Tag Archives: African American History

Musing on the National Museum of African American History

Experience tells me that I am not alone as fall creeps stealthily into our lives. Early evenings, falling leaves and an evitable autumnal languor herald a season when many of us find ourselves in a reflective mood. On the one hand, we yearn to hang on to the carefree days of summer. Still, we know it’s time to face the facts, which means re-visiting a jumble of memories. So I spent last evening absorbed with the memories conjured by the opening of the National Museum of African American History. (http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/09/24/495302034/national-museum-of-african-american-history-opens-its-doors)

My ritual morning click on The Writer’s Almanac reinforced the reflective mood.   Today’s show recalled the day six decades ago when the “Little Rock Nine” walked into Little Rock Central High School. Protected by federal troops they bravely “put a face” on the legendary decision by the Supreme Court to strike down the doctrine of “separate but equal.” (http://writersalmanac.org/episodes/20160925/)

My thoughts turn to the tragically slow trajectory of history. Thus, as I share in the celebration of the NMAAH I wonder about the world faced by the grandchildren of the Little Rock Nine.

It seems to me that there are times when we better understand seismic forces if we have a thread that ties us to the enormity of a movement or societal awakening. For me, the thread to the narrative preserved in the National Museum weaves through the story of the Brown vs Board of Education decision and the bravery of the Little Rock Nine and their families.

Some reflections:

For five years in the 60’s my days were spent as a fledgling librarian at the District of Columbia Teachers College. As an agency of the DC Public Schools, the College, like virtually all the of the nation’s capital, operated under the political thumb of the United States Congress. DCTC was a merger of two teacher education institutions — Wilson (historically White) and Miner (historically Black)* – a marriage forced by the same Brown vs Board of Education decision. Any observer of school integration or white flight in the 60’s would instantly know that, by the time I showed up at DCTC, the student body and the faculty were 99.9% African American.

Totally immersed in an environment that was far beyond my experience, I learned in a way that has shaped my life.   As a librarian I learned about brilliant Black writers, the Harlem Renaissance, about the paucity of research on the African American experience. I learned, too, about emerging authors who were turning their attention to young African American readers.

As a newbie on a professional team of outstanding Black librarians I heard the stories of powerful African American leaders – writers, educators, artists, athletes, politicians, leaders of the faith community, veterans of wars and labor movements. In time I grasped what my elders shared about the unique characteristics of African American academic institutions, their fraternities and sororities, about the Washington, DC Gold Coast, and, of course, I absorbed back-stories on the civil and human rights movements of the era. Above all, I learned about the pain – and about the unflinching hope — that inspired the Black community’s compulsion to speak out and stand up for the inalienable rights so long trampled by the diabolical myth of white supremacy.

My life has been forever enriched by this long ago experience – the daily brown bag lunch in the back room, the petty gripes and celebrated birthdays, the wisdom shared with patient generosity of spirit by my older and much wiser co-workers.

All of these memories flowed as I viewed the spectacular opening of National Museum of African American History. The impact of the Supreme Court decision, the turbulence of the 60’s struggle for human and civil rights, the history we share but too often prefer to ignore or deny.  All of this history I learned by listening to my elders – wisdom shared over long lunches in the “back room” of DCTC. My oral history learning was not so much about facts but about the power of a people to believe, to hope, and put their shoulder to the wheel of freedom – not for individual gain but for the good of the race and of society.

The National Museum of African American History makes a powerful statement – the stories behind the objects can “put a face” on those who lived their lives and helped to shape a history filled with pain and injustice could not break the spirit of my colleagues and their forebears.

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* (In an earlier post I wrote about Myrtilla Miner, the white woman for whom the African American college was named – an interesting historical footnote —https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/tag/myrtilla-miner/)

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Infinite hope kindles revival of St. Paul’s Rondo Neighborhood

 

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

These words of Dr. King ring true as preparations move into high gear for Rondo Days, the week of celebration that fills St. Paul’s Rondo Neighborhood with music, dance, great food, sports and, most of all, stories of a community that never lost infinite hope. One has to be “of an age” to remember the pain and “finite disappointment” wrought by flagrant racism that paved the way for Interstate 94. Since that 1960’s travesty that would have destroyed a lesser community I have never traveled that strip of concrete without feeling the pain.

“Back in the day, my high school rose to its sandstone glory on the fringe of Rondo – we took the bus and got to know the neighbor kids as we walked the last few blocks; we traipsed down to Hallie Q. for mandatory gym class. Though we may have thought of ourselves and our school as part of the friendly neighborhood, local residents must have viewed us as uniformed interlopers with no sense of style… Still, those high school years helped me know a neighborhood of which I was not a part but which I experienced as home to loving parents who went to work early, children who hopped, skipped and jumped with joy as they played sidewalk games, a neighborhood overflowing with clubs and playgrounds, schools, countless churches, hairdressers, tailors and corner groceries that met the daily needs of a vibrant and resilient neighborhood that happened to be, in the language of the day, “Negro.”

Then came the bullies and the bulldozers. Rondo was decimated. Homes were leveled, many residents were forced to move, social and commercial life paused….but only paused. Though the strong people of Rondo “accepted finite disappointment” they never lost “infinite hope.”

That was then, this is now. Today the Rondo community is gearing up for Rondo Days, a celebration of the triumph of “infinite hope!”   Rondo Days 2016, set for July 12-16, marks the thirty-third year that neighbors, former residents and Minnesotans who know very little about the history will gather for the celebration sponsored by Rondo Avenue Inc. to revel in the music, dance, food and camaraderie that reflect the triumph of hope. The event is just one of several initiatives fueled by the creativity, energy, and vision of community leaders. http://www.rondoavenueinc.org

Rondo Days visitors will enjoy the event more if you can appreciate the roots and reasons the for grand celebration!!! And if you can’t make it to Rondo Days, the virtual visit will inform you about the history Minnesotans share, but may not know. The story of Rondo challenges all of us to “accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

So many stories, so many resources – following are just a few learning options:

To get a geographic fix on the Rondo neighborhood, click on this City Pages link: http://www.citypages.com/news/st-paul-map-shows-how-i-94-cut-through-heart-of-citys-african-american-neighborhood-6541556

To get a “feel” for the original Rondo you might want to start here:

  • Read Evelyn Fairbanks’ Days of Rondo, published by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1990 — ebook and audio book versions are readily accessible
  • View the video of Evelyn Fairbanks strolling and sharing her memories of the neighborhood with historian Hy Berman – though both Fairbanks and Berman have died since the video was produced their lively discussion and keen memories bring Rondo to life! http://www.mnvideovault.org/mvvPlayer/customPlaylist2.php?id=16134&select_index=4&popup=yes — the Rondo piece is just 27 mins long but you’ll want to watch the entire River, Railroads and Rondo video, a delightful historic overview of highlights of the Capitol City.

 To dig deeper into the stories of Rondo explore some of the many options including, but definitely not limited, to these:

  • Walk the neighborhood with MHS staffers to discover the secrets of Rondo. Though a last minute post indicates that “Neighborhood Secrets Walking Tour” is sold out, you might want to check just in case – http://www.mnhs.org/event/1349
  • Keep up with the latest on Rondo Days 2016 by faithfully checking the official website – rondoavenueinc.org

Earlier this month the St Paul Pioneer Press posted an informative – and supportive – editorial reviewing the past and offering a glimpse into what’s next for Rondo. It’s a must read: http://www.twincities.com/2016/06/01/editorial-rebuilding-around-rondo-values/ The editorial, based on an interview with community leader Marvin Anderson, cites several ideas; some fall under the “infinite hope” categpru while others are works-in-progress. The design is on the boards and a July groundbreaking is set for a commemorative plaza at Concordia/Old Rondo Avenue and Fisk Street. http://rondoavenueinc.org — (scroll to “commemorative plaza). Co-founder of the Rondo renaissance, Anderson, who retired Minnesota State Law Librarian in 2002, is just one of the leaders and lifetime residents who waste no time on “finite disappointment.” Instead, they harness their collective strength to get up and do what needs to be as they share emulate MLK’s vision of “infinite hope” for their vibrant neighborhood and for the Capitol City.

* * * *

Personal note: Many of us who learned or taught in the Rondo community “back in the day” were painfully aware of what was happening to our neighbors. Though some of us may be post-peak for the revelry, we celebrate Rondo Days in our memories and in our hearts. We want to learn more about the Rondo neighborhood as it was – and as it will be.   We rejoice as character, health, knowledge and good judgment – fueled by infinite hope – honor the past and shape the new Rondo community! My sincere hope is that the spirit of the historic building at 355 Marshall will bolster the rebirth of Rondo. Though the school closed decades ago there’s residual gumption behind that stern façade.

Rosa Parks – An armchair guide to a major exhibition of her life and work

Though snippets of the story and role of Rosa Parks are known, the fact is that much of her personal story has heretofore been hidden to the public. The Rosa Parks Collection at the Library of Congress, formally opened just last week, sheds much more light on the personal life of this courageous civil rights leader. The Rosa Parks Collection is on loan for ten years from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation to the Library of Congress.

The collection contains 7500 manuscripts and 2500 photographs. Throughout the month of March a sampling of approximately two dozen items will be on view in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Items from the collection will also be included in the ongoing exhibition, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom,” which will open at the Library in September.

Visitors to the exhibition — including virtual visitors — may well find a Rosa Parks they had not known. One poignant example is Parks’ description of her treatment at the downtown public library, where “a colored person will not be permitted to come in and read a book or be given one to take out. The requested book will be sent to the colored branch library, on the east side of town.”

The exhibition proves that Rosa Parks was more complex and more passionate than the stoic protester often portrayed in accounts of her life. Instead, it is clear from her letters that she was filled with rage that inspired her protests. She wrote that “I want to feel the nearness of something secure. It is such a lonely, lost feeling that I am cut off from life. I am nothing. I belong nowhere and to no one.”

Parks wrote that “little children are so conditioned early to learn their places in the segregated pattern as they make their first toddling steps and are weaned from the mother’s breast.” The conditioning last a lifetime. “There is just so much hurt, disappointment and oppression one can take. The bubble of life grows larger. The line between reason and madness grows thinner.”

The letters include Parks’ references to the murder of Emmett Till and to the terror of the Ku Klux Klan in her home town of Pine Level, Alabama where “KKK moved through the country, burning negro churches, schools, flogging and killing.”

On the one hand, Parks’ refusal to abandon her seat on the public bus meant financial hardship. On the other hand, it earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as the respect and admiration of countless individuals, including political and social leaders ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt to Martin Luther King who said of her: “No one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, ‘I can take it no longer.’”

One need not travel to Washington, DC to experience the richness of the Rosa Parks exhibition: