From Race Track to POW Camp and Back

Just a few miles from my home is a sign that says “P.O.W. Camp Owosso.” The sign is outside of a oval track for car and motorcycle racing.

Being new to this area, this sign caught my interest and I decided to do some research on the camp. Here is what I found.

During World War II, over 6,000 prisoners were housed in Prisoner of War (POW) camps in Michigan. While approximately 1000 were held in the Upper Peninsula, most were housed in the Lower Peninsula. Many camps were held at former Civilian Conservation Corps barracks that were no longer in use.

In Owosso, this racetrack that was not in use because of the war was chosen for a prison camp. Reports of exactly how many prisoners were held here vary between 350 and 1000. After the war the Germans were returned to their home and the administrative records were deposed of in the 1950s.

The men were housed six to a tent and the area was surrounded by a fence. In the winter time they were moved to the barracks at Fort Custer.

(picture thanks to Dominic Adams | dadams5@mlive.com)

Due to the draft, the U.S. had a huge labor shortage. The government allowed POWs to be used for labor in nearby farms or businesses. W.R. Roach Canning Company was the principal contractor with the government for prison labor. But many also worked on local farms. The prisoners were paid for their labor with 80 cents per day going to them and the rest of the wage going to the federal government to maintain the camp. The 80 cents was given in canteen checks which could be used for cigarettes, candy and other personal items not provided by the government. Most worked for six days per week at 8 to 10 hour days. While the men did not have to work outside the camp, most preferred that to staying in the camp as there was a little more freedom and most farm families would feed them lunch. The government provided a couple of slices of bread and a piece of meat or cheese for lunch, but the families felt this was not adequate for manual labor and many allowed them to eat the noon meal with their family. This led to friendships between the farm families and the POWs and they remained friends after the war ended.

(National Archives picture “German Prisoners of War at a camp near Owasso, Michigan, being paid with canteen checks by Camp Commander Captain Ohrt.” Dated 8/8/44 – photo by Sgt. S.L. Hertel.)

Reports from that time indicate that the men were well behaved and there was little attempt to escape. But then where would they go? Thousands of miles from home over an ocean and with their German accent, they would quickly have been captured.

However, at Camp Owosso there was an escape attempt that included two local girls. In July, 1944 two local girls helped two men escape from the Canning Compay where they were working. They spent the night in the woods before being captured by authorities.

The girls probably did not realize the consequences of their actions. Found guilty of conspiracy, Kitty Case received one year and three months and Shielry Druce was sentenced to one year and a day.

The girls’ motive for helping the men was not given but one of the girls testified that she was in love with one of the men. This attempted escape brought lots of new attention to the local county. You can read a novel based on this story. Cottonwood Summer by Gary Slaughter.

The prisoners were also heroes to one family. Eva Worthington had just come home for giving birth to her tenth child when her house caught on fire. Her husband, superintendent of the Roach Canning Factory, was at work. Several prisoners saw the fire, hurried in and wrapped Mrs. Worthington in a mattress and carried her to safety.

When the war ended the men were returned to their homes, but some came back and settled in the US, at least one man marrying an American young lady he had met while working outside the camp.

Today the racetrack once again welcomes family and racers to enjoy the sport. Owosso Speedway is one of the premiere short tracks in the state of Michigan featuring constant side by side action and fun for the whole family.

I’m Not a Racist – or Am I?

There is so much talk today about being racist. Many are quick to call others by that name while as many as quick to insist they are not racist and that they are tired of people using the “race card.”

While I have never been called a racist (at least as far as I know) and I would say I was not a racist, I still took a look at what the dictionary said a racist is.

According to Webster’s dictionary a racist is someone who holds “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

A more complete definition lists: “Racism is the belief that groups of humans possess different behavioral traits corresponding to physical appearance and can be divided based on the superiority of one race over another. It may also mean prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against other people because they are of a different ethnicity. Modern variants of racism are often based in social perceptions of biological differences between peoples. These views can take the form of social actions, practices or beliefs, or political systems in which different races are ranked as inherently superior or inferior to each other, based on presumed shared inheritable traits, abilities, or qualities.”

Using that definition I think I can honestly say I am not a racist. I have never believed that one group of people is inherently superior to another.

