A Forgotten History And A Story Untold

I am pleased to share this fascinating article written by Charles Shaw:


Over the years, I have become aware that in the many volumes of history written on the lives of black Americans there tends to be a focus on slavery, the South, the Civil War, Emancipation, and the Great Migration. It is a familiar narrative repeated in literature, cinema, stage and television. However, I feel such narratives fail to fully present the great dimensions of the African Diaspora and specifically the American black experience.

Having researched my genealogy for more than a quarter century only recently have I come to realize how little is acknowledged of generations of black people who were free born and whose origins in America lay in the North, with little or no connection to the lands below the Mason Dixon line. I am very well aware, however, these people may have been born free but never attained full equality in all areas of American society. Free but unequal was the hard reality of their lives.

A ninth generation native of Massachusetts, I grew up unaware and possessed little interest in my past or how it was my ancestors came to live in New England. I never gave much thought as to why it was on Sundays we attended Episcopal Church, as did four generations before me, or why it was, unlike friends or other relatives, we rarely indulged in genuine southern cooking. On my grandmother’s stove New England boiled dinners were common along with steaming seafood chowders or Mother’s, made from scratch, salt cod fish cakes on a plate next to a helping of Boston baked beans.

The matriarch of the family was my great grandmother, born in Boston in the 1880’s, she was a dignified woman I had known throughout my life and into my early twenties. On the wall of her dining room hung a framed daguerreotype of her mother, a woman I was told had been born in the harbor town of Belfast along the mid coast of Maine some twenty years before the Civil War. On occasion I would hear my mother speak of the Canadian Maritimes and of her great grandparents having migrated to Boston from there in the mid 19th century. Of all the stories, there was one many had heard, both young and old, and it was the lore of a soldier in the family… a soldier in the Revolutionary War.

Like many researchers, it wasn’t until I approached midlife that I felt a need to explore my genealogy. I desired to learn the truth behind the stories and lore, not only for myself but for my children and their children yet to be. I will admit, unlike many families of color, I was fortunate in that previous generations had left a guide, though incomplete, in the form of old letters and photos, names and places. It was a matter of matching information I possessed with that of census and archival data, newspaper articles, city directories, contacts with distant relatives, and journeys to mythic places I’d heard of growing up.

In the late 1980’s I traveled north into the Maritimes, crossing the waters of the Gulf of Maine back to places of ancestors past. Like many, I assumed that black people in these Provinces arrived there as runaway slaves via the Underground Railroad. It was only upon arriving did I learn that my ancestors had roots there well before the Civil War.

Detail of "The Death of Major Pierson" painting by John Singleton Copley

Detail of “The Death of Major Pierson” painting by John Singleton Copley

I was amazed to discover a little known history of a people who fought for their freedom not in the War Between the States but in the War of the Revolution—people of color who took up arms on the side of Great Britain against the American Patriots.

During that conflict a series of proclamations were put forth by British commanders promising protection and freedom to any black whether slave, indentured, or free born in exchange for service to the Crown. It was a move less of altruism than one of military strategy designed to augment British forces and to disrupt and create confusion in the American war effort. Before me lay a fascinating piece of untold black history. People with a plan, not desperate runaways so often portrayed, but people who took their destiny into their own hands.

Thousands of blacks accepted the offer, escaping or simply walking away from plantations, farms, and private homes, making their way to British lines to take up arms against the American rebels. Nonetheless, Britain lost the war, and the fate of thousands who supported the losing side, both black and white, was uncertain. Fear was greatest among blacks who now faced the reality of retribution and being cast into or returned to slavery.

As part of the negotiations of surrender a meeting was held in the town of Tappan, New York between George Washington and British Commander Sir Guy Carlton. Washington demanded the return of the blacks whom he still considered American property, but Carlton refused, stating it was a matter of British honor. A promise had been made which he intended to make good.

In the early days of 1783, a manifest was created, a detailed ledger recording the names, ages, and descriptions of black men and women, whether former slave or free born, who could prove service to the Crown. The list grew to over three thousand names and became known as the Book of Negroes, an historical document, a copy of which is now housed in the National Archives. It was essentially a book of the saved.

From the spring through the fall of 1783, scores of ships set sail from New York harbor, bound for the Canadian Maritimes. A great evacuation that numbered in the thousands, including the British military, white Loyalist refugees, and three thousand free black men, women and children who became known as the Black Loyalists. It was from this group I was able to trace their descendants who made their way from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts in the mid 1800’s. Three of whom would become my great, great grandparents.

