History > 2009 > USA > African-Americans (II)
From Footnote to Fame
in Civil Rights History
November 26, 2009
The New York Times
By BROOKS BARNES
On that supercharged day in 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus
seat to a white passenger in Montgomery, Ala., she rode her way into history
books, credited with helping to ignite the civil rights movement.
But there was another woman, named Claudette Colvin, who refused to be treated
like a substandard citizen on one of those Montgomery buses — and she did it
nine months before Mrs. Parks. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made his
political debut fighting her arrest. Moreover, she was the star witness in the
legal case that eventually forced bus desegregation.
Yet instead of being celebrated, Ms. Colvin has lived unheralded in the Bronx
for decades, initially cast off by black leaders who feared she was not the
right face for their battle, according to a new book that has plucked her from
Last week Phillip Hoose won the National Book Award for Young People’s
Literature for “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice,” published by Farrar,
Straus & Giroux. The honor sent the little-selling title shooting up 500 spots
on Amazon.com’s sales list and immediately thrust Ms. Colvin, 70, back into the
“Young people think Rosa Parks just sat down on a bus and ended segregation, but
that wasn’t the case at all,” Ms. Colvin said in an animated interview at a
diner near her apartment in the Parkchester section of the Bronx. “Maybe by
telling my story — something I was afraid to do for a long time — kids will have
a better understanding about what the civil rights movement was about.”
Ms. Colvin made her stand on March 2, 1955, and Mrs. Parks made hers on Dec. 1
that same year. Somehow, as Mrs. Parks became one of Time Magazine’s 100 most
important people of the 20th century, and streets and schools were named after
her, Ms. Colvin managed to let go of any bitterness. After Ms. Colvin was
arrested, Mrs. Parks, a seasoned N.A.A.C.P. official, sometimes let her spend
the night at her apartment. Ms. Colvin remembers her as a reserved but kindly
woman who fixed her snacks of peanut butter on Ritz crackers.
“My mother told me to be quiet about what I did,” Ms. Colvin recalled. “She told
me: ‘Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa — her skin is
lighter than yours and they like her.’ ”
Ms. Colvin said she came to terms with her “raw feelings” a long time ago. “I
know in my heart that she was the right person,” she said of Mrs. Parks.
Unlike Mrs. Parks, whose protest was carefully planned, Ms. Colvin was just a
15-year-old who couldn’t stomach the Jim Crow segregation laws one second
Ms. Colvin was riding the bus home from school when the driver demanded that she
give up her seat for a middle-age white woman, even though three other seats in
the row were empty, one beside Ms. Colvin and two across the aisle.
“If she sat down in the same row as me, it meant I was as good as her,” Ms.
Two police officers, one of them kicking her, dragged her backward off the bus
and handcuffed her, according to the book. On the way to the police station,
they took turns trying to guess her bra size.
At the time, the arrest was big news. Black leaders, among them Dr. King, jumped
at the opportunity to use her case to fight segregation laws in court. “Negro
Girl Found Guilty of Segregation Violation” was the headline in The Alabama
Journal. The article said that Ms. Colvin, “a bespectacled, studious looking
high school student,” accepted the ruling “with the same cool aloofness she had
maintained” during the hearing.
As chronicled by Mr. Hoose, more than 100 letters of support arrived for Ms.
Colvin — sent in care of Mrs. Rosa Parks, secretary of the Montgomery branch of
But Ms. Colvin was ultimately passed over.
“They worried they couldn’t win with her,” Mr. Hoose said in an interview from
his home in Portland, Me. “Words like ‘mouthy,’ ‘emotional’ and ‘feisty’ were
used to describe her.”
Mrs. Parks, on the other hand, was considered “stolid, calm, unflappable,” he
said. The final straw: Ms. Colvin became pregnant by a married man.
A second Montgomery teenager, Mary Louise Smith, was also arrested for refusing
to give up her bus seat — after Ms. Colvin’s arrest but before Ms. Parks’s — and
she was also deemed an unsuitable symbol for the movement partly because of
rumors that her father had an alcohol problem.
Although Ms. Colvin quickly left Montgomery, she returned during the peak of the
bus boycott that Mrs. Parks had subsequently sparked, and testified in federal
court in Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that effectively ended bus
“It’s an important reminder that crucial change is often ignited by very plain,
unremarkable people who then disappear,” said David J. Garrow, a Pulitzer
Prize-winning biographer of Dr. King.
Even Mrs. Parks was forgotten for the better part of 20 years, only re-emerging
as a world-famous figure in the early 1970s after magazine articles and
attention in several children’s books.
Ms. Colvin, who relies on a cane to steady herself, retired in 2004 after 35
years as a nurse’s aide at a Manhattan nursing home. She contributed to her own
obscurity: after settling in New York, she never talked about how her arrest
helped prompt the famous bus boycott.
“She continued to heed her mother’s advice, and worried that drawing attention
to herself would result in the loss of her job. “I wasn’t going to take that
chance,” she said.
So she settled into living an average life. She never married. The son she had
in Montgomery died at age 37; a second son is an accountant in Atlanta. She
watches television — “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” is a favorite — and is a
regular at the diner.
Ms. Colvin said she reads two newspapers every day to keep up on current events,
chatting about recent Nobel Prize winners. She likes Chris Rock and Alicia Keys.
Aretha Franklin could stand to lose a few pounds, but she wore a good hat to
President Obama’s inauguration. Don’t get Ms. Colvin started on Sarah Palin.
She has fond memories of Dr. King. “He was just an average-looking fellow — it’s
not like he was Kobe Bryant or anything,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes.
“But when he opened his mouth he was like Charlton Heston playing Moses.”
Mr. Hoose said he stumbled across Ms. Colvin’s story while researching a
previous book, “We Were There, Too! Young People in U.S. History.” Several
sources told him to investigate what had almost become an urban myth: that a
teenager had beaten Mrs. Parks to the punch in Montgomery.
He eventually tracked down Ms. Colvin, who has an unlisted telephone number. She
refused to talk to Mr. Hoose for almost four years.
Mr. Hoose won over his reluctant subject over a long lunch at the diner. It was
clear, he said, that she yearned to have her story told despite protests to the
contrary. “It was easy to find the rebel girl inside of her,” he said.
One of her first questions: “Can you get it into schools?”
From Footnote to Fame in
Civil Rights History, NYT, 26.11.2009,
A Racial Divide Is Bridged by Hard Times
November 17, 2009
The New York Times
By SHAILA DEWAN
McDONOUGH, Ga. — During the housing boom, Henry County, a suburb of Atlanta,
had its share of racial tension as more and more blacks joined the tens of
thousands of others pouring in, creating a standoffish gap between the newcomers
and the county’s oldtimers.
