and music critic with a black-oriented publication Amsterdam News and went on to live a full life. During the early 1950s and early 1960s, she hosted a radio concert series called “Nora Holt’s Concert Showcase”. It ran to 1964 and in 1966, she was a member of the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal.

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Photo of Nora Holt, taken by Carl Van Vechten, 1955

Nora Holt died January 25, 1974, in Los Angeles.