Four Free Women: 1916 Emancipation Reunion by A’Lelia Bundles

July 22, 2012

Article originally published on April 15, 2012

Annie Parrum, Anna Angales, Elizabeth Berkeley and Sadie Thompson–all older than 100–at a 1916 Emancipation reunion (Harris & Ewing Collection/Library of Congress)


I couldn’t stop staring at the photo. Four elderly black women, “all older than 100, at a convention in the District in 1916,” said the caption in last Friday’s Washington Post.

Hoping to learn more about them, I logged on to the Root DC’s page of the  Post’swebsite. Instead I found only an image of Abraham Lincoln in the Emancipation Day article about the April 1862 legislation that freed 3,128 of the District’s enslaved citizens.

Within a few minutes of online research, though, I discovered two more photos taken on the same day in 1916 by Harris & Ewing at an Emancipation reunion.  As the official White House photographers of the early 1900s and then the nation’s largest photo news service, they rarely snapped shots of African Americans.

But on that sunny fall afternoon, they posed a group of black mostly octogenarians and nonagenarians in front of Cosmopolitan Baptist Temple at Tenth and N Streets, NW.

Now propped on canes and dressed in their finest clothes, these men and women had spent the first four to five decades of their lives in slavery. That the four women in the initial photo all were centenarians—and strong enough and determined enough to stand—made the image all the more remarkable.

I immediately knew I wanted to share the images with my“Helping Ourselves” Facebook page, a history and culture group I created last summer. I was sure the relatively small circle of 650 followers would appreciate the information. Within a few hours, though, the photo had gone viral like nothing else I’d ever posted. By Sunday at noon there were nearly 300 comments, nearly 400 shares and more than 1,000 “likes.” My 650 subscribers had increased to 1,079.

In the comments section, several people described being moved to tears by the women’s dignity and resilience. Others saw a resemblance to their own grandmothers. Some talked of trying to live lives worthy of that antebellum generation’s sacrifices. One man imagined “the storms they have weathered and the joy, pain, sorrow, whispers and screams [they have] heard.” Barbara Summers, a New York writer and teacher, wrote, “I wish I could read their minds. Reading their faces makes me straighten my spine.”

Understandably a few people have been skeptical about the women’s ages. In my original post, I simply re-typed the information that had accompanied the Library of Congress photo: “Anna Parrum, age 104; Anna Angales, age 105; Elizabeth Berkeley, 125; Sadie Thompson, 110.” Was Ms. Berkeley really 125? Was Ms. Thompson 110? We may never know the truth. My subsequent attempts to verify their ages on and through a database of historical newspapers have turned up no additional information. Not knowing their hometowns complicates the search. At this point, I’m still looking. I hope others are, too.

I have, however, found out more about the reunion. The Washington Post ran at least six articles between September 23 and November 6, 1916 about the activities at Cosmopolitan Baptist Temple. “Colored people of the District are cooperating in efforts to make the affair a success,” the Post reported. “Arrangements have been made to have vehicles of all kinds ready to carry the aged folk about the city.” Another article announced that “five thousand free dinner tickets will be distributed among the colored churches of Washington to be turned over to those who attend the fifty-fourth convention of former slaves and former owners.”

“There’ll doubtless be a happy time when ex-slaves meet in Washington,” the Post predicted a week before the convention opened, “but it is feared that George Washington’s last living bodyguard may be too feeble to attend.” (Intriguing as such an appearance might have been, the math doesn’t quite compute since Washington had been dead for 117 years.)

The Philadelphia Tribune, a black weekly, called the two week convention “one of the most remarkable gatherings in the history of the country” with visitors expected from more than 42 states. The Tribune continued: “Many of the ex-slaves have passed the century mark. Uncle Nelson Keith, who is 106 years old, will be one of the speakers. Robert Lee, once a slave of General Robert E. Lee, will preach a sermon, as will John Jackson, who was once the property of General Stonewall Jackson. Old plantation melodies will feature the sessions.”

 “Railroads have granted excursion rates and steamboat companies will assist in bringing the old colored men and women at reduced rates. Former slave owners have made generous contributions to insure the success of the unique affair. John Wilkinson of Danville, Va., whose father owned 2,000 slaves, was the first to assist.”

Even with the Tribune’s article, it still seemed curious to me that the Post was more attentive to the event than the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro American. All of them regularly covered significant news in Washington, DC, so why the silence now? Just three years earlier they all had followed the pageants, parades and concerts of the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Why not one single article from those major newspapers about this event? For now, I’m still researching the matter, but I can’t help but wonder if the endorsement and involvement of the former slave owners may have cooled the enthusiasm of those nationally distributed black weeklies.

I’m also trying to learn more about Reverend Simon P. W. Drew, the 45 year old pastor of Cosmopolitan, who hosted the reunion and who appears in one of Harris & Ewing’s photographs. A 1921 history of African Americans  notes that he “knew personally presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft and Harding” and says his grandfather, Rev. Simon Peter Hargroves, had been an abolitionist. In 1912, the Afro had praised him for his “ability to bring things to pass” and for being “a man of great ambition and persistence [who] generally succeeds in whatever he sets out to accomplish.”

Several years later, though, Rev. Drew’s fortunes had changed. In May 1930, the Afro reported that he had been indicted for fraud for soliciting funds on behalf of a Virginia school that had been closed for a decade. He maintained that he was trying to help re-open the institution. His earlier ambition apparently had turned to more quixotic pursuits, including running for vice president of the United States on the Interracial Independent Political Party slate in 1928, and earlier for mayor of New York City.

Still he had managed to create the moment that had brought these four women together. His vision 94 years ago now allows Ms. Parrum, Ms. Angales, Ms. Berkeley and Ms. Thompson to speak with power and pride to yet another generation in yet another century.

In these days of high-def 3-D movies and color-saturated CGI video, the strength of these elders explodes from a simple, black and white still photograph. Its riveting message is why I—and apparently thousands of others—cannot stop staring.

A’Lelia Bundles, a former network television news executive, is the author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. She also is chair of the board of the Foundation for the National Archives, which will help host a viewing of the original Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 2013 at the National Archives in Washington, DC. Visit her on Facebook at A’Lelia Bundles and at Helping Ourselves.


Why African Americans aren’t embracing Occupy Wall Street

November 28, 2011

 By Stacey Patton

Occupy Wall Street might seem like a movement that would resonate with black Americans. After all, unemployment among African Americans is at 15 percent, vs. almost 8 percent for whites. And between 2005 and 2009, black households lost just over half of their median net worth compared with white families, who lost 16 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

However, these numbers have not translated into action. A few prominent African Americans, such as Cornel West, Russell Simmons, Kanye West and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), have made appearances at Occupy protests. “Occupy the Hood,” a recent offshoot, has tried to get more people of color involved. But the main movement remains overwhelmingly white: A Fast Company survey last month found that African Americans, who are 12.6 percent of the U.S. population, make up only 1.6 percent of Occupy Wall Street.

African Americans share white Americans’ anger about corporate greed and corruption, and blacks have a rich history of protesting injustice in United States. So why aren’t they Occupying?

“Occupy Wall Street was started by whites and is about their concern with their plight,” Nathalie Thandiwe, a radio host and producer for WBAI in New York, said in an interview. “Now that capitalism isn’t working for ‘everybody,’ some are protesting.”

From America’s birthing pains to the civil rights protests of the 1960s, blacks have never been afraid to fight for economic or social justice. Crispus Attucks, a former slave and the first person killed by British soldiers in the Boston Massacre of 1770, is considered the first martyr of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass, a slave turned abolitionist, stressed in the 19th century that black and white laborers’ fortunes and freedom were intertwined, saying that white labor “was robbed” of fair wages so long as it competed with unpaid black slaves.

In 1969, James Forman, former executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights organization, called on blacks to not perpetuate capitalism or contribute to the exploitation of blacks in the United States and elsewhere. He urged black workers to take over America by sabotaging U.S. factories and ports “while the brothers fight guerrilla warfare in the street.” And Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party renounced the American Dream as defective and called for the destruction of the capitalist system.

Blacks have historically suffered the income inequality and job scarcity that the Wall Street protesters are now railing against. Perhaps black America’s absence is sending a message to the Occupiers: “We told you so! Nothing will change. We’ve been here already. It’s hopeless.”

While the black press and civil rights groups such as the NAACP and the National Urban League were critical to past protest movements, black churches were the organizational force behind the rhetoric. Church leaders mobilized famous names and unsung heroes to end segregation through meetings, marches, demonstrations, boycotts and sit-ins. But where is the church now?

Some argue that the black church is losing its relevance, especially among young people who have been turned off by the religious theater of celebrity preachers. Even after lenders were accused of targeting black churches and communities as fertile markets for subprime mortgages, these churches are not joining Occupy protests en masse.

And despite their inclusive mission statements, major civil rights organizations and leaders appear to be selling out black America for corporate money. Beginning in the 1980s, for example, the tobacco and alcohol industries meticulously cultivated relationships with leaders of black communities. Institutions such as the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund and the Congressional Black Caucus have counted those industries as major donors — at the expense of the health of the black community.

More recently, the Congressional Black Caucus and other civil rights groups have received strong financial backing from telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Comcast. These firms support regulations that would be barriers to the goal of universal Internet access, stifling economic opportunity for black communities. We can’t expect our civil rights organizations and political leaders to help blacks rage against the corporate machine when they are part of it.

And what about Jay-Z and other hip-hop stars? For all their influence on American culture, they haven’t tackled big challenges such as poverty, police brutality, voting disenfranchisement and the racist prison complex. Jay-Z hasn’t shown up at any Occupy gatherings, but his clothing company appears to be trying to capitalize on the protest wave. Rocawear is peddling “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts for $22 a pop — with no plans to donate profits to the movement.

Beyond a lack of leaders to inspire them to join the Occupy fold, blacks are not seeing anything new for themselves in the movement. Why should they ally with whites who are just now experiencing the hardships that blacks have known for generations? Perhaps white Americans are now paying the psychic price for not answering the basic questions that blacks have long raised about income inequality.

New Jersey comedian John “Alter Negro” Minus says he won’t participate in the Occupy protests because black people are being besieged by so many social injustices, he can’t get behind targeting just the 1 percent.

Banks’ bad behavior “just gets lost in the sauce, so to speak,” Minus said. “High joblessness and social disenfranchisement is new to most of the Wall Street protesters. It’s been a fact of life for African Americans since the beginning. I actually think black people are better served by staying out of the protests. Civil disobedience will only further the public perception that black people like to cause trouble.”

Is there a chance that the movement can become more diverse? Leslie Wilson, a professor of African American history at Montclair State University, is not optimistic.

“Occupy Wall Street cannot produce enough change to encourage certain types of black participation,” Wilson said in an interview. “The church cannot get enough blacks out on the streets. Some students will go, but not the masses. Black folks, particularly older ones, do not think that this is going to lead to change. ... This generation has already been beaten down and is hurting. They are not willing to risk what little they have for change. Those who are wealthier are not willing to risk and lose.”

Black America’s fight for income equality is not on Wall Street, but is a matter of day-to-day survival. The more pressing battles are against tenant evictions, police brutality and street crime. This group doesn’t see a reason to join the amorphous Occupiers.

But if the Occupy movement does not grow in solidarity with other constituencies of exploited and oppressed people, and if black America does not devise new leadership strategies to deal with today’s problems, the truth of Frederick Douglass’s wisdom will hold — the powerful undertow of race and class in America will keep both blacks and whites from being free.

Stacey Patton is the author of memoir, That Mean Old Yesterday, and can be reached at

Published with permission from the author.


A Long History of Affirmative Action – For Whites

October 13, 2011

Published from RACE – The Power of an Illusion with permission from California News Reel

Many middle-class white people, especially those of us from the suburbs, like to think that we got to where we are today by virtue of our merit – hard work, intelligence, pluck, and maybe a little luck. And while we may be sympathetic to the plight of others, we close down when we hear the words “affirmative action” or “racial preferences.” We worked hard, we made it on our own, the thinking goes, why don’t ‘they’? After all, the Civil Rights Act was enacted almost 40 years ago.

What we don’t readily acknowledge is that racial preferences have a long, institutional history in this country – a white history. Here are a few ways in which government programs and practices have channeled wealth and opportunities to white people at the expense of others.

Early Racial Preferences

We all know the old history, but it’s still worth reminding ourselves of its scale and scope. Affirmative action in the American “workplace” first began in the late 17th century when European indentured servants – the original source of unfree labor on the new tobacco plantations of Virginia and Maryland – were replaced by African slaves. In exchange for their support and their policing of the growing slave population, lower-class Europeans won new rights, entitlements, and opportunities from the planter elite.

White Americans were also given a head start with the help of the U.S. Army. The 1830 Indian Removal Act, for example, forcibly relocated Cherokee, Creeks and other eastern Indians to west of the Mississippi River to make room for white settlers. The 1862 Homestead Act followed suit, giving away millions of acres of what had been Indian Territory west of the Mississippi. Ultimately, 270 million acres, or 10% of the total land area of the United States, was converted to private hands, overwhelmingly white, under Homestead Act provisions.

The 1790 Naturalization Act permitted only “free white persons” to become naturalized citizens, thus opening the doors to European immigrants but not others. Only citizens could vote, serve on juries, hold office, and in some cases, even hold property. In this century, Alien Land Laws passed in California and other states, reserved farm land for white growers by preventing Asian immigrants, ineligible to become citizens, from owning or leasing land. Immigration restrictions further limited opportunities for nonwhite groups. Racial barriers to naturalized U.S. citizenship weren’t removed until the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952, and white racial preferences in immigration remained until 1965.

In the South, the federal government never followed through on General Sherman’s Civil War plan to divide up plantations and give each freed slave “40 acres and a mule” as reparations. Only once was monetary compensation made for slavery, in Washington, D.C. There, government officials paid up to $300 per slave upon emancipation – not to the slaves, but to local slaveholders as compensation for loss of property.

When slavery ended, its legacy lived on not only in the impoverished condition of Black people but in the wealth and prosperity that accrued to white slaveowners and their descendents. Economists who try to place a dollar value on how much white Americans have profited from 200 years of unpaid slave labor, including interest, begin their estimates at $1 trillion.

Jim Crow laws, instituted in the late 19th and early 20th century and not overturned in many states until the 1960s, reserved the best jobs, neighborhoods, schools and hospitals for white people.

The Advantages Grow, Generation to Generation

Less known are more recent government racial preferences, first enacted during the New Deal, that directed wealth to white families and continue to shape life opportunities and chances.

The landmark Social Security Act of 1935 provided a safety net for millions of workers, guaranteeing them an income after retirement. But the act specifically excluded two occupations: agricultural workers and domestic servants, who were predominately African American, Mexican, and Asian. As low-income workers, they also had the least opportunity to save for their retirement. They couldn’t pass wealth on to their children. Just the opposite. Their children had to support them.

Like Social Security, the 1935 Wagner Act helped establish an important new right for white people. By granting unions the power of collective bargaining, it helped millions of white workers gain entry into the middle class over the next 30 years. But the Wagner Act permitted unions to exclude non-whites and deny them access to better paid jobs and union protections and benefits such as health care, job security, and pensions. Many craft unions remained nearly all-white well into the 1970s. In 1972, for example, every single one of the 3,000 members of Los Angeles Steam Fitters Local #250 was still white.

But it was another racialized New Deal program, the Federal Housing Administration, that helped generate much of the wealth that so many white families enjoy today. These revolutionary programs made it possible for millions of average white Americans – but not others – to own a home for the first time. The government set up a national neighborhood appraisal system, explicitly tying mortgage eligibility to race. Integrated communities were ipso facto deemed a financial risk and made ineligible for home loans, a policy known today as “redlining.” Between 1934 and 1962, the federal government backed $120 billion of home loans. More than 98% went to whites. Of the 350,000 new homes built with federal support in northern California between 1946 and 1960, fewer than 100 went to African Americans.

These government programs made possible the new segregated white suburbs that sprang up around the country after World War II. Government subsidies for municipal services helped develop and enhance these suburbs further, in turn fueling commercial investments. Freeways tied the new suburbs to central business districts, but they often cut through and destroyed the vitality of non-white neighborhoods in the central city.

Today, Black and Latino mortgage applicants are still 60% more likely than whites to be turned down for a loan, even after controlling for employment, financial, and neighborhood factors. According to the Census, whites are more likely to be segregated than any other group. As recently as 1993, 86% of suburban whites still lived in neighborhoods with a black population of less than 1%.

Reaping the Rewards of Racial Preference

One result of the generations of preferential treatment for whites is that a typical white family today has on average eight times the assets, or net worth, of a typical African American family, according to economist Edward Wolff. Even when families of the same income are compared, white families have more than twice the wealth of Black families. Much of that wealth difference can be attributed to the value of one’s home, and how much one inherited from parents.

But a family’s net worth is not simply the finish line, it’s also the starting point for the next generation. Those with wealth pass their assets on to their children – by financing a college education, lending a hand during hard times, or assisting with the down payment for a home. Some economists estimate that up to 80 percent of lifetime wealth accumulation depends on these intergenerational transfers. White advantage is passed down, from parent to child to grand-child. As a result, the racial wealth gap – and the head start enjoyed by whites – appears to have grown since the civil rights days.

