Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Maid's Tale: Kathryn Stockett Examines Slavery and Racism in America's Deep South

Jessamy Calkin of the UK Telegraph writes, "The maid's tale: Kathryn Stockett examines slavery and racism in America's Deep South." As a [white] child in America’s Deep South in the 1970s, Kathryn Stockett was not really aware of the racial divides around her. Now she has written a novel about the community in 1960s Mississippi from the point of view of the black servants.

The British cover to Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help – about the experiences of black maids in Mississippi in the early 1960s – is a period photograph of a little white girl in a pushchair flanked by two black women in starched white uniforms – the 'help’ of the book’s title.

The photograph, which was found in the National Congress archives, was deemed too controversial to be used on the American cover. The spectre of racism in the South is still raw and political correctness works overtime.

When Stockett was first shown the photograph, which was inscribed Port Gibson, Mississippi, she sent it to a friend of hers, who, in turn, forwarded it to his mother. Back came the reply, 'Why, that’s just little Jane Crisler Wince on the corner of Church Street – she had two maids – her family owns the local paper…’ Stockett was thrilled with this information. 'That the whole South is just one small town, and we pass each other in the grocery store every day is a myth I love to perpetuate,’ she says.The Help took five years to write, got at least 45 rejection letters from agents, and when finally published went straight into the American bestseller lists. It has sold a quarter of a million copies so far in the US, and is still selling briskly.

The book is set in Jackson, Mississippi, just before the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. There are three narrators: the wise and serene Aibileen, who works for the Leefolt household, bringing up their little daughter Mae Mobley; Minny, Aibileen’s feisty friend, the best cook in town, who is prone to losing her job because of her big mouth; and tall, skinny Miss Skeeter, so called because of her resemblance to a mosquito when she was a baby, a white Southern belle with ambitions to be a writer.

Skeeter is disturbed when she hears her friends in the Junior League (a sort of American women’s institute that does charitable works) discussing their latest project, the Home Help Sanitation Initiative, which decrees that all domestic help should have separate lavatories outside the house, in order not to spread disease.

Skeeter decides to cross the divide and write a book, based on the experiences of the maids, an anonymous oral history, but most are too frightened to take part – this was a time when domestic help could be fired at the drop of a hat, when one word from a powerful white employer could put them in jail for 'stealing’, when a young gardener was beaten nearly to death for using the wrong lavatory at the golf club. The endemic racism that the book describes is so casual in its cruelty and indifference that it is profoundly shocking to realise that the time it describes was only 45 years ago.

It’s a risky thing to do – being white and well off – to write in a black voice, especially writing in the vernacular. The dialect Stockett employs is like another language; it is a clever act of ventriloquism, which draws you completely into a world of okra and fried chicken and peach cobbler, but a world with menacing undertones. It is history on the cusp of change, and Stockett has captured the unique complexities of the relationships between white women who will entrust the upbringing of their babies to someone with whom they will not share a bathroom. In the book Aibileen always leaves the families she works for as soon as the child she’s looking after starts to see her in a different light.'I want to stop that moment from coming – and it come in ever white child’s life – when they start to think that coloured folks ain’t as good as whites.’ (source: UK Telegraph, by Jessamy Calkin)

Warwick's Books Presents Kathryn Stockett

Barack Obama in the Footsteps of James Meredith

History News Network article, "Barack Obama in the Footsteps of James Meredith," by Frank Lambert (Mr. Lambert is Professor of History at Purdue University.)

On September 26, 2008, Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama arrived on the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Mississippi for his first debate with the Republican candidate Senator John McCain. Many of the university students and guests from around the state of Mississippi who comprised the audience were mindful of the occasion’s historic significance. Obama, the first African-American presidential nominee in American history, was welcomed on a campus that on a September evening 46 years earlier had erupted into violence over the mere presence of an African-American who sought admission to the all-white university. James Meredith was met with a starkly different reception from the cordial welcome extended Obama.

