On the morning of August 15, 2010 we assembled to continue our journey east and south.
Ahead of us lay the final 1,150 miles, allocated between 18 riding days. Nearly 1,000 of those miles would be ridden in Florida. Certainly, we were not on the “home stretch”, but something had changed. We were excited, suffused with an optimism that had not been present over the last few weeks.
Perhaps it was the transformation that included palm trees and seashore vistas.
Perhaps it was the cooling offshore breezes that replaced the inland swelter that we had endured.
The roads had become pool table flat, except where the sea causeways arched to accommodate commercial shipping.
The sun shone brightly upon and within each of us.
However, all was not paradise in those coastal waters.
40 miles offshore from where we rode the largest marine oil spill in the history of the American petroleum industry was unfolding. On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon, a mobile oil rig, had been drilling an exploratory well in 5,000 feet of water. On that day the wellhead violently blew out, taking with it the lives of 11 workers whose remains were never recovered. The rupture caused the release of an estimated 210 million gallons of crude oil that continued unabated well into 2012. In Louisiana alone, nearly 5 million pounds of oil impregnated material was removed from the coastline. The direct environmental and economic damages were felt over 68,000 square miles, an area as large as the State of Oklahoma and easily visible from space.
Oil contaminated the beaches of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and extended along the coast as far as southern Florida.
As we rode we saw cleanup crews at work and witnessed the black corruption washing ashore.
What was hidden from us was the devastation to the flora and fauna. Thousands of species were impacted. The health and livelihood of millions of coastal residents were threatened, impacts that continue to be felt more than 10 years later.
Deepwater Horizon did not dampen our spirits.
Over the next 6 days we would pass through Biloxi, Mississippi, Dauphin Island, Alabama, and into the Florida panhandle: Pensacola, DeFuniak Springs, Marianna, and riding into Tallahassee we would enjoy a “rest day” on August 21st.
Between Marianna and Tallahassee we passed from Central Standard into the Eastern time zone, 4 time zones east from where we started on the Pacific Northwest coast.
It was one of a series of milestones that were reminders that the conclusion of our quest was drawing near.
On August 17th we were joined by Mark Dufva, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida. Accompanied part of the way by a few co-workers, he rode with us for 4 days and over 300 miles from Mobile, Alabama to Tallahassee, Florida.
Mark was not a veteran cyclist, but what he lacked in experience he more than made up for with enthusiasm and determination.
On the 18th, a day that was scheduled to cover about 90 miles, Mark joined me for an extension that would take the day’s ride over the 100 mile mark, a significant accomplishment known among bicyclists as “riding a century”.
Mark was also largely responsible for the explosion of publicity that we enjoyed.
There was a media event and mayoral proclamation ceremony in Pensacola, hosted by the Honorable Michael C. Wiggins.
En route to DeFuniak Springs we were hosted at a BBQ lunch in Ft. Walton Beach where another proclamation was made on our behalf.
Father Matt and Mark were interviewed via telephone on Christian Talk Radio.
Mark worked to make other connections for our meals and lodging. The most notable was the “Cycling for Change – Homeward Bound Rally” held in Tallahassee.
This was a festive family event that featured food and entertainment.
Tallahassee Mayor, John Marks, proclaimed “Poverty Solutions Week”, and County Commissioner Akin Akinyemi was not to be outdone by proclaiming “Poverty Awareness Day”.
We were treated to lodging in Tallahassee courtesy of the Newman Center of Florida State University and the endearing hospitality of its Director, Sister Christine Kelly, SSJ.
It is hard to imagine that after 10 years I could hold any regrets from my participation with C4C, but there is at least one. Over the years I have learned that I am fairly accomplished at beginnings, but quite deficient when it comes to conclusions. The child-like enthusiasm that I can barely restrain at the start of an “adventure” is balanced by my tendency to withdraw into myself when the finish line comes into sight.
As we lingered in Tallahassee, 86 days in the constant company of 15 extraordinary people were behind me. We had shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I could not shake the thought that in 2 weeks it would end and we would go our separate ways. There would be memories to last a lifetime, but it would never be the same as when together we rode across America.
I wish that I had not become so self-absorbed. I wish that I had been more gracious and grateful to those with whom I shared the experience. To paraphrase a line from a popular song, “Regrets, I’ve had a few… but then again just one to mention.”
Have you ever walked into a room that was exclusively designed to take a life? A room where fewer living beings exited than had entered? Until August 8, 2010 I had not.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola is the largest maximum security penal complex in the United States.
It covers over 28 square miles and currently houses over 6,500 inmates and 1,800 staff. It is naturally secure in that it is surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and the inhospitable insect, snake, and alligator infested swamps that precede the river’s edge and surround the prison. As we were to learn, over 95% of the inmates inhabiting Angola will not live to see freedom.
Angola was founded in 1830 as one of 6 plantations owned by Isaac Franklin. Franklin’s wealth came from his establishment in 1828 of the firm Franklin & Armfield, the largest slave trading company in America. Angola remained a plantation until 1880 when it was sold to former Confederate States of America officer, Samuel L. James who had been leasing prison labor in Louisiana since 1869. James was unable to run the plantation profitably with paid labor, but he could do so by utilizing leased prison laborers (mostly Black) from the State of Louisiana.
Post-Civil War Louisiana and other Southern states found that they could recreate a slave labor force by implementing a convict leasing program which was primarily targeted at the Black male population. Arrested for minor infractions, a defendant who could not pay the fine was pressed into convict servitude. Plantations and businesses leased the inmates for a fee and became responsible for the convict’s housing and necessities. At one point in the late 1800’s, over 70% of the State of Alabama’s annual operating revenues were derived from this system. Convict leasing was abolished in 1941 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Samuel L. James’ extensive use of leased convicts in the late 1800’s effectively created the Angola Penitentiary. This was formalized in 1901 when the plantation was officially acquired by the Louisiana Department of Corrections.
We 16 members of “Cycling for Change” arrived in St. Francisville, Louisiana on August 8, 2010. Catholic Charities of Baton Rouge, including David Aguilard and Ms. Tonna Fournet (who graciously hosted us for lunch) were instrumental in obtaining access to Angola for a lengthy and unique tour that included the “Red Hat cellblock” and the State’s current lethal injection chamber. Our tour guide was the prison’s youthful Chaplain, Brad Delaughter.
Brad provided insights into the history of Angola from its early days as an abusive and corrupt system through the reform efforts of then Warden Burl Cain. Cain served as Warden from 1995 to 2016.
Our tour included the Reception Center…
The inmate cemetery…
The inmate rodeo facility where an annual event is held by the inmates that is attended by up to 10,000 paying members of the public…
… And a “road trip” that provided us with views of the various maximum security compounds that are located throughout the 18,000 acre grounds.
Photographs of the interiors of facilities then in use were not allowed. Fortunately, I was able to photograph the infamous “Red Hat” cell block which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2003. I have also supplemented this post with images from the internet which are in the public domain.
The “Red Hat” cell block stands alone among open fields as a somewhat non-descript one story concrete building.
It was created after the bloody 1933 escape engineered by Charlie Frazier of George “Pretty Boy” Floyd’s gang. After Frazier’s recapture he was placed in the end cell of Red Hat and his cell door was welded shut. He remained entombed in that cell until near the time of his death 7 years later. Red Hat was finally taken out of service in 1972.
Red Hat derives its name from the red cone shaped hats that its residents were required to wear as they worked the surrounding fields. Guards were under orders to “shoot to kill” any Red Hat inmate who removed their hat outside of their cell.
The building consisted of 30 cells that measured approximately 5×7 feet. Red Hat had no heating system. The cells lacked plumbing. Inmates were each provided with a steel bucket for use as a toilet. The buckets were emptied once a day. Ventilation to each cell was a small 1×2 foot steel grate located near the top of the high cell wall. A solid steel shutter was controlled by the guards who could foreclose even that minimal inmate access to fresh air. There was no view to the world outside the cells. The building was stifling in the oppressive Louisiana summers and frigid in the winter.
Adjoining Red Hat was the former death chamber, home to the electric chair known as “Gruesome Gertie”. The chair currently in place is a replica, the original is on display in the prison museum.
As seen today…
… and when it was operational:
Outside of Red Hat is the generator that gave life to “Gruesome Gertie” thus enabling her to take the lives of 87 condemned, including Elmo Patrick Sonnier who was chronicled in the 1995 movie, “Dead Man Walking”, and Willie Francis who is the only man to ever survive his “execution” in an electric chair. Willie, convicted at 16, was 17 at the time of the failed 1947 execution. He was successfully put to death in that chair one year later.
Angola is a working farm. Inmates provide the labor. It is known for the quality of the beef that is raised but not available for inmate consumption. It is also known for the husbandry and training of horses used by law enforcement throughout the United States.
The somber “highlight” of the tour of Angola was our admission into the Louisiana lethal injection chamber. It is currently in use and has seen the demise of 8 convicts. 69 inmates currently await execution in Angola on Louisiana’s death row. In the post-1976 “modern era” of capital punishment Louisiana has executed 28 people. Below is my 2010 reflection on our experience in the present execution chamber.
Our visit concluded with Mass and dinner, both attended by selected inmates.
Next: On to New Orleans.
Peace Everyone. Pete
“Seven Seatbelts for Angola” (August 10, 2010)
At 3 p.m. on August 9, 2010, the Cycling for Change contingent arrived for our tour of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Our group was augmented by representatives of Catholic Charities of Baton Rouge, the bus driver (Mr. Washington), and Brad the prison chaplain.
It is 100 degrees outside. Factor in the humidity and that number exceeds 110. The sun is relentless, coating its unshaded victims like molten glass. Our bus briefly stops under a corrugated canopy, and after a guard takes a headcount and examines our picture ID’s the gate opens and our bus proceeds onto the prison grounds.
Angola is unlike any other prison. It was created from former antebellum plantations and encompasses an area that is roughly the size of New York’s Manhattan Island. The Mississippi River, which is nearing the end of its 2,500 mile journey forms an imposing natural barrier on three sides of Angola. The fourth side lacks a perimeter fence, but the dense mosquito infested swamp is considered an adequate deterrent to escape attempts. Brad comments that the last fellow to try his hand at “the swamp” emerged to surrender himself after 5 days, nearly eaten alive by the insects.
There are no imposing walls, and no medieval looking stone structures. Located here and there in Angola are razor wire enclosed “camps”. These are self-contained penal complexes of varying size, each one holding a portion of the total inmate population. Brad tells us that the camps are designated by letter: Camp “A”, Camp “B”, and so forth. We learn that Camp “J” is the discipline Camp, a jail within the Prison housing around 600 offenders who present special problems and risks.
If Louisiana’s prison needs grow, it is a simple matter to build additional camps in Angola. The spacious grounds look vacant, each camp appearing as a distant community separated by flat expanses of farmland. Angola is one of only three agricultural prisons in the United States. There are miles of row crops, vegetable farms, 3,500 head of cattle, and one of the largest horse husbandry stables in the Country. Inmates are the sole source of labor on these grounds. With the exception of the medically, mentally, or behaviorally unfit, every inmate has a job. The grounds are impeccable. There are decorative flower gardens, neatly trimmed right-of-ways, and pristine white cattle fencing. This could easily be Churchill Downs if there were only more trees and a racetrack.
Brad conducts our driving tour of Angola, directing Mr. Washington on where to turn and when to stop. Brad is a curiosity in his own right. He is a man/boy of 27, married and father of two small children, his baby face and soft eyes seem ill-suited for a chaplain who ministers to the spiritual needs of one of the “hardest” of congregations. Brad is a very big man who turned down a major college football scholarship in favor of the seminary and God’s calling. He Brad talks about Angola and its residents with love and respect.
Brad speaks of the reforms that have occurred at Angola over the last 30 years. Gone are the days of the “hot boxes”. Inmates are provided with a well-conceived system of freedoms, privileges, and incentives. He reports that prison gang activity has been largely eliminated and serious inmate on inmate violence has been reduced from over 500 incidents per year to less than 100 annually. Offenders have opportunities to advance their education with GED classes and college courses taught by volunteers from local colleges and Loyola University. Inmates eagerly seek to take advantage of those programs, even if they will never have the opportunity to use the knowledge in the free world.
As we proceed down one of the flat ruler straight roads Brad instructs Mr. Washington to stop at the small one-story concrete structure ahead on the left. This is the “Red Hat Cellblock”.
Angola’s Warden, Burl Cain, is credited with many of the reforms and improvements at Angola. Red Hat was closed by a prior Warden in the 1970’s. Rather than level this structure, Cain had it placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a monument to a penal system of abuse.
