The History Behind Black History Month

In late 1925, the prominent scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson announced that the second week in February 1926 would be declared Negro History Week. He picked that month because it paired up with the month of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass birthdays. It was a bold move to dare declare a special time to recognize the accomplishments of the “Negro,” but the times were ripe for bold moves. It all began with the great migration of Blacks out of the South into the northern cities around 1912. There were two primary reasons why Blacks packed up and began to abandon the part of the country that had been their home since slavery. One, they were escaping the increasing degree of violence against them by southern whites. The second reason was the belief that their economic condition would improve because of the perceived number of job opportunities available to them in the North.

Accompanying this great migration was a new mindset. Free from the restrictions forced on them in the South, Blacks were able to express who they were through the arts and literature as well as music. One of the leading proponents of this new movement was Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, editor of the Crisis Magazine. Another strong proponent was Dr. Alain Locke, Dean of Philosophy at Howard University. These two men assumed a primary role in adopting this new movement in Harlem, during the famous Renaissance period of the 1920’s. Locke explained it in the following words: “Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination.” Locke labeled it as the New Negro Movement.

Dr, Woodson, the second Black American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University, also became a proponent of the New Negro Movement. In 1915, in coordination with the prominent Black minister and Washington, D.C. community leader, Jesse E. Moorland, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The organization’s primary purpose was to research and promote achievements by Blacks in America and Africans on the continent. The organization’s findings were published in the Journal of Negro History with Dr. Woodson as the editor. These studies served as a counter to the negative portrayal of the Black in white literature and, at that time, accompanied with the release of the racist movie Birth of a Nation, that had an official showing in the Woodrow Wilson’s White House in 1915.

Dr. Woodson’s basic premise for his research was that no other race of people should be in control of the education of another race’s children, and this was especially true in the United States. He constantly pointed out, without fear of reprisal, the negative images that Black children received in their education. He wrote, “To handicap a student by teaching him that his Black face is a curse and that his struggle to change is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching.”

As he observed this continued debasement of his race and the exposure of the children to this psychological abuse, he introduced Black History Week. In defense of his claim of recognition for that week he wrote, “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

The response was overwhelmingly positive and the years that followed witnessed the growth of the celebration all over the country. Negro history clubs became popular and teachers began to acknowledge its importance and stress Black heroes and accomplishments, specifically during that week.

In February 1969, at the height of the Black is Beautiful Movement, Black students at Kent State University insisted that the week should be stretched to the entire month. The next year those students did extend it from one week to two months, January 2 to February 28. Other entities began to celebrate not two months, but the entire month of February. Finally, in 1976, President Gerald Ford endorsed February as the official national Black History Month, and it is now recognized and celebrated as a time to acknowledge the great contributions the Black race in America has made to the world civilization.

June 1, 2021, Here We Come!!!

Since this is Black History Month, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to bring to your attention a glaring omission of a film about one of the greatest achievements of my race, and that was the successful establishment of an economically independent community in Tulsa, Oklahoma from 1908 to June 1, 1921. This was the dream of one man, John Baptiste Stradford who, along with O.W. Gurley put together a plan by which their businesses would encourage Blacks to spend their hard-earned wages in their community.  It was successful and all along Greenwood Avenue, you had various black owned businesses fulfilling the needs of their customers. Unfortunately, this was all destroyed when on June 1, a mob of over 7500 mad, vengeful, hate-filled white Tulsans invaded the city and burned down all buildings within a thirty-three-block radius. They also went on a murderous spree lasting for over seven hours that morning.

 

 

 

 

 

The most recent attempt to bring this history to the screen was done by Watchmen on HBO. The problem was that depiction was poorly done and leaves the impression that Blacks were running helter-skelter like frightened animals and it did a disservice to the brave Black veterans and other citizens of the community that put up a valiant fight before the airplanes came. These were men, like Stradford who always carried his pistol and once pulled a white man from his milk wagon and beat him thoroughly for making a derogatory comment about his color; men like Andrew Smitherman who owned the Tulsa Star whose motto printed on the front page of his paper was: “You Push Me and I Will Push You;” John Williams, a sharpshooter with his rifle, who owned an automobile repair shop, a confectionery and the Williams Dreamland Theater; and O. B. Mann, a veteran of World War I who believed that since he and the other veterans had gone to Europe to save democracy there, that they deserved the same treatment here and warned the whites in that town that the veterans would not tolerate any lynching of anyone while they were around.

 

 

 

 

 

None of these brave men, who fought the invaders valiantly, were mentioned in the Watchmen version of the historical event. What the writers of that short version failed to comprehend was the fighting spirit that grew during that particular time. Dr. Cary D. Wintz, a professor of History at Texas Southern University best described the feeling of Blacks at that time when he wrote about Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die.” He wrote that the poem was, “Forged out of the horrific interracial violence cascading through American cities in the summer of 1919, it exquisitely expressed the African American’s rage toward a country that sacrificed so much to ‘save the world for democracy,’ but forgot to save it at home.” McKay wrote in the strongest of verse:

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain: then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

The Watchmen should have created their short depiction of what happened on June 1, 1921 through the poetic words of Claude McKay. That best described the “murderous cowardly pack,” and the brave warriors along Black Wall Street, who fought valiantly and held them off until the cowards utilized airplanes to drop turpentine-soaked bombs on the buildings and the homes. What must be highlighted is the fact that the men and women who fought the invaders were victors and not victims.

Why didn’t we see any of this in the Watchmen version? And why hasn’t a full-length film been produced giving an honest and truthful depiction? Because too often we as Black writers depend on others to tell our story. Exception, obviously to that rule is Spike Lee. But he is only one. We need to write about and produce stories of our history and not depend on any other people to do that. My genre over the past forty years, has been novels, but for the past ten years I have concentrated on writing historical novels. I have two to my credit and right now have started work on a third one.

However, through the encouragement of Laurel Stradford, the great granddaughter of John Baptiste Stradford, I joined with her with the goal of putting together a team that could produce a great screen play about her great grandfather and Black Wall Street.  Ms. Stradford was aware of my extensive research on the subject and my novel I wrote about Black Wall Street and the hate that destroyed it. She was moved with my re-creation of her great grandfather Stradford. She agreed that it was important that this story be told by a Black writer for a Black audience that could make them proud. We must do this for our young that will be viewing a future film titled ‘Defending Black Wall Street,” with a script that points out the heroes of our race that fought off 7500 mad men and even fought as best they could the airplanes, giving many of their families and friends time to escape North of the city to safety.

We were fortunate to have Adger Cowans a Black American Photographer Emeritus, who has also worked on a number of films to include Sea of Love, Ice Storm, Dirty Dozen and Danny Glover’s production 1994 Override; and Judith James, Partner in the Dreyfus/James Production Company in Hollywood, California, who also has outstanding credits to include producing Quiz Show, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Having Our Say, the Delany Sister’s First 100 Years that appeared on Broadway and as a film. The team worked for a year and a half, with me as the primary writer and Ms. Stradford the historian and Mr. Cowans and Ms. James lending their technical expertise to the script. We feel that we have now produced the best screenplay for a film long overdue on this subject matter. One of the most outstanding Black public relations firms, Purpose PR, headed by Andrew Wyatt has agreed with our assessment of the script and has joined us to help bring this screenplay to the attention of the public.

 

 

 

 

We have the best team possible to do this film and we are working diligently to get this through the pre-production stage to the production and finally the release on June 1, 2021, the commemoration date of the invasion. Please stay tuned because HERE WE COME!!!

A Decade of Success: One Hundred Years Later

As we prepare to enter the next ten years, the decade of 2020, I wonder, as a race of people, will we be as successful as Black Americans of the 1920’s. Despite the tremendous number of obstacles placed in their way by a racist country (yes racism existed in all parts of the country and not just the south) these brave and committed Americans stressed the importance of excellence in all fields of endeavor. Two periods in two distinctly separate sections of the country during that illustrious decade are exemplary of that success.

