Credentials

It may have been that Christmas when the chemistry set was more of a hit than the doll and dollhouse that Mr. and Mrs. Swann got the first inkling. Or the glowing reports coming home from the junior high chemistry teacher about their daughter Madeline. But they knew definitely when she asked to have pet mice for some experiments. Science was Madeline’s calling, and she pursued it with a purpose. In 1980, Madeline graduated from Howard University having earned a Ph.D. in chemistry.

She thought she would work on the eradication of diseases, but was drawn to research on the properties of fuels. Working for thirty years as a civilian employee of the U.S. Department of the Army, they lauded her work on keeping fuels liquid in harsh, cold madeline swannclimates. Those testimonies to her intelligence and skill in her technical field were diminished by the number of times—in meetings and conferences—she was taken to be ‘the help,’ clerical support, and asked to fetch coffee and sandwiches for the generals in the meetings who were doing the ‘real’ work. Once she made the offenders recognize their error, apologies were made, and the meeting continued with Madeline playing her true role. But Madeline’s lingering feeling was that no one in those rooms—full of white men—even considered the possibility she could be the chemist on whose research their military plans were being developed. Madeline died a little over a year ago.  If she were alive today, she would be the last person in our group to be surprised by the recent event on a Delta Airlines plane.

Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford, an African-American physician, offered her help to a passenger having a medical emergency. Three Delta employees questioned Dr. Stanford’s credentials even after she produced her medical license. A practice that was not to be followed after a 2016 incident when another Delta employee questioned the credentials of another black physician, Dr. Tamika Cross, when she tried to help a Delta passenger.

While Dr. Madeline Swann’s experiences and Dr. Stanford’s just a few days ago are decades apart, the realities are the same. Some things change, others remain. It is hard for some white people to believe black people have professional credentials. Some suggest that America is more racially fair now than ever before. I suspect that is true. There is a far greater likelihood you will encounter an African-American Ph.D. or M.D. today than at any other time in our country’s history, but even so only about 6% of all physicians are African-American today, and similarly, only about 6.5% of all doctoral candidates are African-American. Some might suggest that these low numbers—the low probability — underscore why Madeline wasn’t thought to be the chemist and why Dr. Stanford was questioned about being a medical doctor. I don’t believe that.

Even when presented with tangible evidence—a medical license—Dr. Stanford was not believed. Whether in the 1980s or thirty years later, the default presumption is a black woman couldn’t possibly be a physician… or a scientist. The narratives about black people’s ambition, intelligence and capabilities are still rampant as are other biases—of which some might even be unaware—against African-Americans.

In the 1990s, when my friend, Dr. Renee Fleming Mills styled her hair in braids and put them in what she thought was an elegant and professional chignon, she was told that hairstyle jeopardized her career path in corporate America. Her hair, not her Ph.D., evidence of her knowledge and expertise, became an issue. She wasn’t conforming to an American, white community-based, physical standard.

Just a few years ago, I heard a colleague, a black woman, say she had earned a Ph.D. not because she wanted to be an academic, but so the white community would not question her knowledge. I wonder if that has afforded her the social and community elevation and respect she expected.

We—my friends and I—were raised to be daughters of the dream; a dream in which success would be possible due to the content of our character (and the credentials we earned), not limited or prohibited by the color of our skin. Today, 55 years after Martin Luther King’s memorable address, skin color still invokes certain beliefs, assumptions, and prejudices. It is the ‘credential’ some see long before you can pull out your medical license or run home to get that diploma.

The Civil Rights Story: Another Layer Revealed

 “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou

When Roscoe Jones was 17 years old, he attended the Freedom School in Meridien, Mississippi, a school established by the Council of Coordinated Organizations to provide black students with an actual education, not the inferior one that black children then received in the Mississippi public schools.

Roscoe was recruited by, and then ultimately led, the youth chapter of the NAACP. During the summer of 1964, Freedom Summer, he worked on voter registration. It was only through a quirk of fate he was not in the car with James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner on the night the Ku Klux Klan killed them in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Schwerner  had  overheard a call Roscoe received inviting him to talk with a youth group. He urged Roscoe to stay and do that talk instead of joining them. Fate.

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Roscoe Jones beside the grave of James Chaney

I met Roscoe earlier this year. Last month, I joined him and a group of racial equity activists and knowledge seekers from the Washington, DC area on a civil rights learning journey. I thought I knew a lot about that movement. Now I know my knowledge has been superficial. I know the basic facts; the dates, the names and the more prominent incidents. But it wasn’t until this trip to Memphis, Tennessee and several parts of Mississippi and Alabama that I learned the nuances, the shadows, and just how different the life of a black, 17-year-old in Richmond, Virginia—my life—in the late 1960s was from that of one in Meridien, Mississippi or Birmingham, Alabama. The Deep South.

While I was attending a public high school at which I was receiving a solid, college prep education and hanging out with friends at state parks or at pool parties, Roscoe was organizing with his peers and risking his life to register voters. Only about 800 miles separates Mississippi from Virginia geographically, but we were separated by centuries of racial realities. Our worlds were incredibly different.

