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When the past is present…


Historic Sites and Black Self-Worth

African-American Experience Fund director on the importance of learning the whole American story

By Jenée Desmond-Harris of

The Washington, D.C.-based African American Experience Fund, a program of the National Park Foundation, is dedicated to supporting, preserving and celebrating historic and national park sites that tell the story of black people’s history in America. But the organization’s work isn’t just about the maintenance of structures or setting up tours. It’s to ensure that “our whole national story is passed on faithfully, completely and accurately.”


Boston’s Robert Gould Shaw Memorial (Courtesy of Lydia Sermons)

Over the next year, the AAEF will tell that story in part by joining with the National Park Service to plan celebrations around the country commemorating significant moments in civil rights history, including the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. By doing so, Executive Director Lydia Sermons told The Root, “We hope to get more individuals engaged in telling the under-told and untold stories of African-American history.” Sermons weighed in on the lesser-known sites from coast to coast that she hopes people visit (there’s much more than the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, she says), her theory about why schools and parents alike are falling short when it comes to teaching African-American history, and her belief that an enriched understanding of the roles blacks have played in this country will have a direct impact on the community’s sense of self-worth and hope for the future. Read the interview with Lydia Sermons here.


Water Damage

By Martha Southgate for the New York Times

Cullen Jones and Lia Neal were among the many swimmers to win medals for the United States in this year’s Olympic Games. But their inspiring performances obscure a disturbing truth. Not only are they, as African-Americans, anomalies in the elite levels of their sport, but enormous numbers of African-Americans do not have even rudimentary swimming skills, a lack that costs lives.

Blacks Can't Swim

The fear of water that was instilled in African-Americans during Jim Crow has become self-perpetuating.

A 2010 study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis reported that nearly 70 percent of African-American children do not know how to swim. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-American children between the ages of 5 and 14 are almost three times more likely to drown than white children….

Regardless of race, the poor lack access to pools and swimming lessons. Around 40 percent of white children and 60 percent of Hispanic children do not know how to swim — they, too, could benefit from free or affordable lessons. But why is the problem worse among African-Americans, many of whom, across all economic classes, lack confidence in the water? A large part of that unease is a legacy of slavery and segregation.

Read more here.


The Sound of Hate

 By Robert Futrell and Pete Simi for the New York Times

THE shooting rampage on Sunday that killed six people and wounded three others at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin exposed the continued dangers of white power extremism in our midst. The shooter, Wade M. Page, was affiliated with a range of neo-Nazi skinhead groups, and during the last decade, he played in several prominent bands in the white power music scene….

White power adherents are not typically “out” about their extremist leanings. They straddle the worlds of white power and mainstream society, often publicly playing down or hiding their extremist identities. In the past, this might have been a hindrance. But these days they thrive in what we call hidden spaces of hate, often online, where they gather to support one another and their cause.

Wade Michael Page white power

Wade Michael Page, who murdered seven Sikh worshipers in their temple in Wisconsin, in his natural habitat. Courtesy of Page’s post on his MySpace page.

Among the most important hidden spaces is the white power music scene. Neo-Nazis are particularly adept at incorporating music into just about every aspect of the movement, having grasped the medium’s capacity to bring adherents together into shared experiences and sustain communities anchored in Aryan ideology….

The music does more than convey anger, hatred and outrage toward racial enemies; like all music, it is heavy with emotions like power, pride, dignity, love and pleasure, which create a collective bond that strengthens members’ commitment to the cause.

Many white power music events are tightly controlled in ways that limit attendance to neo-Nazi sympathizers and keep them mostly hidden from public view. Organizing the events as “white-only, members-only” spaces is a calculated effort to create collective experiences where, at least momentarily, adherents can experience the world they idealize: where enemies of whites are vanquished and Aryans rule.

Read more here.

Read about a white power extremist and band leader in Wisconsin who became a teacher of peace and tolerance, here.


Announcing: Internship Opportunities at ABHM

The following internships are offered primarily to graduate students in Museum Studies, History, Public History, and Information Science. They can be taken for credit (by agreement with the student’s institution) or for the experience.  Internships marked with an asterisk (*) require a minimum of 150/semester.

To apply, send a resumé and cover letter explaining which position interests you to, by August 17, 2012.  Contact Dr. Fran Kaplan with questions at the same address.

1.    Still and Moving Images Researcher/Labeler

a.     Search for and collect digital images and videos needed for exhibits.

b.    Assist scholar-griots with finding images for their exhibit submissions.

c.     Label images with appropriate credits and interpretive text matched to each exhibit to enhance the story told in that exhibit.

2.    Interpretive Text Researcher/Writer/Editor*

a.     Research assigned topics in the study of the Black Holocaust.

b.    Create exhibits about these topics by writing interpretive text (at 8th grade reading level.

c.     Choose moving and still images to accompany the text (in collaboration with Images Researcher/Labeler.

d.    Submit exhibits for Editorial Board review and make corrections based upon EB suggestions.

e.    Assist scholar-griots with the readability level of their exhibit submissions by suggestiing emmendations.

3.    Outreach and Social Media Assistant Manager/Writer*

a.     Coordinate museum’s volunteer social media assistants.

b.    Contribute posts regularly to ABHM’s social media accounts, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others.

c.     Research and post Breaking News exhibits 3-5 days/week.

d.    Assist public relations and media consultants in designing and executing outreach campaigns to bring new visitors to the museum.

4.    Grant Research/Writing Assistant*

a.     Identify funding opportunities on the regional and national levels.

b.    Assist in designing projects that meet ABHM and funder requirements.

c.     Assist in writing proposals and gathering support materials.

5.    Fine Arts Assistant Manager

a.     Help develop criteria for accepting art exhibits and commissions.

b.    Work with artists who exhibit work in the museum and/or sell work through the museum’s online store.

c.     Assist with outreach to the arts community nationally and internationally.

6.    Interactive Media Production Assistant*

a.     Help conceive, design, develop content, produce and support digital media-based exhibits, including

1.    games

2.    distance learning presentations

3.    visitor comments section

4.    short videos

b.    Maintain relationships and coordinate activities with actors, subjects, producers, filmmakers, school teachers, and humanities experts.

7.    Airport Permanent Exhibit Assistant

a.     Help conceptualize the exhibit and its goals

b.    Research both the concept and potential exhibit modalities.

c.     Help with grantwriting for the exhibit.

d.    Assist in building the exhibit.

8.    Digital Learning Assistant

a.     Enhance learning opportunities for visitors of all ages by developing internal and external links, bibliographies, glossaries, explanatory and interpretive hover text, tags and keywords.

b.    Help develop curriculum guides for teachers of middle and high school students.


Landlord Puts Up “Whites Only” Sign on Pool, Says Black Girl’s Hair Clouds the Water


Michael Gunn has filed a lawsuit after experiencing something he says should have ended a long time ago.  Gunn said that his landlord’s pool had a “Whites Only” sign that he claims was directed at his daughter.


A sign that the past is present…

Gunn testified before the Ohio Civil Rights Commission in Cincinnati about the incident and the sign that he saw.  The hearing was to determine if there should be penalties placed on landlords who engage in this kind of hurtful activity toward residents.

The commission found that landlord, Jamie Hein, did discriminate against Gunn’s daughter.  The landlord claimed that the 10-year old girl’s hair products tainted the water in the pool.   The commission ruled that Hein violated the Ohio Civil Rights Act when he posted the sign.

Gunn says that his daughter lives with her mother but comes to visit with him regularly.  After she went swimming, the landlord sent him a text message telling him that his daughter’s hair was clouding the pool and that she would have to take a shower before getting in and wear a swim cap.  The next day, he saw a sign that said “Public Swimming Pool, White Only.”

Gunn is white, but his daughter is African American.  The issue hit him to his core.

“It’s something you’re supposed to see in history books,” Gunn said. “It’s not something you’re supposed to see posted at the building where you live.”


Olympic swimmers help erase the historic ‘swimming color line’

Opinion by David Leonard of

As Lia Neal, Cullen Jones, and Anthony Irvin compete in the the 2012 Olympic Games, they are not simply battling the best in the world, they are helping to close the book on a sad chapter in American history.  With each start, each stroke, and each flip-turn, the trio of African-American swimmers are putting the historic (and occasionally more recent) exclusion of African-Americans from America’s pools.  Their presence on this year’s Olympic team…reminds us of a larger history of racism and exclusion.


Racially segregated municipal swimming pool (East Potomac Pool) in Washington, D.C., in July 1942

Indeed, to witness three black Olympians competing as swimmers represents the continued struggle against the longstanding efforts to keep pools white.

“Sports reflect a larger quandary in the land of opportunity, that so many sports have been resistant to inclusion for all races,” writes William C. Rhoden.  And for decades, African-Americans were denied access to swimming pools and other municipal activities: and not only in the south. In Pittsburgh at the turn of the 20th century, whites attacked blacks in the name of swimming segregation.

Richard Allietta describes the level of violence and harassment directed at African-Americans within a segregated swimming culture: “As a youngster in Bellaire, Ohio in the early 1950′s, we would go to the public swimming pool on Mondays, ‘colored day,’ and sit in the observer stands and jeer at the colored swimmers.” …

“History lessons reveal that white hostility to black swimming (pool or beach) was internalized by blacks as avoidance and a fear of water. Consequently, black children didn’t learn how to swim, resulting in these high, disproportionate numbers of deaths from African-American kids.”

The rightful celebration of the accomplishments of Neal, Jones, and Ervin should not cloud the persistent inequality visible within America’s pools.  Just as the election of Barack Obama did not produce justice and equality for every person of color, the ascendance of these three Olympians doesn’t wash away this history; nor does it erase America’s swimming color line.  Whereas 60 percent of white children are water safe, only 30 percent of black and Latino children know how to swim.  It is therefore not surprising that black children are three times as likely as white children to drown.

Read more here.


Handwritten Letters Detail Lives Of Freed And Enslaved African Americans

From the Huffington Post

A letter handwritten by a slave named Ferdinand Robertson.

A letter handwritten by a slave named Ferdinand Robertson.

Life for an African-American southerner was a mixed bag of “troubles” and personal success circa 1841, experiences revealed in a series of 27 handwritten letters that have been recently acquired by the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS).

“What makes these letters so interesting is that they give us a glimpse into the personal and social lives of African Americans before the Civil War,” Jennifer Duplaga, Manuscripts Curator at the Kentucky Historical Society, told The Huffington Post.

The letters, written mostly by a woman named Isabel/Isabella Watson between 1841 and 1883, originate in Mississippi City, Miss. and include news of people’s health and illnesses, activities, church and religion, the enslaved status of people in the Hopkinsville, Ky., community, births and deaths, and the sale of individuals.

“The bulk of these letters were written before 1859,” Duplaga said. “The post Civil War letters, which begin in 1873, appear to have been written by a different generation.”

Those later letters focus more on individuals working as teachers, buying homes, purchasing household items, and their general health and economic situations, Duplaga explains. Those written before the war are more outward looking, she says, detailing efforts to gather information about others, while the post-war letters focus more inward and offer more personal insights.

Read more about the letters here.



Gabby Douglas Becomes First Black Gymnast to Win Individual Olympic Gold Medal


U.S. gymnast Gabrielle Douglas acknowledges the audience after being declared winner of the gold medal

U.S. gymnast Gabrielle Douglas acknowledges the audience after being declared winner of the gold medal

U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas made history on Aug. 2 becoming the first Black person of any nationality to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual gymnastic event, claiming her second gold medal of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.

Douglas won her first gold medal on July 31 as a member of the U.S. women’s gymnastics artistic all-around team event. It was the first individual gold medal for a USA gymnastics team member since 1996. Douglas now owns two gold medals after edging out Russian gymnast Viktoria Komova for first place in the women’s individual all-around event. She scored a 62.232, less than three-tenths of a point ahead of Komova’s score.
Douglas sealed the gold medal performance with a stellar floor routine as her U.S. teammates watched and cheered her on, chanting “Go Gabby!”

Douglas now surpasses Dominique Dawes, who won a gold medal as a member of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. For 16 years, Dawes was the first and only Black gymnast to have won an Olympic gold medal, but even Dawes hadn’t won gold in an individual gymnastics event.

“[Dominique] was one of my inspirations and role models growing up,” said Douglas, who moved from her hometown in Virginia Beach, Va. two years ago to train in Des Moines, Iowa with her coach Liang Chow.

Read more of the story here.



Can a Black Girl Be the Next Steve Jobs?

By Julianne Hing at

Aita Zulu, on her first try and on her first day with computer programming, made a website. And then a day later and on her own, she made a second.

Zulu whipped up her first website, with simple blue text, a yellow background and an embedded YouTube video teaching people how to compost, as a student with Black Girls Code, an Oakland-based non-profit educational initiative to introduce girls of color to the world of computers and technology.

That’s exactly the kind of confidence Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant wants girls of color to come away from the workshops with. “I want these girls to be the next Mark Zuckerberg, the next Steve Jobs, and be the women that are creating and building positions of leadership in tech,” she said. If Zulu’s quick gains are any indication, the young organization is well on its way to meeting its goal. But increasingly, encouraging girls of color to jump into the world of technology is not just about increasing corporate diversity. It’s also a matter of equity, and an absolute economic urgency.

Read more here.


Barack Obama’s Slave Ancestry Reportedly Discovered By Researchers

From the New York Times

President Obama's slave ancestry has been uncovered

President Obama’s slave ancestry has been uncovered

 President Obama’s biography — son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas — has long suggested that unlike most African-Americans, his roots did not include slavery.

Now a team of genealogists is upending that thinking, saying that Mr. Obama’s mother had, in addition to her European ancestors, at least one African forebear and that the president is most likely descended from one of the first documented African slaves in the United States.

The findings are scheduled to be announced on Monday by, a genealogy company based in Provo, Utah. Its team, while lacking definitive proof, said it had evidence that “strongly suggests” Mr. Obama’s family tree — on his mother’s side — stretches back nearly four centuries to a slave in colonial Virginia named John Punch.

In 1640, Mr. Punch, then an indentured servant, escaped from Virginia and went to Maryland. He was captured there and, along with two white servants who had also escaped, was put on trial. His punishment — servitude for life — was harsher than what the white servants received, and it has led some historians to regard him as the first African to be legally sanctioned as a slave, years before Virginia adopted laws allowing slavery.

Read more of the story here.