Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Profiles in Black History: Part 4 - President Barack Hussein Obama II

It's time to Break It Down!

Time passes. Sometimes slowly, often swiftly, always inexorably, time passes. In four days February will come to a close, and Black History Month with it.

Three weeks ago, I kicked-off this series of Profile in Black History by sharing the rudiments of Henrietta Lacks’ story. Ms. Lacks was a far too little known black heroine, who in death changed the way we live. Medical researchers the world over will be forever indebted to this young black woman from Southern Virginia.

Two weeks ago I examined the exploits of another little known African American; North Carolina’s own Alex Manly. Mr. Manly, by brashly refuting a female white supremacist’s claims, thrust himself into the center of a controversy that would become the Wilmington (NC) Race Riots of 1898. His actions, considered resolute by some and reckless by others, may be debated. What followed cannot. Wilmington endured a bloody insurrection that changed the composition of the local government, rearranged the demographics of the City, and spawned the advent of the Jim Crow movement in the South.

Last week, I concentrated on presenting the story another North Carolinian; Charlotte Hawkins Brown. Ms. Brown left the confines of the Tar Heel state as child, traveling to Massachusetts with her parents. She leveraged her time in New England to acquire the training that she would use to educate young black women back in her native state. Ms Brown founded the Palmer Memorial Institute (PMI) in 1902, and ran it until her retirement 50 years later. Her work in the field of education is largely unsung, but by no means unimportant. Over 1,000 black women were trained at PMI.

The stories of Henrietta Lacks, Alex Manly, and Charlotte Hawkins Brown are fundamental in their simplicity, and to a large degree, their obscurity. Sure, you may be a history buff, or someone who happened to see a rare television special about one of them. However, chances are most Americans, including African Americans never heard of them. They went about their business, dedicated not to fame or fortune, but rather to make life a little better…for others.

With that backdrop as a foundation, let us fast forward to the present. It is unlikely many among us are unaware of Barack Obama, or at least some facet of his story. As the 44th American to serve as our nation’s President, Mr. Obama is at the epicenter of national and world news coverage on a daily basis. His address, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, is among the most famous in the world; his title, Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces is one of the most revered. As President of the United States (POTUS), most people consider him the most powerful man on the planet.

In thinking about the essential purpose of the commemoration of Black History Month, highlighting the contributions of individuals who toiled unceremoniously in dimly lit spaces of our collective consciousness is a most appropriate undertaking. At the same time, taking a moment to direct our attention, and that of others, to reflect upon the signal accomplishment of the first African American POTUS is also most fitting.

Many of my previous posts have dealt with a variety of the political issues that buoy of drag on this President. This discussion, however, is not about saving Health Care, closing Guantanamo, troop build-ups in Afghanistan, exiting Iraq, Iran's nuclear ambitions, the Jobs bill, or Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Almost certainly I will resurrect those issues and more in the future, but today, as Black History Month is winding down, I ask you to join me in saluting President Barack Hussein Obama II.

The Obama story is quite compelling by almost any measure. Many years ago, Don King popularized the phrase, “Only in America!” The expression was intended to convey that some things were such tall tales that were you not witnessing them, you wouldn’t believe them; that in fact, they probably could not happen anywhere else in the world.

The meteoric rise of Barack Obama to the Presidency has that kind of dramatic flare and feel about it. In just over four years, a relatively unknown Illinois State Senate candidate went from bursting upon the scene as a spellbinding July 27, 2004 Democratic Convention keynoter, to accepting the Democratic Nomination at the August 28, 2008 Democratic Convention, to greeting a crowd at Chicago’s Grant Park as the nation’s President–elect, shortly after midnight, November 5, 2008.

This unlikely ascent is a uniquely American phenomenon. I could recite countless reasons why that is true. But this moment is for capturing the mountaintop spirit of triumph, not for dwelling in the valley of recrimination. Embrace the moment as you consider this “Profile in Black History: President Barack Hussein Obama II!”

I’m done; holla back!

Read my blog anytime by clicking the link: A new post is published each Wednesday. For more detailed information on a variety of aspects relating to this post, consult the links below:§ion=2808950&playlist=2808979&page=1

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Profiles in Black History: Part 3 - Charlotte Hawkins Brown

It's time to Break It Down!

In sifting through e-archives, searching for candidates for this third of four segments, I found it interesting that many notable African Americans, including Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree), Harriet Tubman (Araminta Ross), and Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove), were born with different appellations, or given names. Of course blacks born in the 18th and 19th centuries often changed their names to facilitate shedding, or at least diminishing their slave heritage.

In the 20th Century a number of blacks, who would later rise to prominence changed their names as a part of their embracing Muslim faith traditions. The Honorable Elijah Muhammad (Elijah Poole), Malcolm X (Malcolm Little), and The Honorable Louis Farrakhan (Louis Eugene Walcott) all changed their names as part of their conversion to Islam. And then there is the case of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Michael King, Jr.). During a 1934 visit to Europe, King’s father, a Baptist minister, was so fundamentally moved by the teachings of the German Protestant leader, Martin Luther, that he changed both his own name and that of his namesake to Martin Luther King, Sr., and Martin Luther King, Jr.

This post, however, is not about any of those luminaries. The subject for today is Charlotte Hawkins Brown. Her story, like so many others, is one of an African American woman of great intellect, indefatigable energy, and the compelling gift of resourcefulness. Ms. Brown was born in Henderson, North Carolina (not to be confused with Hendersonville). At a young age, her parents and she relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

While attending high school, her keen intellect drew the attention of Alice Freeman Palmer, a former President of Wellesley College. Ms. Palmer became Charlotte’s first benefactor, and supported her educational endeavors after high school.

After successfully completing a course of study at the State Normal School in Salem, Massachusetts, Ms. Brown returned to her native North Carolina to accept a position as a teacher in a one-room school in Sedalia, NC. Over the course of time, her missionary zeal, dedication to educational principles, and commitment to teaching young black women led to the continued growth and development of what had begun as a one-classroom school.

In 1902, Ms. Brown transformed the school into a Junior College for African American women, and renamed it Palmer Memorial Institute, in honor of her benefactor. Later in 1915, she secured the support of another benefactor, Galen L. Stone, a Boston financier and philanthropist. Mr. Stone would become the Institute’s chief donor.

Charlotte Hawkins Brown was devoted to fostering and improving African American achievement; especially that of women. She was active in the National Council of Negro Women, and became the first black woman to serve on the National Board of the Young Women’s Christian Association. In 1952, Ms. Brown retired as President of the Alice Freeman Palmer Memorial Institute, better known as Palmer Memorial Institute (PMI), the school she founded in 1902. More than 1,000 African American students attended PMI between 1902 and 1970, when it closed.

Today, the restored facilities at PMI comprise the Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum. This facility helps to focus an introspective lens on the contributions of Ms. Brown, but also on the historical and sociological themes commonly shared and expressed by African Americans during much of the 20th Century. Thank you for spending time to reflect upon another “Profile in Black History: Charlotte Hawkins Brown!” I’m done; holla back!

Read my blog anytime by clicking the link: A new post is published each Wednesday. For more detailed information on a variety of aspects relating to this post, consult the links below:,_Jr.,_North_Carolina,_North_Carolina,_North_Carolina,_Massachusetts

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Profiles in Black History: Part 2 - The Alexander (Alex) Manly Story

It's time to Break It Down!

Since I have already established my intention to examine a series of four African Americans and their contributions to this great Country of ours, I will dispense with the usual preamble and get straight to today’s subject; Alex Manly. On at least one level, Mr. Manly’s story is not an overlooked or forgotten relic of antiquity. In 2006, the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News and Observer collaborated to publish a 16-page special section on the 1898 Wilmington (North Carolina) race riot. The section looked at the effect the riot had on the segregationist South and was, at least in part, a by-product of the state’s 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission.