James Butler

James Butler

One, James Butler, became a merchant on Boston’s busy waterfront and the father of my great grandmother. The son of a mariner, he had been raised in the Canadian Anglican Church, thus the origins of my family’s connection to the Episcopal Church. He married a woman, Phebe Hoyt, from Maine, the same woman in the photo on my great grandmother’s dining room wall.

Phoebe Hoyt Butler

Phebe Hoyt Butler

In later years, I discovered she was the great granddaughter of a free black and land owner from Groton, Massachusetts, a soldier of the Revolution whom, in a twist of irony, had fought at Bunker Hill on the side of the Patriots, thus the origin of the soldier story passed down and recited by many in the family. The couple lived and raised a family in the free black community on the North Slope of 19th century Boston’s Beacon Hill.

As we know, with genealogical research, one answer surely begets another question, and my research is far from complete, but I hope to leave behind a clearer path for future generations to follow and the awareness of this untold story .

Charles Shaw: member of Afro American Historical Genealogical Society New England Chapter
Email: bostonbasin@yahoo.com



Mammy Warriors | An Homage to Black Maids


Two black women wrapped in threadbare coats stood silently near the intersection. Framed by a wall concealing a private tennis club, they stared into the street, ignoring the chilly morning air and the dry leaves swirling about their ankles.  One woman was probably in her 40s, the other, at least a generation older.

I had just pulled up to a traffic light near a mass-transit stop in a well-to-do suburban neighborhood where I had often seen black maids on their way to work. What drew my attention to these two maids was the longing and determination in their faces. They stood there, I felt, not only to survive, but also to create opportunity for their offspring. For me, they were testimonies to the generations of black maids whose labor had not only fed and clothed their children and grandchildren but had also pushed open doors a little wider for all who followed.

These two women, whom I would never know, reminded me of stories about my great-grandmothers, both former slaves. When my mother’s maternal grandmother, Betty, was freed, she turned her back on cotton fields and took in laundry so that her ten children could attend college. My mother’s paternal grandmother, Martha, scrubbed floors so that her daughters and granddaughters would not have to get down on their knees to do the same.

My grandmother, and then, my mother became teachers.

I was in college when the Civil Rights Movement swept the country. One outcome of the nonviolent freedom marches, boycotts, and sit-ins—often answered with violent billy club beatings, fire-hose water lashings, arrests, and murders—was that more black women saw the opening of doors to a broadened array of careers and interests.

Although my grandmother, my mother, and I were blessed, too many black women were not able to elude the life of a domestic servant and its associated cultural assumptions, in part because of the pervasive appeal and conjecture that the proper role for a black woman is that of the Mammy.

Hattie McDaniel in "Gone with The Wind"

Hattie McDaniel in “Gone with The Wind”

An image from the antebellum era, Mammy remains one of the most persistent and popular American totems of black women. Mammy is remembered as a middle-aged or old, overweight, dark-skinned, sexually unappealing woman who constantly grins and is so loyal that she loves the master’s family more than her own. This stereotype is a distorted caricature. The historical Mammy comprises individuals of varied ages—some were even adolescents. She is seldom obese—food rations for slaves were often sparse. She is seldom dark-skinned—light-skinned slaves (often the product of a master’s sexual indiscretions) were favored as house servants. The real Mammy seldom grins—her life, restricted and uncertain, was too daunting.  She could lose her family on a master’s whim.

The most complicated myth of all is that Mammy was not sexually appealing to white men.  It was quasi-acceptable for a master to sexually violate a black maidservant. She was, after all, his property, to be used according to his liking.

Black Maid with White Child, 1960s

Black Maid with White Child, 1960s

The black woman’s role in “The Big House” is ingrained in the American psyche. According to this imposed legacy, the black maid, heading for the other side of town, meets Mammy at the bus stop. Mammy climbs on board with her, and en route, settles in.

Martha Madison

Martha Madison, 1870s

But when I see these black women early in the morning, they bring to mind the resolve of my great-grandmothers to keep their daughters and granddaughters off their knees, out of the fields, away from the white woman’s kitchen and laundry basin, and beyond the “master’s” reach.  Out of gratitude and respect, I call these maids Mammy Warriors.









With Black Women’s Bodies | The Birth of Modern Gynecology

Statue of Dr. James Marion Sims, Columbia South Carolina

Statue of Dr. James Marion Sims, Columbia South Carolina

The “Father of Modern Gynecology”
There is a statue in Columbia, South Carolina honoring Dr. James Marion Sims, a 19th century physician venerated as the father of modern gynecology and the first surgeon to treat both an empress (Empress Eugenie of France) and enslaved women. There are similar statues in Montgomery, Alabama and in Central Park, New York City. Medical schools throughout the country adorn their walls with his portrait. None of the inscriptions on the statues and none of the textbooks in the medical schools tells the whole story.

