“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a song first written as a poem in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938). It was Weldon’s brother John Rosamond Johnson who set the poem to music. The poem was first spoken aloud by several hundred schoolchildren on February 12th, 1900, at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, where James Johnson was principal. The recital of the new poem was meant to honour both visiting guest Booker T. Washington – and Abraham Lincoln, whose birth date fell on the same day.
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Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into The Light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee;
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.
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Augusta Savage (1892-1962), a Florida sculptor (born near Jacksonville) who grew artistically / worked in New York City during The Harlem Renaissance, was commissioned in 1939 to do a monumental plaster work for the New York World’s Fair. “The Harp” was strongly influenced by James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. The 16-foot tall piece was exhibited outside the Contemporary Arts building where it received much acclaim. The sculpture depicted twelve stylized Black singers of graduated heights that symbolized the strings of the harp. The sounding board was formed by the hand and arm of God, and a kneeling man holding music represented the foot pedal. No funds were made available to cast “The Harp” in permanent bronze, nor were there any facilities to store it. After the World’s Fair was over, “The Harp” was demolished, like most of the event’s art.
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The Quinto is the lead drum (tumbadora in Cuba, conga elsewhere) used in the various forms of Afro-Cuban Rumba. It is also the smallest of the three. These drums – of Cuban slave-hybridized Bantu-Congolese / Lucumi-Yoruba origin – are tall (though the Quinto may be only one foot tall), narrow, and single-headed. The Cuban version of such tumbadoras is staved, like a barrel; it may have originated from salvaged barrels at one time. Rumba-quinto master and Latin-Jazz percussionist Ramón “Mongo” Santamaría Rodríguez (Havana, Cuba, 1922 – February 1st, 2003) demonstrated his creative skill on the Quinto in the classic 1959 recording Mazacote (“Sweet hodgepodge”):
To read “I Want to Be a Drum” by Mozambican poet José Craveirinha click the link below:
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“Make sparks”: an inspirational poem
Two at The Movies;
One on The Bus;
Three for Justice.
Step upon step,
Day after day,
Choice by choice.
And what if You,
And what if I,
Lend our voices,
Look Wrong in its eye?
It’s hard to have guts
Yet do it we must
– no ifs, ands, or buts –
Cry “Freedom!” and Aye –
Trust in Our Common Future.
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The illustration at the top is called “Poesía visual para Rosa Parks” by Rodrigo Alvarez. Alvarez uses musical symbols in ironic fashion. His equation means: one white half note does not equal two black quarter notes. Yet in musical notation half notes are white, and they do equal two black quarter notes. Alvarez has created a confusing “non-equation” to draw attention to untenable notions of racial segregation and inequality.
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They stood up for their rights – by sitting down: Carrie Best and Viola Desmond
Carrie Best (1903-2001) was born in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Canada. She was the daughter of James and Georgina Ashe Prevoe, and married Albert T. Best in 1925. Carrie founded Nova Scotia’s first Black-owned-and-published newspaper, The Clarion, in 1946. She featured a radio programme, The Quiet Corner, which aired from 1952 to 1964. She also wrote as a columnist for The Pictou Advocate newspaper from 1968 to 1975. Best was made a Member of The Order of Canada in 1974, and her image was issued on a Canadian postage stamp in February 2011.
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Carrie Best was in her mid 70s when she published an autobiography entitled That Lonesome Road. For a woman who had a sure sense of her self and of her utmost worth – and who was a person of capital I Integrity – it is interesting to observe that she left out of her autobiographical record – and, indeed, in 2014 the Wikipedia entry for her does the same – an important personal event which matters a great deal to the history of human-rights progress in Canada. The reason for the omission can only be guessed at; perhaps it was because the events she left undescribed took place in the town of her birth of which she was a good and loyal citizen – and that the personal hurt was very deep indeed. This is only surmise.
