Category Archives: African-American

Ella Fitzgerald 4.25.13 Thought of the Day

“It isn’t where you came from, it’s where you’re going that counts.” — Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Sings Broadway

Ella Sings Broadway (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on this day in Newport News, Va. in  1917.  Today is the  96th anniversary of her birth.

Her parents, William and Tempie Fitzgerald split when she was an infant and Ella and her mother moved to Yonkers, New York. Tempie fell in love with Joe Da Silva and the couple had a baby girl, Ella’s half-sister, Frances in 1923. When Joe couldn’t make ends meet with his part-time chauffeuring gig he dug ditches. Tempie worked at a laundromat. Even little Ella helped out, she was a runner for local gamblers.

Ella enjoyed sports as a child and liked to dance and sing with her friends. “some evenings they would take the train into Harlem and watch various acts at the Apollo Theater.” [The Official Website of Ella Fitzgerald] She was inspired by Louis Armstrong and the Boswell Sisters, a trio from New Orleans who specialized in tight harmonies and intricate rhythms.

She had to grow up fast  in 1932 when her mother died from injuries she received in a car crash. Joe died shortly thereafter, and Frances shortly after him. Ella lived with her Aunt Virginia for a while.

Her grades dropped dramatically, and she frequently skipped school. After getting into trouble with the police, she was taken into custody and sent to a reform school. ….Eventually Ella escaped from the reformatory. The 15-year-old found herself broke and alone during the Great Depression, and strove to endure….. [Ibid]

She was homeless for a while and on the run. But her luck turned around when she was 17. She was at the Apollo Theatre and her name was selected to compete at “Amateur Night.” Although she was planning to dance  she changed her mind when she saw another act  win the crowd over with their spectacular dancing. She would have to do something else. She decided to sing instead. She chose an old Boswell song, “Judy,” that she knew by heart.

Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald

Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ella could be shy off stage, but on stage she lit up like a Christmas Tree. The audience loved her song and demanded an encore (she did the song from the flip side of the Boswell record). She was fearless and she won the talent show and took home the $25 prize. “Once up there, I felt the acceptance and love from my audience,…I knew I wanted to sing before people the rest of my life.” [Ibid]

She began to enter every talent show she could find. And she won them all. She met drummer/bandleader Chick Webb and signed a contract with him to front his band for $12.50 a week. In 1936 she recorded “Love and Kisses” on the Decca label. At 21 She recorded “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” her first #1 hit.

When Webb died his band changed its name to “Ella and her Famous Orchestra.” She recorded 150 songs with the group, but it wasn’t until she left, in 1942 that her career really began to take off.  She signed with Decca records  and did a  series of “songbooks” by famous jazz composers. From Irving Berlin to Duke Ellington to Cole Porter she reinterpreted jazz standards for a new audience.

“I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them,” Ira Gershwin once remarked. [Ibid]

She also began to work with Norman Granz on his Jazz at the Philharmonic and her sound morphed from big band to bebop and she began to master scat singing.

She received the National Medal of Arts from President Ronald Reagan in 1987. She gave her final concert in Carnegie Hall in 1991. She died on June 15, 1996 in Beverly Hills, California

Here she is scatting away and doing a Broadway standard:


Frederick Douglas 2.14.13 Thought of the Day

It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.

A sketch of Douglass, from the 1845 edition of...

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born on this day in Talbot County, Maryland, USA in 1818. Today is the 195th anniversary of his birth.

The exact day and year of his birth is unknown, but he decided on February 14th, 1818.  He never met his father, a white man,  and almost never saw his mother.  He lived with his grandparents in their cabin west of the Tuckahoe Creek. In his first autobiography he wrote:

“I do not recollect ever seeing my mother by the light of day. … She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.” [Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, an American slave. Written by himself. (1851)

At seven he was sent to Wye House plantation near Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland. Soon he was sent to Hugh Auld a Baltimore carpenter. Auld’s wife, Sophia,  taught him to read until the master (her husband)  stopped her. Hugh Auld thought teaching slaves lead to rebellious slaves. Frederick practiced reading and writing in secret. When he was in Baltimore he heard about Abolition for the first time, and in 1831 he  read an article “on John Quincy Adams’s antislavery petitions in Congress” [Frederick Douglass Timeline]

At 13 he was sent to the shipping town of St. Michael’s, Maryland to work for Thomas Auld. When Auld discovered that Frederick was teaching other slaves to read he rented him out to a brutal slavebreaker, Edward Covey.”The treatment he received was indeed brutal. Whipped daily and barely fed, Douglass was “broken in body, soul, and spirit.” “ []

In 1838 he was back in Baltimore hired out to work as a caulker in a shipyard. He made his escape to freedom by…

Travelling by train, then steamboat, then train, he arrived in New York City the following day. Several weeks later he had settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, living with his newlywed bride (whom he met in Baltimore and married in New York) under his new name, Frederick Douglass. [Ibid]

Douglass became active in the Abolitionist movement. He became a “licensed preacher for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.” [Frederick Douglass Timeline] In 1841 he spoke at an antislavery meeting in New Bedford about his life in Maryland. The Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society hired him as a speaker.

English: Portrait of Frederick Douglass as a y...

English: Portrait of Frederick Douglass as a younger man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some people didn’t believe that a former slave could speak so eloquently and assumed Douglass was a fraud. In response to that criticism he wrote Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. In 1845 he toured England and Ireland to raise money to buy his freedom. (Auld  manumitted him for $711.66.) Douglass used the remaining money from the Great Britain tour to buy a printing press and began to publish the North Star, a weekly Abolitionist paper. The paper later became the Frederick Douglass’ Paper and is joined in 1859 by the Douglass’ Monthy.

In 1855 he published his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom. During the American Civil War Douglass was a recruiter for the all African-American 54th Massachusetts Infantry.

After the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (which outlaws slavery) Douglass continued to fight for civil rights and woman’s rights. A fringe political party, The Equal Rights Party nominated Douglass as its vice-presidential Nominee in 1872.

The title page of the 1845 edition of Narrativ...

The title page of the 1845 edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1881 he published his final autobiography, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

He was appointed to the post of US Marshal of the District of Columbia and the Recorder of Deed of the District of Columbia before becoming Minister Resident and Consul General to the Republic of Haiti in 1889.

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Frederick Douglass died on February 20th, 1895 of heart failure.

The gravestone of Frederick Douglass located a...

Rosa Parks 2.4.13 Thought of the Day

“I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.” –Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks getting fingerprinted after her arrest.

Rosa Parks getting fingerprinted after her arrest. [Image courtesy]

Rosa Louise McCauley was born on this day in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1913. Today is the 100th anniversary of her birth.

Rosa’s father James was a carpenter and her mother Leona was a teacher. Her parents separated when Rosa was 2, and she moved with her mother a little brother Sylvester to Pine Level, Alabama (just outside the capital, Montgomery) to live with her maternal grandparents. He mother taught her to read. The segregated one room school-house she attended seldom had enough desks  or other supplies. At 11 she went to the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, an institution a laboratory school set up by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes and founded “liberal-minded women from the northern United States. The school’s philosophy of self-worth was …to ‘take advantage of the opportunities, no matter how few they were.'” [] She dropped out of the school to care first for her grandmother then her mother.

At 19 she married Raymond Parks and moved to Montgomery. Raymond encouraged Rosa to finish high school, and she earned her degree in 1933.  The two were active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Raymond had been an active member when they met.) They worked to raise money to help defend the Scottsboro Boys and were members of the Voter’s League. Mrs. Parks managed to get her voter’s card (it took her three tries because of the Jim Crow laws in Montgomery.)

English: Photograph of Rosa Parks with Dr. Mar...

English: Photograph of Rosa Parks with Dr. Martin Luther King jr. (ca. 1955) Mrs. Rosa Parks altered the negro progress in Montgomery, Alabama, 1955, by the bus boycott she unwillingly began. National Archives record ID: 306-PSD-65-1882 (Box 93). Source: Ebony Magazine Ελληνικά: Φωτογραφία της Rosa Parks με τον Dr. Martin Luther King jr. (περ. 1955.) Español: Fotografía de Rosa Parks con Martin Luther King jr. (aprox. 1955). Français : Photographie Rosa Parks (ca. 1955) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rosa served as the chapter’s youth leader. And in 1944 she became the secretary to NAACP President E.D. Nixon—a post she held until 1957. (She recalls that they needed a secretary, she was the only woman there, and she was too timid to decline.)

“I worked on numerous cases with the NAACP,” Mrs. Parks recalled, “but we did not get the publicity. There were cases of flogging, peonage, murder, and rape. We didn’t seem to have too many successes. It was more a matter of trying to challenge the powers that be, and to let it be known that we did not wish to continue being second-class citizens.” [Rosa Parks quoted on]

On Thursday, December 1, 1955

Rosa Parks boarded the Cleveland Avenue bus for home. She took a seat in the first of several rows designated for “colored” passengers. …As the bus Rosa was riding continued on its route, it began to fill with white passengers. Eventually, the bus was full and the driver noticed that several white passengers were standing in the aisle. He stopped the bus and moved the sign separating the two sections back one row and asked four black passengers to give up their seats. Three complied, but Rosa refused and remained seated. The driver demanded, “Why don’t you stand up?” to which Rosa replied, “I don’t think I should have to stand up.” The driver called the police and had her arrested. …The police arrested Rosa at the scene and charged her with violation of Chapter 6, Section 11, of the Montgomery City Code. She was taken to police headquarters, where, later that night, she was released on bail. []

Booking photo of Parks

Booking photo of Parks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the day of her trial the NAACP and the Montgomery Improvement Association (with its new leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) organized a Bus Boycott.  The

13-month mass protest that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional. …The bus boycott demonstrated the potential for nonviolent mass protest to successfully challenge racial segregation and served as an example for other southern campaigns that followed. In Stride Toward Freedom, King’s 1958 memoir of the boycott, he declared the real meaning of the Montgomery bus boycott to be the power of a growing self-respect to animate the struggle for civil rights. []

“At the time I was arrested I had no idea it would turn into this, … It was just a day like any other day. The only thing that made it significant was that the masses of the people joined in.” –Rosa Parks

After her arrest Parks lost her job  as a seamstress in a department store. “her husband was fired after his boss forbade him to talk about his wife or their legal case.” [] The couple was unable to find work and eventually they moved to Detroit, Michigan with Rosa’s Mother.

In Michigan Rosa Parks worked U.S. House of Representative John Conyer as a secretary and receptionist. In 1987 she helped found the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development which runs bust tours  to civil rights and Underground Railroad sites for young people.

Rosa Parks receives an award from Bill Clinton.

Rosa Parks receives an award from Bill Clinton. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She published a biography, Rosa Parks: My Story and a memoir, Quiet Strength in the 1990s. In 1996 she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton.

Rosa Parks died on October 24, 2005 at the age of 93. She was honored by lying in state at the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, DC.

Today, on the centennial of her birth the US Postal Service is releasing a Forever Stamp with her likeness.

[Image courtesy USPS]

[Image courtesy USPS]

“I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free… and other people would be also free.” –Rosa Parks

Martin Luther King 1.15.13 Thought of the Day

“I had a dream…” Martin Luther King, Jr.


[Image courtesy the Seattle Times

[Image courtesy the Seattle Times

Michael Luther King, Jr. was born on this day in Atlanta, Georgia, USA in 1929. Today is the 84th anniversary of his birth.


Born to into a “preaching” family. Both his father and grandfather were Baptist ministers. His maternal grandfather, A.D. Williams took over the Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta when its congregation numbered only 13. Under his leadership that quickly changed.  King’s father married Alberta Williams (A.D.’s only surviving child) in 1926.


Michael King Sr. stepped in as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church upon the death of his father-in-law in 1931. He too became a successful minister, and adopted the name Martin Luther King Sr. in honor of the German Protestant religious leader Martin Luther. In due time, Michael Jr. would follow his father’s lead and adopt the name himself. [Biography]


Martin was the middle of three children in the King household. He grew up in Atlanta attending Booker T. Washington High School. He entered Morehouse College at age fifteen. He graduated from Morehouse in 1948 and went on to get his Bachelor of Divinity degree at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, PA. and his Doctor of Philosophy from Boston University.


He emerged as a Civil Rights leader with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in December of 1955. In 1957 he worked with Ralph Abernathy and other ministers to create …


the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to harness the moral authority and organizing power of black churches. They would help conduct non-violent protests to promote civil rights reform. [Ibid]


The SCLC organize voter registration drives in the South. In 1959 King traveled to India


The trip affected him in a deeply profound way, increasing his commitment to America’s civil rights struggle. African-American civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, who had studied Gandhi’s teachings, became one of King’s associates and counseled him to dedicate himself to the principles of non-violence. [Ibid]


The “Sit-In” movement began in 1960. By summer 27 sit-ins had successfully ended lunch counter segregation. King joined an Atlanta lunch-counter sit in and was arrested with 36 others.


King was arrested again in 1963 after he organized a demonstration in Birmingham, Alabama. The demonstration, which included families, ended when the


City police turned dogs and fire hoses on demonstrators. Martin Luther King was jailed along with large numbers of his supporters, but the event drew nationwide attention. …However, King was personally criticized by black and white clergy alike for taking risks and endangering the children who attended the demonstration. From the jail in Birmingham, King eloquently spelled out his theory of non-violence: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community, which has constantly refused to negotiate, is forced to confront the issue.”[Ibid]


On August 28, 1963 King and his supporters marched peacefully to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.



The Civil Rights Act passed 1964. The same year King received the Nobel Peace Prize. King continued to advocate for civil rights. He saw the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and worked to bring the Civil Rights Movement to larger cities.


President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Dr. Marti...

President Lyndon B. Johnson and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. meet at the White House, 1966 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


He also added his voice to the chorus of protesters against the Vietnam War.


He felt that America’s involvement in Vietnam was politically untenable and the government’s conduct of the war discriminatory to the poor…[Ibid]


In the spring of 1968 King went to Memphis, Tennessee to support sanitation workers who were on strike.


