Saying Goodbye to Dr. Kuhn

By Leslye Joy Allen

“Self Portrait” by Copyright © 2015 Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

“Self Portrait” by Copyright © 2015 Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © 2015 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

I am writing this tribute now, because I have to mentally recalibrate, take a brief break over the holidays and get back to work on writing my dissertation. Dr. Kuhn would not want anything less than that.   Dr. Clifford Matthew Kuhn, Associate Professor of History at Georgia State University and the first Executive Director of the Oral History Association joined the ancestors the second week of November.  He was 63-years-old…he was also my Dissertation Advisor…

He was…there is that word: was.  You would think that as a historian I would be accustomed to the past tense.  Yet, referring to him as anything other than vibrantly and intellectually alive is difficult. Preparing for the Georgia State University Memorial for Dr. Clifford Matthew Kuhn on December 13, 2015 is harder than I ever could imagine.  I first met him when he was preparing the centennial of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot back in early 2006…

Dr. Glenn T. Eskew introduced us because he recalled my telling him that my late maternal grandmother, born in 1886, was a 20-year-old student at then Clark Normal School (later Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University) when the campuses of Atlanta’s Historically Black Colleges became the refuge for so many of the Black victims of the Atlanta Race Riot.  Dr. Kuhn was delighted to find a graduate student such as myself that had a personal story that I could tell about this particularly painful moment in Atlanta’s history.  Dr. Clarissa Myrick Harris, who partnered with Dr. Kuhn, interviewed me while filmmaker Ms. Bailey Barash filmed it for posterity.  I was proud and humbled to contribute my grandmother’s story.

Nearly everything I know about Oral History, I learned from Dr. Kuhn: how to get people to talk about their lives; how to make sure they know that they are not obligated to tell their stories; how to make sure that I, the historian and interviewer, did not and will not ever exploit their memories; how to truly listen. I remember everything he taught me.

One of the last things he said to me was that he was so proud of a brief and recent assignment I had in the Georgia State University Library’s Digital Collections where I conducted four interviews for the Planning Atlanta Project. He recommended me for that position and I was glad that I did well and did not let him down…

As I prepare myself, as best I can, to attend Georgia State University’s Memorial Celebration for Dr. Kuhn, I fondly recall a conversation where we discovered that both of us loved Jazz.  Not long after that conversation, there were a few times when we were supposed to be doing something academic, but we drifted into a deep discussion about everyone from Duke Ellington to Nina Simone to Wayne Shorter to Ahmad Jamal.  Yet, that is natural for us historians.  WE have to be aware of everything, so we often look at and listen to everything.  Our conversations were often mixtures of him talking lovingly about his wife Kathie Klein and his two sons Josh and Gabe Klein-Kuhn and History and Jazz.   I will miss that…  

So, below is one for the late, great historian and scholar Dr. Clifford Matthew Kuhn: a video of the great Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal playing the classic “Poinciana.”  When the percussionists in Jamal’s quartet go into full swing around the time 4:53, I found myself ferociously patting my foot to the infectious rhythms and crying at the same time. Àṣé.



Copyright © 2015 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 blog or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: with Leslye Joy Allen clearly and visibly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.


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.


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: 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:

Soldiers, Scholars, and “Black Redtail Angels” in Southwest Atlanta

by Leslye “Joy” Allen                                                                                                        Historian, Educator, Theatre & Jazz Advocate, Doctoral Student                                               Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

“White American bomber crews reverently referred to them as “The Black Redtail Angels” because of the identifying red paint on their tail assemblies and because of their reputation for not losing bombers to enemy fighters as they provided fighter escort to bombing missions over strategic targets in Europe.” –Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Dryden (1920-2008) from A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman

Back in early December 2011, I received an email from a cousin that contained a trailer from the movie Red Tails, a film about the Tuskegee Airmen directed by Anthony Hamilton, produced and largely funded by George Lucas.  Not long after I received the email with the trailer, I was thinking about my one and only meeting with the late Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. “Chuck” Dryden.

I had called Dryden when I briefly served as an intern for a World War II Oral History project.  When I called him, he looked at his Caller ID and determined that I was calling from a phone in Southwest Atlanta.  He told me to hang up the phone and come on over.  With no hesitation, I drove to his home, which was about six minutes from my own.

Dryden was a decorated Tuskegee Airman, and one of many Tuskegee Airmen that lived in Atlanta, which is home to more Tuskegee Airmen than any other city in the nation.  A member of the famous 99th Pursuit Squadron, and later the 332nd Fighter Group, it was Dryden who led a group of six Black fighter pilots in aerial combat in Italy in 1943—This was the first time in aviation history that Black pilots in the U. S. Army Air Corps engaged an enemy in aerial combat.

I spent an afternoon at his home in Southwest Atlanta back in the summer of 2007 where he told me how he had to be perfect as a fighter pilot if we were going to stop Hitler’s Third Reich and if he and others were going to prove that Black men made excellent fighter pilots.

That afternoon I learned that he was much, much more than a fighter pilot.  I had owned his memoir A Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman for years, but at that time, I had not yet had an opportunity to read it in its entirety.  However, from what I had read and from my conversation with him, it was apparent that he was very much a scholar.

We discussed history, politics, art, World War II, U. S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, the upcoming “Democratic Presidential nomination” of Barack Obama, and of all things: my Master’s thesis.  He insisted that I tell him more about my research on the White politicians that made up the Georgia Know-Nothing Party, a group that did not want Georgia to secede from the Union as the South reeled from the election of Abraham Lincoln.

I should add that we also talked some mess!  I noticed a picture of Dryden and his beautiful and brilliant wife Marymal Dryden.  She was not there when I visited, but I remember reading one of her essays.  The handsome couple stood there in the photo with the Arizona sunset as their background.

“You remember that scene in the movie Waiting to Exhale where Angela Bassett burns up all of her ex-husband’s stuff in the car,” he asked.  “Yeah,” I answered.  “Well, we are standing right there in that same spot where she burned up everything.”  We both burst into laughter.

He could not stand upright, as he had been afflicted with a severe stroke.  Yet, his mind was razor sharp.  He thought U. S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was dangerous.  Moreover, of more than a dozen WWII vets that I spoke with, ALL of them thought this way.  In less than a year after my wonderful visit, Lt. Col. Dryden passed on to the ancestors.

Not long after his death, a young woman in one of my history classes informed me that she would be attending the United States Air Force Academy.  In one of our conversations where we talked about everything from the fact that the Air Force had fewer Blacks than any other part of the armed services, she told me that she met Lt. Col. Dryden before his death.

When I asked her about their conversation, she looked me straight in the eye and said that Dryden’s face lit up when she introduced herself and told him she was planning to go the United States Air Force Academy.

He told her, “When you get to the Air Force Academy, you give THEM HELL!”  We both laughed because we knew what he meant, and we offered no apologies for his pointed audacity-filled instructions to her to kick some you-know-what at the Air Force Academy.

Nearly four generations her senior, Dryden let this young sister know that his expectations of her were high.  He also knew that his vote of confidence in her abilities would buttress her against any doubts she might develop should she encounter those individuals who thought the United States Air Force had no need of Black female officers and pilots.  Like every other Tuskegee Airman I know of, Dryden never lost his swagger, his sense of possibility.  Like many other men and women of his era, he expected much from himself and from all of us who were born after him.

Dryden and my parents were contemporaries.  I am a late born child—my mom turns 91 years young this year.  If my father were living, he would be turning the age of 92.  The men and women of Dryden and my parents’ era not only lived long enough to see the world change, but they were largely responsible for changing it.

Folks my age and younger often complain about what needs to be done to create racial and economic justice.  Many of us have been vocal critics of our elders, and often our analyses of what did or did not work in the past have been correct.  However, if there is any lesson to learn from the “Black Redtail Angels,” and our elders from the World War II era and beyond is their dedication to education and their examples of extreme sacrifice.

These men and women—Black and White— those in the military and those keeping the home front, were in their twenties when Adolph Hitler threatened to destroy any semblance of racial or ethnic equality in Europe and elsewhere.  I shudder to think of how different the world might have been had he and his minions been successful.

We often forget that the Third Reich did not just target Jews for extermination.  It exterminated and planned the extermination of Poles, and all Slavic peoples, persons with mental and physical disabilities, Gays and Lesbians, and yes, Afro-Germans.

We owe folks like Lt. Col. Dryden and Lt. Col. Hap Chandler, a White fighter pilot from Toccoa, Georgia.  Not long after I met Chandler, I learned that he had shown up at a meeting of Georgia’s Tuskegee Airmen to thank them for keeping him alive and to apologize for the awful way that “members of my race treated you.”

Chandler also had that same swagger, intellectualism, and expectation that I noticed about Dryden.  In the late 1940s, he also belonged to that small but growing number of White veterans who had to reassess their erroneous beliefs about alleged “Black inferiority” that remained endemic to every aspect of American life and was the very basis of the social and economic order of the American South.  I should add that Chandler was cool.  He drove a Jaguar and arrived for his interview wearing a suit and tie and holding hands with his seventy-year-old girlfriend.

The Tuskegee Airmen, and other Black World War II veterans came back home to the United States and demanded equality from a country that denied them the very thing they had fought for abroad.  The modern-day Civil Rights movement began with the efforts and work of all of these men and women.

They went to college (or back to college) in record numbers under the G. I. Bill.  They sought advanced degrees, pursued well-paying skilled jobs in new industries, started businesses, and swelled the numbers of the Black middle class so that you and I could do much of what we are able to do now.  They bought homes and sent kids to college.

They registered and voted in every election.  They marched with and sometimes paid to get civil rights activists, students and radicals out of jail.  They set examples for us to follow and repeat, and made some mistakes for us to study and avoid, but they never stopped moving and searching for new ways to create a more just and equitable nation for their children and grandchildren.

They did all of these things without computers, cable television, the Internet, email, blogs, social media or cell phones.  We should do no less.  Peace.

Copyright © 2012 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: with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author.