Sims was born in South Carolina in 1813 and graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1835. He returned to South Carolina to practice but, after the deaths of his first two patients, Sims moved Montgomery, Alabama, and started a clinic. To enrich his coffers, he agreed to treat enslaved people from nearby plantations. In so doing, Sims came across a number of black women with vesico-vaginal fistulas (openings connecting the vagina to the rectum or bladder). This physically and socially debilitating condition resulted from traumatic childbirth. He was reluctant to help the women, but slave owners wanted their property restored to optimal working and reproductive capacity.

Anarcha on Sims' Operating Table

Anarcha on Sims’ Operating Table

The Mothers of Modern Gynecology
From 1845 to 1849, Sims conducted experimental surgeries to repair the fistulas of afflicted slaves. His first subject (I cannot call her his patient) was 17-year-old Anarcha. As her owner’s property, she had no choice. At first he failed, so he tried again and again—thirty times on this one woman. And she was not his only subject. Though ether was available, Sims refused to use it, insisting that black women did not need it. (I wonder what he was thinking when the screaming, writhing women had to be held down during the operations)

After he had finally perfected the procedure, Sims invited other physicians to observe his technique. So, the black women lay naked, genitals exposed, under the curious eyes of groups of white men. As Vanessa Northington Gamble, a physician and medical historian at the George Washington University, stated in a February 2016 NPR interview, “Sims wanted to be a trailblazing researcher, and these women, their bodies, became props in his journey of scientific discovery.”

Sims moved to New York City in 1853 and started a hospital for white women, where he performed, always using ether, the technique he had perfected on the bodies of unanesthetized black women. Some of the techniques he developed benefit women around the world today, but there has been no acknowledgement of the enslaved women he used to attain his reputation.

Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble

Dr. Vanessa Northington Gamble

Their Voices Imagined
When asked what Anarcha and Sims’ other human subjects might say to her, Dr. Gamble replied, “I think the story they would tell me would be about their lives as enslaved women. It would begin how their baby survived, the baby would have been taken away from them. They would talk about how, as black women, their bodies were used sexually, that they did not have consent and that what happened to them with Sims was part and parcel of what their lives were at that particular time. But I think the other thing they would want us to know is that they were human beings and that they also deserve their story to be memorialized. It’s important not just to think of them as victims of experiments, prostrate on the altar of science. They were mothers, that they were women… the mothers of modern gynecology.”

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (William Faulkner)
Anarcha’s story took place more than 150 years ago, but the legacy of that time remains with us today. Studies looking at how well people of color are treated for pain in the 21st century reveal, for example, that injured black children do not receive the same level of pain control as white children. And people with sickle cell anemia, a hereditary condition more prevalent among persons of African descent, worry that when they suffer the pain crises characteristic of the disease, they will be disregarded as manipulative drug seekers.

Bettina Judd, Poet

Bettina Judd, Poet

Evoking the spirit of Anarcha, Poet Bettina Judd said, after her strangled ovaries began to die and a series of doctors dismissed her pelvic pain, “Sims invents the speculum. I invent the wincing, the if-you-must of it, the looking away.”

For more of Dr. Gamble’s interview and excerpts from Bettina Judd’s poem “Patient,” go to http://www.npr.org/2016/02/16/466942135/remembering-anarcha-lucy-and-betsey-the-mothers-of-modern-gynecology.



The One Drop Rule | Who is Black in the U.S.?

Mahala Murchison

Mahala Murchison

“Remove Your Shirt.”
In July 1839, my maternal great-great-grandmother Mahala Murchison became the first Negro in Austin, Texas. She was a ten-year-old mixed-race girl from Tennessee. Her father was Kenneth Murchison, her white owner; her mother was a slave whose name and ancestry are lost to history.

In later years, Mahala had six children, three girls and three boys, by white men who lived on neighboring farms. After Emancipation, Mahala’s youngest son, Will, moved away and “passed for white.” Her oldest son, Frank,

Frank Strain

Frank Strain

remained in Austin, identified as “colored,” and became a railroad porter. His supervisor ordered him to remove his shirt so that the passengers would know that Frank was a black man, and, therefore, subservient. Frank was, at most, one-fourth black, but to impose social, economic, and political restrictions on people like him, the law applied the One Drop Rule and said he was black.

