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

19: This Month in Black History – Black Nativity and Black Christianity

As we enter the holiday season, perhaps many of you have seen the Black Nativity movie or play. So, here is the rest of the story…

On December 11, 1961, Black Nativity, a musical about the Christian origin story of the birth of Christ, was mounted on an Off-Broadway stage with an all-Black cast. It was originally titled Wasn’t It a Might Day? written by the well-known African-American poet, Langston Hughes. Hughes is perhaps best-known for his earlier work during the era known as the Harlem Renaissance (1920s). Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902, and traveled around with his family much of his young life. While a teenager and young adult, he spent a year in Mexico followed by a year at Columbia University in New York City. During this time, he worked as an assistant cook, launderer, and busboy and then traveled to Africa, Europe and the Caribbean working as a seaman; all the while, writing poetry. He is also well-known for turning the blues and jazz rhythms into syntax in his writing, and became, for many newly arrived members of northern urban Black communities, a peoples’ poet.

Hughes died in 1967 and is one of the most prolific American writers of the twentieth century. He authored two autobiographies and published sixteen volumes of poetry, three short story collections, two novels, eleven plays, and nine children’s books. Interestingly, Black Nativity was the first all-Black play to be featured on Off-Broadway, and the first to mix Gospel with African drums and other motifs of diasporic Black culture. In a 2013 National Public Radio interview Rachel Martin stated that roughly a quarter million people had seen the Black Nativity play. Since then, it continues to be mounted throughout the US and in other parts of the world as part of annual Christmas holiday offerings, sometimes true to its original story but often reimagined to more contemporary times. In 2013, for example, Filmmaker Kasi Lemmons brought it to the big screen with actors Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson and Angela Bassett. This musical put Hughes’ story into a modern tale of economic struggle with a young single mother and her teenaged son getting evicted. Staging Black Nativity has become a traditional season staple in many US cities, with Boston and Seattle, having mounted it every holiday season for fifty and twenty years, respectively.

Other than wanting to tell the story of Christ’s birth within a Black perspective, we have found little on why Hughes wrote Black Nativity; it is important that he did. While many people accept that one of the three kings who visited the Bethlehem manger where Christ was born was Black, few know why. It is important to note that Africans in the north eastern horn of Africa became Christians long before Christianity reached Western Europe. In fact, the Ethiopian (Axum) and Egyptian Kingdoms of the time, which included parts of what today is Sudan, adopted Christianity in significant ways in the third and fourth centuries AD. Most Christians in this part of the world continue to practice this, which is today known as Coptic Christianity.

Many Black people who grew up in the West do not know this history because Christianity was brought to the Americas by Europeans after 1492 AD, and most Africans that were captured and enslaved were from West Africa where indigenous African religions and Islam were the predominant spiritual practices. Notably, the African Methodist (AME) Church, founded in the late 1700s in Philadelphia began using Ethiopia as a touchstone part of their origin stories and began centering blackness. By the late 1960s, Black American theologians, led by the Reverend Dr. James Cone, began theorizing on what is now called Black Liberation Theology (BLT). BLT draws on Christianity’s African roots, but also on the principles of Liberation Theologians working with the poor in Latin America. Today, many Black ministers, although not all, practice Black Liberation Theology. Thus, Black Nativity has roots deeper than many know.

Wishing you Peace, Love, and Health during this Holiday season.

Regina Stevens-Truss, HHMI Inclusive Excellence + Chemistry department
Lisa Brock, ACSJL + History department

19: This Month in Black History – James Baldwin

By: Bruce Mills

Over the past few years, the words of novelist, playwright, essayist, and activist James Baldwin (1924-1987) have been prominent in our national dialogue. Creating his documentary from Baldwin’s writings and interviews, Raoul Peck received an academy award nomination for I Am Not Your Negro in 2016. Two years later, Barry Jenkins wrote and directed If Beale Street Could Talk based on the novel of the same name. From brief references to full articles on Baldwin in a range of sites such as theGrio, New York Times, and The Atlantic, we can see how broadly his voice informs discussions of race.

That Baldwin’s work is experiencing a renaissance is not surprising given his incisive, humane, radical, and intimate insights on what it means to navigate private and public spaces as a gay Black man in America. For this installment of the 19th series, I wish to offer a snapshot of how the life and writing of James Baldwin intersected with Kalamazoo College.

Baldwin at K
Invited by members of the English Department, Baldwin came to campus in mid-November 1960 where he delivered a talk on “the novel” and an address in the lecture series “Goals on the American Society.” By this time in his career, he had published an autobiographical novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), a first play, The Amen Corner (1954), an essay collection, Notes of a Native Son (1955), and Giovanni’s Room (1956).

During his week-long stay, he met with students, faculty, and staff during lunches, dinners, “fireside” chats, and in English classes. Archival photos of his visit show him in conversation with faculty and students in Hicks and in K’s WJMD radio studio. In this latter picture, we can see a copy of Notes of a Native Son. In astutely examining the legacy of white supremacy in America and abroad as well as his own experiences growing up in Harlem, Baldwin emerged as one of the country’s premier essayists. And, with the publication of The Fire Next Time in January of 1963, he was recognized as one of the leading writers, intellectuals, and activists of the 1960s, sharing the stage, often quite literally, with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other well- and lesser-known individuals battling for civil rights.

But the lasting presence of his voice at K came through the publication of his campus address, “In Search of a Majority,” in Nobody Knows My Name (1961). Called upon to speak on “minority rights,” he flips the script. In front of a nearly all White audience, he began with these reflections: “I am supposed to speak this evening on the goals of American society as they involve minority rights, but what I am really going to do is to invite you to join me in a series of speculations. Some of them are dangerous, some of them painful, all of them reckless.” He concluded this opening with the following assertion: “It seems to me that before we can begin to speak of minority rights in this country, we’ve got to make some attempt to isolate or to define the majority.”

Baldwin then asked his White listeners to learn of their own history, to reflect upon the evolution of White identity, and thus to resist the tendency to seek absolution through some redemptive story of Black life. Running through his talk is a central strand of Baldwin’s ongoing reflections on America. “The great force of history,” he would write in “The White Man’s Guilt” (1965), “comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

This is why he invites the Kalamazoo College audience of 1960 to understand “minority” as a definition constructed by and for the “majority.” In effect, history teaches that a White majority marks their status on a kind of racial ladder. The question for Baldwin is not who am I (as a “minority” in American society) but who, exactly, are you (as a so-called “majority”)? He asks, how have you constructed me? What desires or fears drive the failure to account for my human weight and complexity, something that he explores in “Stranger in the Village,” the concluding essay in Notes of a Native Son.

What so many current readers—Black, Brown, and White—hear in James Baldwin is a truth telling. Of course, different audiences will receive and interpret these truths from the varied spaces of their own lived experiences and histories. To end, then, it seems fitting to return to what those at the College heard from the final lines of “In Search of a Majority” sixty years ago. As with any truth, they stitch together past, present, and future. Listen:

…and I want to suggest this: that the majority for which everyone is seeking which must reassess and release us from our past and deal with the present and create standards worthy of what a man may be—this majority is you. No one else can do it. The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.


These messages are aimed at educating the K community on African-American history and culture, and are brought to you by The Faculty Advisory Board of the Arcus Center for Social Justice leadership and the HHMI Inclusive Excellence Faculty team, as we continue to work towards being an anti-racist Institution. 19 marks 1619, the year in which the first set of African slaves were brought to what would become the United States, and June 19th, 1865, marks the day that Blacks celebrate the end of enslavement in the US. Both of these dates, and their meanings, were largely unknown to many outside of the Black community. We need to understand that much of the “surprise” experienced by many at the continued uprisings led by the Black lives Matter movement derives from a lack of knowledge of the rich fabric of Black History.

Regina Stevens-Truss, HHMI Inclusive Excellence + Chemistry department
Lisa Brock, ACSJL + History department

19: This Month in Black History – Lonnie Johnson

Dr. Lonnie Johnson, president and CEO at Excellatron, but probably best known as the inventor of the Super Soaker, talks about global energy and environmental challenges as part of the Office of Naval Research's (ONR) 70th Anniversary Edition Distinguished Lecture Series.

Engineer Lonnie Johnson, Black Inventor

As we are all watching the horrific and polarizing news of an attempted plot to kidnap the Governor of Michigan, the seating of an anti-women’s rights Supreme Court justice, voter suppression and the precarity of our national election, we decided to lighten up your day by giving you something positive to share with your children and your communities. We’d like to introduce you to one of the hundreds of Black inventors in our history that few know about.

Lonnie G. Johnson, a prolific Black inventor was born on October 3, 1949. Growing up in the Jim Crow south, his father worked as a civilian driver at nearby Air Force bases, while his mother worked as a nurses’ aid and in a laundromat. During the summers both of Johnson’s parents, like most Black people in the South at the time, also picked cotton. Also, out of both interest and economic necessity, Johnson’s father was a skilled handyman who taught all of his six children to build their own toys. Lonnie though, was the one most excited to do so. When Lonnie was still a small boy, he and his dad built a pressurized chinaberry shooter out of bamboo shoots. At age thirteen, the young Johnson attached a lawnmower engine to a go-kart he built from junkyard scraps and raced it along the highway until the police pulled him over.

From a very young age, Johnson dreamed of becoming an inventor but growing up in Mobile, Alabama in the days of legal segregation, education was limited, and despite his intelligence and creativity, he was told not to aspire beyond a career as a technician. Undaunted and inspired by George Washington Carver, the Tuskegee University based agricultural engineer, he continued. The more and more curious he became about the way things worked, the more ambitious his experimentation became—sometimes to the concern and worry of his family. According to his mother, “Lonnie tore up his sister’s baby doll to see what made the eyes close,” and another time, he nearly burned the house down when he attempted to cook up rocket fuel in one of his mother’s saucepans and the concoction exploded.

Nicknamed “The Professor” by his high school buddies, Johnson represented his Black school at a 1968 science fair sponsored by the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS). The fair took place at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where, just five years earlier, Alabama Governor George Wallace tried to prevent two Black students from enrolling in the school by standing in the entry to the Foster Auditorium – this is now known as the “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door,” one of the last Segregationists’ moves at the University of Alabama. Johnson was the only Black student in the competition where he debuted a compressed-air-powered robot, called “the Linex,” that he built from junkyard scraps over the course of a year. Much to the chagrin of racist university officials, Johnson won first prize.

After graduating from high school in 1969, Johnson attended Tuskegee University on a scholarship. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1973, and two years later he received a master’s degree in nuclear engineering. From 1979 to 1991, he worked in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory where he worked on a variety of projects, including the Air Force missions Lab, developing the nuclear power source for the Galileo mission to Jupiter and several weapons related projects. He also served as a key engineer on the Mariner Mark ll Spacecraft series for Comet Rendezvous and for Saturn Orbiter Probe missions. He was also assigned to the Strategic Air Command, where he helped develop the stealth bomber program.

In 1991, Johnson founded his own company, Johnson Research and Development Co., Inc., (JEMS) of which he is also the president. More recently, he teamed up with scientists from Tulane University and Tuskegee University to develop a method of transforming heat into electricity with the goal of making green energy more affordable. JEMS developed the Johnson Thermo-Electrochemical Converter System (JTEC), which was listed by Popular Mechanics as one of the top 10 inventions of 2009. This system developed promising applications in solar power plants and ocean thermal power generation. It converts thermal energy to electrical energy using a non-steam process which works by pushing hydrogen ions through two membranes, with claimed advantages over alternative systems.

His best-known invention is probably one we have all used, however. At least hundreds of children use it in backyards and in parks during hot summer days. This large gun-like toy is used by children to shoot water at each other. In 1989, this toy became a massively successful item, and topped $200 million in sales in 1991, and went on to annually rank among the world’s Top 20 best-selling toys.

So, what is his best-known invention? The Super Soaker!

