Driving While Black


From the moment the first enslaved Africans were brought to British colonial America in 1619, Black mobility has been policed. Frederick Douglass had to carry a pass as he traveled across the country to recruit Black troops for the Civil War.

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While white Americans were told to get their kicks on Route 66, African Americans had to put the pedal to the metal lest the sun go down on them in one of the sundown towns along the storied highway.

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A two-hour documentary, “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America,” aired on PBS on October 13, 2020.

Gretchen Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program of the State University of New York, spent 20 years researching Black mobility. The documentary is based on her book, “Driving While Black: African-American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights.” Sorin, director Ric Burns, producer and editor Emir Lewis, and Spencer Crew, acting director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, recently participated in a forum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

A travel guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book helped Black travelers navigate racialized public spaces. For information about the Green Book in Philadelphia, go here.

Abolition Hall is Saved – For Now

With 170,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 and millions unemployed, 2020 has been an “annus horribilis” (h/t Queen Elizabeth II). This month brought a ray of hope: Developer K. Hovnanian Homes dropped plans to construct 67 townhouses that would have degraded Abolition Hall and the surrounding fields where the ancestors found sanctuary on their way to freedom.

#AbolitionHall - Overlay - August 14, 2020

Located in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania, the former Underground Railroad stop was constructed in 1856 by George Corson. The purpose-built structure was a meeting place for abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison. Abolition Hall, along with the Hovenden House and Stone Barn provided shelter for self-emancipated Black people. The three structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

#Abolition Hall - Michael Feagans

The developer did not give the township a reason for abandoning the project. But the reason seems fairly obvious: With a cratering economy and sinkholes on Butler Pike, Hovnanian didn’t want to sink any more money into the controversial project.

Sybelle Zove, convener of the Friends of Abolition Hall, led the fight to save the historic landmark. In an email, Zove wrote:

This fight is not over! We continue to believe that a better plan is within reach, and we hope that any developer considering a deal with the heirs will appreciate the extraordinary history of this homestead. This is indeed hallowed land, and the historic structures are equally significant. We stand ready to collaborate, to work together to create a project that respects the legacy of this property, the value of its tree canopy, the role of its wetlands in sustaining the local ecology, and the precarious nature of the limestone soils that have yielded to dissolution and sinkhole formation.

I was geared up to collaborate with Friends of Abolition Hall on a years-long battle with the developer. With Hovnanian’s deep pockets and army of lawyers, I didn’t think we could beat them in a court of law. But social media and search engine optimization level the battlefield in the court of public opinion. So I launched VillagesatWhiteMarsh.info to tell the story of the historic landmark and alert prospective buyers that protesters would be at their front door.

#AbolitionHall Deserves Better -Villages at Whitemarsh

Abolition Hall is saved – for now. Zove urges everyone to “keep your hand on the plow, and hold on.”

For updates visit Friends of Abolition Hall on Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter.

Harriet Tubman Day 2020

Like most enslaved Black Americans, Harriet Tubman did not know her date of her birth. So we remember the “Moses of Her People” on the date of her death, March 10, 1913.

In 1990, President George W. Bush proclaimed March 10 “Harriet Tubman Day”:

In celebrating Harriet Tubman’s life, we remember her commitment to freedom and rededicate ourselves to the timeless principles she struggled to uphold. Her story is one of extraordinary courage and effectiveness in the movement to abolish slavery and to advance the noble ideals enshrined in our Nation’s Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

After escaping from slavery herself in 1849, Harriet Tubman led hundreds of slaves to freedom by making a reported 19 trips through the network of hiding places known as the Underground Railroad. For her efforts to help ensure that our Nation always honors its promise of liberty and opportunity for all, she became known as the “Moses of her People.”

Serving as a nurse, scout, cook, and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, Harriet Tubman often risked her own freedom and safety to protect that of others. After the war, she continued working for justice and for the cause of human dignity. Today we are deeply thankful for the efforts of this brave and selfless woman – they have been a source of inspiration to generations of Americans.

In recognition of Harriet Tubman’s special place in the hearts of all who cherish freedom, the Congress has passed Senate Joint Resolution 257 in observance of “Harriet Tubman Day,” March 10, 1990, the 77th anniversary of her death.

Cynthia Erivo starred in Harriet, the biopic for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Erivo also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song for “Stand Up” which she co-wrote with Joshuah Brian Campbell.

I will stand up for Harriet Tubman at the Harriet Ross Tubman Monument in Bristol, Pennsylvania.