Hoisting a Confederate flag, hundreds of Ole Miss students protested integration of the school in front of the registrar's office on Sept. 20, 1963. Mr. Khayat, a former Ole Miss football player, banned Confederate flags at football games, sparkling controversy that earned him death threats.
Thousands of rioters hurled bricks and stones and fired bullets in a storm of protest against Meredith’s assault on white supremacy and racial segregation, which white Mississippians defended in the name of states’ rights. Meredith prevailed in his courageous battle for civil rights, and it is impossible to conceive of presidential candidate Barack Obama at an integrated Ole Miss without first considering James Meredith’s path-breaking effort to open the university to all qualified students regardless of race.

In his campaign, Obama asked Americans to consider his candidacy on the basis of his character and ideas, not on that of his race. Similarly, in his application to the University of Mississippi, Meredith asked Ole Miss to consider him as a qualified transfer student, not as an African-American. Fully aware of the state’s history, Meredith knew that the university would in fact make his race an insurmountable hurdle. So, when he received the expected rejection letter he filed suit and began the long campaign for his civil rights against the equally determined governor, Ross Barnett, who pledged to uphold Mississippi’s states’ rights.

Since he was 14 years old, Meredith had dreamed of attending Ole Miss and then becoming a lawyer in the state, but when he graduated from high school in 1950, four years before Brown v. Board of Education, he joined the Air Force because he had no chance of enrolling at segregated Ole Miss. He was stationed at the Strategic Air Command base near Topeka, Kansas when the Brown decision was handed down, and that decision rekindled his desire to attend Ole Miss. In 1957, when President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock to protect nine African-American students seeking admission to Central High School, Meredith began to hatch a strategy for entering Ole Miss. As a military man, he conceived of the challenge as a battle and thus he devised a plan of attack similar to that of a military mission.
An unidentified soldier gets first aid from his buddy following a clash in the Oxford town square where he was hit by flying glass. September 30 - October 1 - Oxford, MS - James Meredith, former Staff Sergeant of the Air Force, along with his legal team from the NAACP, ended an 18-month court battle to be allowed to enroll at the University of Mississippi over the objections of Governor Ross Barnett and white segregationists. Although President Kennedy addressed the nation asking Mississippians to obey the law and "live up to their honor," violence erupted on the campus and continued for fifteen hours.

His was a two-part strategy. First, he needed to secure the support of the federal government to counter what he knew would be massive and determined state resistance. Second, he needed to ensure that his enrollment efforts would take place under the bright lights of national publicity, not under the cloak of night as preferred by those who fought to maintain racial segregation in Mississippi.
Army trucks, carrying marshals in steel helmets, rolled across the University of Mississippi in September 1962. They were called in to enforce a federal court order to enroll Mr. Meredith at the previously segregated school. Chancellor Robert C. Khayat sees the presidential debate as an opportunity to supplant the image of the university that is most closely linked to civil rights-era violence.

With unflinching courage and iron resolve, Meredith followed his battle plan and prevailed. He enrolled at Ole Miss with the reluctant, though resolute, backing of the Kennedy Administration, which provided federal troops to ensure his safety. While he had anticipated stiff resistance, Meredith was unprepared for the ferocity and persistence of the opposition. The campus turned into a battlefield on the evening of September 30 with perhaps two thousand rioters attacking the 500 federal marshals sent to protect Meredith. In the end, hundreds were wounded, two were killed, and millions of dollars of property was destroyed. Within a week more than 10,000 federal troops had arrived to restore order on the campus.

When CBS’s Schieffer went to Ole Miss to cover the presidential debate in 2008, he recalled his visit there in 1962 covering the Meredith case. He was struck by the contrast between the tranquility of the campus in 2008 and the violence of 1962. He called the riots “the most terrifying experience I ever had,” quite a statement from a correspondent who had covered the Vietnam War. Meredith has a different interpretation. He objects to the characterization of the violence surrounding his admission as “riots.” Legitimate governments do not riot, he points out, adding that “everything at Ole Miss was a consequence of state action.” Meredith prefers the term “battle.”

