Six Wars: A History of Exceptional Valor

I am not a historian or a student of military history yet, as I was writing my recent novel,  Provenance, I did a lot of research about America’s wars. Provenance takes place in the American South soon after the Civil War and, in Paris just before World War II. Throughout this research I kept finding example after example of the exceptional valor of African-Americans in the military.

When I went to school, the significant military contribution of African-Americans in defending the freedom of the United States was not part of the history we learned (I hope they teach it now). Through family, friends and community I learn about some of it but, as I did my research, I learned there was more than I could imagine. What a sad revelation to know that these heroes sacrificed so much for freedoms they would not attain, yet they fought non-the-less.

In light of the election results this week, Veteran’s Day provides an opportunity to remind or enlighten us about the contribution so many people of color have made in service to this country and the world. There is so much history to tell and much has been written – if you choose to find it. The following images, and links that take you to the stories behind them, are just a fraction of the rich and unsung history of exceptional valor. On this day let us honor, remember and respect the sacrifices veterans of all colors, and their families, made in the past and continue to make every day.

1. The Revolutionary War

Crispus Attucks from the19th-century lithograph by Paul Revere depicting the Boston Massacre
Crispus Attucks from the 19th-century lithograph by Paul Revere depicting the Boston Massacre

Crispus Attucks is believed to be the first person killed in the American Revolution at the Boston Massacre. Read more.

2. The Civil War

Captain William Mathews

Captain William Mathews –a free black, a businessman and station master on the Underground Railroad–recruited former slaves into the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Fort Scott. He lost his rank when the unit was federalized but later served as an artillery officer.  Read more

The Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment Infantry 1863 – 1865.

Detail of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston.
Detail of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston.

The 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry saw extensive service in the Union Army and was one of the first official African-American units in the United States during the Civil War. Read more.

3. The Spanish-American War

The Buffalo Soliders - 9th United States Colored Troops Calvary.
The Buffalo Soldiers – 9th United States Colored Troops Calvary.

Buffalo Soldiers fought during the Spanish-American War, including the Battle of San Juan Hill , the Philippine-American War (1899 – 1903 and the 1916 Mexican Expedition. Read more.

4. World War I

Harlem Hellfighters, the Black Rattlers and the Men of Bronze  

Harlem Hellfighters who won the Croiz de Guerre for gallentry in action. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor.
Harlem Hellfighters who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor.

The U.S. gave the 369th Infantry Regiment military to the French during World War I rather than have white Americans fight along side them. The nickname “Hell Fighters” was given to them by the Germans due to their toughness and that they never lost a man through capture, lost a trench or a foot of ground to the enemy. Read more.Eugene Jacques Bullard

Eugene Bullard with American Flyers
Eugene Bullard with American Flyers

Eugene Jacques Bullard makes an appearance in my novel, Provenance. He was America’s first black military aviator – though he could not fly for his country. He flew for the Lafayette Flying Corps of the French Air Service and took part in 20 combat mission earning the nickname, “Black Swallow of Death.” Read more.

5. World War II

Admiral Nimitz awards Dorie Miller the Navy Cross
Admiral Nimitz awards Dorie Miller the Navy Cross

Doris “Dorie” Miller (October 12, 1919 – November 24, 1943) was a Mess-man Third Class that the United States Navy noted for his bravery during the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He was the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross, the third highest honor awarded by the U.S. Navy at the time, after the Medal of Honor and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal. Read more.

Tuskegee Airmen 332nd Fighter Group Pilots
Tuskegee Airmen 332nd Fighter Group Pilots

The Tuskegee Airmen, were the first African-American military pilots (fighter and bomber) in the then segregated United States military. They fought in Europe and North Africa during World War II.  Read more.

6. The Korean War

african-american-solider-in-the-korean-warThe 77th Engineer Combat Company, 25th Infantry, 8th US Army in Korea, UN Command committed to Korean War action 7-12-50, and inactivated 6-30-52, was the last black combat unit of the US Army ever to engage an enemy of the US and is said to be the most decorated American unit in the Korean War. Read more.

The Lasting History of Sundown Towns

Sundown Town SignDuring a recent interview I mentioned that the scene that launches my novel takes place in a sundown town. While the interviewer knew what a sundown town was, she asked me to explain the term for listeners who might never have heard of them. The short answer is that it is a community that required people of color to leave town before the sun went down. They could work there from dawn until dusk but after dark, they became prey. I was well into adulthood before I ever heard the term sundown town. I assumed the reason for my ignorance was because I had grown up in New York City and not the south where I believed only sundown towns existed.

For my novel, Provenance, I created the fictional city of Llewellyn, a sundown town in southern Virginia. As I researched this abhorrent social practice I learned that there were many very real “sundown towns” throughout the United States – they were not unique to the south or to African-Americans. Communities from Connecticut to California placed signs at their borders warning African-American and other ethnicities—including the Chinese, Japanese, Jews, Native Americans and Mexicans—that they had better leave town by sundown. If they were caught inside city limits they were subject to harassment or worse by the police or vigilantes. The book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen was a great resource.

black-man-dont signSundown towns were a form of racial apartheid throughout America but not the only tactic used to segregate communities. Restrictive covenants ensured that homes in a community could not be rented or purchased by people of color and the Federal Housing Authority only offered mortgages to non–mixed housing developments. As dramatized in Lorraine Hansberry’s ground-breaking  and award-winning 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” some white homeowners sought to buy out black families when they purchased homes in their communities. There were communities that burned crosses in the front yards of black homes to scare them away and some white neighbors went farther and burned down the house of a black family just to maintain the racial status quo.

I knew racial discrimination existed north of the Mason-Dixon Line. My father, Kenneth Drew, was a New York City Human Rights Commissioner and he and my mother, Corien Davies Drew, founded a community based newspaper that was very active in the civil rights movement in New York and beyond. However, in doing the research for my book, I was surprised to find that one of the most egregious sundown towns was Levittown, New York. In Martha Biondi’s book, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City, the author notes that Levittown, regarded as the model for postwar suburbs across the country, held the distinction in 1953 “of being the largest community in America with no black population.” Just as remarkable, though the developers, Abraham, William and Alfred Levitt were Jewish, they would not sell homes in Levittown to Jews.

Until the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, sundown towns, restrictive covenants and government aided and financed housing discrimination were legal practices in the United States. A sundown town informs the story of a family in my novel and is now considered a relic of the past. However, there are still segregated communities throughout the United States; be they white or black, they remain a critical factor in dictating the social, economic and racial climate in America.

Art Museums are Only for Certain Kinds of People…

That was a message I heard often during my years in the museum world. It could be a NATO – No Action, Talk Only – environment where diversity on all fronts – museum staff, artists in the collection, programming – was often faux aspirational rather than intentional. Ignoring the obvious, many of my colleagues were baffled by the fact that we could not attract more diverse audiences.

I felt a flicker of hope when I read the New York Times’ Night Out with Jerrod Carmichael article about the young, African-American comedian’s recent swing through the Whitney Museum of American Art. Though he was not represented in the works he saw, his take on the art was refreshing. He viewed it on his terms, relating to what could have been the un-relatable because art that reflects who he is and where he’s from still seems to be missing. Hopefully other people of color, young and old, will visit museums the way Jerrod Carmichael did. Even though they often won’t find their experience represented in a collection they can appreciate what they see by making of it what they will. If museums – who use everyone’s tax dollars – saw a broader audience, would they begin to collect and staff for a broader audience? If they come, will they build it? It would be interesting to find out.

Comedians seem to be the sages of these times (think Jon Stewart, Larry Wilmore and earlier, Dick Gregory and George Carlin) so perhaps Jerrod Carmichael can use his sense and sensibilities to help un-pucker the art world a bit. Diversity of color, shape, size, subject, perspective, ideas and intent are what make the arts wonderful – the audience should also reflect that.

Click here to read the Times article.

Swing Sisters: Inspirational Jazz by an Inspiring Author

Karen Dean's BookMy good friend, Karen Deans, is the epitome of a Renaissance woman. When I met her more than a decade ago she was an artist, launching Wooden Tile, an art business that now sells online and in stores across the country. She also loved and collected children’s picture books. That obsession inspired her to try her hand at writing a book for children on a subject she was passionate about. Now, Karen is an author. Her picture books feature “women who defied racial and gender discrimination to become superstars in their respective fields.”

Her book Playing to Win: The Story of Althea Gibson was published by Holiday House in 2007. Karen’s second book, Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm was just published. It is the incredible tale of the first inter-racial female jazz band, formed in 1939. They defied the constraints of racial prejudice and segregation to play throughout the United States and in Europe. Stories like these are lost or buried gold nuggets of  history – it takes authors like Karen to mine them for us. In a world that needs more diverse books for children and adults, Karen is a contemporary author making a substantive contribution.

Please visit Karen Dean’s Facebook page to see a clip of the Sweethearts of Rhythm, enter a raffle to win a signed book and, learn more about my very talented friend. She’s also a scenic painter for a children’s theater, but we’ll save that for another post.

Oh, and please buy Karen’s book – one for you and another for someone you care about. Support the artists who make the art!


Some People Just Know How To Live

Peggy Cooper Cafritz (New York Times)Great article in today’s New York Times on philanthropist-collector Peggy Cooper Cafritz. Bothered me that the article is in the Home & Garden section instead of the Arts section where the art cognoscenti are usually celebrated. Still, a profile of a prominent collector of color is always a good thing. A story on Ms. Cooper Cafritz’s spirited commitment to art and life is something to celebrate.


Is Passing a Thing of the Past or Has It Just Evolved?

A Chosen Exile Cover A recent story on NPR’s All Things Considered about a new non-fiction book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in America, by author Allyson Hobbsdiscussed the practice of light-skinned blacks passing for white to circumvent entrenched racial discrimination. Hobbs focused her research for the book on personal stories from the past –  before integration, Black Power and multiculturalism. Reporter Karen Grigsby Bates’ summary suggested that racial progress prompted by those movements had effectively made the act of passing irrelevant. I beg to differ – I believe these movements caused the evolution of passing but did not erase it or make it irrelevant.

Anyone of color who has ever worked within a majority environment such as corporate America, or in my case the cultural arts, knows that though your skin color may be evident – you are still required to negotiate the majority culture by not revealing too much of who you are. When your aspirations are constrained by how “acceptable” you are to the majority culture then you are effectively passing. If you subjugate or neglect your own culture to assume that of the predominate culture – it may not have the skin-deep appearance of passing but it has the same effect – isolation, loss of self and community. Passing in the 21st century has the added burden of the assumptions some people make because they can see your skin color; that can lead to further complications and indignities. For example, when I was a museum director, during an exhibition opening, an art patron, upon seeing my brown face near the entrance, walked up to me and handed me her coat, assuming I was the valet. She even offered me a tip.

I used these post civil rights movement experiences as well as the history of passing to inform the characters and their actions in my novel, Provenance. The main protagonist is a man who, like the people in Allyson Hobbs’ book, passes as white in the early 20th Century in order to access opportunities not available to a black man. Another character, a 21st Century millennial and a curatorial rising star at a major art museum, is passing culturally. Her expertise is in 20th Century Impressionist art belies the assumption that her discipline must be African or African-American art and, as she moves further up the professional ladder in the art world, she is distanced from her family’s cultural experience.

At its essence, similar to my novel, passing is about identity – who we are, and how others see us. The way my characters pass – racially and culturally – compares and contrasts what passing was then and is now.

Are People Still Passing?

The film is about a light-skinned African-American nursing student, played by Crain, passing for white.
Pinky is a 1949 American drama, directed by Elia Kazan, about a light-skinned African-American nursing student, played by Jeanne Crain, passing for white. The film also starred Ethel Barrymore and Ethel Waters. All three actresses were nominated for Academy Awards.

“Racial passing refers to a person classified as a member of one racial group also accepted as a member of a different racial group. The term was used especially in the U.S. to describe a person of mixed-race heritage assimilating into the white majority during times when legal and social conventions of hypodescent classified the person as a minority, subject to racial segregation and discrimination.”Wikipedia

When some people learn that characters in my novel, Provenance,  are “passing” they ask, “Do people still do that?” Sometimes I want to respond, “Is there still racial discrimination against people of color?” or “Do you think people with white skin color have a social, professional and economic advantage over people who are black, brown or Asian?” If the answer to either question is yes, and it is; then yes, people still pass.

In the 21st century, passing is not the past. Examples: Filmmaker Lacy Schwartz, recently profiled in an article in the New York Times, shares her remarkable story of passing in her 2014 film, Little White Lie; Bliss Broyard’s 2007 best seller, One Drop, was about the revelation that her father, former New York Times literary critic Anatole Broyard, was passing; Stanford professor Allyson Hobbs’ new book, A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life was just released today. I did a  Google search on the word “Passing” and the first two terms that came up were “passing racial identity,” 588,000 results and,  “passing for white,” 86,300,000 results. In 1929, Nela Larson published her novel, Passing; it is still in print today and available through all major book retailers and as Kindle and audio editions. As of 2007, Passing is the subject of more than two hundred scholarly articles and more than fifty dissertations.

Yes, passing is still something people do and just like race, it is something we still talk about.

Throughout Provenance my characters pass in the traditional way, pretending to be white; but they also pass by rejecting their history and heritage, though they are clearly identified as a person of color. As I wrote and researched the book, I learned what it was like to pass in the early 20th Century, when the novel begins, and into the 21st Century as race relations in America evolved. I realized that passing is as much about how you see yourself as it is about how others see you. Yet, is it okay to embrace an identity that enables you to live out the dreams you have for yourself – regardless of the skin you’re in? I can’t answer that. However, I suspect that until we rid ourselves of the construct of race, people continue to pass in one way or another.

Why The EMMYs Are Like Potato Salad

Potato salad

Last night’s EMMYs reminded me of the way my mother used to make potato salad. All the ingredients – potatoes, mayo and onion – were white so before she served it, she would sprinkle on a little paprika or add some parsley then serve it in a colorful bowl.  None of the garnishes added anything to the flavor of the salad; it was just there for appearance. That’s what watching the EMMYs was like last night – all white with a little Don Cheadle, Kerry Washington and Diane Carroll sprinkled on for color. The commercials were more diverse that the audience, the presenters or the shows nominated.

How is it that in 2013 the television industry has managed to remain potato salad white when there are so many talented actors of color – all colors – and stories about America’s diverse culture available to add spice to the current bland buffet?  Throw in some purple or red skin potatoes and yams; season it up with Asian five spice, black pepper, mustard, hot sauce, and a little garam masala. Serve it up in colorful bowl. Even my mother knew that the more colorful the dish, the more we’d enjoy it. In television terms, increase the relevance, and possibly increase the audience. Is it any wonder that television viewing numbers are dropping in all demos year-over-year?

I can’t identify with an America that doesn’t look like America; if television isn’t even remotely broadcasting my reality then I’m probably not going to watch. That’s why I turned off the EMMYs in disgust last night. Sadly or stupidly I can’t tell which, last night’s EMMY broadcast proved that 50 years later in TV Land, Martin Luther King’s dream is still just a dream.