Harriet Tubman Memorial Monument, Bristol, PA

Sadly, partisan politics has delayed release of the Harriet Tubman $20 bill until 2028. Meanwhile, sections of Dixie Highway in Florida will be renamed in tribute to the iconic freedom fighter.

Visualizing Slavery

The oldest-known photograph of enslaved black people with cotton was recently purchased at auction for $324,500 on behalf of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Visualizing Slavery

Sabrina Imbler reports:

The image is simple haunting. Ten enslaved African-American people stand in front of a two-story, white clapboard building, some with baskets of cotton on top of their heads. A boy bows his head in the lower-left corner, his back to the camera. It’s a quarter-plate daguerreotype, a little larger than a deck of cards but brimming with details visible only when magnified: the individual leaves of the plants encircling a well, the woven wicker of the baskets. The antebellum photograph, believed to date back to the 1850s, is the oldest-known image of enslaved people with cotton, the commodity that they were forced to harvest.

Recently, at Cowan’s American History auction, the Hall Family Foundation purchased the photograph for $324,500, on behalf of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. “I had never seen an image like this before,” says Jane Aspinwall, the curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

Images of enslaved African-American people are relatively rare, and were almost always taken at the behest of the slaveholder, according to critic Stephen Best in “Neither Lost nor Found: Slavery and the Visual Archive,” published in a 2011 issue of the journal Representations. “However exhaustive one’s catalog of the visual archive of slavery, it will always be lacking in works by slaves themselves,” he writes.

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Visualizing Racism

The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Still, the fight over the meaning of the South’s Lost Cause continues.

Picture this: Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley said the Confederate Flag was hunky-dory until Dylan Roof “hijacked” it from the descendants of slave owners and their sympathizers for whom it symbolized “service, and sacrifice and heritage.”

Haley’s spin is fake news. William T. Thompson long ago spilled the tea on the meaning of the Confederate flag.

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The symbol of white supremacy was weaponized during the Jim Crow era as African Americans fought for equal protection under the law and civil rights.

Confederate Flag - Don't You Wish You Were White

Confederate Flag - We Want a White School
A recent issue of the Washington Post Magazine is devoted to photography that documents struggles with racism. Washington Post Columnist Eugene Robinson wrote in the introduction:

Racism is this nation’s telltale heart beating ominously in the collective subconscious. From time to time we come to believe we have expiated and silenced it once and for all. But then it is back — changed, perhaps attenuated, but unmistakable.

[…]

This is how the war against racism goes: progress, setback, optimism, despair — a cycle that frustratingly repeats and yet somehow inches us forward. Racism may be worse than in the recent past, but the individual and collective punishment it metes out is a shadow of what black Americans suffered a half-century ago. We have no choice but to believe that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice. We have somehow taken a detour, however, and must find our way back to the true path.

This issue is devoted to photography that documents this moment — not just our external struggle with racism, but the internal struggles as well. Some of the images are beautiful and unsettling. Some are jarring. If some make us uncomfortable, that is progress. An easy conversation about racism is not a real conversation at all.

The full issue is available here.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, the fearless Underground Railroad conductor, Combahee River Raid leader and Civil War veteran, is experiencing a renaissance. By contrast, “Harriet,” the movie, opened to mixed reviews and controversy. Some African Americans called for a boycott of the biopic.

Tubman’s contemporary and fellow badass, Frederick Douglass, knew her story was destined to be told. On August 29, 1868, Douglass wrote:

Dear Harriet:

I am glad to know that the story of your eventful life has been written by a kind lady, and that the same is soon to be published. You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them.

The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt, “God bless you,” has been your only reward.

The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you. It is to me a great pleasure and a great privilege to bear testimony for your character and your works, and to say to those to whom you may come, that I regard you in every way truthful and trustworthy.

Your friend,

Frederick Douglass

Pennsylvania National Action Network Calls on Sen. Warren to Support Removal of Frank Rizzo Monument

When I moved to Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo, a former mayor and police commissioner, had been dead for nearly two decades. Still, Philadelphians spoke about him with a passion and anger that was visceral. Rizzo’s legacy includes the untreated trauma that he inflicted on the African American community.

As I researched Philadelphia’s jazz history, I heard stories about how Rizzo harassed jazz musicians and club owners. So it is shocking that a monument of a man who was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for a pattern of police brutality that “shocks the conscience” is at the gateway to municipal services.

