Black History Month: Giving Bayard Rustin His Due

Bayard Rustin 3His influences were W.E.B. DuBois and Mahatma Gandhi. An intellectual, a Quaker, and a visionary, Bayard Rustin was the force behind the introduction of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent tactics. Rustin went on to become Deputy Director and Chief Organizer of the 1963 March on Washington where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

If you didn’t know that, or if you’ve never heard of him, it’s probably because homophobia within society at large and within the African-American Civil Rights Movement, a well-kept secret, relegated Rustin to the back of the bus, so to speak, to the background of the Civil Rights Movement. For example, in 1956, Rustin was hidden in the trunk of a car and covertly ushered out of Montgomery during the Montgomery Bus Boycott because the movement feared that an openly-gay man as an advisor would discredit the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Three years earlier, he had been arrested for a homosexual act. Rustin’s sexuality, or at least his public criminal charge, was criticized by some fellow pacifists and civil-rights leaders; worse yet, he was attacked as a “pervert” or “immoral influence” by political opponents, black and white alike, from segregationists to Black power militants from the 1950s through the 1970s. As an openly-gay man, he became one of the Continue reading

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Black History Month: The Burning and Collapse of Black Wall Street

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JB StradfordJ.B. Stradford, lawyer, businessman, and son of a freed Kentucky slave, is a major developer of the Tulsa’s African-American community of Greenwood in the 1900s. He owns the 65-room hotel located in the center of the thriving community that will later become known as “the Black Wall Street,” the wealthiest black community in the United States at the time. Most black Tulsans work as laborers and domestics, but a substantial number are teachers, lawyers, doctors and other professionals:

The Catalyst: Dick Rowland and Sarah Page

All goes well for the affluent community until 1921, when the arrest of a young black man, Dick Rowland, on a suspicious charge of assaulting a young white woman, Sarah Page, sparks what will be called by some as the “deadliest non-military domestic terrorist act in U.S. history,” the Tulsa Race Riot.

Black Wall Street Burned to GroundAccording to Wikipedia, Rowland was born in 1902. He drops out of high school to accept a job shining shoes in a white-owned and white-patronized shine parlor on Main Street in downtown Tulsa. Because Tulsa is a segregated city ruled by Jim Crow, black people are prohibited from using whites-only toilet facilities. There are no separate facility for blacks at the shine parlor; the owner has arranged for black employees to use a “Colored” restroom on the top floor of the nearby Drexel Building at 319 S. Main Street. On May 30, 1921, Rowland attempts to enter the Drexel building elevator and, although the exact facts are either unknown or in dispute, according to the most accepted accounts, he trips, and while falling, latches on to the arm of the elevator operator, 17-year-old Sarah Page. Startled, she screams, and a white clerk in a first floor store calls police and reports seeing Rowland flee from the elevator and the building. The clerk reports the incident as an attempted assault. Almost nothing is known of Sarah Page. Originally described as a 17-year-old orphan working her way through business college, she may be as young as 15 and has come to Tulsa from Kansas City while waiting for a divorce to be finalized.

The case against Dick Rowland will be eventually dismissed at the end of September 1921, following the receipt of Sarah Page’s letter by the County Attorney, in which she will state that she does not want to prosecute the case.

Once Rowland is exonerated he immediately leaves Tulsa and resettles in Kansas City. Little else is publicly known about the remainder of his life.

Greenwood, the once flourishing model community, is destroyed, and with it a major African-American economic movement. Among the devastated are 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores, two movie theaters, plus a hospital, a bank, a post office, libraries, schools, law offices, a half-dozen private airplanes and even a bus system. The Tulsa race riot of 1921, like so many events in the chronological record of black people, is rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms or even in private before 1996. Though blacks and whites alike enter middle age unaware of what has taken of the Tulsa Race Riot, in 1996 the Oklahoma state legislature commissions a report on the event, and in 2001 it’s completed and finally establishes the historical record.

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Here’s the story of Greenwood, Oklahoma:

Charges against Rowland made the front page of the Tulsa Tribune, along with an editorial entitled, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”

Black Wall Street NabNegro_Tulsa-paper Continue reading

In the Spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. — 2013

from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, August 8, 1963

from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, August 8, 1963 (AFP/Getty Image)

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” — from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Stockholm (1964)

“Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.” — from a 1956 sermon

“We all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. … And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. It is a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity.” — from “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (February 4, 1968) Continue reading

The National Negro Opera Company — Black History Month

Early home of the National Negro Opera Company, 7101 Apple Street, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Neighbors dubbed the house “Mystery Manor” because of the famous comings and goings. This house has a rich history. Businessman William “Woogie” Harris, brother of famed Pittsburgh photographer “Teenie” Harris, bought the house in 1930. First, it served as apartment to famous African-Americans who visited the city but because of Jim Crow laws were not allowed to stay in other parts of the city:  Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughn, Cab Calloway, Joe Louis, Roberto Clemente, to name a few. Second, it was the early home of Mary Cardwell Dawson‘s National Negro Opera Company.

The National Negro Opera Company was the first permanent African-American Opera company in the United States. It remained based in Pittsburgh until 1960 and lasted until 1962. The interracial performing arts organization was founded in 1941 by Mary Cardwell Dawson (1894-1962). For twenty years, the National Negro Opera Company and its founder/director Mary Cardwell Dawson staged large-scale opera productions featuring African-American performers. Continue reading