By the year 1921, Black Americans had constructed the most successful business community in the country. As early as 1908, two Black men, J. B. Stradford and O. W. Gurley put their heads together and planned how to keep the money, Black workers made for working in the oil fields outside of Tulsa and the rich white homes of the successful oil barons, within the Black community. As the oil fields prospered and more Blacks made their way to Tulsa, Stradford and Gurley built living accommodations and assisted other men and women in opening business to serve the needs of the community. Greenwood Avenue became the most prosperous Black community in the country and when visiting it, Booker T. Washington was so impressed he named it “Negro Wall Street” (later changed to “Black Wall Street”).

Stradford Hotel

The golden jewel of Black Wall Street was the Stradford Hotel owned by J.B. Stradford. It was a luxurious 54 room hotel with chandeliers in the ballroom. It was considered the best hotel owned by a Black man in the country and rivaled the white hotels throughout Oklahoma for comfort and accommodations. Across the street and down a couple blocks was the Gurley Hotel, not quite as luxurious as the Stradford but nice enough for Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois to stay there when he visited Black Wall Street in March of 1921. Stradford and Gurley were the two richest Black men in Tulsa.

Not far behind them in wealth were John and Loula Williams. They owned three businesses. The initial business was a car repair service and John was so competent that the whites brought their vehicles to him. They owned the Williams Confectionery right at the corner of Greenwood and Archer. It was the most popular gathering place for the young, and it was believed that more engagements happened there than anywhere else in the community. The Williams also owned the 700 seat Dreamland Theater so that Blacks did not have to endure the embarrassment when attending white theaters, where they were restricted to the balcony and usually had to go through side or back doors. They proudly featured movies also by Black director, Oscar Micheaux.

Mabel and Pressley Little were another very successful business couple. Mabel Little’s Little Rose Beauty Shop was always crowded on Thursday afternoons when the maids got off early and hurried to her shop to get their hair done for Maid’s Night Out, because Friday was their day off. Saturday was her busy day as the older women came in to get their hair done for Sunday morning at church. They owned the Little Bell Café, run by Pressley, with their specialty of smothered chicken.

The World War I Veteran O. B. Mann and his brother, McKinley, owned the Mann Grocery Store, not on Greenwood Avenue but only a couple blocks away on Lansing. It was where most Blacks shopped for their everyday grocery needs. O. B. Mann was one of the real heroes when on June 1, 1921 whites invaded the Black community. He and J. B. Stradford, John Williams and the other veterans of World War I fought valiantly against the invaders and kept them at bay until the airplanes came.

There were many additional successful Black professionals in the most successful Black community in this country’s history. Dr. A. C. Jackson was recognized as the outstanding Black surgeon in the country. Dr. R. T. Bridgewater ran Frissell Memorial Hospital. There was Andrew Smitherman, the publisher and editor of the militant Tulsa Tribune, with the heading blasted all over the front page of his paper, “You Push Me and I Push You,” and Attorney B. C. Franklin, father of the renowned historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, had his law office right on Greenwood Avenue in the center of Black Wall Street. In fact, there was a total of 196 Black successful businesses on Black Wall Street until the entire community was invaded by a white racist mob driven by hate and jealousy.

 

If this is a subject that interests you, I invite you to purchase my historical novel, Fires of Greenwood: The Tulsa Riot of 1921, through the publisher, prosperitypublications.com or on Amazon.com for a much more detailed coverage of Black Wall Street and the invasion that ultimately destroyed it.

 

Accompanying the success of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma was the success of Black writers, sculptors, artists and musicians in New York City’s Harlem.   During the 1920’s a cultural revolution, referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, began  (some scholars argue that it began with the publication of Jean Toomer’s novel Cane in 1921 and others argue it was March 1924 when Charles Johnson and “Opportunity Magazine,” sponsored the Civic Club Dinner, a gathering of White publishers and editors, literary critics, Black intellectuals and young Black writers).

