Sunday, September 27, 2009

Never Forget

The Jamestown colony, England's first permanent settlement in North America, was a marshy land poor for agriculture and a breeding ground for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The settlement was such a wasteland that only thirty-two of the approximately one hundred original settlers survived the first seven months. His-story describes this as the “starving times” but all would change.

On August 20, 1619, the first African “settlers” reached North America as cargo onboard a Dutch man-of-war ship that rode the tide into Jamestown, Virginia carrying Captain Jope and a cargo of twenty Africans. It seems strange to me, but history cannot tell us why this mysterious ship anchored off Jamestown. It is believed the captain needed food. In exchange for food he offered his cargo of Africans as payment.

When the deal was consummated, Antoney, Isabella, and eighteen other Africans disembarked. Although they were not the first Africans to arrive in North America, they were the first African “settlers”. Regarded as indentured servants rather than slaves, fifteen were purchased to serve their redemption time working for Sir George Yardley, the governor of Virginia and proprietor of the thousand-acre Flowerdew Hundred plantation.

In ten years, by the 1630’s, the colony had established a successful economy based on tobacco through the use of the Africans. Slavery was born and slave trading became big business. These human souls were acquired in Africa for an average price of about twenty-five dollars each, paid primarily in merchandise. They were sold in the Americas for about one hundred fifty dollars each. As the price of slaves increased, so did the inhumane overcrowding of the ships.

This was the beginning of the worst crime every inflicted upon a people and the most morally reprehensible agenda the world has ever known. Adding to this in justice and more horrifying was that the perpetrators believed that their actions were sectioned by God with a religious manifestation that justified Slavery. The next two-hundred years was a designed systematic effort to destroy millions of lives through indocumentation, brutality, savagery, and horror.

I am always struck by the use of the word civilization in this matter because the root word is “civil” and there is/was NOTHING civil about the institution of slavery, which means chattel making human beings property and servants for life.
The business of slave trading had one purpose – PROFIT. The process would begin with the African being paid to venture into the interior of the continent, capture other Africans, put them on a death march to the coast and sell their captives to Europeans. Now, if capturing and stealing the victims was not misery enough. What was to follow surely was in every sense of the word.

A typical slave ship traveling from Gambia, the Gold Coast, Guinea, or Senegal would take four to eight weeks to reach New England, Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, or the West Indies. Africans from Senegal were the most prized because many were skilled artisans. Ibos from Calabar were considered the most undesirable because of their high suicide rate. Women, men, and children were crammed so tightly in the ships that out of a load of seven hundred slaves, three or four would be found dead each morning.

Most ships had three decks with the lower two used for transporting slaves. The lowest deck extended the full length of the ship and was no more than five feet high. Slaves were packed into it side by side to utilize all available space. In the next deck, wooden planks like shelves extended from the sides of the ship where chained in pairs at the wrists and ankles crammed side by side. Men occupied middle shelves and were most often chained in pairs and bound to the ship's gunwales or to ringbolts set into the deck. Women and children were sometimes allowed to move about certain areas of the ship.

There was no sanitation, although buckets were provided for use as toilets, which were not emptied regularly. The ships smelled of excrement, disease, and death. It is estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of the slaves died en route to the colonies, mostly from diseases associated with overcrowding, spoiled and poisoned food, contaminated water, starvation and thirst, and suicide. Others were thrown overboard; shot, or beaten to death for various reasons.

A typical slave ship coming directly to the American mainland from Africa carried about two hundred slaves and weighed about one hundred to two hundred tons, although some were slightly larger. Slave ships were eventually built especially for human cargo. They were long, narrow, and fast, and were designed to direct air below decks. Shackling irons, nets, and ropes were standard equipment. These slave ships could carry as many as four hundred slaves and a crew of forty-seven, as well as thirteen thousand pounds of food.

