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History Roars Back: The Lions of Little Rock

When my daughter asked me to buy Kristin Levine’s The Lions of Little Rock (Puffin Books, 2013), she knew I’d say yes. What Levine has done is imagine what happened the year after the Little Rock Nine fought their way through 1957-58, and Ernest Green became the first African American to graduate from Central High School. In 1958-59, after the 101st Airborne had left the policing of the situation to the Arkansas National Guard, Governor Orval Faubus closed all the Little Rock high schools rather than comply with the federal desegregation order. That year, Levine’s seventh-grade protagonist Marlee is a painfully quiet math whiz when she enters all-white West Side Junior High, the same school my mother, uncle, and several other relatives attended before this story takes place.

Read the review HERE.

A Novel Takes Flight: The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

When I was in graduate school studying U.S. history with a concentration in race relations and racial violence in the South, I remember making note of the names Sarah and Angelina Grimké, the antebellum abolitionist sisters from Charleston, South Carolina. Their story intrigued me: sisters of privilege who had turned against the system of enslavement from which they benefited, and had become its outspoken denunciators. They’d scandalized their family, Charleston, and much of the country in the mid-1800s, when women barely were allowed to speak before public audiences, much less vote. After I graduated, I didn’t forget about the Grimkés, but life got busy, as it does, and I never made time to learn more about them.

Now, thanks to Sue Monk Kidd, I have….

Read my review

A Gastronomic Home

When I stepped off the plane in Little Rock — on that decade-ago trip that combined history research with my first visit to extended family in fourteen years — I was famished….Thank goodness my cousin had recommended The Black-Eyed Pea, with its chicken-fried chicken, black-eyed peas with ham and lots of pepper, cornbread, and a giant glass of iced tea.

The love of local food surely must be a measure of home, no matter how long you’ve been away.

Read the rest of my appreciation for Southern food HERE.

“A Gastronomic Home” recently appeared in Arkansauce: The Journal of Arkansas Foodways, published by the Special Collections Department of the University of Arkansas Libraries.

 

(c) 2013 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.

Fannie Lou Hamer

Firebrand civil and human rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer never minced words nor softened her stances for the comfort of her audience. From segregationist Mississippi Senator James O. Eastland to presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, she challenged leaders to live up to this country’s founding ideals and rebuked them when she smelled hypocrisy. In accepting his first nomination for the presidency, Bill Clinton famously quoted her saying she was “sick of tired of being sick and tired.”

The Independent Scholar, the newsletter of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars, has just published a review by Stephanie Harp of The Speeches of Fannie Lou Hamer: To Tell It Like It Is by Maegan Parker Brooks and Davis W. Houck, editors. Along with background about Hamer’s life and the civil rights movement, Speeches includes complete transcripts from twenty of Hamer’s speeches and testimonies from her fifteen years of public oratory. In this book, through her own words, Hamer comes alive.

Read the review HERE.

 

(c) 2013 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.

Introducing the LR 1927 Project

If you’ve read John Carter: Scapegoat for Anger and Inheriting Home: The Skeletons in Pa’s Closet, then you know about the 1927 Little Rock lynching and my connection to it. Or perhaps you’ve read about it on America’s Black Holocaust Museum. In October, I presented my one aspect of my history research at Without Sanctuary: A Conference on Lynching and the American South.

I’m happy to announce that I now am working together with the great-grandson of John Carter in our joint pursuit of racial healing and truth telling. We have begun an occasional newsletter about his film making and my writing, which I will post in the new LR 1927 section of this site.

You may subscribe to posts or ask to be added to the newsletter mailing list by sending me an email through the box on the lower right or by posting a comment. You also may wish to Like or Follow Inheritance on Facebook and Twitter, where I will be adding updates about this project and related topics.

Thank you for your interest. May we all move forward together.

 

“Chair hangings imply hanging-in-effigy of president”

 

The following appeared in the Bangor Daily News, 10/20/12. It also is highlighted on America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

In recent weeks, homeowners in  Virginia, Texas, Colorado and Washington state have hung empty chairs from trees. This comes in the wake of actor Clint Eastwood’s empty chair speech at the Republican National Convention. Never mind agreeing or disagreeing with the presidential candidates. Eastwood clearly intended the viewer to imagine President Barack Obama in that empty chair. And those who displayed chairs in their yards, beginning less than three weeks later, clearly intended them to represent hanging Obama.

Some claimed they tied chairs in trees to prevent theft. That doesn’t pass the laugh test when other chairs remain on the homeowners’ porches. Neither do claims that the displays aren’t references to lynching. The implied hanging-in-effigy of our first African American president is about more than politics. If the chair hangers didn’t understand the shameful history they were invoking, they should have. Lynching is not a joke.

Recently I participated in “Without Sanctuary,” a conference at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, on the topic of lynching, which was the focus of my master’s degree history research at the University of Maine 10 years ago. The conference took its name from a traveling exhibit and book of photographs that chronicle the horror of this American terrorism, which hardly was confined to southern states. (The only reported lynching in Maine happened in Mapleton in 1878.) The “Without Sanctuary” exhibit is at the Levine Museum of the New South until the end of the year, then goes to its permanent home at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.

For three days, scholars, educators and descendants of both the lynched and the lynchers discussed what we wished hadn’t happened. But it had. We all wished lynching didn’t have present-day repercussions. But it does. The barbaric practice reached its peak around the turn of the 20th century, as tallied by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). The reported number of Americans – young, old, male, female, of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds – whose lives were taken in atrociously brutal ways ranged between 3,500 and 5,000 from the 1880s through the 1960s. But scholars agree that the unreported numbers may have been as high as 15,000 between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. Even the lowest of the totals is more than the number who died on 9/11. Yet federal anti-lynching legislation never made it past southern senators bent on preserving their supposed right to enforce white supremacy with impunity.

The overwhelming majority of lynched individuals were black males, killed because a white person somehow became offended, and white community members demanded blood. Most commonly committed by rope, though in myriad other ways as well, a lynching was designed to scare African Americans into submission. Lynchers often left their victims hanging on the edges of black neighborhoods, so every resident would understand the unmistakable message of white supremacy. Like the burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings were warnings to African Americans who, in local white opinion, didn’t know or keep “their place.”

Some white Americans still think black Americans need to keep to the “place” whites have picked out for them or, worse yet, should not be Americans at all. The fringe birther movement that disputes the president’s Hawaii birth certificate is one national example. Late September comments by Lewiston’s Mayor Robert Macdonald, directed against his city’s Somali population, are a local one. An Arkansas legislator recently said, among other things, that slavery was a “blessing in disguise” for the Africans stolen from their homes. From New York to San Diego, nooses have been hung on office doors of employees of color, and white teens have been reprimanded or expelled from schools for wearing Klan garb and tying ropes around the necks of black fellow students.

Lynchings and racist threats didn’t end in some distant past: Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. both were killed in 1998. We can’t ignore this history, or joke about it.

Disagreements about policy and politics is one thing. Threats of racially motivated, violent hate crimes are quite another and have no place in a democracy that claims to celebrate diversity and equal rights.

© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.

55 Years Ago Today

 

Federal troops escorting the Little Rock Nine into Central High School for the first time. Photo credit: Bettman/CORBIS.

Fifty-five years ago today, nine African American students – known as the Little Rock Nine – walked through the front doors of Little Rock Central High School, guarded by troops from the 101st Airborne. The arrival of the troops on September 24th, who were called in by President Dwight Eisenhower, was reported on the front page of The New York Times. The forced integration of Little Rock Central High was the biggest news about race relations to come from Little Rock since John Carter was lynched on May 4, 1927, after an all-day manhunt. A public riot in the black business district followed his murder until the mob was quelled by the National Guard.

My family witnessed and participated in both of these events. My aunt and uncle were students at Central High School the year of the integration, and my great-grandfather was a deputy sheriff who participated in the lynching. The legacies of both of these events still resonate in Little Rock and elsewhere. The current group whose harassment is making news in Little Rock are Latinos, but the underlying problem is prejudice and discrimination all the way around, and an apparent reluctance to address the problem.

At these Civil Rights anniversaries, we all can pat ourselves on the back and say, “Look how far we’ve come,” but have we? Protestors are hanging empty chairs from trees in Virginia, Texas, and Colorado, and dubiously claiming the acts are not meant to be lynchings-in-effigy of the first African American president. Health, poverty, and education disparities still are so significant in this country, we’re still paying dearly for the legacy of forcibly enslaving Africans who brought to this country. America hardly has achieved the progress and unity that were the dream of the Civil Rights Movement, and the much-vaunted ideals on which this country were founded were outright falsehoods when the founding documents were written and signed.

© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.

John Carter

When I began to educate myself about race relations in the South, I didn’t intend to focus on lynchings. Many members of my family had graduated from Little Rock’s Central High School, site of the 1957 desegregation crisis. So I began with that. Then I learned that I had a personal connection to the lynching of John Carter in Little Rock. Immediately, I shifted my focus to lynchings and racial violence in general, and to that event in particular.

I read widely about Arkansas, the Civil War and the history of the U.S. South, and began writing about it.  I enrolled in graduate school for professional training in history. During research trips to Arkansas I interviewed family members and others who were connected to the Carter lynching.

A new page, Essays and Presentations, will feature my history, creative writing, and presentations. The first posted is an account of the lynching compiled from publications of the day, along with a creative piece about my personal interest in the event. Both have been published by America’s Black Holocaust Museum.

 

© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.

 

“Without Sanctuary”

Just this morning, I’m happy to have received word that my proposal has been accepted to present at the “Without Sanctuary” conference about lynching in Charlotte, North Carolina, in October. Presented by the Center for the Study of the New South, the conference will bring together scholars, creative artists, and those interested in the causes and legacies of lynching. The “Without Sanctuary” exhibit of lynching photographs will be showing concurrently at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte.

Also presenting will be Jackie Olive, whose “Always in Season” transmedia project takes a contemporary look at the lingering impact of lynching, with an interactive Second Life locale and documentary film that offer hope for fighting racism and hate today.

Dr. Fran Kaplan, director of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, will join historian Robert Smith in presenting a workshop about lynching survivor James Cameron, founder of the museum.

Another presenter will be Toni Battle, who is working toward healing the wounds of lynching from her perspective as a descendant of a lynching victim. The conference will feature well-known lynching scholars W. Fitzhugh Brundage, Amy Wood, Manfred Berg, and Claude Clegg.

Stay tuned for more about the conference, the history, and the presentations.

 

© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.

 

It’s Not Even Past

Writer William Faulkner knew what he was talking about when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Yesterday, the pronouncement by Boston Globe writer Jeff Jacoby that Rev. Fred Luter’s election to head the Southern Baptist Convention “proves” that racism is gone is a perfect example. As any non-white resident in this country will tell you – and plenty of thoughtful white ones – racism is neither dead nor past.

Funny that the pronouncement should come just as the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed Arizona’s right to find undocumented immigrants by using what amounts to racial profiling.

And while the case against George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin still is in limbo.

And as the Ku Klux Klan wants to “adopt” a highway in Georgia. They say they want to “dispel the negative images” of the Klan. They only want to be with white people, they say, but that doesn’t make them racists. Really?

And in Arizona (oh, Arizona!), a radio host said of President Obama: “I don’t believe in calling him the first black president,” she said, “I voted for the white guy myself. I call him a monkey.” Sorry, Mr. Jacoby. Racism can’t be dead when people like this still are granted air time.

And, and, and –. If you’re lucky enough not to experience racism directed at you, all you need to do is look around and you’ll see examples of it everywhere. Not the least in another Southern Baptist, Richard Land, who recently lost his radio show over his claim that racism is a “myth.” By reprimanding him, the SBC may well be trying to remove the logs from their own eyes before they point to the speck in anyone else’s.

If so, good for them. They’ve got a long way to go, both within the Convention and outside of it.

 

© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.

 

Converting the Baptists

If nothing else, Southern Baptists believe in conversion. The potential for individual change – to new ways thinking and new beliefs – is the bedrock of evangelicalism. These Baptists have just elected their first African American president, Rev. Fred Luter of New Orleans, and observers have to wonder to what extent the denomination has been converted.

The 167-year-old Southern Baptist Convention formed on a racist platform in 1845, splitting from their Northern brethren over the issue of slave ownership. May the Confederate generals and all the Klan-robed Baptist preachers of the 19th and 20th (and even 21st?) centuries roll over in their graves. Not to mention the still-living, prominent Southern Baptist leader Richard Land, who just last month called racism “a myth” and had to be reprimanded by the denomination. He had led the Convention’s Ethics (!) and Religious Liberty Commission.

Cynicism about the Southern Baptist election is easy, and I’ll freely admit to it. During my 20-plus years coming of age in almost a dozen Southern Baptist churches, North and South, members of my churches included exactly one young boy and his grandmother who were African American. Apparently the Convention has been diversifying since I left nearly 30 years ago. Now reports claim 20% nonwhite members, an increase from 5% in 1990 (according to The New York Times), and – as I know from personal experience – even fewer in the years before that.

In the lily white churches of my childhood, the races were as firmly separated on Sunday mornings as were church and state. Stained glass windows and Sunday School flannel graph illustration boards showed Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes, and multitudes of Caucasian children gathered around him. Through all the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, I never heard anyone preach in favor of civil rights or against segregation. No one even used code words like “welfare queen” in order to oppose social service programs. They had no reason to do so.  The churches had Crisis Closets for our own members who needed temporary supplies of furnishings or clothes. Very occasionally we kids heard praise for a church member who had served a meal at a soup kitchen. Helping others outside the fold – except, of course, to evangelize them – simply wasn’t on our radar, and neither was politics. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” and then be done with government. After Reagan Democrats solidified the South for the Republicans, evangelical conservatives have been working to break down the very separation of church and state that they historically supported, on which the country was founded, and that is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

I’m sure the Southern Baptists feel good about electing Luter. From accounts I’ve read, he sounds like a passionate preacher who is committed to the very best manifestations of his beliefs. That’s great news. What’s troubling about the Convention’s wild enthusiasm for him, though, is that the ancestors of these white Baptists were the ones who used the same beliefs and biblical interpretations to justify slavery and the Lost Cause. After the shock of losing the Civil War, they claimed those beliefs justified segregation, lynching, and opposition to civil rights and interracial marriage. Today, politicized Baptist leaders and politicians oppose Head Start, universal health care, and public education, to name only a few issues that prominently touch on the continued disparities of opportunity that are the results of slavery, segregation, and white privilege. Until the Southern Baptists recognize the damage done by the causes they once embraced, Luter’s election is in danger of becoming a nice bit of feel-good symbolism that does nothing to change the poisonous legacies they helped create and often still help perpetuate. If they want to repudiate their history, they first need to remember it, take responsibility for it, and change the way they vote in elections other than just their own.

© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.

Connect and Learn

Whether by talking, writing, or “liking,” however and whenever people connect there are opportunities to learn from each other’s experiences. Conversations are happening out there, and the more we join in, the more we’ll learn, not only about others but about ourselves.

To that end, Inheritance is on now on Facebook. Click HERE. And Twitter, HERE.

And new to Inheritance is a Links page that will list websites, organizations, and individuals dedicated to eradicating racism and its legacies, past and present.

So go ahead. Get connected. Pay attention.

 

© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.

 

Inheriting Home

We inherit our first identities from our families, long before we’re old enough to create other identities for ourselves. But can we shed what we’ve inherited, or do we have to embrace it? Identity*Memory*Testimony was the theme of a conference in Portland, March 30-31, co-sponsored by the Maine Women Writers Collection, the Maine Women’s Studies Consortium, and the New England Women’s Studies Association.

In her keynote address, writer, activist, and Colby College professor Jennifer Finney Boylan had plenty to say about identities we’re born with and ones we later claim. She read from her memoirs, She’s Not There and I’m Looking Through You, and from her forthcoming Stuck in the Middle with You.

In my illustrated presentation, Inheriting Home: Race, History, and Family Memory, I spoke about my own history research and my Southern family — and how one led to the other, and back around again. How I inherited a legacy of people on the edges or in the midst of issues of race relations, violence, and civil rights. How they weren’t on the sides I wish they’d chosen. I looked in my family for heroes in the 1957 Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis, and in the 1927 lynching of John Carter, but found them neither time. And so I wondered why, wondered what had influenced them to turn away and even to be on the side of violence and hate.

The question, for me, is how to reconcile these loving family members with their actions — or lack thereof — in the face of what is obvious to us today. The question for everyone is how to stop perpetuating these legacies. We can’t all be heroes, nor have ancestors who were, but we all can speak out, and we have a moral responsibility to do so.

© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.

 

Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957

In September 1957, nine African American teenagers enrolled in Little Rock’s Central High School to integrate the city’s schools in the wake of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision. The “Little Rock Nine,” as they came to be called, were prevented from entering Central — first by a mob, then by the Arkansas National Guard who’d been called out by Governor Orval Faubus.

Several weeks later, after the incident and its photos made international headlines, President Dwight Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to escort the Nine to school. These photos of the triumph of law over bigoted mob rule also were seen around the world.

Throughout the entire process, the driving force behind the effort was Mrs. Daisy Bates, president of the Arkansas NAACP and wife of L.C. Bates, owner of the Arkansas State Press, an African-American newspaper published in Little Rock. A controversial and lightning-rod figure to many, Mrs. Bates was dogged in her pursuit of equality in education, and in speaking out against the injustice of segregation.

PBS’s “Independent Lens” recently broadcast a captivating biography of Daisy Bates, directed by Sharon La Cruise. The filmmaker had gone through college and graduate school never having heard of the determined activist. But during my childhood, Daisy Bates was a household name. Though I didn’t grow up there, my parents were from Little Rock, as were my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of whom attended Little Rock High School, later known as Central. One aunt and uncle were students during the tumultuous 1957-58 school year. I watched this film closely and with great interest, hoping to see locales I recognized, hoping not to see faces that I knew. Though I’d read Bates’ biography, The Long Shadow of Little Rock, the film presents a fascinating and complex portrait of a very human woman who blazed trails to do a great good.

I highly recommend the film. But don’t wait too long — it’s only available on the PBS site until February 17. Here’s the link:

Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock

 

 

© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.

Strange Fruit

Every day I receive email alerts when the word “lynching” is used somewhere on the web. Since starting this alert in last August, I’ve been astounded at the number of times and places it shows up. I expected notices to be few, mostly concerned with early 20th-century U.S. history and on the websites of university presses or scholarly journals. But reports come from around the world. There are media lynchings, social lynchings, and political lynchings, as well as what comes to most of our minds when we hear the word: a victim killed by mob violence. In only the last seven days, “lynching” has triggered 125 alerts in news articles, websites, and blogs.

Until recently, lynching meant something very specific and very horrible. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) compiled a list of more than 3,200 incidents in their Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918, first published in 1919. The murders they recorded took place primarily — but not exclusively — in the South. The victims were primarily — again, not exclusively — African American men.

People cringe when they hear the word. But unless they have a reason to know, most white people have learned very little about the history of lynching. And those who flippantly use the word to garner attention about political pressure, social shunning, or media firestorms must have no real sense of its horror and terror, or they wouldn’t be saying it simply for its shock value.

These are the words to “Strange Fruit,” written by Lewis Allen for jazz great Billie Holiday:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves, Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

 And here’s a video of Billie Holiday singing it.

Lynching is ugly. It is horrific. It is stomach-turning. The generations of white Americans born after the demise of Jim Crow must be taught about lynching’s thousands of victims and the terror that such a threat produced. They must know that racist whites flaunted basic human decency, and that lynchings still take place, in this country and elsewhere. But the blasé use of “lynching” to mean some public figure doesn’t like being criticized by someone else is not the way to do it.

 

© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.

 

 

Black History Month

Years ago, a friend and professional colleague in Virginia asked me why white people only pay attention to African American history during Black History Month.  We shouldn’t.  We should pay attention to it all year because black history is inextricably interwoven with white history, U.S. history, North American history, and world history. It’s the history of all of us in this human family.

That’s what this blog is about:  paying attention.

 

© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.