Definition of The One Drop Rule
The One Drop Rule, an idiosyncrasy of the United States, was based on the notion (and fear) of “invisible blackness.” The rule asserts that any person with even one ancestor of sub-Saharan-African ancestry (one drop of “black” blood) is black. (See video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQWX5qVf3g8)

The Antebellum Era
Though Virginia had passed an antimiscegenation law in 1691, which other colonies soon followed, during the years before slavery became entrenched in the South, social and labor conditions were loose among the working class, and many mixed-race babies were born. Their race was a minor consideration. Even after slavery became widespread throughout the colonies, mixed-race children of white mothers were born free. In colonial Virginia, for example, the censuses of 1790 to 1810, revealed that 80 percent of the free African-American families could be traced to of unions between white women and African men. Free people of mixed ancestry who “looked white” were legally absorbed into the white majority. The later conditions of slavery also contributed to the racial admixture. White planters, their sons, overseers, or white neighbors frequently raped black women. Admittedly, some of those relationships were voluntary.

In 1865, soon after the Civil War had ended, Florida passed an act that both outlawed miscegenation and stated “every person who shall have one-eighth or more of Negro blood shall be deemed and held to be a person of color.” Following Reconstruction, to assure “white supremacy,” in part by excluding black citizens from politics and voting, states throughout the south imposed racial segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

The Twentieth century The Jim Crow Laws defined as black anyone with any black ancestry. In 1910, Tennessee adopted a one drop statute. Within the ensuing twenty-one years (in chronological order) Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, and Oklahoma followed. During this period, the slave states Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri, and the free states Indiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Utah amended their old “blood fractions” to one-sixteenth or one-thirty-second—the equivalent of one drop.

Before Virginia passed its Racial Integrity Act in 1924, the state legislature had avoided establishing a one drop rule. In 1853, representatives, aware of the ongoing history of interracial relationships, realized that no one could be certain of the “purity” of their whiteness. In 1930, the Census Bureau, yielding to pressure from southern legislators, removed the classification “mulatto.” In all situations in which a person had white and some other racial ancestry, he or she was assigned to that other race.

Dr. Walter Ashley Plecker

Dr. Walter Ashley Plecker

And in the 1930s and 40s, Dr. Walter Plecker, Virginia’s first Registrar of Statistics, latched on to the 1924 act. He ordered the state’s vital records to be destroyed or changed so as to classify people only as black or white. He wrote:

Two races as materially divergent as the White and Negro, in morals, mental powers, and cultural fitness, cannot live in close contact without injury to the higher.

Moreover, suspecting that some blacks tried to “pass” as Native American, Plecker also classified people as black who self-identified as Indian. In 1967, when the United States Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s law prohibiting inter-racial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, it also judged the Virginia Racial Integrity Act, and other one drop rules like it, to be unconstitutional.

Census Data in the Twenty-first Century
In the 2000 Census, for the first time, American citizens could select one or more categories to indicate racial identities. Nearly seven million Americans self- identified as members of two or more races. This number rose to nine million in the 2010 census, and 7,872,702 “white” Americans would have been classified as “black” under the one drop rule.

Racial Mixtures of Blacks and Whites in the U.S. Today Blacks in the U. S. are more racially mixed than whites, reflecting historical experience here. Population geneticist Kasia Bryc found that African Americans, on average, have 24 percent European ancestry, while about 4 percent of “white” Americans have 1 percent, or more, African ancestry. Some of these people with “hidden blackness” had “passed for white,” or had ancestors who had done so, in order to escape racism, poverty, disenfranchisement, and inequality. They had chosen color and opportunity over family and community.

Sociologically, the one drop concept persists. During the Black Power Movement, some leaders within the black community claimed all people with any African ancestry as black. Such claiming was another kind of one drop rule. Today, many people in the U.S. still consider individuals, themselves and others, with any African ancestry to be black, or at least non-white.

Other Countries in the Americas
People in many other countries view race differently. For example, in Puerto Rico, though now part of the U.S., persons of black ancestry with known white lineage were classified as white. And according to Brazilian Jose Neinstein, in the U.S., “If you are not quite white, then you are black.” But, in Brazil, “If you are not quite black, then you are white.”

Mulattos And Other Mixed-Race Americans

Bettye Kearse

Bettye Kearse at Montpelier, James Madison’s former plantation

In September 2014, a couple of months after participating in a family reunion of the “Other Madisons,” President James Madison’s African-American descendants, I collected a sample of my saliva in a little plastic vial and then sent it to 23andMe for DNA analysis. A few weeks later, I learned that I am 64.7% sub-Saharan African and 33.7% European. The rest of me is a drop or two Asian. None of this was surprising. My skin color can be described as coffee with plenty of cream; my hair is very curly, my nose a little broad, and my lips a little full. I am the typical black American woman whose enslaved female ancestors did not escape the “attention” of white plantation owners, their sons, overseers, or other white men. I suppose I could call myself multiracial or multi-ethnic or mixed-race, but I don’t. Both of my parents had white ancestors but embraced the black community that nurtured them and found strength in the black traditions that inspired them. I am Black.



Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson's concubine

Sally Heming, Thomas Jefferson’s slave and mixed-race mistress

Who is mulatto?
For centuries, people around the globe have created names to identify the offspring of parents of different ethnic or racial backgrounds. One of the most controversial, especially in the United States, is “mulatto,” which Wikipedia defines as “a person who is born from one white parent and one black parent, or to persons of two mulatto parents,” though the term is sometimes applied to persons of any mixed ethnicity or race.

The origin of the term
The etymology of “mulatto” is usually believed to have been derived in the 16th century from the Spanish and Portuguese term mulato, which comes from the Latin m?lus, meaning mule, the hybrid offspring of a horse and a donkey. Some scholars believe that the word originated centuries earlier with the Arabic term muwallad, referring to individuals born and reared in a community but considered to be and treated as outsiders.

Its significance in the U.S.
In the United States, “mulatto” is now used mostly in historical contexts. It is sometimes viewed as pejorative but at other times complimentary. Being “half-assed” is always bad; looking white, or part white, is sometimes bad. (The merits of “passing” or being able to “pass,” especially during and after the social movements of the ‘60s, is a topic for another blog).

Audrey Smedley, a professor of anthropology at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Race in North America: Origins of a Worldview, writes that the first mulatto child in America was born in 1620, one year after the arrival of the first Africans. In my Internet search, I was not able to find this child, but his or her existence makes sense. America’s poor laborers, whatever the color of their skin, worked together, socialized together, lived together, and made love together.

Starting with Virginia in 1662, the southern colonies adopted the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, which, unlike English common law, stated that children were born into the status of their mother. Thus, children born to enslaved mothers were slaves, regardless of the status or color of their fathers; while children born to white mothers were free, even if the fathers were black and enslaved. Not only did the doctrine relieve labor shortages in the colonies, it also legitimized the rape of slave women by white men. White fathers were no longer required to acknowledge, support, or emancipate their illegitimate children by slave women. Men could sell their children or put them to work.

James Madison

James Madison

The “Other Madisons”
According to my family’s oral history, James Madison allowed his wife, Dolley, to sell his enslaved mulatto son, Jim. What do I think of that? I have mixed thoughts and feelings. On the one hand, selling ones’ own child is unforgiveable, but on the other hand, I feel sympathy for Madison. He lost out on the blessings of fatherhood, and he alienated himself from his only direct descendants, the “Other Madisons.”

One White Woman’s Opinion About American Racism

Michael Brown's Neighborhood Kids

Michael Brown’s Neighborhood Kids

A few months ago, while my white hairdresser skillfully styled my very African-American hair, we casually chatted about my book and a not-so-casual topic: the history and persistence of American racism. She is one of the most perceptive, well-read, and clear-thinking people I have ever met. As she set my hair in rollers, this is what she said:

The United States has yet to come to terms with the reality that our social systems are built on a history of slavery. While we acknowledge that there were black Africans who were slaves, and white Europeans who were masters, we deny that society is influenced by this today. White America still denies that slavery is a shared history, because to admit that we are connected to the horror inflicted upon millions of human beings would be a simple truth that is too hard to accept. White Americans tell themselves what psychologist Daniel Goleman has termed “vital lies,” which are attempts to protect an image that would suggest American society has moved beyond slavery. Even though slavery was abolished in 1865, and the Civil Rights Acts of 1965 made strides in erasing the overt discrimination that remained, racism still exists as denial by white America to accept a shared African American ancestry rooted in the institution of slavery.  

Denial of racism continues to manifest through a written history that only reinforces the illusion that America has moved beyond slavery and racism. There exists another history: the oral history maintained within African-American culture. This is not acknowledged by white America, because it is not a written documentation; it is oral. If white America were to acknowledge the oral history of African Americans as legitimate, it would mean accepting painful truths. Rather than look at the truth of how we came to share common ancestors—through rape and violence—we continue to tell “vital lies” designed to maintain our image as a nation that is not racist in its institutional practices. The problem remains: This is an image that white America has created but African Americans must exist within. As long as we continue to place parameters around the history that we teach our children, and only accept part of the story while denying the rest, then we will continue to have inequities and conflicts along racial lines in American society.

Later, I asked my hairdresser if I could include these words in my blog and how I should attribute them to her. She said, “Just call them the opinion of a concerned white woman.”

I miss our conversations. She is now my former hairdresser. While putting two of her three children through college, she, too, was earning a bachelor’s degree. She graduated at the top of her class and now works as a child advocate.


