Monday, 8 February 2016

Cicero Race Riot

"Get out of Cicero and don't come back in town or you'll get a bullet through you."
(Chicago police officer to new tenant, Mr. Clark)

On July 11, 1951, a mob of 4,000 whites attacked a Chicago suburb apartment building where one black family had moved in.  When the fires burnt out, and the rubble was cleared away, 19 people were hurt and 117 arrested.

Mob of 4000 riots at Cicero apartment buildling courtesy

Mrs. DeRose, the landlord of a Cicero, Illinois apartment building, supposedly had a disagreement with some of her renters.  To get back at them, she rented out her unoccupied apartment to the first black family in the neighbourhood.  On June 8, police stopped a moving van with $2000 worth of furniture inside, which arrived at the apartment building.  The black family, the Clark's, were pulled aside by police and warned:  "Get out of here fast.  There will be no moving into this building."  Mr. Clark was hit eight times by police officers and warned:  "Get out of Cicero and don't come back in town or you'll get a bullet through you."

Harvey Clark and his wife circa 1951 courtesy

Mr. Clark, a World War II veteran, filed a lawsuit with the NAACP and tried to move into the Cicero apartment building again on June 26.  Some whites in the building stored their furniture and moved out.  Others plotted.  On the night of July 11, 4,000 whites gathered at the apartment building.  Twenty-one occupants fled to the rooftop.  The mob set to work destroying the building:  radiators were ripped from the wall; holes were punched through the plaster; windows were smashed, and furniture was set on fire.

Fires set at Cicero apartment building courtesy

For the first time in America's history, television crews were there to document what happened next. The police were called to the scene:  they could not do much given there were only 60 officers.  Their chief was supposedly "out of town".  Firefighters were called to the scene.  Asked by police to turn their fire hoses on the unruly mob, they refused.  Their fire chief was also "out of town".  The firemen were greeted by the protesters with a shower of bricks.

National Guard on front lawn of Cicero apartment building circa 1951 courtesy

Finally, the National Guard, armed with bayonets, rifle butts and tear gas, ended the riot the following day.  Damage was estimated at $20,000.  However, a Cook County jury did not charge the rioters.  Instead, they went after the NAACP lawyer and Mrs. DeRose.  But the charges did not stick. The apartment buildng was so severely damaged, all of the tenants, including the Clark's had to move out and the building was boarded up.

Boarded up apartment building courtesy

Note:  For more information, read As Long as They Don't Move Next Door (Hirsch).

*First published in 2014.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Rosa Parks Writes About Her Arrest

"I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment I couldn't take it anymore." 
(Rosa Parks)

Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus to a white person in 1955, helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.  While her name was forever etched on the history books, Parks paid a high price for her stance.  

Writing on a piece of Montgomery Department Store stationery, Parks explained:  

"I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment I couldn't take it anymore." When I asked the policeman why we had to be pushed around, he said he didn't know.  'The law is the law.  You are under arrest.'  I didn't resist." (

The following year saw the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a successful tool to integrate public transportation in the city.  Parks lodged a protest against her arrest.  She was very much in the public eye.  Near the end of 1956, the seamstress was let go from her job at the Montgomery Department Store.  Her husband, who had been forbidden to discuss her case at work, was also let go from his position.  Old Jim Crow wasn't going to give up without a fight.

As Parks explained in her letter:

"little children are so conditioned early to learn their place in this segregated pattern as they take their first toddling steps and are weaned from their mother's breast."

In early 1957, Parks jumped through another hoop and secured her right to vote, at a time when few blacks had that right in the Deep South.  But the economic situation looked bleak in Alabama and Rosa and her husband Raymond moved to Detroit, Michigan by the early 1960's.  Rosa found work as a receptionist for a U. S. Congressman.  

*First published in 2015.

On Rosa’s ride to work and back

Down Cleveland Ave in fifty-five.

White bus driver Blake gave her flack,

But Rosa Parks would not move back.

Sewing suits from nine until five,

She did what she could to survive.

As more whites boarded, four blacks stalled.

Blake warned:  “Move back or I won’t drive!”

At six o’clock, Blake placed the call.

Police came and she took the fall.

Her only crime was being black.

She had paid her fare, after all.

Rosa’s bus ride launched the attack

On racist laws that hurt each black.

White bus driver Blake gave her flack,

But Rosa Parks would not move back.

Linda Jonasson
(August 28, 2008.)

Photo of Montgomery, Alabama bus at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan courtesy

Photo of Rosa Parks on Dec. 1, 1955 courtesy

*First published in 2011.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

The Warmth of Other Suns

Why did 100 years elapse between the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and the American Civil Rights Act in 1964?  Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson’s book, The Warmth of Other Suns, sheds much light on this question.  Although black slaves were freed during the Civil War, it took another century for attitudes in the Deep South to change.  After a brief respite for blacks during Reconstruction, they were subjected to a more subtle form of slavery with the adoption of the Jim Crow laws.  “Separate, but equal” became the motto:  blacks ate in different restaurants, drank from different water fountains, borrowed books from different libraries, lived in different neighbourhoods, attended different schools, rode in separate railway cars, sat in a separate section of busses and earned different (lower) wages.

Although blacks were no longer “owned” by whites, they still had to answer to them in the South, sometimes paying with their life:  lynchings were a dangerously common occurrence for decades.  Whites dictated the wages blacks received as they performed the back-breaking work of cotton picking on the large plantations.  Any attempt to organize to demand higher wages was met with hostility by the sharecroppers.  Any attempt to speak out against Jim Crow laws was met with resistance:  one newspaper writer was locked up in an insane asylum; a man who belonged to the NAACP had a bomb go off under his bed on Christmas Day.  Any attempt to “mix” with white society, even a young black boy speaking to a white girl, could result in dire consequences:  one boy was tortured mercilessly. 

Blacks finally sought refuge in the North and West of the United States:  it was called The Great Migration and would last from 1917 until 1970.  Refugees purchased train tickets and, with a box full of chicken and sweet potatoes for the journey, said goodbye to their loved ones at railroad stations across the south, making their way to destinations like Washington D.C., New York City, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, etc.  In the later decades, some left by car, travelling across the Arizona desert to the ‘promised land” of California, settling in cities like San Diego, Oakland and Los Angeles. 

Those blacks who feared repercussions left in sneakier ways.  One man was stuffed in a box in the fetal position, put on a train and turned upside down, a position he held for 26 hours as he headed north to Washington DC where he was met at the station by a member of the NAACP.  The black newspaper reporter who was deemed insane and locked away in an asylum, managed to escape, with the help of Northerners, and was hustled away in a car, joined by a caravan of other cars; once the motorcade crossed the state line, the reporter found his way to a railroad station and purchased a ticket to freedom in the North. 

While the North and the West provided freedoms for blacks that they did not have in the South, it was not always the promised land that they had hoped for.  One farmer from Florida, who moved to New York City and became a railroad porter, remembers changing the cars at Washington D.C., as the train changed from an integrated to a segregated one.  Another central figure in the book leaves Mississippi for California, attempting to find a hotel in the desert, only to see VACANCY signs be turned off the second he arrived and requested a room.  One black couple moved to Chicago where they tried to get into the neighbourhood of Cicero, only to have their new apartment ransacked, and to see a riot ensue.  Cicero, a neighbourhood that had made room for immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, sadly had no room for black migrants.  One black boy accidentally crossed the invisible colour line in the water at a Lake Michigan beach and was drowned by whites.

While blacks in the Southern towns risked lynchings, black migrants to the Northern cities faced the vices of the streets like drugs, prostitution, etc.  Children of migrants sometimes succumbed to these temptations.  Furthermore, the South held two centuries of history for many black families, roots that were lost once they moved to the North.  Some blacks chose not to dwell on their pasts, hoping to make a new history for their children, but in essence leaving them rootless.  

Even so, many blacks found work in the Northern factories at wages they never could have earned in the South.  Many migrants were able to send their children to integrated elementary and high schools and even to Ivy League Universities where they trained for professions that they would likely not have learned in the South.  Some migrants saw their children win sports scholarships to colleges and later find jobs in the NBA or the NFL.  One young runner named JC, the son of a migrant, went on to win a gold medal at the Berlin Olympics in 1936; we know him as Jesse Owens.

The Great Migration is a fascinating topic to explore.  Isabel Wilkerson’s book is packed full of American History.  What a great read!

Image courtesy

*First published in 2012.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Africville: He Did Not See the Flowers

Every Spring my husband, a university professor, starts teaching his intercession courses again.  One of the topics he discusses is Africville, a former black “ghetto” on the shores of Bedford Basin in Halifax, Nova Scotia.  He shows a video to his students made by the National Film Board of Canada called “Remember Africville”.

The video features a black man named Gus Wedderburn who was asked to investigate the ghetto in the 1950’s when the city planners were considering tearing it down.  The man, quite well spoken, described Halifax as being devoid of coloured people and said that “where the asphalt ended and the dirt road began, that is where Africville started.”  Although Africvillians paid taxes, they did not receive the modern amenities that the rest of Halifax did.  Africvillians tried hard to keep up the physical appearance of their village, and yet this outsider “did not see the flowers”.  Rather, he saw a ghetto.  He did not see the families that had toiled for over a hundred years to maintain their jobs and their homes.  He saw a ghetto.  He did not see Seaview Baptist Church, at the centre of their community, where parishioners gathered on Easter Sunday morning for baptism on the shores of Bedford Basin.  He saw a ghetto.  He did not see the students walking to the church, which doubled as a school, on a Monday morning with books tucked under their arm.  He saw a ghetto.  He did not see the flowers. 

Unfortunately, in the mid-1960’s, the city planners razed Africville and turned the land into a park.  Africvillians were paid the meager sum of $500 for their land, an amount that was considered to be high by the elderly homeowners.  Most residents were relocated to tenements in the city of Halifax, as urban planners did in American cities like Detroit and Chicago.  Yes, now these residents had modern amenities like heat and running water, but they no longer owned anything.  Furthermore, they lost their sense of community.  It has been over forty years and they still miss that community.  In fact, “the hermit of Africville”, Eddie Carvery, now camps out in Seaview Park, where he once lived with his family.  Below is a sonnet I wrote about the community.  God Bless Africville!


Africville had no millionaires,
But it had Carvery's and Skinner's.
Africville had no billionaires,
But Seaview Church welcomed sinners.

Africville had not one street light,
But its sunsets lasted for hours.
In Africville we smelled garbage at night,
But we also smelled the flowers.

Africville roads were not on par,
But it sat on a pretty bay.
Africville had not one street car,
But the freedom train came one day.

They razed Africville; what's the fuss?
A "ghetto" to some; home to us.

Linda Jonasson

Photo courtesy

*Note:  This post was first published in 2011.  At this time, Seaview Baptist Church was rebuilt to remember the Africville community.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Frederick Douglass Pens Letter to Harriet Beecher Stowe

"The most killing refutation of slavery is the presentation of an industrious, enterprising, thrifty and intelligent free black population." (Frederick Douglass)

In March of 1853, escaped slave Frederick Douglass penned a letter to fellow escaped slave Harriet Beecher Stowe regarding the plight of blacks in the United States.  Mrs. Stowe had just written and published a little book called Uncle Tom's Cabin which would lay the groundwork for the Civil War less than a decade later.  (For more information about Uncle Tom's Cabin, visit

Mr. Douglass opened his letter with:  "You kindly informed me...that you designed to do something which should permanently contribute to the improvement and elevation of the free colored peopled in the United States."  He went on to describe the social disease that blacks of his era suffered from:  "poverty, ignorance and degradation". (

Mr. Douglass explained that the only way that blacks could conquer the disease was to be put on an equal footing with whites, "in the sacred right to the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit happiness." He challenged Mrs. Stowe by saying;  "You dear madam can help the lifting these from the depths of poverty and ignorance...prejudice is a bar to the educated black among the whites; and ignorance is a bar to him among blacks." 

Frederick Douglass pointed out that America had three black lawyers at the time, but it was not near enough.  Furthermore, whites refused to employ them and blacks followed the lead of the whites.  Mr. Douglass announced that his master plan to improve the lot of the blacks was to open an industrial college.  As he concluded:  "...the most killing refutation of slavery is the presentation of an industrious, enterprising, thrifty and intelligent free black population."

Frederick Douglass portrait.jpg

*This post was first published in 2015.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Underground Railroad

"I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger." (Harriet Tubman)

It had conductors, passengers, stations and stockholders.  It had departures and arrivals.  During its 20 year peak, it carried 30,000 people to freedom.  By 1850, approximately 100,000 slaves had escaped on its routes.  It was the Underground Railroad.

In 1804, black and white abolitionists in the United States joined together to form a series of meeting points, transportation, safe houses and personal assistance for escaped black slaves.  Religious groups who supported the abolitionist movement included the Quakers, Congregationalists, Wesleyans, Reformed Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists.

Harriet Tubman courtesy

Conductors, who led groups of escapees to freedom, consisted of free blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves and Native Americans.  Famous conductors included Harriet Tubman, who made 18 trips and saved 1000 people, and William Still, who harboured as many as 60 slaves a month in his Philadelphia home and Frederick Douglass, the finest abolitionist orator of his time.  

Escaped slaves would travel by night between stations, which were located 10 to 20 miles apart.  Stations could be barns, caves, hollowed out riverbanks, houses or hide outs under church floors.  They usually travelled on foot or by wagon, but also travelled by boat or train.  The routes they followed were indirect in order to confuse their pursuers.  Wanted ads were often placed in local newspapers advertising the escape of slaves and a reward for their return.  Federal marshalls and bounty hunters or slave catchers sometimes pursued escaped slaves as far as the Canadian border.  

Wanted ad courtesy

For the Underground Railroad to have been so successful, it had to be an organized operation.  Accounts exist stating that escaped slaves would look for quilts hung on fences of safe houses.  These quilts would have 10 patterns, each indicating a particular action for the slaves to take.  A children's book called The Patchwork Quilt describes this practice.  Others say that slaves were taught spiritual hymns with coded messages telling them how to find their way along the Underground Railroad.  One song, "Follow the Drinking Gourd" describes how they followed a constellation shaped like a drinking gourd.  

For some slaves, their destination was the Ohio River, code name River Jordan, since it marked the border between the slave states and free states.  However, for others, their destination was Detroit, code name Midnight, and the Canadian border.  Once in Canada, the majority of the escaped slaves settled in a triangular area bordered by Windsor, Toronto and Niagara Falls.  Lieutenant General Simcoe had started the process of outlawing slavery in Upper Canada in 1793 by prohibiting the transportation of slaves into the province. However, smaller groups settled in Africville, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Vancouver Island.   The law officially banned any form of slavery in Canada in 1833, thirty years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States.

Map courtesy

Note:  For more information, read The Underground Railway Records (William Still); The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Frederick Douglass); Harriet Tubman:  The Road to Freedom (Harriet Tubman).

*I first posted this in 2014.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Josiah Henson: I'll Use My Freedom Well

"You see those trees," said the noble-hearted captain, next morning, pointing to a group in the distance; "they grow on free soil, and as soon as your feet touch that, you're a man..."  Never shall I forget the spirit in which he spoke.  He put his hand on my head and said, "Be a good fellow, won't you?..."  "Yes," said I; "I'll use my freedom well..." 
(An Autobiography of Josiah Henson From 1789 to 1883, page 94)

Uncle Tom's Cabin in Dresden, Ontario courtesy

"I'll Use my Freedom Well" is the title of the exhibit at Uncle Tom's Cabin located in Dresden, Ontario, based on the real life of escaped slave, Josiah Henson.  Far from the "yes man" that whites of the era interpreted Harriet Beecher Stowe's character, Josiah Henson was a devout Christian who forged a strong identity as a preacher, abolitionist, author and conductor of the Underground Railroad.  

Josiah Henson, the son of slave tobacco farmers, was born in Maryland in 1789.  One of his early memories was of his father bleeding profusely after standing up to his slave owner, who had tried to rape his wife; his punishment was a 100 lash whipping and a lopping off of an ear.  

Josiah's parents' master died and he and his siblings were sold to different slave owners.  Josiah's mother protested and her owner, Isaac Riley, relented, buying back Josiah.  The young man proved to be an asset at the farm; the slave owner eventually made him supervisor of the other slaves.  In the meantime, Riley fell on hard times and asked Josiah to deliver the eighteen slaves to his brother's farm where they would work.  Keeping his word, Josiah, carried out his master's orders, even though others wondered why he didn't use this chance to spear head an escape.  

In 1828, Josiah returned to his master's farm and asked if he could buy his freedom.  He presented Riley with $350 with a note promising the remaining $100.  Riley said he would release Josiah upon receipt of the remaining money and Josiah took his word.  However, in the meantime his master added an additional "0" to the note making the sum $1000.  

Cheated out of his freedom, Josiah now planned his escape.  In 1830, he and his wife, along with their four children, fled Kentucky along the Underground Railroad, which had been operating already for about 25 years.  On the far shore of the Niagara River, the family found freedom.  

Josiah found work on a farm just outside of Fort Erie.  Later he found work in Waterloo.  Black Loyalists from the Revolutionary War and refugees from the War of 1812 had already settled parts of Upper Canada. Josiah, too, became a loyal British subject, helping to quell the Rebellion of 1837 as part of a black militia unit. 

Finally, in 1841, Josiah purchased land in Dawn Township near Dresden, Ontario for a self-sufficient black settlement.  He and fellow escaped slaves worked the land and felled the trees.  They developped a successful lumber industry, exporting black walnut to the United States and Britain.  

Josiah became a minister, preaching at the British Methodist Episcopal Church in Dresden every Sunday. While his mother had been illiterate, she did teach him the Lord's Prayer and some old spiritual hymns which he likely sang when he travelled the Underground Railroad.  Josiah had listened to other preachers and memorized verses from the Bible.  

Josiah did not turn his back on America, however.  He made trips back to the United States as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, leading escaped slaves to freedom as someone had once led him to "the Promised Land".  His trips from Tennessee to what later became Ontario would be dangerous journeys in which he could have been captured and resold into slavery.  He spoke often about the abolitionist cause in Canada and the United States.

Canadian stamp circa 1983 courtesy

Josiah and his wife went on to have a total of 12 children.  Josiah believed in education and he made sure each of his children received schooling in the Dawn settlement.  However, Josiah himself had never learned to read or write.  When his son turned 12, he offered to teach his father the alphabet and Josiah readily accepted.  

Josiah became such a strong reader that he started writing.  In 1849, he penned his memoirs, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an inhabitant of Canada, As Narrated by Himself.  Josiah travelled widely, promoting his book and using the proceeds to finance the Dawn Settlement which now had its own industrial training school.  Reading his autobiography inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe to create her famous character, Uncle Tom.  

In 1851, Josiah sailed to England to promote his book and to speak about abolition.  At the Crystal Palace World's Fair, he met none other than Queen Victoria.  On a return visit in 1866, the Queen received him at her castle.  On the occasion, he met the Archbishop of Canterbury who asked him:  "At what university, sir, did you graduate?"  Josiah replied:  "I graduated, sir, at the university of adversity."  The archbishop could not believe that he did not have a formal education since he spoke so eloquently.  Josiah explained that over the years he had made a point of observing good speakers and modelling his speech after them.  

Josiah lived out his last years in Dresden, continuing to preach every Sunday at the Methodist church.  Some of the Dawn settlers returned to the United States after the Civil War when slavery was abolished.  However, Josiah chose to remain in Canada.  He passed away on May 5, 1883, at the age of 93, surrounded by his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  He is buried in a cemetery adjacent to the museum, his tombstone topped with a crown, a nod to Queen Victoria.  

Note:  Josiah Henson's home was purchased by the Canadian government and made into a museum in 1940. In 1983, Josiah Henson became the first black Canadian to be featured on a Canadian stamp.  Many books have been written about the hero including a recent account by Jacqueline Tobin, From Midnight to Dawn: The Last Tracks of the Underground Railroad.  Midnight was the code name for Detroit; Dawn, of course, was the settlement outside of Dresden.

Josiah Henson circa 1877 courtesy

*I first posted this post in 2013.