Thursday, September 23, 2010


On September 24, 1957, nine African American students made history when they integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. These 9 teenagers Minnijean Brown (1941), Elizabeth Eckford (1941), Ernest Green (1941), Gloria Ray (1942), Thelma Mothershed (1940), Melba Pattillo (1941), Terrence Roberts (1941), Jefferson Thomas (1942–2010) and Carlotta Walls (1942) would become known as the Little Rock Nine. Their integration of Central High School followed a month of drama, heartache and trauma.
The events that led up to September 24, 1957 began in Topeka, Kansas in 1951 when an African American father, Oliver Brown challenged the Topeka, Kansas School Board in court on behalf of his 8 year old daughter Linda Brown. Oliver Brown’s 8 year old third-grader Linda had to walk one mile through a dangerous railroad switchyard to get to her segregated elementary school when a white elementary school was a few blocks away from her home. Brown, tried to enroll his daughter in the white elementary school, but the principal of the school refused to enroll the child. Brown appealed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for help and a class action lawsuit against the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education was launched when 13 other African American parents on behalf of their 20 children joined Brown and the NAACP requested an injunction to forbid the segregation of Topeka's public schools.

The case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court of the USA with 200 plaintiffs from five states; Delaware, Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington. Three years later the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483, on May 17, 1954. The decision declared all laws establishing segregated schools to be unconstitutional and called for the desegregation of all schools throughout the nation. The Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision did not require desegregation of public schools by a specific time but after the decision the NAACP attempted to register African American students in previously all-white schools in cities throughout the South.

Daisy Bates, president of the NAACP was planning to sue the Little Rock School Board to force them to integrate their schools. On May 24, 1955 the Little Rock School Board agreed to comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling with a plan of gradual integration. The Board planned to begin integration during the fall of the 1957-58 school year which would begin in September 1957. By September 1957, the NAACP had registered nine African American students, selected on the criteria of excellent grades and attendance, to attend the all-white Little Rock Central High School. There were 517 African American students who lived in the Central High School district and were eligible to attend the school in the fall. In the summer of 1957 a group of white women in Little Rock, Arkansas had organized the Mother’s League of Central High School to ensure that no African American students would be allowed to attend Little Rock’s Central High School. On August 27, 1957, Mary Thomason, secretary of the Mothers League of Little Rock Central High School filed a lawsuit to prevent African American students from entering Central High School. When the legal manoeuvre was unsuccessful the good ladies of the Mothers League of Little Rock Central High School along with their neighbours, relatives and friends resorted to violence to prevent the integration of Central High School.

The action began on the morning of September 4, 1957 when Elizabeth Eckford arrived at the school on her own. Eckford’s family did not own a telephone and she had not been informed that the other 8 students planned to arrive as a group accompanied by the president of the Arkansas NAACP, Daisy Bates. Eckford was a 15 year old student on September 4, 1957 when a photograph of her surrounded by a snarling white mob made history. The National Guard troops, at gunpoint, under orders of Governor Orval Faubus, had just prevented the 15 year old from entering the school grounds, when a white mob descended on the obviously terrified child. Right on Eckford’s heels is the unforgettable image of a white girl, her face distorted with hate, mouth wide open, spitting racist venom. The infamous photograph has been recognized as one of the most important photographs of the 20th Century by the Associated Press and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Another photograph from that horrific period which has the dubious honour of being part of a list of “the most important photographs of the 20th Century” is one of Alex Wilson, an African American reporter covering the story of the attempt to integrate Little Rock Central High School, being brutalized by a white mob.

Wilmer Counts, the photographer whose work documented the Little Rock trauma for posterity is white, blended in with the crowd and photographed not only the terror to which the 15 year old Eckford was subjected on September 4th but also the brutal and cowardly assault of African American journalist Alex Wilson on September 23, 1957. Unlike Counts whose white skin protected him from being terrorized and brutalized by the mob, Wilson and other African American journalists were identifiable and vulnerable. When the mob descended shouting, “Run n---er run,” Wilson refused to follow the other African American journalists who fled. He calmly let the howling white mob know “I fought for my country in the war and I'm not running from you." He suffered for his brave stand. Nattily dressed topped by his trade mark fedora he continued walking in dignity even after he was borne to the ground several times by members of that vicious cowardly white mob

Wilson never recovered from the brutal assault to which he was subjected in Little Rock, Arkansas on September 23, 1957. This man who as editor in chief of the African American newspaper Tri-State Defender from Memphis, Tennessee had traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas to cover the story of the 9 students, who put their lives on the line to integrate Central High School, paid with his life. He suffered neurological damage as a result of the abuse and died when he was 50 years old on Oct. 11, 1960.

Terrence Roberts another member of the Little Rock spoke about his experiences in school where there were no cameras to capture images of the vicious attacks he and his classmates suffered at the hands of white students and the racism from teachers.
"They did everything you could possibly think of that one human being might do to another.”
Roberts was hit on the side of the head with a combination lock in the gymnasium locker room, so hard it drove him to his knees. He was left stunned and bleeding from the head wound that resulted from the vicious attack.

In a recent article published in the Christian Science Monitor Melba Patillo-Beals wrote:
I am one of the Little Rock Nine, one of the teenagers who integrated all-white Central High School in 1957. We sparked such a national firestorm that President Eisenhower summoned the Army to guard us as we entered the school amid a mob threatening to lynch us. We were nine black kids joining 1,900 white students – and they weren't mounting any welcome wagon for us.
As a high school sophomore I suddenly had a bounty on my head: The local white citizens' council offered $10,000 for me dead; $5,000 alive. As a result, I was rushed to the airport by my family and ushered onto a plane bound for California.
Each member of the Little Rock Nine persevered in spite of the daily abuse to which they were subjected and triumphed by graduating from high school, advancing to post secondary education and fulfilling careers. Sadly, on September 5, 2010, the youngest male member of the Little Rock Nine, Jefferson Thomas who suffered from pancreatic cancer transitioned to join the ancestors just two weeks shy of his 68th birthday. On September 6, 2010, the White House released a statement by President Obama, in which he said, “Our nation owes Mr. Thomas a debt of gratitude for the stand he took half a century ago, and the leadership he showed in the decades since. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”


On September 18, 1850, President Millard Fillmore (13 th president of the United States of America) signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act, which endangered the lives of Africans in America who had managed to gain their freedom, those living in free states and those who had never been enslaved (born to free parents.) Fillmore had been president for barely two months when he signed the infamous Fugitive Slave Act into law. He had been elected Vice President under President Zachary Taylor in 1849 and succeeded to the presidency after Taylor died on July 9, 1850.

The Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850, was supposed to appease the slave holding southern states and halt their intention of seceding (separating) from the Union (United States of America.) The law decreed that enslaved Africans who fled captivity could be apprehended anywhere in the United States and returned to their owners if federally appointed commissioners decided that they were “fugitive slaves.” The law denied any due process to enslaved Africans and allowed authorities to arrest any African in America (free or enslaved) and return them to slave territory. The Fugitive Slave Law cited severe penalties for noncompliance and empowered federal marshals to enforce the law. At that time any white man or woman could claim to be the owner of any African in America. The Fugitive Slave Law ensured that an African so claimed would have no way of disproving the white person’s claim. In his 1968 published book The slave catchers; enforcement of the Fugitive slave law, 1850-1860 white American history professor Stanley W. Campbell writes:
A hearing before a fugitive slave commissioner under the new act was summary in nature, and the evidence of ownership was ex parte; it was therefore possible that a free Negro might be remanded to slavery. Furthermore, because the Act of 1850 permitted the slave holder to pursue his fugitive his fugitive slave into the free states, capture him and return him without due process of law, the possibilities that free Negroes would be kidnapped and sold into slavery posed a constant threat.

Although many white people living in northern states where slavery had been discontinued in theory did not support slavery, the Fugitive Slave Law applied throughout the USA. At that time the vast majority of white people (including abolitionists) living in the USA thought that Africans and African Americans were an inferior species. They quoted passages from the Bible and they used pseudo-scientific arguments to “prove” their point. The Fugitive Slave Law was even defended by Abraham Lincoln before he became America’s 16 th President (March 1861.) On August 27, 1858 at Freeport, Illinois during his 2nd of 7 debates with Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln is quoted as saying:
“In regard to the Fugitive Slave Law, I have never hesitated to say, and I do not now hesitate to say, that I think, under the Constitution of the United States, the people of the Southern States are entitled to a congressional Fugitive Slave Law.”
Douglas, the Democratic candidate (incumbent elected 1847) and Lincoln Republican candidate (newcomer, relatively unknown) were campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat to represent Illinois. On September 18, 1858 in Charleston, Illinois, during the fourth debate with Douglas, Lincoln once again spoke on the hot topic of the day:
I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.

Being a virtual newcomer not surprisingly Lincoln was not elected to the Senate but he did make an impression and three years later he was elected President of the USA. Even though the USA was plunged into a Civil War which when it ended saw the abolition of slavery throughout the states, it is very obvious that from the White House on down to the most illiterate, lowliest shack dweller, white Americans thought that they were superior to African Americans. Today that sense of superiority by white Americans has grown to include anyone who is not white, and it also includes the culture and religious beliefs of racialized people. This white supremacist mindset was aptly demonstrated by the good Christian pastor who gained international attention when he declared that he planned to burn the Quran on September 11. Notice that Christianity has not been condemned because of this man and his followers hate filled behaviour. Wasn’t it Adolph Hitler who wrote in his autobiography Mein Kampf
"All propaganda has to be popular and has to adapt its spiritual level to the perception of the least intelligent of those towards whom it intends to direct itself."
And George W. Bush who is quoted as saying:
"You can fool some of the people all of the time and those are the ones you want to concentrate on." in Washington, DC on March 31, 2001

Sunday, September 12, 2010


On September 12, 1992 Dr. Mae Carol Jemison became the first African American woman and indeed the first racialized woman to travel in outer space. When the space shuttle Endeavour blasted off from its launching pad at the Kennedy Space Centre on its eight day mission (September 12 – 20, 1992) Dr. Jemison was one of the seven member crew on board.

Mae Carol Jemison was born in Decatur, Alabama on October 17, 1956, the third and youngest child of Charlie and Dorothy Jemison. When she was 3 years old the Jemison family moved to Chicago, Illinois. While it takes some people many years to know their purpose, Mae Carol Jemison knew since she was in kindergarten that she wanted to be a scientist. In her 2001 published book Find Where The Wind Goes: Moments From My Life she tells the story of her assertive five year old self correcting her kindergarten teacher who suggested she might want to become a nurse instead of a scientist. It is not surprising that in 1961 a teacher may have been startled by a five year old African American female declaring that she knew that she intended to become a scientist. After all white Americans in southern states (like Alabama where Jemison was born) were still denying African Americans their full rights as American citizens, including the right to vote. African Americans living in Northern states like Illinois where Jemison attended school, although they may not have been prevented from voting, were living in a white supremacist environment. In our modern era of 2010 there are some teachers who continue to have lowered expectations of our children especially if they live in lower income neighbourhoods.

During the time that Jemison attended school (1960s) and unfortunately even today African history is not included in the curriculum as part of world history otherwise everyone who has ever been a student would know that math and science are very much a part of the African experience and history. Contrary to popular opinion, especially during African Heritage Month (February) when we are inundated with stories of the Underground Railroad, our history did not begin with slavery. Stories about the Underground Railroad are usually trotted out when the historical presence of Africans in Canada is acknowledged. We hardly hear any stories about the enslavement of Africans in Canada or their contribution to the building of this country. The history of Africa and Africans includes the Sankore University at Timbuktu in Mali, West Africa (built in the 10th century) where students studied mathematics and the sciences. The Ishango bone estimated to be about 22,000 years old and considered the world's oldest known mathematical artifact comes from the Congo although not surprisingly it is housed in Brussels (capital city of Belgium) at the Royal Institute for Natural Sciences of Belgium. The Belgians, during the scramble for Africa, claimed and colonized the Congo until its independence on June 30, 1960, but Belgium has never completely loosened its hold on the Congo. Mathematics has its roots in Africa where Africans used algebra, geometry, trigonometry etc., in their daily lives so an African American child or African Canadian child who excels in math and science ought not to be viewed with surprise or considered an anomaly: “a credit to their race”.

Mae Carol Jemison who would grow up to make history by becoming the first African American woman astronaut excelled at science but also loves to dance and even speaks four languages (English, Japanese, Kiswahili and Russian.) The upheavals in the American society as African Americans struggled to assert their human rights, the trials and tribulations of the times touched the lives of the Jemison family. In Find Where The Wind Goes: Moments From My Life Jemison writes about being angry, confused and scared as she watched the National Guard march through her predominantly African-American neighbourhood with guns held “at the ready.” Jemison writes:
“I knew that as a ten-year-old black girl that I was not precious to these adults. I believed they would kill me as readily as they would kill the Vietnamese we were at war with. It didn’t matter that I was a United States citizen. It didn’t matter that I was very smart, would probably grow up to be pretty like my mother, or that I was fun to talk to, and had unlimited potential. It didn’t matter that I was a good girl and hadn’t been suspended from school. It didn’t matter because I didn’t matter to them. These adults, these representatives, enforcers of the United States government would hold me in suspicion and probably shoot me if I was out on the street.”
She promised herself she would never feel that frightened again. "I reminded myself that I was as much a part of this United States as the guardsmen," she writes. Jemison kept that promise to herself, excelling as a student who at 16 years old entered Stanford University on a scholarship and four years later graduated with two degrees, a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering and a Bachelor of Arts degree in African and African-American Studies. She attended Cornell Medical College where she earned her Doctorate in Medicine and developed an interest in working to help people in developing countries travelling to Cuba, Kenya, Thailand and a Cambodian Refugee Camp. A few years after graduating from medical school she worked as a Peace Corps medical officer in Sierra Leone and Liberia where she also taught and did medical research.

In October 1985 after returning to the USA from Africa, Jemison applied for admission to the astronaut training program at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The Challenger disaster of January 28, 1986 delayed the selection process, but a year later she was one of 15 selected from approximately 2,000 applicants. When she was chosen in June 1987, Jemison became the first African American woman admitted into the astronaut training program. When she blasted off to space on September 12, 1992 it was with the title of science mission specialist. Her kindergarten teacher probably remembered Mae Carol Jemison who had insisted in 1961 that she would become a scientist.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


The marshals had their hands full pulling together the three thousand workers who converged on Market Square in London, Ontario on 3 September 1894. It was the first nationally recognized Labour Day in Canada, and the local labour movement was out in force. Eventually, the first union contingent headed off down the city’s main streets in the blazing noonday sun. Leading the way was a group of seventy-five butchers on horseback, who set the tone of respectable craftsmanship with their crisply white shirts and hats and clean baskets on their arms.

From The Worker's Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada written by Craig Heron and Steven Penfold published 2005

Labour Day in Canada is celebrated on the first Monday in September with a national holiday and a parade by mostly unionized workers. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, the celebration of Labour Day in Canada came as a result of a group of unionized workers (Toronto Printers Union) demanding the right to work less than 12 hours a day. Apparently this alarmed their bosses who were horrified that their workers wanted to work a mere nine hours a day. The workers had petitioned their employers in 1869 asking for a reduction of their daily work hours. By 1872 the workers were demanding a nine hour work day. The supporters of what became known as the “Nine Hour Movement” went on strike (March 25, 1872) and George Brown, owner of the Globe newspaper (forerunner of today’s Globe and Mail) not only brought in replacement workers but he also sued the Toronto Printers Union.

According to the law in Canada at that time (1872), a law which dated back to 1792, union activity was considered a criminal offence. The 24 members of the strike committee were arrested and jailed. On April 14, 1872 a demonstration was held to show solidarity with a parade of approximately 2000 workers marching through the city, led by two marching bands. A supportive crowd swelled the number to 10,000 by the time the parade reached its destination at Queen's Park.

The struggle of the workers caught the sympathetic attention of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and on June 14, 1872 his government passed a Trade Union Act, which legalized and protected union activity. The parades held in support of the Nine-Hour Movement and the printers' strike led to an annual celebration and on July 23, 1894 the government of Prime Minister Sir John Thompson passed a law making Labour Day a national holiday.

Although this history of Labour Day refers to the struggle of “workers” the labour movement was not diverse or inclusive. In The Worker's Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada Craig Heron and Steven Penfold write: “
By the early 1900s, the absence of the less skilled and non-union workers meant that Labour Day parades consisted preponderantly of white anglophones and francophones. There was rarely any space for Africans and native Canadians or for the newcomers from Asia and southern and eastern Europe who increasingly filled the jobs at the bottom of the occupational ladder and were rarely unionized before the First World War.”

Racialized people had been a part of Canada’s labour force for centuries, including the native Canadian’s contribution to the fur trade which enriched European traders, enslaved Africans who laboured without pay (1628-1834) and the Chinese who built the railroad with massive loss of life. Yet as Heron and Penfold have documented there was blatantly racist exclusion of these workers from the celebration of Labour Day in those early days. Thankfully the Labour Day parade has come a long way since the days that Heron and Penfold describe in here in The Worker's Festival: A History of Labour Day in Canada:
“On the few occasions when people of colour appeared in these marches they were presented as curiosities not fellow workers. Plumbers’ unions sometimes used black youngsters as comic accents to the gleaming white-enamel fixtures on their float. In one case in Toronto, the tableau was an older woman trying to scrub the “dirt” off a black boy.”

Sadly, even though we have come a long way since African Canadians were considered “curiosities” and used as “comic accents” in Labour Day parades we still have a long way to go to see racialized people in leadership positions in the Labour movement. A look at the leaders of the Labour movement will quickly show that the diversity of the workers who attend the Labour Day parade on September 6, 2010 is not reflected in the leadership of the Labour movement which is still overwhelmingly white and male. It is therefore hardly surprising that we are not hearing voices from the leadership of the Canadian labour movement raised against the Canadian government’s attack on Employment Equity.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010