But the recession has begun to erase those differences.
Blacks and whites have encountered one another in increasing numbers recently in
the crowded waiting rooms of the welfare office and at the food pantry, where
many of both races have ventured for the first time. Struggling black-owned
businesses are attracting the attention of white patrons. Neighbors are
commiserating across racial lines.
At the Division of Family and Children Services, Keasha Taylor, 36 and black,
helped explain the system recently to a white mother. Ms. Taylor, who was there
because her family had been evicted, told the mother, who was in line for food
stamps, that a child with acute asthma might be eligible for Social Security.
“Right now, a lot of white people are in this situation,” Ms. Taylor said,
recalling the conversation later. “We’re already used to poverty; they’re really
Denese Rodgers, the county director of social services, who is white, has held
several lunch meetings at A J’s Turkey Grill, owned by Diane Walker, a black
woman, in hopes of helping business.
“It was in one of our abandoned strip malls, a forlorn looking kind of place,
but when you walk in, it’s just pristine,” Ms. Rodgers said. “She’s doing
everything right, it’s just not full.”
Peggy Allgood, a 54-year-old black woman who lost her job and four-bedroom house
and is now living in a trailer park, said she had noticed the recession
obliterating racial differences up and down the economic scale.
“It’s gotten to the point where everyone I talk to, their hours have been cut,
their jobs have been cut,” Ms. Allgood said. “My neighbor, she’s white, she’s
trying to find a job. She hasn’t had any luck.”
The recession hit Henry County, for years one of the nation’s fastest growing
areas, at a time when it was already struggling to come to terms with startling
demographic change. In 1990, the county was almost 90 percent white. Now, as its
population has more than tripled to 192,000, according to 2008 census estimates,
the white percentage of the population has shrunk to 60 percent.
The county’s elected government is still all white and Republican, and some
leaders and newcomers alike have tried in various ways to make local board and
governments more diverse. But nothing else has worked to remove barriers as
quickly as economic hardship.
“There used to be a lot of racial tension here, but everybody knows that we need
each other to survive this recession,” said Eugene Edwards, the president of the
Henry County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People. “People now, they seem to be starting to care for one another.”
Once fueled by construction, the county has been left by the recession with a
blighted crop of abandoned white utility hookups, meant for new subdivisions,
sprouted in the woods.
Last year, the Chamber of Commerce took a multiracial group of leaders to the
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, but such officially sponsored efforts at
bonding have slowed.
“The recession has pretty much tied folks down to survival mode,” said Steve
Cash, the executive director of the Henry Council for Quality Growth, who is
white. “A lot of things that were happening before aren’t happening now.”
And a lot of things that were unheard of before are happening now. Women in
Jaguars pull up to the local food pantry, and former millionaires hunker down in
grand, unsellable homes.
One reason blacks have not gained more political power is that they are not
heavily concentrated in any single area in the county — the cul-de-sacs carved
out of farmland and pastures in the last decade became racially mixed enclaves
for the upwardly mobile. Now, the foreclosure notices and uncut lawns in those
same subdivisions reinforce the notion that everyone is in the same sinking
Statistics also suggest that the recession’s burden is falling with similar
force on both races. In June 2006, 55 percent of the families receiving food
stamps were black, and 44 percent were white. Those percentages remain the same
today, although the size of each group has increased by about 50 percent.
Unemployment claims follow that pattern: in January 2008, 49 percent of those
who filed for unemployment were white, and 45 percent were black. In August
2009, 49 percent were white, and 48 percent were black.
Across the country, there have been many reports about the recession’s racial
divide, as blacks have lost their jobs and houses at far higher rates than
whites. But Henry County, about a 30-minute drive south of downtown Atlanta, has
a very different profile from the rest of the nation. In Henry, the median
income of black families, $56,715 in 2008, approaches that of whites, $69,728
(nationally, the average income gap was $20,000). Blacks in Henry County, many
of whom are retirees from the North or professionals who work in Atlanta, are
more likely than whites to have a college degree.
That does not mean that Henry County is a perfect laboratory of equality. Blacks
made up a disproportionately high number of those seeking government assistance
both before and after the slowdown. Since 2006, the number of blacks on Medicaid
has more than tripled, outpacing the increase among whites.
And as in the rest of the country, blacks in Henry were more than twice as
likely as whites to take out risky sub-prime mortgages, meaning more black
families than white are struggling to keep their homes.
Keith and Kenya Rucker, who are black, recently declared bankruptcy in an effort
to keep the home they bought for $155,000 with an adjustable-rate mortgage when
they had two incomes, before Mr. Rucker lost his job as a restaurant manager.
Both said they could not rely on family members for help with their ballooning
“I’m not racist, but it’s harder for black men,” Mr. Rucker said, as his wife
huddled with their 8-year-old daughter, KéUnica. Mr. Rucker, who is from
Orlando, Fla., echoed many experts who say that middle-class blacks have fewer
resources, either financial or social, to fall back on if they get into trouble.
“Where I’m from,” he said, “every friend that I had is a drug dealer, locked up,
on drugs or dead.”
But Dennis and Jenny Duncan, a white couple who once owned millions of dollars
in real estate assets as former developers, felt equally stymied. Interviewed in
the lavish home they built for themselves, they said the sheriff had just come
to call and told them their belongings would soon be seized to satisfy debts.
Unlike Ms. Rucker, neither has a college degree, making work difficult to find.
The idea that the recession is an equalizer has become accepted in Henry County.
Both black and white residents were hesitant to say that either race had taken a
greater hit. But Ms. Taylor, the black woman who dispensed advice at the county
food stamp office, said there were some notable distinctions between blacks and
“They’re a little weaker than we are at handling things like this,” she said,
adding without rancor, “but I know they get more sympathy than we do.”
A Racial Divide Is
Bridged by Hard Times, NYT, 17.11.2009,
In Atlanta, String of Black Mayors May Be Broken
October 22, 2009
The New York Times
By SHAILA DEWAN
ATLANTA — Since 1973, this Southern capital has elected a succession of black
mayors, sometimes to the consternation of residents in the largely white,
prosperous neighborhood of Buckhead in the north.
But the current race to succeed Mayor Shirley Franklin in the Nov. 3 election
has upended expectations here in what Chris Rock, in his new documentary, “Good
Hair,” calls “the city where all major black decisions are made.” The
front-runner, Mary Norwood, is one of Buckhead’s own, a white Junior Leaguer
running as a populist outsider.