One of our guides shared the story of her mother, a social studies teacher, trying to register to vote. She was prepared when the registrar asked her to recite the preamble to the Constitution; she had had her students memorize it as they learned American history. Then came the follow-up question. Do you remember Oprah Winfrey in the movie Selma, the scene in which she was trying to register to vote? She was asked the number of counties in the state and then to name all the judges in those counties. You may have thought it was an exaggeration to make the point. But sitting before me was a woman in her 60s, recounting her mother’s sadness at being denied the vote because she could not recite the entire Constitution.

In Richmond, a poll tax was a requirement to register to vote until the mid-1960s, but the registrar did not ask the number of bubbles in a bar of soap or the number of feathers on a chicken.

Nowhere in my recollection of Richmond’s history were black people jeered and assaulted as they registered their children for school as were Fred and Ruby Shuttlesworth when they tried to enroll their children in an all-white school in Alabama. The crowd beat Fred Shuttlesworth with brass knuckles and stabbed Ruby.

I heard stories and learned things I never knew.

The differences I felt in Roscoe’s and my experience strengthened—chillingly so—when visiting the Kelly Ingram Park across from the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of a bombing that killed four young girls.  Memorials are throughout the park. One depicts young people huddled against a wall with water hoses aimed at them, but the most powerful had snarling dogs leaping at you on both sides of the walkway. Only a soundtrack of growling, enraged dogs would have made it more realistic. No caring, compassionate person could visit such representations of fundamental moral wrongness, and not come away with a visceral—heartsick—feeling, but one, nonetheless, mixed with pride and awe for those who stood up and protested.

When I think of the civil rights movement, my frame is the non-violent protests in my home city. Nothing like this happened as young people in Richmond advocated peacefully for integrating downtown movie theaters and department store restaurants. I was aware at the time of the violence in Birmingham and on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Those were newsreel images. My mind hadn’t wrapped around the pervasiveness of the daily terror, the consequences of not stepping off the sidewalk as a white family walked by or of being dragged from your home in the night, beaten and possibly lynched to provide an example to others.

We hear a lot about the greatest generation, typically about World War II veterans. This trip reminded me that there are others in that greatest generation, the civil rights workers. The Roscoe Joneses of the Deep South risked their lives for many of the rights we take for granted today. They, too, were soldiers fighting for justice, for the freedom portrayed in our Constitution. Today as Roscoe, and others, share their stories with people like me, he deepens our understanding of what those experiences that we read about really were like and he strengthens our commitment today to racial equity. I am  grateful.

A More Perfect Union

I live in Washington, DC and for a long time thought my physical location was a big part of what made me a political junkie. The local news is, after all, the national news. But it isn’t just location, it is also immediacy. Sometimes I know, have met, or have seen on the street, politicians in the news. This minor familiarity makes them more than just names. And, it isn’t just proximity; it is also a recognition and an appreciation of how much was sacrificed to have the ability to vote, a right that shapes so much of what is reflected in the news.

US CapitolI can’t envision a day without CNN, the Washington Post or the various news alerts on my cell phone. I’m hooked. I have to know what is going on in my world, even when the events of the day are troubling. So, as you might expect, I can’t imagine not playing an active role in our country’s political reality. I simply can’t imagine not voting. As the time for the mid-term elections gets closer, I am wondering if people will vote… and I’m completely baffled and angered by the possibility that people will stay home.

How can you not vote? Particularly African-Americans who didn’t have the right to vote until 1870, almost a century after this country was founded on the basis that ‘all men are created equal.’ It was only then that the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified giving black men the ability to vote. When blacks used that power of the vote and gained a few state offices in the late 1800s, they were struck down. In my home state of Virginia, and in many others, the power brokers of the time then put in place literacy tests and poll taxes, barriers that many could not overcome. In just four years, the number of black voters in Virginia went from 147,000 in 1901 to only 5,000 by 1905. Even 50 years later, in 1956, when an organization in Richmond started actively registering blacks to vote, they discovered that only 19% of eligible black voters were registered. Voter suppression strategies had worked.

Today, hard-fought political gains—post-1965 Voting Rights Act gains—are again being threatened. Just as the election of some blacks to political offices in post-Civil War America led to efforts to squelch power, so too did the election of an African-American president. Coordinated efforts, perhaps not as overt as the 1902 Virginia Constitution change that reduced the number of black voters, but coordinated efforts are being used to lessen the political power of black Americans.

In recent years, robocalls to voters have announced, inaccurately, that the polls have closed or named a winner even when voting is still open. States are also moving to structural changes, such as requiring government-issued IDs to vote, a measure that has a disproportionate, and potentially, long-term effect on communities of color.

But one of the more repugnant strategies was seen recently when the white, Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida urged his supporters to not “monkey this up” an age-old reference to the presumed animalistic qualities and low intelligence of black people. His opponent is African-American. “Don’t screw this up” or “don’t mess this up” are everyday expressions that roll off the tongue. His comment to not “monkey this up,” is not an everyday expression. It was a clear, pointed, and racialized message to those who consciously and those who subconsciously continue to see African-Americans as less than human. His statement was in no way benign. It was calculated and racist.

I grew up in a time when every new black elected official was celebrated. My parents and neighbors celebrated Carl Stokes, first mayor of a major American city, Cleveland, and Richard Hatcher, the mayor of Gary, Indiana. They even celebrated Edward Brooke, the first African-American in the United States Senate since Reconstruction even though soon after his victory, he announced: “I do not intend to be a national leader of the Negro people.”

As the number of black elected officials has grown at the local, state, and national levels, we may have been lulled, a bit, into thinking that we are well represented. We are not. Currently, there are 47 black members of the House of Representatives (including two non-voting delegates), 47 out of 435 and three black U.S. Senators out of 100. There are no black governors. [Did you know: those of us who live in the Nation’s capital do not have a voting member of Congress. We have a delegate.]

All of this will change with the November mid-term elections. The question is, in which direction. While on the one hand, I see a heightened sensitivity among many in America to racial injustice, I also see ongoing inequities, many of which can be changed only by those who wield the power of the people—elected officials.

November 6, 2018, is election day. Vote. Elect those who can make this a land in which we truly are working for that ‘more perfect union’ promised in the Constitution.

What’s in a Name? A Lot!

Next month, Barack Obama Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia will open its doors for the first time.

Well, not really. The school, originally named J.E.B. Stuart Elementary, opened in 1922.

It was to J.E.B. Stuart that I walked on the first day of the sixth grade. I had attended the segregated Albert V. Norrell Elementary School for the 1st through the 5th grade (the highest grade at that school). Even though Stuart had grades 1-6, and my sixth-grade year was well after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, for me, the 6th grade was the first year that the city fathers of Richmond, Virginia allowed me into a white school.

Both Norrell and Stuart were within easy walking distance of my home, but Stuart was a little closer. I lived two blocks south of Brookland Park Boulevard. Stuart was two blocks north. Brookland Park Boulevard was the dividing line, separating black Richmond from white Richmond. The neighborhoods on both sides looked the same—the same beautiful mature trees, the same mixture of architectural styles of houses—but we knew when we crossed the boulevard, it was not the same. While the street itself was rather ordinary, it represented a significant cultural divide. We were foreigners entering the all-white community where our school was located.

As an 11-year-old, I didn’t think anything about who J.E.B. Stuart (a Civil War general for the Confederate states) was just as I hadn’t thought a lot about the eponym of my former school, Albert V. Norrell (an African-American educator whose granddaughter, Faithe, was one of my first-grade classmates).  The names of the schools were just, well, the names of the schools.

In recent years, as the racial consciousness of Americans has grown, how the Civil War is reflected in our day-to-day lives has become an important, and somewhat contentious, topic.

There is no question that for over a century, through many mechanisms, heroic status was given to the leaders of the Confederacy. Literally, looking at the plethora of enormous statues memorializing them across America, and especially in my hometown, gives these men a mythic place in our country’s cultural narrative. And when that fact is coupled with the reality of few monuments or memorials that acknowledge the suffering of enslaved Africans or that celebrate the many contributions of black Americans, you can see why the existence of the statues and the relevance of names is coming into question.

Last month, based on input from the community and from students, J.E.B. Stuart’s name was changed to Barack Obama Elementary. Good, right? Hmmm….. I certainly don’t want to celebrate J.E.B. Stuart and I never did. I do wish to honor President Obama, but it does feel a little strange that now I will tell folks that I attended Obama Elementary. Why is it strange? Because he would have been a one-year-old when I attended that school. Weird, right?

As I thought about it, my first thought was that long-established schools, wanting to change their names, should select non-current historical figures or just something else that is meaningful to the community. J.E.B. Stuart Elementary could have become Azalea Elementary maybe, recognizing the beautiful, spring shrubbery in the Richmond area. Or even Northside Elementary after the section of town in which the school is located, or perhaps be named for another historical figure like Albert V. Norrell, the name of the now-closed, black elementary school. Following that practice would mean that you wouldn’t end up with this peculiar time warp feeling that challenges me just a little right now.

What something is named does matter, having an unconscious effect on some, but great impact for others. This year, 96.4% of the children attending this school will be children of color with 91.8% being African-American. I know that the parents who hold their hands as they walk into Barack Obama Elementary on September 4th will feel a sense of pride. That pride will flow into the children as they learn about the leader for whom their school is named. And on those rare occasions when called on to mention my elementary school experience, the new name will catch on my tongue, at least at first, but I, too, am proud to have attended the only school in Richmond, Virginia named for the first African-American president. Time warp be damned.

obama shirt

Update:  When we — Tamara Lucas Copeland, Jeanne Johnson Petties and Debbie Johnson Riddick —  learned that Obama Elementary T-shirts were available, we immediately ordered ours.  Unfortunately, the promotion has ended, but, who knows, it might come back.  Add your name to the waiting list at http://www.bonfire.com/barack-obama-elementary-school=1/