But using that definition I must say that I was raised by a generation who were clearly racist. Let me say that my parents and my aunts and uncles were good people that I loved and respected. I don’t believe they realized how racist they were. But looking back at that generation I see it is so clear that prejudices have been passed down from generation to generation. Only within the last few years have many been able to recognize this and to work to break that terrible cycle of beliefs.

As a young adult I had many arguments with my father who insisted that black people’s brains were not as big as white people’s brains. He also had other beliefs about physical differences that I will not even mention here.

For years I thought my father was just a country boy who came up with some crazy ideas. It is only as I have begun to research and read the history of black/white relations in our country that I have discovered this was not some crazy ideas of one man. This was what he had been taught along with many of his generation.

And that terrible lie has been a part of our history going back even before our country was established.

As our country was founded and began growing, there were many physicians and scientists who advocated that there was a difference between the “pure” race (white) and Africans and Native Americans.

One was Dr. Charles Caldwell. Dr. Caldwell visited the Musee de Phrenologie in Paris where he studied a collection of skulls taken from people from all the world. After his study, he determined that the skulls of African people show that they had a “tamableness” that not only made them perfect for slaves, but actually required them to have a “master.” This belief which was shared throughout our nation served to contribute to the belief that slavery was an acceptable part of nature. It contributed to the idea that whites were superior.

Another was Samuel George Morton. Morton’s collection of skulls is today part of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and is one of the most famous collections of human skulls in the entire world.

Morton published a book in 1839. In “Crania Americana” he described five “separate species.

(Excerpt from “Crania Americana” showing the supposed differences between the skulls of different races. Morton claimed similarities between the skulls of primates and African people.)

They were (in descending order) Caucasian, Mongolian, Malay, Native America and Negro. He wrote that these differences were dictated by God. He concluded that Native American minds were “adverse to cultivation, slow in acquiring knowledge.” His book was very popular in America and many believe this was used to justify removing Native Americans from their homeland and taking the land for white settlers.

His book became popular in Britain, France, Germany, Russia and India. Charles Darwin called him an “authority” on the subject of race. Others applauded his work and many in European countries began to also publish such ideas.

You might think the abolitionist would not have bought into this thinking. But many of the renowned abolitionists also believed this. The apparent “tambleness” of the blacks served two purposes. One, it could reassure that if the slaves were set free, they would not take revenge on their masters. Two, if they were naturally weaker and inferior to whites, society had an obligation to help them, not enslave them.

While I am sure today almost anyone would say these studies were ridiculous, I believe that this thinking has been passed down generation after generation.

My parents did not dislike blacks. I saw them often be kind and friendly with blacks we came into contact with at church services. However, without really stopping to think, they had been indoctrinated with that thought that somehow we as whites were superior to blacks. It was an almost unconscious thing – as natural as breathing in and out.

I am not a racist and in tracing my ancestry as far back as I have been able, I find no record of anyone owning slaves. But if I remain silent when I hear or see others making comments that are racist because I am afraid of losing friends, then what does that make me?

Examples of things I have heard from others:

One pastor friend said “We did blacks a favor by taking them from the jungles of Africa.”

One family member moved from one mobile home park to another because a black family moved in across from them and asked me “Would you like living next to a black family?” My response was that I did have black neighbors and they were some of the best in our community.

One family member, when hearing that my husband had found that one of his ancestors was a slave from Ghana said, “Well, that explains a lot of things.” Was she just trying to be funny? Maybe – but still – that is not funny.

Finally, while I do not agree with most of the items on the BLM agenda and I am not in favor of rioting and destroying, I have found it interesting to see the anger of many of my white friends over the restrictions or loss of rights they have experienced with this Covid crisis.

For over a year now we have been told we cannot gather in large groups, many of our sports, our schools, even our churches have been shut down. We have been denied entry to most retail stores unless we wear a mask. And the anger is real. And the anger is right.

But – I have to ask:

If we get so angry for some loss of freedom for almost two years, how can we not see that the history of not only loss of freedom, but loss of life, not for two years but for hundred of years might lead to anger.