In 1865, just after Emancipation, it is not surprising that African Americans owned 0.5 percent of the total worth of the United States. But by 1990, a full 135 years after the abolition of slavery, Black Americans still possessed only a meager 1 percent of national wealth.

Rather than recognize how “racial preferences” have tilted the playing field and given us a head start in life, many whites continue to believe that race does not affect our lives. Instead, we chastise others for not achieving what we have; we even invert the situation and accuse non-whites of using “the race card” to advance themselves.

Or we suggest that differential outcomes may simply result from differences in “natural” ability or motivation. However, sociologist Dalton Conley’s research shows that when we compare the performance of families across racial lines who make not just the same income, but also hold similar net worth, a very interesting thing happens: many of the racial disparities in education, graduation rates, welfare usage and other outcomes disappear. The “performance gap” between whites and nonwhites is a product not of nature, but unequal circumstances.

Colorblind policies that treat everyone the same, no exceptions for minorities, are often counter-posed against affirmative action. But colorblindness today merely bolsters the unfair advantages that color-coded practices have enabled white Americans to long accumulate.

It’s a little late in the game to say that race shouldn’t matter.


For more information about Race – The Power of an Illusion, a three-part Documentary produced by California Newsreel visit

Take Courage

October 5, 2011

By Rochelle Soetan, Publisher of Tuesday Morning Love

Hilarious, entertaining, seriously outspoken – all describe the personality of one artiste Entertainment Weekly says is one of the top 25 funniest people in the world. Although Wanda Sykes has been making us laugh for years, often with a jolting ray of humor, there is nothing comical about her recent announcement of having breast cancer and her valiant decision to have a bilateral mastectomy.

Wanda Sykes is a writer, activist, actress, voice artist, stand-up comedian, and mother; she’s also now a breast cancer survivor. In February 2011, she was diagnosed with DCIS or [ductal carcinoma in situ] in only one breast and after undergoing a cosmetic procedure to have a breast reduction. To some, DCIS is considered to be stage-zero cancer, but to many others, DCIS is not “pre-cancerous” – it is cancer. It is a non-invasive cancer that has the potential to spread through ducts and lobules and other parts of the anatomy over time.

Persevering with perception, she decided to have both breasts removed to reduce the risks of any cancer returning. Wanda is aware that a bilateral mastectomy may not necessarily evade all of her chances of ever redeveloping cancer however she based her sole decision on research, intelligence, and sound conviction.

Wanda Sykes optimism [and outlook] reminds me a great deal of a dear friend – gone but never forgotten, Dyan Adams [January 9, 2007]. A respected DC make up artist, esthetician, mother, and friend to all who knew her, Dyan was a steadfast breast cancer advocate. She was both a hero and a messenger. Prior to and through her diagnosis and advocacy, she discovered her passion and her purpose – to help save those who could not save themselves and to spread the communication about the importance of early detection. I never recall her being reluctant to share her story, her faith, her home, and even the blemishes from her mastectomy with family, friends, and strangers alike. A sister friend indeed, she taught me the value and obligation of taking time to enjoy life’s little pleasures and on a daily basis – whether we are battling a deadly disease or basking in the limelight.

I often think of how I would feel – or what I would do – if ever discovering the development of such a harsh reality. I imagine the initial shock would knock me to my knees – perhaps; but my sound faith and courageous conviction would likely sanction me to proceed proactively with positivity. It was through Dyans’ “due diligence” and educating me on the awareness of breast cancer that called my keen attention to the cause, and not mysteriously since then, have I fanatically fallen in love with the color pink!

Aside chemotherapy and radiation therapy, a mastectomy is a very difficult decision for any ONE woman to make, but ONE in every eight women will someday have to. Every year, about one in eight women (12%) in the world will develop and be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. In 2010 an estimated 39,840 women were expected to die from breast cancer; this year, the estimation is 39,520 – a decrease of 320. In 2010, 54,010 new cases of non-invasive breast cancer [DCIS] were expected to arise; this year, 57,650 new cases are expected to arise – an increase of 3,640. No doubt, increased awareness, early detection through screening, and advocacy is much needed.

Every October of every year is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month or NBCAM. Organizations such as Race for the Cure, United Cancer Foundation, and the American Cancer Society continue their commitment, advocacy, and research to finding a cure in the battle against the second leading cause of death in women around the world. From runway models in cashmere fashion shows in Toronto, Canada to players in pink apparel on football fields across the United States, the meaning and message of breast cancer awareness continues to proliferate. Today there are more than 2.6 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.

Wanda Sykes continues to light up stages across America with her unparalleled sense of style, but she takes her breast cancer journey very seriously. Wanda Sykes is “At Large” amongst the millions of women across the globe fighting, thriving, and surviving – breast cancer. Like her and many others in the face of opposition, we should take courage. As songstress India Arie gracefully sings, Strength, Courage, and Wisdom, is inside of us ALL.

Rochelle Soetan is an emerging author with works in progress including “Bridges: A personal journey of redemption, inspiration and love” along with Tuesday Morning Love: 52 Commentaries and Weekly Affirmations to Honor the Soul within the Soldier.”  She resides in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Bringing Uganda home…

September 19, 2011

By Shayla R. Price, J.D. 

The hotel suite’s view was breathtaking, yet mind-boggling. Through the Victorian style window, I saw the rich, red clay of the roads crowded with playful children surrounded by dilapidated buildings in desperate need of repair.

Like most young Americans, I have always dreamed of traveling abroad. Now, I had my chance! In the summer of 2010, I had an incredible opportunity to travel to Kampala, Uganda, Africa. As a research team member of Southern University’s International Center for Information Technology and Development, I helped develop a case study about how mobile technology impacts health care in resource-poor communities.

Similar to other countries, Uganda has its challenges. Citizens are faced with health issues stemming from malaria, typhoid and yellow fever, and residents have an average life expectancy of 54-years-old. Nonetheless, local facilities and volunteers are continuing to build functioning community structures to bring access to quality health services to underserved populations.

As a result of my experience in Uganda, I have learned that the United States has role of preserving human equality and liberty around the world. Standing for the idea of political freedom, Americans shape and define the principles of independence and self-government. When America protects the interest of justice of people abroad, it secures the blessings of liberty at home.

In the past, I thought of volunteering as mentoring a child at a neighborhood school or joining a statewide nonprofit coalition. But, after returning from Africa, I understood that my volunteer efforts should reach a global scale. In January 2011, SCOUT BANANA, a non- profit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the lack of basic health care in Africa, welcomed me as a new member of its Board of Directors. I am proud to be part of a youth-led team supporting organizations working in communities to provide basic health needs in Africa.

Traveling abroad for me was a life-changing experience. When I look at the picture of my hotel view, I now see a sense of hope for Africa, and America’s capacity to change lives around the world. To learn more about mobile healthcare in Uganda, go to and visit SCOUT BANANA at

Shayla R. Price, J.D. is an advocate for civic engagement and was named one of Ebony magazine’s 2009 young leaders. Currently, she is a governor-appointed youth commissioner for the Volunteer Louisiana. Prior to government service, Price worked as a marketing director for, a social welfare organization that seeks to give high school and college students a voice. Price is the first recipient of the National Black Women’s Town Hall, Inc.’s “Emerging Greatness” Award for up and coming future leaders along with countless other accolades. While in high school, she earned more than $100,000 in college scholarships and authored the book titled “The Scholarship Search: A Guide to Winning Free Money for College and More.”

Originally published:

WWMD (What Would Martin Do)?

August 25, 2011

By Marjorie Fields Harris

In less than thirty days, people from various points around the globe will gather in Washington, DC, for the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. However, in the midst of a political environment scarred by partisan grandstanding, an economic environment that boasts a socio-economic gap between people of color and whites at least three times its margin of fifteen years ago, and threats to education budgets among states — it will be difficult to stand next to the memorial without asking, “What Would Martin Do?

The memorial, located on the venerable acreage that hosts the national memorials of US Presidents, museums and the White House, will be the first of a person of African heritage. More importantly, the memorial embodies the best of Dr. King’s dream speech – the sculptor for the memorial is Chinese, the design-build team is led by an African-American woman and the celebrity Dream Team embraces artists of diverse races, ethnicities and religious beliefs. Yet, we exist in an era when many of the children that ‘the dreamer’ referenced when he spoke from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, are in danger of losing government benefits as Medicare or Medicaid —others have lost their homes and retirement incomes and still others are among the record numbers of unemployed across the nation.

What Would Martin Do? Where would he begin to offer ideas for social programs or to convene leaders to bring answers to the people?

In 1963, Dr. King’s book, “Why We Can’t Wait”, was released. The book recounts the story of Birmingham during that era with an eye towards personal observations and sentiments and includes his compelling “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. Among the providential tidbits that he sent to his “fellow clergymen” in that letter, Dr. King stated that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny…whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Indeed, this would be a resounding theme in his outreach and correspondence to the elected officials and organizational leaders of the day. It would not be a stretch to submit that if Dr. King were with us today, he would balk with incredulity at the suggestion that a social program that assists senior citizens would be cut but that an offer for increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans would be roundly rejected. It would not require an advanced degree to proffer that if Dr. King were still offered an opportunity to preach before the faithful, he would question the amplification of the wealth gap between racial classes and so many other social issues that merit more than just a tweet or a Facebook posting.

When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, he had traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, in support of striking African-American sanitation workers who had staged a walkout protesting unequal wages and working conditions. In other words, after he had led marches and demonstrations that culminated in a Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing African-Americans the equal right to vote and instilled in his people a spirit of nonviolent protest, he spent his last earthly days fighting for the social and economic rights of working people.

In the 1990s, the phrase, “What Would Jesus Do”, often abbreviated WWJD, became very popular. It was a motto that Evangelical Christians used to offer as a reminder of the life example of Jesus Christ in governing their behavior. The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial will offer visitors a place of solace, reflection and meditative moments. Hopefully, they will also have an opportunity to ponder a response to the question, ‘What Would Martin Do?’ I submit as the first answer: SOMETHING!

(Originally written July 31, 2011)

Marjorie Fields Harris is a strategic communications and marketing professional with extensive experience in national and local politics. She is currently working on a memoir of her years at the helm of one of the nation’s leading civil rights organizations.


August 24, 2011

If one were to look up “tenacity” in a dictionary, one might well simply search for logo of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, or a photograph of the MLK Memorial Foundation’s Executive Director Harry Johnson, Sr.. In 1984, the men of Alpha Phi Alpha proposed a national memorial to Dr. King, and they continued to push until President Bill Clinton signed legislation in 1996 proposing the establishment of the memorial. The Alphas used their congressional juice to get an area and foundation established, and to take leadership in raising money for the memorial. One of their own, former Alpha President Harry Johnson, Sr., has been indefatigable in his efforts to take the King Memorial from concept to reality. I am sure that there were times when Johnson wondered whether the dream of a King monument would be realized. This weekend, however, on the 48th anniversary of the “I Have A Dream” Speech, Johnson’s dream, and the dream of millions, has come to fruition. The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument is the only recognition of an African American on the National Mall. It is the only tribute on the Mall to someone who has not been a President of the United States.

            It is tempting to use metaphor to suggest that the inclusion of an African American icon on the Mall suggests inclusion of African Americans in our society. It is tempting to use the grand sweep to discuss how far black folk have come. From segregating to inclusion, with the inclusion reflected in the White House, with President Obama presiding over what is, unfortunately, a crumbling nation and a shattered economy. We can wax eloquent until the real deal of our national reality slaps us in the face.

