19: This Month in Black History – ‘Tis the Season to be Jolly

Happy Kwanzaa!


by Dr. Fari Nzinga (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

Happy Holidays! This is the time of year when millions of people will wish each other a Merry Christmas, happy Solstice or happy Hannukah. Some may even say happy Kwanzaa… but, how many know it’s roots or know someone who celebrates it? [FYI – Oprah, Maya Angelou, Chuck D, Angelina Jolie, and Synthia Saint James (who designed the first Kwanzaa postage stamp in 1997), all celebrate it]

So, what is Kwanzaa anyway, you ask?

Kwanzaa is a festival that takes place annually from December 26th to January 1st. I know what you’re thinking, but it was not meant to replace Christmas. In 1966, after a rather tumultuous year of violent social unrest in Los Angeles – Watts especially – Maulana Karenga, a young Black man involved with activist groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Black Panthers, was one of many Black youngsters who had been starved of information about his past and was intellectually curious about African peoples’ histories and civilizations. Wanting to marry scholarship in Black and Africana studies with direct action and other forms of activism, Karenga turned his attention to the political possibilities of Black and African culture. One of his first cultural projects was the creation of Kwanzaa, a secular, week-long celebration of African heritage, culture and philosophy.

The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase, “matunda ya kwanza,” meaning “first fruits.” Kwanzaa is a holiday that draws inspiration from traditional harvest festivals celebrated throughout Africa (it is important to note that although over 2000 languages are spoken on the African continent, Swahili is spoken by millions on the continent and was adopted as the unifying language of Kwanzaa). Karenga sought to emphasize that the basic principles found in producing the harvest are vital to building and maintaining strong and wholesome communities.

Kwanzaa kinara

The primary symbols of Kwanzaa can be seen in the Kwanzaa Table Candles image from gettyimages: the mkeka, a woven straw mat symbolizing how African heritage builds upon tradition; the kinara, a seven-space candle holder, representing the original stalk from which the African people originated; the mishumaa sabaa, the seven candles displayed (black, red, and green based on the colors of the Pan-African flag) and used in the candle lighting ceremony (more on this to follow below), represent the seven principles described below; the kikombe cha umoja is the cup with which to pour libations; the muhindi are the ears of corn which represent the offspring (children) of the stalk (parents of the house); and the zawadi (gifts) represent the fruits of the labor of the parents and the rewards of seeds sown by the children.

Each day of Kwanzaa corresponds with a principle upon which celebrants reflect. The seven principles (described below) representing the seven days are known as the Nguzo Saba. During the celebration of Kwanzaa, it is customary to greet friends and family with the Swahili phrase, “Habari gani“, meaning, “What’s the news?” In response, one answers with the principle of the day (Umoja, for example, is the response given on December 26th):

Umoja (unity) – to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.

Kujichagulia (self-determination) – to define ourselves, name ourselves, and speak for ourselves.

Ujima (collective work and responsibility) – to build and maintain our community together and to make our brothers and sisters problems our problems and to solve them together.

Ujamaa (cooperative economics) – to build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit together from them.

Nia (purpose) – to make as our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Kuumba (creativity) – to do always as much as we can, in the way we can in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it.

Imani (faith) – to believe with all our heart in our parents, our teachers, our leaders, our people and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

So, what happens during the 7 days of Kwanzaa, you ask?

Well, the National Museum of African Art and the Anacostia Museum describe the candle lighting ceremony, which is central to the celebration of Kwanzaa observance and which reinforces the meaning of the seven principles, as follows:

Each night (from Dec 26 to Jan 1) at a time when all members of the family are present – children are encouraged to take an active role in all activities – a candle is lit.

Day 1 (Dec 26) – the ceremony begins with the lighting of the black candle and TAMBIKO (libation), which an African form of praise which pays homage to personal and collective ancestors. The elder of the household pours wine, juice or distilled spirits from the KIKOMBE CHA UMOJA (unity cup) into the earth or an earth-filled vessel, and while pouring, the elder makes a statement honoring departed family members for the inspiration and values they have left with their descendants. Friends are also remembered.

After the TAMBIKO, as a gesture of unity, the elder drinks and then passes the unity cup around for all to share, while leading the call, “HARAMBEE” (let’s pull together), and everyone participates in repeating the phrase seven times.

Following the lighting of the first candle on day one “The candles are lit beginning with the black candle (always the black candle that represents Black people) on day one; followed by a red candle, representing the struggle of the people, on day two; then on day three a green candle is lit, representative of the future” (Oprah Magazine, The Principles and Meaning of Kwanzaa). The remaining candles are then lit, alternately, with the final one on January 1st. After each candle lighting, the principle of the day is discussed.

The evening of December 31 (Day 6) is the KARAMU (feast), a joyous celebration with food, drink, dance, and music for the collective family and friends. It is a time of rejoicing, reassessment and recommitment.

Day 7 (January 1) is reserved for SIKA YA TAAMULI, a day or meditation or assessment used by people to reflect on their lives.

