Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of #4 – Melba Pattillo Beals

September 25, 2009

If you know about the Little Rock Nine and the events of 1957, then you already may know this famous woman. But I imagine that most Americans would not recognize the name of Melba Pattillo Beals.

In 1957,  Melba Pattillo was just fifteen, and she was one of nine young African-American students to integrate Little Rock High in Arkansas. Her story is told in her memoir, Warriors Don’t Cry.

At the end of the school year before, she raised her hand when her teacher at her all-black school asked if any students were interested in attending all-white Central High. Melba did not tell her mother, so it came as a shock when she was selected to attend Central High the next year.

The courage and cruelty that Melba writes about in her memoir is moving and personal. She was threatened with hanging, rape and violence, and people hurled words at her that no child – no person – should have to endure. Such hatred. People threw rocks through her windows at home, and her grandmother sat watch more than once with a shotgun poised for defense.

The Arkansas National Guard closed the doors of Central to the Nine, keeping them out, until Pres. Eisenhower ordered in federal troops of the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the desegragation orders. The situation was so tense and violent that each black student had their own soldier who guarded them against extreme violence, but who could not interfere when the students were called vile names and otherwise tormented. Thumbtacks were placed in seats, people walked on the back of Melba’s heels until they bled, she was tripped, and every day, every hour, was a battle.

Her story would be impressive and inspiring, regardless, but to realize how terribly young all of the Nine were – and to know that they changed the world – is awe-inspiring. Ms. Beals’s story is one that could give any teenager inspiration, strength and comfort, and one that can educate any adult about the price paid by those brave young students all throughout the country who desegragated schools in the 1950s.

All of us are in her debt, and those of the rest of the Little Rock Nine: Thelma Mothershed, Minnijean Brown, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Gloria Ray, Ernest Green, and  Elizabeth Eckford.

© writingreading, 2009


Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of #3 – Ruth Brown

May 13, 2009

Librarians are demure, quiet, old ladies with buns, right? Well, not exactly.

Although Ruth Brown fits much of the stereotype – a little bit frumpy, a single woman, plain in appearance – she took a stand for Civil Rights in her library in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in 1950 that cost her her job. What she did took courage and conviction. Her story is told in the book, The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library by Louise Robbins.

Don’t let the “library” aspect of this one throw you. It is full of intrigue, community infighting, passionate defenders of the status quo, persons willing to take great risks in an attempt to awaken a new social consciousness and justice among their fellow townspeople, class warfare, Red Scares, fabrication of evidence, issues over power and gender, and more. It is, in fact, a bit of a thriller.

Brown had been a librarian for many years in Bartlesville, leading a somewhat true-to-stereotype existence. But as the horrors of the Holocaust during WWII were revealed, she and other like-minded individuals formed the “Committee on the Practice of Democracy” to fight discrimination.

Bartlesville was very much a segregated city in the late 1940s. African-Americans were allowed to use the library and did not have to use a separate facility, but their use and access of materials was under different rules and conditions than white customers, at least prior to World War II.

But when Brown walked into a diner on night in 1950 with two African-American friends who were teachers, she crossed the racial line. The campaign to label her a subversive communist – and thus, oust her from her position, was underway. The American Legion, the D.A.R., and corporate magnates from Phillips Petroleum mounted an overwhelming effort to have her dismissed. She was accused of distributing “subversive” literature, although the books in question were actually recommended by the national professional library association as proper to have in a library, in order to represent a diversity of viewpoints on various subjects. One was even written during WWII when the Russians were our allies, but now it was labeled “subversive.”

Ruth Brown knew when she walked into that diner that day that her act would be provocative, and that her membership in the Committee on the Practice of Democracy could get her fired. She did it anyway.

As a single woman, she did not have much to fall back on after a job loss, personally or financially. She ended up leaving town of her own volition. But her cause was taken to the courts, the national library association made important innovations in their practices and policies, and even Hollywood got into the act. A few years after the actual events, her story was thinly fictionalized and turned into a movie called Storm Center. Hollywood had been through the mill with the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the producers saw in her story a reflection of their own.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book, besides Ruth Brown’s story, is that it unveils so many aspects of American society that we are still struggling with today, particularly in recent years. “Terrorism” is the “new Communism” – and actions are taken today by our government and individuals in the name of “fighting terrorists” that 50 years ago, were used to defend America against the threat of communism. Although the events described in the book happened 50 years ago, much of it is very relevant to today. The book deals with issues of racial equality and justice, women’s power (or lack thereof), censorship, class and economic issues, and more.