The three top candidates in the six-way race have each maintained that Atlanta
has moved beyond using race as a qualification for public office. But the
ascendancy of Ms. Norwood may also reflect the decline of the city’s black
majority and the recession’s sour effect on the mood of the voters.
The city has changed significantly since Mayor Franklin squeaked to victory
without a runoff in 2001. It has grown by more than 100,000 people since 2000,
according to census estimates, and the influx of many whites and Hispanics has
narrowed the black majority to 56 percent from 61 percent.
Atlanta is still a draw for black professionals, and the percentage of blacks in
the metropolitan area has grown slightly, but in the city itself the pool of
likely black voters is estimated at just barely a majority. Many of the city’s
public housing projects, where black votes once could be marshaled in a bloc,
have been demolished.
Ms. Norwood, who has held an at-large City Council position for eight years, and
tirelessly attended neighborhood meetings across the city, has galvanized white
voters and managed to attract significant support among blacks. Though she has
often voted in Republican primaries in this heavily Democratic city, some polls
show her with more black support than either of her two top opponents, who are
both black: Lisa Borders, the president of the City Council, and Kasim Reed, a
lawyer and former state lawmaker who resigned his office to run for mayor.
The election will probably result in a runoff between Ms. Norwood and Mr. Reed
or Ms. Borders, although Ms. Norwood is so far ahead in polls that there is talk
she could win outright.
“It would be a major game change in this town if a Buckhead Betty became mayor,”
said Tom Houck, a former newspaper columnist here, who is white, using a mocking
term for the well-heeled women of the north side. “Atlanta is a symbol for black
Americans, more than Los Angeles, more than Chicago, more than Baltimore.”
Mr. Houck spoke recently to a primarily black audience at a forum about race in
the campaign, where some of those present were intent on electing a black mayor
and others asked what good, exactly, black leadership had done the city.
Ms. Norwood has addressed the race question only obliquely, though her campaign
photographs and videos emphasize her interactions with black voters.
“Dr. King said we should be evaluated on who we are, not what we look like,” she
said in an interview on Tuesday. “I’m focused on public safety, city service
delivery, quality of life issues and growing the city. That’s what the citizens
of Atlanta are interested in.”
Ms. Norwood has set the tone by relentlessly attacking the Franklin
administration’s record on crime and city finances, forcing the other candidates
to distance themselves from the mayor.
“When you attack City Hall, you’re also implicitly attacking, to a degree, black
politics,” said Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory
University. “And this is a message that in some ways plays well with the white
At a time of high anxiety over taxes and crime, it also resonates with voters of
all races. The candidates have spent the bulk of their time in debates and
forums arguing over who has the experience necessary to fix the city’s money
problems and who has the best public-safety plan.
Some voters, particularly younger ones, seem to agree that race should not be a
factor in their choice at the polls.
“This is a majority white country and Barack Obama’s president,” Tyronia
Morrison, a 30-year-old lawyer who is black, said after a candidate forum in
southwest Atlanta. “We need to rise above that and get back to the issues.”
Asked if she thought black voters cared about the race of the mayor, Ms. Borders
said: “Folks that do not have what they need, who’ve been marginalized in some
way, they want someone that they think, ‘Hey, I can relate to them.’ If you feel
like you’ve been treated fairly, then your sensitivity is not that high.”
Ms. Borders and Mr. Reed condemned a memo from an ad hoc group, the Black
Leadership Forum, that surfaced in August suggesting that blacks unite behind
Ms. Borders, whom the memo described as the most electable black candidate.
The controversy over the memo obscured the fact that, as Steve Suitts, an Emory
lecturer, wrote in an op-ed article Wednesday in The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution, “White voters, not black voters, end up voting most often
for a candidate of their own race in the South.”
This mayoral election is the first for an open seat since the death of Maynard
Jackson, the city’s first black mayor and a political kingmaker, in 2003.
“Maynard basically was able, because of the esteem in which he was held, to pick
his successors,” said Bob Holmes, the author of a new biography of Mr. Jackson.
“If he endorsed them, then the black community united behind them. And he’s no
Presumably, the mantle of the Jackson machine would have fallen to Mr. Reed, who
ran Ms. Franklin’s campaigns and who has been endorsed by Andrew Young, who
succeeded Mr. Jackson as mayor. Mr. Reed has raised the most money, according to
the latest filings, but has lagged behind in the polls.
Both Mr. Reed and Ms. Borders have battled voter fatigue after the presidential
election and struggled to differentiate themselves with recession-size campaign
treasuries. “None of them is considered a charismatic leader,” Mr. Holmes said
of the three candidates.
That bodes well for Ms. Norwood, who has positioned herself as the candidate of
“In this instance,” Mr. Owens said, “difference equals white.”
In Atlanta, String of
Black Mayors May Be Broken, NYT, 22.10.2009,
Interracial Couple Denied Marriage License in La.
October 16, 2009
Filed at 12:07 a.m. ET
The New York Times
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A white Louisiana justice of the peace said he refused to
issue a marriage license to an interracial couple out of concern for any
children the couple might have.
Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, says it is his
experience that most interracial marriages do not last long.
''I'm not a racist. I just don't believe in mixing the races that way,''
Bardwell told the Associated Press on Thursday. ''I have piles and piles of
black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat
them just like everyone else.''
Bardwell said he asks everyone who calls about marriage if they are a mixed race
couple. If they are, he does not marry them, he said.
Bardwell said he has discussed the topic with blacks and whites, along with
witnessing some interracial marriages. He came to the conclusion that most of
black society does not readily accept offspring of such relationships, and
neither does white society, he said.
''There is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage,''
Bardwell said. ''I think those children suffer and I won't help put them through
If he did an interracial marriage for one couple, he must do the same for all,
''I try to treat everyone equally,'' he said.
Bardwell estimates that he has refused to marry about four couples during his
career, all in the past 2 1/2 years.
Beth Humphrey, 30, and 32-year-old Terence McKay, both of Hammond, say they will
consult the U.S. Justice Department about filing a discrimination complaint.
Humphrey, an account manager for a marketing firm, said she and McKay, a welder,
just returned to Louisiana. She is white and he is black. She plans to enroll in
the University of New Orleans to pursue a masters degree in minority politics.
''That was one thing that made this so unbelievable,'' she said. ''It's not
something you expect in this day and age.''