And, if you really want to know the history that our black friends know (passed down from grandparents) I recommend the following books:

  • Red Summer, the Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America by Cameron McWhirter
  • Forever Free, the Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction by Eric Foner
  • Wilmington’s Lie, the Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino
  • Life of a Klansman, A Family History of White Supremacy by Edward Ball

We can say we are not racists and we never owned slaves or we can begin to read and research our nation’s history and try to understand where our black friends and neighbors are coming from.

Do You Know These Women – Part V

Dr. Randy Lovelace did the physical testing for NASA to help with the selection of the Mercury astronauts. His vision went much beyond just getting a man into orbit around the earth. He thought someday we would have space stations orbiting the earth where science research could be done. If that should happen, women would need to be included as secretaries, laboratory assistants, nurses. That led him to wonder if women were physically fit to handle the pressures that spaceflight demanded.

Accordingly, he set up a privately funded project in Albuquerque, New Mexico and invited 25 different women pilots to participate. They would take the same tests that the Mercury astronauts had taken.

Privately funded in large part by the first woman to break the sound barrier, Jacqueline Cochran, records of more than 700 female pilots were reviewed before the 25 were invited to come to New Mexico and participate in these tests.

Given the same physical and psychological exams that the Mercury 7 men had taken, 12 women passed Phase 1 tests. These tests were strenuous and included having ice water shot into their ears which froze their inner ear. This allowed doctors to determine how quickly they recovered from vertigo. They were subjected to electric shock to their forearms to test their reflexes.

Phase II tests included seeing if they could withstand hours of isolation in a sensory deprivation tank and other experiments to determine women’s physiology and mental strength.

Army pulmonologist, Kathy Ryan, has taken a look at the test results of these women and compared them with the Mercury astronaut candidates. She determined that women on average did better than the men especially in the isolation tests and sensory-deprivation tests. Studies in Britain, Canada and the USA have all confirmed that these women did as well as the men.

So why did nothing come of these women’s attempts to be part of the space program? The American culture was just not ready for women to take an equal role with men. One of the women, Jerrie Cobb, spoke before Congress and also visited with then Vice President Lyndon Johnson.

Another strong advocate was Janie Hart who testimony before Congress included the statement:

‘I strongly believe women should have a role in space research – in fact, it’s inconceivable to me that the world of outer space should be restricted to men only, like some sort of stag club.

‘One hundred years ago, it was quite inconceivable that women should serve as hospital attendants; their essentially frail and emotional structure would never stand the horrors of a military dressing station. Finally, it was agreed to allow some women to try it – provided they were middle-aged and ugly (ugly women presumably having more strength of character.) I submit, Mr Chairman, that a woman in space today is no more preposterous than a woman in a field hospital 100 years ago.’

The hero of the first space program, John Glenn, said “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”

The 13 women who passed the initial physical tests were:

Jerrie Cobb (now deceased)
Wally Funk
Irene Leverton (now deceased)
Myrtle “K” Cagle (now deceased)
Jane B. Hart (now deceased)
Gene Nora Stumbough [Jessen]
Jerri Sloan [Truhill] (now deceased)
Rhea Hurrle [Woltman] (now deceased)
Sarah Gorelick [Ratley] (now deceased)
Bernice “B” Trimble Steadman (now deceased)
Jan Dietrich (now deceased)
Marion Dietrich (now deceased)
Jean Hixson (now deceased)

Regardless of these women’s fight for inclusion in the space program NASA did not select any female astronaut candidates until 1978. Although both Cobb and Cochran made separate appeals for years afterward to restart a women’s astronaut testing project, the U.S. civil space agency did not select any female astronaut candidates until the 1978 class of Space Shuttle astronauts. In 1983 Sally Ride became the first American woman in space in 1983 and in 1995 Eileen Collins was the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle. She also was the first woman to command a Space Shuttle mission in 1999.

Eileen Collins invited the women who once aspired to fly into space to join her as she piloted the Space Shuttle.

Members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs, also known as the “Mercury 13”), these seven women who once aspired to fly into space stand outside Launch Pad 39B near the Space Shuttle Discovery in this photograph from 1995. The so-called Mercury 13 was a group of women who trained to become astronauts for America’s first human spaceflight program in the early 1960s. Although FLATs was never an official NASA program, the commitment of these women paved the way for others who followed. Visiting the space center as invited guests of STS-63 Pilot Eileen Collins, the first female shuttle pilot and later the first female shuttle commander, are (from left): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Do You Know These Women?

This is a repost from earlier last year.  Since this month is Women’s History Month, I thought I would share again.  While I only shared about the last three women on this list in this post, check out some of the others for some interesting and informative stories of women we do not hear about.

Do you like history?  American history?  Would you consider yourself knowledgable on our country’s past?  If so, do you know these women?

  • Dorothy Vaughan
  • Mary Jackson
  • Katherine Johnson
  • Christine Darden
  • Jeanette Rankin
  • Dot Braden
  • Ann Caracristi
  • Virginia D. Aderholt

The list could go on and on.  Somehow it seems the women have been sadly neglected in our history books.

The last three were among the first to learn that World War II was officially over.   Recruited, along with thousands of others, these women worked decoding messages sent by the Germans and Japanese.  As the war with Japan began to end the Japanese could not communicate with the USA directly because lines of communication had been cut.  It was determined that the Japanese planned to send a message announcing their intent to surrender via the neutral Swiss.  The message would be sent to the Japanese ambassador in Bern who would then take it to the Swiss foreign office.

As the message came through to the Japanese ambassador Virginia D Aderholt was the one who decoded the message.  From there word was sent to President Truman that the surrender would be coming shortly.

These three women were part of the larger group who helped to break the complex systems used by the Axis Powers to hide their messages in secret.  These young women were recruited from colleges all over the USA.  Young and eager to help with the war effort as their husbands and brothers were fighting, they did much to help our country not only win the war, but saved many American lives in the process.

Representative Clarence Hancock of New York stated:

I believe that our cryprographers…in the war with Japan did as much to bring that war to a successful and early conclusion as any other group of men>

Want to know more about these terrific women?

Check out the book Code Girls – The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II written by Liza Mundy.

And follow my blog for the next few days as I share stories of other women neglected in our history books.

Women like “Stagecoach Mary” a formerly enslaved woman who carried the U.S. mail – and her rifle – through the Montana mountains.

Lulsa Capetillo, a Puerto Rican labor leader who was arrested in Havana for wearing pants in public.

And much more.

Two Islands – Two Stories – Which One is Yours?

Most of us have heard of Ellis Island. Many of us who have traced our ancestry can lay claim to having descended from someone who came through Ellis Island on their journey to becoming an American citizen.

Prior to 1892 immigration was controlled by individual states. On January 1, 1892 the Federal government opened an official immigration station on Ellis Island. More than 12 million immigrants would arrive in the United States via this island in the next 62 years. The island became a symbolic landmark and immigrants who came to this country to seek a better life saw this island as the doorway to the land of opportunity. A large majority of those who came were from Northern European countries.

Even today Ellis Island is held up as a great symbol of our country and the welcome it gave to immigrants. On a web site devoted to the island it is called “a poetic symbol of the American Dream”

After arriving at the island immigrants were screened for any obvious physical ailments. They also had to fill out a form before boarding the ship with their name, country they were from and some questions that could be used by the legal inspectors before being granting leave to enter the USA. Although some were turned away or kept for many days before being allowed to enter or sent back to their home country, only two percent were denied entry.

Today there is a National Museum of Immigration on the island. The first immigrant to be processed there has a statute in her honor. She has become a well-known historical figure

Annie Moore, 17 year-old arriving from Queenstown, Ireland

Other well known immigrants came through Ellis Island including Bob Hope, Irving Berlin and Cary Grant. Other less well known were Jamaican poet and writer Claude McKay and Olympic swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku.

This island is celebrated by our nation and it boast its own foundation website who states that its goal is:

The Foundation works to preserve and honor two of our country’s greatest landmarks: the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. We pursue a diverse range of educational and community building efforts and work to create meaningful connections between island visitors and the dense fabric of American history.

There is a Passenger Search database where you can search for family members who arrived there from 1820 to 1957. There are close to 65 million passenger records. For $50 you can even have a foundation members search the records for you.

But what if your ancestors did not come from northern Europe? What if your ancestors came to the USA as slaves? Is there an island, is there a foundation for you to research your background?

Well there is Sullivan Island in South Carolina.

In 1674 Captain Florence O’Sullivan was placed by the government of Carolina in charge of protecting the city of Charles Towne (Charlestown). He chose the island that now bears his name as the best place to place a gun that would protect the town.