#FrankRizzo - Yarnbomb - 2012

I looked at the story behind the story and learned the Rizzo monument was financed by his family. The public was never asked whether the vanity project was an appropriate monument for the City of Philadelphia. Not only was the public not asked, the vanity project was unveiled on January 1, 1999 after the Mummers Parade, an event that for decades featured marchers in blackface.

#FrankRizzo - NYT - Mummers Parade

On the day Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced his endorsement of Sen. Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic presidential nomination, it was reported Kenney has no plan to remove the Rizzo monument from Thomas Paine Plaza. Warren supports removal of Confederate monuments and the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi state flag.

I join Pennsylvania State Chapter National Action Network in calling on Warren to support removal of the monument of Frank Rizzo, a racist cop who trampled on civil rights, urged supporters to “vote white” and traumatized the African American community. You can read the press release here.

Public Memory and Place Matter

In a recent essay published by the Brookings Institution, the writers asked: Whose history gets recognized in our public spaces?

Ultimately, the fight over Barry Farm is about more than those last 32 buildings left standing. It signifies a larger struggle over representation in our physical spaces, one that has only intensified as cities become more divided, unaffordable, and unequal. This struggle has manifested itself in a myriad of ways, from efforts to remove racist memorials from public plazas to movements to protect Black culture on rapidly gentrifying blocks. Within all these actions is one critical, underlying message: Black history matters.

In Philadelphia, our story is being erased from public memory. From the demolition of the church where Marian Anderson first learned to sing to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places John Brown laid his head, developers don’t give a fig about black history.

Henry Minton House - Inquirer

Midwood Development & Investment CEO John Usdan plans to demolish the Henry Minton House. In a news article, Usdan said, “Because the city’s so rich in history and has all these great historic buildings and amazing places where you want to congregate, it’s exactly what the demographic moving to Philly wants.”

For this developer, black history is not American history. And black folks are not included in Usdan’s vision for a changing city since he is building for “the demographic moving to Philly.”

First they displace us. Then they erase us.

#DisappearingBlackness - Where's Our Story

The National Museum for African American History and Culture’s exhibition “Power of Place” underscores that place matters:

People make places even as places change people. Places are secured by individual and collective struggle and spirit. Place is about movement and migration and dis-placement. Place is where culture is made, where traditions and histories are kept and lost, and where identities are created, tested, and reshaped over time.

On October 22, PlanPhilly is holding a panel discussion, “Place, Preservation and Public Memory in Philadelphia.” All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson is a panelist, along with Paul Farber, Ori Feibush and Karen Olivier. The event is free but you must register. To reserve your spot, go here.

International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition

The International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition was first observed in Haiti in 1998. UNESCO designated August 23 because it marks the beginning of the 1791 slave rebellion in Santo Domingo (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Louverture

This year’s observance coincides with the 400th anniversary of the landing of the first enslaved Africans in Point Comfort, Virginia. This 3D model of a slave ship shows the conditions under which the ancestors were transported across the Atlantic Ocean.

UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay said:

The Slave Route Project, launched by UNESCO in 1994, has made it possible to identify the ethical, cultural and socio-political issues of this painful history. By developing a multidisciplinary approach, which links historical, memorial, creative, educational and heritage dimensions, this project has contributed to enriching our knowledge of the slave trade and spreading a culture of peace. On this International Day, UNESCO invites everyone, including public authorities, civil society, historians, researchers and ordinary citizens, to mobilize in order to raise awareness about this history that we share and to oppose all forms of modern slavery.

Jazz bassist and composer Marcus Miller, a two-time Grammy-winner, is UNESCO Artist for Peace. I used to live in Dakar, Senegal. I spent many afternoons on Gorée Island at the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves) staring out the “Door of No Return.”

Door of No Return - Goree Island

Miller’s composition “Gorée” captures my feelings of anger, remembrance and determination to never forget.

For the month of October, an 80-foot-long, 18th century “ghost ship” will be on display on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

Slave Ghost Ship2

For info about the holographic installation, visit the Delaware River Waterfront Arts Program.

#1619Project: 400 Years of African American History

Four hundred years ago, a ship carrying the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia.

#400Years - Introduction of negro slavery into Virginia - NYPL Digital Collections

On August 13, 2019, The New York Times Magazine will launch “The 1619 Project.”

The 1619 Project

The entire issue of the magazine will be devoted to an examination of “the many ways the legacy of slavery continues to shape and define life in the United States.” The launch event is sold out. You can watch the free live stream here on Tuesday, August 13, at 7 p.m. E.T.