Black History Month 2016 – Bessie Coleman

What a journey it has been! When I came up with the idea to write about Black Americans for Black History Month, I thought that I would focus on those women who made a statement in history. I decided to let inspiration take me where it would and I wound up writing about all men so far. From the creator of Black History Month, to the first black fighter pilot, to a man that fought for the rights of blacks, women and the Irish, and finally to the first Black American to play baseball in the major leagues.

For the final week of Black History Month of 2016, I’m going to blog about Bessie Coleman. What was the inspiration this time? I thought back to what my original plan for the Black History Month 2016 blog was and started researching. My interest in aviation drew me to looking at women pilots. When I started reading about Bessie Coleman, I found out there are many similarities between her and Eugene Bullard’s experiences in life and in Aviation. Then I was even more intrigued. Bullard was the first black fighter pilot that I blogged about earlier this month. Coleman and Bullard both broke through the color line, Bullard as a fighter pilot and Coleman as a woman barnstorming pilot. They both were forced to go to France to escape from the discrimination here in the US to do what they wanted to do, Bullard to make a life for himself in a place where he would be respected. Coleman went there to learn how to fly which gave her the tools to pursue her three life goals.

According to AvStop.com, Bessie Coleman was born on January 26, 1892, the 12th of 13 children. Her father, being part Indian, moved back to the Indian territory when Bessie was only seven, leaving her Mom to raise four daughters and a son. To support the family, her Mom picked cotton and took in laundry. The children all helped out and their mom encouraged them to learn as much as they could. Bessie would pick out books from the traveling library to read to her family in the evenings. This is where her quest for knowledge had begun.

Bessie finished high school and attended one semester of college before she had to drop out due to lack of finances. She moved back home for a short stint then headed to Chicago. She had a hard time finding a flight school in the United States that would teach a black person how to fly, much less a woman. So, she did some odd jobs to earn money for a trip to France, where they would teach her.

Part of her drive to fly was due to something her brother had told her. He said that there were many French women already flying planes, and because of her gender and race, she would never be allowed to fly. She eventually earned the money and took French lessons before heading over to France to learn how to fly in a Nieuport Biplane. While in France, Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion. Upon his recovery from being seriously wounded in battle, he volunteered for the French Air Service and received pilot’s license #6950 on May 5, 1917. Bessie proved her brother wrong when she returned to the United States in 1921 as the first black woman pilot to earn a license.

After attaining goal number one, she would now be chasing goal number two, to become a recognized stunt and exhibition flier. Barnstorming was popular in the Roaring ’20s and was the main avenue for women pilots to pursue. It was a form of entertainment where stunt pilots performed aerial tricks. Some of these pilots went from airshow to airshow performing tricks and giving airplane rides to make a living. Again, since no one in the US would teach her the advance skills needed to be a stunt pilot, she went back to France in February of 1922 to complete the advanced flying course. Shortly after she got the training needed, she came back to the US and during Labor Day weekend in 1922 she made her first appearance in an airshow.

Her third goal was to establish a flying school where young black Americans could receive training. She started raising the funds by doing lectures and flying in airshows. In a letter to her sister, Bessie said that she was on the threshold of making this goal a reality too. But, on April 30, 1926 the day before an airshow she was going to fly in, Bessie and her mechanic, William Willis, went to do a test flight. William had some concerns while he flew the plane from Texas to Florida for the show and wanted to check things out. While doing an aerial maneuver, a wrench got caught in the flight controls, which caused it to roll and toss Bessie out of the airplane. Her mechanic was also killed when the plane subsequently crashed into the ground. Due to her death, she would not realize her final goal.

She achieved some things that most people at the time wouldn’t have been able to. Add into the equation that she was a black woman, made what she did even more remarkable. Through her accomplishments, she also became a positive role model for young girls. Her perserverance in battling discrimination helped to pave the way for other woman pilots to achieve their dream to fly, whether they were black or not.

Blogging in honor of Black History Month this year has opened my eyes to the different battles that many blacks had to fight to get where they wanted to be in life. Many people have fought against discrimination to achieve their goals when they are living in a country where they are a minority. Our country’s history seems to have made that achieving more for yourself harder on some, just because they are different.

With all of the different people in this country, we have the ability and resources to do some amazing things. We just need to support and respect each other, regardless of the color of our skin or the language that we speak.

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Black History Month 2016 – Jackie Robinson

Update: I talked about reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin last week. Well, I got it from the library and started reading it last Thursday night. In the introduction, they talk about the impact of Stowe’s book on society. Novels were written at that time to bring readers into current events through a relatable medium, if people were able to get them and read them. Along with gossip, these books were big topics of discussion when women got together with each other to do domestic things like quilting and cooking. I think novels and movies are written and produced for some of the same reasons now. It can be an easier way to understand things that happen, as long as the author writes a good story about it.

Baseball is a big sport in our house. So much so, we give up most of our summer of going to the cabin to be involved in it. Both of the boys play on high school teams in the spring and travelling teams in the summer. As we were getting them signed up this year, I saw a post about Jackie Robinson on Facebook. And, that’s where the inspiration for this week’s blog came from, continuing on the theme of Black History Month.

Jackie Robinson was born on January 31, 1919. He played football, basketball, baseball and track in high school and college. He had to drop out of college due to financial hardship, but started to play football outside of college. His football career was cut short when the US entered World War II. He served as a second lieutenant in the US Army, but he never saw combat. During boot camp in 1944 he was arrested and court martialed after refusing to give up his seat and move to the back of the bus. His reputation, help from the NAACP, and black newspapers brought what happened to light and he was acquitted of the charges and given an honorable discharge. His courage and moral objections in this case would be a precursor to how he would handle his experience in Major League Baseball.

After his discharge from the Army, Jackie started playing professional baseball. Due to segregation, the blacks played on different teams than the whites did. Robinson started out playing in the negro leagues until Branch Rickey gave him the chance to play for the Montreal Royals, the farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers. After about a year on the farm club, he was moved up to play for the majors on April 15, 1947 at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn.

Even though Jackie was a good baseball player, he was still given a hard time because he was black. Not only by players and fans of the other teams, but from some of his own team mates. Rickey and Joe Durocher, the Dodger’s manager, wouldn’t tolerate that kind of treatment of Robinson on their team. They coached Robinson to be strong and not fight all of the hate people were showing him because of his color. His ability to do this, showed an inner strength that Robinson had about himself and the fact that he knew he was good enough to be there, regardless of what other people had to say.

The movie 42 gave us a look of what it was like for Robinson to break the color line and become the first black baseball player to play in the majors. We took Max and Mitch to see 42 in the theater when the movie originally came out. As we walked out of the theater afterwords, both of the boys commented how sad it was that everyone treated Robinson and other black players differently just because they were colored.

Other players like Curt Roberts, Ernie Banks and Willie Mays followed in his foot steps and continued to break down the color line in baseball. Curt Roberts was the first to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Branch Rickey signed him up for the team just like he did for Robinson. Rickey liked his calm personality and hoped that it would help him deal with the heckling that he would encounter. Roberts only made it for one year, as his batting average fell, he was cut the next year.

Ernie Banks said,

“I tried to get along with people who did not normally associate with blacks. I let them know there’s good and bad in every ethnic group.”

Robinson was also the first black player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962. Banks was inducted in 2011 while Mays was inducted in 1979. When they asked Robinson what he would like his legacy to be, he replied,

“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.” – Robinson on his legacy.

Through the research that I have done this month into the lives of these black Americans, I have seen some very disturbing trends in how people in our country were treated. My Mom always said that we shouldn’t be mean to people because they are different from us. Didn’t we all hear that when we were younger? If we did, then why are we continuing to do it?

Robinson and other black baseball players broke the color line and played a game that was seen as all white before. Blacks and other races have had to break a color line to get to do many things that other people are able to do here in America. I think over time people have become more accepted, but they are still not truly respected by all.

Black History Month 2016 – Frederick Douglass

I was interested in Abraham Lincoln when I was growing up. He seemed to be someone that was in touch with the people, and some one who they could talk to. Along with who he was and his fight to abolish slavery both showed me his compassion for the rights of other people.

Abolitionist was kind of a weird word for me to understand when we were learning about slavery in school. I couldn’t tell which side they were on. I think it was confusion about the fact that they were fighting against slavery and angry with white people. Over the years I’ve been learning how much of our country’s history I don’t know, due to a definite slant on how it was told in history books. The idea of slavery was so unclear, because people didn’t want us to know what was being done to the slaves. I think this was one of the reasons I was drawn to blog on the subject of Black History Month, to try and get a better understanding.

In celebration of his birthday this week, I decided to focus my blog on Frederick Douglass, a human rights leader in the anti-slavery movement. He was also an intellectual adviser to United States presidents on causes including slavery, women’s rights and Irish Home Rule. Like I wrote about in the blog about Carter G. Woodson a couple of weeks ago, Douglass was also one of the key figures that Black History Month was started in honor of.

According to biography.com, he was born into slavery on a plantation in Eastern Maryland. Even though he was born in February, the actual day wasn’t always documented for slaves. He adopted February 14th as his birthday because his mother Harriet, who died when he was eight, called him her little valentine. He initially lived with his maternal Grandmother, Betty Bailey after his mother’s death, but at a young age, he was taken from his family to live in the homes of other plantation owners in the area, one of whom may have even been his father.

When he was sent to the Baltimore home of Hugh Auld, Douglass was taught the alphabet by Auld’s wife Sophia. When he found out that his wife was teaching the slaves to read, he forbade her to continue. This opened up the door for Douglass to want to learn more, which he did from the white children and others in the neighborhood. The start of his education at this point in his life would lead him to the successes that he would have later on.

It was through education and reading that Douglass’s ideological opposition to slavery began to take shape. He found more and more journals and newspapers to expand his knowledge. While he was hired out to William Freeland, he also started to share this information with other slaves and taught them how to read at weekly church services. Freeland didn’t mind, but other slave owners in the area did. Armed with clubs and stones, they dispersed the congregation permanently.

After that, he was sent to work for Edward Covey, who was known as a “slave breaker”. He worked his slaves really hard and with constant abuse. He almost broke the spirit of a then sixteen year old Douglass. One day, he did fight back against Covey and won. It was a definite turning point in his life. He relived that event in his first autobiography and said that Covey left him alone after that fight.

There were many stories of slave escapes. Some slaves even died trying to do it. Douglass had tried to escape slavery twice and failed twice. When he finally succeeded, he made it to a safe house in New York, married Anna Murray in 1838, and he began to attend abolitionist meetings where he met William Lloyd Garrison, a radical abolitionist. Garrison wrote a weekly journal called The Liberator that Douglass subscribed to. He began to share his experiences at the meetings and became a regular speaker. Garrison mentored Douglass and urged him to write his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in 1845.

After the book was published, Douglass traveled overseas to Liverpool to evade recapture. He stayed there for two years during the potato famine in Ireland and spoke at different events about the evils of slavery. During this time, Douglass’s British supporters gathered funds to purchase his legal freedom. In 1847 he returned to the United States a free man.

While I was researching Douglass’ background, a connection between Douglass, Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe came to light. In an article on PBS.org, Garrison and Douglass were not getting along due to a difference of opinion, so Stowe thought she could try and help them to reconcile. Stowe wrote a letter to Garrison about her impressions of Douglass on December 19, 1853.  She believed that his convictions were based on “growth from the soil and his own mind.” Garrison believed that Douglass was disagreeing with him and just going along with the less radical abolitionists. Her hope to reconcile these two former friends would not be realized.

The fact that her family was so involved in the anti-slavery movement was also very interesting to me. Like Douglass, she also lost her mother as a young child. Her father was involved and his abolitionist attitude was reinforced in his children.

One more interesting thing about Stowe, according to HarrietBeecherStoweCenter.org, is why she wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin,

I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken-hearted with the sorrows and injustice that I saw, as a Christian I felt dishonor to Christianity. As a lover of my country, I trembled at the coming day of wrath.

Stowe’s family was involved in the Underground Railroad and were helping slaves secure their freedom by hiding them in their own home on their way to Canada. Interesting how all of these people were connected by the anti-slavery movement. Stowe and Garrison were white and working towards abolishing slavery with Douglass.

After I came across this connection, I decided to add Uncle Tom’s Cabin to my reading list. Through all of the reading that I have done, I found that haven’t read it yet. I would like to see how Stowe tells the story. It is on hold at the library for me right now.

Writing is a journey. This year’s blogs have all taken on a mind and direction of their own. It has been fun to write them and see where they end up. For Black History Month, this entry brought a couple of white abolitionists to play roles in developing the main subject, Frederick Douglass. It was good to see that white people that were also fighting against slavery right along with the blacks. The way that discrimination has developed in our country has made it a strong black versus white issue. Looks like even some white Americans were trying to make things right.

Black History Month 2016 – Eugene Bullard

There have been many interviews with black Americans on radio and TV during the first week of Black History Month. One that I was watched, Celebrate Perseverance, was shown on our local cable sports network. They interviewed former Minnesota Vikings football players about what it was like growing up as a black person in America. One remembered how their drinking fountains were labelled “colored”. He explained how he snuck over to the ones that were designated for whites and tried the water, thinking it might have tasted different. He found out that it didn’t at all. Another one talked about how his team had won their division championship and how they should have gone on to play in the tournament against the other championship teams in the area. They weren’t allowed to play in the tournament because they were black.

This whole idea of not letting people do things because they are different really doesn’t sit well with me. Why does this happen? It has happened throughout history with different types of people for different reasons, but it still isn’t right. People are people.

Like I said at the end of the blog last Monday, it would be interesting to see where the journey takes me. There are many posts on Facebook and social media about black Americans who have made significant contributions to our history. One that was posted by my friends Anne and Dawn caught my eye last week.

You may or may not know that I am a private pilot. I passed my check ride in August of 1999. So, when I saw the story of Eugene Bullard, the first African American fighter pilot, come in my news feed on Facebook, I was definitely intrigued.

According to Wikipedia, he was born on October 9, 1895, one of seven children from a Black man and a Creek Indian woman. His father William’s ancestors had been slaves in Haiti to French refuges. They fled to America during the Haitian Revolution and took refuge with the Creek Indians. That is how Eugene’s parents met.

After seeing his father nearly lynched as a preteen, Eugene fled to France where his father said that blacks were not discriminated against like they were in America. He stowed away on a German merchant ship bound for Scotland and then made his way to Paris. Once he settled there, he took on many odd jobs, like boxing and working in a music hall until he enlisted in the First Foreign Regiment of the Foreign Legion on October 19, 1914, just after the start of World War I.

Volunteers from overseas could only serve in the French Colonial Troops. By 1915, he was a machine gunner. After hearing about the horrors of trench warfare, William Bullard wrote to the Secretary of State to bring his son home before he got himself killed. He claimed that Eugene added a year to his age and shouldn’t have been able to enlist in the first place. The French Government denied his request saying that Eugene had been old enough.

After being seriously wounded at the Battle of Verdun in March 1916, he volunteered for the French Air Service in October of 1916 as an air gunner upon his recovery. He received pilot’s license #6950 from the Aero Club de France May 5, 1917 and that is when he started flying as a pilot.

He took part in twenty combat missions with his pet monkey, Jimmy. Sources differ on whether he had any actual kills or not. French authorities could not confirm them, but a few different internet sources did say that he had at least one kill.

When America entered the war, they offered the Americans who were flying for the Lafayette Flying Corps the opportunity to serve for their homeland. Eugene did the required physical needed to obtain a spot but he was denied. The American military said he had to be white to be a pilot. They even got France to agree with them and they dismissed Eugene from the French Air Service in October of 1919. At that point, he returned to Paris.

While in Paris, he worked as a drummer and a night club manager in the local jazz clubs. He would go on to own his own clubs. In 1923, he married Marcelle Straumann and they had two children. Bullard wound up with custody of them upon their divorce in 1931. While working in his night clubs during the German Invasion of France in 1940, he was able to gain valuable information from overhearing the conversations of the high ranking German officers who would come into his clubs. He turned that information over to the French Authorities, and became a spy. When things seemed to be getting worse for the French during the occupation, Bullard escaped with his daughters and wound up in New York City. He took on many odd jobs to make a living and provide for his family, with the last one being an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center.

One of the things that I noticed while writing this blog post is how some of our recent book club readings filled in the historical background for it. I thought of them while I was researching Eugene Bullard’s life. A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead talks about the invasion of France and these women’s experiences during it. And The Grace of Silence by Michelle Norris tells the story of a black family moving from Birmingham, Alabama to an all white neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Both of these books showed how poorly people were treated because they were either seen as the enemy or as someone who was a lesser person, because of the color of their skin.

Reading memoirs and historical fiction about these times in our history really helps to understand the people and their experiences at that time. I think it refers back to what Carter G. Woodson said about meeting and learning about all of the people around us, hopefully it can lead to better understanding and the ability for all people to get along as a community and a country.

 

Black History Month 2016 – Carter G. Woodson

After focusing on libraries, I decided to change the focus of the blog for this month. What a better topic than Black History Month, which along with Valentine’s Day, is what February is known for.

I discovered an interesting story about the origin of Black History Month. According to Wikipedia, Black History Month was originally called “Negro History Week”. It was created in 1926 by an historian by the name of Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. The second week of February was picked since it was when the birthdays of former president Abraham Lincoln (February 12th) and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (February 14th) would traditionally fall on the calendar. These two important dates were celebrated together by the black community since the late 19th century.

Carter G. Woodson has been called the Father of black history because he was one of the first scholars to have studied and published journals and books on the subject. He was the son of two former slaves and his father, James, helped Union soldiers during the Civil War. James moved his family from Virginia to West Virginia upon hearing the news that they were building schools for blacks to attend there.

Carter was one of seven children from a poor family and had to instruct himself in common school subjects. He mastered them all by the age of 17. Since he had to work to help provide for his family, he couldn’t focus on getting more education until he saved some money of his own. He entered Douglass High School at the age of 20 and earned his diploma at age 22. He went on to become a teacher and worked his way up to principal at Douglass High School in 1900. While working in the education field, he founded Associated Publishers in 1920, which is the oldest African-American publishing company in the United States.

According to Wikipedia, Woodson believed that education and creating social and professional contacts among blacks and whites could reduce racism. He promoted the organized study of African-American history partly for that purpose. I think he has a great vision here. The more personal knowledge that we have about people we work and deal with, the easier it is to talk about things that aren’t working and work together to try and make them better. It might be a good way to open communication and bring all of us Americans together as one nation.

He dedicated his life to education and furthering the knowledge of the Negro in American and World History. So dedicated in fact, he never married or had any children of his own. Dorothy Porter Wesley, was an African American librarian, bibliographer and curator. She was known for building the research collection at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University into a world class one. She said about Woodson’s dedication to his work, “Woodson would wrap up his publications, take them to the post office and have dinner at the YMCA.” He would teasingly decline her dinner invitations saying, “No, you are trying to marry me off. I am married to my work”.

In recognition of his contributions to Black History, he has many places named after him throughout the United States including The Woodson Institute for Student Excellence, a public charter school here in Minneapolis.

When I was brainstorming the theme for February’s blogging, I originally thought that I’d focus on black women. But after starting my research into Black History Month, I think I’m going to open my mind and change my idea to look at all of the people that we are recognizing this month. With my experience on the first blog, it looks like I may find some interesting people to write about on this writing journey.