Marian Anderson

American Contralto Marian Anderson
11 Nov 1936, London, England, UK — Original caption: 11/11/1936-London, England- Miss. Marian Anderson, American negro contralto, is pictured a[s] she arrived at Victoria Station here to keep an engagement at famed Queen’s Hall. Miss Anderson was once told by the Great Toscannini, “A voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years.” — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS\

[A stunning photograph of Marian Anderson – that style and smile! – obtained from the excellent blog Vintage Black Glamour (vintageblackglamour.tumblr.com). Reproduced here with original citation and title as found on Vintage Black Glamour.*]

Today’s HH post is in tribute to the incredibly talented (and absolutely gorgeous!) Marian Anderson, a Black American contralto singer. Born in 1897, she became central to the fight against racial oppression suffered by Black artists in the United States during the twentieth century. In April 1939, Anderson performed an Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial (Washington, DC) in response to her being banned by the Daughters of the American Revolution from performing to an integrated audience. She later went on to become the first Black person to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, doing so in January 1955. While establishing herself as one of the most eminent classical musicians and singers in the United States of the twentieth century, she simultaneously fought for the rights of Black Americans by taking part in the Civil Rights Movement (including singing at the 1963 March on Washington).

[“Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial.” Uploaded March 26, 2010 to YouTube.]

Anderson is just one of the many, many Black artists who utilized their craft to advocate for the rights of Black Americans across the United States during the Civil Rights Movement. She was not only astoundingly talented as a singer, but also a fierce freedom fighter for the duration of her life. Marian Anderson was a woman who used her voice to its fullest potential, to both bring us beauty through song and to embolden us to fight against oppression.

~ M

Bibliography

“11/11/1936-London, England- Miss. Marian Anderson, American negro contralto, is pictured a[s] she arrived at Victoria Station here to keep an engagement at famed Queen’s Hall. Miss Anderson was once told by the Great Toscannini, ‘A voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years.'” Gainer, Nichelle. Vintage Black Glamour: Marian Anderson. Post accessed April 8, 2016. http://vintageblackglamour.tumblr.com/post/44168728592/marian-anderson-the-elegant-and-groundbreaking

Keiler, Allan. Marian Anderson: A Singer’s Journey. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

 

*Nichelle Gainer (Vintage Black Glamour) has published a wonderful book, Vintage Black Glamour, and a forthcoming book Vintage Black Glamour: Gentlemen’s Quarters, both of which can be purchased here: http://vintageblackglamourbook.com/. We encourage our readers to check out her amazing work.

 

Marian Anderson

Viola Liuzzo

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[A photograph of Viola Liuzzo as a young woman, retrieved from the Levi Watkins Learning Center Digital Library http://www.lib.alasu.edu/lwlcdigitallib/liuzzo/bio.html]

Viola Liuzzo, born in Pennsylvania in 1925, was a woman whose life was launched into the public eye with her unfortunate and tragic death. Living a relatively quiet life until a few weeks prior to her death, she was a part-time university student, homemaker, and mother to five children. Throughout early 1965 she participated in marches in support of the Civil Rights Movement while living in Detroit, Michigan. However, when she witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday on television and heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s pleas for “all Americans [to] bear the burden” in the “struggle… for the soul of the nation,” she left her student- and family-life and traveled to Selma, Alabama. Once in Selma, Liuzzo lent her car and ability to drive to the Movement, along with greeting newcomers in the Movement’s hospitality suite.

On the night of March 25, 1965 Viola Liuzzo was horrifically murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. While driving with Leroy Moton, a nineteen year old Black activist, en route to Montgomery, Alabama, four members of the Ku Klux Klan — one of whom was Gary Thomas Rowe Jr., the top FBI informant for the Alabama KKK for five years– fired shots into Liuzzo’s moving vehicle. Liuzzo died instantly, with Moton escaping with his life only by pretending to be dead. They were targeted because Liuzzo, a White woman, and Moton, a young Black man, were breaking Jim Crow social mores that dictated the lives of everyone in the South by riding alone in a car together.

The FBI began an investigation into Liuzzo’s death, but Gary Thomas Rowe Jr. had all charges dropped against him and instead was revealed to be an FBI informant, eventually being given a $10,000 reward by the FBI for “his services.” Within hours, President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke publicly about Liuzzo’s tragic murder, her White womanhood playing a key role in the attention that was paid to her death. Despite her death serving as a catapult to change legislation regarding the deaths of Civil Rights activists in the United States, it also brought unwanted attention to Johnson’s Administration and the FBI, with questions circulating as to why Rowe was illegally involved with the KKK and had not stopped the attack against Liuzzo and Moton. In the words of historian Gary May, “[t]o divert attention away from his informant… Hoover [the Director of the FBI at the time] created a more alluring subject for media attention. He and his men worked quickly to transform Viola Liuzzo, mother of five and part-time college student, into a blond seductress who came south not to fight for civil rights but instead to sleep with black men… None of this was true, but Hoover’s files eventually wound up in Klan literature” with the “killers’ attorneys distribut[ing] the hate-filled pamphlets to reporters,” making “Liuzzo’s character a major issue when their clients came to trial” (146).

Liuzzo’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, ending with her untimely death at the hands of White terrorists, is demonstrative of how White womanhood was understood during the 1960s in relation to Black masculinity; to activism and its often deadly consequences; to Southern narratives of sexuality; and to the ways in which White Americans were awoken to the oppression Black Americans faced often only through the violence that televisions projected into living rooms across the United States. It is important for us as historians to tell the stories of women like Liuzzo, while simultaneously being cautious to not replicate the imbalanced attention that was paid to her death versus the deaths of countless Black American activists that often go unnamed in modern histories of struggle and oppression in the United States.

~ M

Bibliography

Federal Investigation Bureau. Accessed March 25, 2016. https://vault.fbi.gov/Viola%20Liuzzo.

May, Gary. Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013.

Stanton, Mary. “Viola Liuzzo.” In Encyclopedia of Alabama. Last updated January 7, 2013. Accessed March 25, 2016. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1377.

Viola Liuzzo

Sylvia D. Hamilton

Sylvia Hamilton

[A photograph of Sylvia D. Hamilton, from her professional page as Assistant Professor and Rogers Chair in Communications at the University of King’s College, Halifax http://www.ukings.ca/sylvia-d-hamilton]

Who counts as an historical subject? Who is worthy of our attention when historians tease out the narratives we call “history” from the amorphous past? And, moreover, who is the “we,” the “our” that can be found – sometimes explicitly, other times just a looming threat – in historical writing? For today’s post – the last in our celebration of Black History Month – I want to highlight Sylvia D. Hamilton, a Black Canadian filmmaker, and writer who has helped to shift both who counts as an historical subject in Canada and who counts as the historian, the always present “our” in historical writing. Sylvia D. Hamilton is therefore both historian and historical subject, both the one crafting narratives and the one centred in various stories.

Instead of the usual post where myself or Spirit write a tribute to an historical (and in this case, living) person, or set of persons, I will in its place allow for Hamilton’s own words to tell you where she is from and why she does the work she does. The following is an excerpt from her fantastic 2012 article “When and Where I Enter: History, Film and Memory.” Let her words inform you, remind you, or perhaps even challenge you into thinking about how Blackness is an integral part of the Canadian national project, and about how the same issues of anti-Black racism that exist in the United States punctuate Canadian history (and the many Canadian presents), as well:

Since our earliest days in Canada as African-descended people, we have striven to find a compass: to locate ourselves in this vast land, to plot our position on the physical and mental map of Canada…

I am the grateful daughter of Marie Nita Waldron and Gerald Mac Hamilton, the granddaughter of Ida Grosse and Gilbert Hamilton and of Hattie Kellum and William Waldron, and the great granddaughter of Charlotte and Charles Grosse. William Waldron was a sailor and watchmaker who came to Halifax from the Barbados at the turn of the century and married Hattie Kellum. All are the reason I can stand before you today.

I have become a seeker, trying to plot some of the co-ordinates, not just for myself, but also for others. For me, as a filmmaker and a writer, history and memory combine to create a lens through which I view the present. These joint themes figure in much of my work that draws on oral story telling, archival and other found documents and objects, and on geography to tell stories about African Nova Scotians and African Canadians generally.

My work re-inserts and re-positions African-descended people in our landscapes by presenting stories and images of people being witnesses to their own lives. Their experiences and stories are the evidence of their realities. I think that a true understanding of our past and its meaning, one rooted in our bones, is vital to our future.

 

Thank you to Sylvia D. Hamilton, for telling your story.

~ M

P.S. I encourage everyone who has access, to read Sylvia D. Hamilton’s article cited here. And I especially encourage everyone to watch her fantastic and at times heartbreaking documentary The Little Black Schoolhouse (2007) which chronicles the experiences of Black Canadians who were subjected to school segregation in Nova Scotia.

Bibliography

Hamilton, Sylvia D. “When and Where I Enter: History, Film and Memory.” Acadiensis XLI, no. 2 (Summer/Autumn 2012): 3-16.

 

 

 

 

Sylvia D. Hamilton

Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita

It’s the third Friday of Black History Month, and in that spirit we’re highlighting another lesser-known black historical figure. This week, it’s Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita, a Kongolese noblewoman, prophet and religious-political leader.

Beatriz was born to noble parents in the Kingdom of Kongo (present-day Angola) in 1684. Europeans had disseminated Catholicism throughout the kingdom about two centuries before, and Beatriz was raised Catholic, but she did not take a passive role in her religion. She did not accept Catholicism as Europeans presented it. Instead, she promoted a Kongolese brand of Catholicism.

During Beatriz’s lifetime, Kongo was in a state of civil war that dated back to Portuguese military upheaval of the region in the 1660s. In 1704, Beatriz underwent a powerful spiritual experience that led her to assume a prominent role in the conflict as a religious and political leader. While ailing in 1704, Beatriz reported having visions of St. Anthony. These culminated in what she called her death: St. Anthony now occupied the body that once belonged to Beatriz, who had been trained as an nganga marinda, a community member who interacts with the supernatural realm in the interest of the community at large. In the body of an African woman, St. Anthony claimed to have a special and interpersonal relationship with God, who commanded that Kongo must be a united kingdom with one ruler. “The Kongolese Saint Anthony” (as they are called by biographer, John Thrornton) appealed to two of Kongo’s kings, but neither heeded the message. Having failed on this score, the Kongolese St. Anthony amassed a peaceful following and occupied São Salvador, the former capital.

In addition to sending missionaries out with their message, the Kongolese St. Anthony created their own religious doctrine, which they asserted was Catholic, but of a specifically Kongolese kind. They rewrote both the Ave Maria and Salve Regina (Salve Antoniana) to reflect Kongolese spiritual needs and priorities. And, particularly noteworthy this month, the Kongolese St. Anthony not only refuted that there were no existing black saints and insisted that Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other major Christian figures were in fact Kongolese, but also admonished priests who argued otherwise.

Predictably, the Kongolese St. Anthony, having undermined the authority of various established powers in the region, was executed for heresy by those loyal to one of the Kongolese kings in 1706. Though their life was cut short, the Kongolese St. Anthony’s approach to religion is an important reminder that, though European colonisers brutally enforced their ways among colonised and/or converted peoples, this process was not just passively received. On the contrary, colonised and/or converted peoples not only reshaped religious movements and doctrine to suit their own ways of knowing, believing and being, but also influenced the ways of life of the very peoples that sought to repress them.

~S

 

Bibliography

Alexander Ives Bortolot, Dona Beatriz: Kongo Prophet, In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2001-.) http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pwmn_4/hd_pwmn_4.htm (October 2003; accessed 19 February 2016).

John Thornton, The Kongolese Saint Anthony: Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita and the Antonian Movement, 1684-1706 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Dona Beatriz Kimpa Vita

Women’s Political Council (WPC)

This week’s post is dedicated to the heroic Montgomery, Alabama-based Women’s Political Council (WPC).The WPC was begun by Mary Fair Burks in the fall of 1946, after Burks spent much of her life protesting Jim Crow laws by refusing to abide by them throughout the city. According to historian Danielle L. McGuire, “[a]fter a run-in with a white police officer… Burks decided to broaden her attack and form an army of women dedicated to destroying white supremacy” (76). In Burks’s own words, she was a “feminist before [she] really knew what the word meant” and felt that she had to spread her lone-woman protest to a broader, community-based one as when she “looked around[, …] all [she] could see were either masks of indiferrence or scorn” (McGuire, 76).

At the first WPC meeting in 1946, forty Black women attended and all shared their stories of experiencing racialized and gendered violence at the hands of White police officers in Montgomery. Initially beginning with sharing their experiences with each other, the women of the WPC spread their activism to include voter registration. It was thanks to these amazing women and their partnerships with other Black organizations that the rates of voter registration increased during the 1950s in Montgomery, Alabama. During the 1950s, the WPC continued to grow in strength and became known as the “most militant and uncompromising voice” for Black Americans in the South.

Although the WPC’s accomplishments in regards to voter registration in the Black community were very important, it was their protest of their mistreatment on city buses that they gained the most attention for. It is thanks to the WPC that the famed Montgomery Bus Boycott took place in 1955. Even before this famous direct action took place, the WPC had been planning a bus boycott to demonstrate against their mistreatment on city buses. The December 1st, 1955 arrest of Rosa Parks finally gave the WPC the opportunity to put their plans into action.

The women of the WPC fought for the dignity and respect that Black women were denied in the mid-twentieth century. Their battles, from voter registration to bus segregation, demonstrate the intersecting systems of oppression that affected Black women. The WPC fought against patriarchy and White supremacy, illuminating the radical and vanguard role that Black women have played in the fight for Civil Rights in the United States. We here at the Historical Hotties Blog tip our proverbial hats to the amazing and inspiring women that often put their lives on the line in their fight(s) against injustice and state-sanctioned oppression.

~ M

Bibliography

McGuire, Danielle L. At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

Women’s Political Council (WPC)

Bayard Rustin

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[A photograph of Bayard Rustin]

In honour of the start of Black History Month, today’s Historical Hottie is the one and only Bayard Rustin – an all around historical badass that often gets written out of the “official” history of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement. Born in the state of Pennsylvania in 1912, Rustin was an outspoken socialist, Civil Rights advocate, and gay rights activist. As a Black gay man that was engaged in socialist politics and the Civil Rights Movement for much of his life, he was a constant target of hatred and violence amongst many, many groups in the United States (the FBI tried to use his supposedly “deviant” sexuality against him and the larger Civil Rights Movement, to name just one). He was one of the foremost leaders in the non-violent Civil Rights Movement, beginning in the early 1940s after he moved to Harlem.

Rustin is often overlooked or purposely forgotten in the history of the Civil Rights Movement because of his sexuality. Many different groups, both from within Black liberation movements and outside in broader American society, unfortunately criticized him due to his sexuality. Because of this, and also because of having been affiliated with the Communist Party, he was rarely given “public” notice despite serving as a key influencer, advocate, and adviser to some of the most prominent Civil Rights leaders (including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.). Without him, the Civil Rights Movement would be remembered in a vastly different way – yes, he was that important to the Movement (but I’m in no way reducing it down to just one man or a handful of people)! He took an intersectional approach to oppression and injustice in the United States, pulling together diverse intellectual and activist ideologies that attacked capitalist, racist, and homophobic power structures. Rustin passed away in 1987, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2013.

Bayard Rustin was a revolutionary in more ways than one, and helps to remind us that the current struggles going on today amongst Black communities in the United States are not isolated events but instead are part of a much longer history. Here’s to Bayard Rustin and all the Black radicals like him that have fought + continue to fight oppression!

~ M

Bibliography

Rustin, Bayard. Down the Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971.

Rustin, Bayard. Ed. by Bond, Julian. I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin’s Life in Letters. New York: City Light Books, 2012.

Bayard Rustin

Jack Greenberg

greenberg

[A photograph of a young Jack Greenberg, found on the Smithsonian’s educational website http://americanhistory.si.edu/brown/history/5-decision/challengers.html]

Where to start with Jack Greenberg? Greenberg served as the second Director-Counsel —  after none other than Thurgood Marshall — of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) from 1961 to 1984. The NAACP LDF was founded in 1940 with the mission of “achiev[ing] racial justice, equality, and an inclusive society” under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall.