The grounds surrounding Red Hat are desolate and forsaken. At the rear of the Red Hat cellblock is a large rusted electric generator. Wires still run from the generator into a side room of Red Hat, the sole purpose of those wires being the delivery of a massive surge of electrical energy into the hand and feet restraints of a stout wooden chair. Within that room is also the original, but now rusted, three blade switch that delivered the lethal current of electricity to end the life of the chair’s occupant. Except for the wires and wooden chair the place is more like a room in a long-abandoned farmhouse; holes in the walls and ceiling, cobwebs, and mud wasps flying about. Returning to the bus we leave Red Hat, but the images of Red Hat will never leave us.
We arrive at the last stop of our tour. The bus pulls into a parking lot. In contrast with our experience at Red Hat, there is a well-maintained parking lot. The grass is trimmed with the precision of a golf course putting green. Flowering shrubs abound in front of and on the sides of the newer single story white building. There is no fence, but the pastel colored doors have curiously large locks, the kind that take keys which are the size of those made for a toddler’s play. We are greeted by uniformed prison staff, and Brad is addressed by name. We proceed into a group room that has 5 or 6 large round tables. The brightly painted cement block walls are decorated by two large murals. They are well executed paintings of Biblical scenes from the Old Testament; Daniel in the den of lions, and Elijah riding a chariot to Heaven.
Brad gives us brief instructions before leading us down a corridor and through another steel door. We enter. On my right is an opened door through which I see two small adjoining rooms which are separated from each other by a sliding wood paneled door. Each of these two rooms has two rows of short but comfortable leather chairs, the kind that might be found around an office conference table. One of these two rooms is slightly smaller and contains fewer chairs than the other. The chairs in both rooms are arranged to face large picture windows that look into our destination room, the lethal injection chamber.
We enter the death chamber in silence. The air is emotionally pulled from our lungs. In the center of the ceramic tiled floor is a single cruciform table secured upon a white enamel steel pedestal. Thin black vinyl pads cover the top and the arms of the table. Without instruction we arrange ourselves around the perimeter of the room which measures approximately 14 feet on each side. Near the head of the execution bed is a small window of one-way glass which conceals its interior and the identity of the executioner. The only connection between that room and the chamber in which we stand is a circular 4-inch port. On the wall near the left arm of the bed are two red telephones. We are told that one is connected to the State Superintendent of Corrections and the other to the Office of the Governor of Louisiana. At the right arm of the bed are the two viewing windows. These windows are crystal clear and provide the witnesses an unimpeded view of the execution proceedings. High above the bed the room’s lighting is furnished by 4 fluorescent fixtures. The light is harsh even though the fixtures’ lenses have browned with age. For some occupants of the bed the light might have been easier to gaze upon than into the eyes of the observers in the adjoining rooms. A large round clock is located ominously above the two red telephones.
“Let those who enter here abandon all hope.”
This is a foreign place. It is a place where few have been. It is a room where fewer have left alive than have entered. We are given 5 senses to know our surroundings, but here our nature resists the use of our senses. The only sounds in this place are those that we make by our presence. There are no smells. There is nothing within for the preservation of life; nothing to taste, nothing to drink. None of us touch the bed even though there is nothing to prevent it. What we know is delivered in stark clarity by our eyes. What our eyes disclose is strange, unfamiliar, not a part of our prior experiences… except that lying upon the cruciform bed I see seven common but out of place objects, and I understand the irony:
About 20 years ago, somewhere in this country there was a factory. Within that factory a worker stood at his or her duty station. It might have been a day like any other for that person. Perhaps the worker took pride in the knowledge that the simple task being performed would result in the saving of lives, the avoidance of serious injury, the enhancement of safety and security for thousands of people. On that day the worker carefully selected and packaged 7 seatbelts, addressing the shipping label: “Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola”.
In the course of our bicycle journey across America it was inevitable that we would encounter others who knowingly or unknowingly were traveling their own life pilgrimage. It was our mission to bring awareness to others of the problem of poverty in America. Yet one does not learn by speaking. It is in listening that we find enlightenment. It is in being connected to the moment that we are opened to appreciate what that moment had to offer.
Sometimes a “message” hangs in the air waiting to be heard… just as every miracle has two parts; that it occurred and that it was noticed. A lesson unheard, a miracle unnoticed, are each in their own way a little tragedy.
It is with this in mind that I pause to share two encounters. I recall them today as if they were yesterday and I believe that each of them nudged the course of my life in a small but meaningful way. This post is the reflection of my meeting with “Steve”. My next post will be of my meeting with John Bodie.
July 31, 2010
On the night of July 30th, in Dyersburg, Tennessee, I walked past one of our two support vans. These vans prominently display our “Cycling for Change” logo, and sponsorship by Catholic Charities. Next to the van was a man who sat astride a tired looking adult tricycle. His baskets held an assortment of “odds and ends” which appeared to be a mixture of personal items, random finds from a tour of roadside parks, and maybe almost every possession that he could lay claim to. The man, perhaps 40 years old and of African-American descent, wore a turban-like head covering and robes made from rough-spun cotton or burlap. Our eyes met, and without hesitation “Steve” (his real name is unknown to me) asked me if I knew who owned the van. I acknowledged my connection and we spoke briefly of the mission of Cycling for Change. As I left, he asked if he could leave some information on the windshield. I saw no harm and told him that it would be “ok”. I thought nothing more of the encounter that night.
The next morning as Christine was unlocking the van she called my attention to a sheave of folded papers under the windshield wiper. I then remarked that it must be from the man that I came upon the prior evening. Together we leafed through the papers… “Steve” had left us a tract on poverty in America, a handwritten note, and two dollars. He thanked us for our work, and for caring. Steve asked for nothing from us.
At breakfast I shared my encounter with “Steve” to our group. One of the riders remarked in humor that maybe he was a “guardian angel”. Throughout the ride that day the irony of “Steve’s” kind wishes and his donation occupied my thoughts. He lifted my spirits and the spirits of our group. He gave us perspective for the day and a greater sense of the meaning of our mission. In this way he truly was a “guardian angel”. The impact that he had on us was disproportionate to his humble contribution. A $10,000.00 donation from a wealthy benefactor would not have eclipsed the value of “Steve’s” gift.
My brief encounter with “Steve” has also given me pause to consider the other “Guardian Angels” who have eased our burden with kind words, encouragement, prayers… my Mother, my children, my grandchildren, my friends, our segment riders. You keep an eye on us and you care. I would list your names, but the peril of an innocent omission is too great. I trust that you know who you are and that I am thankful to you from the bottom of my heart.
The Great River, Old Man River, The Mighty Mississippi… At 2,202 miles from its source at Lake Itasca, Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, it is the second longest river in North America. The Missouri, deemed a “tributary” that discharges into the Mississippi at St. Louis, is the longest at 2,341 miles. The Missouri/Mississippi system ranks as the 4th longest river in the world after the Nile, Amazon, and Yangtze. While deemed “mighty” in its length and breadth, its average discharge is only one-twelfth that of the Amazon River in South America.
Cycling for Change had reached the Mississippi at St. Louis on July 25th. After a “rest day” we turned south and loosely followed the course of the middle and lower Mississippi to New Orleans.
With the St. Louis Arch looming over our shoulders we navigated our exit of the urban sprawl into the river lowlands and rich bottom lands of Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. I and segment rider Ben Harring made a brief afternoon foray into Arkansas on August 2nd which was otherwise a “rest day” in Memphis.
Six riding days to Memphis, 400 miles, an average of nearly 70 miles a day. The cool dry air of the western mountain states was a distant memory. The order of the days had become pre-dawn starts to beat the heat. Unfortunately, the morning air was dense with humidity that condensed like rain on our bikes, clothes, and goggles in those early hours. Humidity was the lesser of the two evils which by late morning gave way fully to the heat.
St. Louis to St. Genevieve, Missouri…
St. Genevieve to Cape Girardeau, Missouri where a bike mechanic at Cape Bicycle rescued me from the near disaster of a frayed cable that had tangled and wound within the precision mechanism of my shifter. He worked hours after closing time, refusing to give up on the bicycle disabling and potentially ride-ending mechanical failure. Eventually successful, he then declined payment for the hours of his labor.
Cape Girardeau, Missouri, through Illinois, a crossing of the Ohio River near Cairo, Illinois and on to Hickman, Kentucky…
Hickman, Kentucky to Dyersburg, Tennessee…
Dyersburg to Covington, Tennessee…
Covington into Memphis, Tennessee where the early Sunday morning streets, including the iconic Beale Street of Blues music fame, were barely waking to the day.
Along the way we enjoyed brief moments of notoriety as a local radio station in Cape Girardeau began interrupting its broadcasts to report on our mile-by-mile progress through its listening area. One dedicated listener left her home and waited in a convenience store parking lot hoping to see us. She waved us down and was thrilled to join with us for a photo-op and autographs.
Breakfast diners in Hickman Kentucky similarly found fascination in our exploits.
Matt gave a television interview upon our arrival at Christian Brother’s University in Memphis…
…and even Memphis’ Mayor, the Honorable A.C. Wharton, Jr., headlined a “meet and greet” event in our honor.
The “rest day” in Memphis provided us with the opportunity to do a bit of individual sightseeing. For my part that included the National Civil Rights Museum, a complex of buildings that include the Lorraine Motel, site of the April 4, 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Young and Morrow Building where James Earl Ray had lain in wait to gun down the civil rights icon.
As sobering as it was to view the balcony where Dr. King was slain, it was all the more so to eye it from the room and window where Ray aimed and fired the fateful shot.
Outside of the Lorrain Motel I was drawn to the curious sight of a middle aged Black woman standing at a table. It was apparent that it was some kind of one woman protest.
Jacqueline Smith was the last resident of the Lorraine Motel. She had lived there since 1973 while working there as a housekeeper. When the motel closed in 1988 she and all of her belongings were evicted. From that day forward she mounted a single voice protest against the gentrification that had “stolen” her beloved neighborhood from those who Dr. King most loved. As of my visit in 2010 she had been a continuous presence at that corner for 22 years. Her protest continues to this day, more than 32 years after it began. Below is my 2010 reflection of meeting Ms. Smith.
Next: To New Orleans, “The Big Easy.”
Peace Everyone. Pete
August, 2, 2010. Sometimes It Is Not So Simple
Today is the scheduled departure of Ben from our group. Ben joined us as a segment rider in Atchison, Kansas, and has ridden nearly 800 miles with us across Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and into Memphis, Tennessee. Ben is the youngest (23 years old) rider, and the thinness of his profile suggests that a strong wind would take him and his bicycle skyward. His steady temperament and strong legs quickly made him “one of us”.
Last night Ben asked if I would be willing to ride this morning across the Mississippi River to Arkansas. Even though this is a non-riding day, with a series of Cycling for Change events scheduled in the afternoon, it seemed a fitting way to enjoy one last ride with Ben. He and I were off at 6:30 am. The temperature was already in the mid 80’s, as was the humidity. We navigated a decidedly bicycle “unfriendly” route through industrial Memphis, crossing the Mississippi River on the abandoned (apparently) sidewalk of the I-55 bridge, which seemed paved with broken beer bottles. We ignored a few “keep out” signs on the west river levees, and after hazarding a gravel farm road arrived at a truckstop in West Memphis, Arkansas.
We enjoyed breakfast and the good humor of two waitresses, who knew how to make a couple of spandex clad cyclists blush: “You boys are REAL bikers… we know where your motors are!!”. With breakfast concluded we reversed course, returning to Tennessee. Ben asked if we could detour to see the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. A quick check of the map confirmed that it would only take us a few miles off our route.
The National Civil Rights Museum is the restored Lorraine Motel, sight of the slaying of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., by James Earl Ray, on April 4, 1968. I have memories of the black and white television and newspaper images of black men standing over Dr. King on the motel balcony, pointing in the direction of the shot that had struck him down. As Ben and I turned onto Mulberry Street we saw the Lorraine. There was the balcony with a large white wreath marking the place of tragedy. What surprised me were the bright colors of the motel and marquis; aquamarine, red, yellow… cheerfully “retro” like a 1960’s hamburger stand. However, the Lorraine was merely being true to the day that Dr. King was assassinated.
We rode forward intending to take a few pictures, but on the opposite side of the street was an old table, a folded and faded beach umbrella, and amateur painted signs which proclaimed in large letters, “Boycott the $10 million dollar James Earl Ray Memorial”, and “22 years, 199 days”.
We adjusted our course to get closer to the site of the apparent protest. Jacqueline Smith, a slight built but attractive middle aged black woman was at the table unpacking some pictures and papers. Frankly, I had expected some kind of white supremacist to be the engine of protest, not this woman of color. She greeted us, cheerfully asking where we had bicycled from. We enjoyed a brief social exchange about riding and the weather while she organized pictures of Martin Luther King and an assortment of memorabilia. I pointed to her signs and asked the simple question, “Why”?…
Ms. Smith, in a manner that betrayed years of practiced delivery, explained that she was the last resident of the Lorraine Motel. Pointing across the street she said that it had been her home. She gestured around us and added that this had been her neighborhood. This was where her family and friends once lived. When the Lorraine was converted into a Memorial, she lost her home. When the surrounding streets became “gentrified” as the focal point of the Memorial she lost her friends and she lost her neighborhood. Jacqueline Smith lamented that the neighborhood was now populated by centers of entertainment, dining, and million dollar residences. It was no longer a place for her people or the people that Dr. King loved and worked to benefit. “Dr. King preached that he tried to be right, he tried to feed the hungry, he tried to cloth the naked, he tried to love and serve humanity”. “There is nothing in what they have done to the Lorraine and my neighborhood that is a tribute to what Dr. King stood for.” Jacqueline Smith has stood on that corner every day to deliver her message. She is the lone counterpoint of the National Civil Rights Museum and has been so for 22 years and 199 days.
