February 5, 1917 – Immigration Act Passed Denying Entry to Immigrants from Eastern Asia & Pacific Islands

On this day in history, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917 by an overwhelming majority, overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s December 14, 1916 veto.

The 1917 Immigration Act, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, restricted the immigration of ‘undesirables’ from other countries, including:

All idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, insane persons; persons who have had one or more attacks of insanity at any time previously; persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority; persons with chronic alcoholism; paupers; professional beggars; vagrants; persons afflicted with tuberculosis in any form or with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease; …polygamists…anarchists… prostitutes and anyone involved with prostitution…” inter alia.

This very long and detailed legislation goes on to state that entry will also be denied to immigrants from the ‘Asiatic Barred Zone’–much of eastern Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Much of the Immigration Act is devoted to delineating penalties and fines for violating the restrictions set forth in the act. You can read it in its entirety here.

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Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World” by Charles R. Smith Jr.

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The author wanted to create a work for Black History Month that would go beyond the familiar names and faces bruited every year. His thoughts on this phenomenon that he gave in an interview are worth quoting, because they are so true!

“I remember sitting in my sixth grade class at Marian Anderson Elementary in Compton, California, when February rolled around and my teacher, Mr. Johnson, hung up the faces of Black History Month around the room. Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. surrounded us until early March. Each picture had information about the person depicted on the back of the image, and the pictures hadn’t changed since first grade. With no new countenances added each year, it was as if once black Americans had achieved equal rights in the law books, our history was complete.

How could that be? Weren’t there others who accomplished great things, past and present? That question became the focus of 28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World.”

He begins in 1776, during the birth of America, and ends in the present with America’s first black president. He includes an extra day at the end – not only for “leap year” Februarys, but to show that “great things can happen on any day to anyone” and to suggest that “Black History” is not limited to 28 days!

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It will no doubt be a relief to teachers as well as students to find such nice material (presented in free verse) on people other than “the usual suspects.” While he does feature Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Jackie Robinson, he also has stories about such notable but perhaps lesser-known African Americans as Crispus Attucks, Daniel Hale Williams, Henry Johnson and Matthew Henson.

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The form of the author’s verse changes according to the message he wants to convey. The spread on Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe features lines that go back and forth like a tennis match. The verse devoted to Malcolm X reflects the way his words were meant to educate, and to convey a broader message to his followers.

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I particularly like the author’s concluding sentiments for Day 29:

“What will today bring,
what will today be,
will today be the day
you make history?

….

Today is the day,
today is to be.”

Illustrator Shane W. Evans, a three-time NAACP Image Award nominee, just keeps getting better and better. His collage and oil pictures employ a vivid palette with the dominant colors reflecting the story being told. For example, he uses blues and silver for the two-page spread on the first male and female astronauts, and the bright colors of Africa for his spread on Nelson Mandela.

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Evaluation: One can only hope that this book’s appeal will not be confined to February.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings, 2015

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February 1, 1870 – First African American Man Elected to Serve on a State Supreme Court

Jonathan J. Wright, born in 1840 in Pennsylvania, saved up money by working for neighborhood farmers, and attended the Lancasterian University at Ithaca, in New York State. Afterward he returned to Pennsylvania and entered the office of a law firm, where he read law for two years, supporting himself by teaching. He subsequently read law for another year in the office of Judge Collins, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He applied for admission to the Bar but the committee refused to examine him because of racial prejudice.

In April 1865, Wright was sent by the American Missionary Society to Beaufort, South Carolina, as a teacher and laborer among the freed slaves. He remained in Beaufort until the Civil Rights Act passed and then returned to Montrose, Pennsylvania, and demanded an examination for the Bar. The Committee found him qualified. He was accepted on April 13, 1865, and was the first African American admitted to practice law in Pennsylvania.

In April 1866, Wright was appointed by General Oliver Otis Howard as head of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Beaufort, to be the legal adviser for the freedmen. In July 1868 he was elected to the Constitutional Convention of South Carolina. He was the convention vice-president and helped draft the judiciary section of the state constitution, which still holds today.

On this day in history, he was elected to the South Carolina Supreme Court, becoming the first African American to serve on a state supreme court. He held the position for seven years, until the white Democrats regained control of state government in 1877. Wright left the Court and entered into private practice in Charleston. He died in 1885.

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January 31, 1919 – Birthday of Jackie Robinson

Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson (January 31, 1919 – October 24, 1972) was the first African-American player in modern major league baseball. His debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947 ended approximately 60 years of baseball segregation.

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Robinson, the grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper, was not only a baseball player. In high school, he played shortstop and catcher on the baseball team, quarterback on the football team, and guard on the basketball team. He was also a member of the tennis team and the track and field squad and won awards in the broad jump. In junior college, he played basketball, football, and baseball, and participated in the broad jump. Transferring to nearby University of California at Los Angeles, he became the school’s first athlete to win varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track.