The competition at slave markets on the African coast grew so exceptionally that historians estimate that as many as 60 million human souls were captured and taken from the continent of Africa to be sold in to bondage. It is also estimated that as many as one-third of that number did not survive the trip called the Middle Passage to reach the shores of a place like Jamestown in the name of God. My last point is this – the first registered slave ship was named “The Good Ship Jesus”.

I am reminded of the powerful words of Sojourner Truth who was asked shortly before her death, if she knew how many slaves she had recued during her while conducting the Underground Railroad. She did not think about the question quickly replying, “I could have freed a lot more, if they had only known they were slaves.” My hope is that one day the devastating effect of bondage will be removed and we will be able to join hands and sing the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Harlem Pt. 2 – The Underworld

The rich history of Harlem could never be told in a few words. Actually, it will require several posts (four Parts) to come close to capturing the essence of Harlem’s grandeur. This is a continuation of this great legacy – the Underworld. It has been said that the character of the community is determined by its members. Since the hamlet came into existence Harlem’s storied history has been highly romanticized. Aside from Harlem’s artistic achievements, what was most romanced was the role of the underworld, which was a huge part of the nightlife and social scene.

In the 1920’s, the Jewish and Italian mafia played major roles in running the whites-only nightclubs and the speakeasies that catered to white audiences. While the famous mobster, Dutch Schultz, controlled all liquor production and distribution in Harlem during prohibition in the 1920’s. Rather than compete with the established mobs, black gangsters concentrated on the “policy racket,” also called the “Numbers game”. This was a gambling scheme similar to today’s lottery that could be played, illegally, from countless locations around Harlem. By the early 1950s, the total money at play amounted to billions of dollars, and the police force had been thoroughly corrupted by bribes from numbers bosses.

When you talk about Harlem gangsters, particularly of that era, two names come to mind immediately. One of the most powerful early numbers bosses was a woman, Madame Stephanie St. Clair, a black French woman from Martinique known as Queenie or Madame Queen. A tall, abrasive and tough woman, with a seldom-seen gentle side ran the famous New York extortion gang known as The Forty Thieves. The Forty Thieves had a reputation for being so tough that even the white gangsters would not interfere with their illegal operations or attempt to take over their turf. She utilized her experience and talents to set up operations as a policy banker and recruited some of Harlem’s most noteworthy gangsters to support her and her growing numbers business. Within a year she was worth more than $500,000 with more than 40 runners and 10 comptrollers in her charge.

Then there was the legendary Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson known as the Godfather of Harlem. You may recall Lawrence Fishburn played Bumpy Johnson in the movie Hoodlum. Bumpy was one of Madame Queen’s main recruits. He was a colorful character from Charleston, S.C. He had moved to Harlem with his parents when he was a small boy and was given the nickname, Bumpy, because of a large bump on the back of his head. He was a dapper gangster who always made it a point to wear the latest and best clothes while flashing wads of cash wherever he went. Bumpy was a pimp, burglar and stickup man who possessed a recalcitrant attitude. He always carried a knife and gun, which he would not hesitant to use.

Bumpy feared nobody and did not shy from confrontations. He was known for barroom clashes over the slightest issue, having a short fuse and for his arrogance. He never learned to curb his temper or to bow his head to any man. It was because of his negative demeanor that he spent almost half of his life in prisons before he even reached age 30. During his interments he became an avid reader and began writing poetry. Bumpy also proved to be an incorrigible prisoner and spent one-third of a 10-year sentence in solitary confinement. Because of his attitude, he was shuttled from prison to prison until his release in 1932.

Despite his tough-guy reputation, Bumpy Johnson had a soft side. It was common knowledge among Harlemites that he often helped many of Harlem’s poor with secret cash donations and gifts. Madame Queen liked what she saw in Bumpy and offered him a position as henchman in her numbers racket. He accepted and quickly gained her trust. One of his first tasks was to confront the Bub Hewlett gang. It erupted into one of Harlem’s most violent and bloody gang wars. Eventually, Bumpy gained the edge and defeated Hewlett, temporarily saving the numbers game from the Mobs first takeover attempt.