Family celebrating Kwanzaa

Now, although Kwanzaa is a secular holiday, that does not mean that it is necessarily an apolitical one. The colors red, black and green are especially important and communicate Kwanzaa’s Pan-African political sentiment. Back in 1920, infamous Jamaican immigrant and Harlem resident, Marcus Garvey created the Pan-African flag (also referred to as the Black liberation flag) consists of three horizontal bars, one red, one black and one green. Garvey, also the founder and leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the largest pro-Black political organization in the world, said in a 1921 speech that appeared in the Negro World newspaper: “Show me the race or the nation without a flag, and I will show you a race of people without any pride. Aye!” In song and mimicry they have said, “Every race has a flag but the coon.” How true! Aye!” Garvey saw the flag as a sign of political maturity, a manifestation of resistance to oppression, and a source of racial pride. According to Garvey, the red symbolizes the blood of martyrs, the black symbolizes the skin of Africans, and the green represents the vegetation of the African land (Marcus Garvy, Wikipedia)

While plenty of people think of Kwanzaa as an Afrocentric Christmas knock-off (if they think of Kwanzaa at all that is), plenty more have turned to the holiday as a much-needed reprieve from the demands of contemporary consumer culture. This holiday season, whether you choose to celebrate Kwanzaa or not, spend a little time reflecting on how YOU are contributing to the cause of Black liberation.

Here is wishing everyone happy holidays, and especially this year, happy Kwanzaa!

Regina Stevens-Truss

19: This Month in Black History – “The Crisis” & W.E.B. Du Bois

The Crisis” and W.E.B. DuBois


by Dr. Fari Nzinga (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

The Crisis has been in continuous print since November, 1910, and is the oldest Black-oriented magazine in the world. Today, The Crisis is a quarterly journal of civil rights, history, politics and culture and seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues that continue to plague African Americans and other communities of color.” One of the founding fathers and The Crisis’ was William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, known as W.E.B Du Bois (pronounced Dew-Boys), who served as the journal’s editor for over 20 years.

W.E.B. Du Bois was a trailblazing public intellectual. He was a man of many firsts, and a giant in many fields like sociology, history, and political science, as well as a generous patron of literature and the arts. The encyclopedia Brittanica states that Du Bois was “the most important Black protest leader in the United States during the first half of the 20th century.”

Born in Great Barrington, in 1868, Du Bois was raised by his mother, Mary Silvina Burghardt, a domestic worker, and her relatives in rural Western Massachusetts. In 1884, Du Bois became the first African American graduate of the racially integrated public school. He would continue his education at Fisk University in Eastern Tennessee, and go on to enroll at Harvard University, where he received a BA cum laude, in 1890, an MA in 1891, and a PhD in 1895, making him the first African American to earn a doctorate at Harvard. His doctoral thesis, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870,” was published in 1896 as the inaugural volume of the Harvard Historical Studies series.

That same year, Du Bois was commissioned by The University of Pennsylvania to conduct a study of the predominantly Black Seventh Ward in Philadelphia. Together with his assistant, Isabel Eaton, Du Bois utilized participant observation, archival research, descriptive statistics, interview and survey methods. The Philadelphia Negro, published in 1899, was the first sociological study of an African American community in the United States.

After conducting the research for his monumental study, Du bois put his talents to the service of his people and went on to teach at the historically Black Atlanta University in 1897. In Atlanta, he established the University’s sociology program, now recognized as the first school of American sociology; and, he established himself as a leading scholar, writing for journals like The Atlantic. Known for his astute and meticulous research methods, and his eloquent and cogent writing, Du Bois was invited by the U.S. Bureau of Labor to conduct several studies of southern African American households, which were later aggregated and published as a bureau bulletin under the title The Negroes of Farmville, Virginia: A Social Study.

Basically, Du Bois was a hot-shot, up-and-coming scholar, but with the publication of his monograph, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he became an academic rock star. In the book, he observed that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” In response to this problem, Du Bois theorizes that some Black people develop a sense of double consciousness, where “one ever feels his twoness an American, a Negro, two warring souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals, and one dark body whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Soon, Du Bois was ruffling feathers and presenting a so-called third option between Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, both of whom Du Bois characterized as too-ready to accommodate the structures and systems of white supremacy. Instead of the integrationism espoused by Douglass, Du Bois argued that Black people should embrace their African heritage; and instead of supporting Washington’s Atlanta Compromise, Du Bois argued for first class citizenship and full political participation for Black people in the North as well as in the Jim Crow South. However, Du Bois was not satisfied with merely thinking, writing and teaching about Black cultural and political concerns. Du Bois became active in movements both national and international in support of Black freedom. He was a founding member of the Niagara Movement through which the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was conceived. Du Bois, the only Black Board Member of the NAACP, served as the director of research and for over two decades Du Bois edited its flagship publication, The Crisis.

As the editor-in-chief, Du Bois saw his mission as helping to cultivate Black writers, thinkers and artists, by creating a forum for full expression. He also helped to organize the first Pan-African Conference in London in 1900 and was a principal architect of four Pan-African Congresses held between 1919 and 1927. During this time, Du Bois strategically exploited his position at The Crisis to draw attention to the widespread use of racial violence, pushing for nationwide legislation that would outlaw the practice of lynching. As a socialist, Du Bois also published articles in favor of unionized labor, although he called out union leaders for barring Black membership. Under his guidance, the journal grew to a readership of 100,000 in 1920, and drew many new supporters to NAACP.

One thing that’s cool about Du Bois is that as he became more and more aware of the conditions and forces shaping and governing Black life, he became more and more strident in his calls for radical protest and action. For example, he resigned from the editorship of The Crisis and the NAACP in 1934, yielding his influence as a race leader and charging that the organization was dedicated to the interests of the Black bourgeoisie at the expense of the Black masses. A year later, he was back at Atlanta University, this time as the Chair of the Sociology department, his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction (1935) newly published. Du Bois’ characterization of the Civil War and Reconstruction placed the experiences of Black men and women at the center of the narrative, provided historical, political and economic context, and called out influential historians whose racist ideas, interpretations and emphases had disfigured the historical record. As per usual, the volume was impeccably researched using social science methods and argued using stirring prose.