Humphrey said she called Bardwell on Oct. 6 to inquire about getting a marriage
license signed. She says Bardwell's wife told her that Bardwell will not sign
marriage licenses for interracial couples. Bardwell suggested the couple go to
another justice of the peace in the parish who agreed to marry them.
''We are looking forward to having children,'' Humphrey said. ''And all our
friends and co-workers have been very supportive. Except for this, we're typical
''It is really astonishing and disappointing to see this come up in 2009,'' said
American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana attorney Katie Schwartzmann. She
said the Supreme Court ruled in 1967 ''that the government cannot tell people
who they can and cannot marry.''
The ACLU sent a letter to the Louisiana Judiciary Committee, which oversees the
state justices of the peace, asking them to investigate Bardwell and
recommending ''the most severe sanctions available, because such blatant bigotry
poses a substantial threat of serious harm to the administration of justice.''
''He knew he was breaking the law, but continued to do it,'' Schwartzmann said.
According to the clerk of court's office, application for a marriage license
must be made three days before the ceremony because there is a 72-hour waiting
period. The applicants are asked if they have previously been married. If so,
they must show how the marriage ended, such as divorce.
Other than that, all they need is a birth certificate and Social Security card.
The license fee is $35, and the license must be signed by a Louisiana minister,
justice of the peace or judge. The original is returned to the clerk's office.
''I've been a justice of the peace for 34 years and I don't think I've
mistreated anybody,'' Bardwell said. ''I've made some mistakes, but you have
too. I didn't tell this couple they couldn't get married. I just told them I
wouldn't do it.''
Denied Marriage License in La., NYT, 16.10.2009,
In First Lady’s Roots, a Complex Path From Slavery
October 8, 2009
The New York Times
By RACHEL L. SWARNS and JODI KANTOR
WASHINGTON — In 1850, the elderly master of a South Carolina estate took pen
in hand and painstakingly divided up his possessions. Among the spinning wheels,
scythes, tablecloths and cattle that he bequeathed to his far-flung heirs was a
6-year-old slave girl valued soon afterward at $475.
In his will, she is described simply as the “negro girl Melvinia.” After his
death, she was torn away from the people and places she knew and shipped to
Georgia. While she was still a teenager, a white man would father her first-born
son under circumstances lost in the passage of time.
In the annals of American slavery, this painful story would be utterly
unremarkable, save for one reason: This union, consummated some two years before
the Civil War, represents the origins of a family line that would extend from
rural Georgia, to Birmingham, Ala., to Chicago and, finally, to the White House.
Melvinia Shields, the enslaved and illiterate young girl, and the unknown white
man who impregnated her are the great-great-great-grandparents of Michelle
Obama, the first lady.
Viewed by many as a powerful symbol of black advancement, Mrs. Obama grew up
with only a vague sense of her ancestry, aides and relatives said. During the
presidential campaign, the family learned about one paternal
great-great-grandfather, a former slave from South Carolina, but the rest of
Mrs. Obama’s roots were a mystery.
Now the more complete map of Mrs. Obama’s ancestors — including the slave
mother, white father and their biracial son, Dolphus T. Shields — for the first
time fully connects the first African-American first lady to the history of
slavery, tracing their five-generation journey from bondage to a front-row seat
to the presidency.
The findings — uncovered by Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist, and The New York
Times — substantiate what Mrs. Obama has called longstanding family rumors about
a white forebear.
While President Obama’s biracial background has drawn considerable attention,
his wife’s pedigree, which includes American Indian strands, highlights the
complicated history of racial intermingling, sometimes born of violence or
coercion, that lingers in the bloodlines of many African-Americans. Mrs. Obama
and her family declined to comment for this article, aides said, in part because
of the personal nature of the subject.
“She is representative of how we have evolved and who we are,” said Edward Ball,
a historian who discovered that he had black relatives, the descendants of his
white slave-owning ancestors, when he researched his memoir, “Slaves in the
“We are not separate tribes of Latinos and whites and blacks in America,” Mr.
Ball said. “We’ve all mingled, and we have done so for generations.”
The outlines of Mrs. Obama’s family history unfolded from 19th century probate
records, yellowing marriage licenses, fading photographs and the recollections
of elderly women who remember the family. Ms. Smolenyak, who has traced the
ancestry of many prominent figures, began studying the first lady’s roots in
earnest after conducting some preliminary research into Mrs. Obama’s ancestry
for an article published in The New York Times earlier this year.
Of the dozens of relatives she identified, Ms. Smolenyak said, it was the slave
girl who seemed to call out most clearly.
“Out of all Michelle’s roots, it’s Melvinia who is screaming to be found,” she
When her owner, David Patterson, died in 1852, Melvinia soon found herself on a
200-acre farm with new masters, Mr. Patterson’s daughter and son-in law,
Christianne and Henry Shields. It was a strange and unfamiliar world.
In South Carolina, she had lived on an estate with 21 slaves. In Georgia, she
was one of only three slaves on property that is now part of a neat subdivision
in Rex, near Atlanta.
Whether Melvinia labored in the house or in the fields, there was no shortage of
work: wheat, corn, sweet potatoes and cotton to plant and harvest, and 3 horses,
5 cows, 17 pigs and 20 sheep to care for, according to an 1860 agricultural
It is difficult to say who might have impregnated Melvinia, who gave birth to
Dolphus around 1859, when she was perhaps as young as 15. At the time, Henry
Shields was in his late 40s and had four sons ages 19 to 24, but other men may
have spent time on the farm.
“No one should be surprised anymore to hear about the number of rapes and the
amount of sexual exploitation that took place under slavery; it was an everyday
experience, “ said Jason A. Gillmer, a law professor at Texas Wesleyan
University, who has researched liaisons between slave owners and slaves. “But we
do find that some of these relationships can be very complex.”
In 1870, three of Melvinia’s four children, including Dolphus, were listed on
the census as mulatto. One was born four years after emancipation, suggesting
that the liaison that produced those children endured after slavery. She gave
her children the Shields name, which may have hinted at their paternity or
simply been the custom of former slaves taking their master’s surnames.
Even after she was freed, Melvinia stayed put, working as a farm laborer on land
adjacent to that of Charles Shields, one of Henry’s sons.
But sometime in her 30s or 40s, census records show, Melvinia broke away and
managed to reunite with former slaves from her childhood on the Patterson
estate: Mariah and Bolus Easley, who settled with Melvinia in Bartow County,
near the Alabama border. Dolphus married one of the Easleys’ daughters, Alice,
who is Mrs. Obama’s great-great-grandmother.
