21. August 2014 09:21
by Tammi Sharpe
2 Comments

Another Crossroads?

21. August 2014 09:21 by Tammi Sharpe | 2 Comments

 

My road trips in search of historic sites related to the American Civil War and Civil Rights Movement have taken me in a number of directions.  One of the most confounding was a visit to a “Faithful Slave” Monument built in 1895; its mere existence stunned me to the point that I had to sit down and call home to talk it through.  I just could not imagine how even in 1895, someone could have not seen such a monument as anything but utterly demeaning.  So, what does the fact that this monument still stands in pristine condition say about where we are today in “race relations” in the United States? 

As the incidents in Ferguson, Missouri scream out, we are not in a post-racial America.  We can look at all the remaining gaps that allow for discrimination within the cycle of our justice system from the police to the prisons despite passage of key civil rights legislation.  These gaps merit attention, but I’m not sure that this will lead us to a colorblind justice system without a corresponding close examination of our American psyche. 

In 1895 America was at a crossroads.  Debates over Jim Crow were in their early phases. Freedmen in the 30 years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been regulated to subordinates in American society throughout the country.  Lawful segregation had not yet become the norm, and African-Americans (except Mississippi) exercised their right to vote.  However, within a decade Jim Crow was law in the South, and de-facto segregation took hold in the rest of the country.  Rather than moving in a constructive direction towards freedom for former slaves, and equality and liberty for all Americans, many of our ancestors, including mine, chose to pursue a new form of racial oppression. 

This separation of the races soon became accepted as natural.  As I’m learning from oral history interviewees with those who once opposed integration, segregation structures and practices were a part of social conditioning.  For my first interviewee, Mr. Andrews, in the Oral History Project Reconciling with the Past:  The Legacy of Segregation, the structures of segregation were foremost in his memory.  Drawing on a song in the South Pacific musical, he stated: “You’ve got to be Carefully Taught.” While Mr. Andrews’ experience is his own, he describes a rather typical Southern society that sent a very clear message to its children: “Blacks and whites, we were not supposed to socially mingle.”  He elaborated: “They went to their own restaurants.  We went to ours.  You weren’t suppose to drink from the same water fountain as a black person.  I remember going to the train station in Tuskegee to take the train to Washington.  We had a black waiting room, [or as known then a] ‘colored’ waiting room, and a white waiting room.  You couldn’t sit together in a train station.  I remember going to the doctor’s office.  The blacks waited to see the doctor in a different room than where I sat.”

The memories of Mrs. Evelyn Ray Dauphin, who sat for an interview last month, revealed how insidiously the system secured its existence.  Like Mr. Andrews, as a child she saw the institution of segregation as a matter of fact:   “Other than being glad that I was white instead of black, I don’t have too many memories of racial instance because it wasn’t something that we thought about.  It was just, that was the way things were.”  She makes this last point clear in her remembrance of a childhood playmate, Katy-Lou.  Katy-Lou was the daughter of the black sharecropper family who worked on the Ray farm.

“The little girl, Katy-Lou would come and play.  It was just she and I playing while our mothers worked.  We played in a little shed….  We enjoyed each other’s company, I guess.  I don’t really know if she enjoyed it or not.  But I did.  She was my only playmate… There was no conflict between us…because I was always in charge.  We never argued like our other friends later because, [pause] it wasn’t like let’s play together: you do something like you want to do, and I’ll do something like I want to do.  I got to do what I wanted to do and she just did it.”  

Such memories suggest that segregation practices and white supremacy were like air:  even young children—too young to go to school yet—adapted white supremacy into their play, just as we instinctively know to breathe.    

In listening to these interviewees, I’ve thought back on a warning offered by Lillian Smith in the 1940s.  She described segregation as “spiritual lynching,” and she focused on the harmful effects of segregation on both whites and blacks.  In the interviews, I am finding specific examples of the harm Smith enumerated for whites:  “No white child, under the segregation pattern, can be free of arrogance and hardness of heart, and blindness to human need."* 

Mrs. Dauphin is an example of how profound this “hardness of heart” can be.  Listening to her memories, I felt as if she was still in disbelief, and frustrated with herself for how long it took her to believe in race equality.  As she exclaimed: “Finally, it took that long for me to get to that point.  This was [in the] ‘80s.”  In trying to understand why it took so long, I’ve taken note that she never recounted a traumatic event with a black person.  In fact, her contact with African-Americans was extremely limited.  The most contact she described was as a child with her playmate Katy-Lou, who epitomizes a benign contact.  As she noted early in the interview, “It was just that was the way things were.”  Near the end of the interview she commented, “I don’t believe that I ever hated.”  Yet, it took her decades to overcome the messages of white supremacy that she absorbed in her childhood.    

Mrs. Dauphin intentionally faced her conditioning and notions of white supremacy.  But has a similar effort occurred at a community, state or national level for the American psyche?  Racism was cultivated in the 1600’s to justify the enslavement of fellow humans.  Political support for slavery entailed social conditioning, which taught that the black “race” was innately inferior and it was in their best interest to be enslaved.  This fed notions of the benevolence of slavery. The inherent contradictions of the founding of the United States − freedom, liberty and equality for all men − with slavery and segregation signal how carefully taught Americans have been for centuries.   With all the racial incidents that have preceded Ferguson, can we finally see ourselves at a crossroads?   Are we courageous enough to face a longstanding history of racial oppression by carefully examining remaining remnants of racial social conditioning in American society, such as pristine “Faithful Slave” Monuments?      

 

 

*    Gladney, M. R. How Am I to be Heard?  Letters of Lillian Smith.  Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

 

26. March 2013 07:57
by Tammi Sharpe
5 Comments

Teachers and Students

26. March 2013 07:57 by Tammi Sharpe | 5 Comments

Students and teachers faced a number of dilemmas over youth engagement in the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement. Students risked going to jail, being exposed to possible violence, and possible expulsion from school. At the same time, teachers and other school officials were torn about students’ participation and had been ordered by the local school board to prevent student participation. Consequently, some of them put their own jobs on the line. As teachers’ and students’ statements show, each school differed in its approach to dealing with the “Children’s Crusade.” The selected quotes below provide a sense of the variety of views and scenarios. These quotes also give a feel for the energy that was mobilizing youth in May 1963. The map is meant to provider readers with a sense of the location of the school in reference to the protest location.

  

View Birmingham in a larger map

Yellow pushpin - Parker High School

Red balloon - location of the protests

Purple pushpin - Wenonah High School

Green pushpin - Carver High School

Turquoise pushpin - Ullman High School

Pink pushpin - Westfield High School

Red pushpin - Fairfield High School

Blue balloon - Immaculata High School

Yellow balloon - Western Olin High School 

Milton Stollenwerck:  Teacher

At the very beginning I thought that it [the movement] was using the children as pawns.  I came to realize that in numbers there is strength.  I never shall forget there was a woman in Collegeville who was up around the hood and she had 8 or 9 children, all of them went to Carver High School.  One morning after the mass meeting A. D. King, Martin’s brother, came to Carver High School, and at that time we had chain linked fences around the building, but the gates were not locked.  I don’t know how they came to that decision but the students were in the halls talking about lets go, lets go.  I wanted to know what was going on so I went up around the office and the principal stepped out of his office and he said:  I’ll not try to stop you, if you’re going go ahead, if you’re not going let’s go into the classes and have school.  He turned around and went back in. 

A.D. King…something …precluded him [from] coming on the grounds.  I think the law said he couldn’t come on the grounds….Across the street, he stood there and raised his arms and said: ‘Y’all come.”  And they all followed out there…..When those students left the grounds of Carver High School they left three [students] in the school…Everybody left…we had three students.  And these were a preacher’s children.   

