Tag Archives: black history

Listening to the Silent Parade of 1917: The Forgotten Civil Rights March

“To the beat of muffled drums 8,000 negro men, women and children marched down Fifth Avenue yesterday in a parade of ‘silent protest against acts of discrimination and oppression’ inflicted upon them in this country, and in other parts of the world. Without a shout or a cheer they made their cause known through the many banners which they carried, calling attention to Jim Crowism, segregation, disfranchisement, and riots of Waco, Memphis and East St. Louis.” — New York Times

The Silent Parade of July 28, 1917, was unlike anything ever seen in New York City. Today it is considered New York’s (and most likely America’s) first African-American civil rights march.

New York had seen its share of protest parades since the start of World War I, but none had featured so prominently the city’s African-American population, gathering in such impressive numbers along New York’s wealthiest street.

This extraordinary procession was organized by the burgeoning National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a group of concerned black and white activists and intellectuals which had formed less than a decade earlier in New York.

The march was organized in direct response to a horrible plague of violence against black Americans in the 1910s, culminating in the East St. Louis Riots*, a massacre involving white mobs storming black neighborhoods in sheer racial animus. Two sets of riots in May and July 1917 left almost 200 people dead. Rioters burned black neighborhoods, cutting off water hoses and watched as families fled the burning buildings — to be picked off by gunmen.

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on July 3:

This massacre was but one of several violent incidents aimed at new black laborers, pointed attacks meant to strike fear in the hearts of black Americans.

The circumstances of World War I exacerbated an already volatile crisis. As W.E.B. DuBois would explain it,

The Negro, attracted by higher wages in the North and repelled by the menace of lynchinig and caste in the South moves in to fill the new labor demand [caused by the war].  The common laborer in the North is caught between the tyranny of exclusive trade unions and the underbidding of blacks. The rest is murder and riot and unrest…. White Northern laborers find killing Negroes a safe, lucrative employment which commends them to the American Federation of Labor.”

In New York, at a meeting of the NAACP in Harlem, president James Weldon Johnson (at the suggestion of New York Evening Post editor Oswald Villard) proposed an unusual but effective form of protest — an army of marchers along Fifth Avenue, drawing attention to the victims of the East St. Louis riot.

And in an unprecedented decision by the organizers, it would consist only of black marchers.

Underwood & Underwood

New York newspaper reports of the riot passively mentioned the tragic cost to the black residents of East St. Louis; a dramatic march down the city’s most prosperous street — comprised of those very people most likely to be victimized in such riots — would jar the delicate sensibilities of insulated New Yorkers.

This was a fairly radical idea for its time. Decades after the Civil War, most Americans, even in the most progressive states, still looked skeptically at organized black movements. Part of the NAACP’s early legitimacy for many was that it was formed by a mixture of black and white activists.

In 1915, the NAACP (in a crusade led by newspaper editor William Monroe Trotter) protested the release of the film Birth of a Nation, the trailblazing film that positively depicted the Ku Klux Klan while demonizing African-Americans. The protests failed to stop the film’s release but this organized resistance galvanized the NAACP and the black community for future battles.

While the East St. Louis tragedy was the focus of the mournful July 28th gathering, the march was intended as a larger protest against civil rights abuses in the United States. One of many flyers passed around during the march declared :

We march because we are thoroughly opposed to Jim Crow cars, segregation, disenfranchisement and the host of evils that are forced upon us. We march in memory of our butchered dead, the massacre of honest toilers who were removing the reproach of laziness and thriftlessness hurled at the entire race. They died to prove our worthiness to live. We live in spite of death shadowing us and ours.” 

Below: The organizers marched in front of the women and children. At far right are  W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson.

Underwood and Underwood

The thousands of people who marched that day came from virtually every African-American church in New York City and the surrounding area. A drum corps and a troupe of black Boy Scouts vibrantly led the parade, with women and children following behind, garbed in white dresses.

The men, some in United States army uniforms, marched last behind a row of flag bearers, holding representative flags from the United States, Great Britain, Liberia and Haiti.

New York Tribune

There were no chants or rallying cries. The throng remained silent during the length of the parade, a common practice for peace parades but one pregnant with meaning here. The black communities in East St. Louis and in the South had little opportunity to engage in such protests. New Yorkers, in solidarity, would echo that reverberating silence. (It may also have been prudent for large groups of African-Americans marching along the city’s whitest street to keep themselves calcified.)

The marchers were orderly and stone-faced as they walked down Fifth Avenue — from 57th Street to 24th Street, culminating at Madison Square Park.  They were not allowed to gather there; according to the New York Sun, “When the marchers reached Twenty-Fourth Street, they turned west and were dismissed.”