W.E.B. Dubois’ voice is one that is needed today – amidst the noise in all sectors – his, would be a voice of reason.

We wish everyone a safe Thanksgiving Holiday filled with family, friends, good food, and love.

Regina Stevens-Truss

19: This Month in Black History – The True meaning of Diez de Octubre

Diez de Octubre


by Dr. Fari Nzinga (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)


The history of Black people can be told from all over the world. And, Black people in the Diaspora are quite over-expressed in the Caribbean islands.

Cuba has been in the news recently, as young people took to the streets to protest in unprecedented numbers during the summer of 2021. Not surprisingly, Havana’s primarily Black neighborhoods, such as La Güinera, Centro Habana, Diez de Octubre, Cerro, and La Habana Vieja, have been the epicenters of the largest and most recent demonstrations. But if you are familiar with Cuban social and political history, it begins to make sense as to why these locations would be at the vanguard of political protest.

Revered as Cuba’s Padre de la Patria, or Father of the Nation, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y del Castillo called for open rebellion against Spain in his manifesto, El Grito de Yara, published on Diez de Octubre (October 10), 1868. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes was born in Bayamo, in Eastern Cuba, to well-to-do, land-owning parents of Andalusian origin. He was raised in the lap of luxury and recalled with tenderness and nostalgia the enslaved woman who nursed and cared for him all his life. By helping to establish the Junta Revolucionaria de Cuba, and publishing the Grito, or shout, Céspedes was essentially committing racial and class suicide. Though not officially recognized by the United States government and consciously ignored by President Grant, the Cuban Junta was active in the United States. Raising money around the country as monetary support for the Cuban rebels.

From the town of Yara near his plantation in La Demajagua, Céspedes kicked off the Ten Years’ War (1868-1878) by freeing his slaves and declaring Cuba’s independence from Spain. In the independence manifesto, Céspedes cited, amongst his numerous complaints: arbitrary government, excessive taxation, corruption, the exclusion of Criollos (Cuban-born men) from government employment, and the lack of religious and political liberty – particularly the rights to assembly and petition. It called for the establishment of a republic with universal male suffrage, and the abolition of slavery. As a strategic move, discussion of emancipation had the immediate effect of attracting large numbers of Black people and abolitionists to the cause. And though full abolition would not happen until 1886, the revolutionary, anti-slavery movement throughout the island picked up momentum.

Generals Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo took up arms against Spain and ignited the rebel campaign in the eastern provinces around Guantánamo. General Máximo Gómez Baez, who would come to be lionized in Cuban history and popular culture, was actually born in Baní, Santo Domingo – which was then a part of Haiti. He gained his military experience by fighting against Haitian expansion in Hispañola. Gómez burned sugar plantations to the ground in efforts to destroy the economic base of the Spanish colonialists, and called for others to do the same. It is important to note that Eastern Cuba is to Western Cuba as the Southern U.S. is to the Northern U.S.: the landscape is much more rural, the economy is organized around agricultural production, the institution of slavery was much more widespread, and as a result today, there is a much larger population of Black people in Eastern Cuba. In 1868, the region of Oriente Province of Cuba, was known for its Spanish loyalism and the supposed meekness of its enslaved population. However, in just a few months after the start of emancipation fights, the entire Oriente Province was up in arms, and the Spanish were only able to keep control the municipalities of Guantánamo, Imías, and Caimanera in Guantánamo Province, which actually gave them control of much of the rich sugar and coffee growing areas in the region. Of important note is Lt. General José Antonio de la Caridad Maceo y Grajales, who was second-in-command of the Cuban Army of Independence (nicknamed “El Titán de Bronce” after being wounded several times in battle), refused to surrender when other Cuban generals believed they could not defeat the Spanish army, citing that Cuban independence and the abolition of slavery needed to happen first. Interestingly, Maceo’s mother was an AfroCuban woman and his father a Venezuelan “mulatto” whose father had fought for the Spanish against the forces for independence led by Simón Bolívar – his parents ironically, had moved to Santiago de Cuba for the tranquility of Eastern Cuba, fleeing the unrest in Hispañola.

So, you see, the spirit of that rebellion continues to live on into the 21st century as AfroCubans continue to fight for freedom and justice. As Cuban artist and dissident Tania Bruguera, while being on house arrest for eight months and who was arrested in July, 2021 after speaking to Politico about the unprecedent protests in Cuba stated: “[Vandalizing] the food stores means they are hungry and there is no way they have access to food. And turning over the police cars is saying they have enough of the police abuse. The people have spoken very clearly.” As we honor the anniversary of Grito de Dolores heard around the circum-Caribbean, it seems appropriate to examine the ongoing struggles against the undying legacies of racism and imperialism around the world – this history of the island of Cuba is but one!

Regina Stevens-Truss, Professor of Chemistry
regina.stevens-truss@kzoo.edu

19: This Month in Black History – The U.S. Surgeon

Dr. Joycelyn Elders, US Surgeon General (19913-1994)
Photo Credit: HHS.gov – Office of the Surgeon General

by Dr. Fari Nzinga (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

“The U.S. Surgeon General is the Nation’s Doctor, providing Americans with the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury. The Surgeon General oversees the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) Commissioned Corps, an elite group of over 6,000 uniformed officers who are public health professionals. The USPHS mission is to protect, promote, and advance the health of our nation.”

Today, the public looks to this office for information regarding the state of COVID-19. But did you know that the first Black U.S. Surgeon General was sworn in on September 8th, 1993 and was a woman (only the second woman to head that office since its inception in 1871)?  It’s a fact!  Dr. Minnie Joycelyn Elders was sworn in by President Bill Clinton as the fifteenth Surgeon General of the United States. (See a list and history of the previous Surgeons General)

Minnie Joycelyn Elders was born August 13, 1933 to sharecropping parents (one of eight children) in Arkansas. While she would grow up to be a renowned physician and public advocate, it wasn’t until she was 16 years old that she met her first doctor! Elders and her siblings worked as field laborers and domestic servants and pooled their money together in order to pay for her to attend the Historically-Black liberal arts college, Philander Smith College, in Little Rock. Finding her options severely limited in Jim Crow Arkansas, Elders joined the Army and trained in physical therapy at the Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. After discharge in 1956, she took advantage of the G.I. Bill and enrolled at the University of Arkansas Medical School.

Elders began her studies for a career in medicine one year before the Little Rock Nine African American students enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957 following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that declared segregated schools to be unconstitutional. Their enrollment precipitated the tumultuous events that would come to be known as the Little Rock Crisis, in which the students were initially prevented from entering the racially segregated school by Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas. Elders was forced to endure segregated accommodations during her time in medical school as one of very few Black and/or female students on campus.

Elders did an internship in pediatrics at the University of Minnesota, and in 1961 returned to the University of Arkansas for her residency. In no time, Elders became chief resident in charge of the all-white, all-male residents and interns. She must have endured countless instances of racial abuse, sexual harassment, and elitist entitlement. But she didn’t let that deter her! Dr. Elders went on to earn her masters degree in biochemistry in 1967; became an assistant professor of pediatrics at the university’s Medical School in 1971; and ranked as a full professor by 1976. A mere 2 years later, in 1978, Dr. Joycelyn Elders was the first person in the state of Arkansas to become board certified in pediatric endocrinology. Her research and clinical practice focused on mitigating the effects of pregnancy on diabetic girls and young women. As such, Dr. Elders worked with her patients to educate them on their sexual and reproductive health, and offered potentially life-saving family planning resources and information. Dubbed the “condom queen,” she was known for her positions on ensuring sex workers’ access to reproductive health care and making condom available to all public high schoolers.

Using her platform as Surgeon General during a period of “tough on crime” policies that would facilitate the mass incarceration of poor, Black, and other racialized people largely for low-level, non-violent drug offenses, Dr. Elders was ahead of her time in saying: “I do feel that we would markedly reduce our crime rate if drugs were legalized.” President Clinton, however, did not support her position and foreclosed the possibility of a national conversation around drug legalization. One year after her controversial comments, Joycelyn Elders was forced to resign from her Surgeon General post by the Clinton administration. Not long thereafter, in 1996, Elders (with David Chanoff) published her autobiography, Joycelyn Elders, M.D.: From Sharecropper’s Daughter to Surgeon General of the United States of America.

In 2014, former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders teamed up with the Program in Human Sexuality and the Institute for Sexual and Gender Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School to advance comprehensive science-based sexual health education by creating the Joycelyn Elders Chair in Sexual Health Education. The position supports research, scholarship and pedagogy that aims to create comprehensive life-long sexual education curricula, to increase the number of health care providers trained in sexual health care, and to expand scientific research in sexuality education.

In 2020 she was honored by TIME Magazine as one of the historical 100 Women Of The Year.

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry

19: This Month in Black History – Black Wallstreet and The Tulsa Massacre

by Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss

Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss

Dear Colleagues, happy summer. I hope this message finds you enjoying your time away/off and that that you are resting and healthy. So much continues to occur in our Nation and the world, that we cannot drop the ball at this point. So, although I promised no story during the summer months, for those of us for whom the work does not stop or take a break, this message is offering an opportunity to continue to educate ourselves on the issues of racism, racist policies, and the destruction of communities.

Documentaries

If you have not seen any of the documentaries about the Tulsa Massacre, they are available at:

Tulsa Race Massacre Reading

This is another sad episode in the growth of this nation, and there are many others like it that need to be told (if you cannot access either film, you can read the History.com Tulsa Race Massacre article. As they say, “history is bound to repeat itself” if we do not know it, study it, and confront its effects head on wherever we see it. Best said by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Stay tuned for a new HHMI IE supported series that will be introduced in August. Stay well,

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry

19: This Month in Black History- May Day

Lucy Gomez Parsons, Albert Parsons, and May Day

May Day

by Dr. Lisa Brock (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

Did you know that May Day, typically celebrated on May 1st, is not just an old European tradition where kids dance around a maypole, nor is it a radical holiday that occurs only in socialist countries, but is the original “Labor Day” in the United States? Did you know that May Day began in Chicago on May 1, 1886 by “Chicago unionists, reformers, socialists, anarchists, and ordinary workers [who] combined to make the city the center of the national movement for an eight-hour [work] day?” If you knew that, kudos to you. Did you also know that one of the leaders of the movement was Lucy Gomez Parsons, a Black woman of indigenous and Mexican lineage?

This month’s 19 Story is her story and the story of May Day.

Lucy Gomez Parsons was born in Texas around 1853; her parents were likely enslaved. Because of her triple heritage, she sometimes claimed to be Mexican or Indian, depending on the circumstances of oppression she found herself in at any given time. Around 1870, she met and married Albert Parsons who was white, and together they were politically active during the time of Reconstruction (1865-1877), working to register Black people to vote in Texas. Their political action, however, made them targets, as their lives were often threatened. Following Albert getting shot in the leg, they decided to escape to Chicago where their marriage, while frowned upon, would at least be legal, and where they felt they could continue their political work.

