“Never give up. Without commitment, you’ll never start. But more importantly, without consistency, you’ll never finish. It’s not easy. If it were easy, [….] there would be no Denzel Washington. Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship. So, keep moving. Keep growing. Keep learning. See ya at work!”
~ Denzel Washington, Acceptance Speech at 2017 NAACP Image Awards
An MRB&PA broadside features both Isaiah Dickerson, the general manager, and Callie House, a national promoter and assistant secretary of the association, with the emblem of the United States in the center. (Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, RG 15)
The Union victory in the Civil War helped pave the way for the 13th amendment to formally abolish the practice of slavery in the United States. But following their emancipation, most former slaves had no financial resources, property, residence, or education—the keys to their economic independence.
Efforts to help them achieve some semblance of economic freedom, such as with “40 acres and a mule,” were stymied. Without federal land compensation—or any compensation—many ex-slaves were forced into sharecropping, tenancy farming, convict-leasing, or some form of menial labor arrangements aimed at keeping them economically subservient and tied to land owned by former slaveholders.
“The poverty which afflicted them for a generation after Emancipation held them down to the lowest order of society, nominally free but economically enslaved,” wrote Carter G. Woodson in The Mis-Education of the Negro in the 1930s.
In the late 19th century, the idea of pursuing pensions for ex-slaves—similar to pensions for Union veterans—took hold. If disabled elderly veterans were compensated for their years of service during the Civil War, why shouldn’t former slaves who had served the country in the process of nation building be compensated for their years of forced, unpaid labor?
By 1899, “about 21 percent of the black population nationally had been born into slavery,” according to historian Mary Frances Berry. Had the government distributed pensions to former slaves and their caretakers near the turn of the century, there would have been a relatively modest number of people to compensate.
But the movement to grant pensions to ex-slaves faced strong opposition, and the strongest came not from southerners in Congress but from three executive branch agencies. It was opposition impossible to overcome.
Land Allocation Efforts Stymied by the Johnson Administration
In the late stages of the Civil War and in its aftermath, the federal government (primarily Republicans) tried to relieve destitution among freedpeople and help them gain economic independence through attempts to allocate land. These efforts, both military and legislative, help explain why African Americans thought that compensation was attainable.
Special Field Orders No. 15, issued by Gen. William T. Sherman in January 1865, promised 40 acres of abandoned and confiscated land in South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida (largely the Sea Islands and coastal lands that had previously belonged to Confederates) to freedpeople. Sherman also decided to loan mules to former slaves who settled the land.
But these efforts were rolled back by President Andrew Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation of May 29, 1865. By the latter part of 1865, thousands of freedpeople were abruptly evicted from land that had been distributed to them through Special Field Orders No. 15. Circular No. 15 issued by the Freedmen’s Bureau on September 12, 1865, coupled with Johnson’s presidential pardons, provided for restoration of land to former owners. With the exception of a small number who had legal land titles, freedpeople were removed from the land as a result of President Johnson’s restoration program.
The Freedmen’s Bureau Act had been established by Congress in March 1865 to help former slaves transition from slavery to freedom. Section four of the act authorized the bureau to rent no more than 40 acres of confiscated or abandoned land to freedpeople and loyal white refugees for a term of three years. At the end of the term, or at any point during the term, the male occupants renting the land had the option to purchase it and would then receive a title to the land.
But Johnson’s restoration policy rendered section four null and void and seriously thwarted bureau officials’ efforts to help the newly emancipated acquire land.
In June 1866 the Southern Homestead Act was enacted. It was designed to exclusively give freedpeople and white southern loyalists first choice of the remaining public lands from five southern states until January 1, 1867.
But homesteading was problematic on many different levels. The short period allotted by Congress (six months) worked against freedpeople because most were under contract to work or had leased land, through the bureau’s contract labor policy, until the end of the year.
Certificate of membership in the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. (Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, RG 15)
Congress also underestimated the time it would take for freedmen and loyal whites to successfully complete the process of securing a homestead. This process involved filing claims, waiting indefinitely until offices opened or reopened, and working to secure enough money to purchase land. Concurrently, freedpeople faced southern white opposition to settling land.
Moreover, Congress provided no tools, seed, rations, or any form of additional assistance to freedpeople, and most freedpeople’s earnings just covered the bare necessities of life. Maintaining a homestead without assistance was almost impossible under those circumstances.
On March 11, 1867, House Speaker Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania introduced a bill (H.R. 29) that outlined a plan for confiscated land in the “confederate States of America.” Section four of the proposed bill explicitly called for land to be distributed to former slaves:
Out of the lands thus seized and confiscated, the slaves who have been liberated by the operations of the war and the amendment of the Constitution or otherwise, who resided in said “confederate States” on the 4th day of March, A.D. 1861 or since, shall have distributed to them as follows namely: to each male person who is the head of a family, forty acres; to each adult male, whether the head of the family or not, forty acres; to each widow who is the head of a family, forty acres; to be held by them in fee simple, but to be inalienable for the next ten years after they become seized thereof. . . . At the end of ten years the absolute title to said homesteads shall be conveyed to said owners or to the heirs of such as are then dead.
Stevens knew that if federal land redistribution legislation failed to pass, freedpeople would be at the whim of former slaveholders for years to come. In support of his bill, he stated, “Withhold from them all their rights and leave them destitute of the means of earning a livelihood, [and they will become] the victims of the hatred or cupidity of the rebels whom they helped to conquer.”
Senator Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful Radical Republican leader, was a staunch advocate for emancipation and championed civil and equal rights for blacks. (111-B-1458)
Republicans, during the 1868 campaign, even promised 40 acres and a mule to freedpeople. A couple of decades passed before any further concerted efforts were made to provide economic relief and security for ex-slaves, and when there was another major effort, it was not by the government but by former slaves and their allies.
Ex-Slave Pension Movement Begins as the Century Ends
By the last decade of the 19th century, the idea of trying to procure the enactment of pension legislation for ex-slaves for their years of unpaid labor was put into action.
The concept of ex-slave pensions was modeled after the Civil War–era program of military service pensions, and the first ex-slave pension bill (H.R. 11119) was introduced by Rep. William Connell of Nebraska in 1890.
It was introduced at the request of Walter R. Vaughan of Omaha, a white Democrat and ex-mayor of Council Bluffs, Iowa. He did not believe that it, or subsequent bills, should be identified as a pension bill but instead as “a Southern-tax relief bill.” Vaughan recognized that pensions would financially benefit former slaves and would indeed be a semblance of justice for their years of forced labor. But the outcome he looked for involved ex-slaves spending their pensions in the South in order to give the devastated southern economy a financial boost.
The push for ex-slave pensions gained momentum in the 1890s and continued into the early 20th century. This grassroots movement was composed largely of former slaves, their family members, and friends. It emerged during the nadir of American race relations, roughly 1877 into the early 20th century.
Racial segregation officially became the law of the land with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plesseyv. Ferguson decision, which upheld racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. Lynchings and race riots were at an all-time high, while civil rights and legal recourse for blacks were virtually nonexistent. Throughout the South, black men were disenfranchised and could not serve on juries.
The pension movement flourished in spite of, or even because of, these obstacles.
There were a number of ex-slave pension organizations within the movement—the National Ex-Slave Pension Club Association of the United States (Vaughan’s Justice Party); the Ex-Slave Petitioners’ Assembly; the Great National Ex-Slave Union: Congressional, Legislative and Pension Association of the U.S.A.; the Ex-Slave Pension Association; the Ex Slave Department Industrial Association of America; and others—but there is a paucity of documentation for groups other than the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association of the United States of America (MRB&PA). The ex-slave pension organizations did not work together collectively, but there is evidence that officers of at least a few of these organizations were interested in joining forces and consolidating their groups.
The MRB&PA was chartered on August 7, 1897, and had a dual mission: to petition Congress for the passage of legislation that would grant compensation to ex-slaves, particularly elderly ex-slaves, and to provide mutual aid and burial expenses.
The association collected membership fees in order to help defray lobbying costs, printing/publication expenses, and travel expenses of the national officers. Monthly dues were reserved for mutual aid purposes (to aid the sick, the disabled, and for burial expenses). Ex-slaves and their allies gave their meager resources to help further the movement because they believed in the organization’s mission. Dedication and charisma characterized the leaders of the association and enabled them to mobilize the masses.
By the late 1890s, the MRB&PA was the premiere ex-slave pension organization, claiming a membership in the hundreds of thousands. In addition to having a strong grassroots following, the MRB&PA was highly organized. The national officers established a charter, drafted a constitution and by-laws, held annual conventions, formed an executive board, started local chapters mostly in the South and Midwest, established enrollment fees and dues, advertised through circulars and broadsides, and advocated unity of purpose.
The organization supported a proposed pension payment scale based upon the age of beneficiaries that appeared in every ex-slave bill from 1899 onward. Ex-slaves 70 years and older at the time of disbursement were to receive an initial payment of $500 and $15 a month for the rest of their lives; those aged 60–69 years old would receive $300 and $12 a month; those aged 50–59 years old would receive $100 and $8 a month; and those under 50 would receive a $4 a month pension. If formerly enslaved persons were either very old or too ill to care for themselves, their caretakers were to be compensated.
Once a freedperson reached a certain age threshold, he or she would then be eligible for the higher pension. This proposed ex-slave pension payment scale is very similar to the Civil War pension gradation scale for soldiers with disabilities. Soldiers who became disabled as a result of military service received pension payments based on the nature of their partial disability and military rank. Over time, the Civil War pension program came to resemble a system of pensions for elderly veterans just as the ex-slave pension movement’s main focus was to secure pensions to particularly aid the elderly.
Callie House, a widow, mother, and former slave, became a national leader of the ex-slave pension movement. (Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, RG 15)
The association’s headquarters was in Nashville, Tennessee, where two of its most notable leaders, Isaiah H. Dickerson and Callie D. House, lived. Dickerson, an educator and minister, was the general manager and national promoter of the organization. House, a widow, laundress, mother of five, and former slave, was elected as the assistant secretary of the association in November 1898. She soon became a national promoter of the movement alongside Dickerson.
As the association’s membership grew, government surveillance intensified. However, Dickerson, House, and other association officers were not aware of the federal government’s intense interest in their organization and plans to undermine it and the larger movement.
Association Faces Strong Opposition to Pensions from U.S. Government
Three federal agencies—the Bureau of Pensions, the Post Office Department, and the Department of Justice—worked collectively in the late 1890s and into the early 20th century to investigate individuals and groups in the movement.
The officials who pursued the investigations thought the idea of pensioning ex-slaves was unrealistic because the government had no intention of compensating former slaves for their years of involuntary labor. Harrison Barrett, the acting assistant attorney general for the Post Office Department, admitted in an 1899 circular that “there has never been the remotest prospect that the bill would become a law.”
In a February 7, 1902, letter to the commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the commissioner of pensions blamed the ex-slave pension organizations for arousing false hopes for “reparation for historical wrongs, to be followed by inevitable disappointment, and probably distrust of the dominant race and of the Government.”
Special examiners of the Law Division of the Bureau of Pensions attended slave pension association meetings, took depositions from officers (national and local), and sent letters to officers and members to determine if officers were representing themselves as officials appointed by the United States Government.
The Bureau of Pensions also sent circulars to agents affiliated with various ex-slave pension organizations. Although these circular usually carried the disclaimer, “While any class of citizens has an unquestioned right to associate for the purpose of attempting to secure legislation believed to be advantageous,” these words were often simply a formality. The bureau’s inspectors did not find evidence to incriminate any of the influential MRB&PA officers whom they suspected of fraud.
The Post Office Department took action when it presumed that the U.S. mails were being used to defraud ex-slaves. The Post Office used its extensive antifraud powers against the movement, issuing fraud orders to organizations and officers.
On September 20, 1899, Barrett issued a fraud order against the MRB&PA and its national officers (Dickerson, Rev. D. D. McNairy, Rev. N. Smith, Rev. H. Head, and House), forbidding the delivery of all mail matter and the payment of money orders.
Once the mail was intercepted, it was either returned to senders marked “Fraudulent” or simply withheld from the intended recipients. The fraud order and obstruction of mail proceeded even though the Post Office had no concrete evidence that the association had acted illegally.
In letters to both Barrett and Nashville Postmaster A. W. Wills, Dickerson, House and other officers invoked their first amendment rights (namely their right to assemble and right to petition the government), 14th and 15th amendment rights (citizenship rights and voting rights), and highlighted the dire condition of old ex-slaves.
In both correspondence and depositions, national and state officers of the MRB&PA also repeatedly denied the accusation that the movement was fraudulent or a lottery. They even hired an attorney to represent them and try to get the fraud order revoked. These efforts were futile. The Post Office Department was determined to maintain the fraud order set in motion in 1899 against the association and its founding officers and was continually searching for ways to limit their influence.
The Department of Justice gathered information to probe the activities of the officers, especially House, not to counteract any fraudulent beliefs. The MRB&PA provided the department with a list of local agents in order to show that they were not a sham organization, but the government disregarded this proof.
There were individuals who, under the guise of supporting the movement, took advantage of ex-slaves. They were either affiliated with an ex-slave organization or pretended to be affiliated with the movement to swindle money. To counter any misuse of funds within their organization, the MRB&PA had a grievance committee that would determine if an officer was guilty of squandering funds, and it took necessary action against him or her.
The goal of the investigations by the Bureau of Pensions, Post Office Department, and Justice Department was not to determine whether former slaves had a legitimate grievance or claim, but to stifle the movement.
The pension bills submitted to Congress received little serious attention. The Senate Committee on Pensions examined S. 1176 (a bill essentially similar in language to all of the other bills) and wrote an adverse report. This committee received its information (and thus a tainted view of the movement) from none other than the Post Office Department and the commissioner of pensions. The report described freedpeople in the movement as “ignorant and credulous freedmen,” and the committee concluded that “this measure is not deserving of serious consideration by Congress” and recommended “its indefinite postponement.”
Senate Bill 1176 is representative of the ex-slave pension bills introduced in both houses of Congress. This bill’s new feature was the proposed pension payment scale based upon the age of beneficiaries. (Records of the U.S. Senate, RG 46)
When House learned of the committee’s report, she drafted a letter to the commissioner of pensions refuting its allegations and explaining the objectives of the association. She invoked both the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Because one of the main objectives of the association was petitioning Congress for pensions to aid old ex-slaves, House reminded the commissioner that “the Constitution of the United States grants it[s] citizens[s] the priviledge [sic] to petition Congress for a redress of Greviance[s] [sic] therefore I cant see where we have violated any law whatever.”
In 1901 Dickerson was found guilty of “swindling” in city court in Atlanta, Georgia. The press reported that he would have to pay a $1,000 fine or be sentenced to one year on the chain gang. The conviction was overturned later that year by the Georgia State Supreme Court, which reasoned that in order to be convicted of swindling, Dickerson would have had to have claimed that an ex-slave pension bill had passed and become law or that an appropriation had been made to pay pensions, and not simply that he was advocating for the passage of pension legislation.
Then in May 1902 a special examiner of the Bureau of Pensions conducted an inquiry into Dickerson and drafted an affidavit of the investigation but found nothing incriminating. When Dickerson died in 1909, House soon became the leader in the forefront of not only the MRB&PA but of the movement.
After Congress responded so unfavorably to the pension movement, House took the issue to the courts.
In 1915 the association filed a class action lawsuit in federal court for a little over $68 million against the U.S. Treasury. The lawsuit claimed that this sum, collected between 1862 and 1868 as a tax on cotton, was due the appellants because the cotton had been produced by them and their ancestors as a result of their “involuntary servitude.”
The Johnson v. McAdoo cotton tax lawsuit is the first documented African American reparations litigation in the United States on the federal level. Predictably, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia denied their claim based on governmental immunity, and the U.S. Supreme Court, on appeal, sided with the lower court decision.
The Post Office Department was unrelenting as it continued to search for means to limit House’s influence and curtail the movement. After a prolonged investigation, House was arrested and indicted on charges of mail fraud. She was accused of sending misleading circulars through the mail, guaranteeing pensions to association members, and profiting from the movement. She denied ever assuring members that the government would grant pensions or that a law had been passed providing pensions for ex-slaves. There was also no evidence that she profited from the movement.
The Post Office identified activities as mail fraud without definitive evidence, and their decisions to deny use of the mails were nearly impossible to appeal.
After a three-day trial in September 1917, an all-white male jury convicted her of mail fraud charges, and she was sentenced to a year in jail at the Missouri State Prison in Jefferson City. She was released from prison in August 1918, having served the majority of her sentence, with the last month commuted.
This movement, against insurmountable odds, pressed for the passage of pension legislation to no avail. But being labeled as fraudulent—especially by determined federal agencies—sealed its fate.
Miranda Booker Perry is an archivist trainee in the Textual Archives Division at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. She has worked on a number of military records projects and has delivered presentations on the ex-slave pension movement. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in history at Howard University.
Note on Sources
Records on the ex-slave pension movement housed at the National Archives reveal an immense amount about a social movement on the periphery of history, the organization at the epicenter of the movement, and the government’s response to it.
National Archives Microfilm Publication M2110 reproduces the series Correspondence and Case Files Pertaining to the Ex-Slave Pension Movement, Law Division, Bureau of Pensions, Records of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Record Group (RG) 15. These records include correspondence, circulars, broadsides, petitions to Congress, depositions, pension bills, certificates of membership, affidavits, and memorandums. The numerous letters from ex-slaves and their descendants inquire about the status of ex-slave pension legislation, provide information on their former slave status, and urge the government to pay pensions. Certificates mailed to the bureau involvement in and support of the ex-slave pension movement. There are also letters between Post Office officials and pension officials.
Fraud Order Case Files, part of the Records of the Post Office Department, RG 28, include correspondence, fraud orders, memorandums, newspaper clippings, and copies of constitution and bylaws. Special Field Orders, No. 15, Headquarters Military Division of the Mississippi, January 16, 1865, is found in Orders & Circulars, ser. 44, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s–1917, RG 94.
Other NARA records that contain material pertaining to the movement include the General Records of the Department of Justice, RG 60; Records of District Courts of the United States, RG 21; Records of the U.S. Senate, RG 46; and Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, RG 233.
The remarks by Thaddeus Stevens in support of H.R. 29 are in the Congressional Globe, 40th Cong., 1st sess., March 19, 1867, pp. 203, 205. Walter R. Vaughan’s pamphlet, Vaughan’s “Freedmen’s Pension Bill”: A Plea for American Freedmen is housed at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University. Walter Fleming’s, “Ex-Slave Pension Frauds,” University Bulletin Louisiana State University Vol. I-N.S., No. 9 (September 1910): 6 was first published in the South Atlantic Quarterly,April 1910. The “cotton tax” case, Johnson v. McAdoo, was decided on November 14, 1916, by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (45 App. D.C. 440); the Supreme Court sustained that decision in 244 U.S. 643 (1917).
The ex-slave pension movement was relatively unknown until historian Mary Frances Berry rescued it from obscurity in her essay “Reparations from Freedmen: 1890–1919: Fraudulent Practices or Justice Deferred?” Journal of Negro History 57 (July 1972): 219–230, and in her book My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005).
Also consulted were Claude F. Oubre, Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Land Ownership (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978); John Hope Franklin,Reconstruction: After the Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961); Carter G. Woodson,The Mis-Education of the Negro (Washington, DC: The Associated Publishers, Inc., 1933); and Michael T. Martin and Marilyn Yaquinto, eds. Redress for Historical Injustices in the United States: On Reparations for Slavery, Jim Crow, and Their Legacies (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).
Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.
Still, Small Voices was the title and content of my pastor’s sermon on December 14, 2014, delivered a week after I posted my fury over lack of indictments for the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in Let Ferguson – and the United States – burn!
I have long believed that either my pastors are paying attention to what I write and respond via their sermons or God is answering me directly through them. I truly believe the latter. 😉 Honestly, when I began listening to this sermon that Sunday morning, I was still burning in anger and frustration. I literally put my hand up and said, “I’m not even trying to hear you! There’s nothing still and small about me right now! My rage is too loud!”
But even as my hand was raised to push the message away, I apologized immediately for my rejection of it. So after sprouting my anger, I opened my ears and prepared to receive the message that was for me.
I didn’t take notes then, but I listened.
God is good. He maintains His hold on those who belong to Him.
I accepted His gentle rebuke just as I accepted my anger, outrage and frustration. I know everything in my life works to my good and my life works to glorify God.
Trust that there is a purpose for whatever passion threatens to consume you. Submit your passions to God and He will mold you into the instrument He needs for such a time as this.
Know you are blessed as you walk in your purpose and your passion.
To God be the glory,
SERMON: STILL, SMALL VOICES by Pastor Carter Conlon
Quote: In a place of graciousness
Therefore the Lord will wait so that He may be gracious to you, therefore, He will be exhalted that He may have mercy on you. For the Lord is a God of justice. and blessed are all those who wait for Him.
When you finally discover that you have no strength inside of yourself, that your own palns, mannerisms are not going to work for you in this hour. I will wait for you until you’ve exhausted all your efforts – even righteous efforts – and I will be gracious to you there. In a place of graciousness – a place where the strong and the weak negotiate; and the poor and needed are shown kindness. When you finally run out of gas, I’ll come to you and I’ll speak to you. I’ll speak to you in soft, quiet confident way that will settle your heart and give you the strength to go forward. There is such incredible power in a small, still voice.
~ Pastor Carter Conlon.
Amen. And thank you, Pastor Carter, for being an instrument and a messenger.
This post erupted from me a couple of days after the Grand Jury in Ferguson, MO decided not indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed teen who was found guilty and executed for the crime of walking in the street on his way home. I sat on this post because the raw fury burning through me was a very unusual and unsettling feeling. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t posting thoughts that were only contained to the moment I wrote them down in. Now, nearly two weeks later and after several more murders of unarmed men (Rumain Brisbon of Phoenix Arizona) and boys (Tamir Rice, Cleveland, OH) by police officers across the United States and yet another Grand Jury decision to not indict at least one police officer, Daniel Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner in New York City who was found guilty, then jumped by at least five police officers and choked to death for the crime of standing on a street and possibly selling single cigarettes, this post, in its original form, is tame.
My rage is no longer boiling over, it’s crystalizing.
November 26, 2014
All the people outraged about those expressing anger by rioting and burning down a community, I say who gives a fuck? Seriously? Police officers around this country are killing unarmed CITIZENS, i.e. PEOPLE, without any fear of prosecution and the main concern of those watching is “be careful of other people’s PROPERTY?”
WHY NOT BE CAREFUL OF OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES?
WHY NOT BE CONCERNED WITH OTHER PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO LIVE FREE OF HARASSMENT AND THE VERY REAL THREAT OF DEATH BY OTHER PEOPLE WHO SWORE AN OATH TO PROTECT AND SERVE THEM?
What is wrong with this country? What is wrong with the people who can justify in their minds that the killing of ANYONE over a presumed suspicion of cigarette theft is okay? Do you think YOUR life is worth more than a handful of cigarettes? Is it worth more than a pack or a carton, do you think? I think you’re thinking “YES, of course, I AM worth more cigarettes!” Then how can there be a debate about the worth of this child’s life? And how can people be more outraged over the lost and damage of property than they are over the destruction and loss of life?
All over the internet people are lamenting “How can ‘they’ destroy their own community?
Who are the “they”?
The people who were supposed to stay in ghettos? In neighborhoods cut off from civilized society?
Who are the “they”?
Why is no one thinking the “they” are “us”? Why is no one talking about how America has destroyed its own? The media isn’t talking about how America hates its own. People with a conscience are infuriated with America ignoring, diminishing and murdering its own.
Some Americans are mad because buildings are burning and cars are being overturned? Well, I’m undone by the deaths of people who have been burned, shot and suffocated. “They” – Americans – are mad because humans are being categorized and treated as meaningless in this country.
The burning of Ferguson is a REACTION to continued blatant injustice in one case that is rooted in a history of blatantly sustained inhumane injustices toward a group of people in this country. If the out-of-touch Americans want a reasonablereaction, then ‘they’ should insist on reasonable justice being applied in every facet of these United States of America. Had the bare minimum of an indictment been issued for Darren Wilson when he murdered Michael Brown, an unarmed teen, then neither the first riot nor the second riot would have happened in Ferguson, MO. The people have a right to expect law enforcement officers to be answerable to the same laws they are responsible for enforcing. That is the true American way.
December 6, 2014
Upon hearing the grand jury in NYC saw no reason to hold Daniel Pantaleo accountable for the killing of Eric Garner, all I could think… indeed, all I could write was:
December 3, 2014
I’m out of words.
But I won’t be silenced. I will not be rendered immobile.
That night I marched. I shouted through the streets. I stood in solidarity with thousands of Americans across the country who are also outraged by the assumption of power the police in this country have taken upon themselves. Two comments within my hearing enraged me enough to shout directly at the police officers while demonstrating my outrage. The first was when a police officer threatened to arrest people if they sat down in the street. Sitting in a street is not a crime. Sitting in a street that is occupied by people standing and chanting while being closed to traffic presents no danger to anyone. The second comment was shouted by a cop as we walked through the streets. “Get on the sidewalk!” “No, we’re taking the streets,” we chanted. “Do as you’re told,” the officer shouted back. For that he got an infuriated, “Fuck you! I don’t have to do as you say,” from me. Apparently the fact that Michael Brown was killed shortly after he flippantly refused to walk over to Darren Wilson when he was waved over seems to be lost on police officers. Police officers themselves are NOT the law. Their job is to uphold the law. Satisfying their egos is not a citizenship obligation for Americans.
The police essentially justify their killings of civilians by two sets of reasoning: 1) The person did not obey them; and 2) they feared the person, i.e. they thought the person was a threat to them personally.
Do as you’re told.
Again, I say, “Fuck you! You do as you’re told!” The people trump government.
The film, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, spoke of things in life I was not able to speak on when I first saw it in the early 80’s. It was that movie that led to me reading Maya Angelou’s autobiographical book of the same title and most of her poems. It was during my exploration of her work that I began to understand the nature and power of words and the way they influence regardless of the amount of time that has passed since they were first written. I traced Maya’s work back to Paul Laurence Dunbar. His poem, Sympathy, became one of my all time favorites for the way it articulates pain and suffering expressed through a joyful sound. Of course, I didn’t understand all that at 8 years of age, but I understand it now. What I understood then was that trouble won’t last always and one day I would learn to sing in spite of my circumstances. That understanding rolled back to Maya Angelou and she became an example to me of a woman who continued to rise above and beyond what the destroyers in her life had in store for her. As she allowed her song to encompass and encourage us all, I trust that her song will grow more enriching as her words influence generations to come. She has risen to glory with the sure knowledge that what she shared has enriched many and will continue to do so. Blessings to her on her continued journey.
~ My Facebook status update on May 28, 2014 after reading on my FB feed of Dr. Angelou’s passing (slight editing for posting here).
Dr. Maya Angelou, the American poet and author, died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Wednesday, May 28. She was 86.
Her son, Guy B Johnson, confirmed the news in a statement. He said: “Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension.
“She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”
Quotes collected from my Facebook feed
Maya Angelou, the American poet and author, died at her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Wednesday. She was 86.
Her son, Guy B Johnson, confirmed the news in a statement. He said: “Her family is extremely grateful that her ascension was not belabored by a loss of acuity or comprehension.
“She lived a life as a teacher, activist, artist and human being. She was a warrior for equality, tolerance and peace. The family is appreciative of the time we had with her and we know that she is looking down upon us with love.”
Dr. Maya Angelou was born to Vivian Baxter and Bailey Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928. She passed to her Heavenly Reward quietly on May 28, 2014 in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She is survived by her son, daughter-in-law, two grandsons and two great-grandchildren, a nephew, a niece, grandnieces, great-grandnieces, grandnephews, great-grandnephews and a host of beloveds.
From the time she was a child, Dr. Angelou proved that she was a unique individual with amazing commitment and focus. The birth of her son when she was seventeen did not prevent her from continuing in pursuit of her dreams for a creative career. From her start as a singer in San Francisco’s Purple Onion and Hungry I in 1953 to the installation of her portrait in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 2014, she was continuously on a dramatic, musical or political stage.
She was a dancer, a singer, an actress, a poet, a writer, a magazine editor, a playwright, a film director as well as a college lecturer, full Professor and a fearless, outspoken activist. She never let her various vocations inhibit her activism or her willingness to speak out against injustice and inequality. She performed in a number of major productions. She was in both the 1954 International Touring Company and the subsequent movie of Porgy and Bess. She was also in the 1977 television series of Alex Haley’s Roots and in the 1995 film How to make an American Quilt. She was in too many other productions to name. She directed the films Georgia, Georgia and Down in the Delta.
Her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1970. She went on to write thirty-three other books including autobiographies, poetry and essays. A number of her works were best sellers and were published in number of languages.
Throughout her life Dr. Angelou’s activism never flagged or waned. In 1959, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she headed the New York office of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Next, she worked for the Arab Observer News Magazine in Cairo, Egypt, which was the premiere English language magazine in the Middle East. Later she moved to Ghana and met Malcolm X. She returned to the United States to work for him, but he was assassinated four days after her arrival in New York. She continued to be voice of humanity, speaking out against anything that fettered the human spirit. Her life and her body of literary work trumpet the importance of love, tolerance and forgiveness. She was a warrior for truth, justice and love.
I think I will forever remember that the day Nelson Mandela died I attended a phenomenal event hosted by the Anti-Defamation League where I heard words and reflections about overcoming hate and bigotry so powerful I reached out to personally thank the person who invited the person who invited me. I wanted to let him know that his generosity, consideration and kindness to his friend had a domino effect – I was an indirect beneficiary. I will also remember that later in the day, I gave a presentation on a research project titled Democracy, Diversity and Stereotypes, in which one of my most interesting findings was that the small number of respondents who felt that their lives were negatively impacted by discrimination, stereotypes and prejudice claimed that other peoples’ biases did not truly hinder them in life – such biases may have slowed them down, but they did not stop them. During my presentation I also shared a video that was played at the Anti-Defamation League event. It still moves me. It moved my audience too. Watch and be inspired:
“I was not born with a hunger to be free. I was born free – free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars and ride the broad backs of slow-moving bulls. As long as I obeyed my father and abided by the customs of my tribe, I was not troubled by the laws of man or God.
It was only when I began to learn that my boyhood freedom was an illusion, when I discovered as a young man that my freedom had already been taken from me, that I began to hunger for it. At first, as a student, I wanted freedom only for myself, the transitory freedoms of being able to stay out at night, read what I pleased, and go where I chose. Later, as a young man in Johannesburg, I yearned for the basic and honorable freedoms of achieving my potential, or earning my keep, of marrying and having a family-the freedom not to be obstructed in a lawful life.
But then I slowly saw that not only was I not free, but my brothers and sisters were not free. I saw that it was not just my freedom that was curtailed, but the freedom of everyone who looked like I did. That is when I joined the African National Congress, and that is when the hunger for my own freedom became the greater hunger for the freedom of my people. It was this desire for the freedom of my people to live their lives with dignity and self-respect that animated my life, that transformed a frightened young man into a bold one, that drove a law-abiding attorney to become a criminal, that turned a family-loving husband into a man without a home, that forced a life-loving man to live like a monk. I am no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man, but I found that I could not even enjoy the poor and limited freedoms I was allowed when I knew my people were not free. Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me….
I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.” (http://www.scu.edu/ethics/architects-of-peace/Mandela/essay.html)
I was away from New York City for most of July. It was my longest absence from the City since I moved here in 2005. Quite honestly, before leaving, I couldn’t wait to get away. The City was exhausting me and seemingly weighing me down. As a matter of fact, last year around this time, I was seriously considering moving to Nashville, Tennessee. I imagined a slower pace was what I needed on a day to day basis to enjoy more of life.
Apparently, I only needed a break. Even more apparent, three weeks away was more than enough. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. Almost immediately upon my return (i.e. on the ride home from the airport), I was gushing with pleasure from the energy infusing me just from driving through the City and seeing all the people going about their lives.
I returned on a Friday evening and I was beyond eager to rush out the door Saturday afternoon and just sit in the energy of the City. Within hours of my return, my otherwise routine Saturday afternoon revealed the following things that make this city so great and so aggravating at the same time. The people make this city what it is and there is no place else in the world quite like it.
Here are some things I missed in the order that they made an impression from Friday through Sunday after my return.
1. The vibrancy of the city.
I can’t explain it, but the City has a pulse. The incredible crowds of people definitely contribute to the City’s heartbeat. I can’t even explain the amount of energy I got just from looking at the crowds in motion. It’s electrifying. It’s invigorating.
2. Bodacious pedestrians
As the airport shuttle aggressively drove through Times Square to drop off the first passenger at a hotel, jaywalkers crisscrossed in front of us every 20 feet. The shuttle driver didn’t necessarily dodge the jaywalkers or slow down, resulting in most of the jaywalkers rushing to get out the road. All except one bodacious woman of steel. This woman stopped in the middle of the road with her hand raised in a “halt” motion even as her friends darted between cars to get clear of traffic. I heard her shout, “Slow down!” He didn’t. I shook my head. Luckily one of her friends reached out and yanked her out the way.
3. True diversity.
Over 190 countries are represented in this city. People are so different, but living in this city gives us common ground to build on. I’ve recently realized that if you can’t see diversity, then diversity doesn’t exist where you are looking. True diversity is visible and it changes the norm.
4. The audacity of servers.
My first meal out was brunch at a neighborhood spot. My bill, with tax, came to $15.80. I gave the server $20.85 and he said, “Thanks, have a great day.” I told him to have a good day too and waited for my change. Five minutes later, as he passed my table for the second time since grabbing my money, I told him I needed my change. #I’m not brand new bro.
5. Ridiculous salespeople (hair stylists are in this group too)
There was a pair of sandals I admired on one of the women I met overseas. She told me she had purchased them in Brooklyn, so I was effectively on a mission to find them in the City. As I walked through Union Square Saturday afternoon, I spotted a similar style through a storefront window. I walked in and found the style I wanted, turned and asked the salesperson if he had the sandal in size 42 and red. He returned with a black pair and insisted I try it on. I asked him again for red and as he attempted to cut off the circulation at my ankle with the too short strap, he admitted that he was trying to force me into a size 41 and he did not have red in stock. I thanked him for his willingness to sell me a sandal in a size too small and the wrong color.
6. Toilet seat covers.
Do I need to say more?
7. The shopping experience.
While away, I truly wanted to experience everything about the culture I was in. One of my disappointments with the European city I was visiting was how much it had been infiltrated by American culture. I can’t name one brand indigenous to the country I was in, but I saw a great many American, British and French brands. Now that I’m back, it’s sheer pleasure to be ensconced in the decadent over-abundance that is American shopping culture in America.
8. The View
Every street either has a view of something spectacular or leads to a spectacular view
9. People. Activity. Life.
Below are photos of Times Square, Sunday morning at 10:15 AM on my way to church. Where else are people out like this on an overcast Sunday morning?
With comfortable shoes, one could walk all day here and not feel the walk at all because of everything going on. On my walk across town from church to my afternoon spa appointment, I encountered a street fair. I ended up walking a bit out of my way just to see what was on offer. That’s the beauty of the City: so much is on offer. The displays are always great, but participating makes living here worth while.
Okay, yes, this greeting is a wee bit late calendar-wise (perhaps right on time weather-wise). I made it a couple of weeks ago and couldn’t manage to upload it to WordPress or Facebook from my phone (even with the help of the Sprint in-store customer sevice. I just noticed that it did, however, manage to upload to Youtube. I’ll take that. Happy Spring-and-almost-Summer!