While there were no chants, political intentions were made known via a series of banners interspersed among the marchers:

‘Your Hands Are Full of Blood’

‘Pray for the Lady Macbeths of East St. Louis’**

‘We Are Maligned as Lazy and Murdered When We Work’

‘From  Bunker Hill to Carrizal*** We Have Done Our Duty’

One ‘controversial’ sign was thrown out of the march. According to the Times, the sign “displayed a picture of a negro woman kneeling before President Wilson and appealing to him to bring democracy to America before carrying it to Europe.” The police intervened, and the sign was removed.

Below: A newspaper illustration that was most certainly used in the offending sign

No other incidents surrounding the march were reported that day. Thousands of onlookers had lined the parade route that day out of curiosity, amusement, pride, anger and joy. Some were shaken to the core.

“[T]he streets of New York have witnessed many strange sites, but I judge, never one stranger than this; among the watchers were those with tears in their eyes.” — James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of James Weldon Johnson, 1937

 

 

NOTE: The number of marchers so widely varies from source to source that I can safely say that it was between 5,000 and 15,000 marchers. Not exactly precise! Judging from all reports, I would guess the actual number is closer to 15,000.

*East St. Louis, on the Illinois side, is about 15 miles away from Ferguson, the St. Louis suburb on the Missouri side.

**According to author Nikki Brown, the ‘Lady Macbeth’ sign references “an alleged incident wherein at least two white women pulled black women off a streetcar, tore off one woman’s clothing and ‘then took off her shoes and beat her over the face and head with their shoe heels’.”

***The Battle of Carrizal had been fought in Mexico a year before the march. Unlike the battles in Europe, African-American soldiers served with American units on the front lines of this engagement.

 

Down The Up Staircase: A Century of Black Lives In A Crumbling Old House

The extraordinary house at the heart of Down the Up Staircase is currently for sale.  “411 Convent Avenue is a House located in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood in Manhattan, NY,” the blog Street Easy dryly notes.  “411 Convent Avenue was built in 1901 and has 3 stories and 1 unit.”

Bruce D. Haynes, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis, grew up in this house, observing the latter years of its steady, graceful decline. His grandparents had moved into the townhouse in 1944 and his parents had remained within it their entire lives, even through a contentious marriage. Bruce grew up there with his two brothers George and Alan. One of them would meet a tragic end during the fateful summer of 1976.

Down The Up Staircase:
Three Generations of a Harlem Family
by Bruce D. Haynes and Syma Solovitch
Columbia University Press

At the start of Haynes’ remarkable memoir and social history, the gracious house on Convent Avenue has become a homey nest of memory and quirk. “The water to the basin had been shut off,” writes Haynes, “and the pipes were concealed by a Japanese tapestry as a formal living room and our parents’ bedroom.”

The house has not simply been transformed by familial necessity; it has been changed by the history of Harlem itself. Down the Up Staircase (cowritten by Syma Solovitch) documents the lives of three families who seem to have felt every tumultuous shift and been present, in some form, in every major milestone in black American life.

Every page of this historical, often unapologetically nostalgic, narrative feels personal, never letting the detours into historical context bog it down with extraneous detail.

The authors have one true civil rights hero among its characters — Haynes’ grandfather George Edmund Haynes (pictured above), co-founder of the National Urban League — but it’s his flawed legacy as a husband and father that reverberate into the lives of those that follow his footsteps through the house on Convent Avenue.

More impactful to the author was a portrait of George Edmund, painted by Laura Wheeler Waring, found tucked away in the attic. “Why had [Bruce’s father] never spoken of it? Why was it consigned to the attic?”

And then there’s Daisy, Bruce’s mother, an individual who steps out from the pages and into your parlor, in her finest fur. “Everybody knew and loved Miss Daisy, as they called her, and treated her like a queen. She had the airs and manners of a grand lady, a Southern belle, and she carried herself like royalty.”

Daisy was a stunning product of upper Manhattan’s black bourgeoisie, upper and middle class African-Americans who matched their white Fifth Avenue counterparts in dress, demeanor and aspiration. Her sons would later reject this assimilation aesthetic, with the 1950s and 60s bringing about an empowered and politically engaged black identity separate from the mainstream.

My favorite section of Down the Up Staircase — a section I’ve re-read about four times now — involves the clash of these two identities at a place called Raymond’s Beauty Shop and the various street hustlers who collected on the street corner out front. As Haynes describes the establishment’s owner:

“Before the word disco became popularized or Patti LaBelle put on a gold and silver lamè spacesuit, Raymond would dazzle the denizens in his nighttime attire. In the photographs he hung up or passed around at his shop,  he looked as much the diva as Patti ever did, dressed in three-inch platform shoes, silver lamè cape and thick makeup.

But Disco Raymond only came out at night. By day, he played the role of Harlem ladies’ man. His nails were manicured and he wore Italian shoes and hip-hugging dress slacks under his apron.  He was charismatic, could carry a tune, and drew the attentions of men and women alike.”

Down The Up Staircase is more than a story of a family, far more than the chronology of a home. And yet the entire tale — the story of the black experience in the 20th century — feels like it’s being very intimately told to you  from the parlor.

 

 

Pictured at top: Convent Ave, south from 148th St., photographed by Thaddeus Wilkerson, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York

Before Harlem: The Stories of New York’s Forgotten Black Communities

PODCAST The history of African-American settlements and neighborhoods which once existed in New York City

Today we sometimes define New York City’s African-American culture by place – Harlem, of course, and also Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant, neighborhoods that developed for groups of black residents in the 20th century.

But by no means were these the first in New York City. Other centers of black and African-American life existed long before then. In many cases, they were obliterated by the growth of the city, sometimes built over without a single marker, without recognition.

This is the story of a few of those places.  From the ‘land of the blacks‘ — the home to New Amsterdam and British New York’s early black population — to Seneca Village, a haven for black lives that was wiped away by a park. From Little Africa — the Greenwich Village sector for the black working class in the late 19th century — to Sandy Ground, a rural escape in Staten Island with deep roots in the neighborhood today.

And then there’s Weeksville, Brooklyn, the visionary village built to bond a community and to develop a political foothold.

Greg welcomes Kamau Ware (of the Black Gotham Experience) and Tia Powell Harris of the Weeksville Heritage Center to the show.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #230: BEFORE HARLEM: New York’s Forgotten Black Communities

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The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

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Three boys from Sandy Ground, Staten Island, circa 1912.

Staten Island Historical Society

More information about the Black Gotham Experience here, including a list of walking tours.  Check out the websites for Weeksville Heritage Center and the Sandy Ground Historical Society for more information about visiting hours and tours.

Have plans tomorrow (Saturday, June 10)? Both the Black Gotham Experience and Weeksville Heritage Center have daytime events. Stop by and see both of them!

 

 

This map of Seneca Village was made by Andy Proehl illustrating what the settlement looked like in the years before its destruction.

Courtesy Andy Proehl/Flickr

The approximate area via Google Maps. The Great Lawn now sits on the spot where the reservoir is.

The approximate area of Little Africa. The map is from 1889.

NYPL via Greenwich Village Society of Historical Perseveration

Richard Hoe Lawrence and Jacob Riis’s images of a “Black and Tan” dive bar on Broome Street near Wooster Street, 1890.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

Minetta Lane, circa 1900.

MCNY

The approximate location of Weeksville, Brooklyn

Wikipedia

 

Brooklyn Public Library

The three surviving houses today

 

 

The picture at top features an African-American family posed in front of the John Brown Homestead in Torrington, Connecticut, circa 1890s-1900. I particularly love this picture (despite it not being in New York City) because the house is reminiscent of the Weeksville houses and those that were in Sandy Ground.

 

Connecticut Historical Society

 

Regrettably there are not a huge trove of photographs of any of the places mentioned in the podcast. If you know of any photography websites or resources, please leave the information in the comments so others may check them out. Thanks!

African Burial Ground: New York’s unforgettable monument (NPS 100)

This month America celebrates the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the organization which protects the great natural and historical treasures of the United States. There are a number of NPS locations in the five borough areas. Throughout the next few weeks, we will focus on a few of our favorites.   For more information, you can visit National Parks Centennial for a complete list of parks and monuments throughout the country.  For more blog posts in this series, click here.
The following also features an excerpt from the Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available for sale wherever books are sold and online at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

 

A vivid display inside the visitor center at 290 Broadway.

IMG_9966
AFRICAN BURIAL GROUND NATIONAL MONUMENT
DUANE STREET, CIVIC CENTER, MANHATTAN

 

The African Burial Ground, tucked right into the heart of Lower Manhattan, two blocks north of City Hall, represents one of the greatest archaeological finds and saddest stories in New York’s history. The somber monument, opened in 2007, gives long overdue respect and honor to the remains buried here of New York’s first African and West Indian communities.

 Contrast this with lower Manhattan’s other two burial grounds — at Trinity Church and St. Paul’s Chapel —with their carefully preserved marble tombstones and prestigious roster of permanent residents. Whereas Trinity’s cemetery has a fence to preserve the peace, this burial ground has no such border to keep the city at bay.

Photo 6.1

In fact, the African Burial Ground is far larger than the site of today’s monument. Its true size is unknown, although it is believed to cover about seven acres, stretching out under many of the surrounding buildings, including those in Foley Square and along Chambers Street.

The burial ground dates back to the seventeenth century, when New Amsterdam was a company town for the thriving Dutch West India Company, and the town’s early settlers were primarily traders, not builders or town planners. In their eyes, they didn’t sail all the way across the Atlantic from Holland to do menial work.

And so in 1626, to stimulate and facilitate the colony’s growth, the Dutch imported the New World’s first African slaves, a group of eleven people. Early records show that they were assigned names associated with their homelands or original captors: Antony Congo, Dorothe Angola, Jan Negro. Slave labor would be used to build many of New Amsterdam’s major structures, including the large wall that lined the northern edge of town.

One of the most notorious landmarks of the slave trade sat at the corner of Wall and Water Streets (once the shoreline, back in British New York). The Meal Market was established in 1711 not only for the buying and selling of raw products like grains, but also for the purchase and leasing of “negroes and Indian slaves.”

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

It’s interesting to note that under the Dutch, enslaved men and women could earn their freedom and eventually own property. But those who did gain independence were not permitted to reside within the city’s walls. Instead, they were forced out beyond the borders to settle in the “free Negro lots” found around the southern edge of Collect Pond.

Things got worse for the colony’s slave population in 1664, when the British took control and renamed the colony New York.

They brought with them their own stricter slavery traditions and stripped away those meager legal protections that had been afforded by the Dutch. New York was not a plantation town; many families owned one or two slaves and they were usually kept in or near their homes. By the 1740s thousands of enslaved men and women from Africa and the Caribbean lived in New York, more than one-fifth of the city’s population.

The visitor center serves as a museum about slavery and an exhibit to the early black experience in New York

IMG_9971

While a diverse number of religions were practiced under English rule, most black New Yorkers eventually converted to the Anglican Church. But Trinity Church did not allow the remains of black people, slave or free, to be buried in its churchyard. And so this population was forced outside the city walls again, this time claiming some land south of Collect Pond as their own private burial ground.

In their burial ceremonies and mourning practices, the city’s African and Caribbean residents were able to display their original religious beliefs, and could come here and bury friends and loved ones according to traditional burial customs.

The remains of 419 individuals are contained in mounds outside next to the monument.

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In the early years, at dusk, New Yorkers would hear the foreign-sounding music, drum beats, and the sounds of exotic ceremonies drifting down from the burial yard.

Well, that was simply too frightening for some white New Yorkers, and so, starting in 1722, it became illegal for blacks to congregate at night, and a 1731 law prohibited more than twelve people from gathering during the day at the burial ground. These draconian laws against black New Yorkers were instigated due to the events of April 1712, when a group of slaves conspired to burn the city. Twenty-one enslaved and freedmen were put to death in retaliation.

While these laws put a damper on many religious ceremonies, it was still possible to show some freedom of expression in the burials themselves. The dead were buried in wooden boxes, most facing east, as was customary for some African religions, and trinkets of religious or personal value (cowrie shells, pipes, buttons, and pieces of coral and crystal) were placed inside the coffins with the deceased.

Images of the remains found on the site of the very building you’re standing in are displayed inside the visitors center.

IMG_9969

With the departure of the British in 1783 and the beginning of the city’s great march northward, this land quickly became much more valuable. By the early 1810s, Collect Pond and its now-spoiled natural surroundings were simply filled in, the marshes drained, the hills leveled.

The graves of many of New York’s early slave and free black population, the resting place of approximately 15,000 bodies here, were covered over in landfill, in some places 16 to 25 feet deep.

Map of the site and the projected location of other burials. Below is a current Google Map satellite view of the site:

Courtesy National Park Service
Courtesy National Park Service

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 9.55.44 PM

The early structures built atop the burial ground were not very tall, none more than a few stories high. As a result, the depths of their foundations were no deeper than 20 feet or so. In some places, the burial ground lay below the newly erected buildings, completely preserved by the landfill that had been hastily thrown over it.

Flash forward—way forward—to 1991, when New York City was home to hundreds of skyscrapers, but unbelievably this small seven-acre area still only held structures of modest height. When work began on a nearby government building at 290 Broadway, excavators happened upon the first evidence of human remains. Throughout the next year, excavations would uncover a total of 419 bodies, along with a wide assortment of artifacts.

The monument to this discovery, completed in 2007 and operated by the National Park Service, returns a bit of grace and reverence to this site, and focuses on the spiritual beliefs of those who were interred here centuries ago. Immediately to your right is a set of seven evenly and elevated spaced beds of grass, where the bodies of the 419 have once again been buried, collected in hand-carved wooden sarcophagi.

The following words are inscribed upon the monument (Duane Street, between Broadway and Lafayette Street. Visitors’ center at 290 Broadway):

For all those who were lost
For all those who were stolen
For all those who were left behind
For all those who are not forgotten

WANT MORE INFORMATION? Visit the NPS African Burial Ground National Monument site for more information.

LISTEN TO OUR PODCAST! We have an entire show on the African Burial Ground. It’s Episode #115. You can find it on iTunes or download it from here.

The tale of the Cotton Club: “The Aristocrat of Harlem”

PODCAST The musical story of the Cotton Club, the most famous (and infamous) nightclub of the Jazz Age.

 

The Cotton Club, Harlem’s most prominent nightclub during the Prohibiton era, delivered some of the greatest music legends of the Jazz Age — Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, Ethel Waters, the Nicolas Brothers.  Some of the most iconic songs in the American songbook made their debut at the Cotton Club or were popularized in performances here.

But the story of gangster Owney Madden‘s notorious supper club is hardly one to be celebrated.

That the Cotton Club was owned by Prohibition’s most ruthless mob boss was just the beginning. The club enshrined the segregationist policies of the day, placing black talent on the stage for the pleasure of white patrons alone. Even the club’s flamboyant décor — by Ziegfeld’s scenic designer, no less — made sure to remind people of these ugly admission practices.

This is the tale of Harlem late night — of hot jazz and illegal booze, of great music and very bad mobsters. Featuring some of the greatest tunes of the day by Ellington, Calloway, King Oliver and more.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #204: THE COTTON CLUB: THE ARISTOCRAT OF HARLEM

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The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!

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The Cotton Club was spawned from an earlier nightspot called Club Deluxe, owned by boxer Jack Johnson. (Below: Johnson in 1910)

Courtesy Getty Images)
Courtesy Getty Images)

Club Deluxe was renamed The Cotton Club in 1923 by Owney Madden, the mob boss and supplier of illegal booze.

owney

The original Cotton Club at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue. The Douglas Theater, on the ground floor, is doing much better here, photo taken sometime in 1927:

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Courtesy Getty Images

 

The entrance to the Harlem Cotton Club. Note the log decoration to make it appear like some old rugged shack.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

A map from 1932 of the Harlem nightclub scene, featuring the Cotton Club, Small’s Paradise, Connie’s Inn, the Savoy Ballroom and more….

Courtesy Open Culture
Courtesy Open Culture

 

The Broadway Cotton Club as it looked one evening in 1938.

Courtesy Getty Images/ Michael Ochs Archives
Courtesy Getty Images/ Michael Ochs Archives

A look at the interior of the Broadway Cotton Club circa, during an New Year’s celebration, 1937, with Cab Calloway conducting.

Courtesy the Hi De Ho Blog, devoted to Cab Calloway
Courtesy the Hi De Ho Blog, devoted to Cab Calloway

 

An advertisement or program for The Cotton Club. The year 1925 is penciled in at the top, but it has to be from a later date. Calloway had just graduated from high school in 1925!

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

Maude Russel and her Ebony Steppers, performing in the 1929 Cotton Club show called ‘Just A Minute’.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

A shot of Jimmy Lunceford and His Orchestra in 1934.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

An advertisement for the Nicolas Brothers, for a performance in 1938 at the Broadway Cotton Club.

Courtesy New York Public Library
Courtesy New York Public Library

 

Lena Horne started out in the Cotton Club chorus line but eventually became a headlining star in her own right.

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The Dandridge Sisters were notable performers in the final years of the Cotton Club.

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The young and dashing Duke Ellington became a superstar in the years following his Cotton Club residency.

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Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Band, in a 1930 film appearance:

In 1934, Cab Calloway made this short film featuring his music:

 

Cab Calloway’s here too, in this clip from the film Stormy Weather, but the real stars are the Nicholas Brothers in a breathtaking dance number:

 

THIS PODCAST FEATURED MUSICAL SNIPPETS FROM THE FOLLOWING SONGS:

Black and Tan Fantasy – Duke Ellington

Drop Me Off In Harlem – Duke Ellington

Speak Easy Blues – King Oliver Jazz Band

Charleston – Paul Whiteman

Mood Indigo – Duke Ellington

Swing Session – Duke Ellington

If You Were In My Place – Duke Ellington

Minnie the Moocher – Cab Calloway

I’ve Got The World On A String – Duke Ellington

Stormy Weather – Ethel Waters

On The Sunny Side of the Street – Duke Ellington

 

NOTES ON THIS SHOW:

— I made two amusing flubs in this show 1) Duke Ellington’s nickname is probably inspired by the Duke of Wellington, not (obviously) the Duke of Ellington, 2) the name of the movie with Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers is obviously named Stormy Weather, not  Stormy Weathers (which must be the name of a drag queen somewhere)

Jack Johnson‘s story is so much more complex and I wish I had more time to talk about him.  For more information, check out the incredible documentary (and the book it’s based on by Geoffrey C Ward) called Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson.

Modern Family: Black and Latino Alliances in New York City

The political landscape of modern New York City is a stew of neighborhood, borough, financial and ethnic interests built upon over two centuries of experience and tradition.  The most interesting story of the past fifty years — both locally and nationally — is the ascension of minority voices into the public sphere, reflecting population changes but also rising strategies of organization.

How did non-white New Yorkers first find their voice in modern politics? In Upsetting the Apple Cart, an impressive navigation through late 20th century politics by Frederick Douglass Opie, the answer comes from seemingly surprising places — the hospital, the classroom, the kitchen table.

1

Opie, a professor at Babson College, inspects the particular relationship between New York’s black and Latino communities as they find ways to align at the workplace and in the voting booth. Today it seems obvious that two large minority interest groups might team up to achieve common goals, but it wasn’t until after labor and student activists explored the relationship in the 1950s and 60s that alliances were forged in the major political spheres.

