I Celebrate Them

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By Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © 2017 by Leslye Joy Allen.

People that know me well (and some people that barely know me), know that I am a huge advocate for theatre.  I’m a Historian, an Oral Historian, and at the insistence of actors Margo Moorer and Keith Arthur Bolden, I’m also a dramaturge.

I saw the play “FENCES” that was written by the magnificent and late August Wilson decades ago.  Wilson was that rare African-American playwright that thought the particular culture of ordinary Black Americans was as worthy of a story to tell as any other story on earth…And he was right…He was damned right…

One of the joys of being an Oral Historian is interviewing people, many of who will never see their names in a book or newspaper.  Yet, what they can tell us about any particular period of history is invaluable precisely because they will tell you the truth about how any public policy affected them or did not affect them…which is why I always celebrate them…because they are so very important…and sometimes their stories are told in books and in films when most people least expect to see their stories told…So…

I am celebrating the fact that Denzel Washington and Viola Davis have brought the stage play FENCES to life as a film…and I am not going to lecture about how many people need to go to see this film or to see plays…

And I am positively, deliriously delighted to see Viola Davis win the Golden Globe for FENCES; and I am delighted that the story of the African American FEMALE scientists who helped put a man on the moon is now brilliantly portrayed in the film HIDDEN FIGURES. Now, what I am about to say in the next few lines matters to me and to a lot of women…

It is rare when Black women (or women in general) receive any visible, tangible praise or remuneration for having brains. Women get called on for advice and to listen to people’s problems; and women get praised for their physical beauty and politeness and tact, but we rarely get praised for being smart…and we rarely get paid for being smart…

Now, while I can almost hear all the good men I personally know getting ready to challenge me on this, I want to remind everybody of one important thing…

President Barack Obama actually awarded the Medal of Freedom to Dr. Katherine Coleman Johnson who is the subject of the film HIDDEN FIGURES, a film that traces her and many other Black women’s mathematical and scientific contributions to the race to place a man on the moon.  The Medal of Freedom is the highest award a president can give to a civilian American.  Actor Taraji P. Henson portrayed Dr. Katherine Coleman Johnson in the film HIDDEN FIGURES.  However, Dr. Johnson won this Medal in December of 2015 and it was featured in a news story in the New York Times and in a few other mainstream newspapers…But

this Medal of Freedom award did not particularly resonate and become viral news with too many folks…Hell, even I stumbled on it much later in mid-2016 and I wondered why I did not know much about this Black woman, myself…But I’m not angry with anybody…and I’m not calling any names because…

When I was a little Black girl growing up in Atlanta, a beautiful and regal and talented and supremely intelligent and gloriously Black woman named Diahann Carroll received death threats from White folks via mail because she was a Black woman who portrayed a widowed nurse named “Julia Baker” on a TV show called “JULIA” back in the late 1960s…and there are folks that think I ought to forget about that…but I will not forget it…and

I, and so many other young Black girls from that era, dreamed of a day when young Black women like Ava DuVernay and Taraji P. Henson and Viola Davis and so many other glorious sisters would occupy places in the sun and tell great stories…and I know I am leaving out about three dozen names of some other wonderful sisters, but I am going to ask you all to fill in those extra blanks and go support these young women whenever you can…and I can say that after witnessing my sisters with talent and brains be too often ignored that…

I lived long enough to see enough of them shine without asking anybody’s permission…and I am going to live even longer to see them shine even more and tell some more great stories, and ask no one’s permission to do so…Àṣé.

Copyright © 2017 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

This blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this or any blog authored by Leslye Joy Allen, or any total or partial excerpt of this or any blog by Leslye Joy Allen must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: https://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

Her Name was Cynthia Diane Morris

By Leslye Joy Allen                                                                                                     Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Ph.D. Candidate

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

Back in August of 2013, I spoke with my friend Erich McMillan-McCall whose theatre organization Project1Voice was preparing to do a live streaming of a staged reading of the Christina Ham play “Four Little Girls” from the Kennedy Center.  September 15, 2013 marked the 50th anniversary of that tragic day in 1963 when a bomb planted by White racist terrorists killed four young Black girls at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  One of them was a young girl recorded in most articles, essays, and books as “Cynthia Wesley.”  Yet, she was born Cynthia Diane Morris.