With the advent of the Renaissance, Black artists, writing in all genres, made their way to Harlem. Langston Hughes, Arna Bontemps, Wallace Thurman and Zora Neale Hurston were among the younger writers who came to Harlem. Additional authors who made their way to the hub of literary activity were Claude McKay (who spent most of the period out of the United States, specifically in the Soviet Union), Jessie Fauset, Rudolph Fisher and Nella Larsen. The more established writers already there in Harlem included Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson.  The poet Countee Cullen was born and raised in Harlem. Roland Hayes, Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith were among the singers. Josephine Baker, Florence Mills and Bill Bojangles were also performers. Duke Ellington’s career took off in Harlem at the Cotton Club. Dr. Alain Locke, a Harvard graduate and the first Black Rhodes Scholar was known as the father of the Harlem Renaissance. A’Lelia Walker, daughter of Madame C. J. Walker was known as the queen of the Harlem Renaissance.

There has never been such an accumulation of Black talent in one place since the 1920’s. The Renaissance lasted only a short period of time and began its decline with the depression of 1929, and with Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson and others leaving Harlem. But during the time it was “In Vogue,” it captured the attention of all New York and throughout the country and left its indelible accomplishments that remain with us today.

If this subject interest you also, look forward to my novel, Making My Way to Harlem, to be released in Summer 2020.

As we enter this new decade one hundred years later, the question we must consider can we repeat the success of the 1920’s and accomplish in business, economics and the arts what our ancestors did in the past and left a legacy for us to emulate in the present.

 

“When We Were Black”

As I move swiftly through my 70’s and I mean swiftly and near 80 years of age, I often reflect back on the history I have not only observed but been a part of; a history that I affectionately label, “When We Were Black.” It was a time when all things seemed to be built around a display of pride, strength and the beauty of being Black. It was a time when Malcolm X stood tall and confronted the evils of racism in the North, and Dr. King stood just as tall and confronted the same racism in the South. Even though their approaches were different the outcome they sought was the same, and that was to jettison the shackles of oppression. Along the way, despite their different outlooks on life, there was one similarity and that was to be proud of being who they were as Black men and encouraged all of us, men and women, also to be proud.

           

I reflect on the times when our beautiful sisters were wearing afro’s and brothers also with afro’s and dashiki’s out of respect for the homelands. There were no songs (if you care to consider them songs) calling our woman the “b” word; instead beautiful love ballads like Curtis Mayfield’s “So in Love,” the Temptations, “Just My Imagination,” and Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover.” There was Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and “Make Yours a Happy Home;” and who can ever forget Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” and “I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.” These songs flow through our memories for those of us who were fortunate to live during this time, “When We Were Black.”

        

         

We knew something was special about being Black. We stuck out our chest when the great Muhammad Ali told America’s war machine, that he would not go thousands of miles away to fight a people who had never done a thing to him. We applauded Tommy Smith and John Carlos when they held their fists high in the air after they showed their superiority as athletes in the Olympics. Basketball great Kareem Abdul Jabbar took it one step further when he refused to try out for the 1968 Olympic Basketball team, because he did not want to represent a country that did not treat him as an equal.

     

We listened to our messengers through poetry; Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and especially Gil Scott-Heron when he told us the “Revolution would not be televised.” We read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and we learned from these talented and gifted writers. We took pride in the works of novelist John O. Killens co-founder of the Harlem Writers Guild and intimately involved in the Black Arts Movement along with Amiri Baraka a poet, playwright, teacher and political activists. These artists inspired all of us and made us proud, “When We Were Black.”

     

With the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, we marveled at how quickly we took advantage of that law when Carl Stokes became the first elected Black mayor of a major city, Cleveland, Ohio in 1967, followed closely by Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana in 1968. They were soon followed by Black mayors in Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Washington, D. C. Black Americans were also winning congressional seats, and in 1969 thirteen men and women established the Congressional Black Caucus. These pioneers opened the doors for hundreds of Black elected officials in local, state and national politics leading to the election of the first Black President, Barack Obama in 2008, and it all began in those very proud years, “When We Were Black.”

I am not implying that we are not still proud of who we are today. We are, but we often have a tendency to forget those that went before us. My generation was indebted to men and women like Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and many others who really began the exploration as to who we really were as Black Americans. No longer subservient to another race, but our own men and women. And some day, this new generation of Blacks will look back and tell future generations of their greatness. And hopefully they will be just as proud as I am when I look back and proclaim with great pride, “When We Were Black.”