Meredith graduated in 1963 and thus inspired thousands of African-Americans to follow him as students at Ole Miss. In the first years after 1962, they came as lone individuals, and then by the end of the decade they began enrolling in significant numbers. When Obama visited the campus, about 13 percent of the student body was African-American, and a sizeable number were among those assembled on September 26, 2008 to witness the presidential debate.

Conspicuously absent was James Meredith. University and state officials had hoped he would attend to underscore the historic significance of the occasion and to demonstrate the great strides that the state had made in race relations. But the 75-year-old Meredith stayed at his home in Jackson, Mississippi, and the reasons that he gave say much about the man. First, he said that he was babysitting his granddaughters. When I heard that, I recalled my meeting with him in Jackson for an interview for my book, The Battle of Ole Miss. He arrived at the restaurant with one of his granddaughters in tow, explaining that he had forgotten that it was his day to pick her up from daycare. Clearly family is important to James Meredith, as it had been in 1962 when he insisted that his actions were inspired by his father’s dreams that his son take his rightful place in a state that afforded all its citizens equal opportunity and by Meredith’s own goal to secure a good education not only for himself but for his son and future generations. Second, Meredith stayed home because he did not assign as much significance to the Ole Miss debate as did white officials. To him, what he had done was to win a battle, not the war against white supremacy. In his mind 1962 represented an opening campaign not a decisive victory. While he applauded the strides that had been made, he was not ready to celebrate.

Six weeks after the debate at Ole Miss, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. Many factors explain his victory: an unpopular war, a financial and economic meltdown, a faltering Republican administration, etc. But, to those across the country who remembered watching the televised reports of the battle of Ole Miss in 1962, his election seemed to be nothing short of the winning of a war. It was the culmination of a long and painful struggle for equal opportunity fought by pathfinders like James Meredith whose courage made Obama’s election possible and gave Meredith a moment to celebrate.

(source: History News Network)

U.S. Marshals and the Integration of the University of Mississippi

The U.S. Marshals Service writes the History of The U.S. Marshals and the Integration of the University of Mississippi:

40 years ago, deputy marshals safeguarded a man’s education goals and carried out a president’s orders
Mr. Meredith being escorted on the first day of class by James McShane, chief United States marshal.
History is often made when one person stands his ground and demands his dream. But history needs its enforcers. And when James Meredith sought to legally become the first black person to attend the University of Mississippi 40 years ago, the duty of upholding the federal law allowing him to do so fell upon the shoulders of 127 deputy marshals from all over the country who risked their lives to make his dream a reality.

"Negro James Meredith prepares to attend his first class at the University of Mississippi here 10/1 morning, escorted by U.S. Marshal James McShane (L) and John Doar (R) of the Justice Department..."
A bold challenge Race relations in the United States were plenty tumultuous in 1962. While the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education of 1954 made public school segregation illegal, some states resisted the change, and the federal government did little to interfere.

That changed when Meredith set his sights on becoming the first black person to attend Ole Miss. According to one biographer, Meredith was dissatisfied with race relations in the South, and in a calculated move he applied for admission.

However, the university, citing administrative technicalities, refused his application numerous times over the course of the next several months. This prompted the would-be student to write a letter to Thurgood Marshall, then head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund.

In the letter, Meredith wrote that he knew the “probable difficulties involved in such a move as I am undertaking and I am fully prepared to pursue it all the way.” Marshall and his organization backed Meredith wholeheartedly. In his book, “An American Insurrection: The Battle of Oxford, Mississippi,” author William Doyle stated that the NAACP’s backing was a key component in Meredith’s eventual success. Doyle also noted that two other factors were equally important: John F. Kennedy, seen as the first president to support civil rights, took office in January 1961; and the Brown ruling was still the official law of the land.

Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett

Kennedy, who scored a narrow election victory with the help of many black voters, would indeed turn out to be sympathetic to Meredith’s cause, but the same could not be said of Mississippi’s governor, Ross Barnett. In a statewide television broadcast, Barnett stated, “[Mississippi] will not surrender to the evil and illegal forces of tyranny ... [and] no school will be integrated in Mississippi while I am your governor.” Later, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Meredith attending classes. But Barnett was still defiant. He went on to call Meredith’s attempt to enter Ole Miss “our greatest crisis since the War Between the States.” Photo above right: Chief Marshal J.P. McShane (right), Assistant Attorney General John Doar (left) and Deputy Cecil Miller (in Background) escort James Meredith to classes at the University of Mississippi .

The job of seeing to it that Meredith was safely admitted to the school clearly fell upon the federal government, and soon enough, President Kennedy sent deputy marshals into the fray.

Mississippi's Lieutenant Governor Paul Johnson confronts Chief Marshal James McShane as he escorts Meredith to the registrar's office where he was admitted to the school. For the next year, until Meredith graduated in August 1963, Marshals protected him on the campus.
Three times, Chief U.S. Marshal J.P. McShane led a small contingent of deputies — without loaded guns — to register Meredith. But in each instance, they were stopped by state politicians and state troopers who were taking orders from Barnett. Finally, President Kennedy escalated matters by ordering a much larger group of deputies — 127 — to get the job done. To increase the numbers even more, McShane swore in over 300 U.S. Border Patrol agents and close to making them special deputy marshals and bringing the total number of federal law enforcement officers for this assignment to 538. The stage was set.

On Aug. 19, 1963, Mr. Meredith became the first black student to graduate from the university. In 2006, a monument dedicated to Mr. Meredith and integration was erected on campus.

Meredith was the first black student to attend 'Ole Miss' and was registered at the school after a violent confrontation between students and Deputies. One hundred and sixty Deputies were injured - 28 by gunfire. For the next year, Deputy Marshals provided Meredith with 24 hour protection, going everywhere he went on campus, enduring the same taunts and jibes, the same heckling, the same bombardment of cherry bombs, water balloons, and trash, as Meredith did. They made sure that Meredith could attend the school of his choice.
(source: US Marshal)

Monday, May 30, 2011

James Meredith: History of the Black-White Race Issue

In 1966 the BBC reported: "1966: Black civil rights activist shot." James Meredith, the first black man to brave the colour bar at the University of Mississippi, has been shot and wounded after entering Mississippi on a civil rights march.

James Meredith, center, is escorted by federal marshals as he enters the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, in September 1962. Mr. Meredith was the first black student to attend Ole Miss, and his enrollment sparked riots by white students and residents that led to two deaths. The campus was the site of the first presidential debate between Democratic Candidate, Senator Barak Obama and Republican Candidate Senator John McCain in 2008.

Police have arrested a 41-year-old white man named Aubrey James Norvell from Memphis on suspicion of carrying out the shooting.

The 32-year-old civil rights activist began his solo 220-mile March against Fear yesterday in Memphis and was heading for Jackson to show his fellow black citizens how to stand up to white authority and also to encourage them to register to vote.

James Meredith, center, was the first African American student accepted by the University of Mississippi. His attendance provoked riots. Here he is escorted to class by U.S. marshals and troops. Oct. 2, 1962.

At Hernando, Mississippi - 30 miles from his starting point - he saw an armed man aim at him and dived to the ground, but he was shot three times. Bleeding from the head, shoulder and leg he shouted: "Oh my God."

FBI agents and reporters who were following the march witnessed the ambush.

An ambulance took him to hospital where doctors later said his wounds were not serious.

Fight to enter university In 1961 Mr Meredith became an icon for the civil rights movement when he applied to the University of Mississippi and was rejected on racial grounds.

The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) then brought a suit in a federal court which granted him the right to enroll.

When he arrived to do so he was turned away by the university authorities and by the governor of Mississippi.

A court injunction for contempt removed this barrier but a white mob stopped him entering the university.
After a riot in which two people were killed and 375 were wounded, President Kennedy sent 3,000 troops to restore order and allow Mr Meredith to register as a student.

He graduated in 1963 and recently published his experiences in a book called Three Years in Mississippi.

In Context

LinkMartin Luther King visited Mr Meredith in hospital the following day and then took up the March Against Fear - renamed the Meredith March - which attracted thousands of black men and women along the way.

