Robert L. Vann and the heroic face of Black journalism

The recent slippage in standards of The New York Times brings to mind the hero of my upcoming release, A Most Precious Pearl. Asa Caldwell, the hero of my story,  is a journalist and is heroic because he was relentless in bringing across a story from a diverse point of view–something we are sorely in need of today.

Asa is based on the many intrepid reporters who sought to get a story to publish a differing point of view in his newspaper. I situated Asa at  a real newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier.   In the first decades of the twentieth century, The Pittsburgh Courier and The Chicago Defender were not just local–they became national newspapers.  Pullman porters on the railroad disseminated them to towns all across the South so that people would stay informed know that there were struggles going on everywhere and not just in their small towns.

Editor Robert L. Vann (pictured here), who helmed The Pittsburgh Courier for many years, who sought to let Black people in the south know of other working opportunities elsewhere and sowed the seeds for The Great Migration.  In Robert L. Vann of The Pittsburgh Courier: Politics and Black Journalism,  Andew Bunie puts forward a Robert Vann who wanted journalists like Asa Caldwell, to go to the front lines of World War I and cover the story of the poor and demeaning treatment of the Black soldiers who were sent there.  W.E.B. DuBois expressed the same point of view in The Crisis as well. Telling this story directly lead to the soldiers understanding they deserved better treatment when they returned to the United States.  Too many people think the seeds of the Civil Rights movement were sown in the 1950’s, but the insistence on better treatment started a long time before that–just after World War I. Journalists played a key  role in conveying this story–heroic indeed.

The insistence of Vann and his fellow editors that reporters “go out and get” the story makes me think that too many journalists are now too content to sit behind a computer screen.  Without diverse points of view the “danger of one story,” as Chimamanda Adichie discussed, increases. Without more diversity, esteemed newspapers like The New York Times will continue to slip in their standards and will continue to write half-hearted apologies and explanations for how they messed up.  I have many students who are still interested in entering journalism as a profession, despite the many changes in the field.  I hope to expose them to editors like Vann, who would surely encourage them to keep telling their stories and to get out from behind the computer to see the world for themselves–to confirm the necessity for multiple points of view.

Education and The Great Migration – Part One

English: Farm Security Administration: School ...

A picture of an elementary classroom in Alabama in the 1930’s.  If this is where white children went to school, the kind of classroom where my heroine, Delie Bledsoe had to teach in was probably similar–or worse. English: Farm Security Administration: School in Alabama. (53227(585), 00/00/1935, 27-0699a.gif) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s back to school time.  Over the next few columns, I am going to discuss how education was another reason for why migrants were motivated to leave the agricultural South for the unknown cold North.  One thing that the migrants knew about “up North”, besides that it was cold, was that there were more chances for their children to go to school more steadily, and beyond the eighth grade.  Truly, it doesn’t take much of a generational reach back in time to find optional high school attendance.  My mother-in-law (MIL), the migrant who moved twice from Alabama, once to Washington D.C. and then on to Pittsburgh, was proud of her high school diploma.  Beyond proud.

When I tell this to my students who sit comfortably privileged in a private college classroom, they are shocked.  But in MIL’s time in the South, people were expected to go to the eighth grade and then get a job.  Even with a learning disability, my MIL was proud to have beaten this expectation. She knew that in Alabama any kind of high school education in the late 1950’s was a rare and recent phenomenon.

When high schools were first built in the early part of the twentieth century, they were not paid for by the tax base of the community, but were tuition-paid.  And the initial public high schools built were for the white students in the community.  The work of creating a secondary education experience for Negroes was left to private schools.  Many HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) started out as secondary schools and only branched into college education much later. This was the case for Spelman College where I teach.  Spelman did not become a college until some thirty plus years after its founding in 1887.

Some rural communities in the south did not have high schools of any kind for Negroes to attend until the 1930’s.  Only until employers began to see the benefits of a more educated work force were public high schools built and they began to require teenaged youth to attend. The Great Depression meant fewer jobs and high school kept cheap, young labor out of the workforce for four years, another plus. Still, for my MIL, public high school had only existed for a generation, and she was glad to go, even if it meant she had to study in a different way and work harder than a number of other students. Indeed, signs of a learning disability typically meant those students were pulled out of school and brought into the work force even sooner.  No wonder she was so proud.

By contrast, my parents, both born and raised “up North” went to Pittsburgh public high schools and there were no questions about their attendance.  My mother skipped a grade and my father skipped two.  He graduated from high school just a month and a half shy of his sixteenth birthday.  I always wonder if he would have had that same unquestioned opportunity in the South if he had not been a migrant “in utero” to Pittsburgh.

A Migrant’s Story – Part One

The Mall at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsb...

The Mall at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. Hamerschlag Hall in the foreground and Cathedral of Learning, University of Pittsburgh in the background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1921, a little girl was born.  She made no sense to her family.  She was a little girl, but liked to play with games with her three brothers and other little boys the town.  She loved her four sisters very much, but was not interested in the things they liked to do in the house.  Children like her in the Negro race in Alabama were able to go to school through high school, but she was a math whiz. How could a little Negro girl like math so much?  So the little girl lived a lot of her life doing things that no one else did.  Though her family thought she was strange, they all loved her very much.

One day, while playing baseball with her brothers, she met a player on the opposing team. He was a pitcher and he thought he would be able to strike her out.

He was wrong.

