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Journal Archives

FBI Monitored and Critiqued African-American Authors for Decades

Newly declassified documents from the FBI reveal how the US federal agency under J Edgar Hoover monitored the activities of dozens of prominent African American writers for decades, devoting thousands of pages to detailing their activities and critiquing their work.

Academic William Maxwell first stumbled upon the extent of the surveillance when he submitted a freedom of information request for the FBI file of Claude McKay. The Jamaican-born writer was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, author of the sonnet If We Must Die, supposedly recited by Winston Churchill, and Maxwell was preparing an edition of his complete poems. When the file came through from the FBI, it stretched to 193 pages and, said Maxwell, revealed “that the bureau had closely read and aggressively chased McKay” – describing him as a “notorious negro revolutionary” – “all across the Atlantic world, and into Moscow”.

Maxwell, associate professor of English and African American studies at Washington University in St Louis, decided to investigate further, knowing that other scholars had already found files on well-known black writers such as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. He made 106 freedom of information requests about what he describes as “noteworthy Afro-modernists” to the FBI; 51 of those writers had files, ranging from three to 1,884 pages each.

“I suspected there would be more than a few,” said Maxwell. “I knew Hoover was especially impressed and worried by the busy crossroads of black protest, leftwing politics, and literary potential. But I was surprised to learn that the FBI had read, monitored, and ‘filed’ nearly half of the nationally prominent African American authors working from 1919 (Hoover’s first year at the Bureau, and the first year of the Harlem Renaissance) to 1972 (the year of Hoover’s death and the peak of the nationalist Black Arts movement). In this, I realised, the FBI had outdone most every other major institution of US literary study, only fitfully concerned with black writing.”

Maxwell’s book about his discovery, FB Eyes: How J Edgar Hoover’s Ghostreaders Framed African American Literature, is out on 18 February from Princeton University Press. It argues that the FBI’s attention was fuelled by Hoover’s “personal fascination with black culture”, that “the FBI is perhaps the most dedicated and influential forgotten critic of African American literature”, and that “African American literature is characterised by a deep awareness of FBI ghostreading”.


Jurors becoming more skeptical of judicial system

ST. LOUIS (KTVI) – Some say it’s the Ferguson effect on the justice system. Prosecuting attorneys are running into more and more potential jurors expressing skepticism over the justice system.

“People who come to jury duty are more skeptical than they used to be,” said St. Louis Circuit Attorney Chief Trial Assistant Beth Orwick.

If the skepticism means a potential juror cannot be fair and impartial, the juror will be dismissed. Orwick says trials have been delayed while the effort to seat a fair and impartial jury continued.

“What we need are people to come to jury duty,” said Orwick. “The system only works when citizens become part of the process.”

“What happens is you get people who automatically refuse to believe police officer testimony,” said St. Louis criminal defense attorney Joel Schwartz said.

Schwartz says many of the skeptical jurors dismissed are African-American, making it more difficult for an African-American client to be judged by a jury of his or her peers.

Orwick believes recent skepticism from potential jurors stretches beyond racial lines. She hopes St. Louis residents called for jury duty will take the call seriously. She says if people are not willing to participate in the process, the process will come to a halt.


First African American astronaut candidate refocused passion for legendary career

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — An African American man is being honored Wednesday for his accomplishments.

Ed Dwight Jr., was the first African American astronaut candidate.

Dwight never made the trip to space due to extreme discrimination from other astronauts and decided to resign in 1966.

Dwight then refocused his attention. Bob Kendrick, director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, stopped by the FOX 4 morning show to talk about how he was connected to Dwight.

Watch the video above to find out what Dwight decided to do after never receiving the opportunity to go to space.


Morehouse College Glee Club Is In Concert Here March 7

The Chattanooga Chapter of the Morehouse College Alumni Association will host the internationally famous Morehouse College Glee Club live in concert in Chattanooga on March 7. The performance will be held at First Cumberland Presbyterian Church at 5 p.m.

Morehouse College, an all-male, historically African American liberal arts institution, was founded in 1867, two years after the Civil War ended, in Augusta, Ga. The school’s primary purpose was to prepare black men for ministry and teaching. Today, Morehouse College, now located in Atlanta, enjoys an international reputation for producing leaders who have influenced national and world history, said officials.

The Morehouse College Glee Club was founded in 1911, and has performed at events such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s funeral, President Jimmy Carter's inauguration, Super Bowl XXVIII, and the 1996 Summer Olympics and has toured in Africa, Russia, Poland and the Caribbean. This Glee Club performance renews an annual tradition of bringing a musical performance to the city of Chattanooga.

The Chattanooga Chapter of the Morehouse College Alumni Association is committed to supporting the mission of Morehouse College which is to educate young men and prepare them for leadership in all walks of life. Proceeds from this event will go to supporting young men from the Chattanooga area who are attending Morehouse. Tickets are available from Morehouse alumni and on Eventbrite.com.


Black History Month: Central Park Displaced African-American Settlement

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — The conventional wisdom was that when the land was set aside for Central Park in 1853, only a few squatters and hobos lived there.

“That’s a myth that grew up over time,” Sara Cedar Miller, the official photographer and historian for the Central Park Conservancy, told WCBS 880’s Jane Tillman Irving.

One large settlement was the African-American community of Seneca Village, which fronted on the present Central Park West, roughly from 81st to 89th streets.

It was “a stable, long-standing community of African-American property owners,” Miller said. “That makes it so unique and so important to New York City’s history.”

In 1853, New York state authorized the use of eminent domain — the taking over of private land for public use — and Seneca Village disappeared.


Remembering the First Pair of African-American Sisters to Take Tennis by Storm

As Serena and Venus Williams play out the end of their careers, debates have risen about their place in tennis and American history.

Some call Serena Williams the greatest female tennis player of all time. Journalist Ian Crouch recently wrote a story for the New Yorker proclaiming Serena as America's greatest athlete. Few dispute that the sisters are one of the most dynamic sibling duos in sports history.

Yet perhaps even fewer know that the Williams sisters weren't the first African-American siblings to take tennis by storm.

That distinction belongs to Margaret and Matilda Roumania Peters, sisters from Washington D.C. who wowed crowds with their spectacular doubles play in the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

Nicknamed "Pete" and "Re-Pete," respectively, the Peters sisters played in the American Tennis Association, a league formed to give African-Americans a chance to play competitive tennis at a national level.

Established in 1916 and still alive today, the ATA is the oldest black sports organization in the U.S. Similar to the Negro Leagues in baseball, the ATA offered top black tennis players—who were denied access to all-white professional leagues—a stage to showcase their talents.

The ATA sponsored tournaments throughout the country. Although top players didn't make a living from these tournaments, they were indeed stars. The Peters sisters were often asked to pose for publicity shots and sign autographs. Crowds of blacks and whites traveled to watch them play.


Stage Set for Showdowns Over Potential Contraction of HBCUs

Around the same time lawmakers in the North Carolina State Senate recently floated the idea of closing historically Black Elizabeth City State University, the United Negro College Fund reported that the Koch brothers, who routinely support Republican candidates and right-wing causes, had made a $25 million donation to the UNCF to help struggling HBCUs.

Although financially ailing Elizabeth City State won’t benefit from the Koch money because the UNCF only supports private HBCUs, both situations focused attention on the plight of numerous Black institutions, especially smaller schools facing dwindling financial resources and enrollment declines.

Last September, the University of North Carolina System reported that Elizabeth City State faced a shortfall of $5 million, and UNC President Tom Ross warned that “hard decisions” were ahead.

At the time, ECSU’s enrollment for the fall 2013 semester was just over 2,400 students, a decline from about 3,300 in 2010.

Then, in May, a provision in the State Senate draft budget proposal called for possibly eliminating “small, unprofitable” institutions, specifically citing ECSU. Within hours, the blowback from Black legislators, alumni and community leaders was so strong that the Senate voted unanimously to drop the provision.

It was just the latest jab in what has become a perennial joust by lawmakers in various states, typically Republicans, recommending closing an HBCU or merging it with another institution. In 2010 then-Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi brought up merging that state’s HBCUs. Swift reaction, involving marches and demonstrations, ensued. When the president of one of the institutions, Jackson State’s Ronald Mason Jr., also proposed a “unification” of the campuses, he quickly became persona non grata and soon thereafter announced his departure.

Despite the uproar in Mississippi, Mason crossed the state line and within months was named president of Louisiana’s historically Black, five-campus Southern University System, where Gov. Bobby Jindal has also made known his preference for mergers and consolidation.

Looking to consolidate

In recent years, lawmakers in several states have raised the subject of closure or mergers or involving HBCUs, only to be drowned out by various constituents of the institutions.

However, consolidation has become acceptable among non-HBCUs. For example, the University System of Georgia has merged eight college campuses into four to save money. But suggestions that Georgia’s historically Black Albany State be merged with predominantly White Darton State have been vehemently opposed by students, faculty and alumni from both campuses.

Yet some Black institutions continue to slide downward, making the loss of accreditation a reality, which in itself could trigger closure. South Carolina State was placed on probation in June by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which cited numerous issues, including financial instability and conflicts of interest on the governing board.