Mr Meredith's injuries turned out to be superficial and he recovered enough to complete the march.

Aubrey James Norvell confessed to the shooting and was sentenced to five years in prison.

Soon after the march Mr Meredith dropped out of the civil rights movement to work as a stockbroker, and then in real estate. In 1967 he became an investor and entered Columbia University Law School in 1968.

That year he also became president of Meredith Enterprises and began to lecture on racial problems. In 1972 he stood unsuccessfully as a Republican candidate for the US House of Representatives. (source: BBC)

History of the Black-White Race Issue

Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron

Gil Scott-Heron, who died on May 27 aged 62, was a composer, musician, poet and author whose writings and recordings provided a vivid, and often stinging, commentary on social injustice and the black American experience; his declamatory singing style, allied to the overtly political content of his work, made him widely recognized as one of the inspirational figures of rap music.

Scott-Heron first came to attention with his 1970 recording The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, an attack on the mindless and anaesthetising effects of the mass media and a call to arms to the black community: “You will not be able to stay home, brother./You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out./You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,/Skip out for beer during commercials,/Because the revolution will not be televised.”

Written when Scott Heron was just 18, it first appeared in the form of a spoken-word recitation, his impassioned incantation accompanied only by congas and bongo drums, on his debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox.

The following year Scott-Heron recorded the song for a second time, this time with a full band, for his album Pieces of a Man, and as the B-side to the single Home Is Where The Hatred Is.

The song went on to be covered, sampled and referenced in innumerable recordings, the title entering the lexicon of contemporary phraseology. In 2010 it was named as one of the top 20 political songs by the New Statesman. (The Telegraph)

Gil Scott-Heron - Newsnight Part 1

Gil Scott-Heron - Newsnight Part 2

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Testimony from Victims of New York’s Draft Riots, July, 1863

“If It Were Not For My Trust in Christ I Do Not Know How I Could Have Endured It”: Testimony from Victims of New York’s Draft Riots, July, 1863

Between July 13 and 16, 1863, the largest riots the United States had yet seen shook New York City. In the so-called Civil War draft riots, the city’s poor white working people, many of them Irish immigrants, bloodily protested the federally-imposed draft requiring all men to enlist in the Union Army. The rioters took out their rage on their perceived enemies: the Republicans whose wealth allowed them to purchase substitutes for military service, and the poor African Americans—their rivals in the city’s labor market—for whom the war was being fought. On July 20, four days after federal troops put down the uprising, a group of Wall Street businessmen formed a committee to aid New York’s devastated black community. The Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People Suffering from the Late Riots gathered and distributed funds, and collected the following testimony.

Abraham Franklin

This young man who was murdered by the mob on the corner of Twenty-seventh St., and Seventh avenue, was a quiet, inoffensive man, 23 years of age, of unexceptionable character, and a member of the Zion African Church in this city. Although a cripple, he earned a living for himself and his mother by serving a gentleman in the capacity of a coachman. A short time previous to the assault upon his person he called upon his mother to see if anything could be done by him for her safety. The old lady, who is noted for her piety and her Christian deportment, said she considered herself perfectly safe; but if her time to die had come, she was ready to die. Her son then knelt down by her side, and implored the protection of Heaven in behalf of his mother. The old lady was affected to tears, and said to our informant that it seemed to her that good angels were present in the room.

Scarcely had the supplicant risen from his knees, when the mob broke down the door, seized him, beat him over the head and face with fists and clubs, and then hanged him in the presence of his mother.

While they were engaged, the military came and drove them away, cutting down the body of Franklin who raised his arm once slightly and gave a few signs of life.

The military then moved on to quell other riots, when the mob returned and again suspended the now probably lifeless body of Franklin, cutting out pieces of flesh and otherwise mutilating it.

Peter Heuston.

Peter Heuston, sixty-three years of age, a Mohawk Indian, with dark complexion and straight black hair, who has for several years been a resident of this city, at the corner of Rosevelt and Oak streets, and who has obtained a livelihood as a laborer, proved a victim to the late riots.

His wife died about three weeks before the riots, leaving with her husband an only child, a little girl named Lavinia, aged eight years, whom the Merchants' Committee have undertaken to adopt with a view of affording her a guardianship and an education. Heuston served with the New York Volunteers in the Mexican War, and has always been loyal to our government. He was brutally attacked on the 13th of July by a gang of ruffians who evidently thought him to be of the African race because of his dark complexion. He died within four days at Bellevue hospital from his injuries....

Wm. Henry Nichols

Died July 16th, from injuries received at the hands of the rioters on the 15th of July.

Mrs. Statts, his mother, tells this story:—

The father of Wm. Henry died some years ago, and the boy has since, by good behavior, with persevering industry, earned his own living; he was a communicant of the Protestant Episcopal Church, in good standing. I had arrived from Philadelphia, the previous Monday evening, before any indications of the riot were known, and was temporarily stopping, on Wednesday, July 15th, at the house of my son, No.147 East 28th street.

At 3 o’clock of that day the mob arrived and immediately commenced an attack with terrific yells, and a shower of stones and bricks, upon the house. In the next room to where I was sitting was a poor woman, who had been confined with a child on Sunday, three days previous. Some of the rioters broke through the front door with pick axes, and came rushing into the room where this poor woman lay, and commenced to pull the clothes from off her. Knowing that their rate was chiefly directed against men, I hid my son behind me and ran with him through the back door, down into the basement. In a little while I saw the innocent babe, of three days old, come crashing down into the yard; some of the rioters had dashed it out of the back window, killing it instantly. In a few minutes streams of water came pouring down into the basement, the mob had cut the Croton water-pipes with their axes. Fearing we should be drowned in the cellar, (there were ten of us, mostly women and children, there) I took my boy and flew past the dead body of the babe, out to the rear of the yard, hoping to escape with him through an open lot into 29th street; but here, to our horror and dismay, we met the mob again; I, with my son, had climbed the fence, but the sight of those maddened demons so affected me that I fell back, fainting, into the yard; my son jumped down from the fence to pick me up, and a dozen of the rioters came leaping over the fence after him. As they surrounded us my son exclaimed, “save my mother, gentlemen, if you kill me.” "Well, we will kill you," they answered; and with that two ruffians seized him, each taking hold of an arm, while a third, armed with a crow-bar, calling upon them to stand and hold his arms apart, deliberately struck him a heavy blow over the head, felling him, like a bullock, to the ground. (He died in the N.Y. hospital two days after.) I believe if I were to live a hundred years I would never forget that scene, or cease to hear the horrid voices of that demoniacal mob resounding in my ears.

They then drove me over the fence, and as I was passing over, one of the mob seized a pocket-book, which he saw in my bosom, and in his eagerness to get it tore the dress off my shoulders.

I, with several others, then ran to the 29th street Station House, but we were here refused admittance, and told by the Captain that we were frightened without cause. A gentleman who accompanied us told the Captain of the facts, but we were all turned away.

I then went down to my husband’s, in Broome Street, and there I encountered another mob, who, before I could escape commenced stoning me. They beat me severely.

I reached the house but found my husband had left for Rahway. Scarcely knowing what I did, I then wandered, bewildered and sick, in the direction he had taken, and towards Philadelphia, and reached Jersey City, where a kind, Christian gentleman, Mr. Arthur Lynch, found me, and took me to his house, where his good wife nursed me for over two weeks, while I was very sick.

I am a member of the Baptist Church, and if it were not for my trust in Christ I do not know how I could have endured it.

Interesting Statement

I am a whitewasher by trade, and have worked, boy and man, in this city for sixty-three years. On Tuesday afternoon I was standing on the corner of Thirtieth street and Second avenue, when a crowd of young men came running along shouting “Here’s a nigger, here’s a nigger.” Almost before I knew of their intention, I was knocked down, kicked here and there, badgered and battered without mercy, until a cry of “the Peelers are coming” was raised; and I was left almost senseless, with a broken arm and a face covered with blood, on the railroad track. I was helped home on a cart by the officers, who were very kind to me, and gave me some brandy before I got home. I entertain no malice and have no desire for revenge against these people. Why should they hurt me or my colored brethren? We are poor men like them; we work hard and get but little for it. I was born in this State and have lived here all my life, and it seems hard, very hard, that we should be knocked down and kept out of work just to oblige folks who won’t work themselves and don’t want others to work.

We asked him if it was true that the negroes had formed any organization for self-defence, as was rumored. He said no; that, so far as he knew, “they all desire to keep out of the way, to be quiet, and do their best toward allaying the excitement in the City.”

The room in which the old man was lying was small, but it was the kitchen, sitting-room, bedroom and garret of four grown persons and five children.

Instances of this kind might be multiplied by the dozen, gathered from the lips of suffering men, who, though wounded and maimed by ruffians and rioters, are content to be left alone, and wish for no revenge.

Burning of the Colored Orphan Asylum
Our attention was early called to this outrage by a number of letters from the relatives and friends of the children, anxiously inquiring as to the whereabouts of the little ones. It is well known that as soon as the Bull’s Head Hotel had been attacked by the mob, their next destination was the Colored Orphan Asylum, on Fifth Avenue, near Forty-third street. The crowd had swelled to an immense number at this locality, and went professionally to work in order to destroy the building, and, at the same time, to make appropriation of any thing of value by which they might aggrandize themselves. About four hundred entered the house at the time, and immediately proceeded to pitch out beds, chairs, tables, and every species of furniture, which were eagerly seized by the crowd below, and carried off. When all was taken, the house was then set on fire, and shared the fate of the others.

While the rioters were clamoring for admittance at the front door, the Matron and Superintendent were quietly and rapidly conducting the children out the back yard, down to the police station. They remained there until Thursday, (the burning of the Asylum occurred on Monday, July 13th, when they were all removed in safety to Blackwell’s Island, where they still remain.

There were 230 children between the ages of 4 and 12 years in the home at the time of the riot.

The buildings were of brick and were substantial and commodious structures. A number of fine shade trees and flowering shrubs adorned the ample play grounds and front court yard, and a well built fence surrounded the whole.

The main buildings were burned. The trees were girdled by cutting with axes; the shrubs uprooted, and the fence carried away. All was destroyed except the residence of Mr. Davis [the superintendent], which was sacked.

White Women

Some four or five white women, wives of colored men applied for relief. In every instance they had been severly dealt with by the mob. One Irish woman, Mrs. C. was so persecuted and shunned by every one, that when she called for aid, she was nearly insane.

[Source: Report of the Committee of Merchants for the Relief of Colored People, Suffering From the Late Riots in the City of New York. (New York, 1863).]

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Slaves Started Memorial Day

The Post and Courier article, "Slaves Started Memorial Day," published on May 27, 2010, by Brian Hicks  --  Charleston was in ruins.

The peninsula was nearly deserted, the fine houses empty, the streets littered with the debris of fighting and the ash of fires that had burned out weeks before. The Southern gentility was long gone, their cause lost.

In the weeks after the Civil War ended, it was, some said, “a city of the dead.”

On a Monday morning that spring, nearly 10,000 former slaves marched onto the grounds of the old Washington Race Course, where wealthy Charleston planters and socialites had gathered in old times. During the final year of the war, the track had been turned into a prison camp. Hundreds of Union soldiers died there.

For two weeks in April, former slaves had worked to bury the soldiers. Now they would give them a proper funeral.

The procession began at 9 a.m. as 2,800 black school children marched by their graves, softly singing “John Brown’s Body.”

Soon, their voices would give way to the sermons of preachers, then prayer and — later — picnics. It was May 1, 1865, but they called it Decoration Day.

On that day, former Charleston slaves started a tradition that would come to be known as Memorial Day.

History Discovered

For years, the ceremony was largely forgotten.