It quickly became a commercial center for rice and indigo trade. As the colonies grew and trade in slaves became another highly commercial venture, Charlestown quickly became the largest slave port in the USA. Sullivan’s Island was the main entry point for Africans forced into slavery in the North American colonies. Until January 1, 1801 when the slave trade was abolished in the USA, approximately 400,000 Africans were imported to the USA to labor in the tobacco and cotton fields of the South. It is believed that at least 40% of that number came through Sullivan Island.

“Pest houses” were built on the island where the slaves would be quarantined for days before they were then transported to Charles Town for sale at public auction.

Sadly, unlike Ellis Island, there is little to mark the history of those who came to the USA through this island.

In 1989 writer Toni Morrison noted this lack of recognition by our nation.

“There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath or wall, or park or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road.”

In 1990 a small plaque was finally placed on the island commenorating all those who came to the USA through Sullivan’s Island.

A place where…Africans were brought to this country under extreme conditions of human bondage and degradation. Tens of thousands of captives arrived on Sullivan’s Island from the West African shores between 1700 and 1775. Those who remained in the Charleston community and those who passed through this site account for a significant number of the African-Americans now residing in these United States. Only through God’s blessings, a burning desire for justice, and persistent will to succeed against monumental odds, have African-Americans created a place for themselves in the American mosaic.

A place where…We commemorate this site as the entry of Africans who came and who contributed to the greatness of our country. The Africans who entered through this port have moved on to meet the challenges created by injustices, racial and economic discrimination, and withheld opportunities. Africans and African-Americans, through the sweat of their brow, have distinguished themselves in the Arts, Education, Medicine, Politics, Religion, Law, Athletics, Research, Artisans and Trades, Business, Industry, Economics, Science, Technology and Community and Social Services.

A place where…This memorial rekindles the memory of a dismal time in American history, but it also serves as a reminder for a people who – past and present, have retained the unique values, strength and potential that flow from our West African culture which came to this nation through the middle passage.

Erected in 1990 by the S.C. Department of Archives and History. The Charleston Club of S.C. and the Avery Research Center.

Pursuant to a request from the South Carolina General Assembly as Evidenced in concurrent resolution S. 719, Adopted June 3, 1990.

Two different islands – two different stories. Although those who came through Ellis Island no doubt suffered many difficulties just making the trip and then going through the screening process on the island, they came willingly as their own choice and came seeking the hope of a better life.

Those who came through Sullivan Island did not come as their own choice but were stolen from their family and home and subjected to a journey over the ocean that we cannot even begin to imagine. They did not come seeking anything or hoping for a better life.

Ellis Island might have a sign that said “Welcome to America”

Sullivan Island’s sign might say “Welcome to Hell.”

A Black Poet?????

In Boston there is a Women’s Memorial that honors three women from our country’s early beginnings.

By Ingfbruno – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27653635

One of the statutes anyone familiar with American history would recognize. She is Abigail Adams, wife of our second president, John Adams, and mother of our sixth president, John Quincy Adams. One thing she is remembered for is advocating for women to be included in our country’s fight for freedom. Unfortunately, although our Constitution stated that “all men are created equal” it seems that did not include women. It would be years before women were given the same rights as men to take part in our country’s political life.

In her letter to her husband Abigail written on March 31, 1776 she asked him:

and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

A second woman honored there is Lucy Stone.

Lucy Stone

An fervent abolitionist Lucy was one of the first women in Massachusetts to graduate college. Following in her parents’ footsteps she worked with the American Anti-Slavery Society. As she became an outspoken advocate both for freedom of the slaves and for women’s rights she was excommunicated from the Congregational Church.

After the Civil War when the Fifteenth Amendment was proposed giving black men the right to vote, many of the women’s rights proponents argued against it since it did not include women. Lucy supported it because it agreed with her abolitionist viewpoint and she believed it would eventually lead to women also gaining that right.

Lucy rightfully asked the question:

If, while I hear the shriek of the slave mother robbed of her little ones, I do not open my mouth for the dumb, am I not guilty?

The third woman is one that we rarely hear about. Phyllis Wheatley.