A community “that had been ripped apart was somehow pulling itself back
together,” Ms. Smolenyak said of the group in Bartow County.
Still, Melvinia appears to have lived with the unresolved legacy of her
childhood in slavery until the very end. Her 1938 death certificate, signed by a
relative, says “don’t know” in the space for the names of her parents,
suggesting that Melvinia, then in her 90s, may never have known herself.
Sometime before 1888, Dolphus and Alice Shields continued the migration, heading
to Birmingham, a boomtown with a rumbling railroad, an iron and steel industry
and factories that attracted former slaves and their children from across the
Dolphus Shields was in his 30s and very light skinned — some say he looked like
a white man — a church-going carpenter who could read, write and advance in an
industrializing town. By 1900, he owned his own home, census records show. By
1911, he had opened his own carpentry and tool sharpening business.
A co-founder of First Ebenezer Baptist Church and Trinity Baptist Church, which
later became active in the civil rights movement, he supervised Sunday schools
at both churches, which still exist today, and at Regular Missionary Baptist
“He was the dean of the deacons in Birmingham,” said Helen Heath, 88, who
attended church with him. “He was a serious man. He was about business.”
He carried his family into the working-class, moving into a segregated
neighborhood of striving black homeowners and renters. In his home, there was no
smoking, no cursing, no gum chewing, no lipstick or trousers for ladies and
absolutely no blues on the radio, which was reserved for hymns, remembered
Bobbie Holt, 73, who was raised by Mr. Shields and his fourth wife, Lucy. She
said the family went to church “every night of the week, it seemed like.”
He carried peppermints for neighborhood children, Mrs. Holt said, and told funny
stories about his escapades as a boy. But his family struggled.
His first wife, Alice Easley Shields, moved around after they split up, working
as a seamstress and a maid, and two of their sons stumbled.
Robert Lee Shields, Mrs. Obama’s great-grandfather, married Annie Lawson in 1906
and worked as a laborer and a railroad porter but disappeared from the public
record sometime around his 32nd birthday.
Willie Arthur Shields, an inventor who obtained patents for improving dry
cleaning operations, ended up working as a maintenance man, Mrs. Holt said.
As for his ancestry, Dolphus Shields didn’t talk about it.
“We got to the place where we didn’t want anybody to know we knew slaves; people
didn’t want to talk about that,” said Mrs. Heath, who said she assumed he had
white relatives because his skin color and hair texture “told you he had to be
At a time when blacks despaired at the intransigence and violence of whites who
barred them from voting, from most city jobs, from whites-only restaurants and
from owning property in white neighborhoods, Dolphus Shields served as a rare
link between the deeply divided communities.
His carpentry shop stood in the white section of town, and he mixed easily and
often with whites. “They would come to his shop and sit and talk,” Mrs. Holt
Dolphus Shields firmly believed race relations would improve. “It’s going to
come together one day,” he often said, Mrs. Holt recalled.
By the time he died in 1950 at age 91, change was on the way. On June 9, 1950,
the day that his obituary appeared on the front page of The Birmingham World,
the black newspaper also ran a banner headline that read, “U.S. Court Bans
Segregation in Diners and Higher Education.” The Supreme Court had outlawed
separate but equal accommodations on railway cars and in universities in Texas
Up North, his grandson, a painter named Purnell Shields, Mrs. Obama’s
grandfather, was positioning his family to seize the widening opportunities in
But as his descendants moved forward, they lost touch with the past. Today,
Dolphus Shields lies in a neglected black cemetery, where patches of grass grow
knee-high and many tombstones have toppled.
Mrs. Holt, a retired nursing assistant, said he came to her in a dream last
month. She dug up his photograph, never guessing that she would soon learn that
Dolphus Shields was a great-great-grandfather of the first lady.
“Oh, my God,” said Mrs. Holt, gasping at the news. “I always looked up to him,
but I would never have imagined something like this. Praise God, we’ve come a
Jim Sherling contributed reporting from Rex, Ga. Kitty Bennett contributed
In First Lady’s Roots, a
Complex Path From Slavery, NYT, 8.10.2009,
Boston's Black History Being Unburied at Cemetery
September 26, 2009
Filed at 1:32 p.m. ET
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
The New York Times
BOSTON (AP) -- Somewhere among the grassy hills, canopy trees and 19th
century angel sculptures rest Butler and Mary Wilson.
In the early 1900s, the husband and wife team helped black World War I
servicemen, fought discrimination against African Americans and oversaw the
creation of the Boston NAACP chapter -- the most active in the nation at the
They were laid to rest here, in Boston's historic Forest Hills Cemetery, sharing
the space with writer e.e. cummings and 19th century white abolitionist William
Yet no one is exactly certain just where they buried.
This fall, retired Harvard librarian Sylvia McDowell and the nonprofit wing of
the cemetery are combing through historic funeral documents, gathering oral
histories, and searching old maps to locate the Wilsons and other African
Americans of Boston's past. McDowell and the Forest Hills Educational Trust say
these people reflect New England's often overlooked ties to black history.
This is no small task: researchers are looking through records of more than
100,000 people buried throughout the 280-acre cemetery.
Once the graves of significant black figures are located, they will be included
in guidebooks and tours so future generations can learn about them, McDowell
''I'm digging up spirits,'' McDowell said. ''Their voices have stories,
wonderful stories. We just need to find them.''
Established in 1848, the Forest Hills Cemetery came at the height of the
abolitionist movement and increased immigration to Boston. The sprawling rural
cemetery was founded as a municipal burial ground making the nondenominational
cemetery more culturally diverse and socially experimental than other sites. The
cemetery also was one of the first to allow blacks to be buried alongside
whites, but didn't keep records of the race of the departed.
While other cemeteries remained segregated due to law or economics, Forest Hills
prided itself on being opened to everyone, said Cecily Miller, executive
director of the Forest Hills Educational Trust.
Today, visitors come to the cemetery because it's part sculpture park, part
museum, part historic site.
For years, the Forest Hills Educational Trust has sought money to incorporate
its African American past into its many tours of statues, historic gravestones
and unique stories. The only well-known African American's grave currently
included on tours is that of William Cooper Nell, a black abolitionist and
But it wasn't until earlier this year when the group landed a $3,000 grant from
Mass Humanities to help pay for McDowell's research that the trust was able to
launch its efforts.
McDowell started at the cemetery's newest section by locating old friends,
family of acquaintances and well-known African Americans from recent years. She
had moved to Boston from Washington D.C. in 1952 to study library science at
Simmons College and felt she had a grasp of contemporary black history in
As word of her project spread, McDowell located people such as James T.