Griots and Griottes | Keepers of Unwritten History

Griots And Griottes (book and image by Thomas A. Hale)

Griots And Griottes
(book and image by Thomas A. Hale)

In West Africa, its history written in its own languages is relatively new. African history was written in European languages during the colonial era, and in Arabic for centuries. But well since before that, in communities in the Sahel and Savanna regions, the griots (men) and griottes (women) have spoken, from memory, epic-long histories and genealogies that often take days to recite.

African “Wordsmiths”
For hundreds of years, possibly beginning before the birth of Christ, the griots and griottes have served as human links between past and present, speaking the stories of their ancestors and the history of their people—births and deaths, conquests and defeats, plenty and famine, tales of vast empires and tiny villages, exploits of nobles or heroes or commoners—all to preserve not just a family or a community but an entire culture and its values. In Africa, this role, unique to that continent for centuries, now adopted, to various extents, by countries around the world, includes many diverse responsibilities: not just oral historian and genealogist, but also teacher, spokesperson, exhorter, interpreter, poet, storyteller, diplomat, adviser to nobility, family counselor, judge, messenger, master of ceremonies, praise singer, and musician, to name just a few.  As Thomas A. Hale states in his book, Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music, “No other profession in any other part of the world is charged with such wide-ranging and intimate involvement in the lives of people.” These “wordsmiths” are the “social glue” of the community. Their words, and the complex layers of meaning behind their words, influence how each person views himself in the present and within the continuum of the distant past and the unknowable future. Griots and griottes, considered by West Africans as being fundamentally different from all other human beings, are not religious icons, nor are they sorcerers, but they hold an aura of power and mystery that is at once revered and frightening. Nearly omniscient, the wordsmiths can sing ones praises… or ones doom.

The Voices of African Women
This important role is inherited, and training begins at home. Trainees then advance to special schools, and then to apprenticeship with master griots and griottes. Young griottes may have less freedom to travel and train because of family obligations, but even in patriarchal West Africa, they learn to speak up in order to encourage, comfort, and empower women. The saabi, a poetic narrative form that West African women sing, often challenge male superiority. Hale’s colleague, Aissata Sidikou-Morton, a native of Niger, has written down the songs of griottes in order to preserve them and so that the world can know the voices of African women.

“In African literature, orality is still the most important form of literature on the continent,” Sidikou-Morton says. “If you compare the oral literature here to the literature of other women in other cultures, you will see similarities. They are saying the same things about what it is like to be a woman, to be a human being.” http://news.psu.edu/story/140694/2002/05/01/research/keepers-history

A favorite theme of the songs of West African women is their relationships with husbands and in-laws. When a woman is to be married, griottes sing to the bride-to-be to prepare her for her new life and for the trouble she might encounter in her marriage, and to reassure her that she can always come back home.

Stop crying, bride.
Stop crying and listen to me.
If your mother-in-law abuses you,
Just cry, but don’t say anything.
If your sisters or brothers-in-law abuse you,
Just cry but don’t say anything.
If your husband’s mother abuses you,
Just cry, but don’t say anything,
But leaving your house is not a crime.

An American Griotte
In America, before the Civil War, slave owners successfully abolished many African traditions, but the tradition of oral history survived the Middle Passage, and then thrived in the New World. I am the eighth, and newest, in the line of griots and griottes in my African-American family. Without this tradition, I would not know my family’s story–from freedom in West Africa, to enslavement, and then emancipation, in America. I hope I am the griotte my family, especially the women, deserves.


Forgotten Lynching Victims | Chinese in America


Massacre of 1871

Massacre of 1871

October 24, 1871, in Los Angeles, California’s Chinatown, a mob of more than 500 white men forced its way into, then ransacked, every building on Calle de los Negros (dubbed “Nigger Alley” after the dark-complexioned Californios—Spanish-speaking, mixed-race Californians—who had originally lived the area).  Most in the mob had been recruited off the streets by a high-ranked policeman. Many of the Chinese immigrants living and working in the crime-ridden ghetto were robbed and beaten. Seventeen were tortured, mutilated, and then hanged at several sites in the business section of the city. A cheering crowd looked on.

This mass lynching, which became known as the Chinese massacre of 1871, had been festering for decades. During the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), Chinese miners flocked into the state and became rich. Those who did not become wealthy were willing to work wherever they could for a fraction of the pay expected by Anglo laborers. Resentment loomed large from both the white mine owners and the white work force. The Anglo population feared that the Chinese, though not allowed to vote, would soon control California. Because of its alien religion and alien culture, and because of its willingness to work long hours for little pay, the Chinese population was viewed as the “yellow peril.” To keep this peril at bay, California’s Legislature imposed a foreign miner’s tax and passed a law that forbade any Chinese from testifying against a white man. So, Los Angeles citizens could freely ignore the rash of vigilante murders that followed. No lynchers were ever prosecuted.

