Category Archives: History

A TRUE ICON: Billie Holiday, briefly

If everybody lived to 101, Billie Holiday would be alive today. That’s kind of a trip, right? You see all these 100-some-odd year old folks in the news. They’re Bille Holiday’s contemporaries and Billie Holiday had so much more to say when she died in the Metropolitan Hospital in NY on July 17, 1959, after being arrested in the same hospital room weeks before.

When I was about 13 years old, my mother told me that Billie Holiday, Lady Day, was one of her favorite singers. But Cass Elliot, “Mama Cass” was another one along with Carol King, so I never was too sure what that really meant. One day in a record store I found a compilation LP and bought it for my mother. I listened to it, and listened to it, but never really felt like I got what Lady Day meant to my mother. My mother’s life was not tragic like Lady Day’s but really what child really knows the darkest night of their mother. That’s not the stuff mothers easily reveal, at least not mothers like mine, and not at that time. Maybe mothers blog about it now.

Lady Day sang like no one else ever had before. In 1958, Frank Sinatra said of her: “With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the U.S. during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me. Lady Day is unquestionably the most important influence on American popular singing in the last twenty years.” That was Frank Sinatra quoted in “Ebony” magazine.

While always loved by those who love music, Billie Holiday has at times almost been dismissed as a sad, hopeless figure and a drug addict in American culture. One can barely link Billie Holiday without linking heroin. Perhaps it is her ability to express sadness and hopelessness with voice and song-writing, and her dependency on heroin that play such a large role in defining this unique talent, this stellar African-American talent. On this third day of Black History Month, I honor Billie Holiday.


29 Black – 2012!

Yes, yes, yes! Happy Leap Year BHM Everyone!

I’m glad February has an extra day to work with this year.

One of the things that I appreciated the most about the experience in my first year of 28Black was the time I spent reflecting on my elders who have passed. I found myself wondering about their experiences, their reactions to Black figures and prominent events in early 20th century American History. I wondered if my great uncles enjoyed Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey. I would have loved to have seen their faces or heard their reactions when Joe Louis won the heavyweight championship.

The first year of 28Black made me hungry for time travel.

I can’t travel back in time, but I can confer with this 81-year-old I know to see where his memories might take us. This year I’ll spend some time checking in with my father for his take on people, issues, politics and other things related to being black, and in recognition of Black History Month.

Here’s a teaser:

Background on the Peekskill Riots:
Peekskill Riots – Wiki

African-American History & Tucson Students

Arizona was in the spotlight a lot in 2010 with debates about immigration reform and about teaching high school students about America’s ethnic groups through focused study on individual groups. The Mexican-American studies class in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) has garnered the most attention and it remains in the spotlight this year with the State and the TUSD at loggerheads. The State wants to school district to shut down the class claiming that it violates state law, and TUSD is allowing the class to continue.

Like many other people in the area (and beyond), I was curious about just what was being taught – actual curricula, not just statements about it being “La Raza” studies preaching revolution.

The Native American Studies and African-American Studies classes are not considered controversial. You’ll get an idea of what’s being taught in the African American Studies class thanks to KXCI. This year, news host Amanda Shauger at Tucson’s KXCI Community Radio 91.3 broadcast Black History Month works by TUSD students enrolled in African American Studies, in addition to works by staff members and by community members. The entire podcast times in at about one hour, ten minutes, and is a total of 48 segments.

Hear the podcast and read the order of presentation here.

On this 20th day of Black History Month, I honor the Class of 2011 and each and every graduate who lives up to the challenge of improving the United States of America by advancing equality for all.

Gold and Slaves

USA 34-star Flag, 1861-1863

Lush dreams of a wealth provided by gold and slave labor. Who does that sound like? Old time Arizonans. That’s why Tucson flies the southern cross for rodeo events. Or one of the reasons, the other being to appeal to all the rodeo fans who sport the symbol on their bodies, trucks, and t-shirts. Mayor Walkup seems to love it, certainly supports it flying at the rodeo grounds. I don’t really care what agrarian symbols people choose to decorate their bodies, clothes and other personal items with. I do take issue with public funds being used to fly the flag at city-sanctioned events.

I’m a Yankee observing life in Arizona, which has been called the “Mississippi of the Southwest.”

I think there’s still some bitterness in the dirt here from 19th century people ticked off that the North put the kibosh on their slave empire dreams. Oh Well. In 1863, President Lincoln abolished slavery in the Arizona territory by signing into law the Arizona Organic Act.

If they had been able to hang in there and the North was putting them out of business this year, it’s easy to imagine Gov. Brewer gathering her troops to defend her slave state against Washington and Obama!

OK, that would make a good movie.

Meanwhile here’s some good reading on Arizona’s dream of getting rich off the backs of African slaves.

  1. Blood and Treasure: Confederate Empire in the Southwest. Donald S. Frazier.
  2. Arizona Organic Act – Wiki
  3. The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865. Andrew E. Masich.

Horses, Horses, Horses

Rodeo and Buffalo Soldier Teaser Day
It’s almost Rodeo Week here in Tucson, which means it’s the time when Tucson is at its most Mississippi-ish.

The Real Cowboy Association is a rodeo-lovers organization that presents rodeos and raises awareness about Black cowboys. As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t think a Real Cowboy will get thrown off his game by a piece of fabric blowing in the wind, but I still don’t think Tucson running the southern cross for rodeo week is all that cool. Mayor Walkup disagrees. Whatever.

First Lake Charles Black Rodeo

More information about the Real Cowboy Association: Real Cowboy Association

I rode horses as a youth, before I switched over to motorcycles. I think a child gains a lot from interacting with large animals and from being able to hold their own, literally hold the reins, and give direction to something far larger and more powerful, than they. There’s also an undeniable connection to history and to horseback riders the world over. Attending the rodeo, and enjoying horseback riding is a great family activity. Though, again, I think the southern cross at the Rodeo Ground is a point of distraction for some southern Arizona families and would actually serve to keep them away.

In 2006, NPR did a story about a corral in Compton, Calif. Here’s a link to that story with text and audio: “Along for the Ride with Compton’s Junior Posse”

Then a few years later, Silent Noise productions made a short documentary about the Compton Jr. Posse. Here’s the trailer for that movie:

Most people who have heard more than a half-dozen Bob Marley songs have heard “Buffalo Soldiers.” When you’re in southern Arizona, you’re in the land of the Buffalo Soldiers. In Arizona, the Buffalo Soldiers, African-American soldiers, were stationed at several forts. The largest one was Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Ariz. Sierra Vista is about 20 miles from Mexico, as the crow flies, and about 35 miles from the Naco port of entry. This was a vital position for border issues and skirmishes with Pancho Villa, warring with Native Americans, and helping to keep the “Boomers” off of the Tribal lands. The “Boomers” were white people who would attempt a squatters’ strategy to take Tribal land. You can read more about that here in Frederic Remington’s Scout with The Buffalo Soldiers.

Colonel Charles Young

After 1916, the Buffalo Soldiers were no longer on horseback. Colonel Charles Young, a Westpoint graduate, was the first African-American to attain that rank. He commanded Fort Huachuca from 1916 to 1917.

Discover Southeast Arizona has a very good illustrated history of the Buffalo Soldiers on this page.

Southwest Association of Buffalo Soldiers – non-profit based in Sierra Vista, Ariz.

Buffalo Soldiers February Events – Arizona State Parks

National Parks Service History of Buffalo Soldiers in California:

And finally, Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “Buffalo Soldier”

Buffalo Soldiers, WWII, Bessie Smith, Who Knows?


I need to take a day off today. Another day added to the past, more history to reflect on!

I expect I’ll be able to do two posts tomorrow, if not AM & PM, then maybe both in the afternoon.

I got an email from my library today that the David Graham Du Bois novel, And Bid Him Sing, that I wanted has come in. David Du Bois taught my African-American journalism course at UMass-Amherst. Getting to know him in the student-teacher relationship and hearing about his life in Egypt meant something to me. He’s one of the people whom I expect to write about before the end of Black History Month.

David’s mother, Shirley Du Bois, lived for a time here in southern Arizona, and ran the USO at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista. I’d like to write about her and, of course, about W.E.B. Du Bois.

Here are the people who have been on my mind this month. I didn’t want to do a content matrix for the whole month. I could have planned out every day, but I wanted to let each day unfold.

Here’s the list of possibilities as it stands today:

  1. W.E.B. Du Bois
  2. Shirley Du Bois
  3. David Du Bois
  4. Charles Gordone, playwright
  5. Mahalia Jackson
  6. Bessie Smith
  7. Billie Holiday
  8. Frederick Doulgass
  9. Mary McLeod Bethune
  10. Avon Long, actor
  11. Langston Hughes
  12. Thurgood Marshall & revisit the NAACP
  13. Nat King Cole
  14. The Buffalo Soldiers
  15. Oscar Micheaux
  16. Booker T. Washington
  17. Crispus Attucks
  18. Jackie Robinson

More points of reflection than there are days in the month. That’s just a heads up. I’m not trying to nail down a schedule.

I’m glad I’ve done this Black History Month experience this year. It has made me much more mindful of my heritage in my day-to-day living. By “heritage,” I don’t just mean the overarching group of prominent African-Americans through history, but also, and I think, more importantly, the previous four generations of my family.

I’ve found myself wondering when my maternal grandfather might have first heard Jelly Roll Morton and what he thought of him. I wonder when that part of my family got its first phonograph.

In squaring myself with how many questions I’m now curious about, but have no answers to, I find that I’m almost envious of children today with all the recording tools available to them.

Those are some of my family members, over my shoulder in the picture above. I’ve probably thought more about time travel in this month than at any other time in my life. My grandfather was born just 35 years after the abolition of slavery. There is much that I would like to understand from his point of view and from my other elders who have passed on. This has been the most personal Black History Month for me yet. Thanks for reading along. I look forward to each and every day ahead.

’60s Black Radio and Beyond: Petey Greene and Beyond

Petey Greene

For some limited time the documentary “Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene” will be available for free viewing on Hulu. Here’s the Hulu link.

You might also find it on your local PBS station this month: PBS Independent Lens. It is just under an hour and well worth watching.

Most people today would agree that one power of the Internet, or Web communications is that anyone “broadcast” almost instantaneously.

I think it might actually be more like narrow-casting. Valuable? Yes. Powerful? Without a doubt. Reaching across generations? Not necessarily. And when you toss income levels in with age, you’ve really constricted that filter.

We know that in our country old people are not valued as much as young people, and poor people are not valued as much as wealthier people. So, maybe it doesn’t matter that your YouTube video won’t reach many people in those groups, who won’t or can’t pay for Internet access in their homes or mega data plans for their phones.

Let me cut to the chase, RADIO was the tool that reached everyone. There is nothing now like radio was. There may be again some time. Probably will be, but not now. Not even TV. A) because of the costs of owning and operating a TV broadcast station and B) because of the division between broadcast and cable, and then we’re back at cost differences.

So, check out the Petey Greene documentary. You will see an all-star line-up of TV and radio personalities who got their start because of Petey Greene.

Check the history of NY’s WLIB which became Black-owned in the ’70s and was an important and powerful tool for the exchange of information and ideas among Black New Yorkers.

Petey Greene: b. January 23, 1931. d. January 10, 1984

On this 15th day of Black History Month, I salute Petey Greene and the other pioneers of Black radio and broadcast TV.

NAACP: It all began with ending lynching

That “Colored People” part puts some people off in this day and age, but the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is historic. When it was founded in 1909, “colored” was the language of the day. I take the language as a nod to its longevity.

Campaigns against lynching and against segregation were its earliest battles. Whether it keeps its historic name or not, it must be acknowledged that the NAACP has been and continues to be an agent for positive change in the U.S., and has made the country a better place.

Jelly Roll Morton: (Hot Adult Jazz)

Jelly Roll Morton

One of the questions I screwed up on the “Jeopardy!” contestant test online last week was about Jelly Roll Morton, so I figured I could stand to give him some attention now. If the question had been about Eubie Blake or Louis Armstrong, I would’ve been fine, but for whatever reason, there’s been a void in my knowledge of Jelly Roll.

I’ve been listening to his music for a few hours today. The instrumentals are great for the whole family. Ragtime piano, ragtime band, blues, jazz. The lyrics on this album, Jelly Roll Morton: The Last Sessions, are family-friendly, thanks to double entendres.

Things get a little more complicated when you have to explain that in the late 19th century “jelly roll” was slang for female genitalia. Then if you want to get into how Jelly Roll learned his craft, you’ll find yourself talking about a boy playing piano in a bordello.

When you start reading his lyrics, you have to be prepared for, um, “blue” language. I don’t think there’s anyone on a mainstream label, no rapper, no rocker, no one talking more explicitly about sex than Jelly Roll did. If you know Cam’ron’s “Bottom of the Pu_ _y” tune, then you have an idea of where Jelly Roll went with some of his tunes. Here’s the deal though, he was playing the piano and singing in brothels, sex was being sold. Those lyrics fit the environment. That’s not all that he wrote, but when you start reading his recollections and lyrics you’ll see that the man heard a lot, saw a lot, lived a lot, and wrote songs about it all.

Jelly Roll was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1885. His birth name as Ferdinand Joseph LeMothe (sometimes written Lamott). Jelly Roll’s stepfather’s name was Mouton, which the youth altered and adopted as Morton.

New Orleans was colorful in the 20th century and it was just as wild in the 19th century. It was a good time city with a whole lot of partying and mixing going on. These were days before cocaine was outlawed and you had people, “colored” and white partying together and using cocaine, opium, alcohol, pretty much anything and everything. When Jelly Roll was still a boy his grandmother kicked him out of the house because he didn’t want to stop playing piano at the bordellos. She didn’t think that was a proper environment for a youngster. I think most parents and guardians would agree.

This was a time when a talented piano player who wrote tunes and could play tunes by ear was a large draw for a saloon, bar, or bodello. People would stay longer, drink more and spend more. The piano players were well-paid and well-respected within that world. From the stories he tells, he was also quite the little pool shark. He did OK for himself all-around from a young age.

One of Morton’s most widely recognized tunes today is the Tiger Rag (“Hold that Tiger”). Here’s Adam Swanson playing it at the 2010 Old-time Piano Contest in Peoria, IL. I chose this clip to show the rag time action on the keyboard and because Swanson does an elbow draw, which was one of Morton’s signature moves. (Not everyone who plays this tune does that move.) Morton used standard notation to write his music and band arrangements. I’d like to find out how he notated the elbow drag. Check this out.

Morton died in Los Angeles, Calif. on July 10, 1941. The apex of his career had definitely been decades earlier, and in the ’30s he had been overshadowed by Louis Armstrong and the big bands of jazz. By some accounts Morton had turned bitter toward the music world in his later years. In his recollections recorded in the Library of Congress project in 1938, he clearly had regrets about his failed marriage. You can read transcriptions of those Morton interviews conducted by Alan Lomax here. The Library of Congress Recordings project as transcribed also contains Jelly Roll’s original lyrics to many songs. (Adult Content)

The Doctor Jazz site is a rich source of information about Jelly Roll Morton.

There are several biographies about Morton available, and in 1992 George C. Wolfe brought his “Jelly’s Last Jam” to Broadway with the late, great Gregory Hines. Here’s a clip from that.

On this 13th day of Black History Month, I doff my cap to Jelly Roll Morton for his inspiring creativity and his contributions to America’s gift to the world, jazz.


Kentucky Derby, Black Jockeys?! In What Universe?

I’d never heard of Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield, and I was OK with that. Here’s a piece of history that I learned today thanks to @MrBlackJockey on Twitter: At one time, before the Jim Crow laws, Black jockeys dominated horse racing.

Bob Hope and Jimmy "Wink" Winkfield. Jet Magazine, 1953.

Lisa Winkler writes in “The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Jockeys” for Smithsonian Magazine the “In the first Kentucky Derby in 1875, 13 out of 15 jockeys were black. Among the first 28 derby winners, 15 were black. African American jockeys excelled in the sport in the late 1800s. But by 1921, they had disappeared from the Kentucky track…”

The Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896, AKA “Separate but Equal” would slowly create a situation where black jockeys could not be at the race tracks by law. Imagine every Black man on the Miami Heat, for example, getting locked out (and every Black fan too). Now imagine it across the NBA, across all sports.

Isaac Burns Murphy, one of two Black jockeys in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, Saratoga, N.Y., and the first jockey elected to the Hall of Fame.

As the race track situation worsened, some jockeys, trainers and grooms migrated to the North for other opportunities, but the era of Black jockeys was over in the U.S.A. One jockey, Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield left the country in 1904, and went to Czarist Russia. He became a champion racer there, and after the Bolshevik Revolution, he sought refuge in France. He raced in France from 1920 to 1930 and then retired with 2,600 lifetime wins.

Winkfield handled a lot of hardships in his life. He had to overcome the struggles with his career in the U.S. under Jim Crow and a tough economy, losing his stables in France to the Nazis during the Occupation, and of coursre the slights such as the one dealt him when he returned to Kentucky in 1961 for a pre-Derby gala event as a guest of Sports Illustrated when he had to persist in order to be granted admittance.

Once the board shifted, it shifted for a long time. Not one Black jockey raced in the Kentucky Derby after 1921 until Marlon St. Julien raced in 2000.

On this 11th day of Black History Month, I honor Jimmy “Wink” Winkfield and Isaac Burns Murphy for their superb achievements in the sport of horse racing.

More information:
National Museum of Racing Hall-of-Famer Isaac Burns Murphy in and the official Hall of Fame bio

Smithsonian Magazine article about the history of Black jockeys: The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Jockeys

James “Wink” Winkfield in the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame

Black Jockeys will be commemorated over Memorial Day Weekend, 2011, at the Kentucky Derby. Information about the events

MrBlackJockey on Twitter