Ms. Smith and I talked for about 20 minutes. I admitted that I planned on returning to tour the Museum later that day. I thanked her for giving me another perspective. I also promised her that I would share the experience of meeting her.
It seems so simple that the site of the slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. should be dedicated to his memory and his work… until the simplicity is complicated by the reflection that the work of Dr. King was not the erection of monuments and memorials… his work was feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, serving humanity. Sometimes it is just not as simple as it seems.
…at least Kansas is not flat from the seat of a bicycle.
On July 11, 2010, we entered Kansas embarking on a transit of nearly 500 miles that in 7 days would see us arriving in Kansas City, Missouri. Our route was almost exclusively on old US Highway 36. US-36 opened in 1921 was one of the original pre-Interstate thoroughfares that opening large swaths of the United States to automotive travel. It is not a true cross-continent highway as it begins it’s journey in Ohio and reaches its western terminus 1,400 miles later in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park.
I-80 to the north and I-70 to the south have rendered US-36 a lightly travelled two lane country road that connects a string of small communities. In the west where we entered Kansas from Colorado the elevation was just under 4,000 feet above sea-level. By the time that we reached Kansas City, Missouri we had descended 3,000 feet. In the meantime the topography undulated across the plains and prairie land.
We frequently rated the difficulty of a day’s ride by the amount of vertical climb accomplished. In Colorado, Wyoming and the other western states climbs came in one long and very large effort. We found that in Kansas the total of vertical climb made good was equivalent to our experience in the mountain states, just in hundreds of small segments… “kind of a death by many cuts.”
Before the ride began, I had “predicted” to the team that at some point this would become labor. That transition occurred over the course of the 7 days that we crossed Kansas. Joes, Colorado gave us torrential rains.
Norton and Atwood in Kansas repelled us with relentless head winds. Smith Center, Kansas “treated” us to a heat index of 114 degrees. However, we would not be deterred as Kansas City drew us like a magnet. For most of us it represented home and a few days pause with family and friends. For all of us it was the completion of 2,500 miles of our 5,000 mile journey, the halfway point.
The final day ride, 60 miles from Atchison Kansas to the campus of Rockhurst in Kansas City was also special. In Atchison and Leavenworth we were joined by over 100 cyclists. Among those riders was my nephew, Phil Schloss, and members of the “Gravy Train”, cyclists with whom I regularly rode then and still ride to this day.
Smith Center, Kansas had a Dollar Store that I visited for some now forgotten need. As I approached the cashier my eyes were drawn to the impulse purchase rack. For only a dollar I became the proud owner of a bag of 100 huge, life-like, rubber roaches. Think Florida Palmetto Bugs, as seen here in comparison to the last of the plastic imitations that I still possess.
The rubber roaches each came to be known as “Henry”. For the 2,500 mile remainder of the C4C ride they bemused, befuddled, and generally terrorized the riders and occasional non-rider victims. Henry would show up in water bottles, clothing, bags of potato chips… and any other place that I could creatively (and anonymously) deploy him.
Early on I was considered a suspect, but one of the Henrys was overlooked only to be found on a day that I could not have been the perpetrator. My role in these pranks thus remained unknown until I confessed my guilt in Key West, Florida.
One morning in Clewiston, Florida I found a real Palmetto resting on the seat of my bicycle. I took the opportunity to carefully photograph the Palmetto alongside a “Henry”. Removing the fake bug I left the real one in place. Soon one of the riders saw “Henry”. In disgust the rider grabbed him with a mind to show everyone that yet another “bug” had been found. Unfortunately, it was not “Henry” that was held closed in the palm of the rider’s hand, but the real Palmetto Bug. I wish that I could have recorded the yell that pierced the air as the huge insect struggled to escape the rider’s grasp.
At the end of this post is a reflection on a memorable personal experience that also occurred in Smith Center, Kansas.
Next: Missouri’s KATY Trail
Peace Everyone. Pete
July 13, 2010. The Nine Dollar Haircut
Today was hot. Not just hot, but HOT!
“How hot was it, Pete?”
So hot that the roll of my bicycle wheels gave the continuous sound of separating Velcro as the sun-beaten asphalt reluctantly released its grip, revolution after revolution.
So hot that colors appeared bleached into the dull grey of sepia photos by the arc-welder brightness of the midday sun.
So hot that…
Prudently, we awoke early and had the vans packed with our luggage by 6 a.m.. Arrangements had been made with a local diner in Norton, Kansas to accommodate the 17 of us for an early breakfast. The goal was to eat and then be on the road via US 36 to the town of Smith Center by 7 a.m.. 61 miles separated these towns and the prediction was for the temperature to break the century mark. Mercifully, the headwinds of the prior day had moderated into tolerable side winds that had the intermittent character of gusts from the mouth of a blast furnace.
We arrived in Smith Center shortly after noon. Our motel, The Buckshot Inn, was cast in the mold of countless motels that sprang up in the heyday of the old US Highway system. As with its more famous sibling, “Route 66”, US 36 was once a primary link for commerce and travel across the United States. These roads, wonders of the first half of the 20th Century, have long been eclipsed by President Eisenhower’s visionary network of Interstate Highways. US 36 is now mostly frequented by local travelers, huge lumbering farm combines, and today by our bicycles. Most of the motels are gone, but the ramshackle remains of some are still visible as ghostly reminders of an earlier era. The Buckshot Inn survives and thrives thanks to the attention, care, and maintenance of its owners. To our delight, the line of rooms faced a small yard and a blue turquoise concrete swimming pool. The crystal clear water invited us to make its depths our first non-cycling activity of the day.
Refreshed, our focus shifted to finding a late lunch. The urgency of the mornings ride had caused us to skip our usual meal break. Christine and I went into the old downtown area to seek a diner.
Downtown Smith Center is not dead, but like many historic central business districts it is not well. The two and three story brick and stone structures harken to a time when a building’s name and year of “birth” were prominently displayed at the top and on the cornerstone. One such building in Smith Center is the Shite Building, 1888. Another, The First National Bank building, displayed “Founded 1886, Erected 1930”. That was a tough year to build a bank, but clearly The First National Bank had successfully weathered the adversity of the Depression. Faded paint indicated the character of some of the long gone businesses. Much of the former commerce has been replaced by antique and secondhand stores. A modern addition to the bank facade informed us of the time, 2 p.m., and the temperature, 101.
We ate at the Second Cup Café, where $6 can still buy you a large tenderloin sandwich with all the trimmings, and a piece of homemade pie (Apple, with Maple flavored crust, fantastic!). A patron asked if we were with “the cycling group”. After a pleasant discussion with her and the café owner, she smiled and gave us a $5 donation and a “God Bless You”. We left the café and were again assaulted by the wall of heat. Across the street I saw a small, faded barber’s pole mounted next to the door of an old and timeworn storefront. “Paul’s Barbershop”. It had been over 6 weeks since my last haircut, and curiosity got the best of me. I crossed the street to peer into the window. Over the years the glass had lost its clarity, etched by countless dust storms. I shaded my eyes against the glass in order to better see within. I beheld not just a barbershop, but a living “barbershop museum” with one of our riders, Jeremy, in the barber’s chair.
We entered the shop. It was a “three chair” store, each of which was a creature of cast iron, nickel, porcelain and leather nearly 100 years old. Jeremy was in the center chair, but what immediately drew my eye was that the chair to the left was a fully functional chair in miniature… the perfect size for a 5 year old and elevated to the perfect height for Paul the Barber. This tonsorial “throne”, fit for any young prince, differed from its larger brothers only in the absence of the long leather razor strops which hung from the full size chairs.
“Atmosphere” was provided by a mahogany encased, single dial radio which still used vacuum tubes to amplify the broadcast signal. An older console version stood near the back of the store. The service counter displayed bottles of men’s grooming products such as Vitalis Hair Tonic, Krew-Kut, Hask Hair Tonic, and a few other brands that I had thought long extinct. Behind the counter was a very old ornate white and chrome cash register… the kind that shoots little metal “tombstones” up at the sound of a bell to announce the amount of the transaction. I would soon learn that the register remained in use. Then there was Paul, the shops sole proprietor.
I suspect that in Paul’s younger days he had been at least 6 feet tall, but 7 decades and bending over countless heads of hair had taken their toll. As he focused his attention on cutting Jeremy’s hair I noticed a tremor in Paul’s hand that seemed to stop just at the moment the clippers reached their destination. Barbers are observant of people and human nature, and Paul was no exception. He seemed to read my mind and commented in a matter of fact manner that he had suffered a stroke but was able to pursue his calling after only 6 months of recuperation. Paul was confident of his skills to the point that he made jokes, “If I make a mistake, the hair will just grow back”… “If you want something fixed, you can always ride your bikes back here”… Paul and I were amused. Jeremy’s half-smile gave just a hint of reserved nervousness. I sensed that my wife, Christine, preferred that I leave my hair to other hands.
Paul put the finishing touches on Jeremy’s hair-cut, and with practiced mastery removed the barber’s cape, shaking the clinging hair to the floor. “That will be nine dollars”, Paul announced. Jeremy and I both must have displayed a micro reaction, as Paul then followed up with, “I could do it cheaper, but only if you fellows pay my bills.” Now, it has probably been over 30 years since I had a $9.00 haircut, and here Paul had assumed we were suffering sticker shock.
I took my turn in the chair. Paul went to work as a craftsman should, with calm practiced confidence. We talked as he cut.
“So you fellows are Catholic. Well, I’m Lutheran, which is kind of watered down Catholic.” He stopped and chuckled.
“Was a time there weren’t many Catholics in this area, but there are sure a lot of them now”. He was making a matter of fact observation. There was no animus in the statement.
I asked Paul for a recommendation for a dinner restaurant. “Well, I prefer to eat with Mom (his wife) at home, but I suppose if I had to eat somewhere else it would be Putches or Duffy’s downtown here.” We ate at Duffy’s, and Paul’s recommendation was spot on.
I learned that Paul and his wife had celebrated 50 years of marriage in June. They had two daughters, a son, and one grandson. This was Paul’s second barber shop and he had been cutting hair in his “new” shop since 1962. He confirmed that the chairs, register, and fixtures predated his arrival. It was at this point that Paul became serious. “There have been many people over the years who have offered to buy my chairs, cash register, and other items.” He and “Mom” had talked about it, but it just didn’t seem right. The shop was his business and his life. He just couldn’t see parting with it piecemeal. With sadness he remarked that in front of the shop there once stood a tall barber’s pole that was as old as the shop itself. About 8 years ago some fellows passing through town wanted to buy it. Paul politely declined to sell. “I was in the shop Saturday, and by Monday the pole was gone. Someone stole my barber pole”. Paul declined to blame “those fellows”, or anyone else. He just remarked, with a hint of sadness that maybe someone needed it more than he did.
“What do you think?” asked Paul. “About the barber pole?” I replied. “No, the haircut! Is it ok?” I smiled and looked in the cracked and time worn wall mirror at the white skinned border that now separated my bicycle tan from my shortened hairline. “Paul, it looks great!” Paul beamed and said, “That will be nine dollars.” I gave him a ten… “Please keep the change”. His smile broadened, broken only by the word, “Thanks!”
As I left the shop I considered that my ten dollars had purchased a haircut and a moment in the life of a good and extraordinary man. Smith Center had the fortune of Paul’s good will for over 50 years. “Mom” had enjoyed his love and company for over 50 years. How rich the community and how rich his family. My 15 minutes in his chair were priceless. I wish I could take my grandchildren there just once. You know that tonsorial “throne”, fit for any young prince (or princess). I wonder if children’s haircuts are also nine dollars. Let’s see, that would be $90.00 plus the tip… What a bargain.
As we rode south from Grand Teton National Park the vastness of Wyoming opened to us. In total, our passage through the state covered over 450 miles.
From elevations so high that ice still covered the lakes…
To near endless rolling steppes where the summer grasses bent to the winds in wave upon wave.
One afternoon we did battle with a thunderstorm that hammered us with lightning and gusting side-winds exceeding 50 mph. Sorry, no pictures as it was everything I could do just to keep my bicycle vertical and on the road.
We prided ourselves on riding our bikes every single mile, however there was one location of mountain road construction where non-motorized traffic was prohibited. Kindly, the construction crew accommodated us.
The variety of geology that surrounded us was an ever changing treat.
One morning we encountered a group of young cyclists on the road. They were “Push America”, another charity ride crossing the United States, west to east. Strong riders every one of them. Having “eaten her Wheaties” that morning our petite Lissa, aged well into her 50’s, decided to join their pace line. For miles she rode with them achieving for the day her fastest average speed of the entire Summer, nearly 20 mph.
We crossed through the Wind River Indian Reservation where we were hosted at Mass at St. Stephens Mission Church. It was striking to see how familiar Christian images of worship had been ethnocentrically translated.
Upon reflection that is precisely what our European ancestors had done for millennia in creating images of a central European Christ, and blue eyed Mother Mary, and a Latin liturgy.
On July 1st (2010) we were hosted for Mass and dinner by St. Joseph parish in Rawlins, Wyoming. Near the church we had encountered another cross-country cyclist who we called “Milwaukee Tom”.
Tom (of course from Milwaukee) had recently completed his service commitment in the US Navy. He had mustered out in San Diego California. Tom decided that he was not yet ready to return to the conventions and restraints of civilian life, so he took his discharge pay and bought a bicycle. Tom outfitted his bike for long distance touring and embarked upon a journey of no particular duration to no particular destination. At our invitation Tom enthusiastically joined us at St. Joseph parish for companionship and dinner.
On the evening of July 1st we were joined by a new segment rider, Tom Dillon from Kansas City. Tom’s first riding day with us was on the 2nd, a tough 66 miles to Riverside Wyoming (pop. 52), on the banks of the Encampment River. Our accommodations in Riverside were rustic log cottages that dated to the early 20th Century. The cabins bore such names as, “Sodbuster”, “Wildcatter”, “Mountainman”, and “Muleskinner”.
A welcome sight was the Bear Trap Saloon, situated across the street.
Needless to say…
Next: Into Colorado High Country.
Peace Everyone. Pete
PS: It occurred to me how difficult it must have been for Tom Dillon to join our group of cross-country cyclists, having long solidified into a “family”. Tom’s answer to this challenge was masterfully presented on the morning of July 3rd:
“The Coffee Pot”
I have pondered the inevitable times that we would be called upon to bring “others” into our fold. The “segment riders”… people who wholeheartedly embrace our undertaking, but because of work, family, or other considerations, are unable to assume the obligations of our entire coast to coast journey. What a challenge to suddenly appear, bags and bicycle in hand, among 16 people who have evolved their common experiences into understandings that need no words. We read the shrug of a shoulder, the furl of a brow, the shuffle of a step, as a melody in another member’s day. Sometimes our emotions sing the same song, sometimes another… but almost always with harmony… we are a chorus. Enter the “stranger”, the unknown voice.
Tom Dillon had not bicycled with any of us. He is from Kansas City, but he is a member of another parish. Tom faced the challenge I had pondered… how a “stranger” best enters the ecology of our emotional and physical environment.
Tom arrived in time to join us for the long and challenging ride from Rawlins to Riverside, Wyoming. That day’s ride on July 2nd had seen us persevere over rough narrow roads, through thunderstorms and hail, with headwinds and crosswinds gusting to over 50 miles per hours. There was no time for small talk, and no polite social graces were exchanged. At the end of the day no one was in the mood to “welcome” anyone or anything other than a cold beer, a hot shower, and a warm bed.
At 5:30 a.m. on July 3rd I reluctantly stuck my head out the warped doorway of my cabin and looked through the open and shredded screen. Like “Punxsutawney Phil” of Groundhog Day fame, I was looking to see if there were signs of another day of hell-weather. The sky was ambiguous but the scent was not. My nostrils were assailed by the rich pungent aroma of fresh roasted coffee. There was real caffeine in the air. Not the thin hint of the tepid dark imitation that is served up by most drip machines, but coffee with the raven darkness of abused motor oil. Tom, like the Pied Piper, was calling all of us coffee loving “rats” out of our lairs with the melody of his brew. He stood upon the dew sodden grass, illuminated by the early hint of dawn, with a large old style pewter espresso coffee pot in hand. I and the other “customers” lined up at his bidding, cups in hand. The tribulations of the prior day were forgotten and Tom was instantly “one of us”.
The next few days gave me pause to consider the genius of Tom’s foresight. It occurred to me that anyone entering into an established social order has a limited number of options. One may ignore the group and remain a non-person. One may choose to identify oneself to the group by emphasizing one’s distinctions and differences. And then there is the “coffee pot”. The foresight to think of the others, to strive to embrace what we have in common, what we share, what we understand.
In our cycling group, we are not lawyers, clergy, doctors, social workers, retirees… we are people and we are family. We strive to be “we”, “us”, “our” and never “them” or “they”. As it should be with the human family. It makes it so much easier to help and be helped, to accept and be accepted.
In the wake of the George Floyd tragedy there have been voices persistent in the assertion that systemic racism no longer exists in America. Interview clips from a few high profile African Americans are featured in videos in order to give credence to the claim.
I have engaged in discussion with a few acquaintances who maintain that claims of systemic racism in America are a fiction fostered by the media of the liberal left.
I am left to wonder and ask myself the question, “When did systemic racism end in America?”
Certainly, racism was pervasive and well established in 1619 when the America Colonies first began participation in the international slave trade. How else could the Colonials justify buying and selling innocent human beings?
Racism remained in evidence during the drafting of the United States Constitution when in 1787 Article 1, Section 2, specified that enslaved persons would count as 3/5 of a free person in determining the number of Congressional Representatives that a state would be entitled to.
Perhaps one might point to America’s 1807 withdrawal from international slave trade as an end to racism except that slavery continued to flourish within many U.S. states. It remained accepted as manifest destiny that White Americans could buy and sell Black men, women, and children… permanently severing child from mother, and husband from wife.
The Civil War of 1860-65 which was “a House Divided” over the question of slavery, resulted in the deaths of 750,000 Union and Confederate combatants. That bloodbath and the defeat of the Southern insurrection must have fully and finally resolved racism, even if the liberation of the slaves under the 1863 passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not. It seems like such a long time ago, but then it was the time of my great-grandfather, only 3 generations removed from mine.
If the Civil War had eliminated racism then how was it that African American (men) were only extended the right to vote in the passage of the 1870 15th Amendment to the Constitution?
How then was it that the infamous “Jim Crow” (fn1) laws of the 19th and 20th Centuries could institutionalize racial segregation in such fundamental aspects of society as property ownership, education, freedom of association, suffrage… just to name a few. These were prominent in the time of my Grandfather, remained prevalent in my Father’s time, and enforced by various state and local governments until at least 1965.
In 1913 President Woodrow Wilson initiated segregation in the federal workforce. The U.S. military, already segregated, was not desegregated until 1948. Yet in the last week controversy reigns over whether U.S. military bases should retain the names of military leaders who led troops against the United States in the name of the preservation of slavery. (fn2)
Perhaps racial lynching was a matter extinguished in the era of the Civil War or at least by the 20th Century.
Unfortunately, that is not the case. Between 1882 and 1968 approximately 3,500 African Americans were murdered by extrajudicial “lynching”. Some authorities believe the number much larger as some events and the fates of those victims remain hidden.
Noteworthy was a 1909 public lynching of a Black man in Cairo Illinois which was attended by thousands. Still a historical artifact? As recently as 1998 James Byrd, Jr., a Black man, was murdered by three White men who “hanged” him by dragging him by the neck behind a pickup truck. Using the Tuskegee Institutes definition of “lynching” as a racially perpetrated murder in which three or more persons participated, the number of victims is certainly greater and includes the 2011 murder of James C. Anderson by a group of Whites.
Not systemic? In 1947 President Harry Truman was unsuccessful in his effort to enact a Federal Anti-Lynching law… an effort repeated unsuccessfully in the US Senate in 2005, and again just last week.
But the laws that abolished slavery must have also abolished racism, right?
In 1892 Homer Plessy, a man who was one-eighth Black, was prosecuted and convicted in Louisiana for riding in a “Whites only” train car. The US Supreme Court took the matter up in 1896 ruling against Homer in a 7-1 decision that declared that although the 14th Amendment granted legal equality to the races, it could not overcome or eliminate all social distinctions based on color. Thus, “separate but equal” was a sufficient protection of rights. That decision has never been expressly overturned…
…Yet in the 1954 decision of Brown v. Board of Education the US Supreme Court did declare that in the matter of education, separate is not equal. The law of the land? Not to then Governor George Wallace who in 1963 tried to block the integration of Alabama schools declaring, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
Clay County Missouri, where I worked in the late 1970’s as a State Parole and Probation Officer and later as a practicing attorney maintained a “Whites only” drinking fountain in its Courthouse at least into the late 1950’s. In the 1970’s Clay County Prosecuting Attorney, William S. Brandom commonly referred to “NNR” (N—- North of the River) as sufficient probable cause for law enforcement to stop an African American in the county.
In matters of housing: I live in an area of Kansas City developed in the early 1900’s. Indelibly recorded into the chain of title of homes in this area are covenants that these properties cannot be owned by persons of the Negro race. It was not until 1968 that the federal Fair Housing Act declared such restrictions illegal. Many neighborhoods, mine included, remain de facto segregated as the result of the inertia of history, and resistance of certain sellers, realtors, and lenders (“red-lining”) to change.
In matters of marriage: It was not until 1967 that the US Supreme Court (Loving v Virginia) struck down state anti-miscegenation laws that made “race mixing” criminally punishable. It remained unusual to see mixed race relationships in public and in the media well into the 21st century. I have been told by couples in mixed relationships that it remains “uncomfortable” in certain areas and among certain groups. (fn3)
Sports? Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in 1947. What is less well known is that collegiate sports remained segregated in the South into the 1970’s. In the 1950’s and early 1960’s Louisiana and Mississippi each enacted laws that prohibited integrated sports competitions. It was not until 1971-72 that all SEC conference teams became integrated. It was not until 4 decades later that the SEC saw its first Black head coach and Black athletic director. Today, African American coaches, referees, and athletic administrators remain an underrepresented curiosity in the United States, especially in light of the proportion of Black to White athletes.
Health Care: I intended to skip this topic because it could justify a stand-alone post. However, today (June 12, 2020) State Senator from Ohio and ER physician, Steve Huffman, implied by question in a senate hearing that the higher rates of COVID-19 infections in the “…colored population” are because they “…do not wash their hands as well as other groups…” He has since been fired from his position as an ER doctor.
Voting: One need only look to the history of “poll taxes”, “literacy tests”, and other “legal” impediments designed to disenfranchise Black voters to understand the purpose of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Portions of that Act authorizing federal oversight of election procedures in certain states were struck down in 2013 by the US Supreme Court in Shelby County v Holder. The results and controversies remain a matter of current events, just one example being the disparity in the number of polling places to registered voters in predominantly White and Black race Georgia precincts this last week.
Our History: In the absence of systemic racism then surely two very similar massacres would have been equally reported in the annals of history and given equal voice in our schools’ American History textbooks.
In 1867 General George A. Custer and 267 of his officers and enlisted men were massacred at the hands of thousands of “savages” at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, more commonly known as “Custer’s Last Stand”. Who has not heard of the “valor, daring, and sacrifice” of the noble Custer and his men as mythically portrayed in books, movies, and television.
Yet, between May 31 and June 1, 1921, a mob of Tulsa Oklahoma’s White residents looted and burned Black owned homes and businesses. Over 35 square blocks in the Black citizen owned Greenwood District were virtually leveled. Over 800 Black residents were injured, and approximately 300 were murdered. The precise numbers will never be known as Oklahoma did not conduct an investigation into the events until 75 years later. Non-invasive archaeological research disclosed probable mass gravesites. The Greenwood District, then the most prosperous Black community in the nation ceased to exist and over 10,000 residents were rendered homeless. The 100 year silence that has surrounded the 1921 “Tulsa Massacre” is deafening.
Perhaps systemic racism is under attack and continues to erode. Ended?… I think not. As for those who believe otherwise, I will loosely borrow with apologies from Friedrich Nietzsche: “Perhaps those who were seen dancing were thought insane by those who refusedto hear the music.”
Peace Everyone. Pete
fn1: The phrase “Jim Crow Law” was coined by the New York Times in an 1892 article about Louisiana’s passage of a law criminalizing the mixing of races in rail car accommodations. “Jump Jim Crow” was an 1830’s song and dance caricature of Negros performed by Thomas Rice in blackface which became synonymous with the negative depiction of the Black race.
fn2: For example, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, is named in the honor of General Braxton Bragg (1817-1876) who lead Confederate troops against the Union Army in at least 8 engagements. He was successful in only one and was relieved of command by CSA President Davis. Bragg is considered by historians to be one of the most inept commanders in the Civil War.
fn3: Today, June 12, 2020, is “Loving Day”, the day that it became universally legal in the United States for members of one race to marry members of another race.