On April 3, in what proved to be an eerily prophetic speech, he told supporters, “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” The next day, while standing on a balcony outside his room at the Lorraine Motel, Martin Luther King Jr. was struck by a sniper’s bullet. [Ibid]



Zora Neale Hurston 1.7.13 Thought of the Day

“I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.”
Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston Photographer: Carl Van Vech...

Zora Neale Hurston Photographer: Carl Van Vechten. Silver geletin print, 1938 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Zora Neale Hurston was born on this day in Notasulag, Alabama, USA in 1891. Today is the 121st Anniversary of her birth.

Hurston was fifth of eight children born to John and Lucy Ann Hurston. Her father was a preacher, a tenant farmer and a carpenter. When Hurston was three the family moved to Eatonville, Florida. Hurston saw Eatonville as utopia where African-Americans could “live as they desired, independent of white society and all its ways.” [Women In History — Zora Neale Hurston] Her father was mayor of the town for a while, and Hurston enjoyed a happy childhood. While her preacher father tried to control his daughter’s exuberant love of life, her mother indulged her joyous nature.

“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to “jump at de sun.” We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”–Zora Neale Hurston

Her idyllic  childhood ended at thirteen with the death of her mother. Shortly afterward her father remarried. Hurston said she was “Passed around the family like a bad penny.” They sent her to  a boarding school, but when they stopped paying for her tuition she was kicked out.

Zora worked a series of menial jobs over the ensuing years, struggled to finish her schooling, and eventually joined a Gilbert & Sullivan traveling troupe as a maid to the lead singer. In 1917, she turned up in Baltimore; by then, she was 26 years old and still hadn’t finished high school. Needing to present herself as a teenager to qualify for free public schooling, she lopped 10 years off her life–giving her age as 16 and the year of her birth as 1901. []

Hurston finished Morgan Academy and in 1918 she went to Howard University in Washington, DC where she began pursue her literary career. She had her first story, “John Redding Goes to Sea” published in The Howard University literary magazine The Stylus. More stories followed and Hurston began to be noticed by the literary set of the Harlem Renaissance, like Langston Hughes. She transferred to Barnard College in New York and earned her degree in 1928.

The Harlem Renaissance was a period during which black artists broke with the traditional dialectal works and imitating white writers to explore black culture and express pride in their race.  This was expressed in literature, music, art, in addition to other forms of artistic expression.  Zora and her stories about Eatonville became a major force in shaping these ideals. Additionally, she combined her studies in anthropology with her literary output.  [Women In History — Zora Neale Hurston]

She received a Rosenwald fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship to do anthropological field research int he mid 1930s.

Zora Neale Hurston, beating the hountar, or ma...

Zora Neale Hurston, beating the hountar, or mama drum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine came out in 1934.  She followed that up with Mules and Men , a folklore classic based on her anthropological work in the South.

In 1937 she traveled to Jamaica and Haiti on a Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct field research on African rituals and voodoo. While in Haiti she wrote her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in seven weeks time.

Cover of "Their Eyes Were Watching God"

Cover of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Janie, the protagonist, returns to her home town at the beginning of the novel. She

recalls all the crucial moments of her life, from t he time she first discovers that she is a “colored” little girl…to the moment she returns to Eatonville, Florida, from the Everglades, not swindled and deceived, as had been expected, but heartbroken, yet boldly defiant, after having toiled in the bean fields, survived a hurricane and lost the man she loved. [Their Eyes Were Watching God, Forward]

Hurston prose is rich and colorful while her dialogue is dense with authentic slang. Here’s how she drops you into the story near the beginning of the novel…

So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgement….

Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song.

“What she doin’ coming back here in dem overhalls?  Can’t she find no dress to put on?– Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in? — Where’s all dat money her husband took and died and left here? What dat ole forty year ole ‘omen doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal? …. [Their Eyes Were Watching God, Chapter One]

It takes a few pages to get used to, but the novel is more than worth the effort.

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston: Eatonville, Fl...

Portrait of Zora Neale Hurston: Eatonville, Florida (Photo credit: State Library and Archives of Florida)

Other Major Hurston works include Tell My Horse, Moses, Man of the Mountain, Seraph on the Suwanee and her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road.

Sadly, “Hurston never received the financial rewards she deserved. (The largest royalty she ever earned from any of her books was $943.75.)” [] As the 40’s waned so did her career.

Never in her works did she address the issue of racism of whites toward blacks, and as this became a nascent theme among black writers in the post World War II ear of civil rights, Hurston’s literary influence faded. She further scathed her own reputation by railing the civil rights movement and supporting ultraconservative politicians. [Women In History — Zora Neale Hurston]

She opposed the New Deal and the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education. She struggled to get published, and took on jobs as a maid and a substitute teacher to try to make ends meet.

In 1959 she suffered from a stroke and had to enter the St. Lucie County Welfare Home. She died there in January of 1960 of hypertensive heart disease. Hurston was buried in an unmarked grave.

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