The 1870s in Chicago were highly charged times, as was true in many of America’s northern cities, where European, African-American, and Latinx immigrants migrated to looking for work and a better life. What they found, however, was horrendous working conditions, such as those of the meat packing industry depicted in Upton Sinclair’s classic 1907 novel, The Jungle and Bill Dukes 1984 film, The Killing Floor.

When Lucy and Albert arrived in Chicago in 1873, an economic depression was underway. Much like the Great Depression of the 1930s, masses of people were being laid off pushing wages down. Albert, though, was fortunate, and managed to get a job as a printer at the Chicago Times newspaper. Lucy, along with a friend, Lizzy Swank, opened a Dress Shop.

Now, understand that the eight-hour day/forty-hour work week became Federal law in the US in 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. But the struggle for this, was real and slow. For example, on May 1, 1867, the Illinois legislature passed a law mandating an eight-hours workday, and on May 19, 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant issued a proclamation that guaranteed a stable wage and an eight-hours workday for government workers. However, private industries refused to comply, and neither the state nor the federal government were making them.

As the workers’ movement brewed for a decade, it’s been said that Lucy and Albert held meetings in the Dress Shop, which is believed to have led to Albert’s firing and his being blacklisted as a printer. At this time, industrial workers were fighting for higher wages and better working conditions. In 1877, the Baltimore-Ohio Railroad, one of the largest companies in the country, cut the wages of their workers, for which a strike ensued with solidarity strikes occurring all over the country. New Unions were created during this time, and Lucy emerged as a leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

Lucy was considered by some to be “dangerous” at this time as she wrote articles in The Alarm, published weekly by the International Worker’s People’s Association (IWPA) with the aim of advocating for direct action by people if needed to defend workers’ rights – a publication Lucy and Albert helped found in 1883.

On May 1, 1886 a day of action was planned – workers demanded an eight-hours work day with no cut in pay, and as you can guess, this was not received well by companies. Thus, on May 1, 1886, 350,000 workers across the nation walked off their jobs to participate in the largest mass general strike in US history; forty thousand workers struck in Chicago, alone, creating a whirlwind of workers’ activity, which inspired workers all over the world. Two days later, on May 3rd, 1886, the McCormick Harvest workers went on strike, joining the movement. With so many workers on strike, industries put pressure on City and State governments to do something. So, police were unleashed, with them firing into crowds of striking workers. A bomb was thrown into a crowd who was meeting at the Haymarket Square in Chicago killing one policeman. Riots broke out and both strikers and police were hurt. In the days that followed, city authorities, in response, raided the homes of leaders, many of whom had not even been at Haymarket Square, and they shut down newspapers. Police were looking for Albert and other strike leaders, many of whom went into hiding; some were found and some turned themselves in. In October, 1887, Albert and four other movement leaders were put on trial. They were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, and on November 11, 1887, Albert and the others were hung.

Between May 1, 1886 and October, 1887, you can imagine that Lucy, who was then under constant surveillance and harassment, tried to save her husband. As she was not to be silenced, she traveled the country to raise awareness of what was happening. She was often jailed and beaten in cities through which she traveled. In fact, she and her two children were jailed to “avoid trouble” after they visited Albert in jail for the last time.

Lucy Gomez Parsons, a Black woman, lived just long enough to see the eight-hours day/forty-hours week become a reality. She remained politically active until she died at the age of 89 in what the authorities said was an accidental fire at her house in Chicago on March 7, 1942. Sadly, her library of 1500 books, on sex, socialism and anarchy, which according to the FBI survived the fire, mysteriously disappeared.

Because of the work of Lucy Gomez Parsons and many others, the US Federal government negotiated with labor unions for Labor Day to be observed in September instead of May – ironically, the US is the only country that celebrates Labor Day on a day other than May 1st.

And if you didn’t know – now you know! Happy Labor Day month.

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry
Lisa Brock, retired, ACSJL Academic Director & Professor of History

19: This Month in Black History – It’s Baseball Season: History, Black Excellence, and Race

“Play Ball!”

By Lisa Brock and Mark Truss (conceptual and editorial support from Regina Stevens-Truss)

Play Ball” – at this time of year in the USA, for many, there is the feeling of being outdoors, eating hot dogs, playing catch, and simply that there is something in the air – it’s Baseball season! This year however, the USA, and indeed the world, lost one of the greatest baseball players of all time, Henry Louis Aaron (1934 – 2021) referred to as Hank the Hammer. Why? Because he was recognized for hammering the ball so hard, so high and so far, that he is the only player in history to hit 24 or more home runs every year for 18 years (1955-1973), and is one of only two players to hit 30 or more home runs in a single season for at least fifteen seasons. Aaron’s epilogue, however, is marred by what happened to him during his time in the majors. He is most known for breaking Babe Ruth’s (aka, the great “Bambino”) home run record when he hit 715 home runs on April 8, 1974. While many people followed his chasing of Ruth’s record with hopeful anticipation, the fact that he was Black became an issue for white racists who refused to accept a Black man breaking the Bambino’s record set 39 years earlier.

You may also be aware of Major League Baseball retiring the number 42, which, by the way, was also the title of a movie whose main character was played by the late Chadwick Boseman (you may know him as The Black Panther). The number 42 is synonymous with Jackie Roosevelt Robinson (1919-1972) who was the first known Black player to break into the Major League – he started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947.

But this 19 Black History Story is neither about Aaron nor Robinson specifically, but about Negro League Baseball, which got its start after the Civil War. Segregation policies at that time played into the then National Association of Amateur Baseball players “gentlemens’ agreement” to keep Black players out. In the early 1920s, Hall of Famer Andrew (Rube) Bishop Foster launched the Negro National League – the first successful league for African-American players. “When Rube Foster died [Dec. 9, 1930], Negro baseball died with him,” said Joe Green, a fellow Negro Leagues player, manager and owner. However, Negro League Baseball enjoyed periods of success in the early 1920s and again after the Great Depression. The history of Negro Leagues winds through multiple eras and stories, amounting to what is believed today to have been seven leagues: Negro Leagues of 1920-1948 were the Negro National League (I) (1920–1931); the Eastern Colored League (1923–1928); the American Negro League (1929); the East-West League (1932); the Negro Southern League (1932); the Negro National League (II) (1933–1948); and the Negro American League (1937–1948).

Interestingly, Hank Aaron was the last of the Black baseball players to integrate into the Major Leagues from the Negro Leagues, which had some of the best all-time baseball players in history, such as Satchel Paige, Minnie Miñoso, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell, and of course Jackie Robinson. Ty Cobb (1866-1961) known for playing and then managing the Detroit Tigers was, according to his early biographers, a major force in keeping the Major Leagues segregated. In the early decades of the 20th Century Cobb is noted as saying that he would never play a n-word in his life. What most people don’t know is that he uttered this after losing to Negro League players in exhibition games, which were frequent before the 1920s. Thus, his alleged racism was not based on him feeling he was superior to Black players, but because he actually knew that he was not!

As Jerry Brewer said in his January 23, 2021 Washington Post article, entitled Racism carved away a piece of Hank Aaron’s heart. What remained was still a gift: “It’s not hyperbolic to consider Hank Aaron the perfect baseball player. It’s not some grief-swelled attempt to lionize an irreplaceable giant. The man could do everything: hit for average, hit for power, run, play flawless defense in right field, lead. He could persist, through racist hate and death threats, and break the sport’s hallowed home run record.” Brewer goes on to quote Aaron: “It really made me see for the first time a clear picture of what this country is about…My kids had to live like they were in prison because of kidnap threats, and I had to live like a pig in a slaughter camp. I had to duck. I had to go out the back door of the ballparks. I had to have a police escort with me all the time. I was getting threatening letters every single day. All of these things have put a bad taste in my mouth, and it won’t go away. They carved a piece of my heart away.” “Imagine that,” pens Brewer. “Think of your proudest moment, the culmination of your life’s work. And then picture receiving thousands of letters expressing a desire to end your life,” just because of your greatness.

What many people may not know is that the Detroit Tigers, as did other major league teams, often played exhibition series in Cuba during the winter months. In fact, because the US baseball leagues were racially segregated and the Cuban professional leagues were not, most teams and players from Cuba who played in the US did so on Negro League teams and on the Negro League circuit. Another fun fact about the Negro Leagues is that there is only one woman in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Effa Manley, and while very fair, she considered herself Black. She and her husband owned the Newark Eagles, a Negro League team. She was also a leader in the fight for the integration of baseball, with the goal to integrate the Major League and democratize baseball’s economic structures, which would have allowed the Negro League teams to come into the majors with Black owners and teams intact. Instead, once Robinson broke the “the color barrier,” Major League teams began raiding Negro League teams and recruiting Black players, and because they could offer more money, by the 1960s Negro League teams owners were forced to shut down.

On December 16, 2020, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred declared that the seven Negro Leagues would be recognized as official Major Leagues, with their players’ records and statistics counted in baseball’s record books.

Today, there is concern about the lack of US-Black American baseball players coming up into the ranks of the majors, while Black Latin Players continue to thrive. This is largely because of a diminishing of public funds for baseball in lower income communities in the US, while the major league runs a minor league feeder system in the Caribbean. Nonetheless, the importance of the Negro Leagues in baseball history continues to be applauded, and the speed needed as well as the idea of bunting that they introduced to the game is now standard play.

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry
Lisa Brock, retired, ACSJL Academic Director & Professor of History

19: This Month in Black History – The Combahee River Collective

The Combahee River Collective

Written by Dr. Lisa Brock (conceptual and editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

In honor of Women’s History Month, you would think that we would address the Women’s Liberation Movement, and you’d be right. We are specifically focusing on one of the most important, albeit short-lived, movements in Black Women’s History, the Combahee River Collective. It was created in 1974 by Black feminist lesbians who were fed up with the hyper masculinity of Black Nationalists and Civil Rights organizations, and felt the women’s movement centered white women while the emerging Black feminist movement was too conventional. In fact, the Combahee River Collective emerged as a tear-away from the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO), which at its peak had over 2000 members. The NBFO issued a Statement of Purpose at its founding in 1973, calling for an organization that would address both racism and sexism in order: “to address…the particular and specific needs of the larger, but almost cast-aside half of the black race in Amerikkka, the black woman.” Significantly, the NBFO was extremely heterogenous, but unfortunately, this led to tensions over the varied perspectives of what a Black Feminist Politic would entail, and by 1976 its national operations had ended. One of the NBFO’s thrust, though, was carried on by the Combahee River Collective, which not only wanted to address racism and sexism but also sexuality, class and imperialism.

