February 28, 2011

Feb 28 – Dr. Carter G. Woodson: The Father of Black History

Dr. Carter G. Woodson

Well, today marks the end of Black History Month; so it seems fitting to profile its origins and its founder, in my final post for this year.

Black History Month began as Negro History Week in the second week of February, 1926, to honor the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist, Fredrick Douglass.  It was founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, African-American historian, author and journalist.

President Abraham Lincoln
Frederick Douglass

Carter was born the son of freed slaves, in December, 1875, in New Canton, Virginia. As a teenager, Carter helped his family to make ends meet by working as a sharecropper, miner and garbage truck driver. This meant that he was not able to attend school on a regular basis, so he educated himself until the age of 20, when he was finally able to attend Douglass High School, in Fayette County, West Virginia. Carter was a very bright student and was able to earn his High School diploma in less than two years.  He subsequently earned a Bachelor of Literature Degree from Berea College in Kentucky, after teaching in Fayette County for three years.

A young Carter G. Woodson

Students at Berea College

A few years later, Carter was sent, by the U.S. War Department, to the Philippines to be a school supervisor, where he spent four years.  He simultaneously took correspondence courses from the University of Chicago. Carter finished his Masters Degree in History, Romance Languages and Literature from there, physically on campus in 1908 – but not before traveling throughout Africa, Asia and Europe, and studying for a short time at The Sorbonne, in Paris, France (now Paris University). In 1912, Carter earned his Doctorate in History at Ivy League School, Harvard University – becoming the second African-American (behind W.E.B. DuBois) to earn a Ph.D. at the prestigious institution. After earning his Doctorate, Dr. Woodson continued teaching in the public school system, later joining the faculty at Howard University, in Washington DC, as a professor – eventually being promoted to Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

University of Chicago

Howard University

By this time, Dr. Woodson had observed that African-American history was either ignored or misrepresented in most textbooks; so he began extensive research. In 1915, he published his first book, The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861. That same year, in Chicago, he also co-founded The Association for the Study of Negro Life and History ((ASNLH) which later became The Association for the Study of African-American Life and History), along with colleague, Alexander L. Jackson, and three other associates. The next year, Dr. Woodson launched the Journal of Negro History, a scholarly publication. To date, it has never missed an issue, despite The Great Depression, loss of support from foundations and two World Wars. In 2002, it was renamed the Journal of African-American History and continues to be published. Dr. Woodson also formed the African-American-owned, Associated Publishers Press in 1921, which produced several of his own works, including The History of the Negro Church (1921), The Negro in Our History (1922) and The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933). After founding the ASNLH, Dr. Woodson also became very active in Black organizations, such as the NAACP, the National Urban League and the Friends of Negro Freedom. Very passionate about ‘the cause’, he made proposals to the NAACP to acquire new members and gain strength. The NAACP did not welcome his ideas and made that very clear.  The leaders were concerned that White businessmen would be unhappy with the NAACP’s escalation. Dr Woodson’s response was, “I am not afraid of being sued by White businessmen. In fact, I should welcome such a law suit. It would do the cause much good. Let us banish fear. We have been in this mental state for three centuries. I am a radical. I am ready to act, if I can find brave men to help me." At that time, there were no men ‘brave’ enough to help him. This disagreement actually led to Dr. Woodson ending his affiliation with the NAACP.

2002 edition when renamed to The Journal of African-American History
2010 edition

However, Dr. Woodson’s commitment to African-American history, and to improving the lives of African-Americans, had not waned.  He decided to commit the rest of his life to his research – often working 18 hours per day and accumulating a collection of thousands of artifacts and publications.  During the 1920s, Dr. Woodson received tens of thousands dollars from several, White philanthropists to fund the ASNLH’s various efforts.

In 1926, Dr. Woodson wanted to formalize his commitment, so he lobbied schools and organizations to participate in a special program to encourage the study of African-American history, which began in February 1926, with Negro History Week. By the early 1930s, Dr. Woodson relied upon Black communities throughout the country to maintain his organization’s activities; but he had many detractors – White and Black – who did not believe that African-American history should be separately recognized or celebrated.  Dr. Woodson was not to be deterred. In 1937, he created The Negro History Bulletin to be used as a study guide for Negro History Week (and beyond) and throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Dr. Woodson spoke at countless elementary and high schools, Negro History Week events and at the graduation ceremonies for many Historically-Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). 

Negro History Week Bulletin with comments from President Truman

In the decades which followed, mayors of cities across the country began issuing annual proclamations recognizing Negro History Week. By the late 1960s, thanks in part to the Civil Rights Movement and a growing awareness of Black identity, Negro History Week had evolved into Black History Month across the country. President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized Black History Month, in 1976, calling upon the public to "seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history." Since then, every American President has designated February as Black History Month (which is often now called African-American History Month) and endorsed a specific theme. This year’s theme has been: African-Americans and The Civil War (click here to read President Obama’s Proclamation on this year’s theme).

Dr. Woodson worked tirelessly until his sudden death at the age of 74, in 1950.  He is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Maryland. To this day, there are people who think that celebrating Black History is not necessary. Thankfully, there are many more – including myself – who do. The Father of Black History left a timeless legacy, from which we have learned – and will continue to learn – amazing facts and stories about how Black people around the world have helped to shape all history.

On a personal note, I hope that you have enjoyed seeing Black History through ‘my eyes’. For those of you who have read the blog, commented on it (here, or on Facebook), ‘liked it’ on Facebook, become a ‘Follower’ or forwarded the link to friends and family, I truly thank you, and am humbled by your response and encouragement.  Remember that Black History is everyone’s history; and it is not just for one month. It’s for life.

Until next year…

Sources: Wikipedia, Biography Channel, History Channel, About.com, CNN, Google Images

February 27, 2011

Feb 27 – Dr. John A. Kenney Jr: Medical Pioneer

Dr. John A. Kenney Jr.

I saw a wonderful article on NPR's website a couple of days ago, and felt a need to share the story of Dr. John A. Kenney Jr.

Born in 1883, the son of freed slaves, John was a farm boy, in the rural South, interested in furthering his education and getting off the farm.

John graduated from Shaw University’s Medical School in North Carolina, in 1901 -- initially making 'shack calls' to patients in his community. He then went onto be a resident at the prestigious, Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington DC (which eventually became Howard University Hospital).  Following his residency, Dr. Kenney became the school physician for the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), which was headed by its first leader, Booker T. Washington, in Alabama. Dr. Kenney also became Mr. Washington’s personal physician, as well as for inventor, George Washington Carver.

Shaw University Medical School

Freedmen's Hospital

Faculty at Tuskegee Institute, including Booker T. Washington in the front row

Booker T. Washington
George Washington Carver

In 1909, Dr. Kenney founded the National Medical Association and its Journal, which he edited for 40 years.  The mission of the National Medical Association is “to advance the art and science of medicine for people of African descent through education, advocacy, and health policy to promote health and wellness, eliminate health disparities, and sustain physician viability.”

National Medical Association Journal Editorial Staff

Also while at the Tuskegee Institute, Dr. Kenney and Mr. Washington founded the John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital, in 1913 – the first full-service hospital for African-Americans, in the country. Dr. Kenney became its first Medical Director, and shortly thereafter, opened its first Clinical Society.   He also helped to fight a smallpox epidemic on campus and set up a medical system for the students and veterans.

John A. Andrew Hospital
John A. Andrew Hospital Operating Room

The early 1920s saw the U.S. Government's Veterans Administration (VA) build a separate, African-American hospital for soldiers returning from World War I. Dr. Kenney felt strongly that the hospital should have a completely African-American staff – from the doctors and nurses to the groundskeepers.  Conversely, many White southerners wanted control of the facility to conduct sterilization experiments on Black men. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) supported these experiments and had no intention of allowing Dr. Kenney to implement his plan. In 1923, twenty-two members of the KKK confronted him about it, and he defiantly answered, “I most emphatically do. Anything else would make me a traitor and a liar.”  The KKK was incensed and plotted to kill him. A friend tipped off  Dr. Kenney about a certain death threat from the KKK, so he and his family left Tuskegee minutes before the KKK set fire to his home with a burning cross.

Dr. Kenney found his way to Newark, New Jersey.  From his new home in New Jersey, Dr. Kenney worked with members of the National Medical Association and the NAACP to lobby the VA and the President for control of the hospital. Their efforts convinced the government that there were enough competent African-American physicians to staff and administer the Tuskegee VA Hospital.

Tuskegee VA Hospital

Tuskegee VA Hospital African-American staff

Meanwhile, Dr. Kenney had been practicing medicine for over 20 years, but he found that he did not have a hospital in Newark (or New Jersey) where he could work. African-American patients had nowhere to go, and neither did the doctors and nurses. With the knowledge of how to open a successful hospital,  from his experience at John A Andrew Hospital, Dr. Kenney decided to open one in Newark, with his own money.  On September 1, 1927, the Kenney Memorial Hospital opened its doors, with 30 hospital beds. For many years, it was the only hospital where African-American physicians, interns, nurses and patients had access in the entire state of New Jersey.
Kenney Memorial Hospital

A few years later, Dr. Kenney wanted to convert his private hospital into a community one, so donated the hospital to the African-American community of New Jersey on Christmas Eve, 1934 – despite opposition from his hospital committee.

The Community Hospital Staff

Dr. Kenney practiced medicine until his early death in 1950, at the age of 67. His advocacy for African-American health care providers in the VA would be continued by his son, Dr. Howard W. Kenney. After serving as the director of the Tuskegee VA Hospital from 1959 to 1962, Dr. Howard W. Kenney was appointed the first African-American director of a VA hospital not originally designated for only African-American patients.

One of his granddaughters, Linda Kenney Miller, wrote a novel in 2008, based on Dr. Kenney’s life entitled, Beacon on the Hill.

Linda Kenney Miller with Beacon on the Hill

The Community Hospital is now the site of the New Salem Baptist Church.

New Salem Baptist Church

Through his vision, courage and determination, Dr. Kenney was a major contributor to the creation and development of African-American organized medicine, the founding of African-American hospitals and the training and employment of African-American nurses.  We owe him a debt of gratitude.

Sources: NPR, BlackAmericaWeb, Old Newark, Veterans Association, Linda Kenney Miller, Google Images

February 26, 2011

Feb 26 – Harlem Renaissance: Romantic, Profound and Political

When I lived in New York, I used to love going up to Harlem. The history, the beauty, the culture and the food were fantastic. Harlem has been experiencing a true resurgence for the last decade, or so. Beautiful, brownstone neighborhoods are being refurbished; and fabulous night spots, brunch nooks and cultural gems are opening or re-opening – even former U.S. President, Bill Clinton, opened his offices there. Every few days, or so, some of my friends post photos on Facebook of the fun they are having with friends and family, in Harlem; and it makes me nostalgic. Check out this recent article (click here), from New York Magazine, entitled, The New New Harlem.

Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in Bill Clinton's Harlem Office

No, that’s not a typo. It’s called ‘New New’ because almost 90 years ago, Harlem experienced its first Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural and political movement, which spanned the 1920s and 30s – although many of its ideals continued much later. At the time that it was being ‘lived’, it was called, The New Negro Movement, named after a 1925 anthology, which African-American writer, Alain Locke, wrote, entitled, The New Negro: An Interpretation. Alain is widely considered to be the Father of The Harlem Renaissance.

Alain Locke

So, how did it begin? Originally, Harlem (which moreorless extends from 110th to 155th Streets and from the East to the Hudson Rivers) was built in the 19th century, for White middle and upper middle classes. Stately homes, wide, grand avenues and cultural centers, such as polo grounds and an opera house, were the marks of exclusivity and wealth, in this area.  At the end of the 19th century, New York experienced and large influx of European immigrants, and the ‘native White people’ abandoned Harlem in droves. In 1910, a large block, along 135th Street and Fifth Avenue, was purchased by various African-American realtors and a church group. During World War I, many more African-Americans arrived, and continued to do so, during (the first) Great Migration due both to the need for unskilled labor, as well as the fact that Harlem was quickly becoming a cultural mecca for them.   Gentrification of midtown Manhattan was pushing Black people ‘uptown’ to where living was more affordable. Between 1900 and 1920, the number of African-Americans living in Harlem doubled – and the subway now extended that far North, as well – making for easier access.

125th Street 1920s
By the 1920s, an explosion of Black art, music and especially literature had hit the scene. It was the first time that African-Americans could earn a living as ‘artists’ and be critically acknowledged in their fields – by both Black and White people. As celebrated Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes wrote in his autobiography, The Big Sea, “The Negro was in vogue.” 

Writers such as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois and Zora Neale Hurston (who famously noted that, “White artists were employing aspects of Black culture in their works”. She called these people ‘Negrotarians’.) were entertaining the people, but also making strong, political statements with their works.

Langston Hughes

W.E.B. DuBois
Zora Neale Hurston

Musicians, such as Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong were tickling the senses and making people get up and dance to swing jazz.  Everyone, who was anyone, was hanging out at The Savoy Ballroom, The Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. Click here to see Cab Calloway performing to Langston Hughes’s 1926 poem, The Weary Blues.
Cab Calloway and his Orchestra

Count Basie
Ella Fitzgerald
Sarah Vaughan

Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong

Swing Dancing

Some critics of The Harlem Renaissance said that it was actually just Black people ‘mimicking’ White people’s way of life – especially, the clothes and the aspirations; but as Langston Hughes wrote in The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, in 1926, "If White people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter.... If Colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."

Painters, such as Aaron Douglas and Jacob Lawrence; and photographers, such as James Van Der Zee, were capturing it all. The music. The Weddings. The society photos. The political marches and political statements. James’s photos, especially, are some of the most celebrated of all time.

Aaron Douglas

An Aaron Douglas painting

Jacob Lawrence
A Jacob Lawrence painting
James Van Der Zee

James Van Der Zee photo
James Van Der Zee photo
James Van Der Zee photo

James Van Der Zee photo

The 1929 Stock Market Crash and the subsequent Great Depression saw the beginning of the end of The Harlem Renaissance. People could not only afford to be ‘cultural’, they actually could no longer create the mindset for it. They could not see how culture related to economics. While The Harlem Renaissance, as an historical movement, was over, the effects were longstanding. Art, culture and politics continued to thrive and be ‘exported’ from Harlem; and The Civil Rights Movement saw Harlem as one of its ‘headquarters’ in the North. The role Harlem has continued to play after its Renaissance has changed the American, cultural landscape forever.

How wonderful that Harlem is back ‘in vogue’; but there are many people who continued to live and thrive there, who knew it was so, all along. Get yourself there, as soon as you can.

Sources: Wikipedia, Answers.com, Yale University, Biography.com, PBS, Google Images, YouTube