The first half of Upsetting the Apple Cart traces the influences of both the unions and the civil rights movement upon minority workers at local hospitals and students at universities.  Frustrated by lower pay and unfair hours in comparison to their white counterparts, black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers found common ground and successfully organized. This culminated in a massive, ultimately successful city-wide strike on May 8, 1959, lasting almost two months.

2

Minority higher-education students at Columbia University, Hunter College and other school found other reasons to work together — to improve enrollment and educational needs. At Columbia students successfully closed the campus in protest over a new gymnasium being built in Morningside Heights, seen by many as an encroachment into the majority black neighborhood.

Personally I found the second half of Upsetting the Apple Cart more intriguing, but then, I love rooting around in the history of New York backroom political alliances.  Opie’s book excellently explains the early history of black and Latino political organization, from the rise of power in Harlem by the Gang of Four (including David Dinkins and Charlie Rangel) to the first politicians of Puerto Rican, Mexican and Dominican descent in New York.

UNITED STATES - NOVEMBER 08: Daily News front page dated Nov. 8, 1989, Headlines: DAVE DOES IT, Dinkins in close race, Florio wins in jersey, City Charter passes, David Dinkins elected Mayor of New York City (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES – NOVEMBER 08: Daily News front page dated Nov. 8, 1989, Headlines: DAVE DOES IT, Dinkins in close race, Florio wins in jersey, City Charter passes, David Dinkins elected Mayor of New York City (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Politics is made from shifting alliances but it wasn’t until the victory of Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago in 1983 that the united front of African-American, Hispanic and Latino-American activists made itself felt in a major political race. Such unification of goals made its way to New York through the presidential aspirations of Jesse Jackson and the various (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to unseat New York mayor Ed Koch.

The apex of minority political alliances occurred with the election of David Dinkins, famous for his appeal to the “gorgeous mosaic” of New York ethnicities. Dinkins won because, in the end, he appealed to a majority of New Yorkers. But Opie makes note of the unique organizations of outer-borough Hispanics that helped get him elected.

Wait, did I mention that Upsetting  the Apple Cart is also a cookbook? Somewhat incongruously, traditional recipes for tamales, arroz con pollo, fried chicken and other dishes pop up throughout the chapters. Opie, a food traditions professor, emphasizes the role of social interaction in creating these unique coalitions.  To paraphrase a popular adage, the best way to a neighbor’s heart is through her stomach.  The success of these early alliances lends some credence to food as the great uniter.

Upsetting the Apple Cart:
Black-Latino Coalitions in New York City from Protest to Public Office
by Frederick Douglass Opie
Columbia University Press

 

Strike pictures courtesy 1199SEIU

‘Spectacle’: The Story of Ota Benga

In 1906, visitors to the Bronx Zoo observed a rather bizarre sight in the Monkey House — the exhibition of a man in African dress, often accompanied by a parrot or an orangutan.


An African pygmy, so read the sign, “Age, 23, Height, 4 feet 11 inches, Weight 103 pounds, Brought from the Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Central Africa.” Displayed in one of America’s foremost institutions devoted to the display and care of exotic animals. Elephants, tigers, polar bears, snow leopards, bison. And one young man named Ota Benga.

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He is the subject of Pamela Newkirk’s engaging new book Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, both a sincere ode to his tragic life and a contemporary accusation of the terrible forces that exploited him over a century ago.

But the story is really about the ghost of Ota Benga.

He spoke little English and there are no accounts from his perspective. Almost everything we know is from the perspective of a jaundiced press and the glare of condescending authority. He was the subject of great fabrications over the years; the truth is almost impossible to extricate from hyperbole.

While his story is front and center in Spectacle, but he barely raises his voice. He never had one.

1906 photograph of Ota Benga, described as being taken at Bronx Zoo. (Wikimedia) Title: Ota Bengi     Creator(s): Bain News Service, publisher     Date Created/Published: [no date recorded on caption card]     Medium: 1 negative : glass ; 5 x 7 in. or smaller.     Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-ggbain-22741 (digital file from original negative)     Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.     Call Number: LC-B2- 3971-2 [P&P]     Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print     Notes:         Title from unverified data provided by the Bain News Service on the negatives or caption cards.         Forms part of: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress).         General information about the Bain Collection is available at http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.ggbain     Format:         Glass negatives.     Collections:         Bain Collection     Bookmark This Record:        http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005022751/
1906 photograph of Ota Benga, described as being taken at Bronx Zoo. (Wikimedia)
Creator(s): Bain News Service, publisher 
Ota Benga is probably not even his real name. And even then, it’s twisted and distorted mercilessly, sometimes by the man himself. (When he died in 1916, he was known as Ota Bingo.)  In 1904 he was rescued from captivity in the Congo by the explorer and would-be scientist Samuel Phillips Verner.