The probation only exacerbated the school’s plight. In April, a state Inspector General’s report had concluded that SCSU diverted $6.5 million in targeted program funds for operating expenses. A few weeks later, SCSU President Thomas Elzey sought $13.6 million from the state legislature to pay its bills. The Budget and Control Board approved a $6 million bailout.

Like Elizabeth City State, South Carolina State’s enrollment has steadily declined in recent years, to approximately 3,100 in spring 2014.

One legislator who voted against the bailout, Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, said, “We’ve got an institution that’s bleeding to death, and a Band-Aid is not going to solve the problem.”

Although he voted against the aid, saying it didn’t solve anything, Leatherman put together a group of current and former presidents of South Carolina’s public colleges to come up with a plan to help the school become solvent.

Johnny C. Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund (TMCF), says state legislators are taking a new approach to handling troubled HBCUs. “They’re saying, ‘We’re not going to talk about closing HBCUs, and having people call us racists. We’re going to give you so much money, and that’s all you’re going to get.’ … You asked for $14 million and we’ll give you $6 million. Best of luck to you.’”

He says it’s time for HBCU leaders to have their own discussion about closing or merging flagging institutions “before others make the decisions for us. Yes, it’s controversial, but we need to do it.”

Despite the unpopularity of his unification plan in Mississippi four years ago, Mason still says he believes such proposals have a place in the discourse about the future of HBCUs. “There is a new reality in higher education,” he says.

Mason notes that “HBCUs used to have 100 percent of the Black market, (and) now we have around 10 percent.

“Higher education in general has to rethink its business model, but the need to change is especially acute at HBCUs.” He contends that “consortia or system approaches” are models that should be considered. “Numbers don’t lie, and the numbers say that we have to adapt to survive and ultimately thrive.”

But TMCF’s Taylor says adapting to the times won’t be easy. “People have become almost maniacal about it,” he says. “You can’t even bring up these topics. As someone who supports HBCUs, I think some of these conversations need to begin happening.”

Taylor uses examples of shuttered schools such as Virginia’s St. Paul’s College, which closed last year after losing its accreditation. Leaders of St. Paul’s and North Carolina’s St. Augustine’s University — both affiliated with the Episcopal Church — discussed a merger in the final days of St. Paul’s existence, but it was too late to save the school and St. Augustine’s was having its own financial problems at the time.

Taylor also cites the private Wilberforce and the public Central State universities, which he noted were once the same school, in Wilberforce, Ohio. “Could these institutions be stronger as one than they are as two? That’s a conversation worth having,” Taylor said.


African-American History Museums Fight to Preserve Their Legacy

This ought to be a festive year for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, the largest museum of its kind in the country. Fifty years ago, Dr. Charles H. Wright, a Detroit physician and civil rights volunteer, opened what was then known as the International Afro-American Museum. It was a small but beloved project that grew steadily.

In 1985, the museum moved into a larger facility. ­Then, in 1997, with the city pouring in significant funding, the museum relocated again to a state-of-the art, 120,000-square-foot facility in the city’s cultural center. Billed as the world’s largest Black museum, its gala opening attracted reporters and dignitaries from all over the world.

But within a few years, the Wright Museum, which still receives a sizable portion of its budget from the City of Detroit, encountered financial turbulence.

Its problems were exacerbated in recent years by the financial woes of the Detroit automakers, its biggest corporate benefactors, and the city’s bankruptcy filling. As funding fell sharply, it was forced to cut back on programs and lay off half its staff. Just as the city went through bankruptcy proceedings, serious doubts about the museum’s future arose.

Staying afloat

Like the Wright Museum, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, in Greensboro, North Carolina, opened its new location with great fanfare in 2010. The museum is located in the old Woolworth building, where in 1960 four freshmen from nearby North Carolina A&T State University staged a sit-in at the lunch counter where they were refused service, kicking off one of the most important moments in the civil rights movement.

Now, five years after the museum opened its doors, it is mired in $26 million of debt and struggling to stay open. According to news reports, the museum has had a difficult time meeting its monthly operating expenses. Last November, the museum board fired its executive director just weeks after he told some past and potential donors that the museum had no money in its operating reserve. The City of Greensboro has offered to take over the management of the museum.

It is estimated that there are more than 300 African-American museums around the country. They span the spectrum—from history to art, music to sports, mom-and-pop operations to larger organizations with dozens of workers.

Samuel Black, president of the Association of African American Museums, estimates that about 40 percent of these museums are financially distressed. In addition to funding issues, he says, many struggle with attracting and retaining quality professional museum staff as well as dealing with board members.

Some also fail to plan well.

“Many of the museums are little museums and the bigger ones are associated with the state or county,” says Terrie Rouse, a veteran museum executive and former head of the California Afro-American Museum. “Many are aspirational instead of realistic. People are emotionally involved and they should be,” but that often doesn’t translate into good numbers, she says.

The economic downturn of the last decade has also been hard on nonprofits in general, particularly small ones with little or no endowments.

“Within the last five or six years, there has been a tremendous amount of stress on all museums because of the recession,” says Martha Morris, assistant director of museum studies at George Washington University and a former deputy director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. “Most museums are small, with operating budgets under $500,000 a year. It’s a tough field to be in.”

Adds Black, “It’s no different than other nonprofit organizations.”

But he says one of the key differences between Black museums and other mainstream museums lies in access to funding and constraints in appealing to broader audiences. He also notes that many mainstream museums have been around for decades longer than Black museums, many of which began to emerge in the ’50s and ’60s and were essentially church-run operations.

Black points out that, when the City of Detroit was going through bankruptcy proceedings, the fate of the Detroit Institute of Arts, one of the nation’s largest art museums, was the subject of much concern. National news outlets reported on it and some business and community leaders in the Detroit metropolitan area, as well as city and state officials, immediately began exploring alternatives to save the museum.

In contrast, the problems of the Wright Museum received much less attention. Most of that attention, too, came from the African-American community.


A Salute to the African American Playwright August Wilson

Last week, we were invited to preview a new documentary about the life of Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright August Wilson -- August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, produced by the award-winning filmmaker Sam Pollard.

The documentary will debut on PBS stations nationally this week. This film is a beautiful legacy. It sheds light on a very gifted man who, like many creative people, was raised under difficult circumstances in an underserved area of Pittsburgh. All of his plays were "doors" into the black experience, and from many eras of the American story. In the film, several award-winning actors, who loved the man and the plays he created, shared his life through first-hand stories.

The documentary really touched me as I've been influenced by theater and the arts my entire life. A friend of my mom was the personal assistant to Mary Martin, the great "grand dame" of musicals. Each time Ms. Martin performed in Los Angeles, we were there. A highlight of the experience for a skinny eight-year-old, was the opportunity to visit her dressing room and see the mysteries of the stage first-hand. It was all so very exciting.

My father, Rex Stewart, was a jazz musician with Duke Ellington for over 15 years, and thus introduced my siblings and I to the world of entertainment at a very early age. Being raised in the 50s, it was really clear that seeing a play written by a black playwright was pretty rare, let alone attending a black theater, especially in Los Angeles where I grew up. New York City had a more robust black theater scene and better-established outlets for creative black people.

The Ebony Showcase Theater in Los Angeles was one of the few locally owned and operated black theaters in Los Angeles when it opened its doors in the '50s. Nick and Edna Stewart (Nick played "Lightening" in Amos 'n Andy), were determined to bring theater to the black community, and they wanted to make available a place where up-and-coming black actors and playwrights could practice their craft. Since the Stewarts were friends of my family, it was quite natural for me to visit the theater to see some of their shows and watch the whole practice of stagecraft.

To be honest, it wasn't until much later that I became aware of the importance of this theater and how many black playwrights and actors walked the boards there. I knew of the most famous plays written by black Americans, Raisin in the Sun, For Colored Girls, The Dutchman etc., were performed in this theater, but the theater was also the training ground for many who later became very well known -- John Amos and Isabel Stanford were examples.

February is Black History Month, and it is usually celebrated by the media and others by trotting out some of the older, well-known black heroes. I hold nothing against this practice, but to me, it's the "easy way out." Just dust off George Washington Carver and Martin Luther King (both great role models), and not take the time to delve into black history or culture to find other important icons. A playwright like August Wilson is someone to be publicly honored on a grand scale. His concepts, words and content, are clear insights into the ups and downs of the black experience. All of his plays received acclaim and nods from the beat critics and the general public.


50 Essential African-American Independent Films

While there are still too few African-American voices being recognized in Hollywood, recent films like Ava DuVernay’s Selma and Spike Lee’s Da Sweet Blood of Jesus speak to a vital tradition of black independent filmmakers. Even controversial creators like Tyler Perry hail from a long line of filmmakers that includes the directors and stars of the “race films” of the 1920s and 1930s. Many pioneering African-American directors, like Melvin Van Peebles and Julie Dash, were trailblazers who found money for their fiercely idiosyncratic visions. They defied expectations and proved that there was an audience for films about black characters as told by black artists.

From now until February 19th, New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center hosts Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968 – 1986, an exhaustive survey of unsung movies about African Americans. In celebration of the retrospective and Black History Month, Flavorwire has compiled a list of 50 essential African-American independent films:

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