Learn more about this brave woman, and be inspired! You’ll never think of librarians as “boring” again.

© writingreading, 2009


The Cost of Voter Apathy

September 27, 2008

Because of the historic occasion of Barack Obama’s nomination, I’ve been reflecting on the legacy of the past 50 years in Civil Rights. In 1950 in the South, black and white children could not attend school together, and could not even drink from the same water fountain. Sure, it’s taken too long, but what a historic and momentous occasion this is for our country – regardless of which political party you belong to or which candidate you support.

If you’re fed up with politics, too cynical to believe either of the candidates, or just plain tempted to give up and sit this election out, just remember this. Men (and probably some women) died trying to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Read about Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964, and learn the cost of those brave individuals who refused to be turned away from the polls.

No matter what party, no matter which candidate, honor those who have come before and exercise your right to Vote!

(I’ve avoided making political posts on my blog – that’s not what this blog is about. However, knowing the cost of gaining the right to vote is important, and we all owe a debt to those who went before us. All comments on this blog are moderated. No comments that are stridently and obnoxiously endorsing one candidate over another will be accepted, due to a desire to avoid political flame wars. There’s enough of that elsewhere. Besides, if you feel that strongly about your candidate, then obviously you can be counted on to cast your vote! I’m just trying to do my tiny part to try to keep civility in the debate.)

© writingreading, 2008


Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of – #2 – Callie House

June 29, 2008

Callie House is not an everyday name in women’s history, or even in African-American history. But she should be. An African-American washerwoman who had been born into slavery in 1861 in Rutherford County, Tennessee, she later moved to Nashville where she would launch a movement in the late 1890s for justice and civil rights that loomed so powerful and seemed so threatening to the established order of things that high-ranking officials in Washington, DC had her arrested, imprisoned, and repeatedly took a variety of measures to suppress the movement.

Her cause? Federally paid pensions for former slaves, who had toiled for years and decades without wages. Motivated in part by the Federal pensions paid to former Union soldiers, and a similar, but different, type of ex-slave pension movement begun by white Southerner Walter R. Vaughan, House believed that only through activism within the African-American community could the cause be brought to fruition in a way that would be truly beneficial to the black community. Vaughan’s plan did not have the best interests of African-Americans at heart; he simply wanted to bring more financial wherewithal to blacks still living in the South, as a way to prop up the South’s economic woes. Ultimately, he sought an “economic stimulus package” for blacks, who would then spend their funds with white merchants, thus growing the economy of the post-Reconstruction white South.

House partnered with an African-American man, also from Rutherford County, and a former agent for Vaughan, named Isaiah Dickerson. Together, they established the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, hosting their first convention in 1898. The organization grew quickly, with local chapters established throughout the country. Not only was one of the stated aims of the organization to introduce and secure passage of a pension bill in Congress for former slaves, but it was also to provide assistance to members of the local communities, such as providing support for orphans and covering burial expenses.

As the movement gained strength and numbers, the Federal Government became increasingly suspicious, and House’s noble cause became one of unceasing struggle. House and other officers of the national organization were accused of fraud. The government charged that the organization was a mere sham, a way for House and others to make money by requiring membership fees which provided no service whatsoever. Eventually, House was imprisoned, but her cause continued. Time and again the government charges of fraud were proven to be unfounded, and time and again the charges would be resurrected. There was even division within the black community, with many middle-class blacks believing the unfounded charges of fraud, or preferring to pursue Booker T. Washington’s accomodationist message.

House died in 1928 and is buried in an unmarked grave. Her movement for ex-slave pensions continued, but was never the same after her imprisonment. By the 1930s, those persons born in bondage were dying off. The Depression made it difficult to sustain the few chapters that remained, although their dues were often a dollar or less. By the end of the decade, the organization essentially ceased to exist.

There is much more to the story than I have provided here. This is simply a summary. The full story about Callie House and the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association can be found in My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations by Mary Frances Berry, an excellent and detailed work about this tragically forgotten woman, and her heroic struggle for justice and civil rights. Berry spends the bulk of the book creating a detailed biography of House, and the growth and eventual death of the organization, but she also provides a helpful epilogue sketching out the legacy of House’s work throughout the twentieth century, and the continuing campaign for reparations for slavery, even today.

Although I enjoy reading about strong, little-known but heroic women of the past, I found Berry’s work especially intriguing, simply because House’s work – until now – was so tragically ignored and unknown.

© writingreading 2008