Tag Archives: USA

Black Firefighters: Black History Month

America’s first firefighting company was founded in Philadelphia by good ol’ Ben Franklin in 1736.

The first “Black” firefighting company in Philadelphia was founded by a free Black man named James Forten 82 years later. Back then all firefighting was done by volunteers, no one was getting paid to extinguish flames. But still the white people protested against this new fire company and the city shut it down in less than a year.IMG_1297

The city started paying professional fire fighters in 1871, but none of those professionals were Black till they hired Isaac Jacobs in 1886. The catch was they didn’t actually let him fight fires, just clean the stables. Mr. Jacobs wasn’t satisfied being a stable boy, he wanted to fight fires, so he left the department after 4 years.

In 1905 Philadelphia hired its second Black fire fighter, Steven Presco. He insisted on fighting fires and was killed doing so 2 years later.IMG_1299

Twelve years later, in 1919 Philadelphia founded its first official Black fire station, Engine 11. Despite being designated as the Black station, Engine 11 was captained by white firefighters and not used to fight fires but was strictly restricted to city maintenance work. They were the city’s original pothole crew.

It was not until 1952 that Philadelphia officially integrated its fire department. That makes a full 134 years between the city’s first black firefighter and actual integration. What a long hard road full of death and humiliation to fight for the privilege of protecting people from fire.

Philly’s story is not unique and similar story lines played out in Virginia, New Orleans, and an especially interesting case in San Antonio.IMG_5303

The city of San Antonio formed a number of professional fire brigades immediately after the close of the civil war. Their cadre of companies included 2 engines run by freed Black men. The catch was the white brigades were paid by the city and the Black brigades were not paid at all. Yet they still functioned. That is until these two companies requested to be paid like the others and in response the city simply banned Black people from being in fire companies.

All of these stories illustrate a couple of different things. First, that there existed qualified and willing Black people since the very beginnings of American firefighting. Second, is that the obstacles to full Black participation in this form of professional, or public life, was not the Black people themselves but a combination of the general American population and the white people who ran city governments.

But despite the obstacles intentionally placed in their way, Black people continuously persisted and fought.

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They Didn’t Learn it at Home: they learned it everywhere

I have recently seen a spattering of high school and college kids getting caught on cameras saying and doing racist stuff. The public reaction is most often shock and horror, which is appropriate, and then there is this accusation that this is surely an indicator of nefariousness among the adults who raised these kids. I hear “They must be learning that stuff at home”.1_multipart_xF8FF_5_chimney rock 007

Maybe not.

When it comes to ignoring, dismissing, or disparaging the experiences or ideas of black people in America, that message is taught in the air. No one needs to be at the chalk board. Just like a child learning to walk, if left alone, they will figure it out.

The truth is that very intentional steps need to be taken in the home for a child to NOT learn the messages of assumed black inferiority, or more to the point, the inherent message of white superiority.

The idea that white is the default setting of all things America, be it citizenship, relatability, models of behavior, or representatives of corporate or skilled positions is built into how we go about our daily lives. Yes there may be, and increasingly are, representations of “diversity” throughout our environment, but they are very much just that- diversity. They aren’t the norm or the default but rather representations of the deviance from that norm. There is whiteness and then there is all that other stuff we like to sprinkle into the white pool and we call it diversity. Many of us may love diversity, but really we see it as extra. When all things are left to themselves, they float and rest in whiteness. So much so that it needn’t be named or acknowledged.IMG_6422

Because of this anything outside of white is a thing and people react to “things” in all sorts of ways. Some of us don’t really think we have “things”, as in cross-fit is my “thing” or saving the whales is my “thing”, and those of us who think we don’t have one tend to dismiss the “things” of others. I may think extreme attention to physical fitness is a distraction from things that matter, like literature, and if I am that sort of person, I might even tell jokes about cross-fit (the other day I tried to kill a roach by spraying it with Axe body spray, now the roach is named Blake and it won’t shut up about cross-fit). That would be a bias and we all have them, and we should keep them in check. Keeping our bias in check is not being overly sensitive, it is being appropriately sensitive.front gate arch