Greenberg was born to a Jewish family in the Bensonhurst neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York in 1924. At the age of twenty-four in 1949, he joined LDF, initially because Marshall needed an assistant well-versed in American law to help him fight the legal, state-sanctioned system of Jim Crow in the United States. At the age of twenty-seven, Greenberg became the youngest lawyer who brought one of the most important civil rights cases of the twentieth century — Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, 1954 (commonly referred to as Brown v Board) — before the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. approached Greenberg as Director-Counsel of LDF to take on cases involving the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition (SCLC). Part of his legal representation of Dr. King included representing him in Birmingham, Alabama, winning him the right to march from Selma to Montgomery. Greenberg continued to fight for the rights of Black Americans for decades, being integral to “landmark legal cases” in relation to employment, education, housing, and voter registration during the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these cases include Meredith v Fair, 1961 (the integration of the University of Mississippi) and Griggs v Duke Power Company, 1971 (employment discrimination). Greenberg retired from LDF in 1984, later serving as dean of Columbia College.

Greenberg’s activism is, however, important to contextualize within broader histories of racialized oppression in the United States and the solidarity between non-Black Jewish Americans and Black Americans.* As noted in the freely accessible LDF @ 70 document published by the NAACP LDF, “Greenberg saw a resemblance between anti-Semitism and black oppression in the United States. Raised in a family committed to fairness and justice, Greenberg became part of the black world of the Civil Rights Movement.” Greenberg’s work in the Civil Rights Movement is representative of the important coalitions that have historically existed between two (often overlapping) groups of marginalized and oppressed peoples in the United States: Jewish Americans and Black Americans. The solidarities formed are much longer, and much older, than can properly be explained here, but it is nonetheless important to recognize them as interlocking histories of injustice and resistance.

By highlighting Greenberg today, we do not intend on decentering the Black Americans that fought valiantly during the Civil Rights Movement (and continue to fight today in the Black Lives Matter Movement, for example). We wish to instead highlight people like Greenberg who were not Black but dedicated their lives to the fight for the rights of Black Americans. The experiences of Greenberg’s own community in relation to anti-Semitism in part spurred him to fight for the civil rights of Black Americans, and he should continue to be a shining example for those of us who wish to stand in solidarity with Black folks who are struggling against systematic oppression today.

~ M

* It is important to make this distinction, as often times Black Jews are completely erased from histories of anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism, and the fight against these injustices, in the United States. This erasure of Black Jews from modern American history is not something that we at Historical Hotties Blog want to perpetuate, and therefore feel it necessary to address.

 

Bibliography

Greenberg, Jack. Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

LDF. “History.” Accessed January 21, 2016. http://www.naacpldf.org/history.

LDF. LDF @ 70 Defend, Educate, Empower: 70 Years Fulfilling the Promise of Equality. 2010. http://www.naacpldf.org/files/publications/ldf@70_0.pdf.

Jack Greenberg

Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance (Sylvester Clark Long)

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[A photo of Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance smiling]

Another Friday, another Historical Hottie. Today we are graced with the smiling face of Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, born December 1st, 1890 as Sylvester Clark Long. Both his parents were born enslaved, and according to the film Long Lance, were each of mixed background (Black, Indigenous, and White). He initially gained fame as a writer, after publishing his autobiography, going on to become an actor in the mid-twentieth century. He attended the Carlisle Indian School in the United States, infamous in its abuse of not only Indigenous but also Puerto Rican and African American youth.

Long Lance eventually went on to star in the 1930 film The Silent Enemy. He was a strong advocate for representing Indigenous Peoples and cultures respectfully within mainstream Euro-America and Euro-Canada. For many years he hid his identity as a man of mixed background (Black, European, Indigenous). Unfortunately, when his identity was revealed, this caused Long Lance to suffer to the point of committing suicide in 1932 (some people believe he was actually murdered). His will left all of his wealth towards aiding Indigenous youth in Alberta.

Although I do not want to refute Long Lance’s lived experiences and his family’s Indigenous claims, I think it is also important to acknowledge that his claims of being Indigenous are muddled in the half truths of any personal history and are still contested. It is also important to situate him within the broader history of Black Americans and White Americans claiming Indigenous history, often times with little evidence but other times with accuracy – especially in relation to Black Americans who are often denied being Indigenous due to anti-Black racism.

Today’s Historical Hottie is a gentle reminder that compassion and acceptance for each and every one of us can go a long way.

~ M

Bibliography

Long Lance. Online. Directed by Bernie Dichek. 1986. https://www.nfb.ca/film/long_lance

Reel Injun. Online. Directed by Neil Diamond. 2011. http://www.cbc.ca/passionateeye/episodes/reel-injun

Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance (Sylvester Clark Long)

Adah Isabelle Suggs and Harriet McClain

Part of the goal we here at Historical Hotties hope to achieve is to expand our understandings of beauty by paying tribute to radicals, rabble-rousers, and revolutionaries of all sorts. But doing so causes us to walk a proverbial thin line – at once celebrating marginalized and oppressed people, and yet also trying to not (unintentionally) fetishize or bring further trauma to individuals and communities who – stripped of power in the societies they lived in – were often physically, emotionally, and sexually victimized by those who upheld systems of injustice. Our hope at Historical Hotties is that we manage to respectfully acknowledge the brilliance, beauty, and resilience of those who have come before us in their fights against injustice (in whatever form it may have taken) without adding to the continuing pain and trauma that the communities they hailed from are (or might be) experiencing today. At Historical Hotties, the criteria for being a historical hottie is not really based on looks, but instead on what I have outlined above. It is with this tension in mind that I wish to introduce to you today not one, but two women whom many of you have most likely never heard of: Adah Isabelle Suggs and Harriet McClain.*

Harriet McClain and Adah Isabelle Suggs, respectively mother and daughter, were two enslaved women who lived for a time in Kentucky, United States. Their stories come to us through Adah’s own voice, as she gave an interview in her later years to the Federal Writer’s Project, which can be freely found online through the Library of Congress. However, while Adah herself gave the interview, it was mediated through an interviewer, Lauana Creel, who wrote the transcript of the primary source where I first encountered their stories. The interviewers who took part in “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project” were often paternalistic and racist in how they recorded the histories being entrusted to them, therefore we must proceed with caution when using these sources in order to not perpetuate the views held in the 1930s when these stories were recorded.

Adah Isabelle Suggs was born sometime before January 22nd, 1852 to Harriet McClain, who was enslaved by Colonel Jackson McClain and Louisa McClain, his wife. According to the interview Adah gave to Lauana Creel, when she was not yet five years old she had already begun to develop “ideas and ideals” as Harriet had taught her daughter how to knit, amongst other skills. Louisa, upon learning that Harriet was secretly teaching her daughter these skills, stole Adah from the care of her mother to live instead with herself and Colonel Jackson McClain.

When Adah was twelve years old (sometime during the late Civil War), Harriet attempted to escape with her daughter by taking a ferry across the Ohio River. Unfortunately, they were caught on the road to the ferry, which led to Harriet being imprisoned “in an upstair [sic] room” and further punished. Adah, knowing the location of her mother’s prison, would climb to her window when she could in order to spend what little time they could together. Eventually, the two escaped thanks to a dream that Harriet had wherein she was instructed on how Adah and herself could escape. Harriet recounted the dream to Adah, who then helped carry out the escape plan, freeing herself and her mother from enslavement.

Adah stole a knife from the pantry of the McClain household and gave it to her mother, who then picked the lock of the door that imprisoned her, allowing her to run free “into the open world about midnight.” Harriet then hid in a tobacco barn, waiting for Adah to meet her. When Adah was able to rid herself of the McClains for long enough to flee, she ran to her mother and the two then fled three miles to nearby Henderson, where they then hid under the house of a woman named Margaret Bentley until the next night. Once night fell, the two were “put… across” the Ohio River at Henderson by Union soldiers and ran to Evansville, Indiana. Harriet’s husband, Milton McClain, and their son Jerome had enlisted to fight in the Civil War for the Union Army in order to gain their freedom, and by extension gain the freedom of Harriet and Adah through Federal Statute granting the wives and children of enlisted enslaved men freedom.

After their escape and the reuniting of their family, Harriet and Adah soon became members of the free Black American community established in Evansville. Harriet eventually obtained a position as a housekeeper, and after “about two years” had saved enough money to send Adah to a “pay school.” Adah eventually went on to marry the formerly enslaved man Thomas Suggs on January 18, 1872, where afterwards they had fifteen children together. Adah lived the remainder of her life in Evansville, Indiana, where she was eventually interviewed as an elderly woman in an attempt by the Federal Writer’s Project to amass oral histories of enslavement.

Adah and Harriet, two women who openly rebelled against enslavement and racial injustice in the United States, cannot be celebrated enough in words. Over 150 years after Adah was born, the stories of these two heroic Black women continue to resonate and inspire us in 2015.

~ M

* A note on names: unfortunately, Adah Isabelle Suggs’s transcribed interview only refers to her mother as “Harriet McClain.” It was common for enslaved people to have the “family name” of the person/s who held them in enslavement, therefore I have no clue as to what Harriet’s family name may have been before this (if there was a “before” enslavement for her or not is unclear), or what her family’s original name was at any point. I apologize.

P.S. I highly encourage all of you to search the WPA Slave Narrative Project resources that the Library of Congress has made freely available to the public. They are searchable by name and key word, and found on an easily navigated site (even if a little dated). I do, of course, caution that the content of these life stories – while often remarkable – are also filled with explicitly described violence that took many forms. I therefore want to emphasize that for many people with more direct links to the history of enslavement, reading these oral histories will be extremely triggering.

Bibliography

Suggs, Adah Isabelle. Interviewed by Lauana Creel. WPA Slave Narrative Project, Indiana Narratives, Volume 5. Federal Writer’s Project, United States Work Projects Administration (USWPA). Library of Congress. https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/S?ammem/mesnbib:@field(AUTHOR+@od1(Suggs,+Adah+Isabelle))

Adah Isabelle Suggs and Harriet McClain

Oscar Micheaux

[A photograph of Oscar Micheaux, date unknown]
[A (fantastic) photograph of Oscar Micheaux, date unknown.]
Oscar Micheaux, born in the state of Illinois, USA in 1884, was a Black American filmmaker, writer, and businessman. Micheaux used his artistic storytelling talents to fight against injustice during a time when White supremacy and anti-Black racism often resulted in lynchings, violent sexual assaults against women and men, and a legalized system of discrimination in the Southern USA called Jim Crow.

Micheaux founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company in 1918, and utilized his self-owned business to write, publish, and distribute novels and films across the United States. Due to the larger sociocultural context within which he lived, Micheaux (as many within Black communities in the USA did) was forced to utilize innovative techniques that allowed for him to succeed in a White supremacist society. Often promoting and hand-delivering his films in person to theatres across the United States, Micheaux embodied the themes of his films.

At the time that Micheaux was an active filmmaker and writer, many activists in Black communities utilized social uplift as one way to combat segregation, stereotypes, and broader White supremacist power structures. It was with these themes that Micheaux was concerned with in his films, and his everyday life. Although uplift strategies, from a twenty-first century perspective, can be viewed as problematic in many respects this by no means should detract from the efforts of those who fought racialized injustice in the USA (and many of whom paid dearly, often with their lives or those of loved ones).

Along with themes of social uplift, Micheaux’s films often drew upon the rich West African and African American traditions based around the trickster trope. As with those of social uplift, Micheaux, too, lived a life that embodied the trickster as he often would subvert White perceptions of Black Americans as unintelligent and utilize them to his advantage. For example, Micheaux’s 1924 film A Son of Satan was completely censored in Virginia. Yet Micheaux disregarded the censorship of this film (as he often did), and acted as though it was due to his ignorance and not cunning that the film had “accidentally” been shown.

As with all of the Historical Hotties featured here, Oscar Micheaux is a wonderful example of the many revolutionary, radical, and rabble-rousing people that make up our shared histories. Here’s to one fabulous trailblazing trickster + justice seeker.

~ Monique

Bibliography:

Ooten, Melissa. Race, Gender, and Film Censorship in Virginia, 1922-1965. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2015.

Oscar Micheaux