In 1945, Robinson joined the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs. The president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, began to scout Robinson, who played shortstop and had a batting average of .387. Rickey eventually selected him from a list of promising African-American players and assigned him to the Montreal Royals (the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Triple-A farm club) as a prelude to bringing him to the Dodgers. Rickey told Robinson he was looking for a Negro who had “guts enough not to fight back” when faced with the inevitable race baiting that would occur. Rickey signed him with the Dodgers six days before the start of the 1947 season. On April 15, 1947, Robinson made his debut before a crowd of 26,623 spectators, 14,000 of whom were black.

Robinson and Rickey

Robinson and Rickey

During his first season with the Dodgers, Robinson encountered racism from fans and players, including from his own teammates. Before Robinson arrived for his first season, some Dodger players insinuated they would sit out rather than play alongside Robinson. The brewing mutiny ended when Dodger management took a stand for Robinson. Manager Leo Durocher informed the team, ” I’m the manager of this team, and I say he plays. What’s more, I say he can make us all rich. And if any of you cannot use the money, I will see that you are all traded.”

On their first road trip, Robinson was heckled by fans in Cincinnati, Ohio during pre-game infield practice. Pee Wee Reese, the captain of the team, went over to Robinson, engaged him in conversation, and put his arm around his shoulder in a gesture of support which silenced the crowd. When other teams, notably the St. Louis Cardinals, threatened to strike if Robinson played, National League President Ford Frick let it be known that they would be suspended. Robinson handled the racial verbal and even physical abuse with a calm dignity that played a large role in helping whites to reassess their attitudes.

Although Robinson played every game of his rookie season at first base, he spent most of his career as a second baseman. He had a .311 career batting average, a .409 career on-base percentage, and substantially more walks (740) than strikeouts (291). Robinson led the league in fielding in 1948, 1950 and 1951. He had 197 steals during his career, including an almost incredible 19 times to home base.

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In 1947, Robinson won The Sporting News Rookie of the Year Award and the first MLB Rookie of the Year Award. Two years later, he won the National League MVP Award—the first black player to do so. Robinson played on six World Series teams and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. He earned six consecutive All-Star Game nominations and won several other awards during his career.

Robinson retired from baseball on January 5, 1957. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962, his first year of eligibility, and became the first African-American so honored. In 1965, Robinson served as an analyst for ABC’s Major League Baseball Game of the Week telecasts, the first black person to do so. From 1957 to 1964 Robinson was the vice president for personnel at “Chock full o’Nuts”; he was the first black person to serve as vice president of a major American corporation. He chaired the NAACP’s million-dollar Freedom Fund Drive in 1957, and served on their board until 1967. In 1964 he became one of six national directors for Nelson Rockefeller’s Republican presidential campaign and later became special assistant for community affairs when Rockefeller was re-elected governor of New York in 1966. In 1970, Robinson established the Jackie Robinson Construction Company to build housing for families with low incomes.

Robinson and His Son at 1963 March on Washington

Robinson and His Son at 1963 March on Washington

On June 4, 1972, the Dodgers retired his uniform number 42, and on April 15, 1997, the 50-year anniversary of his debut, Major League Baseball retired Robinson’s jersey number 42 across all MLB teams in recognition of his accomplishments in a ceremony at Shea Stadium.

Peter Dreier, writing on the occasion of the 50th anniversary, wrote in Tikkun Magazine:

… the dismantling of baseball’s color line was a triumph of social protest in the pre-King era… …the Negro press, civil rights groups, and progressive whites waged a sustained campaign to integrate baseball that involved demonstrations, boycotts, political maneuvering, and other forms of pressure that would gain greater currency the following decade. Martin Luther King once told Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, ‘You’ll never know what you and Jackie and Roy [Campanella] did to make it possible to do my job.” [Campanella, half Italian and half Black, joined the Dodgers one season after Jackie Robinson. His career was tragically cut short in 1958 when he was paralyzed in an automobile accident.]

Jackie Robinson died at age 53 from complications of heart disease and diabetes.

January 29, 1825 – Henry Clay Questions Why a Military Hero is Necessarily Qualified to Run the Country

On this day in history, Henry Clay wrote a letter to Francis P. Blair, explaining the reasons why he was supporting John Quincy Adams for the presidency.

He wrote that some had turned on him for not supporting Andrew Jackson, but, he argued:

They can not conceive that I should have solemnly interrogated my conscience and asked it to tell me seriously what I ought to do. That it should have enjoined me not to establish the dangerous precedent of elevating, in this early state of the Republic, a military chieftain, merely because he has won a great victory? . . .

Mr. Adams, you know well, I should never have selected, if at liberty to draw from the whole mass of our citizens to be President. But there is no danger in his elevation now, or in time to come. Not so of his competitor, of whom I can not believe that killing two thousand five hundred Englishmen at New Orleans, qualifies for the various, difficult, and complicated duties of the chief magistracy.”