The relationship between Madame Queen and Bumpy was strange and tenuous at best. Some said they had an ongoing affair - others claimed the odd couple were only business partners. Bumpy never abandoned his pimping and robbery professions both of which irritated Madame Queen but both knew what would make the numbers game a success, so they successfully coexisted. These bosses became financial powerhouses, providing capital for loans for those who could not qualify for them from traditional financial institutions – loan sharking. They invested in legitimate businesses and real estate as a way to legitimize their profits.

The Godfather of Harlem lived until 1968, dying from a heart attack as oppose to dying by the gun in the manner most did in his business. As a testament to his success he maintained control of the underworld for nearly forty years with some saying that nothing illegal took place in Harlem without his permission. After Bumpy’s death the underworld became loosely organized and overcome by the drug trade with its many factions. Bumpy’s protégé, Frank Lucas and his rival Nicky Barnes became the most dominate players in the game.

Frank Lucas operated the largest drug business in Harlem after Bumpy’s death during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. He was particularly known for cutting out the middle man in the drug trade and buying heroin directly from sources in the Golden Triangle of Thailand. Lucas boasted that he smuggled heroin using the coffins of dead American servicemen. He controlled such large quantities that he was a supplier to the Mafia. When Frank was busted and facing life in prison, he flipped turning states evidence for the Fed’s causing the conviction of more than a hundred associates. However, it is important to note that most of those criminals were on the police force. His career was dramatized in the 2007 feature film American Gangster.

Leroy "Nicky" Barnes, known as Mr. Untouchable, led the notorious African-American crime organization known as “The Council” made up of seven powerful Harlem gangsters similar to the Mafia that controlled the heroin trade. Barnes was convicted in 1978 of multiple counts of RICO violations, including drug trafficking and murder, for which he was sentenced to life in prison without eligibility for parole. While in prison, Barnes became a “Rat” turning state’s evidence against his former associates in "The Council". In exchange for his testimony, Barnes was released into the Federal Witness Protection Program. Comparing the gangsters of the two eras, one thing is clear despite the viciousness of their chosen profession, the contemporary gangster’s careers were short lived and all of their ill-gotten gains were lost.

As a result of the carnage distributed by these characters the drug addiction rate in Harlem was ten times higher than the New York City average and twelve times higher than in the United States as a whole. Of the 30,000 drug addicts then estimated to live in New York City, 15,000 to 20,000 lived in Harlem. Property crime was pervasive, and the murder rate was six times higher than New York's average.

In the 1980’s, use of crack cocaine became widespread, which produced collateral crime as addicts stole to finance their purchasing of additional drugs. Dealers fought for the right to sell in particular regions or over deals gone bad causing the murder rate to skyrocket. By the end of the crack wars in the mid 90’s and with the initiation of aggressive policing crime in Harlem plummeted and a since of normalcy returned to the once proud historical hamlet of Harlem.


Just a Season

Monday, September 21, 2009

Once called the "Capital of Black America" – Pt. 1

This is the third article or installment in a series that I’m calling “Brownsville”. If you have not been following or traveling along with me on the “Chitlin Circuit” not to be confused with those entertainment venues where African American artist were only allowed to perform.

The “Brownsville Series” is my way of resurrecting the memory of those areas designated for Blacks during the era of segregation, you know across the tracks – the other side of town. All of the above mentioned terms are fittingly proper for the place I am about to explore - Harlem USA - a cultural icon once referred to as the “Capital of Black America”.

First, let me pay homage with great pride to the noted theaters on the Chitlin Circuit. For those who are not familiar with the term “Chitlin Circuit”. It was the collective name given to the string of performance venues throughout the eastern and southern United States that were safe, acceptable, and in most cases the only places could perform during the era of racial segregation. It was in these venues where the ghost of the greats crafted their skills laying the foundation for the great performers we enjoy today.