Edward Thompson:  Teacher

 

I was deeply in sympathy with what was going on….[W]e just told them [the students], if they go, just keep going.  Don’t tear the school up.  Now when the fellows [who were recruiting] would come in….we stopped them at the door.  And if the kids wanted to go nobody stopped them; the door [was] opened and the gate [was] opened and you go on across that street…..I respected their right to demonstrate, even though I could lose my job.  

Carl Grace:  Freshman Fairfield High School

I was sitting in music class…we began to hear someone down the hall saying , “let’s go.”….Then all of the sudden it sounded like horses, you could hear the footsteps coming down the hall saying, “let’s go.”  It was getting closer and closer and the closer it got the footsteps were heavier.  Someone got to our door and opened up the music class door and said, “let’s go.”  We all got up, Ms. Major [the teacher], she stood in the door and tried to stop us…we all just hit the hallway and we went to the next door and we began to be the ones that opened the door, “let’s go.”  The kids just rushed on out.  Many teachers tried to stop us and many teachers were for us going.

We began to march from Fairfield High School went up to the west side of Miles College and over to Carline Road to Bessemer Road.    

Emily Thomas Ellis:  Parker High School

[W]e decided that we would just go into school that morning.  And we went in and stayed about a half hour.  After we had been in there somebody said, ‘Hey it’s time to go.’….[A]ll of the students just stood up, they slammed their books down and they walked out.

Rallis Jones Jr.:  Sophomore Carver High School

In 1963 some of the civil rights leaders came to our school.  They weren’t on the campus; they were across the street from the campus.  They were out recruiting the students to come and join in on the demonstrations….It was really sort of a tough decision.  We were all standing there and we couldn’t decide what to do because the leaders were telling us to come and the teachers were telling us if we crossed the street that we couldn’t come back to school.  I remember some students saying, ‘No, don’t go across the street,’ and some saying ‘Yeah, let’s go.’  So I think what finally happened, somebody took the initiative to go across the street.  And once one person went across, a bunch of us followed. 

Robert Simpson:  Junior at Ullman High School

[Members of the Movement] were allowed to come to the schools.  They were ostracized.   All of the teachers at that time were afraid for their jobs.  They had been told that if they got involved that they would not work for the Birmingham Public School.  I could remember during the time when the demonstrations got hot, they locked the doors at Ullman and told us we could not go downtown.  But, it was a message that didn’t get through to us.  They locked the gates, but we tore them down.  We pulled the fence loose and held the fence back and everybody by the hundreds came out.  It was just no stopping us.  [A] few kids stayed in school, but the majority…went downtown. 

Emily Thomas Ellis:  Parker High School

[W]e decided that we would just go into school that morning.  And we went in and stayed about a half hour.  After we had been in there somebody said, ‘Hey it’s time to go.’….[A]ll of the students just stood up, they slammed their books down and they walked out. 

Miriam McClendon:  Sophomore at Wenonah High School

[T]here were a number of us [at my school] who already were involved in the Movement again through the mass meetings….There were a number of us who just got up, walked out of class and we walked from Wenonah High School to downtown Birmingham [which was about 7 or 8 mile walk]…We walked and we sang and changed and, in retrospect, I think about it now and if I were to really stop and think about it, I say Wow, that’s a long way.  But, back then we were young.   

Aldridge Willis:  Junior in Fairfield High School

[The] Teachers did not encourage us, but they did not restrain us that much…It was like a benign look.   Yes, you go ahead and do it, I’m not telling you to do it but just…you know what to do.  That sort of encouragement and discouragement at the same time.  They didn’t get out and try to lead us toward any demonstrations but I don’t think they turned our names in or tried to do some punitive things to us if we participated.  

My mother being a school teacher, I was aware…[that] a letter had circulated from Fairfield Board of Education that if any teacher, teachers’ husbands or wives, or teachers’ children got caught in the demonstrations that they were going to be terminated.  

Deborah Hill: Student

I remember coming back to school [after attending a mass meeting at which Dr. King spoke] telling all of my friends, who had not attended the meeting, what Dr. King had told us.  And how we as students could become involved in this movement…. [My friends] were equally as excited as I was….I was not telling my parents a lot about it….parents had a lot of fear about our involvement.  They equally wanted to see change take place but that was a time of fear within this city because there were many things that were happening…People were very frightened about taking chances [and] about becoming involved.

[We went to the protests from school.]  There were hundreds of us…there was no school [as] there weren’t enough students left in the classroom…We were getting another education.  We were getting a valuable education in life… [There was resistance from teachers and the principal to our participation] but we had made up [our]mind about what we were going to do.  I think it was passive resistance in the sense that they did not encourage [us] but they also did not discourage [us].  They knew this that was something that was happening for all of us.  It was not just for my benefit or for their benefit but this was for the benefit of future generations. [We walked several miles to join the protests.  We were] walking with friends and singing and walking in groups.  [The miles were] just simply numbers.  You never think in terms of the miles.  You never think in terms of your feet hurting.  You are singing, you are so inspired, you are so upbeat, you are so uplifted, you have such a strong belief in what you are doing and what you are about to do.  All of these other ramifications were in the far distance about what would actually happen.  

Willie Eatman: Student Parker High School

R. E. Johnson, was the principal at the time at Parker. I went and asked him, would it be okay for me to go out and demonstrate? He said no and he just kept saying, no, no , no. [….] So when things started getting a little deeper up here then I asked him again. So he told me one day after I asked him so many times, I said would it be okay for me to leave and go demonstrate? He said, ‘no, you cannot go, you cannot go.’ He pointed at the door and he said, ‘no, you cannot go.’ I looked at him and smiled and he said, ‘you cannot go.’ And I left out the door.

I left that day by myself…then the next day. I always came to school, and the next day…I was telling some more kids. I said, listen he’s not going to say anything just come on. So a group of us walked to the door, he was standing up at the door with his hands on his hips. He didn’t say anything, he said, ‘where do y’all think you’re going?’ We said, we’re going to demonstrate. He said, ‘y’all can’t go’, and pointed at the door like that. We eased on out the door.

[Then there was the day when a lot of students left Parker] that day was something like a D-day. Everyone just felt like it was real tight. That morning when you first got to school and everyone was sitting out there and they couldn’t concentrate knowing what’s going on downtown about these dogs biting people and firemen had put water on people and stuff like that. A lot of them was afraid of going down there. The next thing I know everyone started coming all out of the windows and stuff.

[When we returned to school I knew I would not be expelled as dictated by the city ordinance.] We had a bit meeting in out auditorium. We sat down and talked about the situation. He [a school authority] said that he saw a lot of violence going on down there [downtown area] and he was telling us that we really shouldn’t be down there because of the violence.

14. February 2013 09:55
by Tammi Sharpe
0 Comments

Perpetual Outsider

14. February 2013 09:55 by Tammi Sharpe | 0 Comments

Could I be labeled as an “outsider” today in my own country?  After close to 18 years of international work on human rights issues, I’m back in the United States (U.S.) examining historical human rights violations against African-Americans to learn lessons on how to promote human rights.  As I’m critically looking at why it took Americans hundreds of years to end slavery and another hundred years to end segregation, I’m worrying that my own compatriots might call me an “outsider” as a means to refute the critique I am beginning to develop. 

I’ve been called the equivalent of outsider in foreign countries, but I never thought I could hear it in my own country.  No one has called me an outsider.  But my sixth sense along with advice of Southern friends indicates that I need to tread carefully.  Maybe my sensitivity relates to years of working overseas or maybe I’ve delved so deeply into the past that I am blurring the lines between the past and the present.  Yet, something suggests that this history is still sensitive and that this moniker could still be used as a means to counter critique.

Admittedly, I am not in my hometown.  But, I am not sure if I would be recognized as a local anywhere.  My roots run deep on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, which is my family base.  I, however, outside of holidays and summer vacations, have never lived in this town.  I grew up in New York State, but I essentially left this town immediately after high school.  All other residences have been short-term.

I chose my new residence in Alabama for its historical relevance to the U.S. struggle for racial equality.  Whereas in other countries I am working on issues remotely related to me, I am now examining issues that directly affect my national identity as an American.  And as I might take pride in the founding ideals of this country or the U.S.’ engagement in World War II to fight fascism, I feel equally a need to be humbled by the atrocities committed in this country, including slavery and segregation.   

What becomes tricky is the reality that these atrocities are primarily associated with the Deep South.  And the linkages between national, state, and city history may not be automatically appreciated when it concerns controversial issues.  Something internal tells me to explain that I originate from a former slave state and a state that legalized segregation.  That something also advises me to declare that I am a great granddaughter of a former slave owner and a granddaughter of those who stood on the sidelines as segregation was upheld.  But do I need to raise these associations to feel a sense of responsibility for the atrocities committed in my own country?  Isn’t simply being an American sufficient? 

Dr. King, even as a Southern African-American, battled similar sentiments.  He begins his famed “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by countering criticism of the “outsiders coming in.”  Birminghamians were not the only people to use this moniker.  It was pervasive.  I heard it growing up.  My grandmother invokes this name to explain what happened in Cambridge, Maryland in 1963.   

Like Dr. King in Birmingham, AL, those outsiders in Cambridge were protesting segregation.  While my grandmother contends that “things were fine” before the “outsiders” arrived, the fact is, nine years after the Supreme Court decision on Brown versus Board of Education, the local community had not integrated the schools.  With the arrival of the outsiders a quiet small town suddenly became a scene of repeated protests and sit-ins with incidents of violent white resistance.  While, like my grandmother, I regret the violence that erupted, and I do appreciate the trauma this small town endured, I nonetheless, unlike my grandmother, feel that the outsiders were justified in coming to Cambridge. Outsiders had a right to demonstrate for change.

Dr. King eloquently argued this point in his letter:  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”  I take solace in these words.  These words defend why I am looking at the history of the “Deep South” as it relates to my national identity as well as family identity.  I could also easily invoke these words in my work overseas. 

President Kennedy’s speech announcing his intentions to call on Congress to pass civil rights legislation in June 1963 further justifies my research.  President Kennedy, with specific reference to Alabama, saw resistance to segregation as “a moral crisis” for the country.  He recognized that racial discrimination was pervasive throughout the country and that the remedy entailed more than just government action:  “It is time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives…. [L]egislation, I repeat, cannot solve this problem alone.  It must be solved in the homes of every American in every community across our country.” 

As Cambridge illustrates, President Kennedy and Dr. King’s words were not readily received.  Martial law in Cambridge was declared three days after the President’s speech.  It would be unfair to paint the resistance as simply deep-rooted prejudices.  I am actually baffled by my grandmother’s objection to the outsiders’ engagement.  She was not a white supremacist, and in small ways, such as giving credit equally to black and white customers at the family country store, she defied the system.  But if she believed that “things were fine” before the outsiders came, she did not fully appreciate the injustice of segregation.  Maybe the trauma of the events has overshadowed her objectivity.  However, those outside agitators were instrumental in ending segregation throughout the U.S. 

So, maybe these monikers should, instead, be seen as positives instead of negatives. And, until I become perceived as a local, I guess I will remain an outsider.  Possibly I will be an outsider for perpetuity.  Perceptions of who is a local are subjective and even residence and family ties do not confer one’s status as a local. Calling someone an outsider is a defense mechanism to refute criticism.  However, human rights violations are moral issues and we all have a right to speak out.  Maybe, instead of fearing this moniker, I should strive to earn the title outsider.