He admired the spunk of the girl and in no time at all, they fell in love.  There was one problem.  The pitcher man was on his way to bigger and better things.  He did not want to stay in Alabama and endure the cruelty of life there.  And he wanted her to come with him.  He proposed to her, of course, and the girl had a decision to make.

No one, no one in her family had left Alabama.  There was a lot of fighting, and a lot of tears from both sides.  Her family wanted the couple to stay.  They married and the girl had a baby boy, but her husband still wanted to go.  Finally, when the girl was pregnant with her second baby, they left and moved to Atlanta.   She was only twenty years old.

In Atlanta, they lived across the street from a college. The girl who had been a math whiz always wondered what went on behind the gates at the beautiful college with the perfectly manicured lawns.  She didn’t have long to wonder though.  Her husband heard of a place with better opportunities. Pittsburgh.  Even though she had just lost her second baby in a heartbreaking way, she found herself pregnant with her third and dared to feel hopeful.  Pittsburgh it was.

Life in the big city was not easy.  Her husband got sick working in the steel mills and couldn’t work.  She had to take a job in a hospital decorating pastries, the very kind of thing that her sisters did that she tried to avoid.  But she did it.  She worked that job for more than twenty-five years.  Working that job, she was able to put that third baby through an expensive private school—Carnegie Tech, now called Carnegie Mellon University.

Her third baby was my father. And because she decorated pastries, she gave her son opportunities that were not available to her. He became a principal.

When I was born, she understood that I was strange too.  Since I always had my nose in a book, she nicknamed me “Professor.”  And because she decorated pastries, even though she might not have wanted to, she gave her son a good education.  His good education gave me one, and I became a professor at the college in Atlanta at the beautiful college with the perfectly manicured lawns. Because she sacrificed, I know exactly what goes on there.

The girl was my grandmother—Ida Mae Heard Huguley.


Commencement is just the first step

Time to suit up today!

Time to suit up today!

It’s Commencement Day at the college where I teach.  This means I have to go to work on a rare Sunday. Graduations always mean work, but they also mean work for those who are in the ceremony as graduates.  Graduation means that they have completed a certain course of work and they are deserving of a credential. However, we so often forget these days that, for African Americans, graduating from college is still an unfortunate rarity.

The high school drop out rate is still too high. Not enough African American young people are preparing for the more technical work available now. Our present day transition into a technical work force reminds me of how African Americans had to transition from agricultural work in rural areas to other types of factory-based employment in the cities almost one hundred years ago.

The Great Migration meant that many African Americans understood that there was no more opportunity for them in the land and that their skills had to change over time.  Many of the young people who will walk across the stage today understand that the world is changing now.  But I worry for the ones who aren’t there.  There are approximately 70% of African Americans who are only completing high school–or less.  For too many, college seems like the impossible dream when still in today’s world, a bachelor’s degree is rapidly becoming a  basic entry level job credential.

The heroine of my story A Champion’s Heart, Delie Bledsoe, was the first one in her family to attend college. By the time she came to her schooling as the youngest child, the Bledsoes understood that even a young African American woman needed more than high school.

Today, as I watch commencement, I remain prayerful that more young people will draw on the strength of their ancestors and see education as the benefit it is. They will need to study harder, work more and continue to prepare themselves for a changing world. The lands that these new generations must migrate to now are virtual, but the landscape is vast.  They must be ready to “travel” in new and expansive ways.  Their ancestors left their homes for the unknown as part of the Great Migration. These ancestors laid the groundwork, and young people must disrupt their own comforts to continue on the path laid out for them. Commencement is just the first step.

What was The Great Migration?

Very-Old-Shoes__23644-480x244As I’ve been writing about The Great Migration, it has occurred to me that potential readers may not know what it is.  Everyone pretty much knows that when the Civil War ended in 1865, the newly freed slaves were an agriculturally based population.  Yet, within fifty years, these African Americans began to explore other options in their lives, and began to leave the southern United States for the northern United States, and places West as well—The Great Migration.

Why didn’t the former slaves leave their former plantations and farms in 1865 for the big city?  As a newly freed slave, you can do what you want to do, why would you stay?  Many of them tried to find their families, but wanted to stay to do what they were good at doing, farming the land.  And so the sharecropping system developed.  Reconstruction, although short-lived, provided an opportunity to achieve some dignity as politicians and health care professionals.  The years of Reconstruction created educational opportunities for African Americans and they tried to take advantage of them.  But Reconstruction only lasted until the mid 1870’s and but even then, they stayed in the south.  But then 1915 came.  What  made the year 1915 such a special year?

That is the mystery that I explore in the first book of The Bledsoe Sisters series—A Virtuous Ruby.

In reality, the Great Migration started in a perfect storm of years of poor crops, World War I and technology.  But  the loss of dignity that was the last straw.  When the North looked the other way after Reconstruction, de facto slavery was reinstated in the South.  Having had a taste of dignity in those few years after the Civil War, African Americans were not willing to go back.  In her wonderful book exploring the later portions of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson gives an important statistic:  “Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929.”  Stunning.  Imagine raising your children in such an atmosphere where lynching was that common and widespread. The most widespread reason for lynching was the show of disrespect, in some way, toward a white person—sexually, theft of property, by appropriating the speech, mannerisms or ways of someone—it could be anything.

And what if there was a feisty young woman who seemed to go out of her way in her young life by continuously disrespecting the white power structure in a small Southern town.?

That’s Ruby Bledsoe—the heroine of A Virtuous Ruby.

I hope you will get to meet her some day soon.