Tag Archives: African American history

Tulsa and June 19th

Page 1 of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1, 1863.

“And so when this terrible thing happened, it really destroyed my faith in humanity.  And it took a good long while for me to get over it.”

– Olivia Hooker, survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots

It’s a typical story: White woman claims Black man assaulted her; mob of White men become enraged and launch a hunt for said perpetrator; any Negro male is automatically presumed guilty; exact details supposed incident are unknown.  This was the scenario in May of 1921, when a young White female, Sarah Page, in Tulsa allegedly screamed after a young Black man, Dick Rowland, entered the elevator she operated.  Even today the circumstances of the exchange between Page and Rowland remain unclear.  But, in 1921, scores of hate-filled White men didn’t need to know such minutia.  The White woman’s words were the only details they needed.

And thus, commenced what is now known to be the worst race-based riot in U.S. history.  Police found Rowland and charged him sexual assault.  The sheriff had refused to hand Rowland over to bands of outraged Whites.  The throngs of self-proclaimed vigilantes stormed through Tulsa’s Black-dominated Greenwood neighborhood to exact further revenge.  Greenwood featured a district known as “Black Wall Street;” where businesses owned and operated by African-American residents had become an incredibly independent and thriving economy within a city of some 100,000.

When the initial chaos was over, upwards of 300 Greenwood-area residents were dead and thousands left homeless.  Some Black veterans of World War I (then called the “Great War”) had taken up arms in defense of their community, which surely incentivized the angry White men to continue their violent retribution.

The same madness would occur in Rosewood, Florida two years later.  A White woman reported that a Black man had entered her home and attacked her.  The woman’s husband gathered a group of about 500 Ku Klux Klan members and began a hunt through the area for any Black man they could find.  They learned that a Black member of a prison chain gang had escaped and believed Black residents of Rosewood were helping him hide.  The mobs then systematically tore through town, killing whoever they could (mostly Black men) and driving out most of the survivors.  The entire community of Rosewood was decimated.  The story of what happened remained largely unknown until at least the 1980s.

The story of Tulsa still remains largely unknown.  I’d heard of the horror some 30 years ago and wondered why such a calamity would be so obscure.  I now know why.  Like much of Native American history, true aspects of the African-American experience are often overwhelmed by the cult of American greatness; the “Manifest Destiny” myths stained heavily with Eurocentric viewpoints.  The Tulsa Massacre has received greater attention in recent months because of the tragic deaths of several African-Americans.  Its significance has grown even more within the past couple of weeks, as Donald Trump was set to stage a campaign rally in Tulsa today.  But that’s been postponed to tomorrow.

COVID-19 concerns aside, the event would have been held on one of the most historic dates in American history.  On June 19, 1865, news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached the state of Texas – more than two years after then-President Abraham Lincoln had signed it.  The decree established “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Known as Juneteenth, the event is now celebrated as a turning point in the U.S. Civil War; bringing an end to one of the bloodiest conflicts on American soil.  The Emancipation Proclamation forcibly freed millions of people from the carnage of slavery; granting them the dignity of their humanity; something that had been stolen from their ancestors ensnared in the traps of slave traders on the beaches of West Africa.

That Donald Trump – one of the most cognitively-challenged and covertly racist presidents the U.S. has ever had – would hold a reelection rally on this date and 99 years after one of the single worst racial holocausts in modern American history speaks to an incredible level of ignorance among the historical elite and certainly of its arrogance.  Knowing Trump, this shouldn’t be surprising.  But the partiality of U.S. history also shouldn’t be surprising.

Many factors of our history – some dating back thousands of years – have been absent from the historical account.  For decades, myths persisted that Native Americans willingly bowed down to Christianity and that Blacks lived happily within an enslaved existence.  Even now, for example, many Americans believe most Hispanics are Latin American immigrants; when, in fact, the history of Hispanics in the U.S. goes back further than that of other Europeans and is tied inexorably with Native American history.  In other words, it IS American history.

Anger over Trump’s June 19 convocation forced organizers to reschedule it for the 20th.  But that won’t solve the dilemma of deliberate ignorance – just like civil rights legislation didn’t make all racial transgressions moot.  The 1965 Voting Rights Act eliminated many of the barriers to voting obstruction.  But, since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, we’ve seen Republican-dominated state legislatures try to roll back some of those protections under the guise of preventing voter fraud.

A photographic overview of Tulsa’s Greenwood area after the 1921 race riot and massacre. (Greenwood Cultural Center)

Much of the anger among Whites in 1921 was that Tulsa’s Greenwood section was prosperous and independent.  The same happened with the Tigua community 18 years ago, when the state of Texas shut down their casino under the ruse of combating illegal gambling.  The Tiguas had become wealthy and independent with proceeds from the casino; thus, lifting most out of poverty and off of welfare.  But they hadn’t gotten permission from the conservative, predominantly White state legislature; an affront of unimaginable proportions the latter.  Therefore, then-Governor Rick Perry and then-State Attorney General John Cornyn forced the casino to close.  Many of the Tigua have now slipped back into poverty and back onto state assistance. Even as of last year, Texas is still trying to stop the Tiguas from becoming self-sufficient.

Again, anyone with a clear mind shouldn’t be surprised.  Economic independence and wealth translates into political power.  The voices and experiences of those communities are no longer silenced.  That, in turn, upsets the self-appointed power elite – and the oppression begins.  It used to come at the end of firearms and sticks.  Now it comes with legislation.

It’s too easy to dismiss the ignorance of people like Donald Trump.  But it’s also dangerous.  And it does a disservice to the American conscious.

We can never truly make amends for incidents like Tulsa.  We can, however, honor such brutal transgressions by remembering them; remembering exactly what happened and not deleting any feature of those accounts because some are uncomfortable with it.  Again, that’s a disservice to the American conscious.

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Knowing Jolyn

She looked a little out of place; this older woman attired in crimson red with a matching hat.  She seemed dressed for church, not a Toastmaster’s meeting.  Ironic, though, that the group met in a church every Friday evening around 6 p.m.  Most Toastmasters groups meet Monday through Thursday after work.  Some even meet before the work day starts, especially if it’s a company oriented-club.  But Friday evenings was the only time our group could schedule, when it was formed in 2000.  I joined it the following year and came up with a slogan: ‘A Different Kind of Happy Hour.’  People liked that, and it drew a wide variety of visitors.

It was just such a nondescript Friday evening in the spring of 2003, when Jolyn Robichaux arrived.  None of us realized it at that moment – and I’m certain not even she knew – but Jolyn would make an indelible impact on our lives.  Her personality was as bright as the outfit she wore that evening; her verbiage as graceful as the way she carried herself into the room.  Her worldly experiences proved she was one of those rare individuals who take life by the throat and wring every ounce of ecstasy from it.  With a vibrant smile and an infectious laugh, Jolyn had an incredible on anyone she ever met.  And I am honored to have been one of them.

Jolyn passed away a year ago this month.  She would have been 90 this coming May.  I’d last heard from her, via email, in early 2015.  I had always made it a point to mail her a birthday card; a simple gesture she knew was genuine, but – in this electronic age – she still found amazing.

“That you actually took the time to hand-write my address on it and mail it,” she once told me, “shows how compassionate you are!”

Jolyn appreciated such ordinary and inconspicuous acts; those “little things” people often overlooked or dismissed.  Her own life, however, was anything but ordinary or inconspicuous.  Born in Cairo, Illinois in 1928 to Margaret Love, a beautician, and Dr. Edward Chuny Howard, a dentist, Jolyn seemed to have two strikes against her from the start: she was female and Black; attributes that rendered her almost sub-human at the time.  Anyone growing up during the Great Depression learned how difficult life could be.  For people like Jolyn, it was almost unbearable.  Still, everyone did the best they could.  Jolyn’s father often bartered his dental services with neighboring farmers in exchange for food.  Many of those farmers were White and surely wondered how a Black man could have possibly become a dentist.  But he earned their trust and respect with his strong work ethic and concern for their dental health, at a time when dentistry often straddled the border between medieval cruelty and an unnecessary luxury.  There were joyous moments as well, she always emphasized, when discussing her younger years.  “You just have to look for them.”  And hard work is, most often, worth the effort; paying off “one way or another.”

Jolyn (back left) in 1943 beside her sister, Charlotte Howard, with brother William and their mother, Margaret.

Jolyn graduated valedictorian from Sumner High School at the age of 16.  But the happiness the Howard family felt over her academic achievements was tempered when her father fell ill with a rare blood disease.  What should have been a joyous occasion was shattered when Dr. Howard died shortly thereafter at the age of 48.

Despite the tragedy, Jolyn knew she had to move forward.  One curious attribute of successful, independent people is their ability to handle death – even the deaths of loved ones.  As painful as it was to lose her father at such a young age, Jolyn knew the world wouldn’t stop because she was sad and began attending classes at Fisk University in Nashville.  Two years later, however, Jolyn decided her mother needed help, both financially and in caring for the two youngest Howard children.  Jolyn left Fisk and moved to Chicago to work full-time, while planning to take evening classes at Roosevelt University.

Classes at Roosevelt lasted only a year, as Jolyn told me, because Chicago’s “fast life” got hold of her.  That included the bevy of handsome, well-dressed and well-spoken men she encountered.  Both of her parents would have howled in anger, Jolyn said with a laugh, at the mere thought of her “getting frisky” with any man.  Remember, this was late 1940s / early 1950s America; a post-war nation where opportunities looked endless on the personal and professional fronts – even for women and non-Whites.

Now ensconced in a more liberal and open-minded environment, Jolyn found work with the Chicago Veterans Administration and the National Labor Relations Board; as an executive secretary with two other large corporations; and even as an assistant to a renowned diagnostician.  It’s difficult to imagine now, but for a Black woman to take such jobs at the time was incredibly radical; almost rebellious.  Yet, like much of what she’d do throughout both her personal and professional lives, Jolyn wouldn’t let herself be assigned a certain role or position, as then-contemporary norms prescribed.  She was already dictating her own place in this world – not by someone else and not even by society as a whole.  Radical, indeed!  But to her, it was as natural a reaction as breathing.  There was just no alternative.

Amidst the many people she encountered in Chicago, Jolyn cited one particular individual as having, perhaps, the most significant impact: Mary McLeod Bethune.  As Jolyn would do in the coming years, Bethune didn’t let her race or gender define her or keep her from attaining success on her own terms.  Born to former slaves in South Carolina in 1875, Bethune would go on to become an acclaimed educator in the African-American community and was an especially charismatic role model for women.  Although not naïve to the traumas of racism and sexism, Bethune still felt that education was a vital tool in the pursuit of equality.

Jolyn realized how important this was to her, too, and went on to earn a degree in education from Chicago Teachers College, graduating magna cum laude in 1960.  When I made the decision several years ago to return to college and earn a degree in English, Jolyn expressed as much excitement as my parents.  I lamented the fact that I’d waited so long to complete that one life-long ambition.

“The important thing is that you get it done,” Jolyn told me via email.  “If it’s important to you, then it’s important!”

In 1950, Jolyn met Joseph Julius Robichaux at a private party in Chicago.  While dancing that same evening, he startled her by asking her to get married.  Perhaps even more surprising to him is that she didn’t say yes immediately.  Again, it’s hard to understand now, but in mid-20th century America, women normally didn’t say no to marriage.  With so few opportunities for even well-educated women – especially Black women – the roles of wife and mother were pretty much the apex of their lives.  Telling him no put her, as she eloquently described it, “the naughty girl list.”  But Joseph persisted, certainly knowing what an extraordinary woman had entered his world.  Jolyn eventually said yes to Joseph, and the couple wed in 1952.  Four years later they welcomed their first child, Sheila.  In 1964, their first son, Joseph Howard, was born.  By then, Jolyn had fallen – somewhat – into that traditional wife-mother role.  But she still managed to do so on her own terms.  Aside from completing her education, she participated in various civic activities and assisted her husband in his burgeoning political career.

Jolyn and Joseph Robichaux (center) in 1964.

In 1967, the Robichauxs entered into a new venture, when they purchased Baldwin Ice Cream Company.  Baldwin had been founded as the Seven Links Ice Cream Co. in 1921 by Kit Baldwin and six of his Black coworkers at the Chicago Post Office.  As a Black-owned and Black-operated enterprise, Baldwin stood out in the maze of corporate America.  In 1948, Baldwin bought out his partners and renamed the company after himself.

By 1971, it seemed life couldn’t be more fulfilling or more perfect for the Robichaux family.  But tragedy once again punched a hole into Jolyn’s life, when Joseph, Sr., died of leukemia.  While dealing with such a heart-wrenching event, Jolyn realized she had three choices (albeit difficult ones): continue the family’s interest in Baldwin, find work teaching, or become a full-time mother.  She chose to stay with Baldwin.  The company was in receivership by 1971, due in part, to a staid routine that no longer yielded a profit in a rapidly-changing economy and culture.

That same year Chicago Mayor Richard Daley appointed Jolyn to replace her deceased husband on the Jury Commissioners Board of Cook County.  The position – which she held until 1979 – provided a steady income.  In 1975 she earned a certificate in ice cream technology from Pennsylvania State University (Penn State).  Jolyn then re-made Baldwin into her own.  She developed business relationships with other ice cream executives in the Chicago area and increase sales in Baldwin’s 17 chain stores.

Baldwin’s phenomenal success prompted President Ronald Reagan to name Jolyn as USA Minority Business Woman of the Year for 1985.  She received the award personally from Vice-President George W. Bush.

In 1992, Jolyn sold her ice cream business and made an unexpected move: 4,130 miles (6,646 km) to Paris, France.  Still bristling with an entrepreneurial spirit, Jolyn created a one-woman business that brought American gospel singers to Paris for performances at the American Cathedral in Paris.

Shortly thereafter, Jolyn was back in the U.S., settling in Dallas to be closer to family.  But retirement appeared to be an alien concept to her.  In 1997 she participated in the Heart Disease Research Project at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.  From 1999 to 2001 she served on the Dallas Opera’s Board of Directors.  She was a docent at Southern Methodist University’s prestigious Meadows Museum of Art; served as a mentor at Dallas Life Foundation, an organization that helps homeless people get off and stay off the streets; and even worked as a substitute teacher in the Dallas Independent School District.

I knew she loved opera and not just because she had lived in Paris.  We both shared that passion.  But not until after her death did I learn she did so much for her community and many of the people who occupied it.  It doesn’t surprise me.  Jolyn wasn’t a braggart.  Unlike some sports and entertainment celebrities and more than a few politicians, Jolyn did what she liked to do and helped whenever she could.

Jolyn with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) in 1974.

She was more than just a friend; she was a trustworthy mentor to me personally.  I could relate the various trials tribulations of dealing with my parents’ declining health, not really thinking that Jolyn was actually a few years older than either of them.  She was truly inspirational; choosing to celebrate other people’s accomplishments and aspirations.  After presenting one of my most passionate speeches, “A Matter of Respect,” to Toastmasters one evening, she almost jumped out of her chair to give me a hug.  “I saw the fire in your eyes and could hear it in your soul!” she proclaimed after the meeting.

She read several of my short stories and essays on this blog and predicted, “You will get published!”

If I counted my own personal achievements, they’d certainly fall short of even just half of what Jolyn did with her life.  Like me, she kept a regular journal; understanding how truly therapeutic it could be.  They were her essentially her autobiography – as are most journals – but told me via email, “They will not be published.”  That may have been a wish she asked of her family, but I honestly hope they defy her on that one.  If there’s anyone whose life story deserves (must be) told, it is that of Jolyn Robichaux.

About 5 years ago Jolyn invited me to join her at a dance class not far from where I live.  I told her I would, but a family emergency arose at the last minute.  She expressed greater concern for my welfare than for my absence at the class.  And I thought later, ‘That’s just like her; already in her mid-80s and learning something new.’

That described Jolyn perfectly – dancing to the very end.

 

“When I Die”

“When I die, when I finish living this life, when all my stakes and claims in this world are rendered null and void, I want to leave like the final swirl of smoke from a smoldering ember, rising as a smile into nothing.”

– Jolyn Robichaux, 2005

Jolyn’s family has asked that donations be made in her name to the Vivian G. Harsh Society, which maintains the largest collection of African-American history and literature in the Midwest.

 

Vivian G. Harsh Society

c/o Harold Washington Library

400 S. State St., 5th Floor

Chicago, IL 60605

http://harshsociety.org/donate/

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African American History Month

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February marks African-American History Month.  But, African-American history isn’t just exclusive to Black-Americans; it’s part of American history.  It is one born of tragedy and brutality – millions of people ripped from their African homelands and forced to live like animals for centuries in a nation that prided itself on individual freedom.  It continued with the struggles for dignity and self-respect, beginning with the abolitionist movement of the 1800s and on to the civil rights battles of the past half century.  And, it brings us here now, the 21st century – where we have a strong African-American middle class and the nation’s first Black President, albeit half-Black.

Unfortunately, February is the shortest month of the year, but it’s better than nothing.  I propose we move African-American History Month back to January.  Kwanzaa ends on New Year’s Day, and January is the month we celebrate the birth of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; perhaps the most iconic symbol of the modern civil rights movement.  Eventually, though, I hope we can move African-American History Month off the calendar altogether and celebrate our national diversity as a people.

Notable African-Americans.

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Happy Kwanzaa!

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Kwanzaa

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