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“What And Why We Celebrate Today”: In Washington, D.C., Reminders Of America’s Dark History Of Segregation

We are in the waning hours of African American History month — the time set aside each year to reflect on black struggles and sacrifices to achieve America’s promise.

My recognition of African American contributions began in the 1940s with annual celebrations of Negro History Week at Stevens Elementary School in my West End/Foggy Bottom community. Our nation’s capital is also where I experienced first-hand America’s shame.

Liberty Baptist Sunday school taught me the Ten Commandments. Civil authority in the city taught me the others.

Among them: Thou shalt not attend Grant Elementary School on G Street NW, which was for white children only. Thou shalt not attempt to enter the Circle Theater at 21st and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where only whites were allowed. Thou shalt never think about dining downtown.

Thou can purchase sodas and sandwiches at the drugstore at the corner of 25th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. But thou shalt not sit and eat. Thou must stand at the end of the counter and wait patiently to be recognized.

Ah, Washington of my youth — a place and time when skin color determined where you lived, attended school, worshiped and worked, and how much you got paid.

I learned that lesson as a teenager looking for part-time work. Pick up the Jan. 3, 1960, edition of The Post and what do you see?:

“BOYS-WHITE Age 14 to 18. To assist Route manager full or part-time. Must be neat in appearance. Apply 1346 Conn. Ave. NW.”

“DRIVERS (TRUCK) Colored, for trash routes, over 25 years of age; paid vacation, year-around work; must have excellent driving record. Apply . . . 1601 W St., N.E.”

“STUDENTS Boys, white, 14 yrs. and over, jobs immediately available. Apply . . . 724 9th St., N.W.”

Simply stated: If you’re black, git back.

In our anger and humiliation we turned to Negro History Week to celebrate black achievers such as Mary McLeod Bethune, George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, Charles R. Drew, Matthew Henson, Ralph Bunche and Joe Louis.

Even as we annually paid homage to our black champions and their victories, we remained in the vise grip of segregation.

From a 1948 “Segregation in Washington” report: “Only 30 percent of the residents of the District of Columbia are Negroes,” the report said. “But Negroes have 70 per cent of the slum residents.”

It was no accident, said Wendell E. Pritchett of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, who explained in a 2005 paper how the system functioned.

“This system of segregation was imposed by powerful interests, particularly those in the real estate sector,” he wrote. “The 1948 Washington Real Estate Board Code of Ethics stated that ‘no property in a white section should ever be sold, rented, advertised or offered to colored people.’ ”

“Segregation was maintained by residents’ associations, which had organized into the powerful Federation of Citizens’ Associations that policed the city’s racial borders,” Pritchett noted, adding: “The result was that blacks were forced to pay higher rents in the limited areas to which they had access, and in these areas housing was significantly inferior.”

Pritchett continued: “The damage caused by segregation was exacerbated, the [1948] report concluded, by the on-going urban renewal program that was clearing many formerly poor black areas for middle-class housing restricted to whites. Of the 30,000 new units built during the 1940s, just 200 were available to blacks.”

Today’s millennials are not pioneers. Gentrification of the District got underway decades ago.

Why do some of us celebrate African American History Month with moist eyes?

Return in time to the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 3rd Street NW in the 1830s. See that brick federal building with its hipped roof, dormer windows and stone keystones? It’s called the St. Charles Hotel.

It has a special feature.

In the basement are six 30-foot-long arched cells, with heavy iron doors and iron rings embedded on the walls. It’s a slave pen.

Look down at the sidewalk. See the recessed grills to provide light and ventilation for the confined slaves.

St. Charles is where the Southern planters stayed when they came to Washington to sell their slave property.

A few blocks away, at the southwestern corner of 4th and G streets NW, stands the Washington jail. That’s where runaway slaves were confined. Until emancipation, all slaves were required to obey the curfew law. Getting found on the streets of Washington after sundown without written permission from the master was a one-way ticket to jail. The owner had to be notified to appear before the warden to identify their slaves and pay a fine to reclaim them.

From being chained in the basement to abolition, marches, legal assaults against injustice, the White House, the mayor’s suite, the halls of Congress, the faculty lounge, the judge’s chambers, the corporate boardroom, the pulpit, the Officers Club and the editor’s desk.

That’s what and why we celebrate today.

 

By: Colbert I. King, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, February 26, 2016

February 28, 2016 Posted by | Black History Month, Segregation, Slavery, Ten Commandments | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Quintessentially American Experience”: Black History Is More Than Just One Month

Is it already that time of year?

It must be: Black lecturers are busy on the speaking circuit; black authors have been pushed to the front shelves of bookstores; schoolteachers, black, white and brown, are teaching their charges how George Washington Carver, ah, invented the peanut.

It’s Black History Month, that annual tribute to the accomplishments of black Americans, whose ingenuity, perseverance, creativity and fortitude made America what it is today. But there is a problem with the yearly observance: It manages to make black history seem a thing apart, a separate reality, a slender appendix to the encyclopedia of American history.

It isn’t. Black history is American history — baked and bricked into the nation’s foundations. And that’s how it ought to be taught, right in the same volumes as the Boston Tea Party, the settling of the Old West, the defeat of the Nazis. Black Americans were part of each of those monumental chapters, as well as countless less-celebrated episodes.

It’s time to retire the annual celebration, as outdated now as rotary phones, segregated drinking fountains, and the term “Negro.” Ask yourself this: Will the current occupant of the White House — president of all of the United States, not merely of its black citizens — be celebrated only in February?

Carter Woodson, a black historian, started Negro History Week in 1926, when racism was still raw, public accommodations segregated and the Ku Klux Klan a powerhouse. The notion that black Americans were intellectually inferior and that they should be assigned a second- (or third- or fourth-) class status was taken for granted by most whites, including the leadership classes.

Woodson saw that black contributions to American history “were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them.” He began a systematic study of black history and chose a week in February to commemorate it — timed to honor the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, Feb. 12, and famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Feb. 14.

Happily, much has changed since then. Monuments stand to honor the accomplishments of black Americans, from the Buffalo Soldiers who served in segregated cavalry units after the Civil War, to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who became the first black American to be commemorated on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Movies celebrate the bravery of the Tuskegee Airmen, who persevered at a time when most whites didn’t believe black men were capable of becoming fighter pilots. There is even a Smithsonian-run National Museum of African-American History and Culture, designed to “educate generations to come,” under construction on the National Mall.

(Yes, there is irony in the notion of a separate black history museum. But founding director Lonnie Bunch has promised that it will allow visitors to delve “deeply into the African-American experience and understand that … it is a quintessentially American experience.”)

Many black Americans would argue that Black History Month is still necessary in a land where racism, though waning, continues to exert a peculiar power. There are its blatant manifestations, evident in police brutality and in prison populations. Then there are its more subtle signs, such as research into hiring practices that shows applicants with “black” names are less likely to get jobs, regardless of their stellar résumés.

Moreover, the dominant culture remains reluctant to acknowledge the essential Americanness of its black members. We remain exotic, the other, ethnics. A vocal minority of white citizens continues to insist that President Obama is illegitimate, a foreign-born usurper. The “girl next door” is blonde; the superhero is blue-eyed.

Unfortunately, though, Black History Month merely reinforces that fundamental bias. The one-month observation — ironically, the shortest month of the year — keeps our history away from mainstream history. Instead, it should be included in every history text, taught in every history class, commemorated in every history museum — from maritime to martial, from agricultural to architectural.

The story of America is accurately told only when the stories of black Americans are included in every month of the year.

 

By: Cynthia Tucker, a Pulitzer Prize Winner for Commentary, 2007; The National Memo, February 21, 2015

February 23, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, American History, Black History Month | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It’s Time For A Collective And Unbridled Demand For Justice”: Following MLK’s Example Means Ending Our ‘Whatever’ Mindset

I am often deeply disturbed by our remorseless witness. We are all implicated; we share responsibility for our witness of well-defined evil.

We don’t protect our most vulnerable children; we value people according to arbitrary standards blind to the image of God on every face; we are too quick to kill and to slow to forgive; we tolerate the desecration of the only earth we will ever know. We give a platform to political leaders who want to “take back our country” — by setting policies that favor the wealthiest over everyone else, selling public schools to the highest bidder, and tearing apart the safety net that sustains the elderly and assists our most vulnerable — as if their words and ideas are worth listening to, or are grounded in principles worthy of our attention or even support.

Our response? Too often it is tantamount to this: “Whatever.”

We allow injustices to persist as if solutions are someone else’s responsibility. We watched our Congress over the last six years — as we slid deeper into recession, as our immigration crisis worsened, as tragic deaths from gun violence killed children school by school, people in movie theaters, women and children in the sanctity of their homes — do less and less, making history for inactivity. Even now, behind all of the soaring rhetoric is a shocking lack of action. It’s almost as if Congress said, whatever. How will we respond?

February is African-American History Month, so rest assured there will be plenty of posturing by our elected leaders. I hope we will revisit a figure often celebrated at this time of year — but I hope we will have a new appreciation of his example, and what his example should mean in our daily lives.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a young man, going about his daily business, following his predictable path when God called. He was a preacher’s kid from a solid middle class upbringing, attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, Boston University School of Theology, earning a Master of Divinity and a Ph.D. He was on a Yellow Brick Road headed for Oz. But God had need of him and he joined the ranks of prophets like Samuel, Amos and Jeremiah; like Martin Luther, and Dietrich Bonheoffer; like Gandhi, Ella Baker, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others that could be named.

In part, what distinguishes King and these moral giants is the fullness with which they heard the cry of injustice and responded. And we can all hear it if we listen, and we can all respond. As Callie Plunket-Brewton remarked, “The overwhelming witness of the prophets is that God has no tolerance for those who prey on the weak, who abuse their power, or who eat their fill while others are hungry.”

God has no tolerance for whatever.

And King had no tolerance for it either. In 1959 he said, “Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.” Six years later, in 1965, he described his vision for where that career in humanity should lead us: “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”

Today, are we not a society that has lost its conscience? One only has to listen to the foolishness that passes for debate in any political season — and there is one on the horizon — or to the witless chatter on our televisions to feel the weight of Whatever pulling us down into the gravity of our condition.

But I have hope. I have hope that people of faith in every tradition will heed the words and examples of King and other prophets, and will wake up and rise up, will speak up and stand up; will turn for a moment from entertaining ourselves, buying things, cheering sports teams and entertainers, and insist on a world where children have clean water to drink and safe places to sleep; where the elderly can rest secure, the fruit of their labor beyond the reach of politicians; where a good public education awaits every eager child and a job with a living wage is there for every adult willing and able to work; where health care is a right, not a privilege, and humanity has matured beyond the illusion that our security is gained by weapons and wars.

This month we will celebrate many great African-Americans whose contributions to better our nation and world seem incalculable. But rather than set them apart, let us learn from their example and respond as they would have responded. I long for the day when people of all faith traditions call upon those who exercise power in our nation with words lifted from the heart of our faith — so that our living may be transformed. The time for whatever has long since passed — it’s time for a collective and unbridled demand for justice.

 

By: Rev. Michael Livingston, Bill Moyers Blog, Moyers and Company, February 15, 2015; This post first appeared at TalkPoverty.

February 17, 2015 Posted by | African Americans, Black History Month, Equal Justice | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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