*These messages are aimed at educating the K community on African-American history and culture, and are brought to you by The Faculty Advisory Board of the Arcus Center for Social Justice leadership and the HHMI Inclusive Excellence Faculty team, as we continue to work towards being an anti-racist Institution. 19 marks 1619, the year in which the first set of African slaves were brought to what would become the United States, and June 19th, 1865, marks the day that Blacks celebrate the end of enslavement in the US. Both of these dates, and their meanings, were largely unknown to many outside of the Black community. We need to understand that much of the “surprise” experienced by many at the continued uprisings led by the Black lives Matter movement derives from a lack of knowledge of the rich fabric of Black History.

Regina Stevens-Truss, HHMI Inclusive Excellence + Chemistry department
Lisa Brock, ACSJL + History department

19: This Month in Black History – The Stono Rebellion

The fear of Black rebellion and centering Black notions of freedom, color much of what is happening today in the USA.

Early on the morning of Sunday, September 9, 1739, a group of Black men and women, who were enslaved, met near the Stono River, approximately twenty miles southwest of Charles Town (Charleston), South Carolina. At Stono’s bridge, they took guns and powder from a white owned store called Hutcheson’s. “With cries of ‘Liberty’ and beating of drums,” they gathered more Black recruits along the way and killed those whites who attempted to stop them, sparing one innkeeper, according to historian Peter Wood, who was known to be kind to his Blacks. The most visible leader of the group was a man known as Jemmy or Cato, and he, like most of his band, was from the greater Kongo Empire, in what today is known as Angola. Thus, commenced the Stono Rebellion, which is the largest slave uprising in Colonial America, decades before the American Revolution. The fact that they knew the word Liberty raises interesting research questions.

The rebels were organized and knew where they were headed. They were marching south toward the Spanish town of St. Augustine, Florida, where because of tensions between Britain and Spain, they would be declared free if escaping British enslavement. Given that many Atlantic sea trading vessels included enslaved Black sailors, who shared information in the port cities and towns of the Atlantic, the rebels knew about St. Augustine. They were likely also aware of other insurrections. For example, the 1733 revolt on the Danish Island of St. John (now the US Virgin Islands), and the 1738 joint attempt by enslaved Blacks and Irish workers to burn down the city of Savannah, Georgia. In fact, there were dozens of revolts attempted and launched in the America’s during this time. Most of those enslaved at this time were from Africa, and they were fighting captivity in hopes of returning home.

By pure chance, South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor, William Bull and four of his companions, were in the area and came upon the Stono rebels, now close to 160 persons. Unprepared to take on the rebels, Bull and his companions retreated on horseback to mobilize the planter-class militia. After having traveled some ten miles, the rebels encountered the militia and a bloody battle ensued. The rebels fought well and bravely, but ultimately were defeated. Interestingly, some thirty rebels escaped and were only caught days and weeks later; one rebel leader was not captured until 1742, three years later. According to Bull’s documents, some of the rebels were spared if they convinced the planters that they were forced to join. Those who refused to surrender were decapitated and their heads put on poles to deter further uprisings.

The story of the Stono Rebellion is important to know for several reasons. First, too few students in the United States (US) learn of rebellions in US history that are not connected to the American Revolution and the nation-state project. Second, it shows that exploited people were often willing to risk life and limb for freedom. And third, the notion of who is and who is not a hero is challenged by this history. Imagine what today would be like if it was understood that people of African-Descent had a deep notion of freedom before the founding fathers? This is an interesting question for a US history classes.


The Faculty Advisory Board of the Arcus Center for Social Justice leadership and the HHMI Inclusive Excellence Faculty team present this monthly notice aimed at educating the K community on African-American history and culture. 19 marks 1619, the year in which the first set of African captives were brought to what would become the United States, and June 19th, 1865, the day that Blacks celebrate the end of enslavement in the US. Both of these dates, and their meanings, were largely unknown to many outsides of the Black community. We feel much of the “surprise” at recent uprisings led by the Black lives Matter movement derives from a lack of knowledge of the rich fabric of Black History. This month, and every month, hereafter, we will offer messages like this one to help better educate our College community as we work towards being an anti-racist Institution.

Regina Stevens-Truss, HHMI Inclusive Excellence + Chemistry department
Lisa Brock, ACSJL + History department