The most popular of these venues were the Cotton Club, Wilt’s Small Paradise and the famed Apollo Theater in New York, Robert’s Show Lounge, Club Delisa, and the Regal Theatre in Chicago, the Howard Theater in Washington, DC, the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, the Royal Theater in Baltimore, the Fox Theater in Detroit, the Victory Grill in Austin, Texas, the Hippodrome Theater in Richmond, Virginia, and the Ritz Theater in Jacksonville, Florida. It is with great pride that I pay homage to their memory and contributions.

Harlem once referred to as the Capital of Black America began as a European settlement established in July 1639 in what was then known as New Harlem. It was formalized in 1658, when the English took control of the colony changing the hamlets to Harlem. At that time, it was merely a small agricultural town just outside of New York City. The name Harlem was a synonym for elegant living through a good part of the nineteenth century. For example, the estate of Alexander Hamilton was located in Harlem.

In 1893, the Harlem Monthly Magazine wrote that “it is evident to the most superficial observer that the centre of fashion, wealth, culture, and intelligence, must, in the near future, be found in the ancient and honorable village of Harlem.” Even then Harlem seemed ordained to be the center of cultural significance but it was not until the mass migration of blacks in 1904 that it began to flourish as a predominantly Black enclave. It was because of a real estate crash that caused worsening conditions for blacks throughout New York City. Prompting Philip Payton, owner of the Afro-American Realty Company, who almost single-handedly created the migration of blacks from their previous neighborhoods establishing Black Harlem or Uptown as it came to be known.

Then black churches began to move uptown. St. Philip's Episcopal Church, for one, purchased a block of buildings on West 135th Street to rent to members of its congregation. Black Harlem has always been a religious community with over 400 churches of every faith becoming very influential because of their large congregations and wealth as a result of its extensive real estate holdings. However, many as do today, operated what is known as storefronts from an empty store, a building’s basement or a converted brownstone townhouse.

At the same time blacks were migrating to northern industrial cities fueled by their desire to leave behind the Jim Crow South seeking better jobs and education for their children. Jobs were abundant and many blacks were able to obtain work because expanding industries recruited black laborers to fill new jobs as a result of the war effort. Another reason was to escape a culture of lynching and violence.

By 1920 in a mere twenty years, Harlem became the center of a flowering black culture that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. This was the greatest collection of artistic production creating the sound and entertainment of the “Roaring Twenties”, but blacks were sometimes excluded from viewing what their peers were creating. Some jazz venues, including the famed Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington played or Connie’s Inn were restricted to whites only, although some uptown clubs were integrated.

The most famous venue in Harlem, and world renowned, was the Apollo Theater that opened on 125th Street on January 26, 1934 in what was a burlesque house. Best known for its “Amateur Night at the Apollo” that continues to this very day. The Apollo was a proving ground, of sorts; if you could make it there you could make it anywhere. Every black performer or artist was ordained by its audience in one way or another. I don’t have enough space to list all of the greats that graced the Apollo stage. If they were successful, they played the Apollo Theater. Another famous spot was the Savoy Ballroom, on Lenox Avenue, was a renowned venue for swing dancing immortalized in a popular song of the era "Stompin' at the Savoy".

During the 1920’s and 1930’s, between Lenox and Seventh Avenues in central Harlem, over 125 entertainment places operated. Such as speakeasies, cellars, lounges, cafes, taverns, supper clubs, rib joints, theaters, dance halls, and bars and grills. Throughout the twentieth century, particularly during the “Harlem Renaissance”, Harlem served as the home and key inspiration to generations of novelists, poets, musicians, and actors. It was because of the city’s pace, the blend of their backgrounds, the difficulties associated with living in Harlem and their experiences that found expression in theater, fiction, and music, among other art forms.

Some of the luminaries produced by Harlem were Paul Robeson, Claude McKay, and Langston Hughes just to name a few. Though Harlem musicians and writers are particularly well remembered, the community has also hosted numerous actors and theater companies, including the New Heritage Repertory Theater, National Black Theater, Lafayette Players, Harlem Suitcase Theater, The Negro Playwrights, American Negro Theater, and the Rose McClendon Players. Arthur Mitchell, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, established Dance Theatre of Harlem as a school and company for classical ballet and theater training in the late 1960s.

Harlem is also home to notable contemporary artists such as the Harlem Boys Choir, a famous touring choir and education program for young boys, most of whom are black. There is also a Girls Choir of Harlem and both companies have toured nationally and internationally. Harlem is also credited with the creation of Hip-Hop and many hip-hop dances associated with this genre. It is also known for producing Rappers such as Kurtis Blow and Hip Hop Mogul P. Diddy.

After the romantic era of the Harlem Renaissance, Harlem ceased to be home to a majority of NYC's blacks and the character of the community changed in the years after the war, as middle-class blacks left for the outer boroughs and suburbs. With the increase in a poor population, it was also a time when the neighborhood began to deteriorate, and some of the storied traditions of the Harlem Renaissance were driven by poverty, crime, or other social ills.


Just a Season

Friday, September 18, 2009

Thank You President Carter

I would like to offer tremendous praise and much respect to the 39th President of the United States. Everyone knows that there is an elephant in the room, which is not just a reference to the Grand Ol Party and those who call themselves conservative. This group of largely white men, or at least they are the face of it, are the instigators of this vitriolic venom being castigated overtly. Maybe I made an error when I said LARGELY because there are a few people associated with this group that remind me of my uncle whose name is Tom for not seeing what is obviously present, but I will digress.

What I want to say via this writing is that I applaud President Carter for his outward expression of truth and for saying what most pretend does not exist. The former president, a civil rights champion raised in the South, said Tuesday that “an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man.” He went on to say, “I live in the South, and I've seen the South come a long way, and I've seen the rest of the country that shared the South's attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African Americans,” Carter said in an interview with Brian Williams of NBC News. "And that racism inclination still exists. And I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It's an abominable circumstance, and it grieves me and concerns me very deeply.”

The most profound and truthful part of the statement, I thought, was this: “There is an inherent feeling among many in this country that an African American should not be president.” What the 39th President said is what few have dared to say out loud, or even admit. Therefore, I say “Thank you Mr. President”.

In response to this the Republican National Committee Chairman called the comments “a pathetic distraction by Democrats to shift attention away from the president's wildly unpopular government-run health-care plan. …I've had a problem with this post-racial attitude that some in the Obama campaign, now in the administration, have tried to -- to hoist out there,” Mr. Steele said. WOW!!! The possibility of racism is never raised by conservatives, despite polls showing that frightening numbers of conservatives believe that President Obama was born in Kenya or worst yet think he is the "anti-Christ." Again, WOW!!!

When these folks make statements like President Obama “should be buried with Senator Kennedy,” or they bring guns to his rallies, call him all kinds of names, and use vitriolic language propagated on the airwaves. We have a problem and a very dangerous problem because we have seen how this type of speech emboldens people to do horrible things. If this is not racism being directed toward the president, who happens to be black, it is surely HATE. It is time to rally and unite behind good – not evil.

Barack Obama is our President and I believed him when he said, “YES WE CAN”. This was whispered by slaves and abolitionists as they blazed a trail toward freedom through the darkest of nights. It was the call of workers who organized; women who reached for the ballot; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.

I say, yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation and make it home to all.

I say again, YES WE CAN…


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Repugnance: The Week that was too far right!!!

I was an early supporter of Barrack Obama’s Presidency long before anyone I knew would outwardly say it was possible. I was not behind him because he would be the first Black President rather because I am an American. After living though about a dozen presidents this man was the best hope to reverse and address issues concerning my life and that of minorities in these United States.

I said, on November 4th, after Mr. Obama won the election and again on that amazing day in January when he was inaugurated President that “he was going to have a Columbus Experience”. What I meant by that was this: President Obama was going to discover America. Let me add that I don’t believe anything as significant has happened in world history since the resurrection of “Jesus”.