Racial segregation in Canada during the 1940s had no broad national legislation. While a “colour bar” could exist, and did exist, in various towns and cities throughout the country – be it at a restaurant, dance pavilion or swimming pool – yet there was no all-pervasive law. Indeed, sometimes it was practised as a kind of “social convention” or “tradition” – with no legal binding to it. Yet there were also no statutes in Canadian law that forbade racial segregation. In New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, racial segregation was sometimes practised, informally, but it was introduced in a different and dramatic way in December of 1941. This may have been a response to the increasing social mobility of Black people; it could’ve been because of the fact that more “Negroes” – and these were locally-born New Glaswegians, as well – were stepping out to see the Picture Show…
Norman W. Mason was a sometime-mayor of New Glasgow and an impresario who ran the Roseland Theatre from its inception in 1913. In December of 1941 he gave new-seating policy instructions to his Roseland staff: to require that Negroes attending the Roseland’s films sit upstairs at the Balcony level instead of in the main-floor auditorium, known as Downstairs. When Carrie Best heard that several high-school-age Black girls had been forcibly removed from the Roseland for refusing to comply with the new policy, Best herself paid a visit to the Roseland and asked that the staff discontinue their discriminatory practice of dividing patrons by colour. This was a beginning, and it proved fruitless. So she wrote a letter to Mr. Mason, owner and operator of the Roseland Theatre:
“Dear Mr. Mason:
I sincerely trust that this is the last time that I shall be forced to undergo the humiliating and undemocratic treatment that I have been forced to undergo from your employees at the Roseland Theatre.
It should not be necessary for me to remind them that I am a citizen and taxpayer in the town and as such have the right under British law to sit in any public place I wish to while I enter and exit in a clean, orderly manner.
I have spent the entire afternoon conducting a personal Gallup poll to see if this rule is the carry-over from the faraway days of slavery or if this is the rule of the Board of Directors and shareholders of the Roseland Theatre Company. Scores of respected citizens were amazed to believe that such Jim Crow tactics are practiced on decent law-abiding citizens and when the time comes have said they will not hesitate to speak against it.
Today I speak for one family, the Bests, my husband, my son and myself. I will ask, no, I will demand to be given the same rights as the Chinese and other nationalities of the Dominion of Canada and today I speak for my family only. As I am too tired to come to the theatre tonight, I respectfully request you, Sir, to instruct your employees to sell me the ticket I wish when next I come to the theatre or I shall make public every statement made to me by you and your help: of negroes being dirty, smelly, etc., and of you taking it upon yourself to evict high-school girls of irreproachable character from your office. Please get this straight, Mr. Mason. If respectable coloured people are cowardly enough to put up with such treatment they are welcome. I speak today for no family but my own and if you wish a public controversy both pro and con as to whether you have the power of a dictator to decide in a British town who is a citizen and who isn’t, you can have it. If my words are clear and strong I wish you could have heard some of the citizens who do not believe such a thing is possible in times like these. The statement of your employee to me that no coloured person can sit downstairs in the Capitol Theatre in Halifax is a lie of the first order as I have and always do sit there and I am sure the public will be interested to hear all this. I am coming to the theatre Monday.”
Monday, December 29th, 1941. The film feature was “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” with Robert Montgomery, Evelyn Keyes and Claude Rains. Carrie Best arrived at the Roseland with her son, Calbert. Carrie placed two quarters on the ticket-seller’s counter and asked for two downstairs seats. The ticket-seller, Caroline White, gave Carrie two balcony tickets and ten cents change. (Main floor seats were 25 cents each, balcony seats were 20 cents each.) Carrie Best and her son entered the theatre – the mainfloor i.e. downstairs seating level. Mrs. Best left behind both the tickets and the change at the counter.
Erskine Cumming, the Roseland’s assistant manager, was standing in the lobby in front of the entrance to the downstairs seating area. He asked the Bests for their tickets and Carrie Best replied that she had left the money and the tickets back at the counter. Mr. Cumming followed in behind them when they entered the auditorium, while explaining to them that “all coloured people must sit upstairs.” Mrs. Best’s response was: “I am inside now. Put me out.” Mr. Cumming returned to the box office, retrieved the money that Carrie Best had left there, came back inside and gave it to her – then asked her to leave. She refused, claiming that she was “a British subject with as much right to be here as anyone else.” Upon the third time that Mr. Cumming asked Mrs. Best to leave he put the 50 cents into her purse and then told her that she was seated in the downstairs area without a ticket – and that if she would not leave he would call the police. Carrie Best and her son Calbert stood their ground – by remaining seated.
A short time later, New Glasgow police officer George S. Wright arrived at the Roseland and asked the Bests to leave. When Carrie Best refused to do so, the town’s Chief of Police, Elmo Langille, was summoned. Chief Langille ordered the Bests to leave – and they refused to vacate their seats. At which point Officer Wright placed his hands under Carrie Best’s arms and raised her from her seat. When Wright had done this, Mrs. Best said to him: “That’s all I wanted you to do – put your hands on me. I will fix you for this.” And then, accompanied by Calbert, she walked out of the Roseland Theatre.
The above re-counting – from Constance Backhouse’s 1998 essay (published in Atlantis, Vol.22.2): “I was unable to identify with Topsy”: Carrie M. Best’s struggle against racial segregation in Nova Scotia, 1942 – gives a plain account of events (taken from both court documents and from first-person interviews).
Best v. Mason and Roseland Theatre, 1942, was a very brief court case. Judge Robert Henry Graham of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court presided over the trial in May of 1942. After the plaintiff’s case had been presented – the plaintiff being Carrie Best who was “a Negress”, “a British subject”, and “a married woman” – and after the defence’s evidence called upon, Judge Graham, in charging the jury, made his views known. Though theatres advertise their services generally to the public, yet the management had the right to exclude anyone from the theatre – and that theatres therefore were no different from private dwellings. Graham advised the jury thus: “The ordinary citizen [has] the right to exclude anyone from their homes unless a contract [has] been entered into.” (Quotation from the Advocate Newspaper, 21 May, 1942.) In his closing advice to the jury Graham urged them to disregard any other questions raised by the litigation – these were “irrelevant”. The jury did as it was told, Judge Graham dismissed Carrie Best’s suit, and she was ordered to pay $156.07 to the defendant, Norman Mason of the Roseland Theatre.
After her legal defeat, Best embarked upon a career in journalism, editing the newspapers The Clarion and The New Negro Citizen. Being a journalist she described (in her 1977 autobiography) as being “very satisfying”, “a release from frustration and disappointment”, and “a prescription for impatience”.
In November of 1946, a Black hairdresser and salon owner from Halifax, Viola Desmond (1914-1965), received similar treatment to Carrie Best when she was forcibly removed from the same Roseland Theatre for seating herself in the main-floor auditorium. In court, Desmond was found guilty of not paying the one-cent difference in tax between a balcony ticket and a main-floor ticket. There were subsequent trials during which the Nova Scotia government insisted upon arguing that Desmond’s was a case of tax evasion pure and simple. Retail sales tax was calculated based on the price of the theatre ticket. Since the theatre would only agree to sell the Black woman a cheaper balcony ticket, but she had insisted upon sitting in the more expensive main floor seat, she was therefore one cent short on tax. For her crime of so-called tax evasion, she was removed from the theatre, stayed in jail overnight, tried without counsel, convicted and fined. Most interestingly: during the trial, no-one admitted that Viola Desmond was Black, and that the Roseland Theatre maintained a racist seating policy. The trial was steered as one of tax evasion and efforts to have Desmond’s conviction overturned at higher levels of court failed.
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So – why all these details? – and why put the town of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, under the microscope three quarters of a century later? First, because Carrie Best was principled and brave, and because Viola Desmond had guts. Second, because specific examples from specific places make History real. New Glasgow was just one of many towns and cities nation-wide where such incidents occurred – a number of them lost to the historical legal record because they never acquired further shape in a court document; such incidents were borne and buried.
Constance Backhouse, in the closing remarks of her essay about Carrie Best, is worth quoting in full: “The awards and honours bestowed on Carrie Best [in later life] are matters of public record. That her lawsuit seeking redress for racial segregation – unsuccessful though it may have been – has not equally been noted is one indication of how deeply the past history of racism in Canada remains buried. Until recently [the 1990s], Canadian historians and lawyers have largely neglected to pursue research into issues of race, racism and struggles to resist discrimination. This failure calls out for further scrutiny. Why have momentous cases such as this not been discovered and analyzed before? Answers are complex and may include: the prevailing mythology that Canada has a rather benevolent record on racial discrimination; the artificially ‘race-neutral’ categories of much legal and historical doctrine; etc. These and other barriers to the recovery of Canada’s racial history must be scaled – and soon.”
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We have posted this “one-town” examination of Canadian racial segregation – and of the lives of Carrie Best and Viola Desmond – to coincide with the birth date – February 4th, 1913 – of Rosa Parks.
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Henrietta Cordelia Ray (1852?-1916)
(from: Champions of Freedom, published 1910)
To those fair isles where crimson sunsets burn,
We send a backward glance to gaze on thee,
Brave Toussaint! thou wast surely born to be
A hero; thy proud spirit could but spurn
Each outrage on thy race. Couldst thou unlearn
The lessons taught by instinct? Nay! and we
Who share the zeal that would make all men free,
Must e’en with pride unto thy life-work turn.
Soul-dignity was thine and purest aim;
And ah! how sad that thou wast left to mourn
In chains ‘neath alien skies. On him, shame! shame!
That mighty conqueror who dared to claim
The right to bind thee. Him we heap with scorn,
And noble patriot! guard with love thy name.
Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743-1803): Leader of the Haitian Revolution for Independence
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What is ambition? ’tis unrest, defeat!
A goad, a spur, a Quick’ning the heart’s beat;
A fevered pulse, a grasp at shadows fleet,
A beck’ning vision, fair, illusive, sweet!
What we to-day prize and most fondly cherish,
To-morrow scarce may claim a moment’s reck’ning.
Yet why adjust the cause? Let doubt all perish.
Can argument withstand the spirit’s beck’ning?
“In Memoriam: Paul Laurence Dunbar”
The Muse of Poetry came down one day,
And brought with willing hands a rare, sweet gift;
She lingered near the cradle of a child,
Who first unto the sun his eyes did lift.
She touched his lips with true Olympian fire,
And at her bidding Fancies hastened there,
To flutter lovingly around the one
So favored by the Muse’s gentle care.
Who was this child? The offspring of a race
That erst had toiled ‘neath slavery’s galling chains.
And soon he woke to utterance and sang
In sweetly cadenced and in stirring strains,
Of simple joys, and yearnings, and regrets;
Anon to loftier themes he turned his pen;
For so in tender, sympathetic mood
He caught the follies and the griefs of men.
His tones were various: we list, and lo!
“Malindy Sings,” and as the echoes die,
The keynote changes and another strain
Of solemn majesty goes floating by;
And sometimes in the beauty and the grace
Of an impassioned, melancholy lay,
We seem to hear the surge, and swell, and moan
Of soft orchestral music far away.
Paul Dunbar dead! His genius cannot die!
It lives in songs that thrill, and glow, and soar;
Their pathos and their joy will fill our hearts,
And charm and satisfy e’en as of yore.
So when we would lament our poet gone,
With sorrow that his lyre is resting now,
Let us remember, with the fondest pride,
That Fame’s immortal wreath has crowned his brow.
Paul (Laurence) Dunbar (1872-1906): Black-American poet and playwright from Dayton, Ohio
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To read poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar click on the following link:
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Source for the above poems: the online archives of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Harlem, New York City)
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Josephine Delphine Henderson Heard (1861-1921)
“The Advance of Education”
What means this host advancing,
With such melodious strain:
These men on steeds a prancing,
This mighty marshaled train.
They come while drum and fife resound,
And steeds with foam aflecked,
Whose restless feet do spurn the ground,
Their riders gaily decked.
With banners proudly waving,
Fearless in Freedom’s land,
All opposition braving,
With courage bold they stand.
Come join the raging battle,
Come join the glorious fray;
Come spite of bullets’ rattle,
This is enlistment day.
Hark ! hear the Proclamation
Extend o’er all the land;
Come every Tribe and Nation
Join education’s band.
Now the command is given–
Strike ! strike grim ignorance low;
Strike till her power is given;
Strike a decisive blow.
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“Sunshine after Cloud”
Come, “Will,” let’s be good friends again,
Our wrongs let’s be forgetting,
For words bring only useless pain,
So wherefore then be fretting.
Let’s lay aside imagined wrongs,
And ne’er give way to grieving,
Life should be filled with joyous songs,
No time left for deceiving.
I’ll try and not give way to wrath,
Nor be so often crying;
There must some thorns be in our path,
Let’s move them now by trying.
How, like a foolish pair were we,
To fume about a letter;
Time is so precious, you and me;
Must spend ours doing better.
Perchance, the friend who cheered thy early years,
Has yielded to the tempter’s power;
Yet, why shrink back and draw away thy skirt,
As though her very touch would do thee hurt?
Wilt thou prove stronger in temptation’s hour?
Perchance, the one thou trusteth more than life,
Has broken love’s most sacred vow;
Yet judge him not–the victor in life’s strife,
Is he who beareth best the burden of life,
And leaveth God to judge, nor questions how.
Sing the great song of love to all, and not
The wailing anthems of thy woes;
So live thy life that thou may’st never feel
Afraid to say, as at His throne you kneel,
“Forgive me God, as I forgive my foes!”
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Source for the above poems: the online archives of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Harlem, New York City)
Photographs: An unknown Beauty in her finery, perhaps around 1910? / A portrait of, possibly, one Clifford L. Miller, first decade of the 20th century?
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Octavia Victoria Rogers Albert (1853-1890) was born into slavery in Oglethorpe, Georgia. After Emancipation she studied to be a schoolteacher at Atlanta University. A devout young woman, she felt strongly that teaching was a form of worship and Christian service. Her first teaching post was at the age of 21, in Montezuma, Georgia, where she also met and married A.E.P. Albert, another teacher who would later be ordained as a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The couple settled in Houma, Louisiana, where Octavia began to interview former African-American slaves. She collected their narratives into a volume entitled The House of Bondage, or Charlotte Brooks and Other Slaves, published in 1890. Rogers Albert died before her valuable historical document became widely known.
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From The Introduction to The House of Bondage:
The story of slavery never has been and never will be fully told. In the last letter that John Wesley ever wrote, addressed to Wilberforce, the great abolitionist, and dated February 24, 1791, and this only six days before his tireless hand was quieted in death, he wrote these words: “I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy” (slavery and the slave trade), “which is the scandal of religion of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils; but if God be for you who can be against you P Are all of them together stronger than God? O, be not weary in well doing.’ Go on in the name of God and the power of his might till even American slavery, the vilest that ever saw the sun, shall vanish away before it.”
It is because American slavery was “the vilest that ever saw the sun” that it is and will remain forever impossible to adequately portray its unspeakable horrors, its heartbreaking sorrows, its fathomless miseries of hopeless grief; its intolerable shames, and its heaven-defying and outrageous brutalities.
But while it remains true that the story can never be completely told, it is wise and well that the task should be attempted and in part performed; and this for the reason that there are some who presume that this slavery, “the vilest that ever saw the sun,” has been, and is still, of divine appointment; in short, that from first to last it was a divine institution. It is well to remind all such people that the Almighty Ruler of the universe is not an accessory, either before or after the fact, to such crimes as were involved in slavery. Let no guilty man, let no descendant of such man, attempt to excuse the sin and shame of slave-holding on the ground of its providential character. The truth is that slavery is the product of human greed and lust and oppression, and not of God’s ordering.
Then it is well to write about slavery that the American people may know from what depths of disgrace and infamy they rose when, guided by the hand of God, they broke every yoke and let the oppressed go free. Finally, it is well to tell, though only in part, the story of slavery so that every man, woman, and child of the once enslaved race may know the exceeding mercy of God that has delivered them from the hopeless and helpless despair that might have been their portion if the Lord God Omnipotent had not come forth to smite in divine and righteous wrath the proud oppressor and bring his long-suffering people out of their worse than Egyptian bondage.
This volume, penned by a hand that now rests in the quiet of the tomb, is a contribution to the sum total of the story that can never be entirely told.
In her young girlhood the author had known the accursed system, and she knew the joy of deliverance. With a deep, pathetic tenderness she loved her race; she would gladly have died for their enlightenment and salvation. But she has gone to her reward, leaving behind her the precious legacy of a sweet Christian influence that can only flow forth from a pure and consecrated life.
May this volume go forth to cheer and comfort and inspire to high and holy deeds all who shall read its pages!
Willard Francis Mallalieu
(Bishop, Methodist Episcopal Church)
Boston, Mass., Nov.15, 1890
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“The Curse of Whisky”: Chapter VIII from The House of Bondage by Octavia Victoria Rogers Albert :
The Methodist Episcopal Church–The colored people and whisky-drinking–When the Yankees came to Louisiana–The End of Aunt Charlotte’s story
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“AUNT CHARLOTTE, which church are you a member of here?”
“I am a member of the Methodist Church. Our minister said the other Sunday the Methodist Church divided on account of slavery many years ago, and that the old mother Church never failed to crush out slavery at every turn. It seems to me every Christian that honors God in the pardoning of their sins ought to agree to every thing that is holy and good. How could any Christian man believe it was right to sell and buy us poor colored people just like we was sheep? I tell you, I have seen black people, in slave-time, drove along–may be one hundred in a drove–just like hogs to be sold. Sometimes men were sold from their wives and mothers from their children. I saw a white man in Virginia sell his own child he had by a colored woman there. They say a ‘Merican man never would take care of his children he would have in slave-time by the black women, as a Frenchman would here in Louisiana. Old marster used to say niggers did not have a soul, and I reckon all the white folks thought so too.”
“Aunt Charlotte, education and religion taught them better.”
“Yes, child; for when I first got religion I did not want to hurt an ant. Everything was love, joy, and peace with me. I sometimes think my people don’t pray like they used to in slavery. You know when any child of God gets trouble that’s the time to try their faith. Since freedom it seems my people don’t trust in the Lord as they used to. “Sin is growing bold, and religion is growing cold.’ That’s what our minister says sometimes.”
“Aunt Charlotte, I am told that the colored people are suffering more from the habit of indulging in strong drink than any thing else here in the South.”
“Yes, my dear child; in the time of slavery one hardly knew what whisky was in some places; but since freedom we see men and women drunk. About a year ago I went out to a plantation near this town and I saw two hundred liquor-barrels emptied and laying around on the place. All the planters keep whisky for the laborers, and they spend more money for drink than they do for any thing else. They don’t get much for their work, no way, and I can’t see how the hired men can drink so much whisky.”
“Aunt Charlotte, how much are the men paid per day?”
“They get only fifty and sixty cents a day. Some of the men have a wife and four or five children to take care of. They have their wife to help them, but, la, me! the wife’s help is next to nothing in the field. The women can’t get as much as the men, now way, although they go out and work hard all day long and keep up with the men too.”
“I can’t see, Aunt Charlotte, how any man who has four or five children can afford to drink when he makes only fifty and sixty cents per day!”
“Well, I tell you how they do. They always have an account open in the plantation store, and they allow them to get anything they want from the store. If they come out in debt at the end of the year they work on the next year and pay it. Sometimes they find at the end of the year they owe the planter fifty dollars for whisky. Why, my dear child, I know children on some of them plantations ten years old never had a pair of shoes to keep their feet off the cold, frosty ground since they were born.”