When it comes to race, this default setting of white in America means that anyone or any time blackness, or race at all, is brought up, it immediately registers as a “thing” and we tend to react accordingly. Some are into it, some dismiss it, but is not the norm. Those that mock things they aren’t into generally, will likely mock those who complain about the killing of unarmed black people because race politics aren’t their “thing”. Those who generally ignore things that don’t interest them, will likely just ignore those who claim gerrymandering intentionally suppresses the black vote, because making politics a race issue isn’t their “thing”. And then there are those who, like puppies, get excited about every”thing” and jump out to join a march or rally or just a conversation about whether or not the Oscars have been whitewashed with the same uninformed fascination I might give to excavating shipwrecks along the Outer Banks. That isn’t really my thing but it sounds cool.

Realizing this will help us understand why kids do stupid things regarding race. Understanding this is the first step in changing. And we do in fact need to change. Because America does not need to be white. America has never been a geography or system where only white people live and work. Those who aren’t white deserve full recognition and that recognition should go so far that it is assumed and need not be called out- but we are a long way away from that.

That is the goal and we cannot get there by skipping the in-between parts. That would be like running the first and last mile of a marathon but not all those pesky miles in between. Though I would argue that this is what American has historically done. Every time we start running the marathon of race (see what I did there?) we get a little bit tired and skip all the way to the finish line and just ignore race as if it is suddenly irrelevant. And when we do this without truly changing the default setting of whiteness, what we really do when we ignore “race” is ignore the people and ideas and issues that aren’t white. When we ignore race, deny its relevance, or simply do nothing, we let the environmental default do the teaching for us. We are left to the messages sent by television, peers, music, peers, schools, churches, or even just soccer teams.

And when the default is whiteness, and the default goes unchallenged and unchanged, that is what racism is.

So we have to fight that. We begin by teaching that all people have value and none of that value is based on pigmentation. That is mile 1 of 24. Mile 2, and I think most, but definitely not enough of us have been at least this far, is that skin color, that thing we call race, isn’t really a biological thing. Skin does not make anyone fast or slow, smart or dumb, lascivious or prude. Melanin, hair texture, face structure, none of those things are related. Got it. But then comes miles 3 through 23. I think mile 3 is listening to black people. I don’t mean watching black people in order to be entertained, because America has always done that, but I mean when black people, or really all non-white people but I think we have plenty to chew on if we actually invested any real time and effort listening to African-Americans or Native-Americans. Listening not talking. Again, and I really do need to repeat this, because listening to is not the same as listening about. Plenty of messages out there are about black people, I am saying the work of mile 3 is listening directly. Then next maybe asking- but not sharing. You see most of us, because it is such a human thing, after asking one little bit and hearing a little about someone else, we then share a boat load about ourselves. I know I’m a criminal offender in this regard. But white people shouldn’t do that here. We have more than 300 years of sharing all and everything about white America, we can afford to shut up for a little bit.

There is a lot more to do after that but we have never gotten even this far. There is still plenty of asking, and voting, and investing, and teaching, and repairing, and then probably more investing, before we get to mile 24 and we can start “ignoring”. I’m not sure how long that will take but I do know that marathons aren’t run naturally. What I mean is no one just sat there and waited their time and found themselves having completed a marathon. They had to train and run. We will never get to race not mattering in America by just waiting for it to happen. We cannot just wait for all the older runners to age and pass away. All this does is clear the course but it doesn’t run anywhere. And we all get fat waiting.

If America is a set of ideals, and laws, bound by a physical geography, there need not be any real place for skin color in that definition. If we stick with what America is or should be striving to be, or claiming to be, it also need not be defined by a language. Or a religion. Because the ideals of liberty and justice open to all, should in fact mean all Americans. But historically it has meant white Americans. Meant it so much that we at some point just stopped saying it out loud. But we never changed the default

So when high school kids get caught on video making light of lynching or saying racist things, we shouldn’t act so surprised. We shouldn’t assume that something extra nefarious is going on in that home. It could just as easily be that nothing about race is going on in that home. And that is exactly what doing nothing will get us.

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Kicks, Cars, and the Green Book: Route 66

I first knew the song thanks to Depeche Mode, my Dad probably knows it thanks to Chuck Berry, most kids today probably know it from Pixar’s movie Cars, but the song Route 66 first hit the charts in 1946 thanks to Nat King Cole.

I live on Route 66.

I get both my kicks and my groceries there.IMG_0374

Touted as Americas first interstate, Route 66 stretches from Chicago to
Santa Monica. Oddly enough, for a road that stretches across so much of the country, most of that road goes through nowhere.IMG_6160 My particular stretch of that old road is the kind of no where that filled up with people yet never quite became a place. There isn’t a solid there here.

When driving through nowhere you best mind the gas gauge.IMG_6165

Back before the Prius cars needed lots of gallons for very few miles and this meant pulling over and filling up in places like Cucamonga California- or Barstow. Because of that long gone need, or maybe somehow in honor of it, my little stretch of this road is frequented by all sorts of cars you don’t see every day in other places.

I live where old cars go after they die.IMG_1699

When me and my little one stopped by the only museum in my city, they had one artifact that surprised me. They had a Green Book. I had heard of it, known what it is, but never seen one. It wasn’t in great shape and was framed.IMG_6153

The Green Book was something like a AAA travel guide for Black people. This was necessary because, much like planning out where to plug in a Prius, in those days you had to plan out your pit stops, and only certain pits would do business with Black people. The Green Book listed the places a Black family could fill up, eat, or stay the night.

Which I knew but didn’t really think about in California. Not that California is immune to that sort of thing entirely, but sometimes in my mind, back when stuff like that was in its hey-day, California didn’t even exist.

Sometimes my mind is wrong.IMG_3176

Anyone out there know where I can get my hands on a copy of the Green Book? That little museum (which has the friendliest docents I’ve ever met) could use a better copy.

Green Book

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The Problem With “White” as a Culture.

Current events and some recent conversations, give cause for more explanation. So here goes.

The problem with “white” as a culture, is that it was manufactured at the expense of others. What I mean by this, is that white, as a race or a “culture” has only existed as a means to restrict those deemed non-white from certain rights or privileges.montgomerymen

For example there were once, English, Irish, Quaker, or Puritan. French were French via geographical origin and Catholics were such by baptism. These people only became white after Africans began demanding rights or intermingling too closely with English, Irish, Quaker or Puritan. In the American colonies, where people came from various nations with differing religions and motivations, to settle a land already populated with people who already had ideas of their own, these immigrants looked for ways to group themselves for protection, or to assert power. The French teamed up with the Iroquois, the Irish and Scots were lumped in with England, and Spain decided they were with the Pope. When the dust settled and the Colonies had a chance to be whatever they wanted, they decided that they were white.sideview

I wasn’t there but the records they left seem to indicate they chose to be white in large part to make sure they weren’t obligated to share or serve anyone who was something else. So money, courts, votes, property, rights, all the things under the umbrella of “American”, could be held by those who were once Irish or English, Puritan or Anglican, but not Black or Indian. There was of course the whole issue with women, which was easily solved by saying women could have access to those things if they married a white man, and then they made it illegal for a white man to marry anyone not deemed white. Because of this manufactured umbrella, many people were maybe still a little bit Scottish, perhaps a whole lot Presbyterian, but also white- AKA American.IMG_7571

Over time, many, like my family, became less of one thing and picked up some others, but kept the white all the while. It was synonymous with American. My ancestors who shared my last name, came to the Americas as Scotch-Irish, were here when it became the United States, but by the time I came around all the Scottish was gone. No haggis, no Gaelic, I found myself Mormon not Presbyterian, but I was, and am, still-and-also white. For my people specifically, white needed to be named and claimed till after 1979. Things have changed since then, but you don’t drop off a part of your culture and identity in an instant, and you don’t drop it by simply shifting your vocabulary- though words do help.

But that whiteness only had to drop off once I no longer needed to prove I wasn’t black so I could have the full fellowship of my faith. Sometimes we didn’t call it white, we called it Ephraim or Joseph, but it played the same role. Whiteness meant one had rights and to get those rights, whiteness had to be claimed.

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Mural of former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia’s Italian Market

Through American history there have been waves of people, or groups of people, Irish, Jewish, even those from India or Iran, who have had to assert and fight, to be called white- so they could be considered American. In 1923 a “High Caste Hindu” from India took his case to the Supreme Court and argued that he should be considered white- so he could be American. He lost. A few years earlier, 1915, a man from Syria sued to be considered white and won. His skin was brown but “white” meant American so he had to claim and become it. He did not become Syrian-American, and the previous man wasn’t arguing to be Indian-American, and there were no English-American, because they didn’t need those hyphens- because they had the word white.

So again, whiteness only existed to separate people from blackness and brownness, to claim power. In the days of Jim Crow, because laws on the books allowed some Black people to be technically American, policy and practice were put in place to make sure power was protected, and it centered on the word white. Public schools were funded by all, but public college was only for white people. The draft for war was open to all, but the GI Bill was only to be claimed by those who were white. HUD provided affordable housing- as long as you were white. You can sit on a jury, hold an office, pursue life and liberty, no matter your Irish, or French, or Russian, or Persian roots, as long as you could claim you were white.

I am white.IMG_8456

There is no need for me to deny it. I was born this way and that is fine. It is my experience, I do not hate it. I do not hate my white family, or my white coworkers, or the white people I meet in the street. Due to my ancestors, geography, history, and some biology, I am American, male, straight, and thanks to my experience, I am also white. I cannot deny my whiteness because it has granted me protection and rights and assimilation without being challenged and without having to claim it. All that was just naturally gifted.

But not so for those who are born black or brown. They have and still do, need to claim those rights so naturally enjoyed by myself. Those who were and are legally deemed Black, who then came to celebrate their skin, were and are not doing so to crush anyone else. They are reclaiming their rights and their joys that whiteness was created to steal. Black is beautiful, Black and proud, Black power- none of them were created to oppress or condemn whites as people, but very much a response to why the race “white” was created and the effects it has caused. Despite what laws are written or what words some might say, Black and Brown people still have to wrench and grip and rip their unalienable rights from the historical and sociological grasp of whiteness.

And that is not God’s plan. That is not what the American Declaration says. And that is why I don’t shout white pride, yet can support black power without hypocrisy. That is why I feel no need to say “all lives matter”, when reminded that Black lives matter too. This is why I am fine with myself and all the good that I am, skin included- but will not elevate the word white.

Because that idea and that construct- must be undone.

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1776 in Las Californias: Mission San Juan Capistrano

At the same time Thomas Jefferson was declaring all men equal in Philadelphia, a bunch of Spaniards were declaring Juaneno Indians Catholic in California. So basically Orange County and Philadelphia are the same place.IMG_6604Looking back with almost 250 years of hindsight, the biggest difference between the two might be the separation of church and state. In 1776 the English colonists were claiming local rights with documents penned in state houses, but the Spaniards were declaring jurisdiction via baptismal records written in churches.IMG_6427

Oddly enough, both types of buildings had bells, and both were in large part built by slaves.IMG_6454

The bells at Mission San Juan Capistrano had to be buried in the ground and temporarily abandoned as the Spanish had to go fight at Valley Forge- er… San Diego, since the native born rebels were trying to liberate themselves from Spain down there.

But unlike Valley Forge, the Americans lost the war on the West Coast, and the Europeans returned to San Juan Capistrano, unearthed the bells, and started making wine.IMG_6400

Turns out the first grapes grown in California were in Orange County. What a misnomer. So on one coast you have political secularists growing tobacco and cotton, while on the other you have Franciscans with muskets making wine.IMG_6385Maybe religion wasn’t the only difference. Having mentioned Valley Forge I should probably also mention weather.

If you visit Valley Forge today you may find grassy fields, or snow covered cabins, depending on the calendar. If you visit Mission San Juan Capistrano, no matter the month, you will find North America’s best Petra imitation.IMG_6586

At Independence Hall you will wait in line for a National Parks guard to let you in through a gate where you might be led on a tour by someone wearing a tri-corner hat.

At San Juan Capistrano you can receive communion from a catholic priest during mass.IMG_6426

Both are America.

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Happy Juneteenth

Maybe I would be okay with confederate monuments and statues standing in public squares if the entire country celebrated Juneteenth- or even knew what it is.CIMG0414

Today, June 19th, is “Juneteenth.”

Today is a commemoration of the day in 1865 when General Gordon Granger read a general order to those gathered in Galveston Texas announcing that by executive order, all who were previously slaves, were now free.

It is a day set aside to celebrate the emancipation of black people from slavery in the United States. slavechains

I love the 4th of July, most everyone I know does, but theoretically, which day gives more reason for black people to party, July 4, 1776 or June 19th 1865?

I ask you dear internet, how many of you, before just now, had never heard of Juneteenth but have heard of Stonewall Jackson? How many of you, of us, have seen a statue of a confederate soldier, seen or even waived a rebel flag, know what day America declared freedom from England- but have never celebrated a day when America became free from slavery?

Why?

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Hidden Figures… and Signatures: Black History Month

William Benjamin Gould was a slave in Wilmington North Carolina. His owner Nicholas Nixon would rent Gould out as a plasterer working on mansions and public buildings around town.  When he was finishing up the interior trim work inside the luxurious Bellamy mansion, he did a risky thing for a slave, he signed his work. He scrolled his name on the inside of a section of some ornate molding before he attached it to the wall. No one knew of it till 100 years later when his signature was uncovered during a mansion renovation. It was quite the find, not just because it was unexpected, and not just because slaves weren’t supposed to be able to write, but mostly it was unexpected because historians actually knew who William Gould was.bellamysignaturebetter

In 1862, one year after that mansion was completed, William and six other slaves stole a small boat and rowed it out into the Atlantic Ocean where the Union Army had a series of ships blockading the Southern coast. They were scooped up by the USS Cambridge and now finding himself a free man, Gould joined the Navy.

At the war’s end Gould settled down and started a family in Massachusetts. He became an active member of the community and his story appeared in occasional articles in various periodicals. Not long after the signature was discovered in Wilmington, Gould’s diary was published as a book titled, Diary of a Contraband.

Remarkable story.

Even more remarkable is that out of the millions of black people who have lived in North America since the late 1600’s, we have such comparatively few records of their names or their stories. We know some, like Fredrick Douglass, but there were so many more. There was Henry “box” Brown, or Crispus Attucks, or William Gould. Black people have been present and participating in every step of the United States’ evolution and it is when we consider the level of that contribution that we realize how they are disproportionately invisible; so few names and even fewer stories. But if we learn to look closer, there is still a legacy.whole-hand

Trinity Church in New York City was built by black men. So was the U.S. capital. Dozens of universities, Harvard, Princeton, UNC, UVA, were built by black people. We can imagine that somewhere, even if only symbolically, in all these buildings, hiding under the plaster molding, are thousands of signatures just like Gould’s. The dome at Monticello, the columns at Mt. Vernon, and the masonry walls of St. Augustine, all built by people with hidden names. Look for them. Ask about them. On Bourbon Street, in Charleston, or even St. Louis, look for the black people. They were there.

But you have to look.

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