After recognizing Cynthia’s academic talents, Cynthia’s mother, Mrs. Estelle Morris, allowed her young daughter to live with a childless and affluent Black couple named Claude and Gertrude Wesley in order to give her daughter access to a better school and, perhaps, a more financially stable future.  The Wesley family was well-known throughout Birmingham’s Black community for their generosity, warmth, and a deep love of children.  Yet, the generous and kind-hearted Wesley family, who could not have biological children, never legally adopted Cynthia.  For more information about this, please revisit my previous blog titled “Thoughts on the Eve of the 50th Anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Church Bombing.”  This blog discussed the wonderful tradition in Black communities where people took in and cared for children when they needed assistance. This particular blog also contains a hyperlink to a copy of Cynthia Diane Morris’ amended death record.

Cynthia’s brother Fate Morris wants to set the historical record straight.  The commemorative statues and the U. S. Congressional Gold Medal of Honor awarded in May 2013 posthumously to the four girls who lost their lives in that church bombing all read with the names: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Denise McNair, and Cynthia Wesley.  Federal, state and city officials in Birmingham and elsewhere have tepidly acknowledged Fate Morris as Cynthia Morris’ brother, yet they have done so with little regard for his feelings about how her name appears in public records.  I need not pontificate about this matter.  However, if you will take the time to review my previous blogs from late August to September 2013 you will know that this is a sensitive subject.  I also encourage you to listen (when you have time to sit at length) to the lengthy Blog Talk conversation I had with host Preston Washington on Lesley Gist’s Radio Show “Gist of Freedom” program back in September.  Once you hear our long conversation, along with the testimony of Fate Morris, you will know why getting the historical record straight is important.  (“Related Material – a Blog Talk Radio Interview and an important new CNN article 9-14-2013”)

The state of Alabama amended his sister’s death records to reflect her real birth name.  Yet, there seems to be a genuine reluctance in some quarters to even acknowledge Mr. Fate Morris and other members of his family as the family members of Cynthia Diane Morris (aka Cynthia Wesley).  Fate Morris was a young boy when he lost his sister.  His present mission does not appear to be an attempt to deny what the Wesley family did for his sister or how much they loved her, but rather to get some peace by making sure that historians, scholars, journalists and the general public know his late sister’s real birth name.  What he needs most is closure and a genuine acknowledgement of his feelings and those of his family members.  Yet, it is hard to get closure or peace when the written records barely acknowledge that Cynthia Morris was your sister.

So, please take a moment to read and sign Mr. Fate Morris’ petition at the hyperlink below: Cynthia Morris – NOT Cynthia Wesley – Issue Proclamation.

Peace.

Leslye Joy Allen is a perpetual and proud supporter of the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.
Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly and visibly stated as the author.

A Personal Bibliography (After “Four Little Girls”)

By Leslye Joy Allen                                                                                                     Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Ph.D. Candidate

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

“Books II” by Leslye Joy Allen, Copyright © 2013.  All Rights Reserved.

“Books II” by Leslye Joy Allen, Copyright © 2013. All Rights Reserved.

When Erich McMillan-McCall, founder of Project1Voice said, “We need a bibliography,” I knew I was about to be called upon to begin pulling together books that focused on the lives and accomplishments of Black women.  I almost declined because there really is no shortage of books written by or about or which target Black women and girls as a reading audience.  The real task was not finding books, but rather which ones should be on the list.   Erich (pronounced “Eh-rish”) asked me to do this as part of his overall focus on Black women, but also in some ways as a response to the reading of the Christina Ham play “Four Little Girls” that streamed live online at the Kennedy-Center’s website at 6:00 PM EST on Sunday, September 15, 2013.

Although Diane McWhorter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Carry Me Home gives a detailed account of that fateful Sunday morning when Cynthia, Addie Mae, Carole, and Denise were killed, there is no book written exclusively about these four little girls who died in that church bombing on September 15, 1963.  Indeed, it can be debated that the White racist terrorists that bombed Birmingham, Alabama’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that ended the lives of these girls did not specifically set out to kill young Black females.  Often the targets of racial violence were and tend to be Black males, or at least many folks think the targets are always Black males.  After all, two Black boys, 16-year-old Johnny Robinson and 13-year-old Virgil Ware were shot and killed the same day in the immediate aftermath of the church bombing.  Yet, Black women and girls were not only routine victims of sexual violence, but were often beaten or killed with impunity during slavery, the era of Jim Crow, and well into and beyond the Civil Rights era.  Black female martyrdom and valor in the struggle for human and civil rights is often muted in favor of other types of narratives.  A perfect example of this is how most people view Rosa Parks.

Too often the public (and a few historians) mistakes Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a White person in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 as just an example of what happens when a Black woman simply gets tired of racial injustice.  But it was much, much more than that.  Historian Danielle L. McGuire aptly noted that Parks had a long career of dangerous work as an NAACP investigator in the decades before her fateful act in 1955.  McGuire also reported that the very first question Rosa Parks’ mother asked her after Parks was released from jail for her now-famous refusal to give up her seat to a white bus passenger was: “Did they beat you?”  That kind of question was, at one time, almost as typical for Black women as the sun coming up.

One way to dispel myths and increase our understanding of our lives and the world we live in is to read and do our own research.  One way to honor those four little girls tragically killed on that fateful Sunday in 1963 (and all of our Black heroines) is to examine and celebrate our resilient and diverse and often brilliant Black womanhood, a womanhood denied to them.  So here goes…

The books contained in the .pdf attachment at the end of this blog were my favorites and the first books that came to mind, along with a few marvelous book suggestions about Black female musicians courtesy of my good friend and alumna sister from Agnes Scott College, ethnomusicologist Dr. Birgitta Johnson.

Some books are old and some relatively new.   There are no separate sections where fiction is separated from nonfiction.  The only separate section in this bibliography is a section of books devoted exclusively to and for Black girls from preschool to middle school.  A few parents might find this useful.   I am also happy to report that books for and about Black girls is a growing industry.

My book list is not comprehensive.  For some of you who read all the time, you might find some glaring omissions.  I make no apologies.  I never choose a book simply because it was or is popular, and neither should you.   I also have not been fond of everything on the bestseller list now or in the past.  This list is MY LIST and it is hardly an exhaustive list of all the books I have read about Black women and/or any other subject.  Yet it is a beginning.  For those of you who read occasionally, you might find this list particularly useful so that you can begin that journey where you read and discover new things, new ideas, and new writers.

Now, for those of you who might be tempted to send me some remark about how I left out what you consider to be the “best book ever,” do not despair and save your energy.  The attached bibliography has an important page with a header that reads: “Add Your Favorite Books Here.”  THIS IS YOUR PAGE.  This is where I hope you will begin to write down the authors and titles of those books that have mattered the most to you.  I hope you will create your own bibliography, because if you do, we can begin to shape a real dialogue that is truly about ALL OF US.   I invite you to start one part of your/our journey by clicking here: **By, About, and For Black Women, a Personal Bibliography by Leslye Joy Allen.pdf**

Portable Document Files (.pdf ) have to be opened with an Adobe Reader.  If you have a problem opening the file above, please visit http://www.adobe.com, click on the section near the top of the page that is marked “Download,” then highlight and click “Adobe Reader” and download the Adobe Reader free of charge.

Also be sure to visit the Gist of Freedom, free podcasts devoted to preserving our rich African American History at: http://www.blackhistoryuniversity.com

Leslye Joy Allen is also a perpetual and proud supporter of the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.
Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.

18 Days Earlier We Marched and then We Lost…

A staged reading of the play "Four Little Girls" streaming live online from the Kennedy Center on September 15, 2013 at 6:00 PM EST.

A staged reading of the play “Four Little Girls” streaming live online from the Kennedy Center on September 15, 2013 at 6:00 PM EST.

…FOUR LITTLE GIRLS

By Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, and Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

There were four little Black girls whose lives were snuffed out on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963 when a bomb planted by racist White terrorists exploded in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  They were, Denise McNair who was the youngest at age 11, Carol Robertson aged 14, Cynthia Wesley** aged 14 (**Real and Birth name is “CYNTHIA MORRIS”), and Addie Mae Collins was aged 14.  When that bomb went off, most Black Birmingham citizens and most Black Americans forgot about the “March on Washington,” held a mere eighteen days earlier on August 28.  Not long after the blast, all hell broke loose.  The New York Times headline on the following day read (click here for article): “Birmingham Bomb Kills 4 Negro Girls in Church; Riots Flare; 2 Boys Slain.

Birmingham, then nicknamed “Bombingham,” had an ugly history it would take decades to live down.  A middle class neighborhood in the city had suffered so many bombings that it was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill,” because angry Whites bombed homes to stop Black people from moving into the area.  Dynamite Hill was the neighborhood that honed and developed future Phi Beta Kappa scholar, radical activist, and author Angela Davis.  Yet, that is a story for another essay.  There are those of us, however, who think the story of what and who we lost on that fateful Sunday morning deserves its place in all the national narratives of American history.  I am one of those people; so is actor and activist Erich McMillan-McCall.

My friend, Erich is the founder of Project1Voice, an organization devoted to preserving Black theatre companies and our important historical legacies.  I should add that not only is he a multitalented performance artist with credits on Broadway, national stages, and television, he is also a visionary.  I say he is a visionary, however, with a very important acknowledgement of the type of communities that both of us grew up in as children.  Black women, he emphasizes, were at the center of these communities.  Yet, in several of our usual marathon-long telephone conversations, he has lamented that he is bothered by how Black women’s voices are not only muted or unacknowledged in the historical narratives, but also on the stage, and in the arts.

Erich and I are products of a time when to be young and Black and living in the American South did not necessarily mean that everywhere you went there was danger; what it tended to mean was the Black community in which you grew up was supportive, filled with a great deal of love and encouragement.  There were threats to our wellbeing, to be sure.  Yet, those threats largely came from outside the neighborhoods where we lived.  As much as some very sympathetic White liberal folks and some younger Black Americans have erroneously assumed otherwise, our Black parents and elders made sure we had normal childhoods with school, church, piano lessons, baseball games, concerts, plays, parties, and family picnics.  They did all of this for us in spite of the racism and the perpetual threat of (and often real) racial violence that characterized much of life for us during the 1960s and 1970s.  Erich understands this type of upbringing.

His proactive approach, that provides greater visibility to financially struggling Black theatre companies while engaging educational, civic, and political organizations in this collective struggle for artistic, political, educational, economic, and historical viability is not exactly a new way of doing things.  The Black community that I grew up in was filled with folks who could sing, dance, act, organize, who taught school, practiced medicine, ran businesses, and helped elect Black people to political office—This is what we were/are.  I loved this Black community, and the activism and the theatre it produced.  I still live in the neighborhood my family moved to when I was around the age of eleven.  It has not entirely lost those same qualities that it had during my childhood.  However, I fear that these types of communities become more rare with each passing decade.  At the same time, I am gratified and encouraged by Erich’s embrace of the old collaborative efforts of our neighborhoods and organizations that we remember about our childhoods; and his insistence that those qualities can be modified and used to great affect in the information age.  I hope this is the beginning of a new trend.

Sunday, September 15, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of one of our worst tragedies.  On this date, Project1Voice, in collaboration with Howard University, African Continuum Theatre Company, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will present a reading of the play “Four Little Girls,” written by Christina Ham, directed by Phylicia Rashad.  It will stream live online at 6:00 PM EST via the Kennedy Center’s website.

Targeted toward young audiences, this will be one of those wonderful opportunities to sit down in front of your computer screens with your children and your friends to watch this important piece of theatre and history—Free of Charge.  You should also check for viewing parties around the country.  Additionally, over thirty Black theatre companies around this nation will be presenting “Four Little Girls” simultaneously on the fiftieth anniversary of this national tragedy.

Erich and I both remember neighborhoods where middle class and working class Black families looked out for each other and each other’s children.  These facts, however, are precisely why the slaughter of Denise McNair, Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley** (**born as “Cynthia Morris,” but cited in the historiography and in most news reports as “Cynthia Wesley“) and Addie Mae Collins was so devastating to Birmingham’s Black community and other Black communities throughout the nation.  The reading of this play is not only a way to honor these dead children, but to also recall and remember the kind of stable and warm neighborhoods where all of them and us grew up.  Let us honor these little girls by going home again.  Peace.

Please visit: Project1Voice and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for more information about this play; how to access the play via the internet on Sept. 15, 2013 at 6 PM EST; and for information about other great performances and programs.

Leslye Joy Allen is also a perpetual  and proud supporter of the good work of Clean Green Nation.  Visit the website to learn more about it: Gregory at Clean Green Nation!

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

Creative Commons License This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.  Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.

** Shortly after this blog was published, I, Leslye Joy Allen, was contacted by Fate Morris, the brother of the young girl commonly known in historical and news records as “Cynthia Wesley.”  Fate Morris insisted that his sister’s real name is “CYNTHIA DIANE MORRIS,” and that authorities recorded her name incorrectly the day of the explosion.  Mr. Morris also informed me that he has decided to accept the Congressional Medal for his sister.  Originally he and Sarah Collins Rudolph (sister of Addie Mae Collins) had declined this medal.  Please read the following article about the survivors of this tragedy: “Survivor of ’63 Bombing Seeks Funds”** 

Please join Project1Voice‘s commemoration of the lives of these four little girls: