Monday, March 26, 2012

A Legacy of Racism: Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle

This past month I read Arc of Justice by Kevin Boyle. In 1925 an African American doctor bought a house in an all-white Detroit neighborhood. At that time, the only housing available to people of color was in Black Bottom, a neighborhood built to house 5,000 people but by then holding 60,000. Dr. Ossian Sweet had seen a lynching as a boy, and knew about race riots that had erupted in towns across the US over racial integration of white neighborhoods. So Dr Sweet invited friends to his home for protection, and had purchased guns. As a 'new Negro,' he intended to fight for his rights and protect his family  if attacked.

When the KKK rallied the white neighborhood to protest, and the rocks started to hit the roof and break windows, one of the people in Sweet's house shot a gun. A bullet hit a young man and killed him. All 16 people in Sweet's house that night were arrested. The trial culminated with Clarence Darrow working for the defendants. When the jury could not agree, the defendants were tried separately. Dr Sweet's younger brother was first on trial, and was acquired and all suspects were released. Horribly, the time in jail exposed Dr. Sweet's wife to tuberculosis, and both her and their baby died of TB. Dr Sweet ended his own life.

The story is important, but the background information to explain the significance of the events in their historical context makes the events come alive. We learn what it meant to the white homeowners to have their house value drop. We also understand why Dr Sweet planned for his self-protection when he bought his wife's dream house. The NAACP leader, James Weldon Johnson, saw this case as pivotal and raised money for the defendants.

At the same time, I was reading a biography of Ella Baker. I had first read about Ella in "Freedom's Daughters," a wonderful book about the women behind the Civil Rights movement. That book had inspired my quilt, I Will Lift My Voice.

Ella attended college then moved to Harlem during its Renaissance. By 1930 she was involved in activist work, with a specialty in enabling people to start  grass roots movements. Ella was a whirlwind, traveling the country and connecting with people of all rank and file. I was quite overwhelmed by the details of her work history and all she accomplished.

Detroit remains one of the most segregated cities in America. It is amazing to think about. I grew up in the northern suburbs of Detroit.

I remember the 1968 race riots, and waiting for Dad to arrive home safely from the Highland Park factory where he worked. The rioting was reported to have high 8 Mile Road. We lived at 12 Mile. There was only fear in my world, no other repercussions. Neighbors voiced racial slurs. My mother stood up against racism. She was full of compassion and understood that the violence sprung from deep inequalities. She had made a friend while in treatment at Henry Ford Hospital, and had visited her in her home. The friend was black and lived in Detroit. Mom saw first hand the difference between her reality and our working class world in the 'burbs. Our 1920 home was modest, our clothing from K-Mart, but we were literally living in a different world.

I grew up thinking I was not prejudiced; I did not hate people of different color, religion or background. My ancestors did not own slaves (later proven by genealogical research). I was not responsible, and should not be classified with those 'other whites' who were bigots. But over time, I learned to understand that a moral man in an immoral society, who does not protest or work to change the status quo, is a participant and supporter of the immorality. I learned that prejudice is inescapable. And that it becomes a daily choice to do the right thing.

It is Lent, and yesterday in church we sang the hymn "Ah, Holy Jesus." Singing the words, we admit that we were participants in the death of Jesus. We all share the shame. In the end, that is how I have come to think about America's history of racism, prejudice, and racial violence. I cannot claim to be separate from that legacy. I must share the blame.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Helen Korngold Quilt

Helen Korngold Quilt

Close to 10 years ago I found a 1919 diary in a little flea market shop in south Lansing. It was a pricey $15, but it was completely filled and the first entry compelled me to read more.

“Rise 11:30 AM! Oh, such a spiffy time last night: a regular N.Y. Eve. All dolled up in stain clown suit. E.E. proposed—tough luck! Fellows came at 3 AM today—Sam, Dewey, Morris and Sumner Shapiro. Dewey’s Bostonian friend called. We had lots of fun. All good fellows. I’m sleepy—too much champagne!”

The diary was written by Helen Korngold of St Louis, MO.

Helen's photo as a teacher in a school yearbook

Helen was studying to be a teacher. Her history professor offered a Helen fellowship and a position as his private secretary. Helen was a student teacher at the Wellston School and at Maplewood High. She did not like teaching at Wellston. After teaching there as a substitute she regretted not accepting the position at Maplewood High. “Wells came out he said I made a successful teacher, said I understood children.” After graduation she taught at the Wellston School.

Helen wrote about WWI solders, including Dewey Pierre Flambert who won the Distinguished Cross and Legion of Honor, and in 1920 was listed on the census as a Private First Class in the U. S. Army General Hospital in Colorado. She was quite smitten with Dewey while he visited St. Louis, and sought after information about him after he left for Kansas City, then New Mexico, on his way to the coast. “Dewey certainly caused a sensation,” she wrote, “Beat it with $20 gloves and overcoat –I should worry. He was best company I ever had!”

Her special friend was Sumner Shapiro. “He’s lots of fun,” she wrote. She shared several favorite books with him, “Without Benefit of Clergy” (which he did not care for) and “Return of the Native”.  They visited the War Exposition. “He’s a nice fellow! A good teaser. He’s a Bostonian propagandist. I love St. Louis!”

Helen went to chop suey joints, ‘slummed it’ by visiting ‘low class cafes’ like Hop Alley, and danced at the Arcadia. She was up late, rose late, and took afternoon naps to keep up. One night found Helen ‘joy riding’ with Morris Block, her brother Karol, and Sumner, “Morris with his feet hanging out of the machine once or twice & Sumner behaving like a postman and Karol speeding.” 

Along with her music studies and band participation, Helen enjoyed basketball, swimming and canoeing—but most of all loved to dance. She enjoyed going to the amusement park at Forest Park Highlands, once home to the largest roller coaster, The Comet.

Clothes were important. At the Union Masked Ball with Sumner, Helen dressed as Cleopatra in a ‘wicked’ beaded dress in lavender and yellow with black and white. She describes buying a dark blue beaded georgette dress, a peach blow evening dress, black jersey silk petticoats, silk stockings, a green silk dress with silver lace, a blue suit trimmed in fur, suede pumps, dresses in black tricolate and blue velvet, and white georgette plainly embroidered.

On December 31 she climbed the Statue of Liberty That evening she heard ‘La Forza del Destino’ performed by Enrico Caruso and Rosa Ponselle. She had to visit "Lord & Taylor, Altman’s, Macys, etc.” and bought a seal ‘cootie’ hat.

“This certainly has been a most exciting and pleasant year for me. If grandpa had only lived it would have been perfect. Wishing myself and all those I love happiness—Helen Korngold

I researched about Helen's life, using and St. Louis genealogy website. In 1920 Helen was living in St. Louis, MO with her family. Jacob B. Korngold was 56 and a manufacturer who was born in Austria. His work took him on many travels. Helen's beloved brother was Karol Abraham, who became a lawyer after his service in WWI.

I decided to make a make a quilt for Helen. I scanned diary pages and printed them on fabric. The quilt is made to look like pages of a book. The diary page scans are surrounded by a crazy quilt border incorporating old handkerchiefs, lace, old buttons, and scans of postcards of Helen's Alma Mater,  Central High, and other St. Louis scenes. The pages are hung together by strips of lace. And empty ‘frame’ is missing Helen’s picture as I did not find one until recently.

The quilt appeared at the Women’s Historical Museum in Lansing, MI as part of a juried show created by the Capital City Quit Guild.