No one living or dead thought American (with its racial history) would EVER elect a black man President. Now, for all of those people who want or wanted to believe we are now living in a post-racial society this week should prove my point. The President was maligned for wanting to encourage students by speaking to them on the first day of school. He was booed and called a liar as he gave a speech on the floor of the house by a Congressman and had signs waved during the speech by Republican’s. As one former governor referred to Republican’s as real Americans – the tea party folks, birthers, conservatives, ect. – The Grand Ol’ Party.

First, the school speech; I can remember the speech John F. Kennedy gave when he asked the country to “ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”. President Kennedy gave that speech when I attended segregated schools and it inspired me to want to be an American, even when I was being degraded and humiliated by America as a “Colored Boy”. I did just that by joining the military and serving in Vietnam going against, if I may quote, Muhammad Ali who said, “I have no quarrel with the Viet Cong” but I was conditioned like so many before me to be patriotic regardless.

This president’s speech was one that focused on encouraging students to evaluate how they might contribute to making America a better nation through hard work and personal responsibility. What this president did was no different than other presidents: Kennedy, Reagan, and both Bush’s – addressing school children. What astounds me is that the very strength of the critic’s argument is really a testament to President Obama. He told stories and gave personal experiences similar to what millions of American have and are experiencing.

Anytime something positive can be done to improve society should be applauded. I wonder how many of the critics have actually sat in or visited a classroom? I have been involved in education, high school and college, and know that on the first day of school these kids need all the encouragement the can get and coming from the Office of the President is as powerful as it gets. It was an apolitical speech and important to millions. The President spoke to all ages of students K – 12, which was obviously tricky but I thought he managed to hit every group with needed information speaking to their vulnerable situations: bullying, fitting in, family issues but most importantly staying in school. In spite of the paranoia from the “right” this was vintage President Obama. Conclusion: Simply a ridiculous phony controversy.

Secondly, and what I really wanted to talk about - I asked myself why the Grand Ol Party (GOP) picked an elephant as its mascot. These people who are fervently Christian and believe in the right to life are talking about secession, calling for a new Civil War, waking a sleeping giant, questioning the president’s birth and his citizenship, people bringing guns to his rallies while knowing this countries horrible history of assignations, calling the president a Nazi, a Socialist, and frankly everything but the “N-word”. The answer might be because an elephant has a brain the size of a peanut.

Of all the disrespect, the most outrageous act and the most personal affront was the blatant contempt by “Wrong Way Wilson” calling the President a liar during his speech before congress. I won’t profess to know what is in his heart, he may not know, but what I know is this: he is a man who is reported to be a member of the “Sons of the Confederacy”, a onetime aid and trained by segregationist Strom Thurman who like many slave master’s produced children by black women. “Wrong Way” has not produced any significant or signature legislation in four-terms and is said to have “never been a person who’s done a substantive thing” according to a Washington Post article. Therefore, I can only judge him by the work he’s done, which suggests, particularly after his ill-mannered ominous assertion, is REPUGNANT and DISGRACEFUL.

The president’s speeches were on point, timely, clear, specific, compassionate, and well intended. Frankly, it is hard to find fault in what he has said in either speech unless you have a brain the size of a peanut. I don’t speak for the African American community or anyone but me. I have lived through and witnessed bigotry via segregation and Jim Crow. This is very much like what I know and have witnessed appealing to the darker angels of America’s past and when “THEY” speak of the party of ideas. We have a long history to demonstrate what the ideas are but if we stand strong behind and with our best hope, our President, by lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness – we, he will overcome.

If not him – WHO? If not now – WHEN?

Just a Season

Monday, September 7, 2009

Georgetown and the Ghost of Jim Crow

This is the second article in a series of what I’m calling “Brownsville” where I explore the rich history of those African American communities that have become little more than footnotes in the annals of time. There were communities like this in every city or town and if you are not familiar with the term Brownsville, I am sure you’ve heard “across the tracks”. These segregated communities were the result of an unholy system imposed upon people of color commonly referred to as “Jim Crow”.

In an earlier article someone commented asking a question that, frankly, surprised me. The question was; what do you mean when you say “Jim Crow”? My first thought was, how can history so recent and one that I’ve witnessed, and know to be true, be removed from the consciousness of anyone living in America. I suppose it speaks to the indifference of what is learned today through the education system.

So before I continue, let me provide a brief history of its origin. Jim Crow was named after a cruelly belittling blackface minstrel act designed to shame and humiliate people of color - Negroes. The name was used to identify with laws and ordinances that forced racial segregation and subservience under the guise of separate but equal treatment of America’s “colored citizens”. Its inception entered the lexicon of racial bigotry after the landmark U.S Supreme Court decision Plessy verses Ferguson in 1896 resulting from a suit brought by the New Orleans Committee of Citizens.

This concept was developed as many southern states tried to thwart the efforts and gains made during the reconstruction era following the Civil War. They, the Committee of Citizens, arranged for Homer Plessy’s arrest in order to challenge Louisiana’s segregation laws. Their argument was, “We, as freemen, still believe that we were right and our cause is sacred” referring to the confederacy. The Supreme Court agreed and a policy of segregation became the law of the land lasting more than sixty years as a result of that fateful decision.

This system was little more than apartheid, dividing virtually all public life into white and colored only environments. This leads me to the next examination of a “Brownsville”, which is in Washington DC - Georgetown. The capital of the free world with its avenues of grand marble structures that are more or less a crystallization of magnificence for tourist to admire. These magnificent architectural marvels are symbols of the power associated with America’s wealth. This area downtown is known as the Federal Triangle because it is the area established for federal government entities.

However, there is a hidden Washington that some have called a tale of two cities. Just blocks for these symbols of opulence live the disenfranchised, downtrodden, and neighborhoods of the forgotten. Prior to 1967, the city was run by and under federal control, which is why it is a District – i.e., the District of Columbia. It was President Johnson who appointed Walter Washington, an African American, as the city’s first ever Mayor-Commissioner. This action was known as home rule.

The city has always been predominately African American with no real authority over its direction. The “District” as many locals call it was at that time a sleepy southern town not much different than a town in South Carolina or Mississippi as far as African Americans were concern. It was run by Dixiecrats to this point. Even today, Washington has no voting representing in Congress.

Washington has many African American enclaves that have long storied histories but did you know Georgetown, one of Washington’s most famous upscale communities, was once one of them. It is probably best known today as the home of Georgetown University and its championship basketball teams coached by the legendary John Thompson or the many luminous sports figures produced by the institution. You may also know Georgetown because of its world renowned nightlife, shopping or maybe a place home to famous people. One of its most famous residents was a young John Kennedy and his new bride Jackie, who called Georgetown home prior to moving into the White House.

It is also worth mentioning that other notable figures resided in other communities around town such as the great orator Fredrick Douglass who owned a home in Anacostia. Carter G. Woodson the creator of the concept “Black History Month” also owned a home in the city. These great men and many prominent politicians, artists, entrepreneurs, scholars, athletes and socialites were relegated to live in a town divided by the harsh Jim Crow separate but equal laws of the day.

Georgetown has a history that has been reduced to a footnote or at least not commonly known to most people. Georgetown began as a Maryland tobacco port on the banks of the Potomac River in 1751. When Congress created the District of Columbia to be the nation’s capital in 1791, its 10-mile square boundaries were drawn to include this port town, as well as the very similar Virginia tobacco port of Alexandria just across the river. Alexandria was given back to Virginia in 1846 but Georgetown remained as one of Washington's most lively urban neighborhoods.

Georgetown historically had a large African American population, including both slaves and free blacks. Slave labor was widely used in the construction of new buildings in Washington just as they were used to provide labor on tobacco plantations in Maryland and Virginia. Let me be very clear, slaves and their labor was the force that built the White House, Capital, and most of the grand marble structures of opulence.