Members of the Combahee River Collective (CRC) began meeting in Boston in 1974 and included twin sisters Barbara and Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier, Cheryl Clarke, Akasha Hull, Margo Okazawa-Rey, Chirlane McCray, and American writer feminist Audre Lorde. They held retreats, they studied, they published writings, and began to define a Black Feminist Politic that connected Black women’s liberation to various intersecting oppressions. They began to see themselves as revolutionaries whose objectives went far beyond the binary of women and men; they saw capitalism as inextricably intertwined with patriarchy and anti-colonial struggles in the Global South as central to the work of women.

It should be noted that they were particularly inspired by the work of the Third World Women’s Alliance (1968-1980), which was an outgrowth of the Black Women’s Liberation Committee-a caucus of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); SNCC, of course, was the committee formed by young civil rights activists including the late Congressman John Lewis. What separated the CRC from other such movements, was the far-reaching power of their manifesto entitled the Combahee River Collective Statement; a statement that had an unprecedented impact on the nature of feminism. In her New Yorker article of July 24, 2020, Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote:

“As it was explained to me, feminists saw the world as divided between men and women and not between classes. The Combahee Statement obliterated that premise. Theoretically rich and strategically nimble, it imagined a course of politics that could take Black women from the margins of society to the center of a revolution. Because Black women were among the most marginalized people in this country, their political struggles brought them into direct conflict with the intertwined malignancies of capitalism—racism, sexism, and poverty. Thus, the women of the C.R.C believed that, if Black women were successful in their struggles and movements, they would have an impact far beyond their immediate demands. As they put it, ‘If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression’.”

This CRC statement has so influenced Black and feminist politics, that it is hard to imagine the study of women and gender today without it. Audre Lorde went on to become one of feminisms most influential writers, with her 1984 seminal work entitled, Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches. This work, revised in 2007, is now mandatory reading for many women and gender studies programs worldwide. While attorney Kimberly Crenshaw is credited with coining the term intersectionality in 1989, clearly the theoretical groundwork for this understanding of intersecting oppressions was laid with the work of the CRC.

Just in case you are wondering about the origins of the Combahee River Collective and why this name was chosen, know that the Combahee river is in South Carolina, near Charleston, and was named by the area’s original inhabitants. It is the river where in June 1863, during the Civil War, Harriet Tubman, leader of the underground railroad and union soldier, led a group of union troops against the Confederacy with gun boats. When Tubman and her men disembarked, they successfully torched plantations, fields, mills, warehouses and mansions, causing a humiliating defeat for the Confederacy, including the loss of a pontoon bridge shot to pieces by the union gunboats. Nothing like this had ever happened before in US history, where a Black woman led a group of men in battle. But just as significant, especially for the CRC, was the fact that more than 700 enslaved women and men, anticipating this win, courageously made it onto the gunboats led by Tubman and escaped their bondage. It was in honor of this episode that the women of the collective chose their name. The Combahee river is also known for the Yamasee War of 1715-1717, when the Yamasee and other indigenous peoples rose up in resistance to British Colonial Settlers who were taking territory that was not theirs to take. The Yamasee were so skillful in battle, that they threatened to annihilate the entire colony; thus, this war is considered one of the bloodiest battles in US colonial history.

Black women are the bedrocks of societies, but are not treated as such. In March, and every March, we celebrate women; their courage, their fight, and their ability to forge forward and shape societies even in the face of adversity. Happy Women’s History Month!

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry
Lisa Brock, retired, ACSJL Academic Director & Professor of History

Regina Stevens-Truss, Professor of Chemistry

19: This Month in Black History – Carter G. Woodson: Father of Black History

By Dr. Lisa Brock (conceptual and editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

Many people in the United States, in some way, participate in celebrating Black History Month. How many people, however, know the catalyst of this ritual? This February’s post is in honor of the man who founded what was first Black History Week, which then became Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950).

Carter G. Woodson was born in 1875 in New Canton, Virginia, to formerly enslaved African Americans, James and Eliza Riddle Woodson. As a child, like many of his time, he worked as a sharecropper, a coal miner and various other jobs to help support his large family. Because of a lack of opportunity, he entered high school late, but according to all of his teachers, he was so bright that he graduated in only two years. He then attended Berea College in Kentucky, and while there, taught at Winona, Fayette County, WV in a school established by Black coal miners for their children. (Yes, there were and still are Black coal miners). Woodson continued his education at the University of Chicago, where in 1908 he earned two bachelor’s degrees as well as a Master’s degree in European History. Woodson also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and in 1912 earned a Ph.D. at Harvard University in history. Woodson was the second African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University; Dr. W. E. B. DuBois was the first to achieve this in 1907.

In the summer of 1915 thousands of African-Americans traveled to Chicago from around the country to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of emancipation. This major celebration showcasing African-Americans’ progress and achievements after the end of enslavement was held at the Chicago Coliseum. According to records, at one point, an overflow crowd of six to twelve thousand waited outside for their turn to view the exhibits. This event spurred Woodson to begin the work towards honoring Black History. Inspired by the three-week celebration, before he left Chicago he decided to form an organization to promote the academic study of Black life and history. On September 9, 1915, Woodson met with other Black intellectuals at the Wabash YMCA in Chicago and formed the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH). One year later the organization established the Journal of Negro History.

Woodson, though, understood that if they were going to promote and popularize the history of African-Americans that they needed greater impact beyond the journal. He urged Black civic organizations to promote the journal and the achievements that researchers were uncovering. As a graduate member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, he urged his brothers to take up the work, and in February of 1924, they created the Negro History and Literature Week.