This joint venture was a significant undertaking because the Commission had issued a report in May, 2006 citing the two newspapers with having complicit involvement in the riot, and urging them to acknowledge and publicize their role. Both papers were instrumental in instigating a white supremacy movement that spawned the Jim Crow segregation era. Emboldened by the intoxicating bloodlust of supremacy, whites drove blacks from power, purged elected officials, forced a thousand blacks to leave the city, and killed as many as 300 of those who remained.  The events of that day have been given various names including, riot, insurrection, massacre, rebellion, revolt, race war, and even coup d'tat.  It has been reasonably argued that the forcible removal of a duly installed government (Mayor and City Council) makes the riot the only successful coup d'tat in American history. 

There are a few notes of particular importance that should be added at this point:

Wilmington was North Carolina’s largest city in 1898

• Wilmington was predominantly black in 1898

Wilmington Daily Record: the only black owned US newspaper in 1898

Enter Alex Manley; the African American editor of the Wilmington Daily Record. Mr. Manly was a descendant of Charles Manly, North Carolina’s 31st Governor.

In an August 18, 1898 editorial in the Daily Record, Manly wrote, what was considered a sexually charged editorial, stating that "our experience among poor white people in the country teaches us that women of that race are not any more particular in the matter of clandestine meetings with colored men than the white men with the colored women."

To provide an element of post mortem context, Manly’s August 18, 1898 editorial was a response to a speech by Rebecca Latimer Felton, (given 11 August 1897 in Georgia) in which she expressed concern regarding black rapists preying upon white farm women while their husbands worked the fields. Manly’s editorial was reprinted in newspapers across the country; part of a contemporary media conspiracy to bolster the budding white supremacy movement.  Ms. Felton, a segregationist and white supremacist would later become the first female Senator in the United States.  She was appointed to the office and served one day.

It took nearly three months, but the smoldering campaign to rid Wilmington of Manly and the then robust black leadership class in the community, culminated with the November 10, 1898 Wilmington riot. Any analysis of what happened in Wilmington in 1898 must include some consideration of a widely held “dubious view” of Manly and his editorial by blacks at the time.

Interestingly, in the pre-civil rights era of the time, blacks were mostly Republican (a vestige of Lincoln’s impact on shaping political views). Many black individuals, groups of blacks, and black Republicans weighed in to offer various degrees of disagreement and disdain for the sentiment expressed by Manly. Most believed he escalated tensions at a time that had been relatively harmonious.  In an odd way, it may have been one of the earliest examples of bipartisanship, as Democrats heatedly protested and railed against the Manly.

Ultimately Manly fled before the mob could catch him. He relocated to Philadelphia. While little else is known about him, he helped found the Armstrong Association, a forerunner to the National Urban League. Like many of life's adventures, this story does not have a neatly packaged ending, yet there is no doubt, it is another “Profile in Black History: The Alexander (Alex) Manly Story! I’m done; holla back!

Read my blog anytime by clicking the link: http://thesphinxofcharlotte/ A new post is published each Wednesday. For more detailed information on a variety of aspects relating to this post, consult the links below:,_North_Carolina

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Profiles in Black History: Part 1 - Henrietta Lacks

It's time to Break It Down!

This past Monday was the first day of February. As we all know, February is the shortest month of the year; having 28 days, with every fourth year, a Leap Year, having 29 days (the next one in 2012). But did you know, during one period, February had 29 days, and 30 days during Leap Years? Augustus Caesar is said to have taken a day from February to add to August, so that the month named in his honor would have 31 days. Moreover, February has had several names, and has only been known as February for a little more than a century.

You also probably know that February has the distinction of having been designated Black History Month in the United States and Canada. As such, there is usually an infusion of ethnic TV programming, media coverage, civic, and religious observances.

In framing topics for exploration, I have seldom settled on a topic, or even a theme, the day before posting. It is most often the truest expression of “just in time” delivery. However, I have decided to depart from my pattern. Over four Wednesdays in February, I plan to explore of four African Americans who made outstanding contributions to this Country; their Country…our Country; America, and frankly in some cases, the world!
  • Who? There are many African Americans, who not only have made enormous contributions to society, but who garnered a fair share of fame and notoriety for their pursuits. Today’s subject is not among that list. Yet, Henrietta Lacks is a giant in terms of the relative importance of her contributions to life as we know it today. Ms. Lacks lived only 31 years, and has been dead nearly twice as long as she lived; succumbing to cervical cancer in 1951.

  • What? Ms. Lacks, a mother of five (2 daughters and 3 sons) died from a virulent strain of cervical cancer. During the course of her treatment, doctors removed cells from her, for research purposes…without her knowledge. This was a common practice then and now.

  • When? On February 1, 1951, shortly after participating in a march in New York to support finding a cure for polio, Ms. Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, where she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Though treated for the disease, she would live only 6 more months.

  • Why? In most folks’ blueprint of choice, they would acquire fame and notoriety in life, if at all. For some though, it comes, only through death. This was the case with Henrietta. She was posthumously catapulted to what measure of notoriety she has attained because of the unique characteristics of her cells.

  • How? Researchers at Johns Hopkins discovered a scientific breakthrough related to Ms. Lacks’ cells. In a departure from anything the scientists had seen before, the cells culled from Ms. Lacks continued to grow, outside of her body, and after her death. In fact, they did not just survive, they multiplied. In a circular irony, cells from Ms. Lacks’ culture were used to help Dr. Jonas Salk develop a vaccine for polio in 1955. Of course, Ms. Lacks had marched to help find a cure for that disease just four years earlier.

The story of Henrietta Lacks is powerful in its simplicity. Viewed in the absence of the critical lens of inquiry, it has the sound of saga about a young woman who died too soon; but whose death provided the gift of life, and healthier lives for countless others. In reality it is that…and so very much more.

Henrietta was a poor black woman who was treated in some instances as incidental to the research conducted by the staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Eventually, as the story gained traction and became more widely disseminated, the precious cells Ms. Lacks “donated” given the name HeLa, in her honor.

The chief researcher in this matter, Dr. George Gey, had been searching for a way to keep cells alive outside the body. The cells taken from Henrietta were so incredibly aggressive that in a few short months, the cancer had spread throughout her entire body. The very properties that led to Ms. Lacks’ demise, most likely served as the catalyst for Dr. Gey’s success in inducing cells to continue growing for more than a few weeks outside the body. Those properties also led to breakthroughs in cancer research, drug testing, the development of Dr. Salk’s polio vaccine, insight into facilitating the survival of other cells, and ultimately, a new paradigm in biology.

It was discovered eventually, that HeLa cells are so ubiquitous that they literally took over countless cell samples, resulting in contaminating samples, and invalidating research results. That is unfortunate. But I would argue the real victims in the HeLa story are the Lacks. In addition to not gaining permission to extract Henrietta’s cell tissue for research purposes, the virtual explosion of the HeLa phenomenon had been unfolding for decades before the family ever learned of it.

The growth and sale of HeLa, which continues unabated today, has generated countless millions of dollars in sales revenue, lead to saving lives all across America, and around the world, and furthered medical research initiatives for nearly 60 years. So what have the Lacks gained from this you may ask?

Nothing; nada; zero; zilch!

Think on that “Profile in Black History: Henrietta Lacks!” I’m done; holla back!

Read my blog anytime by clicking the link: A new post is published each Wednesday. For more detailed information on a variety of aspects relating to this post, consult the links below:,_Virginia,_Maryland,_Virginia