''Slyde'' Godbolt -- an American jazz master tap dancer. She also found David S.
Nelson, the first African American appointed to the federal bench in Boston, and
Harriet C. Hall, a politically active woman who was co-founder of the
interracial Women's Republican Club on Beacon Hill in 1920.
''It's amazing how many people have contacted us to help,'' McDowell said.
So far, McDowell said she's located about 500 sites and expects to find at least
But the more difficult task is locating those figures from the 19th and early
20th centuries, some buried in unmarked graves.
Descendants of some of those buried have come forward with information. ''The
other day we got a call from a family member who said she has a relative who was
an escaped slave and was buried here,'' Miller said.
China Galland, author of ''Love Cemetery: Unburying the Secret History of
Slaves,'' said projects like these allow people to come together to discover a
history that connects them. ''It's cultural and family continuity that's at
stake here,'' Galland said.
''I think it's great that they are doing this,'' said Edith Griffin, 61, of
Groton, Mass., the great-great-granddaughter of William Lloyd Garrison. ''People
need to know that history.''
During a recent search, McDowell and Miller strolled through a winding path to
try to find the gravesite of John Jay Smith -- the 19th century owner of a
barbershop that was a popular hangout for blacks and white abolitionists,
including Garrison and U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner. Smith also was elected to the
Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1868.
''There he is!'' McDowell exclaimed upon spotting Smith's headstone among other
tall ones. She ran to the gravestone that marked his name and the names of other
family members, then gently rubbed it.
''I can't believe it. We found you,'' she said. ''Nice to meet you, Mr. Smith.''
Boston's Black History
Being Unburied at Cemetery, NYT, 26.9.2009,
Obama Rejects Race as Lead Cause of Criticism
September 19, 2009
The New York Times
By JEFF ZELENY
WASHINGTON — President Obama said Friday that he did not believe his race was
the cause of fierce criticism aimed at his administration in the contentious
national debate over health care, but rather that the cause was a sense of
suspicion and distrust many Americans have in their government.
“Are there people out there who don’t like me because of race? I’m sure there
are,” Mr. Obama told CNN. “That’s not the overriding issue here.”
In five separate television interviews at the White House, Mr. Obama said he did
not agree with former President Jimmy Carter’s assertion that racism was fueling
the opposition to his administration. He described himself as just the latest in
a line of presidents whose motives had been questioned because they were trying
to enact major change.
Mr. Obama will appear on five Sunday talk shows — an unprecedented step for a
president — to promote his health care plan. The television networks broadcast
brief parts of their interviews on Friday evening, all of which focused on a
question the White House has sought to avoid all week: Has race played a role in
Mr. Obama, the nation’s first black president, said “race is such a volatile
issue in this society” that he conceded it had become difficult for people to
tell whether it was simply a backdrop of the current political discussion or “a
“Now there are some who are, setting aside the issue of race, actually I think
are more passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right,”
he told ABC News. “And I think that that’s probably the biggest driver of some
of the vitriol.”
The president spoke to anchors from three broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC
as well as the cable networks CNN and Univision.
He conceded that many people were skeptical of the health care legislation
making its way through Congress.
“The overwhelming part of the American population, I think, is right now
following this debate, and they are trying to figure out, is this going to help
me?” Mr. Obama said in one of the interviews. “Is health care going to make me
But even as the White House sought to push it aside, the issue of race persisted
through the week, with some critics saying it was the reason a Republican
lawmaker was disrespectful to the president last week, calling him a liar as Mr.
Obama addressed a joint session of Congress. The television interviews on Friday
were the first time Mr. Obama had weighed in.
“Look, I said during the campaign there’s some people who still think through a
prism of race when it comes to evaluating me and my candidacy. Absolutely,” Mr.
Obama told NBC News. “Sometimes they vote for me for that reason; sometimes they
vote against me for that reason.”
But he said that the matter was really “an argument that’s gone on for the
history of this republic. And that is, what’s the right role of government?”
The president said the contentious health care debate, which came on the heels
of extraordinary government involvement in bailing out banks and automobile
companies, had led to a broader discussion about the role of government in
“I think that what’s driving passions right now is that health care has become a
proxy for a broader set of issues about how much government should be involved
in our economy,” Mr. Obama told CBS News. “Even though we’re having a passionate
disagreement here, we can be civil to each other, and we can try to express
ourselves acknowledging that we’re all patriots, we’re all Americans and not
assume the absolute worst in people’s motives.”
The president used the media blitz to add his own commentary about the news
He said he blamed cable television and blogs, which he said “focus on the most
extreme element on both sides,” for much of the inflamed rhetoric.
“The easiest way to get 15 minutes of fame,” Mr. Obama said, “is to be rude to
Obama Rejects Race as
Lead Cause of Criticism, NYT, 19.9.2009,
As Race Debate Grows, Obama Steers Clear of It
September 17, 2009
The New York Times
By JEFF ZELENY and JIM RUTENBERG
WASHINGTON — President Obama has long suggested that he would like to move
beyond race. The question now is whether the country will let him.
He woke up on Wednesday to a rapidly intensifying debate about how his race
factors into the broader discussion of civility in politics, a question prompted
in part by former President Jimmy Carter’s assertion Tuesday that racism was
behind a Republican lawmaker’s outburst against Mr. Obama last week as the
president addressed a joint session of Congress.
Even before that, several conservatives had accused their liberal counterparts
of unfairly tainting them as racists for engaging in legitimate criticism of the
Mr. Obama’s response to all this, aides say, has been to tell his staff not to
be distracted by the charges and to focus on health care and the rest of his
“He could probably give a very powerful speech on race, just as he did in the
course of the campaign,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama.
“But right now his top domestic priority is health care reform. It’s difficult,
challenging and complicated. And if he leads by example, our country will be far
During the presidential campaign, when he disavowed the incendiary remarks of
his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., he took the opportunity to explain
his views on race in America and invite reconciliation. And after he stumbled in
July in accusing the police of “acting stupidly” by arresting the Harvard
professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., he used the occasion for what he called a
But this time the White House has made clear that it does not want to engage on
the topic, which beyond threatening to distract attention from the health care
push could also put further strain on Mr. Obama’s broad but tenuous electoral
coalition of liberals and moderates, Democrats and independents.
Signaling that he had no intention of lending his voice to Mr. Carter’s
accusation, the president declined to answer a reporter’s question on the
subject in the Oval Office on Wednesday.
