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:

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Saying Goodbye to Gayleatha

by Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate, Doctoral Student

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

I learned late on Monday, 17 June 2013 that one of my Aunt Minnie Belle Veal’s protégées passed this April 2013.  She was Ambassador Gayleatha Beatrice Brown (June 20, 1947 to April 19, 2013).

A Howard University alumna, “Gay,” as I called her, was the first person I knew that worked for Randall Robinson’s TransAfrica, the first person who wore braids before they became popular. In her usual “I-will-not-have-any-of-it” style, my “Aunt Beh Beh” (Minnie Belle Veal) drove from Edison, New Jersey, all the way to Gay’s graduate school, the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, after someone there mildly suggested that Gay, a Black girl from a working class family in New Jersey, should not seriously consider a career in Foreign Service.  And then—with the hell-and-be-damned-with-you that is the best of Black America—she became a diplomat and later an ambassador.

I remember her as someone who loved my Aunt Minnie Belle more than life.  The book she gave Auntie in 1969 was The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.  I ended up reading the copy of the book she left for my Aunt.  I remember Gay as someone who liked her eggs scrambled hard, like me.  I fixed them several times for her and myself on one of the extended visits to Atlanta that she took with my Aunt Beh Beh.  The last time I saw her both of my parents were still alive, but my Aunt Minnie Belle had just passed and Gay had arrived for her funeral.  Now, all of them are gone. 

In the usual routine of graduate students and, I guess, members of the foreign service, Gay and I lost contact with each other due to moving around.  She quickly went from being a U. S.  Diplomat in France to her later years when she served as Ambassador to two countries on the continent of Africa, Burkina Faso and then later Benin.

I received an email earlier in the day from a former female student of mine.  This student was about to embark on studies that are not so traditional for women in general, to say nothing of Black women.  Later in the evening I decided to look up Gayleatha on the Internet.  I had found her before and quickly forwarded the hyperlinks.  This time I found her again, but what came up first was her obituary and the Funeral Service for Gayleatha Brown, which I did not expect.  I thought about my Dad, who has been gone now for twenty-six years, who was as proud of Gayleatha as he was of his sister Minnie Belle.  As my head raced, my first impulse, in the wee hours of the morning, was to call Mama to tell her that Gayleatha was dead.  It dawned on me, as I reached for the phone, that Mama was also gone.

With the exception of a few cousins on my Dad’s side of the family, most of the people that I knew whom Gay’s passing would upset, have already passed on themselves.  I would tell you how I am holding my chin up, trusting in God and all of the usual stuff that people say at a time like this.  However, I have had about as much death as I care to take in one year.

I lost Mama, a beloved cousin; and while I have two loving families, I had a couple of family members who decided that I made a good emotional punching bag since they could not vent their dissatisfaction with themselves on anyone else.  Additionally, someone who I thought was a friend proved to be anything but one.

Now, I know that I have not earned this and that I have no control over any of this.  And in spite of how truly bad I feel, late Monday into the wee hours of Tuesday morning were not completely awful.  After all, I heard from a former student who is planning to study and do great things; and I made a quick acquaintance of a Vassar College Professor who likes my blog and who does his own bit of social commentary.  I just wish that the day had ended on a better note.  Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that I learned of her passing, I remain grateful to have known Gay.

So, all I ask is that you pray for the family of the late Ambassador Gayleatha Beatrice Brown.  Pray for my students and for all young people who desperately need her example to do the kind of work we all need them to do.  As for me, I am, right now, not much in the mood for anything.   And I make no apologies.  That is just the way it is, for now.

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

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

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.