            This is, of course, to take nothing away from the majesty of the celebration of the monument. There is an excitement around the way this monument, against all odds, has been constructed and is being celebrated. But even as we relish and enjoy the moment, it is important to ask “What Would Martin Say” as we celebrate. He said, “The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil, or to consume the abundant animal life around them.” When he uttered these words, the poverty rate was about 10 percent; now it exceeds 12 percent, with the rate for African Americans and Latinos flirting with 25 percent. Shouldn’t some of our celebration of Dr. King include the continuation of his fight against poverty? Somehow poverty isn’t often referenced, the socially blind cruelty simply accepted. We cringe at those who stand on streets begging for money, and moralize that they ought to get work. Yet, we see unemployment data that suggest that there is little work to be had. We don’t connect the dots. We are, in the words of kind “socially. . .cruel and blind”.

            So even as a statue opens to the public, doors close to too many Americans. Even as people throng to celebrate, there are those who are supportive, but who have had nothing to celebrate in a long time. The debt ceiling has imposed a particular ugliness on the current climate. As cities gird up for fall and winter, they are grappling with the reality that many will be unable to pay for utilities, and have the possibility of freezing this winter. Some were buttressed by federal funds, funds that must be cut. Similarly, there are cities where there is vacant housing and also homelessness. Why not put some of the homeless into vacant homes. Banks are often special villains, chasing profit and repelling the people whose dollars have inflated their bottom line.

            Here is what Dr. King said, “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice, which produces beggars’, needs restructuring . . .You see my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?’           

            Dr. King spoke to economic restructuring. So does the Tea Party, though from another perspective. Too many have been silent about the economic disparities that define our nation, even as they celebrate Harry Johnson’s amazing accomplishment. While Johnson’s dream has been realized, Dr. King’s dream for economic justice, which means economic restructuring, remains deferred. This is a dichotomy, and also a tragedy.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina and the author of Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.   


The Help Movie, and Why Black Women are Outraged…

August 17, 2011

 Article written by Sophia Nelson, author, attorney, former lobbyist, and commentator.

Why are some of the best and brightest black female voices in America so outraged over the new movie The Help based on Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel?

Well, according to the Association of Black Women Historians (ABWH), and others like Professor Melissa Harris Perry of Tulane University, both the book and the movie represent widespread stereotyping and historical inaccuracies. They also take issue with the fact that Ms. Stockett’s book which has sold over three million copies, and became a major motion picture that raked in close to $20 million dollars in its opening weekend debut has profited at the expense of the very women whose stories she purports to share so accurately in her novel. Couple this with the fact that Stockett is now being sued in a Mississippi court of law (on August 16, 2011) by a woman named Ablene Cooper, an African American nanny and housekeeper who works for Stockett’s brother  and sister-in-law, for stealing her likeness and story without her permission, and you have a perfect storm of emotions and resentment from a black female community that has often been silenced and shut out of “mainstream” book success and film adaptations when we share our own stories.

The ABWH further says in part in an “open” statement released on Friday, “that despite efforts to market the book and the film as a progressive story of triumph over racial injustice, The Help distorts, ignores, and trivializes the experiences of black domestic workers. During the 1960s, the era covered in The Help, legal segregation and economic inequalities limited black women’s employment opportunities. Up to 90 percent of working black women in the South labored as domestic servants in white homes. The Help‘s representation of these women is a disappointing resurrection of Mammy — a mythical stereotype of black women who were compelled, either by slavery or segregation, to serve white families. Portrayed as asexual, loyal, and contented caretakers of whites, the caricature of Mammy allowed mainstream America to ignore the systemic racism that bound black women to back-breaking, low-paying jobs where employers routinely exploited them. The popularity of this most recent iteration is troubling because it reveals a contemporary nostalgia for the days when a black woman could only hope to clean the White House rather than reside in it.

While I agree with most of the sentiments expressed by the ABWH there is a larger, more contemporary issue that we need to consider–and that is this: some of the most poignant and heart-stirring stories of black women’s lives both past and present have been told by the likes of Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Anne Moody, Alice Walker, Lorene Cary, Maya Angelou, Jill Nelson and now women of my generation (self included) are starting to share our complex journey as young, urban, professional, upwardly mobile black women in America, living in the “Age of Michelle Obama.” Yet, very few if any of these books become mega-best-sellers or are adapted on film into a major motion picture.

Not to mention when we do get published, our books rarely get the marketing support and print runs of our white counterparts. This is not sour grapes, this is the reality black women live with everyday in America. And this is the real reason why so many black women are disgusted and maybe even angered by the success of a white female author who tells our story (as fiction) and is embraced and celebrated for doing so by the mainstream media, book reviews, film world, and the like.

This is no different than John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, Mississippi Burning, or Ghosts of Mississippi and the like. In all of these books, turned to film, there is a white hero who saves the black people from the bad guys. Even portrayals of the Civil Rights era give the Kennedy brothers and others a heap of credit for somehow liberating black people. NOT TRUE.

The truth is that black people liberated ourselves. We organized, we marched, we protested, we put the USA’s system of legalized segregation on trial — and we won.

That is what I think is at the crux of what bothers us all so much. It is not that our white brothers and sisters did not play a role in our liberation from slavery and Jim Crow, they did. But the challenge for us as black authors, historians, and film-makers is that we cannot often get our stories told or shared on a broad national platform because the people often making the decisions to publish, support or fund these stories do not see them as valuable or relevant.

I will end by sharing that I know of what I speak. Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama is my first book. It has nationally commissioned research that costs over $30,000 dollars, it includes groundbreaking insights and trends for today’s black woman, and it was published by a notable publishing house in May 2011 (but with a very small print run — my publisher hedged its bets). The book did much better than expected (for a black woman’s book), after being given a great reception by black radio, TV, and press and it has sold over 10,000 copies out the gate. The subject matter could not be more timely and relevant (it came out the same week Psychology Today said black women were scientifically unattractive), yet this book which tells the authentic story of modern-day black women of a new generation, our struggles, road-blocks, hopes and dreams has yet to be reviewed by a major news paper, or given time on a major morning show, or mainstream radio program. Those same producers and editors embrace Ms. Stockett and others like her so readily, while pushing those who live the reality into a corner to be silenced.