It had been mentioned in some history books, including Robert Rosen’s “Confederate Charleston,” but the story gained national attention when David W. Blight, a professor of American history at Yale, took interest. He discovered a mention of the first Decoration Day in the uncataloged writings of a Union soldier at a Harvard University library.

He contacted the Avery Research Center in Charleston, which helped him find the first newspaper account of the event. An article about the “Martyrs of the Race Course” had appeared in the Charleston Daily Courier the day after the ceremony. Blight was intrigued and did more research. He published an account of the day in his book, “Race and Reunion.” Soon he gave lectures on the event around the country.
“What’s interesting to me is how the memory of this got lost,” Blight said. “It is, in effect, the first Memorial Day and it was primarily led by former slaves in Charleston.”

While talking about the Decoration Day event on National Public Radio, Blight caught the attention of Judith Hines, a member of the Charleston Horticultural Society. She was amazed to hear a story about her hometown that she did not know.

“I grew up in Charleston and I never learned about the Union prison camp,” Hines said. “These former slaves decided the people who died for their emancipation should be honored.”

Hines eventually wrote a history of Hampton Park — the site of the former Race Course — as part of the society’s “Layers of the Landscape” series, and included the story. Since then, she has advocated public recognition of the event.

It is a story, she said, that needs to be told.

Songs for the Martyrs

The cemetery had been built on the grounds of the Race Course by two dozen men, groups that identified themselves as the “Friends of the Martyrs” and the “Patriotic Association of Colored Men.”

On the track’s infield, they built a 10-foot fence and dug 257 graves. Most of the soldiers who died at the Race Course prison had been malnourished or exposed to the elements too long to survive. They had been buried together in shallow graves, without coffins, behind the judge’s stand.

The efforts to bury them were coordinated by freed slaves and missionaries and teachers working with the freedmen’s relief associations, primarily a Scot James Redpath. They did all the work in 10 days, and called these dead soldiers “The Martyrs of the Race Course.”

The exercise on May 1, the Charleston Daily Courier reported, began with the reading of a Psalm. The crowd sang a hymn, then prayed. Everyone in the procession carried a bouquet of flowers.

The children strew flowers on the graves as they walked past. After “John Brown’s Body,” they sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” “America” and “Rally Round the Flag.” By the end, the graves looked like a massive mound of rose petals.

These former slaves were joined by several Union regiments, including the 104th and 35th “colored regiments,” as well as the famous 54th Massachusetts. These companies marched around the graves in solemn salute.

After the picnic, the crowd drifted away at dusk. They had spent the entire day at the new cemetery.

Marking the Past

A year later, Waterloo, N.Y., celebrated what has been credited as the first Decoration Day. Soldiers were honored, their graves decorated with flowers, much like what had occurred in Charleston. A tradition began. Within 20 years, the name of this holiday would be changed to Memorial Day.

In 1868, Confederate Memorial Day got its start. The two holidays were kept separate, allegedly because Southerners did not want to celebrate a holiday to honor Union soldiers. Blight said the tradition of remembering soldiers and decorating their graves likely began during the war, when women visited battlefields after the fighting had ended.

For the rest of the 19th century, Decoration Day and Confederate Memorial Day existed as separate holidays, perhaps a symbol of the country’s lingering divide. The two holidays were combined and designated a federal holiday in the 20th century.

By then, the martyrs of the Race Course were gone. Their graves were moved to Beaufort National Cemetery in the 1880s, and remain there today.

A few years ago, the city of Charleston and the state approved plans for a historical marker in Hampton Park to honor the first Dedication Day. Blight has said the site is perhaps even worthy of National Park status.

Harlan Greene, director of archival and reference services at Avery, said the time is right; Charleston has begun to recognize its African-American history.

“We’re approaching a tipping point,” Greene said. “The irony of the story is that Charleston is the cradle of the Confederacy, but the memorial was for Union soldiers. It shows the richness of Charleston history.”

So far, no plaque has been set, but Hines continues to push for it. Maybe next May 1, she said. (source: http://www.lawattstimes.com/component/content/article/52-featured/1849-slaves-started-memorial-day.html)


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