“Yes, I am induced to believe, Aunt Charlotte, that whisky is causing more suffering among the colored people than slavery, or as much, any way. The temperance society that has been lately organized in this town is destined to do much good among the colored people.”
“Yes; the preacher holds temperance meeting every Sunday evening now in our church after preaching. It would do your heart good to hear our sisters make little temperance speeches after preaching on Sunday evenings. We had a sister named Ellen, and her husband was named Jack. Sister Ellen couldn’t read, but she would make her speech whenever her time came around on Sunday evening. She said, ‘Brothers and sisters, I don’t know much and can’t say much, but let me tell you all, since Jack got in this little society the preacher started here he is changed all over. Why, Jack used to sleep in the gutters of water one half of his time at night. I used to have to pick Jack up almost every night and carry him home. He’s got religion too. Jack is a good man. He did not care any thing for his children, and I could not get a cup of coffee one half of my time when he drank gin; but now I get coffee, sugar, and shoes, and he takes care of his children too. Now,’ she said, come up, all you men sitting over yonder, come and join this little society.’ We all would laugh at Sister Ellen, for she seemed so earnest in her talk. She would shake her first and knock on the railing around the altar whenever she got up to speak. She did not mind us laughing, though; she went right on. One time after she got through speaking about ten men and women came up and joined the ‘little society.’
“Aunt Charlotte, it is a great pity, and, my deed, a great sin, for the planters to keep whisky on their plantations for their laborers. It’s a temptation set before them.”
“Yes; I always thought so too; but the planters don’t care just so they get them to do the work good. They don’t get too drunk to work through the week; but on Sundays they lay about almost dead drunk on some plantations. I tell you, I am afraid whisky will ruin my people yet.”
“I trust not, Aunt Charlotte. There is a great temperance movement going on throughout this country, and we are destined to see good results from it. We hope to have a law to prevent the sale of any intoxicating drinks. It may be many years, but I believe we shall have it.”
“I trust in the Lord to bring it to pass. Our people suffer more than any body, for we were turned loose without any thing, and we got no time to waste. We must get education, and, above all things in this world, get religion, and then we will be ladies and gentlemen.”
“Yes; I believe religion and education will lift them upon a level with any other of the civilized races on earth. It’s true we see so much prejudice manifested almost every-where we go; but we must wait on the Lord. He has promised to carry us through.”
Aunt Charlotte said: “It makes me so glad to see my people going to school. Never did I think to see these good times! White people would not let us learn the book in slave time. I used to want to learn when I was young, but they would not even let us have a book to study in. La, child! when the Yankees came out here our eyes began to open, and we have been climbing ever since. Whenever I see a Yankee it makes me mighty glad, for I just feel that God sent them down here to set us free. When the war was going on I heard they was fighting for us. I tell you, when it was going on I did not cease to pray. ‘We done the praying and the Yankees done the fighting, and God heard our prayer’s way down here in these cane-fields. Many times I have bowed down between the cane-rows, when the cane was high, so nobody could see me, and would pray in the time of the war! I used to say, ‘O, my blessed Lord, be pleased to hear my cry; set me free, O my Lord, and I will serve you the balance of my days.’ I knowed God had promised to hear his children when they cry, and he heard us way down here in Egypt.”
Thus ends the story of Aunt Charlotte’s life in the cane-fields of Louisiana. “But the half cannot be told”.
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The above text was provided through the online archives of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, located in Harlem, New York City, at the site of the former 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, which opened in 1905, with construction moneys donated by Andrew Carnegie. In 1920, librarian Ernestine Rose, with the help of Catherine Latimer, the first Black librarian hired by the NYPL, helped to both “integrate” the library’s workforce, and to “integrate” Reading into the lives of patrons, schools and organizations within Harlem. This was achieved with the help of Sadie Peterson Delaney. The 135th Street library soon became a germinating spot for what would later be known as The Harlem Renaissance – via the nurturing efforts of another branch employee – one Regina M. Anderson. If ever there were “cool” librarians, well, those Ladies were It!
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