If I had a dime for every white female or white male editor who has told me or my publicist that the book is just “not for them” or that “it is nice but not for their audience,” I would be rich. And this is what is really driving the furor of black women scholars, historians, and journalists who once again have to sit by and hear how wonderful a white woman author is for “telling our story,” and watch her be embraced, validated, covered, and rewarded for doing so (even if inaccurately so). This is something that even in the year 2011, rarely happens to and for us as black women authors and screenplay writers.

Nelson who is a life-long moderate Republican, attorney, former lobbyist, turned journalist and commentator currently serves as Chairman of the Board of “I Am My Sister’s Keeper, Inc.”, a 7-year-old professional black women’s advocacy organization that provides life skills support to more than 3,000-women around the world (see ). Nelson is also a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc. sorority, the oldest Greek lettered organization for African-American women in the world.

Black Woman Redefined is available online, at bookstores nationwide, and through Perseus Distribution. Orders only, please call toll-free 1-800-343-4499 or email


November 14, 2010

President Obama signing Black College Executive Order (March 2010)

Hampton University President, William R. Harvey

Guest Commentary by William R. Harvey, President of Hampton University and Chairman of President’s Advisory Board on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)





A recent Wall Street Journal article by Jason Riley questioned the relevance of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in today’s society. He complained about President Obama’s conventional approach to HBCUs and opined that “instead of more subsidies and toothless warnings to shape up”, the President and federal government ought to “…remake these schools to meet today’s challenges.”

I cannot speak for the President, but I have spoken to him about HBCUs. An ardent supporter of historically black colleges and universities, President Obama understands and appreciates their value to the nation and the world. The facts justify his support, i.e., representing 4% of all American colleges and universities, HBCUs conferred over 22% of all degrees awarded to African Americans. With only 13% of African Americans in higher education, these colleges awarded nearly 30% of all undergraduate degrees earned by African American students in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines; 50% of all bachelor’s degrees in teacher education received by African American students; and 85% of Doctor of Medicine degrees acquired by African Americans according to statistics compiled by the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education.

Most HBCUs are also economic engines in their communities. According to a 2006 National Center for Educational Statistics report, the short term economic impact of HBCUs is $10 billion annually, providing more than 180,000 full and part-time jobs. The report also noted, “to put that in perspective, the rolled up employment impact of the nation’s HBCUs exceeds the 177,000 jobs at the Bank of America in 2006, which was the nation’s 23rd largest employer.”

In attempting to make his case, Riley presented biased, antiquated suppositions such as articles written by Thomas Sowell some 36-years ago along with references by Christopher Jencks and David Riesman some 43-years ago. Riley also makes such groundless claims as “…available evidence shows that in the main, these students are better off exercising their non-HBCU options.” What evidence? This certainly is not the experience that we have seen at Hampton University.

Another ridiculous assertion that Riley offers is that “For-profit entities could be brought in to manage other schools.” He uses the University of Phoenix, a for-profit college, as an example stating that they confer more bachelor’s degrees on black students than any other school. Does he really want HBCUs to model themselves after an institution whose latest graduation rates, as reported by the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), was 1% at 4 years, 4% at 6 years, and 6% at 8 years?

Riley’s mindset, journalistic standards, and research methodology aside, as President of Hampton University, and Chairman of the President’s Advisory Board on HBCUs, I want to provide a more accurate view of HBCUs and the quality work many of these institutions perform.

First and foremost, just like predominately white institutions, HBCUs are not a monolith. Some are exceptional, the majority are sufficient — all but a few are accredited institutions that meet or exceed the standards set by the accrediting bodies for any institution. An acknowledgment of some of the world-class academic and research activities at HBCUs is in order. Let me begin with my own institution—Hampton University.

In August, Hampton University began seeing its first patients at the Hampton University Proton Therapy cancer treatment center. The center is one of only eight in the United States and the largest free-standing facility in the world. Sixty-five percent of the patients treated at this facility will have prostate cancer, the other 35% will be those with breast, lung, ocular, and pediatric cancers.

Faculty in our School of Pharmacy have been involved in Alzheimer’s research. If their research on proteins in the blood can provide a link to Alzheimer’s, then a protocol establishing an early diagnostic test will allow physicians to treat the disease before it manifests itself.

Our Skin of Color Institute is a research center dedicated to probing issues, challenges, and diseases unique to the skin in people of color. The goal is to develop new and better treatments.

In 2007, Hampton University launched a $140 million weather satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base to study noctilucent clouds in the ionosphere. With this feat, Hampton became the first historically black college or university to have 100% responsibility and control of a NASA satellite mission.

Hampton is also home to the National Center for African American Marriages and Parenting. The Center’s mission is to strengthen families in the African American community by helping them gain essential knowledge, skills, and other resources required for building and sustaining healthy marriages and practicing effective parenting.

Hampton’s nationally known physics department continues to do outstanding work. One physics group has received 12 patents on prostate and breast cancer detection devices. Another group has 14 patents on prosthesis for artificial limbs.

The Hampton University Leadership Academy is providing a multi-faceted approach to improving the level and effectiveness of school leaders. Hampton is the only educational entity in the entire state of Virginia to receive funding from the U.S. Department of Education in support of this initiative, and will work with the public school systems in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Franklin, Danville, and Roanoke, Virginia.

When one looks at the depth and breadth of Hampton University’s academic, research, and public service activities, any objective analysis will show that Hampton does not need a remake, as it is clearly one of the best and most productive modest-sized universities in the country.

Other HBCUs are also doing outstanding work. Xavier University in New Orleans has educated nearly 25% of the approximately 6,000 black pharmacists practicing in the United States, and ranks first in the nation in placing African American students in medical schools. Tougaloo College ranks among the top 50 institutions whose graduates earn PhDs in science and engineering disciplines. More than 40% of Mississippi’s practicing African-American physicians, dentists, other health professionals, and attorneys are graduates of Tougaloo College.

North Carolina A&T is the nation’s largest producer of African-American bachelors and doctorates in engineering. North Carolina A&T, Tuskegee, Florida A&M, Spelman, Tennessee State, Prairie View A&M, Morgan State, Howard, and Alabama A&M cumulatively graduate more than 30% of all African Americans who receive engineering degrees.

In addition to training physicians, dentists, and other health professionals, Meharry Medical College has a Center of AIDS Health Disparities Research. Faculty at this Center have discovered and patented a salve that removes cholesterol from the HIV virus causing it to lose its ability to infect.

This short list of some of the research and academic activities at HBCUs refutes the assertion that HBCUs are inferior. In fact, it illustrates that some HBCUs are superior.

Better research could have enlightened Riley immensely. Sometimes, however, particularly when a viewpoint is inaccurate or extreme, people don’t want to be confused with the facts.

Clearly, historically black colleges and universities do not need “a makeover” or “a new mission”. What is needed are major publications, such as the Wall Street Journal to conduct solid and sincere research so it can better appreciate the value and contributions HBCUs make.


If interested in reading the Wall Street Journal Article, Black Colleges Need A New Mission, by Jason Riley, that sparked this rebuttal:

The Arrogance of Being President While Black

November 6, 2010

Guest Commentary by Unknown Author:

I don’t think anyone was under some real illusion that the election of Barack Obama actually means the end of racism in America . I’m pretty sure that the president-elect knew it better than anyone. After all, he saw it every day, from the moment he announced his candidacy. To some degree, he saw it within his own party during the primaries. And he saw it in all ugliness during the general election. For half of this country, he was “That One”. No matter how big and clear his victory was. No matter how smart he is. No matter how decent he is. No matter what a true patriot he is. No matter how optimistic and positive his vision for America was. All that didn’t matter. Because at the end of the day, he was still black.

I’m quite old. I remember, vaguely, where my parents were on November 22, 1963. I’ve seen so many presidents. Some were feared, some were hated, some were adored, some popular and some not. But all of them, without exception, were treated with the highest respect deserving the office of the president of the United States.

That is until a black man won the right to occupy this office. It’s been 13 months now, and in the eyes of so many, Barack Obama is still that one. He is being disrespected and at the same time being held to the highest standard of any president I’ve ever seen – and not just by the Republican side! He has to perform three times better than any president in history, and even that may not be enough.

For the media, he is many more times just “Obama” than “President Obama”. They create scandals out of nothing issues. It took them at least 6 years to start giving Bush a small part of the shit he deserved. It took them 6 months to begin crap all over Obama because he’s yet to fix the catastrophe that was left for him.

They use condescending tones when they talk about him, and only mildly less condescending when they talk TO him. With anyone else, CNN wouldn’t dare go to commercials every time the president speaks, like they did during that summit on Thursday. They wouldn’t dare be counting how many minutes George Bush or Bill Clinton were talking. Chris Mathews wouldn’t dare make an issue out of Ronald Regan calling members of congress by their first name, like he is not actually the president. They fully cooperate with the Right-Wing smear machine when it comes to president Obama’s national security performance – even if almost every independent and military expert actually thinks that he’s a terrific Commander-in-Chief. You’ll never see them on TV, and virtually no one from the Left, in congress and outside, defend the president on this matter.

I don’t care about the Far-Right. They’re just crazy ignorant Neanderthals. It’s the way the beltway and the mainstream treats this president that is shocking. On Thursday, almost every Republican had no trouble interrupting him in the middle of a sentence. They looked like they’re going to vomit every time they had to say “Mr. president”. They all had this Eric-Cantor-Smirk whenever he spoke. Then they went out and started to spit their stupid talking points, to the delight of the media. Sarah Palin, a woman who can hardly read, thinks that he was “arrogant” towards John McCain, and somehow this is an important news. Because you see, “Obama’s Arrogance” is the talking point of the day.

Oh, those talking points. He is arrogant (because he knows the facts better than all of them combined). He is an elitist (because he uses big words that they don’t understand). He is weak on national security (because he actually thinks about the consequences). He divides the country (well, he did that the day he had the audacity to win the election). Worst of all, he actually thinks that he’s the president. He even dared to say so on Thursday. How arrogant of him. You’d think that previous presidents didn’t have any ego. Somehow it turned out that the one president who treats even his biggest opponents with the utmost respect – is the arrogant one. I wonder why?

I expected that his winning the Presidency would bring out some ugliness, but it’s been far worse than I imagined. The racism coming from the Right is obviously clear and shameless, but there’s also some hidden and maybe subconscious and disturbing underline tone behind some of the things that I read here and throughout the Left blogosphere, even before the end of Obama’s first year – ‘He’s weak, he’s spineless, he’s got no balls, primary him in 2012’. It’ll be dishonest to deny that.

The fact is that for millions in America , Barack Obama is this uppity black man (Not even a “real” black), who received good education only due to affirmative action, and has no right to litter the sacred Oval Office with his skin color. They just can’t accept the fact that the president is a black man, who unlike his predecessor, was actually legally elected. But what’s really sad is that it’s not just the fringe, its deep deep in mainstream America.

Barack Obama’s ability to remain above all this slob, to keep his optimism and his strange and mostly unjustified faith in people, while continuing to gracefully deal with an endless shitstorm – is one of the most inspiring displays of human quality I have ever seen. And I can only hope that the Cosmos is on his side because God is and He never makes a mistake.