This is probably true although Verner is an unreliable source, often changing his own biography to burnish his reputation in the science community.  Verner was the product of his age, seeing Africans as inferior beings but seeing their continent as a source of revenue. Verner sought to profit handsomely from his ‘explorations’ both by currying favor with the Belgian King Leopold II (the ruthless leader who exploited the people of the Congo) and by snatching human specimens for display in America.

Ota Benga first arrived with a group of other men and boys for an exhibition at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.  People delighted at his mischievous nature and unusual appearance. His teeth were filed into points, a decorative trait that exhibitors (including Verner) proclaimed were the product of a cannibalistic nature.

Below: Ota Benga at the St. Louis World’s Fair with other men taken from Africa 

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He went back with Verner to Africa only to arrive back in America by 1906 where he was placed in the care of the American Museum of Natural History. Ota Benga actually lived inside the museum, subject to more than a few indignities. “I have bought a duck suit for the Pigmy,” wrote Hermon Carey Bumpus, the director of the museum, to Verner. “He is around the museum, apparently perfectly happy and more or less a favorite of the men.”

Ota Benga’s removal to the Bronx Zoo and subsequent display in the Monkey House has certainly been a blight to that institution’s history. The decision reveals the outmoded and racist philosophies that pervaded scientific thinking of the day.

At best, Ota Benga was simply an object in an exotic diorama with audiences prodding him to do tricks. His humanity was barely considered. At worst, the exhibition lays bare the racism of the day in the most baldy sinister way possible, corroding even the most esteemed institutions of the day.

It’s a small relief to hear of the many criticisms the zoo received in the press back in 1906. Sanity soon prevailed and Ota Benga left the zoo to live in an orphanage in Weeksville, Brooklyn.

2Newkirk gives the life of Ota Benga a proper eulogy. She crafts an intriguing tale around the many uncertainties of his biography, sometimes even stopping to analyze his state of mind.  I greatly credit the author for parsing through volumes of inaccurate news reports in search of even the smallest grains of truth.

His story ends with an unsatisfying hollowness, outside New York and far from the Congo. Few in his life ever treated him as an equal. In fact, due to his size, he was frequently treated like a boy, although he mostly like ended his life in his early 30s.  He never found a place to fit in.

There’s only a single moment in the book where Newkirk lets us in on his marvelous potential, on a life that could have been under more fair and enlightened circumstances.

He becomes, for a moment, “a father figure and hero” to a group of small African-American boys in Lynchburg, Virginia.  “In Benga they found an open and patient teacher, a beloved companion, and a remarkably agile athlete who sprinted and leaped over logs like a boy. And with his young companions Benga could uninhibitedly relive memories of a lost and longed-for life and retreat to woods that recalled home.”

Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga

Amistad, HarperCollinsPublishers

by Pamela Newkirk

 

Other recently reviewed books on the Bowery Boys Bookshelf:

‘Days of Rage’ and Nights of Terror

Right before noon on March 6, 1970, an explosion tore open a lovely Greenwich Village townhouse at 18 West 11th Street and awoke New York City to a violent new threat.

The remains of three bodies were discovered in the smoking debris but they weren’t residents of this quiet neighborhood. They were members of The Weather Underground, a radical underground unit absorbing the counter-culture spirit of the 1960s and unleashing it — oftentimes randomly and irrationally —  onto a new decade.

Below: Oddly enough, the townhouse explosion occurred next door to the home of Dustin Hoffman and his wife.

Courtesy AP file photo
Courtesy AP file photo

Less than two years later, two New York police officers were brutally assassinated in the East Village, among the most brutal and shocking crimes against the NYPD in its history.  This wasn’t a random crime but a hit placed upon the officers by members of the Black Liberation Army, wielding some of the philosophies of the Black Panthers to dangerous ends.

Almost three years later, a bomb exploded inside the historic Fraunces Tavern during in the middle of a busy weekday lunch. Four men were killed in the sudden attack, made by the Armed Forces of Puerto Rican National Liberation (or FALN).

Below: Aftermath of the explosion at Fraunces Tavern (courtesy New York Daily News)

faln

In between these terrible disasters were several other bombings of other significant buildings, here in New York and in other cities through the United States.  All of them indicative of a violent (and ultimately failed) form of protest, as turbulently described by Bryan Burrough in his new book Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, The FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence.

This is probably one of the most frightening non-fiction books I’ve read in recent memory, a broad and exquisitely told tale that loosely links together a variety of American revolutionary action groups from the 1970s.

Some of the principal players of these groups are recognizable (Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn,  Patty Hearst), but the breadths of their actions has been seldom studied. Through interviews with members who’ve never spoken, Burroughs patches together connections among these disparate groups — even if those connections are more philosophical than physical.

Below: The mugshot of Bernadine Dohrn, 1970

Bernardine_Dohrn_published_1970

 

Most shared the belief that violence, disruption and chaos would lead America to a new revolutionary age. As Burrough points out, most were inspired by civil rights movement and the plight of black Americans, taking their anger and frustration into far more radical directions than the mainstream leaders who advocated non-violence and change through the law.

While the vulgar and gut-wrenching violence was often doused with machismo, many of these groups were led or operated by women.

The title comes from a series of demonstrations that occurred in Chicago in the fall of 1969, seen as a sort of kick off to this festering revolutionary movement.  Much of the book details the ‘underground’ hideouts and escape routes of these organization, whether holed up in Manhattan’s Chinatown or San Francisco (as the Weathermen were, often dressed in silly disguises) or running from capture through rural Georgia.

Burrough does not flinch from the horror, graphically describing the aftermath of many of the more loathsome crimes.  The 1972 deaths of two NYPD officers in the East Village is especially grim. (You can read news of the original account here.)

patty

In particular, I found the tale of the Symbionese Liberation Army especially gripping, notable less for their violent actions (although there certainly was some) than for the somewhat random notion to kidnap the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst.  Many of these stories will replay in your memory as a reel of black-and-white news footage or a set of iconic photographs (such as the one above of Hearst).  Days of Rage offers a vivid and refreshing new context.

Burrough — a Vanity Fair writer perhaps best known for Barbarians At The Gate — is a thorough story-teller, conjuring fully blown narratives from the sometimes untrustworthy recollections of the surviving participants.  He’s often too thorough, sometimes including superfluous details because they’ve “never before been told.”

Chaos was an organizing principal for these groups which is partially way they were ultimately unsuccessful. As shocking as some of these horrifying attacks seem today, it’s a wonder many of them were successful orchestrated at all, given the tentative organizational structure and often incompetent leadership of these groups.

 

 

 

Top photograph courtesy Marty Lederhandler/AP Images.

Reservoir Square — 150 years ago!

Here are three stunning stereoscopic views of old Reservoir Square, the park next to the Murray Hill Reservoir that became sadly vacant after the fiery destruction of the Crystal Palace.  These stereoscopes — ancestors to the View-Masters which some of you may remember from childhood — were taken in 1865.

Now without its dazzling occupant, the park was landscaped for recreational use, but its location next to the imposing Egyptian-style reservoir made it a grim place to wander about in at certain times of the day.

During the 1860s this was still a sparsely populated area, even as Fifth Avenue on the other side began slowly filling up with luxury mansions and townhouses.

Just a couple years earlier, a horrible event occurred just nearby.  During that violent week of the Civil War Draft riots in July 1863, the Colored Orphan Asylum (just across the street, between 43rd and 44th Streets) was burned down by the mob, the children fleeing for their lives.

It’s a bit unsettling to look at this pictures from so long ago and realize how close they were to this terrible stain in New York history.  Many years after these pictures were taken, the park would be renamed after one of the city’s most prominent citizens — William Cullen Bryant.

Pictures courtesy the New York Public Library. Presumably these originals are located in Bryant Park today!

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On this Veteran’s Day, a salute to the Harlem Hellfighters!

The men of the 369th who were awarded France’s Criox de Guerre for distinguished acts of heroism:  Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor

New York’s 369th Infantry Regiment was America’s first African-American regiment engaged in World War I.  While many white American soldiers would have been happy to serve next to trained regiments of any color, intense racial prejudice in the United States forced many who signed up to fight for their country to instead be assigned to the French army.

Nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, the regiment served alongside the French during the summer and fall of 1918.  Perhaps the most famous soldier of the 369th was Private Henry Lincoln Johnson (at right) whose deadly efficiency on the battlefield earned him the grim nickname Black Death.  He became the first of dozens from the 369th to receive the prestigious Criox de Guerre, the equivalent of the American Medal of Honor.

They returned to New York in February 1919 and marched through the streets of Manhattan on February 17 — from Greenwich Village to Harlem, in triumph.

From the New York Times the following day:

New York’s negro soldiers, bringing with them from France one of the bravest records achieved by any organization in the war, marched amidst waving flags and cheering crowds yesterday from Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue to 145th Street and Lenox Avenue.”

“At Thirty-Fourth Street the men marched under a shower of cigarettes and candy, and such tokens were pitched at them at other points in the line, but the files did not waver for an instant.

The men of the 369th photographed as they arrive back in New York City, 1919

From original caption (courtesy US National Archies):  “[The] 369th New York City Infantry (old 15th) [African American] troops and some of the 370th Infantry, Illinois [African American] troops, one of the most decorated regiments in the United States Army return to New York City. They saw [the] longest service of any American regiment as part of a foreign army, and had less training than any before going into action. They were never in an American division or brigade always being with the French.”

The 369th marching up Fifth Avenue.

The men are shown here in this assortment of newsreel footage from the war:

Pictures from the U.S. National Archives