And his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, told reporters again and again at the
daily White House briefing that Mr. Obama did not share Mr. Carter’s views on
the motivations of Representative Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican who
shouted “You lie!” during Mr. Obama’s address.
Even as several leading Congressional Democrats distanced themselves from Mr.
Carter’s comments, some liberals pointed Wednesday to what they describe as an
increasing number of racially tinged attacks. At last weekend’s conservative
protest in Washington, there were Confederate flags, references on placards to
sending Mr. Obama to Africa and pictures of him in whiteface, as the Joker in
the last “Batman” movie. There are also, of course, the continuing questions
from some on the right about his United States citizenship.
But a number of prominent conservatives say critics have been smeared by many of
the president’s supporters.
On his radio program this week, Rush Limbaugh said, “Today, it’s all based in
racism — the criticism of Obama’s health care plan or whatever.” On Fox News,
former Speaker Newt Gingrich added, “I think it’s very destructive for America
to suggest that we can’t criticize a president without it being a racial act.”
It is difficult to gauge the extent to which the vitriol that has come Mr.
Obama’s way is racially motivated and the extent to which it is simply akin to
that directed at his white predecessors.
Former officials who served under President George W. Bush have been quick to
recall this week that protesters frequently compared him to Hitler and that the
Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, called him a “loser” and a “liar.”
In an interview Wednesday shortly after meeting privately with Mr. Obama in the
Oval Office, Colin L. Powell, secretary of state under Mr. Bush, said: “You can
find pictures where Bush was called all kinds of names, with all sorts of
banners being held up and burned in effigy. I’ve seen it in every presidency.”
Mr. Powell said he believed that Mr. Obama might be facing even more apparent
hostility but that the blame lay not necessarily in racial bias, but instead
with the partisan culture of the Internet and cable news and the way they
amplify the more extreme voices.
“The issue there is not race, it’s civility,” Mr. Powell said. “This is not to
say that we are suddenly racially pure, but constantly talking about it and
reducing everything to black versus white is not helpful to the cause of
restoring civility to our public dialogue.”
Other supporters of Mr. Obama, however, say they cannot help seeing overt racism
in some of the conservative attacks.
“You cannot act like you don’t have several hundred years of racial context
here, where a painted face has a racial context to it in this country,” said
Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who helped on Mr. Obama’s presidential
campaign and has studied race extensively.
Mr. Belcher and other Obama allies said that some race-based discomfort was
inevitable, especially among very conservative white voters who see Mr. Obama’s
rise as reflecting a shift in the social order that comes at their expense.
Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland and former chairman of
the Congressional Black Caucus, said: “It’s difficult, because people haven’t
seen this before. They’ve never seen a black president wanting to talk to their
children, a black man saying, ‘We can do better.’ ”
Mr. Obama has many top aides who are white and have spent years dealing with
race in the context of politics. He also has a close group of African-American
advisers and friends for whom a racial conversation like the one bubbling up
this week is not an abstract issue but a way of life. There have been occasional
tensions between the two groups in the past, but on Wednesday, at least, there
were no obvious signs of disagreement.
His goal, Mr. Obama has told both camps, is to be seen as a president who
happens to be black rather than the nation’s first black president.
As Race Debate Grows, Obama Steers Clear of
It, NYT, 17.9.2009,
The Recession’s Racial Divide
September 13, 2009
The New York Times
By BARBARA EHRENREICH
and DEDRICK MUHAMMAD
WHAT do you get when you combine the worst economic downturn since the
Depression with the first black president? A surge of white racial resentment,
loosely disguised as a populist revolt. An article on the Fox News Web site has
put forth the theory that health reform is a stealth version of reparations for
slavery: whites will foot the bill and, by some undisclosed mechanism, blacks
will get all the care. President Obama, in such fantasies, is a dictator and, in
one image circulated among the anti-tax, anti-health reform “tea parties,” he is
depicted as a befeathered African witch doctor with little tusks coming out of
his nostrils. When you’re going down, as the white middle class has been doing
for several years now, it’s all too easy to imagine that it’s because someone
else is climbing up over your back.
Despite the sense of white grievance, though, blacks are the ones who are taking
the brunt of the recession, with disproportionately high levels of foreclosures
and unemployment. And they weren’t doing so well to begin with. At the start of
the recession, 33 percent of the black middle class was already in danger of
falling to a lower economic level, according to a study by the Institute on
Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis University and Demos, a nonpartisan public
policy research organization.
In fact, you could say that for African-Americans the recession is over. It
occurred from 2000 to 2007, as black employment decreased by 2.4 percent and
incomes declined by 2.9 percent. During those seven years, one-third of black
children lived in poverty, and black unemployment — even among college graduates
— consistently ran at about twice the level of white unemployment.
That was the black recession. What’s happening now is more like a depression.
Nauvata and James, a middle-aged African American couple living in Prince
Georges County, Md., who asked that their last name not be published, had never
recovered from the first recession of the ’00s when the second one came along.
In 2003 Nauvata was laid off from a $25-an-hour administrative job at Aetna, and
in 2007 she wound up in $10.50-an-hour job at a car rental company. James has
had a steady union job as a building equipment operator, but the two couldn’t
earn enough to save themselves from predatory lending schemes.
They were paying off a $524 dining set bought on credit from the furniture store
Levitz when it went out of business, and their debt swelled inexplicably as it
was sold from one creditor to another. The couple ultimately spent a total of
$3,800 to both pay it off and hire a lawyer to clear their credit rating. But to
do this they had to refinance their home — not once, but with a series of
mortgage lenders. Now they face foreclosure.
Nauvata, who is 47, has since seen her blood pressure soar, and James, 56, has
developed heart palpitations. “There is no middle class anymore,” he told us,
“just a top and a bottom.”
Plenty of formerly middle- or working-class whites have followed similar paths
to ruin: the layoff or reduced hours, the credit traps and ever-rising debts,
the lost home. But one thing distinguishes hard-pressed African-Americans as a
group: Thanks to a legacy of a discrimination in both hiring and lending,
they’re less likely than whites to be cushioned against the blows by wealthy
relatives or well-stocked savings accounts. In 2008, on the cusp of the
recession, the typical African-American family had only a dime for every dollar
of wealth possessed by the typical white family. Only 18 percent of blacks and
Latinos had retirement accounts, compared with 43.4 percent of whites.
Racial asymmetry was stamped on this recession from the beginning. Wall Street’s
reckless infatuation with subprime mortgages led to the global financial crash
of 2007, which depleted home values and 401(k)’s across the racial spectrum.
People of all races got sucked into subprime and adjustable-rate mortgages, but
even high-income blacks were almost twice as likely to end up with subprime
home-purchase loans as low-income whites — even when they qualified for prime
mortgages, even when they offered down payments.
According to a 2008 report by United for a Fair Economy, a research and advocacy
group, from 1998 to 2006 (before the subprime crisis), blacks lost $71 billion
to $93 billion in home-value wealth from subprime loans. The researchers called
this family net-worth catastrophe the “greatest loss of wealth in recent history
for people of color.” And the worst was yet to come.
In a new documentary film about the subprime crisis, “American Casino,” solid
black citizens — a high school social studies teacher, a psychotherapist, a
minister — relate how they lost their homes when their monthly mortgage payments
exploded. Watching the parts of the film set in Baltimore is a little like
watching the TV series “The Wire,” except that the bad guys don’t live in the
projects; they hover over computer screens on Wall Street.
It’s not easy to get people to talk about their subprime experiences. There’s
the humiliation of having been “played” by distant, mysterious forces. “I don’t
feel very good about myself,” says the teacher in “American Casino.” “I kind of
feel like a failure.”
Even people who know better tend to blame themselves — like Melonie Griffith, a
40-year-old African-American who works with the Boston group City Life/La Vida
Urbana helping other people avoid foreclosure and eviction. She criticizes
herself for having been “naïve” enough to trust the mortgage lender who, in
2004, told her not to worry about the high monthly payments she was signing on
for because the mortgage would be refinanced in “a couple of months.” The lender
then disappeared, leaving Ms. Griffith in foreclosure, with “nowhere for my kids
and me to go.” Only when she went public with her story did she find that she
wasn’t the only one. “There is a consistent pattern here,” she told us.
Mortgage lenders like Countrywide and Wells Fargo sought out minority homebuyers
for the heartbreakingly simple reason that, for decades, blacks had been denied
mortgages on racial grounds, and were thus a ready-made market for the gonzo
mortgage products of the mid-’00s. Banks replaced the old racist practice of
redlining with “reverse redlining” — intensive marketing aimed at black
neighborhoods in the name of extending home ownership to the historically
excluded. Countrywide, which prided itself on being a dream factory for
previously disadvantaged homebuyers, rolled out commercials showing canny black
women talking their husbands into signing mortgages.
At Wells Fargo, Elizabeth Jacobson, a former loan officer at the company,
recently revealed — in an affidavit in a lawsuit by the City of Baltimore — that
salesmen were encouraged to try to persuade black preachers to hold
“wealth-building seminars” in their churches. For every loan that resulted from
these seminars, whether to buy a new home or refinance one, Wells Fargo promised
to donate $350 to the customer’s favorite charity, usually the church. (Wells
Fargo denied any effort to market subprime loans specifically to blacks.)
Another former loan officer, Tony Paschal, reported that at the same time
cynicism was rampant within Wells Fargo, with some employees referring to
subprimes as “ghetto loans” and to minority customers as “mud people.”
If any cultural factor predisposed blacks to fall for risky loans, it was one
widely shared with whites — a penchant for “positive thinking” and unwarranted
optimism, which takes the theological form of the “prosperity gospel.” Since
“God wants to prosper you,” all you have to do to get something is “name it and
claim it.” A 2000 DVD from the black evangelist Creflo Dollar featured
African-American parishioners shouting, “I want my stuff — right now!”
Joel Osteen, the white megachurch pastor who draws 40,000 worshippers each
Sunday, about two-thirds of them black and Latino, likes to relate how he
himself succumbed to God’s urgings — conveyed by his wife — to upgrade to a
larger house. According to Jonathan Walton, a religion professor at the
University of California at Riverside, pastors like Mr. Osteen reassured people
about subprime mortgages by getting them to believe that “God caused the bank to
ignore my credit score and bless me with my first house.” If African-Americans
made any collective mistake in the mid-’00s, it was to embrace white culture too
enthusiastically, and substitute the individual wish-fulfillment promoted by
Norman Vincent Peale for the collective-action message of Martin Luther King.
But you didn’t need a dodgy mortgage to be wiped out by the subprime crisis and
ensuing recession. Black unemployment is now at 15.1 percent, compared with 8.9
percent for whites. In New York City, black unemployment has been rising four
times as fast as that of whites. By 2010, according to Lawrence Mishel of the
Economic Policy Institute, 40 percent of African-Americans nationwide will have
endured patches of unemployment or underemployment.
One result is that blacks are being hit by a second wave of foreclosures caused
by unemployment. Willett Thomas, a neat, wiry 47-year-old in Washington who
describes herself as a “fiscal conservative,” told us that until a year ago she
thought she’d “figured out a way to live my dream.” Not only did she have a job
and a house, but she had a rental property in Gainesville, Fla., leaving her
with the flexibility to pursue a part-time writing career.
Then she became ill, lost her job and fell behind on the fixed-rate mortgage on
her home. The tenants in Florida had financial problems of their own and stopped
paying rent. Now, although she manages to have an interview a week and regularly
upgrades her résumé, Ms. Thomas cannot find a new job. The house she lives in is
Mulugeta Yimer of Alexandria, Va., still has his taxi-driving job, but it no
longer pays enough to live on. A thin, tall man with worry written all over his
face, Mr. Yimer came to this country in 1981 as a refugee from Ethiopia, firmly
believing in the American dream. In 2003, when Wells Fargo offered him an
adjustable-rate mortgage, he calculated that he’d be able to deal with the
higher interest rate when it kicked in. But the recession delivered a
near-mortal blow to the taxi industry, even in the still relatively affluent
Washington suburbs. He’s now putting in 19-hour days, with occasional naps in
his taxi, while his wife works 32 hours a week at a convenience store, but they
still don’t earn enough to cover expenses: $400 a month for health insurance,
$800 for child care and $1,700 for the mortgage. What will Mr. Yimer do if he
ends up losing his house? “We’ll go to a shelter, I guess,” he said, throwing
open his hands, “if we can find one.”
So despite the right-wing perception of black power grabs, this recession is on
track to leave blacks even more economically disadvantaged than they were. Does
a black president who is inclined toward bipartisanship dare address this
destruction of the black middle class? Probably not. But if Americans of all
races don’t get some economic relief soon, the pain will only increase and with
it, perversely, the unfounded sense of white racial grievance.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of the forthcoming “Bright-Sided: How the
Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.” Dedrick
Muhammad is a senior organizer and research associate at the Institute for
The Recession’s Racial