By Scipio Moorhead – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a40394. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1629684

She was the first African-American poet to be published. What is so amazing is this took place while she was still a slave, even before our nation had declared its independence from England. Abigail Adams was a fan of her writings as was George Washington.

As her writings became popular and people were told they were the work of a black woman, many could not believe it. A group of prominent Boston men examined her and concluded that she had indeed written the poems. They wrote a preface to her book to attest that it was indeed written by a black woman. Even so, publishers in Boston refused to publish the book so she went with her master’s son to London where it was published.

As I read about this talented woman, it made me wonder just how prejudiced and can I say “stupid” our founding fathers were that they could not believe a black woman (and by inference black people) could be capable of such intelligence. I am so amazed at the courage it took for her to go to London and have the book published.

Here is one of her poems:

Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negro’s, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

I find it ironic that she refers to Cain as black. Clearly although her owners had recognized her abilities and had taught her to read and write, even learning Greek and Latin, they had also taught the false teaching in the Christian church at that time was that the curse God put on Cain was to make him black.

Sad how white slave owners tried to use the Bible to justify their slave society. Sad that even as educated as Phyllis was, she seemed to accept that terrible lie.

Even today, I wonder how many lies our society hangs on to as justification for not reaching out to those not like ourselves.

I Refuse to Be Color Blind

We often hear people say we should be color blind. When we look at someone we should not see white/black/brown but rather just a person. That sounds like a good idea. But it is one I cannot accept.

First of all, I think it is simply not possible. How can you not observe what color someone is when you look at them? I have grandchildren whose skin color runs from white as snow to warm chocolate brown to black as midnight. It would be hypocritical of me to say I do not notice the difference in their skin color.

I used to call these two my “salt and pepper” loves.

While I understand the idea of being “color-blind” is a good one when used as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did in his great “I have a dream” speech, I think it can be misleading.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Clearly we need to be people who judge a person by who they are, not what they look like.

However, to try to not see someone’s color can mean not really seeing who they are. When I meet a black person if I try to pretend I do not notice they are black, I am really refusing to give them the acknowledgement I should. And exactly what does that mean? Am I pretending they are white? Am I trying to treatment them like they are white? Well, they are not. Like it or not, we are all shaped to some extent by the culture we were raised in, by the way we see the world and the world sees us. The color of our skin plays a role in that.

To try to pretend that a black woman has had the same experiences of life that I have, that she will view the world exactly as I do is to deny who she is.

An example of what I mean. On my first job after high school I had a black co-worker who became a friend of mine. (This was in the 1960’s when there was a lot of unrest in our cities over the Civil Rights Movement.) At that point I really had not taken into account the difference in our skin color. I thought I was color-blind. One day we went out for lunch. I enjoyed the meal and was surprised when she refused to go out again to eat with me later in the week. I could not understand. Had I done something to offend? Did she not like the restaurant? We could go to another one.

She told me she was not comfortable with the stares we got from the other customers. At first I told her I did not know what she meant. But after thinking about it a little, I realized we did get very poor service and our waitress was very unfriendly. Still I did not have a clue why until she told me she felt they did not like our eating together and being so obviously friendly with one another.

Up to that point I had basically lived in a white world. She was my first black friend. To a white woman at that point I did not feel what she felt when people stared or when our waitress was rude. But now I realized I needed to not be color-blind. I needed to try to see the world through her eyes, to acknowledge that her skin color caused her to be treated differently, caused her to notice the stares more than I did, to feel the waitress’ rudeness more deeply than I did. Only when I quit trying to be color-blind, could we begin to navigate how our friendship would work going forward. She wanted to keep our friendship hidden but I wanted to go back to that same restaurant and dare someone to be unkind to her.

To this day I do not know if I did the right thing but I tried to push her to step out and not let others stop us from having a friendship that we did not have to hide. She finally continued to eat lunch with me, but when her car broke down and I wanted to give her a ride home, she stupidly refused. To be honest I was never sure if she did not want our co-workers (who were white) to get upset with me or if she did not want her family to know that she had a white friend. While we remained friends at work, we were never able to take our friendship to a deeper level. To this day I wonder – did I unknowingly treat her with prejudice? Did she unknowingly have prejudice toward me? I have always been sad that our friendship ended when I left for another job. That it did not survive outside our work place.

