Thursday, October 31, 2013


Ethel Waters, born on October 31, 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania, was an African-American woman who gained fame and fortune as a singer (blues, jazz) and actress. She was the first African-American woman to star in a dramatic play on Broadway. In 1950, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in “Pinky”.
In the movie she plays the grandmother of “Pinky”, a young African-American woman from the southern United States who passes for white while attending school in the North. In that same year she won the New York Drama Critics Award for her role in the play, “The Member of the Wedding”. Waters performed in several films and plays including “Cairo” (1942) and “Cabin in the Sky” (1943.) These were extraordinary achievements for an African-American woman in the first half of the 20th century. She also wrote two autobiographies, “His Eye is on the Sparrow”, published in 1951 and “To Me it’s Wonderful”, published in 1977.
In 1896, the year Ethel Waters was born, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in “Plessy v Ferguson” to uphold segregation in America. This United States Supreme Court decision made segregation legal in all areas of American life, including those areas of American life that had not yet been invented e.g., television and movies. Waters made history as the first African-American woman to host a national radio program and a television program and did both during the years before segregation was outlawed. The “Plessy v Ferguson” decision was law until 1954 with the Supreme Court decision in the “Brown v Board of Education” case when segregation was declared unconstitutional.
From humble beginnings (born in dire poverty) not surprising for African-Americans who were just one generation removed from slavery, Waters’ first venture into show business was as a singer. The blues and jazz where she excelled are both acknowledged African-inspired genres.
White British journalist Nigel Williamson, in his 2007 book, “The Rough Guide to the Blues”, in answer to the question “where did the blues begin?” wrote: “It was born again and again, every time another African gazed for the last time at the land of his or her birth as the slave ships hauled anchor and began their terrifying journey across the ocean into the unknown, leaving Mother Africa behind forever. Many never completed the journey and died on the voyage, their bodies unceremoniously thrown overboard into the turbulent waters of the Atlantic. For those who survived the grueling voyage, a cruelly unfathomable life awaited, in which the only certainties were captivity and misery.”
The life Waters led from birth until she made her fortune (for a while) singing “the blues” really prepared her to authentically sing “the blues”. Forced by her mother into marriage as a 13-year-old to a 19 year-old abusive young man she remained in the marriage for a year. After leaving her jealous and abusive husband the then 14-year-old Waters worked as a domestic servant which was the only work most African-American women could obtain at the time.
Ethel Waters is considered a pioneer in the entertainment industry because she was able to rise above the drudgery of the backbreaking domestic work to which many African-American women were relegated and become the first female African-American superstar.
It was not an easy road to her eventual stardom because of the White supremacist society in which she lived. There were many hurdles to jump before becoming the first African-American woman to host a national radio program and a television program. Beginning as a blues and jazz singer in segregated African-American vaudeville shows Waters was subjected to the segregation laws of the southern United States. She eventually made her way North to Harlem, New York where she performed in several clubs including the Cotton Club, the Lafayette Theatre and the Lincoln Theatre.
In his 2001 book “Heat Wave: The Life and Career of Ethel Waters”, African-American film historian Donald Bogle writes: “Ethel Waters arrived in New York – that delicious Big Apple, that city of grand dreams and high hopes – full of optimism and burning with ambition. Better than anyone else, she understood what she had going for herself. She knew she could put a song across. Not lost on her was her own sexy appeal. She had already begun to make a name for herself on the road in all those rickety theaters and then in Philadelphia. Unlike countless other newcomers to the city, she was not looking for work. She came armed with a booking at the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem.”
Waters arrived in Harlem at the beginning of the “Harlem Renaissance” which is described in part on the Public Broadcasting Service website as: “The name given to the cultural, social and artistic explosion that took place in Harlem between the end of World War I and the middle of the 1930s. During this period, Harlem was a cultural center, drawing black writers, artists, musicians, photographers, poets and scholars. Many had come from the South, fleeing its oppressive caste system in order to find a place where they could freely express their talents. Among those artists whose works achieved recognition were Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, Countee Cullen and Arna Bontemps, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer, Walter White and James Weldon Johnson. The Renaissance was more than a literary movement. It involved racial pride, fueled in part by the militancy of the ‘New Negro’ demanding civil and political rights. The Renaissance incorporated jazz and the blues.”
Waters’ arrival in Harlem at the beginning of the “Renaissance” with her talent put her in a position to influence generations of entertainers. In “Heat Wave”, Bogle wrote that Waters “was a young woman who would soon usher in a whole new contemporary style for young African-American women.”
Popular African-American singers including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn were influenced by Waters. Lena Horne described her as “the mother of us all”. Many of today’s young African-American entertainers – singers, actresses, comedians etc., (and those who imitate their style) owe much to Ethel Waters who was born 117 years ago just 31 years after slavery was abolished in the United States.
The beginning of the “blues” music that catapulted her to stardom arrived in the U.S. with her enslaved ancestors. In the “The Rough Guide to the Blues” Williamson acknowledges: “It is commonplace today to recognize the influence of African culture on the blues and other aspects of black American life. But it was not always so. Even half a century ago, the myth persisted that Africa was a “dark continent” devoid of any history before the coming of Europeans and the subsequent colonial era. However, when the traders and slavers arrived in the 17th century they found sophisticated societies and political systems, organized into kingdoms and empires that were dominated by tribal groupings. Among the most important were the Mandingo, the Ashanti, the Fulani, the Ibo, the Fanti and the Jolof. Unable to transport their instruments, they took their songs and voices, and soon fashioned instruments out of the materials available in the New World. Although they were so far from home, the music they brought survived, handed down from generation to generation on the plantations, and it was eventually to have a profound influence on the birth of both jazz and blues
. ” October 15, 1953 was designated “Ethel Waters Day” in New York City by Mayor Vincent R. Impellitteri. Waters was honoured on a U.S. Postal Service stamp issued September 1, 1994 as part of the Legends of American Music series. Her stamp was issued at a ceremony at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.

Friday, October 25, 2013


My niece Brandi was married on October 26 last year and she and her husband are expecting their first child in late December. Brandi is my sister Carol’s only “girl child” of her five children. As we celebrated Brandi’s impending delivery during her baby shower on October 19, I thought about my female relatives who came before us. During the festivities, the excitement of playing those baby shower games and connecting with family and friends I wandered down memory lane remembering our female ancestors and elders who have gone through the ritual of bringing new life into the world. In the hurly burly of 21st century North American life it is not too often that we get together/gather outside of holidays. The last time we did so was for my sister April’s birthday at the end of April. Here was my niece Brandi born barely more than two decades ago and she was becoming a mother. It seems like only yesterday my sister got her dearest wish when her daughter was born. Carol had longed for a girl after all the boys. Brandi brought much joy and laughter into not only her parents’ lives but the entire family living in Canada. She was the second girl (my daughter Raine was the first) in our family born in this new land to which we had immigrated beginning in the 1970s. Brandi is a loving aunt, cousin, daughter, sister and niece always with a ready laugh, smile and hugs. As a child she was famous for her hugs especially her enthusiastic hugs of younger children/babies. Her baby will be well loved and hugged!
Like many Africans in the diaspora I can barely trace my ancestry back more than four generations. However the rich history of storytelling in my family has helped to piece some of that history together. The furthest back I can go is to my paternal great grandfather Kelly Murphy Jonas and my maternal great grandmother Lydia Bennett. Kelly Murphy Jonas transitioned before I was born and Lydia Bennett transitioned when I was 11 months old. I do not remember my maternal great grandmother Lydia who transitioned when I was 11 months old but I have been told that I was very curious about her as she rested before her last journey. As a curious 11 month old who had just learned to walk I was reportedly constantly wandering into her room to engage her in conversation which she did not seem interested in reciprocating. She was probably thinking about her youth, her adult life and where she was going next and had no interest in engaging in conversation with someone whose language skills was just developing. I was told that once in my enthusiasm to communicate I bit one of her fingers and she complained loudly. These are stories that were told when the family gathered but since I was only 11 months old at the time, not aware and have no memory of doing so I deny all knowledge of ever trying to communicate by biting my great grandmother. I was probably just trying to get some reaction/attention or trying to commiserate with the only other person in the house who was not up and about constantly. I was the only child in the house and had no one else to play with so I blame the adults who were supposed to be vigilant about facilitating the best relationship between the oldest and youngest members of the family.
My great grandmother Lydia was a young widow with two small children, my maternal grandmother and her brother Reginald (Uncle Reggie.) She worked to support her children and the stories abounded of her fierce protection of her children especially her very shy daughter Clarissa (my maternal grandmother.) My grandfather would often relate how much he admired his mother-in-law for her parenting skills. He also related how hard he had to work to gain her acceptance of him as a suitor for her daughter. The lady was very protective of her girl child! As a child I felt some pity for my grandmother because she only had one brother and no sisters while I grew up in a home with five brothers and three sisters. My maternal grandparents raised five children, my mother, her two sisters and two brothers. My paternal grandparents raised eight children, my father, his three brothers and four sisters. My female ancestors/elders have worked alongside their male counterparts in keeping our history alive for generations; however childbirth (and for the most part childrearing) has been the purview of the women in the family. There were numerous stories from family and friends of my paternal grandmother Elizabeth and her charitable works in her community helping those less fortunate. My grandmother took care of generations of other people’s children in her village and the surrounding villages.
I admire the women in my family, those present and those who have gone before. I am in awe at what they have survived (slavery, colonization, racism etc.,) and yet kept going to bring us to where we are today. They lived through natural and man made disasters, wars, illnesses, floods etc., They are/were courageous, admirable, beautiful and determined survivors. They were wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, and all the other roles that women play today and over the years of our history. We all have sheores in our families whether we think of them as such or not. During this Women’s History Month I have been thinking about the women in my family, those who went before us and their influence on our lives today. My niece Brandi whose impending motherhood inspired this piece is many generations and oceans away from the life of our ancestor Lydia Bennett who is the oldest ancestor of our collective memory but like all of the women in my family she is imbued with the survival spirit of Lydia Bennett and all who went before her. I know Brandi will be the best mother for her baby and any other children she may be blessed with. For my niece Brandi, my daughter Raine, my granddaughters Iiliyah and Kehinde, my sisters, all my female relatives and all the women who are reading this as we recognize Women’s History Month: “We may not be where we want to be yet but We’ve come a long way baby!”


During this month as we recognize Women’s History Month in Canada the official theme for the month (from Status of Women Canada) is “Canadian Women Pioneers: Inspiring change through ongoing leadership.” Sylvia Estes Stark is one of the pioneering women whose name should be included on the list of pioneering women in Canada. Estes Stark and her family were pioneers who helped to develop Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
Sylvia Estes was born in 1839 into an enslaved African family in Clay County, Missouri. Sylvia, her older brother Jackson, her younger sister Agnes and her mother Hannah were owned by Charles Leopold. Sylvia’s father Howard Estes was owned by Tom Estes and worked on his ranch as a cattle-herder. Gold was discovered in California in 1848 which started a “Gold Rush” of some 300,000 people looking to strike it rich. In 1849 Tom Estes decided to cash in on the fortunes being made in California by sending his two sons and Howard Estes to California to sell cattle because beef was in great demand. Howard Estes seized this opportunity to strike a bargain with his owner where he would work as a prospector mining for gold while in California and buy his freedom for $1,000 dollars. Tom Estes agreed to give Howard Estes his freedom papers whenever he received the $1,000 dollars.
While in California Howard Estes worked, saved and sent the $1,000 dollars back with Tom Estes’ sons. Tom Estes collected the money but reneged on the bargain he had struck with Howard Estes and refused to give him his freedom. Howard Estes who at that time was mining gold in California refused to return to slavery and instead continued to work and sent money to the “owner” of his wife and children to buy their freedom. Tom Estes took Charles Leopold to court claiming that any money Leopold received from Howard Estes as payment for his family’s freedom rightfully belonged to him (Tom Estes) since he “owned” Howard Estes. Leopold kept the money and unlike Tom Estes gave Hannah Estes and her children their freedom. The upshot of the court case was that Tom Estes was forced to grant Howard Estes his free papers. Unfortunately by the time Howard Estes returned to Missouri to claim his family his youngest daughter Agnes had died from scarlet fever
. Returning to Missouri a free man in 1851 and after securing his family’s freedom the Howard Estes family left for California, a free state. In California Sylvia Estes married Louis Stark in 1855 and the couple had two children. The Estes family moved to California to ensure they remained free but because of vicious racial persecution eventually moved to British Columbia in Canada. By 1858 African Americans realizing that although California was a free state they were not really free seized the opportunity to leave the shores of the USA and settle on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. In 1858 the African American community of California received a letter of invitation to immigrate from the Governor of Vancouver Island, Sir James Douglas. Maybe Douglas felt some kinship with the beleaguered African American community because he was the son (born in British Guiana) of an African woman and a Scottish man. Together with hundreds of other African Americans the Estes and Stark family immigrated to Vancouver Island.
Sylvia and her husband Louis Stark with their family settled on Salt Spring Island in 1860. They were homesteaders who worked at making a home of the log cabin in which they lived and clearing the wilderness around their home for farming. As a pioneer woman, Sylvia Stark had to contend with wild animals (bears and cougars) stealing her livestock and the backbreaking work necessary to survive as a farmer during the early settlement of British Columbia. She also served her community as a midwife. Some of her recollections were documented by her daughter including: “Sylvia Stark's first sight of her new home on Salt Spring Island was an unfinished log cabin surrounded by trees and thick underbrush.” As a young mother of four small children (2 more born in Canada) she had to take care of their livestock when her husband became ill and was bedridden for several weeks following complications from a small pox vaccination. “There were 14 cows to milk, pigs and chickens to feed, aside from her other duties and tending to the children.” In spite of such setbacks and losing livestock to marauding wild animals: “Mrs. Stark seemed to be tireless in her efforts to make their home life enjoyable. She made hominy from the wheat and corn of their own raising. Sometimes boiled wheat had to be a substitute for bread.” Pioneer women have been idealised as the people who helped to “make” this country and several White women have written about their experiences “roughing it in the bush” as settlers in early Canada. Sylvia Estes Stark was a Canadian pioneer woman although she did not have the luxury of time to document her thoughts and experiences; she was too busy surviving and helping her community to survive. Sylvia Stark transitioned in 1944 at age 106 and her life is recognised as an important part of British Columbia history. She should be remembered along with all the other “Canadian Women Pioneers: Inspiring change through ongoing leadership” during this Women’s History Month


Run away on the 11th September last, a negro woman, named Susannah, about 27 years of age, 5 feet 10 inches high (!) smooth faced, speaks French a little and English. Whoever apprehends and secures the said negro woman so that her master may have her again shall receive a reward of ten dollars by applying to Messrs. Dobie & Frobisher, merchants of Montreal or to the Printer here. N.B. Whoever harbors and conceals (?) said negro woman, shall be prosecuted to the utmost rigor of the law.
Quebec Gazette, October 19, 1769.
This is some of the information educator Natasha Henry shares with teachers who are interested in teaching about the history of Africans in Canada. Even among African Canadians this history is not well known but those who are interested can learn by reading about the history of Africans in Canada or attending one of Henry’s workshops. October is Women’s History Month in Canada but when we read about women’s history in Canada it is mostly about the history of White women. Even the women who are indigenous to this land are hardly ever included in Canadian women’s history. There is an African proverb which says that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Similarly until African Canadians began to write about our stories all we heard and read was “their stories.” We were left out of the history books and although Africans have dwelled on this land since the 1600s it was as if we were invisible. During this month while the history of Canadian women is celebrated you would have to listen very carefully to hear about African Canadian women so we need to support our historians.
It is important for us as African people to recognize and celebrate the women in our community and ensure that “ourstory”includes the achievement of all people from our community regardless of gender. This month as the country celebrates “Women’s History Month,” take the opportunity to recognize and celebrate African women who went before us regardless of where they were born, when they lived or where they lived. We know the names of many African women who sacrificed much to move us forward as a people. Sometimes we forget what they endured and how they resisted, believing that the rights we have today were given to us. Whatever we have access to in 2013 did not come easily. We need to pause and think about those women who went before us and the sacrifices they made to get us to where we are today.
Although our history did not begin with slavery, that institution shaped who we are today. The internalized racism that many of us struggle with in various forms is a result of the enslavement of our ancestors. Slavery was a brutal institution that sought to dehumanize an entire race of people. Female enslavement was different from that of men. It was not less severe, but it was different. Sexual abuse, child bearing and child care responsibilities affected how enslaved females conducted their lives and their patterns of resistance. The enslaved woman’s choices of seizing her freedom were limited compared to the males because she had to consider her children. As a mother she had different responsibilities. Women were less able to leave their chains and children behind. In her 1999 published book "Aren't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South" Deborah Gray White wrote: "for those fugitive women who left children in slavery, the physical relief which freedom brought was limited compensation for the anguish they suffered."
The routine rape of enslaved African women is well documented by mostly White men who were the perpetrators. Thomas Thistlewood, an Englishman, went to Jamaica in 1750 as a manager for a plantation. He eventually bought his own plantation and in a 10,000 page diary documented his systematic abuse of the enslaved Africans on his plantation, especially the sexual abuse of the women. The book: “In Miserable Slavery: Thomas Thistlewood in Jamaica 1750-1786” published in 1998 is not for the faint of heart. Documented court cases also illustrate the routine rape of enslaved African females, not only adult women but young girls. In the book “Celia A Slave” the author uses court documents to tell the story of a 14 year old enslaved African child, bought by a 56 year old white plantation owner who brutally raped her the day he bought her. Repeatedly raped over the next four years, she gave birth to two children sired by her rapist. In 1855 when the court case is documented she is pregnant with the third child and charged with murder of her owner. She was tried, found guilty and hanged after she gave birth to the child. The abuse of enslaved African women occurred wherever they were enslaved regardless of which group of White people practiced this criminal activity. In the book, “Caetano Says No: Women's Stories from a Brazilian Slave Society”; an eerily similar case is documented of the rape of an enslaved African female child by the much older Portuguese man on the same night he bought her.
Enslaved women in Canada were also brutalized and even sold away from their families. In her 2007 published book “The hanging of Angelique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal (Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900)” Dr Afua Cooper researched court documents to tell the story of Marie Joseph Angelique, an enslaved African woman who was hanged in Montreal on June 21st, 1734. Angelique was accused of setting fire to her owner’s home in an attempt to camouflage her escape after learning that she was being sold. A confession was tortured out of her and on June 4, 1734, Judge Pierre Raimbault handed down his sentence: "Marie Joseph Angelique, negress, slave woman of Thérèse de Couagne, widow of the late François Poulin de Francheville, you are condemned to die, to make honourable amends, to have your hand cut off, be burned alive, and your ashes cast to the winds."
The valiant struggle of an enslaved African woman led to John Graves Simcoe’s effort to limit slavery in Upper Canada in 1793. On Wednesday, March 21st, 1793 Peter Martin, a free African man, appeared before members of the Executive Council of Upper Canada (Ontario). Present were Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, Chief Justice William Osgoode and Peter Russell, a prominent citizen who owned slaves. Martin informed the Council that a “violent outrage” had occurred to an enslaved African woman named Chloe Cooley. Martin had witnessed a resident of Queenston named William Vrooman attempting to sell Cooley to someone in New York State. When she resisted being sold (she fought and screamed) Vrooman and two other White men violently subdued her, tied her with ropes and forcibly transported her across the Niagara River to her new owner. Cooley’s loud and vigorous resistance compelled Simcoe to make the effort to end slavery in Ontario. His effort was unsuccessful which is not surprising since many of the men who were in power at the time were slave owners. Peter Russell who acted in Simcoe’s position when Simcoe left Canada has an advertisement in a Toronto (York) newspaper dated February 10, 1806 where he has for sale a 40 year old black woman named Peggy and her 15 year old son Jupiter. What is not included in the advertisement is that Peggy was married to a free African man Mr. Pompadour. However Russell and his sister Elizabeth “owned” Peggy, her son Jupiter and her two young daughters Amy and Milly. Even though their father was a free man, Peggy’s three children belonged to the Russells, since the law conferred the status of enslaved women on their children. The Russells could then sell Peggy Pompadour and her three children.
Celia, Peggy Pompadour, Chloe Cooley, Marie Joseph Angelique and many other enslaved African women whose names we do not know risked their lives in resisting their enslavement by any means necessary. The enslavement of Africans would have lasted much longer than it did if women had not resisted in their own way. We must continue to tell their stories. October is Women’s History Month in Canada and our stories are also important and must be included.


African history is recognized and celebrated in Britain for at least 31 days of the year during October; similar to the recognition it receives in Canada during February. The documented African presence in Britain however goes back many more centuries than it does in Canada. By now we in Canada know about Mathieu DaCosta’s arrival in Canada as an interpreter for the French explorers who wanted to communicate with the Micmaq people in 1603. DaCosta an African man spoke the Micmaq language and several European languages including French. The documented African presence in Britain according to White British author Peter Fryer goes back to the year 210. In his 1984 published book “Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain” Fryer wrote: “There were Africans in Britain before the English came here. They were soldiers in the Roman imperial army that occupied the southern part of our island for three and a half centuries. Though the earliest attested date for this unit’s presence here is 253-8, an African soldier is reputed to have reached Britain by the year 210.” African historian and anthropologist Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop in his 1974 published book “The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality” wrote about the megalithic culture of Africans which can be found replicated in Britain proving the presence of Africans in ancient Britain. Writing of the construction of megalithic structures Diop states: "These are found only in lands inhabited by Negroes or Negroids, or in places that they have frequented, the area that Speiser calls “the great megalithic civilization,” which extends from Africa to India, Australia, South America, Spain and Brittany. That megalithic civilization in Brittany belongs to the second millennium, the period when the Phoenicians frequented those regions. This combination of facts should leave no doubt on the southern and Negro origin of the megaliths in Brittany."
Fryer and Diop are just two of the several historians who have written about the history of Africans in Britain. Anthony Richard Birley a White British historian has written about the African presence in ancient Britain in his 1971 published book “Septimius Severus: The African Emperor.” Britain had been invaded, conquered and was part of the Roman Empire from 54 BC to AD 409. Britain was part of the Roman Empire when the African Emperor Septimius Severus was in power (AD 193 to 211) and there were Africans living in Britain. Information from the UK National Archives state: “In Roman times, Black troops were sent to the remote and barbaric province of Britannia, and some of them stayed when the Roman legions left Britain. Africans have been present in Europe from classical times. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries Roman soldiers of African origin served in Britain, and some stayed after their military service ended.” I had to take several breaks while reading the 1884 published “Ancient and Modern Britons: A Retrospect” by White Scottish historian David Mac Ritchie. Not surprisingly the book is riddled with White supremacist rhetoric although Mac Ritchie in great detail acknowledges the African presence throughout the British Isles with comments including: "That the wild tribes of Ireland were black men is hinted by the fact that "a wild Irishmen" is in Gaelic "a black Irishman" (Dubh Eireannach). And that some of the natives of Scotland, as well as of England, were of this race also is evident when one remembers that, according to Skene, the powerful tribe of the Damnonii, which was the chief of the Maeatae, or marsh-dwellers, who were a part of the Picti or Caledonii, were probably relations of their namesakes of South-Western Britain; which indeed is almost a certainty, if nomenclature goes for anything. In addition to the Irish examples already given, there are many other relics of savagedom to be found throughout the United Kingdom, in the present as well as in the past.”
There is documentation of Africans from the Roman occupation to the present time including the contributions of Africans to what was considered Britain’s strongest industry; seamanship. There was one point in history when “Britannia ruled the waves” and Africans contributed to that history. There is documentation of Africans working as members of the merchant marines or “seafarers” from as early as Tudor times (The Tudors beginning with Henry “Henry VII” Tudor ruled Britain from 1485 to 1603.) The 2012 published book “Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships” by Black British historian Dr. Ray Costello is a source of information about this group: “In this fascinating work, Dr. Ray Costello examines the work and experience of seamen of African descent in Britain's navy, from impressed slaves to free Africans, British West Indians, and British-born Black sailors. Seamen from the Caribbean and directly from Africa have contributed to both the British Royal Navy and Merchant Marine from at least the Tudor period and by the end of the period of the British Slave Trade at least three per-cent of all crewmen were black mariners. Black sailors signed off in British ports helped the steady growth of a black population.” In spite of such information about the African presence in Britain most of what is acknowledged when the history of Africans in Britain is recognized is the British enslavement of Africans and the aftermath of emancipation. The most recognized, acknowledged and documented group of Africans in Britain are the descendants of enslaved Africans from the Caribbean who immigrated to Britain on the MV Windrush (June 22, 1948) known as “The Windrush Generation.” According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) “The arrival of the SS Empire Windrush in June 1948 at Tilbury Dock, Essex, in England, marked the beginning of post-war mass migration. The ship had made an 8,000 mile journey from the Caribbean to London with 492 passengers on board from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands. Most of the passengers were ex-servicemen seeking work. This marked the beginning of post-war mass migration. When they walked down the gangplank onto British soil they could not have imagined that their journey would begin an important landmark in the history of London and the rest of country. The passengers on board the Windrush were invited to come to Britain after World War Two, to assist with labour shortages. Many of the passengers had fought for Britain during the war. They later became known as the 'Windrush Generation.’
Although they had been recruited and invited to return to Britain after having served “The Motherland” during the second European tribal conflict (WWII) the“Windrush Generation” found that White British citizens did not welcome their presence. Marcia Dixon a Black British columnist wrote an article published in the British newspaper the Voice about the experience of the “Windrush Generation." In the article published on June 23, 2013 titled “How the Windrush generation changed the United Kingdom” Dixon wrote: “The docking of the Windrush on these shores heralded the start of mass immigration to the UK from the Caribbean and a huge change of the country’s cultural make-up. Between 1951 and 1961 the number of Caribbean people living in Britain in search of a better life increased from 15,000 to 172,000. The UK was seen as the mother country, and when immigrants arrived here, many expected to be welcomed with open arms. This, unfortunately, was not the case. They were greeted with cold indifference, racism and hardship. However, that first generation of Caribbean immigrants had a strong sense of identity, a community spirit and strong Christian values, which enabled them to overcome the difficulties they encountered, and make a life here.” Even though there has been an African presence in Britain for these many centuries there still remains a need for a British “Black History Month” because the history is not part of the curriculum and many British are not aware of that history. Similar to the history of Africans in North America whose history is not acknowledged except for 28 days in February, Africans must continue to educate themselves and their children about their history and herstory. The Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey said: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” And we have seen those tumbleweeds being blown here and there by any little bit of wind.


In 2013 in spite of the murder of 17 year African American Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman (who was found not guilty of the murder) it is difficult to imagine a time when White Americans rioted and killed to prevent African Americans from attending“White” universities. At the end of September 1962 the efforts of James Howard Meredith - an African American who had served his country as a member of the United States Air Force from 1951 to 1960 - to enrol in the University of Mississippi was met with rioting Whites. The riots to prevent Meredith entering the University of Mississippi resulted in the deaths of at least two people. The riots made news internationally and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report on the day (October 1, 1962) Meredith was finally admitted to class stated: “Two people have been killed and at least 75 injured in rioting at the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford. Hundreds of extra troops have been brought in to join Federal forces already stationed in the nearby town of Oxford as the violence spread to its streets. The protesters are angry at the admission of James Meredith, a black American, to the university. Rioting erupted last night as President Kennedy addressed the nation in a televised broadcast urging a peaceful settlement to the dispute over racial segregation.” In the prologue of his 2012 published book “A Mission from God: A Memoir and Challenge for America” Meredith describes his experience as he integrated the University of Mississippi: “It is October 1962. I am walking across the campus of the University of Mississippi, surrounded by a crowd of screaming young white men. They are sometimes joined by young white women, freshly scrubbed, lipsticked, and powdered paragons of southern beauty, who run up to me and scream the most filthy combinations of curses you could ever imagine, their faces contorted in paroxysms of rage. The men surround me in teams by day and spend their nights trying to torment me out of my sleep with noise and threats that continue all night, every night. Death threats are pouring in from across the United States, nearly one thousand so far, many detailing the gruesome ways I will be killed. Rocks start to fly in my direction, the screaming intensifies, and the crowd surges closer. I am unarmed and wear no protective gear. But I have no fear, not a molecule of it. I am thinking of history, of America’s and my own, of black kings and Indian queens, of vanished ages and empires. I am thinking of generations long dead and far in the future. I have a slight smile of serenity on my face. I have no fear. I have no fear because I am a black man in Mississippi and to be so means I am already dead. And a dead man has nothing to fear.
On October 1, 1962 Meredith was able to enter the University of Mississippi unharmed because he was surrounded by United States Marshalls and United States Army troops. There were approximately 30,000 U.S. troops, federal marshals and national guardsmen protecting Meredith from the baying mob of some 3,000 White Americans determined to tear him limb from limb. According to the BBC report of the day Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi:“US marshals, military police and National Guardsmen used teargas to take on rioters armed with rocks, lead pipes, petrol bombs and in some instances rifles and shotguns. More than 100 people were arrested during the night. One US marshal was shot in the neck and critically wounded. Cars and television trucks were smashed and burned and journalists and cameramen were beaten, as rioters turned on the media. Mr Meredith remained under guard inside the campus in a university dormitory during the fighting.”
On January 21, 1960 when he first attempted to register at the University of Mississippi Meredith was a 26 year old (born June 25, 1933) African American man who had served his country in the armed forces and was attending Jackson State University which is one of America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs.) Meredith anticipated that the University of Mississippi would reject his application and he made plans to take his fight to the courts. He writes in “A Mission from God” about the beginning of the court battle: “On May 31, 1961, we filed suit against state officials and the University of Mississippi in the US District Court in Meridian, Mississippi, under Judge Mize, alleging that my admission had been denied on the basis of race.” From there the battle was on and never giving up Meredith took his battle all the way to the United States Supreme Court and entered the University of Mississippi on October 1, 1962. As Meredith explains President John F. Kennedy was forced to intervene when the Governor of Mississippi refused the directive of the US Supreme court to admit Meredith to the University: “I left President Kennedy no choice in the matter. I had compelled the US Supreme court to uphold the federal court orders mandating my admission to Ole Miss, and JFK was bound by his oath of office to enforce the order.” Meredith also wrote of his feelings about the Kennedys at the time: “John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy were not civil rights heroes to me, but super-rich politicians who spent their lives ignoring the plight of black Americans and had to be forced to do the right thing.”
Sometimes we read or hear about “great people” who have achieved what most of us can only dream about and we admire the courage of such people. Sound bites and stories about these people told from the point of view of others most likely would not give us a clear picture of those heroes and/or sheroes. In many cases it is all we have but if one of those considered “great people” write about their life then we get a clearer picture of that person and some of their remarks that may have been taken out of context and glorified or vilified can be clarified.
I had to read this book to try to understand this complicated (as all we humans are) and seemingly conflicted man. Meredith is not merely a human rights icon (much as he denies this) he is a human being, an African American man who was born and shaped by the circumstances of the White supremacist culture in which he was born. Meredith writes: “I am not a civil rights activist, I am not a protester, and I am not a pacifist. I am not a Republican and I am not a Democrat. My political affiliation is Black. I am an American citizen, and a son of Mississippi. I am a warrior. And I am on a mission from God.” Meredith’s fight with White supremacy was not over after he integrated Ole Miss and graduated. On June 6, 1966 while he was on summer break from his studies at Columbia University Law School in New York City he travelled back to Mississippi to make a one man 220 mile walk to encourage African Americans to stand up against White supremacy and register to vote. This “Walk Against Fear”was almost his last walk when he was ambushed at Hernando, Mississippi, 30 miles from his starting point and shot three times, twice at point black range. Meredith describes the moment before he was shot as he faced his would-be lyncher: “I’ve seen a lot of movies, but no Hollywood director could have made a man look as cold-blooded as this one. This was the white face the southern black man had been staring at through 30 years of history: the hard eyes; the fleshy face; the hard line of mouth; the supremely confident, homicidal arrogance of the Beast of White Supremacy.” The photograph of Meredith lying bleeding on the road gained a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for the White photographer Jack Randolph Thornell who captured the moment for posterity.
As a child leafing through old copies of Ebony and Jet Magazines I saw photographs of African Americans who were brutalized (Martin Luther King Jr, John Lewis) traumatized (Elizabeth Eckford) and killed (Emmett Till, Medgar Evers) by White Americans. I had read about James Meredith and seen photographs of him being escorted into Ole Miss by guards. I had seen photographs of him lying on the ground after being shot by a White supremacist as he made his one person “Walk Against Fear.” As I grew older gazing at those photographs published in Ebony and Jet Magazines which my family had stored for years I often wondered about the feelings of those African Americans. After reading “A Mission from God” I am truly amazed at the strength and resilience of African Americans, how far they have come and that any of them are still standing given what they have experienced and continue to experience.


Betto Douglas was an enslaved woman on the plantation belonging to the Earl of Romney. At age 52 she challenged the system of slavery by claiming that she had been promised her freedom and even petitioning the Governor for his assistance. Her claim antagonized attorney Richard Cardin so that her story plays out as a clash of wills between a determined, elderly enslaved mother and the attorney who ran a plantation as he saw fit. Betto's pursuit of her own manumission was a manifestation of the enslaved' near-relentless quest for freedom.
From: “Desiring Freedom – the Betto Douglas story” by Victoria Borg O'Flaherty, Director of Archives, National Archives, St. Kitts at the “Women and Slavery Conference” in London, UK, March 17, 2007
The Federation of Saint Christopher and Nevis, located in the Leeward Islands is a two-island sovereign state in the Caribbean which gained its independence from the United Kingdom (UK) on September 19, 1983. The history of the two islands is similar to that of other countries in the Americas and the Caribbean that were colonised by Europeans seeking to make their fortune. The islands had been inhabited by people indigenous to the area who had lived there for thousands of years before the arrival of Columbus who lost his way trying to find India and named the people he found in this New World “Indians.” Other Europeans followed Columbus and brought with them foreign diseases to which the people of these newly discovered lands had no immunity and so succumbed devastating entire communities. Those who survived were enslaved and forced to provide unpaid labour which decimated those communities. In his 2002 published book: “A history of St. Kitts: the sweet trade” author Vincent K. Hubbard writes: “Exactly when the Indians arrived is not known, but it could have been as early as 3,000 years ago. The first group were pre-ceramic and called Siboney. Their origins are unknown. At the time of the arrival of Columbus it was estimated by the Spanish priest Bartolome de las Casas that the Indian population of the Caribbean numbered in the millions. He declared that within half a century after Spanish arrival the Indian population had been reduced by 90 percent. The Indians had little or no resistance to European diseases which was the dominant reason for their population decline, but enslavement and sometimes outright murder contributed as well.” With the loss of the enslaved indigenous population the Europeans in St. Kitts and Nevis turned to Africa for enslaved labour. Both St. Kitts and Nevis passed through the hands of various European tribes including the French, Spanish and English before being dominated by the English. The two islands remained British colonies until independence on September 19, 1983 under the leadership of Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw. Bradshaw is the first National Hero of the Federation of Saint Christopher and Nevis.
The road to independence was paved with the blood, sweat and tears of the enslaved Africans who were taken to St. Kitts and Nevis to provide unpaid labour in the sugar industry which enriched White plantation owners in Britain. Those Africans struggled for their freedom in various ways throughout their history on the islands. The story of Elizabeth “Betto” Douglas an enslaved African woman from St Kitts was first documented in the Anti-slavery Monthly Reporter of June 1827 ( The Anti-slavery Monthly Reporter was supposedly founded in 1825 by Zachary Macaulay (1768–1838) a Scottish man who took the position of plantation manager on a sugar plantation in Jamaica at age 16 and remained there for 8 years. The story of Betto Douglas’ determined fight for her freedom caught the attention of the editor of the Anti-slavery Monthly Reporter who wrote: “We have before us the official details, (No. 187 of 1st May, 1827,) as recently printed by order of the House of Commons, of a case from the Island of St. Kitt's, which affords some striking illustrations of the spirit and influence of slavery—not merely as it prompts the master to acts of cruelty and oppression, but as it operates to subvert and vitiate the best sympathies of our nature, to such an extent as to render slaveholders, generally speaking, unfit to discharge the functions of legislation or of judicature towards the enslaved population.” The story of the 52 year old enslaved woman who had successfully bought the freedom of her two sons and was then fighting “legally” to secure her own freedom makes for interesting reading. After failing to secure her freedom through the courts (her case was dismissed) and even after petitioning the governor of the island Betto Douglas decided that she had paid her dues, been enslaved long enough and she ran. The “Anti-slavery Monthly Reporter” of June 1827 documented information states that: “She had already meritoriously exerted herself, while health and strength were continued to her, and before the ravages of age had enfeebled her frame, to effect the redemption of her two sons—magnanimously preferring their emancipation to her.own. And when this meritorious conduct had produced an impression on the agent of Lord Romney, and on his Lordship also, leading them to use language calculated to excite a confident expectation of receiving her own gratuitous manumission from the bounty of his Lordship—she is threatened, at her advanced age, with flogging and the field, for daring to prefer such a claim : and she is required, as the only means of escape from that, or from some still worse fate, to pay to Lord Romney a sum of three dollars and a half monthly, procure it as she may. She fails to fulfil the condition: and what is the result? She is incarcerated, on the sole authority of Lord Romney's agent. She is incarcerated, her feet in the stocks, with a brief interval in each day, night and day for six long months. And when an attempt is made, by course of law, to relieve this poor creature from such a merciless infliction, the grand jury (to say nothing of the magistracy) representing, without doubt, the predominant feeling of the white population of St. Christopher's, are roused to "indignation" by the attempt; stigmatize the prosecution as if it were a public nuisance; and reconsign the wretched Betto to the tender mercies and considerate care of Mr. Cardin.” After a lifetime of ill treatment and oppression and trying to gain her freedom through legal means Betto Douglas can not be faulted for taking her freedom any way she could get it.
Before Betto Douglas there were enslaved Africans who struggled for their freedom and some escaped to live as Maroons. In describing the enslaved Africans resistance in Nevis in 1706 author Hubbard writes: “They took to the mountains and at what is now called Maroon Hill, near Zetland, organized an army and faced the French on the battlefield – the first time a slave army fought a European army in the Caribbean. For two weeks the French tried to dislodge the slaves from their defensive position but failed.” In the St. Kitts Assembly the Europeans passed “An Act for Better Government of Negroes” in 1722 which read: “Whereas Great numbers have deserted the service of their Masters and fled to the Mountainous parts of the island and there have armed and assembled themselves into Bands, to oppose their Masters, and any who may come in pursuit of them, and in the Night-Time, when they cannot easily be discovered or taken, do frequently commit divers Thefts and Robberies in the Plantations of this island. That Johnny Congo, belonging to the Honourable Lieutenant General Mathew, Christopher, belonging to William McDowall, Esquire, and Antego Quamina, belonging to Marmaduke Bachelor, Esquire, have , and for a long while past, and still do, head several armed Bands and Companies of Fugitive Negroes in this island everyone of them, be, and hereby are, convicted and attainted of Felony, and shall suffer the pains od Death.”
Emancipation of enslaved Africans happened in St. Kitts and Nevis on August 1, 1834 as elsewhere in the British Empire and as in other Caribbean islands there was a four year apprenticeship period until August 1, 1838. The enslaved Africans in St. Kitts did not take kindly to a further 4 years of a system that except in name was 4 more years of slavery. Hubbard writes that: “A demonstration took place in the countryside which turned into a widespread riot and British marines were called in from a warship anchored in Basseterre harbour. They brought the situation under control after two days but St. Kitts remained under martial law from 6 August to 18 August. The marines and St. Kitts militia swept the hills in order to bring back workers who had fled. They had left their tools at the doors of their overseers’ or former owners’ homes as an indication they would no longer work in the fields.” Some of the Africans who had fled the plantations joined Marcus an African who had escaped slavery some years before 1834 and was popularly known as “King of the Woods.” The colonial government in an all out effort eventually on August 18, 1834 captured the “King of the Woods” bringing an end to the Africans’ resistance to the 4 year apprenticeship.
With these examples of resisting oppression and enslavement by their ancestors the Kittitians and Nevisians gained their political independence from Britain on September 19, 1983 and will celebrate 30 years of being an independent nation on Thursday, September 19, 2013.


It is almost the end of summer and those lazy hazy crazy days of summer have given way to the hustle and bustle of back to school routines. Although summer does not officially end until September 21 (Farmer’s Almanac states that autumn begins September 22 at 4:44 p.m.) the weather has changed and already unwanted images of boots, coats and mittens make me want to hibernate. Labour Day signals the end of summer for me because the next day is back to school and this year was no exception. Students returning to school whether elementary, secondary or post-secondary usually look forward to reuniting with school friends they may not have seen for 2 to 4 months. New friends to make in a new classroom and most likely a new teacher could cause some anxiety and some anticipation. Elementary students especially those transitioning from kindergarten to elementary “big school” where they might for the first time be spending all day in school could experience some anxious moments. Many students and parents might be anxious about what experiences the new school year could bring; positive, negative or some of both. New bag, clothes, shoes, maybe the latest electronic gadget could help with the anxiety of anticipating a new school year. There may be some who are overjoyed at returning to school because we are not all the same. Some of us thrive on change and look forward to the unexpected. However one child and her family in Tulsa, Oklahoma had more to deal with than any child or parent should expect.
Right at the beginning of this new school year a 7 year old African American girl was forced to leave the school she had attended last year. She was not forced to leave because of misbehaving in school but she did break one of the school’s rules. This rule at the Deborah Brown Community School in Tulsa, Oklahoma is against: “hairstyles such as dreadlocks, afros, mohawks, and other faddish styles”because the school administration feels that such hairstyles “could distract from the respectful and serious atmosphere it strives for.”Imagine a school established by an African American woman where the natural hair of Africans is considered “faddish” and could distract from a “respectful and serious atmosphere.” The website of the school displays photographs of the board members of this public chartered school. The 6 board members are African American men all of them wearing their natural hair. The administrators of the school are two African men both sporting natural hairstyles and two African American women one sporting a natural hairstyle and the other one wearing a straight haired wig. Of the 8 staff members pictured, there are 3 African American women two with chemically straightened hair and the founder/executive director/grade 5 teacher and one African American man wearing natural hair styles. It is puzzling that the founder of this charter school in which 97% of the students are African American wears her hair in an Afro hairstyle yet banns the students from doing so.
The Deborah Brown Community School is billed as the first charter school in Tulsa, Oklahoma which means that it is a publicly funded school that operates as a private school. The school was founded in 2000 by its present executive director/grade 5 teacher Deborah Brown. In an article published in Tulsa World on Saturday, September 7 Andrea Eger (staff writer covering education issues at Tulsa World) writes that in 2005 the Deborah Brown Community School “drew the notice of its then-sponsor Tulsa Public Schools for spanking students for serious behavior infractions. The following year, the school's founder and namesake sued Tulsa Public Schools in federal court over the nonrenewal of a contract with her separate prekindergarten program, Smart Kids LLC. In 2008, amid contentious negotiations, Tulsa Public Schools agreed to an early end to its contract sponsorship of Brown's charter school. The school secured new sponsorship by Langston University.” Members of the public by way of an online petition are now calling on Langston University to insist that the school publicly apologize to the 7 year old who was humiliated and in tears when she was forced to leave the school or withdraw their sponsorship for the school’s charter.
Langston University founded in 1897 as the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University is the only one of America’s 106 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that is located in Oklahoma. Ironically the Deborah Brown Community School which is now infamous internationally for attempting to deny an African American child the expression of her Africanness through her natural hair is located in Greenwood, Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is the area where a thriving African American community then known as Little Africa now known as the Black Wall Street was destroyed by a rioting White mob in 1921. In 1921 before the prosperous African American community of Greenwood, Tulsa, Oklahoma was destroyed by jealous Whites living in the surrounding area it was one of America’s most prosperous communities. On Tuesday May 31, 1921 everything changed for the African Americans of Greenwood community when a young African American man was wrongfully accused of attacking a young White woman. There is a history of White people in America falsely accusing African Americans of crimes as an excuse to visit mayhem on African American individuals, families and communities. These well documented incidents are almost commonplace from the time Africans were enslaved in America through to the 21st century. The Greenwood Massacre was especially horrific because White policemen and members of the Tulsa National Guard were involved in the massacre. Between Tuesday May 31, 1921 and Wednesday June 1, 1921 the entire African American community of Greenwood was burnt to the ground and some 3,000 African Americans had been killed by their White compatriots. The destruction of the African American community of Greenwood is described in an article published in the May, 2013 edition of Ebony Magazine: “During the night and day of the riot, deputized whites killed more than 300 African Americans. They looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks of 1,265 African American homes, including hospitals, schools, and churches, and destroyed 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen. Nine thousand African Americans were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921.” The National Guard was also involved in aerial bombing of the Greenwood community as described in eye witness accounts of African Americans.
White American author James S. Hirsch in his 2002 published book “Riot and Remembrance: The Tulsa Race War and Its Legacy” writes of the attitude and role the National Guard played in the massacre and destruction of the prosperous African American community: “Conferring such legal authority – apprehending suspects – on untrained, loosely supervised ‘deputies’ wearing overalls, their pockets bulging with stolen guns whose price tags still clung to the end, defied every protocol, but it reflected the feverish attitudes of white Tulsans: the riot was a Negro rebellion that had to be quashed with extraordinary measures. The phrase ‘Negro uprising’ is used often in the National Guard’s reports; one guardsman even referred to blacks as the ‘enemy.’” In the “Final Report of the Oklahoma Commission to Study The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921” ( it was found that in: “the lynchings of twenty-three African-Americans in twelve Oklahoma towns during the ten years leading to 1921: In some government participated in the deed. In some government performed the deed. In none did government prevent the deed. In none did government punish the deed.”
With this history of oppression of African Americans in Tulsa and the entire USA it is puzzling that an African American administrator would deny an African American child the expression of her unique Africanness (wearing locs) and force her to leave a school in the historic Greenwood, Tulsa area where the student population is overwhelmingly African American. Fortunately for young Tiana Parker there has been much support from the wider African American community ( ( and the African Caribbean community (