Throughout the American Civil War, most white Californians were openly supportive of the Southern cause. After the war, the unemployment rate soared throughout the western states, exacerbating the anti-Chinese sentiment.

The Trigger
The 1871 massacre was triggered by the accidental shooting-death of a white saloon owner, caught in the cross-fire of a gun battle between two Chinese factions. The fight started after a Chinese company kidnapped a beautiful woman married to a man affiliated with a rival Chinese company.

Though the ransacking and lynchings were carried out primarily by hoodlums, their success depended on the tacit complicity of the town’s elite. The legal and news cover-ups were unparalleled. Only ten rioters were brought to trial. Eight were convicted of manslaughter (not murder), but their convictions were overturned on a legal technicality: The prosecuting attorney had not proven that one of the victims was dead. It seems more than coincidence that this attorney was incompetent, while the defense was mounted by one of the nation’s leading lawyers. Moreover, the presiding judge had not passed the bar.

City leaders were determined to attract a rail link that could, and did, bring thousands of Anglos–and their money–to Southern California, so Los Angeles newspapers downplayed the massacre as a spontaneous eruption of anger toward a broadly despised minority. The press did not mention the lynchings in its year-end review of the town’s major events. The rest of the nation, including the railroad owners, knew little.

As John Johnson Jr. states in his 2010 LA Weekly article “How Los Angeles Covered up The Massacre of 17 Chinese:”

The massacre did have one salutary effect, however: It brought an end to the rule of the rope in Los Angeles. The Chinese were the last to be lynched in L.A…

And still today, every so often, the rainbow mix of populations in Los Angeles forsake their surfboards, convertibles, Cinco de Mayo celebrations and Martin Luther King Jr. Day marches and rise in revolt against each other’s accursed presence in this paradise. http://www.laweekly.com/news/how-los-angeles-covered-up-the-massacre-of-17-chinese-2169478

And police shootings of  Los Angeles’ minorities are certainly not rare.





Forgotten Lynching Victims | Mexicans in America

imagesRHUOVHBGHushed-up Lynchings
During the Jim Crow era, the lynching of African Americans throughout the South was so widespread and so well publicized that it was hard to ignore. Newspaper reporters were among the many spectators, and photographers snapped pictures for the postcards they would sell. Though rare, history teachers, briefly and cautiously, mentioned the lynching of black people. But the second most frequent target of mob violence was avoided by those who report news events, by those who made postcards in order to capitalize on vigilante murders, and by those whose job it was to educate America’s young people. From the mid-19th century until well into the 20th century, mobs lynched thousands of Mexicans, not only in states bordering Mexico but also in those well north of the border, including Nebraska and Wyoming. These lynchings were hushed-up, in part because the communities in which the murders occurred did not want it widely known that local authorities and deputized citizens played conspicuous roles. Lynching was not always by people on the margins of a community, and it was not a not a southern peculiarity.

“I hate all Mexicans.”
A letter printed in The Stockton Times on April 6, 1850 exemplifies the racist sentiment of the era: “Mexicans have no business in this country. I don’t believe in them. The men were made to be shot. The women were made for our purposes. I’m a white man—I am! A Mexican is pretty near black. I hate all Mexicans.”

Josepha, The Only Woman Lynched in California
One of few the lynchings of Mexicans to reach public record was that of Josepha Segovia, the only woman ever lynched in California. In many accounts her name was changed to “Juanita,” a stereotypic Mexican name, and there are several discrepancies in the reports about who she was and about the circumstances leading to her 1851 lynching in Downieville, California. Josepha was a petite woman in her twenties. In some accounts she was a  well-respected citizen. In others, in keeping with the Gold Rush era’s American view of Mexican women, she was a “depraved, sexually promiscuous” saloon girl with a vicious temper.

Accused of stabbing a white miner to death, Josepha was brought to trial on July 5, 1851. In some reports, he had broken into her house, presumably to rape her; in others she had invited him in. In one story, Josepha murdered her victim by hiding shards of glass in his food so that she could steal the gold he had mined.

As soon as the guilty verdict was announced, vigilantes erected a scaffold on the bridge over the Yuba River, and some 2,000 spectators gathered to watch Josepha’s hanging.

William L. Manly inadvertently helped  turn Josepha into a legend when he wrote: “Juanita went calmly to her death. She wore a Panama hat, and after mounting the platform she removed it, tossed it to a friend in the crowd…with the remark, ‘Adios, amigo.’ Then she adjusted the noose to her own neck, raising her long, loose tresses carefully in order to fix the rope firmly in its place; and then, with a smile and wave of her hand to the bloodthirsty crowd present, she stepped calmly from the plank into eternity… “

Josepha’s Legacy
Decades later, Josepha’s story helped inspire the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement of the 1940s and the Chicano Movement of the 1960s.

Lynchings in The 21st-Century
With today’s resentment of the increasing Latino population in the U.S., and the heated debate over immigration policy, the history of anti-Mexican violence makes clear that racial hatred does not endanger African Americans alone, nor does it have geographic boundaries. Nor does it exclude children.

On October 22, 2013, thirteen-year-old Andy Lopez was walking across a vacant lot in Sonoma, California, carrying an airsoft gun. Two police approached him from the rear. One fired eight shots, four of which hit Andy from behind. The officers then handcuffed the dying child. Later, the district attorney did not charge the shooting officer, concluding that his behavior was “a reasonable response.”

One year and one month later, on November 22, 2014, two police officers shot and killed twelve year-old Tamir Rice as he played in a park in Cleveland, Ohio. One of those officers has been charged with murder.

Lynchers now use guns instead of ropes.


Strange Fruit |Lynchings During Jim Crow And Now

Lynching nooseThough not all lynchings are by hanging, imagine trees scattered throughout the South whose branches hang low with the weight of lifeless bodies. Most are men, but among them are women. Most are black, but among them are Mexicans, Native Americans, Chinese, and other minorities.

The Tuskegee Institute’s Lynch Report informs us that there were at least 4,733 such murders between 1882 and 1959, a conservative number, counting only known and recorded victims, and those meeting the Institute’s conditions:

There must be legal evidence that a person was killed. That person must have met death illegally. A group of three or more persons must have participated in the killing. The group must have acted under the pretext of service to Justice, Race, or Tradition.

In the Jim Crow era, opponents of anti-lynching legislation claimed lynchings prevented murder and rape, but such charges preceded less than one-third of the lynchings, and even those were often pretexts for punishing blacks who might have committed lesser infractions, such as smiling at a white woman, or looking a white person in the eye.

A Late Apology
On June 13, 2005, the U. S. Senate formally apologized for its failure to enact a federal anti-lynching law in the early 20th century. The resolution expressed “the deepest sympathies and most solemn regrets of the Senate to the descendants of victims of lynching, the ancestors of whom were deprived of life, human dignity and the constitutional protections accorded all citizens of the United States.”

Lynchings After the Civil Rights Movement
I had thought that lynching was a thing of the past until I read Ravi Howard’s Like Trees Walking, a 2008 novel based on the 1981 hanging of Michael Donald by two KKK members and their accomplices in Mobile, Alabama. The Klansmen had randomly selected the 19-year-old in retaliation of the acquittal of a black man accused of killing a white police officer.

Journalist Adam Hudson suggests that lynching continues behind the mask of police brutality.

Instead of yesteryear’s festive mob of men, women, and children surrounding the hanged victim, today, there is online support for police engaged in acts of brutality against unarmed black men, women, and children, who include 7-year-old Aiyana Jones and 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

0fc22bde9347ca80a93d16507ec802e9Pickup Trucks, Nooses, And A Man-eating Animal
Michael Donald was not the only post-Civil Rights Movement victim of vigilante hatred.

In 1998, in Jasper, Texas, three white men offered James Byrd, Jr. a ride home. Moments later, they assaulted him, then dragged him to his death behind their pickup truck. After dumping Byrd’s mutilated remains in the town’s segregated African-American cemetery, the three men went to a barbecue.

In 2008, in Paris, Texas, Brandon McClelland got into an argument with two white men. The men drove their truck over McClelland, then used it to drag him along the road.

In 2011, in Jackson, Mississippi, James Craig Anderson was beaten by 10 young white teens, who then ran over him with yet another pickup truck.

In 2013, in Jasper, Texas, Alfred Wright’s truck broke down. He began walking and, one week later, was found dead, partially clothed and with one ear cut off and one eye missing. Police claimed that Wright was eaten by an animal. His family believes he was lynched because his girlfriend was white.

In 2014, in Bladenboro, North Carolina, 17-year-old Lennon Lacy was found hanging from a swing set. The medical examiner ruled the death a suicide, but his family believes he was lynched because was dating a 31-year-old white woman.

In 2015, in Port Gibson, Mississippi, Otis Byrd was found hanging from a tree. His family disputes the ruling that his death was a suicide.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon
In March 2015, a videotape of the University of Oklahoma chapter captured the perverse glee of the fraternity brothers as they chanted, “You can hang ’em from a tree, but there’ll never be a nigger in SAE!”

“Strange Fruit”
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

(written as a poem by Abel Meeropol and sung by Billie Holiday in 1939)