Now that I have grandchildren who are black, I again cannot ignore how the world treats them differently because of the color of their skin. My grandson, who is black as midnight and handsome as can be, and I have had discussions of what he faces as a black man. To try to pretend that he is the same and faces the same world as my white grandsons is both not true but also unfair to him.

Only when we acknowledge our differences can we then celebrate those differences. How dull this world would be if we were all one color, one background. I want to see that whiteness, that blackness you wear and then learn what your experiences have taught you and how you can share with me and we can celebrate who we are.

From Slave Songs to Gospel

In 1866 an university was established in Nashville Tennessee that was open to women and men regardless of color. Founded by the American Missionary Association, Fisk University was only one of more than 500 schools and colleges this anti-slavery group set up before, during and after the Civil War.

Five years after its founding, the university found itself in financial distress. Hoping to raise money to keep the school open Fisk treasurer and music professor, George White, took nine of his students on tour to perform in small towns around the country.

 Deciding what songs to sing, Professor White wrote, “One day , there came into my room a few students with some air of mystery. The door was shut and locked, the window curtains were drawn, and, as if a thing they were ashamed of, they sang some of the old-time religious slave songs now long since known as Jubilee songs.” This was one of those moments that changed everything. It was a moment that altered the course of musical history. Current musical director, Professor Paul Kwamit, said of that moment “the Fisk Jubilee Singers changed the Negro spiritual into an art form and introduced it to the world.”

There were some hostile audiences. Refused first-class seats on the train, George Pullman intervened and ended segregated seating on his trains. But over time their beautiful voices and immaculate performances brought praise and recognition. Mark Twain was a great fan of theirs and said “I would walk seven miles to hear them sing again.” Their efforts to help the university was a huge success. They raised enough money to build the school’s first permanent building. Named Jubilee Hall after them, it is now a National Historic Landmark.

The group sang at the World Peace Festival in Boston and later at the White House for President U.S. Grant.

In 1873 the original nine members were increased to 11 (all but two of this group were former slaves) and they took their singing to Europe. There they performed before Queen Victoria and Prime Minister William Gladstone. Queen Victoria was so enchanted by their singing that she commissioned a massive group portrait by her own official portraitist. This beautiful floor-to-ceiling portrait hangs in the Jubilee Hall.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1925, on their way to Windsor Castle to sing for the king and queen. Photograph: Getty Images

Since then the group has continued to share their talents around the world. In 2000 they were inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. Music City Inc. included them, along with Reba McEntire, Roy Orbison and Ronnie Milsap, into the inaugural class of honorees of the Music City Walk of Fame. The U.S. Embassy sent them to Ghana in July 2007 to help that nation celebrate their 50th independence anniversary. President George W. Bush presented them with the 2008 National Medal of Arts.

We owe much to the black community for our own music. Much of jazz, rhymn and blues, gospel, and even rock and roll was largely influenced by the black community and the songs they created from their experiences.

“If American music is unique, it is largely due to its bedrock foundation of blues and
gospel music, two forms of music that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Anchoring the sounds of African America, these styles underlay the musical innovations
of the century: jazz, rhythm and blues, rock, soul and hip hop. They are known and
cherished around the world and in every corner of the U.S. It would be impossible to imagine American music without them
.”….Charles E. McGovern, Associate Professor of American Studies and History, College of William and Mary.

Check out the stories of some of these great black musicians:

  • Louis Armstrong
  • Muddy Waters
  • Sam Cooke
  • Mahalia Jackson
  • Sister Rosetta Tharpe
  • Ma Rainey
  • Jelly Roll Morton
  • Nat King Cole

No Time For Silence

February is Black History Month. Although it was not officially recognized by our government until President Gerald Ford acknowledged it in 1976 and stated “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history,” it was not a new idea.

Carter G. Woodson, who has been called the “Father of Black History,” created Negro History Week in 1926. Mr. Woodson was the second black man to receive a PhD in history from Harvard. By working to make society aware of black history he hoped to make white America aware of the contributions blacks had made to the creation of America. He wanted to show that blacks deserved to be treated equally as citizens.

Growing up as a white person I only heard the history of a few blacks and what I heard was very limited. There was Harriet Tubman who led many slaves to freedom on the Undergrown Railroad and George Washington Carver who I was told discovered peanut butter (not true). That was about the sum of my education on black history.

I wonder how much the average white person really knows of the accomplishments of blacks in our country. Even more, I wonder how much we really know about the bitter treatment we have given to them in our nation’s history.

Let me ask you: do you know any of these people or what role they played in our nation’s history?

  • Phyllis Wheatley
  • P.B.S. Pinchback
  • Booker T. Washington
  • Langston Hughes
  • Lois Mailou Jones
  • Dorothy Vaughan
  • Mary Jackson
  • Katherine Johnson
  • Christine Darden
  • W.E.B. DuBois
  • James Amistead Lafayette

I could go on and on. The list is endless.

I quote from the National Museum of African-American History and Culture:

You can tell a great deal about a country and a people by what they deem important enough to remember, to create moments for — what they put in their museum and what they celebrate. In Scandinavia — there are monuments to the Vikings as a symbol of freedom and the spirit of exploration. In Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis celebrated their supposed Aryan supremacy through monument and song. While America traditionally revels in either Civil War battles or founding fathers. Yet I would suggest that we learn even more about a country by what it chooses to forget — its mistakes, its disappointments, and its embarrassments. In some ways, African American History month is a clarion call to remember. Yet it is a call that is often unheeded.

We recently celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It was interesting how many of us posted his comments on love not hate and peace not civil discord. All very good things to remember. But where were his other quotes?

“As the nation, Negro and white, trembled with outrage at police brutality in the South, police misconduct in the North was rationalized, tolerated, and usually denied.” Leaders in Northern and Western states “welcomed me to their cities, and showered praise on the heroism of Southern Negroes. Yet when the issues were joined concerning local conditions, only the language was polite; the rejection was firm and unequivocal.”

Speaking two years after the terrible Watts riots of 1965, Dr. King said this:

Let me say as I’ve always said, and I will always continue to say, that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. … But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again.

May I encourage you to look up some of these people listed above or do a search on Google to learn more about the all great contributions in our nation’s history that blacks have made — and become more aware of their story.

One quote of MLK I did not see on any of my friend’s posts says it all I think.

The Chautauqua Movement is Alive and Well Today

After a quick drive through Bay View Michigan where we discovered beautiful Victorian houses, we learned this community was part of the Chautauqua movement from the late 1800’s.  Although the movement slowly died out in the 1920’s this community has remained active from its founding in 1875.

Always interested in our country’s history I have done some research since coming home on the Chautauqua movement.

I found the word is an Iroquois word and means ““a bag tied in the middle” or “two moccasins tied together.”   This name apparently was given to the movement because the first such meeting took place near Chautauqua Lake in New York where the word described the shape of the lake.

Started by John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller in a Methodist camp meeting site, it was used as a summer school for Sunday School teachers.  Although it started in this religious setting, it was more than just religious teaching.

It quickly spread throughout the country and attracted families to enjoy educators, preachers, musicians, orchestras while also enjoying camping and other outdoor summer activities.

Politicians also enjoyed speaking at these gatherings.  The large crowds that attended these summer programs gave them a way to get their message out (before the days of television, Facebook and cable news).  One of the most famous of those politicians was William Jennings Bryan.  A Democrat who ran for president three times, Bryan was very adamant about the importance of making education available to all.  He found the Chautauqua Movement an excellent way to make educational, religious and cultural programs open to all.

Theodore Roosevelt called it “the most American thing in America.”

The movement began to die out as television and other modern entertainment venues grew in popularity.  However, today it is experiencing a come back.  The idea of lifelong learning has gained importance again and the desire for cultural experiences is returning.  There are existing Chautauqua communities throughout the USA.

The original Chautauqua is now a 750-acre education center in New York State.  During the nine-week summer season at the Chautauqua Institution, over 7,500 persons enjoy the all the programs which include the four pillars of the movement:  religion, recreation, arts and education.  Courses are offered in art, dance, theater, writing among many other psecial interests.

The one we found in Bay View is definitely one I want to visit next summer.  In addition to the beautiful homes and the programs they are offering, I look forward to enjoying the  sunsets on beautiful Little Traverse Bay just across the street.

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If you do not live near Michigan, check the map to find one of the many Chautauqua facilities and check it out.

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