From the beginning, Woodson found a huge response to his call. Negro History and Literature Week appeared across the country in Black schools, churches and popular spaces. The 1920s, after all, was the decade of Marcus Garvey’s Black Pride Parades, the Harlem Renaissance, and the New Negro, a name given to the Post-War I generation because of its rising racial pride and consciousness. Urbanization and industrialization had brought over a million African Americans from the rural South into big cities of the nation, which became centers of expanding literacy and confidence. The expanding Black working and middle classes became participants in and consumers of Black literature and culture. Black history clubs sprang up and teachers demanded materials to instruct their pupils. Even some progressive whites endorsed the efforts.

It is interesting to note that Woodson’s first inspiration for the study of Black History was actually based on his experience in the Philippines. How you might ask did Woodson get to the Philipines? The US government, in the aftermath of the Spanish American War, decided to use some African-Americans in their colonial territories. Woodson, because of his accomplishments, was sent to the archipelego in 1903 to work as an education superintendent. He quickly became concerned that the learning materials he had been given focused on European and White American history and he worried that this would have a negative effect on the confidence and sense of self of the Filipino people. After this experience he returned to the US determined to change the experiences for African-Americans. In fact, although he is the author of over a dozen books, his most well-known work is The Mis-education of the Negro . This text is still in publication today and is a grounding text for how the silences and erasures of Black History can have a negative effect on Black people.

Carter G. Woodson died in 1950 but his legacy lives on. Honored as the Father of Black History, the organization and journal that he founded continue to thrive and are known today as The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History (which still conducts an annual conference) and the Journal of African-American History. And oh yes, of course, we now celebrate Black History Month during the month of February!

Let’s celebrate Black history today and every day!

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry
Lisa Brock, retired, ACSJL Academic Director & Professor of History

19: This Month in Black History – Black Sororities: Sister-Leaders, and US Elections

By Dr. Lisa Brock (conceptual and editorial support by Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

On November 3, 2020, California Senator Kamala Harris was elected Vice-President of the United States of America. Susan Grisbey Bates of National Public Radio, stated that Senator Harris will become the first woman and woman of color, the first woman of African descent (on her father’s side), and the first Asian American woman (on her late mother’s side) to serve as Vice President – this is a BIG deal! She is also the daughter of two immigrants, her father from Jamaica and her mother from India – they met in the United States. On January 6, 2021, the people of Georgia elected Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Senate. This represents the first time in Georgia’s history that a Black person and a Jewish person will represent the southern State of Georgia in the Congress – this is a BIG deal! Most people credit the Georgia Senate wins to House Minority Leader for the Georgia General Assembly, Stacey Yvonne Abrams, who ran for governor in 2018, and because of Georgia’s voter suppression laws, she lost the election. Since then, she has been instrumental in the massive get-out-the-vote campaign in Georgia that is indeed credited with these firsts. She and other Black women leaders did this against the continued purging of hundreds of thousands of Black people from voter registration rolls by the Republican governor of Georgia.

What many people may not know is that both Kamala Harris and Stacey Abrams are graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and are members of Black sororities. The first Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha (AKAs), was formed on January 15, 1908 on the campus of Howard University. The AKA mission has been “to cultivate and encourage high scholastic and ethical standards, to promote unity and friendship among college women, to study and help alleviate problems concerning girls and women in order to improve their social stature, to maintain a progressive interest in college life, and to be of Service to All Mankind.” Harris became a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority while at Howard University (class of 1986). The second Black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (Deltas), was formed on January 13, 1913, as members split from the AKAs who they felt, according to Ko Bragg, were too tied to male authority. The Delta’s did this partly so they could get involved in more pressing issues of their time. Abrams became a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority while at Spellman College (class of 1995).

Black sororities have played important political roles for over a century, engaging many Black women in movements since their inception. Of important note, the Deltas of Howard University was formed just in time for its members to attend the women’s suffrage march in Washington D.C. on March 13, 1913. These young Black women members had been squeezed in the common vice of sexism and racism. Although the male dean of Howard University told their young women students they could not attend the march, they went anyway. Although the white women leading the march told all non-white women to march at the back of the procession, the Deltas (which included figures like Ida. B. Wells) refused to march in the back. These women bound together by their sororities, were able to effect national change. And unlike ever before, these affiliations proved important and played a key role in the recent electoral victories.

Today there are four Black Sororities and five Black Fraternities, most of which have existed for more than one hundred years, known as the Devine Nine (D9) – visit the library Black Scholars. Many Voices guide for additional information. Each of the D9 group has distinct colors, chants, and symbols that distinguish each one; together they have ~2 million members. According to Carolyn Harper there are more than 825,000 college educated women members of the D9 across 3,240 chapters around the world. Harper notes that the number of women in D9 sororities is seven times greater than the number of votes that secured Donald Trump’s election in 2016.

Thus, when senator Harris’ chose to use the same advertisement colors of another famous politician and sorority sister, Shirley Chisholm, she did so with full knowledge of its potential power – and it worked. Black sororities organized efforts all over the country entitled strolling to the polls, and stroll to the polls they did. In fact, Black women-led voter registration organizations in Georgia such as Fair Fight and Black Voters Matter Fund, led by Abrams and LaTosha Brown (member of the Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.), respectively, pushed Biden and Harris across the finish line in Georgia in 2020, as well as flipped control of the Senate on January 6, 2021. It is estimated that more than 800,000 new people have registered to vote in Georgia since 2018, with Abrams telling NPR that 45% of these new voters are under the age of 30 and 49% are people of color.

Today, we will have a Democratic President and a Democratic-led Senate, and a lot of this is due to Black Women.

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry
Lisa Brock, retired, ACSJL Academic Director & Professor of History