Georgetown was also a major slave trading deport that dates back as early as 1760, when John Beattie established his business on O Street and conducted business at other locations called “pens” around Wisconsin Avenue and M Street. Slave trading continued until the mid-19th century, when it was ended on April 16, 1862. Many former slaves moved to Georgetown following their freedom establishing a thriving community.

When African American’s settled in Georgetown the free men established the Mount Zion United Methodist Church that remains today, which is the oldest African American congregation in Washington. This feat due to their strong religious convictions was a testament to their fortitude after experiencing the horrors of slavery. Mount Zion also provided a cemetery for free burials to Washington’s earlier African American population. Prior to establishing the church, free blacks and slaves went to the Dumbarton Methodist Church where they were restricted to a hot, overcrowded balcony.

I’m sure a reinforced a sense of extreme prided was evident as Washington became the home of a preeminent university established for Blacks. Howard University, although not in Georgetown, was founded in 1867 with the aid of the Freedmen’s Bureau. It was named for the commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau, General Oliver Otis Howard. The Freedmen’s Bureau was intended to help solve everyday problems of the newly freed slaves but it is most widely recognized achievement was its accomplishments in the field of education. Prior to the Civil War, no southern state had a system of universal, state-supported public education for “Coloreds” but Washington now had an advanced school of learning.

As the twentieth century began new construction of large apartment buildings began on the edge of Georgetown. The eyes of the elite became trained on the area. John Ihlder led efforts to take advantage of new zoning laws to get restrictions enacted on construction in Georgetown. However, legislators largely ignored concerns about the historic preservation of Georgetown until 1950, when Public Law 808 was passed establishing the historic district of “Old Georgetown”. The law required the United States Commission of Fine Arts to be consulted on any alteration, demolition, or building construction within the historic district. As you can imagine, this proper and official sounding solution was not designed to benefit the African American citizens living in Georgetown.

Georgetown began to emerge as the fashion and cultural center of the newly identified community. While many “old families” stayed in Georgetown, the neighborhood’s population became poorer and more racially diverse, its demographics started to shift as a wave of new post war residents arrived, many politically savvy, well-educated, and people from elite backgrounds took a keen interest in the neighborhood’s historic nature for their own benefit. It was during this time that the Citizens Association of Georgetown was formed. It is my understanding that the Georgetown Act was really a polite, or maybe not so polite, way of saying gentrification.

I am not implying nor suggesting that the Act was designed to remove African American’s and poor residences from the community (wink) but it did create an environment where people of low to moderate income could no longer afford to live there. High-end developments and gentrification have revitalized the formally African American neighborhood and what was viewed as a blighted industrial waterfront. The Districts old refuse incinerator and smokestack preserved for years as an abandoned but historic landmark was redeveloped in 2003 to become part of the most pronounced feature of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (see photo).

I will conclude with the concept of what happened in simple terms according to the thinking of the day; someone decided to trade a penny for a pound and very effectively.

Just a Season

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


On August 28, 1955, Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy from Chicago supposedly whistled at a white woman in a grocery store in Money, Mississippi. Till didn't understand that he had broken an unwritten law of the Jim Crow South until three days later, when two white men dragged him from his bed in the dead of night, beat him brutally and then shot him in the head.

Although his killers were arrested and charged with murder, they were both acquitted quickly by an all-white, all-male jury. Shortly afterwards, the defendants sold their story, including a detailed account of how they murdered Till, to a journalist. The murder and the trial horrified the nation and the world. Till's death was a spark that helped mobilize the civil rights movement. Three months after his body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River the Montgomery bus boycott began.

It’s been fifty-four years since the events of that fateful night and I simply cannot find the words to describe this heinous crime that has yet to receive justice. So I’ll end by sharing these words by Maya Angelou: “history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

The links below can better inform you of the facts:

Bob Dylan’s four minutes of fact.

The lynching of Emmett Till: a documentary narrative
By Christopher Metress
(free online book)