Free in DC For MOW 50: The Taylors and 1963 “The Baker Incident” in Folcroft, PA

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2013 by Free Smith
The Taylors, Richard "Dick" and Phyllis in 1963 when they met.

The Taylors, Richard “Dick” and Phyllis in 1963 when they met.

Richard and Phyllis Taylor today after 50 years of marriage.

Richard and Phyllis Taylor today after 50 years of marriage.

Folcroft has long been a location of racial tension (especially for residents in neighboring/my hometown, Darby Township). Memories of Ku Klux Klan activity from the past and questionable incidents involving profiling and predominately Black stops in speed traps have long been whispered between Blacks in the area.

However, in 1963, racial volatility in Folcroft was the focus of the international community. Days after the March on Washington, Horace and Sarah Baker, young parents of one with one on the way, tried to move from Philadelphia into their first home in Folcroft’s Delmar Village area. As the couple’s moving van arrived, a mob of thousands erupted in outrage, shouting statements such as “We don’t want them,” and concerns about their property devaluing. Rioters broke all of the windows out of the house as well as smashing all of the cabinets.

Local heroes, Richard “Dick” Taylor and wife, Phyllis, alongside the March on Washington (which they attended) also celebrate their 50th anniversary of marriage this year. They were integral in the support effort for the Baker family. The couple met through The Movement as opponents of housing and job discrimination. Mr. Taylor served as director of the Fair Housing Council of Delaware Valley and previously worked with the American Friends Service Committee in the South fighting housing discrimination. Mrs. Taylor  was a senior at Beaver College, doing field work in the fields of job and housing discrimination. She also went south as a trained “Freedom Rider,” railing with other youngsters against Jim Crow.

As written in their joint recanting of their account of the incident, they wrote for the Chestnut Hill Local, “For both of us, our faiths taught why these commitments were so important. Dick, a Quaker (who now combines Quakerism with Catholicism) and Phyllis who is Jewish (who now combines Judaism with Quakerism) both felt called to the prophetic tradition.” In the movement, folks like the Taylors were  known as “White allies,” according to Mrs. Taylor. Furthermore, Mr. Taylor’s ancestors travailed as abolitionists and Mrs. Taylor, whose grandparents were escapees of the turbulence of the Holocaust, remembers younger days growing up in New York with “no dogs or Jews allowed” signs hung from establishments. “There were White folks there, then and now, who are concerned about combating racism. We’ve got to help each other,” said Mrs. Taylor.

Through his work at the Fair Housing Council, the Taylors met the Bakers after Margaret Collins, real estate agent for Friends’ Suburban Housing found the Baker’s the home that they’d been looking for. Since both Mrs. Taylor and Sarah Baker were pregnant at the time, she remembered sharing maternity clothes with her.

However, that fateful August day, Mrs. Taylor remembered, “The moving van couldn’t get through. They couldn’t get through.” She remembered “all the glass and all the destruction” after what she labeled as “methodical destruction” by the townspeople and the police who just watched it happen, claiming not to get involved for fear of potentially, injuring pregnant women.  Mrs. Taylor sees that rationale as a “contrast” to the following year’s demonstrations in Chester against de facto segregation in schools (which drew the likes of Malcolm X and Dick Gregory to Chester to support) where police beat women, some who were pregnant.

She recalled the chaotic scene and rowdy crowd. “I remember I cut myself on glass. The people cheered. It was bizarre.” She said that the Bakers were far from making a Rosa Pars like statement by turning down housing in predominately Black next-town-over, Darby Township in favor of Folcroft. “They did not do it for political reasons. They did it because the quality of the house was better,” she explained. “It’s really a politically-oriented person that are geared for that. They were simply a young couple with one child who wanted a good, quality house. They were not pioneers at all. They were just plain people; a lovely family who wanted a good house.”

Mr. Taylor, seeing no help from local authorities, instantly drove to the Governor’s Mansion, a move that resulted in state forces to come in to quell the rioters and gaining the support of the NAACP, CORE and clergymen, who pledged to form a human barrier, donning their collars and pastoral garb between the rioters and the house.

The Bakers lived there shortly, where the opposition never slacked. Their neighbors even went so far as to pour sugar in Horace Baker’s gas tank, sabotaging his vehicle. They eventually gave in and moved in with the Taylors in Mount Airy, where they eventually found a home and moved on. Mrs. Taylor reflected on the “sad irony” of Sarah Baker, who was a nurse at Pennsylvania Hospital, was rebuffed so by people that she may well have delivered.

It was disheartening for the couple who had just participated in the historic event on the Washington Mall days before, “Here, we left Washington and all the excitement of “the Dream,” she said thinking back on seeing dynamic like Dr. King, Bayard Rustin, “to come back to basically the ‘Dream’ shattered.” She’d been on the Freedom Rides, but hadn’t seen anything quite like the scene in Folcroft. “This had a different feel to it. It was really pretty ugly.”

She always regretted that the “good people” in Folcroft, remained silent and out of focus. “It was really quite terrible. I’m sure there were good people in Folcroft, but I think the good people were afraid, she said. “One of the things I’m mainly aware of that when good people are quiet, terrible things can happen,” she stated, comparing such a situation to lead to Hitler’s oppression of her people.

Today, the Taylors live in Germantown. Mrs. Taylor now ministers as a chaplain in Philadelphia Prison System. She sermonized, “We all have to be vigilant and we (as a community) have to all not know not to be afraid and speak out whenever we see wrong.”

The couple closed their piece in the Chestnut Hill Local with this reflection: “When we look at news clips of the march and listen to the stirring words of the speeches, we are reminded of the words from the Talmud: ‘Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obliged to complete the work. But neither are you free to abandon it.’”

BELOW: PHOTOS FROM THE 1963 “BAKER INCIDENT” IN FOLCROFT

Folcroft "Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft “Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft "Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft “Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft "Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft “Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft "Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft “Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft "Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft “Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft "Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft “Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft "Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft “Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft "Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft “Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft "Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft “Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft "Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft “Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft "Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft “Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft "Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft “Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft "Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Folcroft “Baker Incident in 1963 CREDIT: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

 

Free in DC For MOW 50: Freedom Fighters From Around The Way

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2013 by Free Smith

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Now to my favorite part: the conversations I had with folks who actually attended the the original March On Washington, many of whom were from my place of birth, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Needless to say, I don’t have to see Lee Daniels’: The Butler (It’s a long one. Sorry.)

First, though she wasn’t at the March in ’63, I interviewed my grandmother, Frances Butler, who was in DC at the time. This was about eight years after she graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School there, the first Black public high school for Black in the nation. Her class of ’55 was the last segregated class to graduate from there. I got some of her thoughts:

My grandmother, Frances Butler dancing at my cousin (her grandson) Jared's wedding. That's Jared's wife, Courtney behind her.

My grandmother, Frances Butler dancing at my cousin (her grandson) Jared’s wedding. That’s Jared’s wife, Courtney behind her.

As the 50th anniversary of the great March On Washington approaches, one might take a look at if it’s goal of equality between the races was achieved. Blacks fought for integration in hopes of creating a level playing field for all Americans regardless of color.

However, while strides have been made since the days of the Civil Rights Movement, social ratios are still off-kilter. For example, the black unemployment rate (like it was in 1963 when the March took place) is practically double that of whites at all levels of education.

More disturbing was a study conducted by Northwestern University’s Andrew Sum finding that blacks with even associate’s degree or some college experience experience higher unemployment rates than white high school drop outs.  These findings were reinforced by Princeton’s Devah Pager’s study where she sent black and white applicants to different jobs. Among the applicants, she scattered a few with criminal records. She found that the black applicants with no criminal record had a harder time getting hired than white applicants with felonies.

These findings support the notion that the playing field is not level. One person, who knows this first-hand is retired teacher and Darby Township resident, Frances Butler. Butler was a member of the final, segregated graduating class of the storied Dunbar High School in Washington, DC, the nation’s first, black, academic public high school in 1955. She credits the experience for her success in life and that of her peers, “I don’t think segregation should be imposed. If someone wants to go to another school, they should be able to do that, but I would’ve stayed right where I was.”

Butler graduated alongside Congresswoman Eleanor Homes Norton as well as comedian Dave Chappelle’s mother, Yvonne Reed, who went on to be a professor at Howard University and the University of Maryland. Other notable alumni include Dr. Charles R. Drew, blood transfusion pioneer, Edward Brooke, the first black post-Reconstruction senator and Benjamin O. Davis, the first black general in the armed forces. Carter G. Woodson, founder of Black History Week also served on Dunbar’s faculty. Butler credits the holistic approach to education that the teachers took with them, a liberty that they don’t have in integrated classrooms. “The teachers were freer to say what they needed to say to give us the guidance that we needed as black children. They really worked with you as a whole person,” she described. “They talked to you about the way that you carried yourself, your clothing, the way you spoke, your character. Everything that made you, you and they would tell us that we had to be better, not just as good, but better than others (to make it).”

She felt that the teachers felt more attached to the students, “They were just so interested. It was important for them to see you progress; each individual student and they gave you individual care.”

After graduating, Butler married Robert Butler and went to work for the CIA as a typist. Tragically, in 1957 after Robert died in a car accident. Widowed with two infant daughters, the resolve instilled in her from her Dunbar experience drove Butler to  obtain a degree in education. After teaching briefly in DC, she moved with her daughters to Darby Township and she began teaching at Add B. Anderson Elementary School in West Philadelphia. She saw a real change from her school days. When I came here and taught in Philadelphia, it was totally different. The school was black, but the children’s self-esteem was low, they didn’t know anything about Black history and teachers didn’t either and didn’t care a lot. It just was very different.”

She tried her best to recreate the Dunbar experience in her classes by teaching black history and even making her students sing the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing” at the beginning of the day, but she saw a real decline since desegregation. “It caused the black children to backslide really. They didn’t have the push, they weren’t being made to feel worthy or that they were capable of doing the best of things. It was just like that plight was always in front of them and they aren’t being encouraged like we were.”

She went on to explain, “Our self-esteem was boosted then. We felt more worthy; we didn’t have to compete in an arena that you knew you weren’t going to win. We did win and the teachers did everything that they could.”

She also added, “We were so directly involved with things to be proud of. Seeing good examples of people right in your neighborhood, like right on your block. There were people that weren’t the best characters, but I didn’t feel involved with those people.”

With the employment statistics mentioned before and the recent actions taken to restrict the voting rights of minorities and the fact that the income rate of black households still pales in comparison to that of whites, another March on Washington may be right on time.

THE SOLDIERS

Longtime Darby Township official, Lee Taliaferro standing outside of the town's library recently named in his honor.

Longtime Darby Township official, Lee Taliaferro standing outside of the town’s library recently named in his honor.

Commemorators from around the country are prepping to convene on the Washington Mall for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. As people look to relive that glorious day in 1963, some local people reminisce about attending the actual march all those years ago. Local men, Lee Taliaferro, longtime Darby Township official and Chester’s Ronald Wesley, a retired human services are two of those people.

Both men recollected memories of early racism while serving in the armed forces. Taliaferro reflected on a time in while serving in the Air Force in 1954. “I’d never really run into anything of any kind of discriminatory nature until I had went into the Air Force. I was on a train and we (black and white servicemen) changed trains in Little Rock, Arkansas. At that point, the black soldiers were told that we could not go with the white military people. I’ll never forget it. It was an old wooden coach that all the black military people had to get on. It was all black folks period. That gave me a little taste of the South and my first real dose of discrimination.”

Wesley remembered a time while stationed in El Paso, TX, trying to get home to Chester. He was forced to land at a North Carolina military base where he hitched a ride with white fellow, who happened to be headed to Vietnam. On their ride, though Wesley wasn’t hungry, they stopped at a diner for some food. The driver went in and ordered two hamburgers and two coffees. The proprietor gave him one burger and a cup of coffee. When he asked where Wesley’s food was, he remembered, “This white guy who’s store it was said, ‘I’m not serving that nigger in here.’” Upon further protest from his driver, Wesley remembered the owner saying,  “’I don’t give a damn about that nigger’s food.’ And I saw a gun in his drawer. I ran out of there so fast. I thought he was going to shoot me.” Te driver gave Wesley the food, but Wesley ended up getting out to hitchhike at the Delaware Memorial Bridge, where he discarded of it in disgust, “I got out the car and threw it down there.”

Both of these experiences led each man to attend the March on Washington. They both marveled at the plethora of marchers from all over the nation, some having signs indicating their locale. Wesley said, “(It was impressive) Just seeing the little kids looking out of these little houses and families from all over the United States. They had people on crutches.”

Taliaferro reminisced, “It was a wonderful experience just being there among the thousands and thousands of people; just being part of the group. Just the idea of being there with all the people, all the marching and the singing, it was just a great experience.”

He remembered the muddy conditions, due to rains that preceded the day. “It just rained, rained, rained. There was just mud everywhere.” He also remembered the shantytown-esque set up of cardboard shelters and people cooking out in pots and pans. But he, 19-years-old at the time, was determined to partake in the experience. “I wanted to go.  I was a kid myself. I wanted to be adventurous. I was just trying to be a man and experience life.”

Though the commemoration of the March is sure to be memorable, the experience of participating in the original March was a once in a lifetime event. To both men, simply being there spoke volumes. Wesley expressed, “Just like the Million Man March, it’s hard to explain unless you were there. It was so uplifting (and) at the same time, it made you feel so humble.”

“When the March came up, you feel as though you want to be a part of it no matter what. You’re not doing anything, you’re not saying anything, but your just there yourself in the number, in the crowd,” said Taliaferro.  “You don’t have to be an outspoken person. Just be a part of the movement and there to support

THE REEDS

Rev. Jay Ted and Alfreda Reed seeing Chester March On Washington Commemorators off.

Rev. Jay Ted and Alfreda Reed seeing Chester March On Washington Commemorators off.

Chester couple, Rev. Jay Ted and Alfreda Reed were a part of the throng that attended the March on  Washington 50 years ago. Though they did not board bus provided by The National Council of Black Women, Chester Democratic Party, Local 413 and the office of Thaddeus Kirkland to DC, the Reeds rose at the crack of dawn to see the Chester commemorators off.

In those days, both were active participants in the Civil Rights Movement. At the age of 18, Mrs. Reed (nee Charlton) served faithfully as a member of the Chester NAACP’s Youth Council and rode down to DC that historic day on a bus provided by Westinghouse, one of many corporate buses that left Chester that day. “Really, (the March on Washington) was for everyone, but for us as Black people, this meant so much, because as a result of that, you might as well say the world, especially the United States, (was soon to be) changed for us,” expressed Mrs. Reed.

Reed had whet her appetite for revolution locally, playing an integral role in a righteous assault on the infamous Great Leopard Skating Rink in 1962, when the Chester youth grew weary of only being allowed to skate there on Wednesday nights, which rink owners called,  “Sepia Night (‘sepia’ is defined as ‘a reddish-brown color’).” Mrs. Reed gave the root of the problem, “All the young people were in school, so most parents wouldn’t let you go because the next day you had to go to school. We had to fight so that we could go on the weekends.” Seeing the Youth Council’s passion and dedication, the adult membership of the NAACP joined in, taking legal action, according to Mrs. Reed who remembered, “We even had to go to court.”

Documented in John Morrison McLarnon’s Ruling Suburbia: John J. McClure and the Republican Machine in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, newfound Chester NAACP leader, Stanley Branche, revered for his unshakable nature evidenced in his previous work to desegregate Girard College in Philadelphia (yet described by then Philadelphia Daily News  senior editor, Chuck Jones as “a sepia-toned Jack Armstrong, the black all-American boy grown to shrewd manhood”), led the first legislative charge with George Raymond, enlisting Swarthmore College students to “demonstrate in the courtroom.”  However, that tactic backfired, as the presiding judge, “annoyed with the demonstrators,” ruled in favor of Great Leopard. The ruling was labeled as “the first time in memory, the NAACP lost a case.” and Raymond was stuck with the bill.

Redemption came later that summer (according to the August 18, 1962 edition of The Afro American) the protestors prevailed: ‘Responding to an appeal from the NAACP youth here, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission last week ruled that the Great Leopard Skating Rink, “shall admit colored customers in the future without discrimination.”

A few years older and confused as to the best course of action to take to combat the oppression of the day, Rev. Reed lent his ear to more militant groups predating the notorious Black Panther Party, seeking an alternative to the popular, Ghandi-inspired passive non-violent strategy practiced by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. “Few people don’t say much about that, but that was a challenging time for Dr. King’s leadership, because the violence in the early and mid-60s had escalated to a point where other voices in the Movement were challenging non-violence,” elaborated Rev. Reed. “People were very weary and forlorn about ‘will this work?’ because in ’63, we didn’t know it would work. We had hope that it would work. Originally, there was a lot of hope.” He said that rare, violent, Black protests did occur, but never “bore any fruit.”

His journey down to National Mall was a quest to find a remedy the societal ills, conducive to the Jim Crow Era. “At that time, I thought the March on Washington was pivotal because young people in our age group were questioning how long we could endure non-violently,” he reminisced. “I do remember standing on the Mall saying ‘I sure hope this works.’”

Both youngsters were impressed by the events of the day. “It was the most wonderful experience in the world,” Mrs. Reed reflected with optimism. “It was awesome! It was unreal to see all those people of all nationalities gather for the same purpose.”

Like most young people of that age, the Reeds were awed by celebrities of the day such as Major League Baseball color-barrier breaker, Jackie Robinson, legendary actress, Dorothy Dandridge, and (white) film/TV stars, Burt Lancaster  and Tony Franciosa who intermingled with the masses. “For me, as a young person, I went down there and got star-struck,” remembered Rev. Reed. I never saw these people up close, you know, and there were a lot of them! I can remember a whole crew of them walking right up the Mall right in front of me for the same purpose.”

“You know, everybody was so enthused about Dr. King. Of course I was too, but I’ll tell you,” chimed Mrs. Reed,  “Mahalia Jackson stole the show!” Jackson wowed the crowd that afternoon with her stirring rendition of the gospel tune, “How I Got Over.”

The Reeds returned to Chester motivated to agitate change.  Rev. Reed, clearly, took the spiritual path, like other influential leaders of the Movement. He is now retired, but continues to practice his vocation as an Elder at Fresh Anointing Christian Center in Upper Darby.

Mrs. Reed went on to assume the top seat of the Chester NAACP Youth Council. “Right after (the March), I became president.” For the next few years (in conjunction with other organizations), Mrs. Reed participated in various protests around the nation, including the sit-ins in Cambridge, Maryland, and Delaware among other places. She also was a participant in the turbulent “Chicago Freedom (or Open Housing) Movement,” once again led by Dr. King, who’s ascension to “icon” status.

Alas, coupled with the murders/imprisonment of other leaders, Rev. Reed attributes the decline in the Movements’ progress to the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, whom he described as the first white person to predict a black president of the United States. “That didn’t come from the mouths of black leaders. That came from the mouth of Robert Kennedy,” declared Rev. Reed. He also recalled the “ violent dismantling” of progressive organizations and influx of drugs into black communities. Reed cited J. Edgar Hoover’s infamous COINTELPRO attack on the Black Panther Party, who’s famous free breakfast program was dubbed by Hoover as the nation’s “greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Rev Reed remembered, “When the early Black Panthers had their food programs, the oranges would be spiked with LSD, courtesy of the U.S. government. Drug trafficking in urban America increased, courtesy of the U.S. government. All of that to dismantle it, so what would’ve been militants, became a generation of drug addicts.”

He said, “Our eyes were opened to some things. I don’t think young people in that day knew how devastating it could be for your own government to be against you.”

Though they did not attend the national commemoration, the Reeds look forward to Chester’s celebration at Crozer Library on the evening of the official anniversary, Wednesday, Aug. 28th.

Citing the recent Zimmerman Trial and controversial alterations to voter ID laws, the Reeds see that the fight they started more than all those years ago endured, but do not feel that previous sacrifices and efforts were in vain. Rev Reed surmised, “I think all of the points are coming together now; educational, economic, social and political. People are understanding there has to be a convergence of progress on all levels and I think that’s where we’re headed, despite the discouragement and government by obstructionism.” He continued, “We are enjoying some significant gains over the last 50 years. Things are much more settled now, we’ve had obviously some things that’ve caused sentiments to come to the surface.”

“Now we can go into places where we were never accepted before, we can eat certain places, (and) the schools are integrated (via the Civil Rights Movement),” said Mrs. Reed, “but we still have a long ways to go.”

Rev. Reed continued his wife’s sentiments, “ We’ve got a long way to go. No we haven’t turned the corner yet. We’re on the right street, but we didn’t turn the corner yet. I believe the next 50 years will be more fruitful.”

THE TRUANTS

Evelyn Harris of the Bronx, NY stowed away on a bus at 12-years-old to attend the March on Washington in 1963

Evelyn Harris of the Bronx, NY stowed away on a bus at 12-years-old to attend the March on Washington in 1963

Anita Downs, of Chester, snuck from New York to Washington to attend the March on Washington in 1963.

Anita Downs, of Chester, snuck from New York to Washington to attend the March on Washington in 1963.

If any place was open to everybody, it was the March on Washington in 1963. However, excepting a hypothetical Ku Klux Klan defector, it’s hard to fathom someone breaking the law or risking punishment for attending. Well, that was the experience that Chester resident, Anita Downs and Bronx, NY native, Evelyn Harris. Both women attended the national commemoration on Saturday. At the time, Downs was nearing the age of 17, Harris (who was then known as Jiovanne Roland) was only 12. Aside from experiencing the original March as minors and trekking to Washington by bus to DC on Saturday, the two have something else in common, both snuck their way to the original March without their parents knowing!

Downs, Chester High alumni (class of 1964) and graduate of Sacramento State University was staying with an aunt in New York at the time. , Admittedly impressionable, Downs remembered,  “They had busses going from New York to DC, so me and a bunch of my friends out of New York went to DC to the March on Washington. I was a follower and I’m glad I followed.”

The only problem was neither Downs’ aunt or parents knew of her trip, a scenario worthy of sitcom TV she laughs about today, “My parents thought I was in New York (where) I  was supposed to be with my auntie in and my aunt thought I was here in Chester, but I was on the bus going to Washington.”

Harris, was also in New York, in the Mount Vernon section, where as a preteen, she heard about the March through her pastor at Macedonia Baptist Church, Rev. Dixon, who actually grew up with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In a similar (yet slightly bolder) move to Downs’, Harris and friends stowed away in the bathrooms of trains headed to DC. Harris explained,  “We snuck from school. I wanted to see that (the March)! I knew that it was going to be something big. I knew this was something great,” though she wouldn’t recommend any kids try to pull that off today.

Both women had bad negative interactions with Jim Crow-antics which compelled them to get to DC that day. Harris rehashed a tense experience with a white police officer at a water fountain, “I was told (by the police officer), ‘You can’t drink at that water fountain because of your color.’” Harris remembers the officer calling her a nigger, “I’ve been called a nigger. I know how it feels, but I like I told him, ‘my dad said a nigger is an ignorant person and they come in all colors and sizes, sir.’ (The officer) said, ‘You’re a smart one,’ and that was it. I’ll never forget it. “

Downs,  already burdened with the “double-whammy” of being produced by a interracial marriage (her father is Black father and her mother is Filipino). remembers her high school days where she and peers received no encouragement to pursue excellence, “We, as Black kids, were never told that we could go to college (or) that we can be somebody.” She recalled the prevalence of labor/industrial course such as home-economics and shop.

Like Harris, Downs also recalled seeing the separate water fountains, bathroom and restaurants of the hostile Jim Crow South while visiting family, as well as having to get off of a sidewalk if a white person happened along. The experience schooled her early in life to the fact that Blacks weren’t allowed in certain places. It also prepared her for future activism, whereas she participated in the NAACP Youth-led demonstration against the segregated Great Leopard Skating Rink in 1962 and faced police dogs while trying  to register new voters.

On another occasion, at another time of civil unrest in Chester, Downs remembers going into town to get new shoes for herself and her little brother and a ham since it was the Saturday before Easter. She reverted, “My mom said, ‘Don’t you do no demonstrating! You come straight back home!” She obliged and went about her business, with no intention of rabble-rousing, little brother and cousin in tow. When she reached the madness and tried to pass through, she noticed an older woman who served as a mentor to local children, on the ground, bloodied by police, with her top ripped. Downs, nixed her plans and tried to tend to her mentor by covering the woman up with the jacket she was wearing. At that point, Downs recollected, “I got checked with the billy-club and, next thing I know, I was being thrown on the bus.” As she watched her brother and cousin run home (which she believes was to tattle), she thought, “For all I knew, I was helping an elderly lady.” The penalty for her intended compassion was a two week stay at Broadmeadows State Penitentiary (now George W. Hill Correctional Facility).

Nevertheless, those were distant memories to both, who were dazzled by the energy on the Mall in ‘63. Echoing Dr. King’s last speech, Harris simply described, “I’ve been to the mountaintop! It was a beautiful thing.” She continued, “There were tons of people. After the speech, things changed. They really did.”

Awe-struck by the goings-on of the day, the magnitude of the day didn’t sink in for Downs right away. “I knew who Dr. King was. Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, I knew all of them. I knew who they were and I knew what they stood for, but to appreciate it, I didn’t learn that until later in life.”

Downs enjoyed herself just as much at the commemoration, citing the speeches delivered by Civil Rights pioneer, John Lewis and present-day activist, Rev. Al Sharpton as highlights. “It was amazing,” gushed Downs who sensed an increase in diversity in the crowd,s eeing more whites, Hispanics and Asians than before. “It was touching to see all those different people of all ages.” Having spent time in Florida years before, she also enjoyed seeing the support for Trayvon Martin and his family. She has memories of experience extreme prejudice I Florida as well, to which she said, “It’s changed, but not that much.”

The repercussions of sneaking to DC that day was different for both. Harris’ mother had been called, so she knew her daughter was a truant that day. She regaled with a paraphrasing of the phone call she had with her mother, “My mother said, ‘You didn’t go to school today.’ I said, ‘No. I went to Washington, DC. I saw Martin Luther King today!’ She said, ‘No you didn’t.’ I said, ‘Yes I did, mommy! I saw him. He was talking and it was real good! Everybody was there!”

Somehow, Downs made it back undetected. It wasn’t until recently that she told her mother. While watching, Lee Daniels’: The Butler together, during a scene depicted a protest, Downs’ mother said, “I don’t understand why those people had to march like that.” Unaware of her mother’s aloofness, Downs asked, “Mom, remember I marched and you didn’t want me to go?” Her mother replied,  “Because we didn’t want you to get hurt or killed.” To that Downs divulged, “Well, you know I went to the March on Washington,’ and she said, ‘Huh?!’” That was the extent off her mother’s emotion over the issue. A laughing Downs concluded, “She just looked at me like I was crazy. She didn’t pay any attention. My mother right now, she’s just like,’Whatever.’’”

Harris is a poet in her spare time, and wrote one especially for the whole experience: “Chances come and go. Seasons change. People change. I’m so glad I’m taking this chance because chances come and go.”

Free in DC For MOW 50: What Happened To God?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2013 by Free Smith

MLK Cross

 

 

Malcolm Mecca

The impact of the spiritual community on the Civil Rights Movement cannot be overstated. Many of its leaders were religious leaders, and the love and peacefulness that helped define the Movement are deeply rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ. Author of King’s Vision of Justice: Rooted in the Bible, David J. Lull wrote, “Dr. King often pointed out that it was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that inspired the ‘dignified social action’ of the civil rights movement. His notion of “creative suffering” – borne by civil rights activists who endured persecution and police brutality – came from his Christian faith in the redemptive suffering of Jesus.”

Usage of scriptural innuendoes was favored rhetorical practice for King, especially hopes for “God’s children” he pled for in the “I Have A Dream” speech. Even his ominous, final speech was closed with the biblical allusion of being at the “mountaintop” and seeing the “Promised Land” referencing Moses who, as a punishment from God, could only see the Hebrews’ “Promised Land” from Mount Nebo where he died. Use of this passage evidenced that King sensed his impending death, which was the next day.

Furthermore, Dr. King saw the Church as a microcosm of racism in America. According to Aldon Morris, sociologist at Northwestern University and writer of The Origins of the Civil Right Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change, cited King’s labeling of Sunday church services as “the most segregated hour in America.” “He felt the church hadn’t stood up enough and supported the movement.  They were needing allies from many different groups, and with the movement rooted in moral and religious precepts it made a great deal of sense to reach out to various religious groups.”

In his book, Gospel of Freedom, author John Rieder examined King’s moving “Letter From A Birmingham Jail,” expressed that King’s letter (also strewn with biblical references) helped to highlight the contradiction of Jim Crow to religious values held by institutions and spurred them to action, creating a “confluence of a major part of the black movement with the larger ferment in American Christianity and Judaism.”

Other some of  King’s more radical counterparts also used spirituality as a foundation to their fight. Muslim doctrine and his post as head voice of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam heavily influenced Malcolm X’s noble campaign. In his quest to liberate Blacks in America, founder of the UNIA, counterpart to W.E.B. DuBois and the NAACP, Marcus Garvey, put his separatist mission in a religious context, “As the Jew is held together by his religion… so likewise the Negro must be united in one grand racial hierarchy…Like the great Church of Rome, Negroes the world over must practice one faith, that of Confidence in themselves, with One God! One Aim! One Destiny! Let no religious scruples, no political machination divide us, but let us hold together under all climes and in every country, making among ourselves a Racial Empire upon which ’the sun shall never set.’”

Seeing how spirituality and faith were so influential in the Civil Rights Movement, one might wonder, what happened? Today, the leaders of thought in the Black community are predominately entertainers, replacing the ministers who led during times of oppression. According to Yeadon’s Rev. Dr. Harold Dean Trulear (“Uncle Dean” to me), reputable director of Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Initiative and professor at Howard University, “Media has taken center stage and it’s so powerful that it creates more of a sense of being a spectator and being more passive. The action is up front on the screen. The spiritual people on television are giving more of a message of individual prosperity and individual solutions to social problems than they are looking at the collective.” This focus on the self has been said to be a somewhat destructive imposition of feudalistic, European ideals foreign and incompatible to Black/African culture (stemming from a lesson I learned from Howard University’s Dr. Gregory Carr in his “Black Aesthetics” course). Trulear partially jested, “If Rosa Parks came to church to today and said she’d been discriminated against on the bus, somebody would’ve told her to ask God for a car.” He continued, “That’s an individual solution to social problem, that people overcome individually rather than transform society itself.”

Trulear calls this plight, “uncritical integration,” which he attributes to the Black community’s replication of “rampant individualism”, imperialistic mindsets and discrimination against subsets. “If the society was sick, then you don’t want to integrate into a sick society. You want to transform it. There’s plenty of stuff that we just took a from a very sick society,” he surmised. He deems that Black people have “uncritically adopted” a “flawed” American Dream. “There are number of things we do as Americans that is not the medicine. Rather than challenging the status quo about everything, we just got our piece of the pie.”

Since Blacks got their “piece of the pie, Trulear says revolutionary attitudes in the church have been tamed referencing H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1929 text, The Social Sources of Denominations, “I do think that Black churches have done what all churches have done which is the more affluent the congregation becomes, the less likely it is that they be involved in activism. They become more integrated in the mainstream society.”

Trulear also pointed out that, at the time, fellow Morehouse alum, Dr. King was not a pastor of a church. For six years, he was a senior pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, but his responsibilities hindered his leadership of the SCLC. “He couldn’t do it. There wasn’t enough time, so when he goes back to Atlanta as co-pastor (of Ebenezer Baptist Church) he has very different duties that allow him to spend time on a movement that he could have had he been confined to one church,” explained Trulear. He credited the work of the organizations’ full-time staffs with helping King and other leaders by “doing the organizing work on the ground.“

Trulear gave his blueprint to attaining “The Dream,” heavily influenced by  Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”): “One thing you can do is refuse to allow society to define you by the fact that you’re homeless or have a criminal record and then you can work with other people who have accepted that and help turn their lives around. That includes accepting the designation of subhuman because you’re Black or gay and because you’re an ex-convict or sitting in a homeless shelter. The situation doesn’t define me, I’m defined by Christ and because I’m defined by Christ, I can handle all situations.”

Free in DC For MOW 50 Part One: BABYLON

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2013 by Free Smith
Me outside of the MLK statue. It was like Mecca. LOL

Me outside of the MLK statue. It was like Mecca. Sorry for that crazy look in my eyes. No idea what expression that is. LOL

Alright. This’ll be a series of my personal coverage of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington/Civil Rights Movement. I went down to DC and participated in some of the festivities. Also interviewed some awesome folks from my area (Delaware County, PA) and want to share their stories.

First, let me get my personal views out of the way…

“… America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

These words were taught to my brother and I by our late mother, Robin Yvonne Butler Smith. Her reasoning to teach us this was to impart what she deemed as the actual “meat” of Dr. King’s celebrated, so-called, “I Have A Dream Speech.” While “dream” portion of Dr. King’s speech has been immortalized for it’s poetic appeal, I feel as though the part our mother imparted to us is just as poetic and actually defines the impetus behind the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom.

I never got the official “point” of the day, but the inexplicably narrow walkways and asinine boundaries, made getting to the stage to hear the speeches next to impossible, forcing many (who couldn’t charge phones or get reception for some reason) to just mill around and lend an ear to the plethora of agendas being pumped, which my generation would call “cooking.”

Now (though tangential at points) the people “cooking” for the cessation of racial profiling (most using the image of Trayvon Martin), improvements in the labor realm and marriage equality, “cooked” appropriately, at least somewhat sticking to the tenants of the original march. On the other hand, anti-abortion folks to weed legalization folks to socialists and everyone in-between “cooked” and they “cooked” in separate-but-equal kitchens. Those issues had nothing to do with the March. These “chefs” along with the people selling wares, were just taking advantage of the moment, I believe.

Nevertheless, I rode back to Chester, PA happy that I had attended. It was a beautiful display of black love (not overlooking the diversity of the crowd). Cordiality abounded. It was an upgrade of the 2nd Million Man March that I participated in as student at Howard University.

As I drove home from Chester High, I stopped to get something to eat. I was smoking a cigarette and a fellow young, black man, around my age, approached me and asked for one. I gave him one. He then tried to sell me some obviously stolen colognes. I told him I’d spent all my cash in DC. He asked me why he was hearing so much about DC. I told him that I’d attended the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington. He asked me, “What is that?” I was shocked. I gathered myself and could only muster, “I Have A Dream speech?” He said “Oh. OK,” made one last sales pitch and went on his way.

It flashed me back to tutoring in a writing center in West Philadelphia. I was helping a black girl in the 3rd grade with her assignment: an essay about Dr. King. I forget what I the prompt wanted, but I was flabbergasted when I had to explain to her, not only who Dr. King was, but I had to explain to her in laymen’s terms that “White people used to be mean to black people.” We never finished the essay, and the experience was so disheartening that I soon stopped tutoring there.

I say all this to say, that it’s great to have a reenactment of the March on Washington, but an agenda that we need is the eradication of black nihilism. Adults and children alike do not know, nor do they care about their history. I’m almost embarrassed to admit that even at Howard, the majority of my peers didn’t know that we had our own national anthem and flag and didn’t care much about it.

All in all, my March on Washington experience made me an advocate for the refurbishment of our pride as a people before we do anything else. I see the need for our history and culture  to be made a lot more prevalent to everyone in our communities. The words of Malcolm X ring true, “Just as a tree without roots is dead, a people without history or cultural roots also becomes a dead people.”

In the words of Dr. King, the learned and affluent in the black community owe a check to the ones out here lost and it can’t bounce once we do.  Not only do the funds have to be in place and available to recipients the day they come to cash it, we have to actually entice them into cashing it. It’s time to get back to basics.

See what I mean? I have no idea. If you could explain, please do...

See what I mean? I have no idea. If you could explain, please do…

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One of the many socialists "chefs" out there...

One of the many socialists “chefs” out there…

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A man reciting the "I Have A Dream Speech" by the King Memorial...

A man reciting the “I Have A Dream Speech” by the King Memorial…

The Metro had to make a few million. It was a madhouse. Happy to see the little ones out, though.

The Metro had to make a few million. It was a madhouse. Happy to see the little ones out, though.

IMG_9177 IMG_9150 IMG_9130 IMG_9107 IMG_9203 IMG_9170 IMG_9152 IMG_9134 IMG_9163

It really was like Mecca...

It really was like Mecca…

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White Education

Posted in The Man with tags , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2012 by Free Smith

I’ll admit it. I went to white schools for the majority of my educational career. That’s just for all of you who think it’s lame to go to a white school (I know you’re out there). But, I have enjoyed some advantages by going to these institutions. I received a great education. I learned how to write and speak well. I learned the classics. Most important of all, I learned how to interact with people of all different backgrounds which I believe gives me a good perspective on things. However, I went to school in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I don’t know if you know it, but the ‘burbs are pretty wild racially. I can imagine that Philly ‘burbs mirror other ones in the country, but while at Howard University, I was shocked one day by a professor. I was sitting at the shuttle bus stop with one of my professors. We had never had a conversation, but we were having a nice exchange. All of a sudden, I told her where I was from and went to school. To my surprise, she said that she taught in one of the neighboring districts and she said to me, “These kids from the South think they have a hard time. They have no idea.” This made me think back to my grade-school days. She really confirmed my thought and feelings that I had inside, but never really thought about since it was just my normal, daily life.

Elementary school was definitely my favorite time during my school years. Everything was fair and everybody got along for the most part. There are a few pitfalls though. In white schools, black history education is all but reduced to Black History Month, which should be called Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Jackie Robinson and possibly George Washington Carver Month (though you are taught that Carver was the inventor of peanut butter, sigh).  It got to the point almost that Dr. King was devalued. He’s just depicted as this lovey-dovey “dreamer” who made a great speech when he was in actuality a revolutionary that put his life on the line everyday to make life better for his people and the world as a whole. Luckily, I had a mother (who was also a teacher at the school) who taught us at home the real deal on who we were and are. It’s because of her that I developed a deep love for and interest in the struggle. She shared her perspectives and experiences and had us reading books, watching programs and visiting museums to increase our knowledge on our history. Here’s a funny side story though: One day a kid asked my brother, “You guys have Black History Month. How come there’s no White History Month.” Frustrated, my brother responded, “BECAUSE EVERY MONTH IS WHITE HISTORY MONTH!”

As young’ins, we all are curious about many things and to my fellow classmates, blacks were a mystery.  I can remember times when they would actually feel our hair because it amazed them so.  Another example of this came from a friend of mine who came to my district from Philly when she was in about 6th grade. She had her hair beaded and came to school and had so many kids touching her hair and asking questions that she just decided to stop wearing them all together. This may seem like a small thing, but my mother deaded that inkling when she told us to never let anybody just feel our hair. She compared it to slaves on the trading block when white slave traders would examine their potential buy. I never let anybody lay a pinky on my head after that.

Another unfortunate aspect of attending a predominantly white school is that you WILL hear some racial slurs and jokes. Taking a number 2 can be referred to as “dropping your kids of at the pool”. White girls who like black guys may be referred to as “mud chasers”. You may hear jokes like, “What’s the difference between a black man and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family.” Somebody may come out and say that their family used to own yours. One time in school, a white guy called a black kid a “black son of a bitch” and was body slammed on a lunch table as a result. The black guy was suspended. His mother was then ridiculed for protesting outside every morning with a sign reading “STOP THE RACIAL SLURS AT THIS SCHOOL”. Oh yeah, don’t think they’ll be afraid to throw around the N-word, an action is sure to cause a rumble.

These are just a few things that you may experience going to a white school. Now don’t get me wrong. There are advantages. As I said before, you will learn a lot of useful things that will help you in the future and you will develop a more diverse mindset that will help you when dealing with people in the outside world. But be prepared for some difficult times racially. To parents, I urge you to teach your kids as much as you can in the home about our history, where we come from and what we’ve been through and prepare them to be strong and resist the urge to whoop a white kid for saying something out of pocket no matter how justified they may be. It will just make things worse for your kid.

My HBCU Book Entry: Hail Howard

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2012 by Free Smith

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I attended Howard University from 2002 to 2006. I transferred and got my degree from Penn State. I always say that I graduated from Penn State, but I did all of my learning at Howard. My time there, I feel, is a major contribution to my mindset today. I had the opportunity to see, learn and participate in things there that I would never have known existed had I not gone there. Out of all of HU’s elements that I absorbed, I’d have to say the overall Black experience that I was immersed in was the most valuable to me personally.

 

At the foundation of the Howard experience is the Afro-American requirement. I feel it was so beneficial to us that it was required that we allot some of our time to learning about ourselves. The recurring theme of the Diaspora had a profound effect on me. I saw that there’s no difference between myself and the myriad of African descendants strewn throughout the world. As a radio production major, learning about Amos n’ Andy, Edison’s “Ten Little Niggers”, Birth Of A Nation vaudevillian minstrels and “race music” was enlightening. A life changing class for was Dr. Gregory Carr’s Black aesthetics course. I walked away thinking that maybe I didn’t see us as much based on society’s inbred concepts of beauty/value. These courses really made me question my perception of my entire existence.

 

The lessons on Blackness were extracurricular. I learned that Black is not only beautiful, but elaborate as well. As a black kid who was a “White boy” in school, I was aware that there were different groups of black people. I was always separated from Black comrades because of my vernacular and “smart kid” status. I’m not bitter about this, but I realized then that there are different categories of Black people. It wasn’t until I got to HU that I truly understood how deep we go. I liken HU to a sociological experiment. There were a plethora of kinds of Black people. It’s always said that we come in all different shades in a sense of complexion, but this concept also applies to lifestyles, attitudes and points of view. There were groups comprised of Black people from around the world with differing interests be it politics, the arts, science, religion, business, Greek life or, unfortunately, crime. There were DC residents in the mix. DC is a unique place culturally itself. Nevertheless we always found each other together blending in the Café, the Punchout, a house party or The Yard. It was a vision to behold at chapel services and other events in Crampton Auditorium when we all stood with fists clenched in the air singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. Furthermore, on nights like Black Tuesday, when we marched for affirmative action, the 2nd Million Man March, or the demonstration on The Yard when Laura Bush came, we were one.

 

Going to an HBCU made me value my Blackness as something that is rare and priceless. It also showed me that Blackness is not verbally definable. We can truly be whatever it is that we want to be. No matter who you are or what you’re into, there’s a place for Black people in various facets of society. A lot of us are working hard to assimilate to what society expects of us, but it’s obsolete to do so. Socrates said it best in his quote, “Be as you wish to seem.” We truly have the capacity to do so. However, the HBCU experience couples that notion with the African concept of “I am we.” While we are all different, we’re simultaneously the same. I am so appreciative to Howard for showing me that. 

 

Job-ish

Posted in Holy Moly with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2012 by Free Smith

I have an alright life. I mean, I’m living and breathing and others are underground or cremated, but it hasn’t been a crystal stare for me. I’ve suffered some although not the way that others are suffering. But I feel like Job at times. If you aren’t familiar, Job was the most righteous man on Earth during his time. Satan saw this and went to God to ask if he could fuck with him to prove that he would curse God to His face. So, Satan, after a few trips to God to ask permission took away Job’s children, his vast material possessions (land, livestock, etc) and even put boils all over his body. Job was dismayed, but would never curse God. I mean, he cursed the day of his birth, but never God’s name. In the end, Job passed Satan’s nonsense and God restored everything.

I feel like Satan’s tested me the same way. I don’t know if I’m comparable to Job in righteousness, but Satan sure has tested me. First (no order) my mother was taken from me. She was my best friend. The one I could tell anything to and we did a lot together. She was taken by pancreatic cancer a few years ago. God helped doctors discover gastric bypass surgery and I got it done (my mother never saw me through the end of it, but when I saw her in the hospital, she told me she could just look at me all day). But now, I keep having problems and can’t even enjoy food the way I want to. I hurl a lot and just can’t eat like I want to anymore. It’s a tad torturous. In 2004, while at Howard University, I had my first bout with mania with the onset of bipolar disorder. It’s hard for me to fathom that my mind which I think is powerful will just take itself over whenever it wants to and land me in the hospital where I can’t leave until the doctors say it’s alright. Not to mention, I’ve been depressed clinically since about middle school. I’ve been committed to the mental hospital 4 times now.

Back to the point, I say that I’m like Job because I feel Satan has had a hand in doing all of these things to me. I don’t think I’ve ever cursed God though. I’ve questioned Him, which may be too far, but I’ve never said, “Fuck you, God,” or anything like it. Hopefully, one day, my happiness will return. I don’t think I’ve been happy since elementary school. In fact, I don’t even remember what true happiness feels like. To just be content just isn’t in me. I hope to one day get to that point. To just be happy and content.

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