Portrait by Matthew Harris Jouett, 1818

Portrait by Matthew Harris Jouett, 1818

January 27, 1790 – Thomas Jefferson on the Slow Road to Liberty

The Reverend Charles Clay was rector of St. Anne’s Parish of Albemarle County,Virginia and was apparently much admired by Thomas Jefferson, as shown in a testimonial he wrote for him in 1779.

Nine years before that time, on this day in history, Jefferson wrote a letter to the Reverend Clay in which he discusses Clay’s candidacy for Congress. Jefferson is confident, he writes, that Clay is an honest patriot and a well-informed politician, so that he cannot help but know:

…that the ground of liberty is to be gained by inches, that we must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time, and eternally press forward for what is yet to get. It takes time to persuade men to do even what is for their own good.”

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Thomas Jefferson

January 24, 1993 – Death of Thurgood Marshall & Review of “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America” by Gilbert King

This masterful and riveting non-fiction book is about one of the bravest men in the history of this country, who died on this day in history. The book is also a useful corrective to anyone who thought (from reading The Help, for instance) that Jim Crow America wasn’t so bad. Or worse, those who thought that what was described in The Help was as bad as it got.

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Gilbert King, who has written about U.S. Supreme Court history for both The Washington Post and The New York Times, argues that by the mid-1940’s, Thurgood Marshall, the grandson of a mixed-race slave, “was engineering the greatest social transformation in American since the Reconstruction era.” With a rhetorical facility (“benighted towns billeting hostile prosecutors”) that transcends the sobering subject matter, King allows you to forget you are reading non-fiction, but he never allows you to forget you are reading a genuine horror story.

Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues in the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP traveled throughout the South in the 1950’s, trying to fight white supremacy using the weapon of the Constitution. Marshall knew he could not win cases at the local or state level, so his goal became to establish firm grounds for appeals on record. If favorable rulings on equal protection could be obtained in higher courts, these precedents could then be used as additional building blocks for the rights of blacks.

The story of Marshall’s battle is told by a focus on one particular case, that of the Groveland Boys, which was, according to King:

…key to Marshall’s perception of himself as a crusader for civil rights, as a lawyer, willing to stand up to racist judges and prosecutors, murderous law enforcement officials, and the Klan in order to save the lives of young men falsely accused of capital crimes – even if it nearly killed him.”

And he was nearly killed a number of times.

Thurgood Marshall as a young man

The case of the Groveland Boys made national news at the time, and also had a significant impact upon the NAACP’s goals for future litigation. It took place in Florida, a state that somehow escaped the bad reputation attributed to Mississippi, Georgia, or Louisiana even though it had a higher per capital lynching rate. King notes:

In the postwar decade Florida would…prove to be a state with a boundless capacity for racial inhumanity, even by measure of the rest of the South…”

In Groveland, the Klan was populated by lawmen, and blacks had no hope of protection. So it was that when four young black men were arrested for the rape of a young white girl, in spite of the fact that no semen was found in her, or that two of the boys weren’t even in the area that night, a conviction and death penalty for all four boys was a foregone conclusion. Two of the young men were in the area, and they were World War II veterans, the object of particular rancor among white southerners since these veterans no longer were acting subservient enough.

Photo of Willis McCall taken in 1951, 15 minutes after he claimed to have been attacked by Sam Shepherd and Walter Irvin, handcuffed prisoners. He shot them both, killing Shepherd. Irvin claimed he shot them in cold blood, with no provocation.

Photo of Willis McCall taken in 1951, 15 minutes after he claimed to have been attacked by Sam Shepherd and Walter Irvin, handcuffed prisoners. He shot them both, killing Shepherd. Irvin claimed he shot them in cold blood, with no provocation.

The book describes the horrific events that surrounded this case, including the beatings of suspects and murder of three of them by the sheriff, who managed to remain in office until 1972 when he was finally suspended for kicking to death a mentally retarded black prisoner in his cell; the personal risks with their lives taken by all the defense lawyers; and the jaw-dropping injustice in the courtroom. It also enumerates the pressures on Marshall, who was simultaneously working on arguments for Brown v. Board of Education to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. While desperate stays-of-execution were filed in the Groveland Case, Marshall was forced to respond to the Supreme Court’s order that all five of the segregation cases coalesced into Brown v. Board had to be reargued in terms of the statutory intent of the equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment.

It’s an amazing story, and my respect for Marshall increased tremendously as a result of it.

Evaluation: This is a book that should be required reading. This horrifying, edge-of-your-seat tale really happened, and not that long ago. Its repercussions helped make the country what it is today. King, who unearthed FBI files that were under seal for sixty years, has done an outstanding job in telling this story which manages to be heart-breaking, inspiring, infuriating, and admirable all at once.

Thurgood Marshall in 1951

Thurgood Marshall in 1951

Rating: 5/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2012

Note: This book won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction.