May 05, 2008

Boycott Questions: 1968 vs. 2008


(Right: Spencer Haywood (8) leads way during U.S. gold-medal win at the 1968 Games, where there was a protest by black Americans but no boycott. Left: Smith, who won the 200-meter dash at the Olympic Games in Mexico City, along with bronze medalist and teammate John Carlos.)

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In 1968 I was a twenty-year-old college junior whose basketball success had been made famous.  I’d been honored as Player of the Year, Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament, named the USBWA Player of the Year, and played the “game of the century” against the Houston Cougars at the Houston Astrodome.  So it wasn’t surprising that I was invited to try out for the Olympic basketball team to represent the U.S. in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.  Any other year I would have been proud and elated at the prospect of playing for my country against the world’s elite athletes. But 1968 wasn’t like any other year.
    The Vietnam War had divided the country more violently than any time since the Civil War.  The nightly news clips of U.S. planes bombing the Vietnam jungle was paralleled by clips of angry, sometimes bloody, clashes between war protesters and war supporters.  The Tet Offensive, in which 80,000 Viet Cong troops attacked 100 towns and cities in an effort to end the war, proved that the enemy was resourceful, resilient and in no mood to surrender.  It also increased public opinion against the war.  But the war wasn’t the only cause for all the social unrest and upheaval.  It was more like a bright light that illuminated many other social ills that we’d all managed to ignore or, even worse, pretend didn’t exist.
Black soldiers stationed in Vietnam complained of ramant racism.  When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated that same year, some white soldiers flew Confederate flags outside their barracks.  Some blacks tried to avoid the racism by requesting to serve in all-black units.  One Air Force report confirmed what black soldiers already knew: “Unequal treatment is manifested in unequal punishment, offensive and inflammatory language, prejudice in assignments of details, lack of products for blacks at the PX, harassment by security police under orders to break up five or more blacks in a group and double standards in enforcement of regulation.” Military discrimination didn’t just result in hurt feelings, it could result in death: by 1966 over 20 percent of U.S. combat casualties in Vietnam were black, which was a much higher percentage than the total of blacks in the military.
    As the racism became more evident, some black soldiers naturally questioned their loyalty.  After all, the Vietnamese were people of color, subject to the same racial discrimination that they themselves were experiencing at the hands of whites.  Muhammad Ali articulated this dilemma when he said, “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”  And for refusing to register for the draft, even though he was guaranteed he wouldn’t see combat, he was stripped of his title and sentenced to five years in prison (later the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction).  On the other hand, some blacks saw the war as an opportunity.  “I thought the only way I could make it out of the ghetto,” confessed one black paratrooper, “was to be the best soldier I possibly could.”  Although Vietnam veterans were often disappointed at the tepid reception they received upon their return home, black veterans were even more disillusioned because the injustices they had left to fight against were still alive and well.  One black vet remembers coming home in 1968 and entering a restaurant in Virginia with some army pals that included two whites and three Hispanics.  The waitress told them she would serve the whites, but not the others.  “I think that going in a lot of us felt like things were going to be different,” the vet recalls.  “And when we realized that things wouldn't be, a lot of us felt used.”

Continue reading "Boycott Questions: 1968 vs. 2008" »

March 26, 2008

Dr. George Grant: Golf fit him to a tee

Kareem_tigerwoods(Tiger Woods for the WGC CA Championship at the Doral Golf Resort and Spa, in Miami.)

My relationship with golf is rather distant. I can enjoy watching but I don’t have the desire to spend my free time on the course or at the range. I’m from the Mark Twain school of golf. Mark Twain described golf as "a fine walk ruined." I couldn’t agree more, but we are witnessing the continued rise of Tiger Woods as golf's reigning king of kings. No other golfer is close to challenging him as the best in the game these days. I have enjoyed watching his rise to prominence. Some 25 years ago I was intrigued to watch footage of Tiger playing golf at 5 years of age with his dad and local sportscaster Jim Hill. As an avid fan of the game, Jim had the perfect human interest story when he showed young Tiger as a precocious preschooler on the golf course. But that was just the start.  Tiger  has gone on to dominate that sport like no other golfer has. He is poised to pass Ben Hogan for lifetime major wins and he is just 32 years old.  But there is another black golfer who is totally unknown and who is responsible for a major contribution to the modern game. His name is Dr. George Grant.

What was golf like before the invention of the golf tee in 1899?  Golfers had to carry a bucket of sand from hole to hole.  They would scoop the sand out and build a little mound, placing the ball on top like a cherry on an ice cream sundae. 

Then along came Dr. George Grant (1847-1910) to completely revolutionize the game by inventing and patenting the modern version of the golf tee.  But Dr. Grant was used to being a revolutionary.  Born in Oswego, N.Y., this son of former slaves was the first African-American to receive a scholarship to Harvard University Dental School.  Two years after graduating, Dr. Grant became the first black faculty member of Harvard, where he was a highly respected professor for 19  years.

His passion for golf led him to invent his tee, a carved wooden peg with a concave top.  Dr. Grant did not market his invention, nor did he pursue any moneymaking schemes.  He merely gave the tees away to anyone who wanted them.  Ironically, it would be another 63  years before Charlie Sifford would become the first African-American allowed to become a member of the PGA tour.

Photo credit: David Cannon / Getty Images, LA Times.

March 25, 2008

James Forten: A man with the wind at his back

Kareem_sail James Forten (1766-1842) was born in Philadelphia, the grandson of slaves. Forten began working with his father at Robert Bridges’ sail loft when he was only 8 years old. When his father was killed in a boating accident a year later, young James had to work even harder and longer hours to help support his family. During the Revolutionary War, 14-year-old Forten became a powder boy, working the cannons on a ship. Although he was captured by the British, they released him and he went back home to resume his work in Bridges’ sail loft. Bridges admired Forten’s work so much that when Bridges retired, he loaned Forten enough money to buy the business, which employed 38 people.

Soon after, Forten invented a sail that provided greater maneuverability and speed. He never patented his sail, but in part because of his invention, his sail loft became one of the most prosperous in Philadelphia. Forten was wealthy by any standards. But what’s especially admirable about Forten is not so much the ingenuity of how he made his fortune, but the humility in what he did with it.

Forten spent more than half of his fortune helping others. He was an avid abolitionist who not only supported William Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, but he routinely purchased and freed slaves, as well as using his home as a depot for the Underground Railroad. In addition, he supported women’s suffrage and financed a school for black children.

(photo credit: painted by William Ranney in 1845. Public domain.

March 12, 2008

Benjamin Banneker: The colonial Da Vinci

Kareem_benjamin_2_2 Historians routinely praise Thomas Jefferson as one of the smartest men of his time.  He was educated, well read, a prolific writer (hey, he wrote the Declaration of Independence!), a dedicated statesman, and one of the most powerful men in the country.  One can only wonder at what kind of self-confidence and courage it must have taken for someone at that time to write to Jefferson to scold him for his hypocrisy.

Yet that’s exactly what Benjamin Banneker did.  What makes this outrageous act even more courageous is that Banneker was a black man.  And what makes the act historic is that the two men became friends.
But Banneker’s place in history would have been assured even if he had never written to Jefferson.  His achievements were already legendary by the time he wrote his first letter.

Banneker was born in Maryland in 1731.  His father, Robert, had been an African slave, but he bought his own freedom and married Mary, the daughter of an Englishwoman and a free African slave.  Banneker was raised on his father’s farm and briefly attended a Quaker school.  But the limitations of his formal education in no way limited his pursuit of knowledge.  His love of reading prompted him to teach himself literature, history, and math. The extent of his ability to teach himself became evident to everyone else when, as a 21-year-old man, he saw his  first pocket watch.  Young Banneker’s fascination with the watch resulted in his dismantling it and rebuilding it several times over the next few days.  He then borrowed books on geometry and Isaac Newton’s laws of motion.  Soon he was hand-carving every piece of the watch in order to build a much larger version.  When he completed the clock — the first clock ever built in the United States — it continued to keep time for 50  years.

Banneker’s curiosity next took to the heavens.  He taught himself astronomy and was soon predicting everything from the times of sunrises to eclipses.  In 1792, he wrote his first almanac, in which he predicted weather changes and offered farming tips and medical advice.  He sent a copy of his almanac to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, along with a 12-page letter pointing out that not only were blacks intellectually equal to whites, but that Jefferson’s own Declaration of Independence implied that they should have the same rights.  He compared slavery of the blacks to the enslavement of the American colonies by Britain.  Banneker was so eloquent that we should read his actual words to Jefferson:

“Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”

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March 02, 2008

Dr. Daniel Hale Williams: Heart surgeon


When you watch TV shows today, it’s not uncommon to see black doctors charging up the paddles and shouting “Clear!” or “Somebody get me a rib-spreader, stat!” When I was growing up, however, a black doctor on TV was a rarity. A black nurse, sure. Sometimes. There was the sitcom "Julia" (1968-1971) starring Diahann Carroll, groundbreaking because it was one of the first TV shows to feature a black woman in a non-stereotypical role of nurse. Before that, black women usually portrayed servants. And that was only forty years ago!

I can’t help but think how hard it must have been for black children 140  years ago just coming out of the Civil War era with very few role models to inspire them to become whatever they dreamed of becoming. That’s what’s so remarkable about Dr. Daniel Hale Williams’ journey to becoming the first surgeon, black or white, to perform open-heart surgery—and have his patient make a full recovery.

Born in 1856 in Pennsylvania, Williams didn’t start out with a burning need to become a doctor. He started out as a barber. But his fascination with a local doctor got the better of him and he soon became that doctor’s apprentice.

Continue reading "Dr. Daniel Hale Williams: Heart surgeon" »

February 28, 2008

Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler: First black female doctor

Dr. Benjamin Spock published his famous "Baby and Child Care" in 1946, eventually outselling all other nonfiction books other than the Bible.  However, in 1883, 63 years before Spock’s book, America’s first African-American woman medical doctor published her "Book of Medical Discourse," offering medical advice for women and children.  What makes Dr. Crumpler’s success even more remarkable is that she received her medical degree in 1860, one year before the start of the American Civil War.  To be black and trying to become a doctor at that time was challenge enough, but to also be a woman breaking into a male bastion like medicine required heroic strength and courage and commitment.

Born in Delaware in 1831, Crumpler was raised by an aunt who was dedicated to caring for sick neighbors and friends.  At the age of 21, young Rebecca moved to Charleston, Mass., to work as a nurse for the next eight years.  The first formal nursing school wouldn’t open for another 20  years, so she was able to practice nursing without any sort of degree.  In 1860, 29-year-old Rebecca Crumpler entered the New England Female Medical College.  Upon graduation, she became the first black female doctor in the United States, and the only African-American woman to graduate from that college, which closed in 1873.

She practiced in Boston until the end of the Civil War.  Then, in 1866, she moved to Richmond, Va., to help those affected by the devastation of the war.  It was here, among a black population of 30,000, that she felt she could learn most about “the diseases of women and children.”  Despite enduring horrific racism and sexism, she, along with other brave black doctors, cared for freed slaves who otherwise would have received no medical care.

She returned to Boston, living in a mostly black neighborhood, caring for women and children until her retirement in 1880.  She died in 1895.  Although no photos of her remain, we can all imagine a face that reflects both the determination and compassion that guided her life.

February 20, 2008

Dr. Mark E. Dean: The face in the computer

the original IBM 5150 PC circa 1981 If there is one device that defines human civilization today, it’s the personal computer.  No one can dispute how much the personal computer has revolutionized our lives, from increasing our productivity to spreading education to enhancing entertainment.  We are riding the personal computer into the future on the backs of our iPods and iPhones and GPS devices with the childlike glee of knowing anything is possible.  Well, that renewed optimism in the future—and the conveniences we enjoy today—all comes to us courtesy of African-American inventor Dr. Mark E. Dean.

Born in 1957 in Tennessee, Dean showed an interest in mechanics at an early age.  While still a boy, he and his father built an entire tractor from scratch.  But it wasn’t easy being a bright black kid on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement.  When he was in sixth grade, a classmate impressed with Dean's knowledge asked if was really black.  After all, how could be both smart and black?  Dean admits that he faced the same prejudice even when he went to work for IBM in 1980.  However, despite that, he quickly became one of IBM’s most valued employees.  In 1995, he was named an IBM fellow, one of only 50 (out of 310,000 employees) and the first African-American to receive this honor.

So, what did Dean do exactly to become this exalted?  He holds three of the nine patents on the computer that all personal computers are based on.  Along with Dennis Moeller, Dean created the ISA systems bus that allows external devices like modems and printers to be connected to your PC.  Then, in 1999, he led the IBM team that built a gigahertz (1,000 mhz) chip capable of doing a billion calculations per second.  Among his numerous awards is his induction into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

“A lot of kids growing up today aren't told that you can be whatever you want to be," Dean once said. "There may be obstacles, but there are no limits.” The proof of what he says is right in front of you on the screen you’re using to read this.

photo of the original IBM 5150 PC (circa 1981) by  Los Angeles Times

February 18, 2008

Why Black History Month?


A white friend of mine told me his 9-year-old son asked him, “If February is Black History Month, then when is White History Month?”  My friend replied, “The other 11 months.”  That’s why I take this opportunity to use my blog to promote some of the most notable and influential African-Americans in American history.  As much as I support and encourage the idea of Black History Month as a way of bringing to attention some otherwise overlooked and neglected historical figures, we need to make sure that Black History Month isn’t merely a closet that’s opened once a year to display these people as oddities, like a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum.  Instead, we should use Black History Month as a launching point to continually educate all Americans about the diversity of their history—and how because of that diversity we are the great nation we are today.  February is when the bookstores and libraries and educational stations remind the world that history is multicultural, but it’s up to the rest of us to keep that spirit alive the rest of the year.  After all, our ultimate goal should be to one day make Black History Month unnecessary.

February 15, 2008

Charlotte E. Ray: Beyond the law

Sometimes there’s a heavy price to be paid for being an innovator. The greater the innovation, the greater the price to be paid. This is especially true for African-American women innovators, who not only braved the cruelty of racism, but also the harshness of sexism. How hard it must have been to come home after a long day facing racists, only to find the same hostile intolerance on the faces of men of your own race, even your own family.
That’s how it was for Charlotte E. Ray (1850-1911), the first African-American female lawyer in the United States.

Ray was born in New York City to a father who was a minister and journalist, and a mother who partnered with her husband as conductors on the Underground Railroad. Getting a good education was important to Ray, so she attended one of the few schools that allowed women, the Institution for the Education of Colored Youth in Washington, D.C. Knowing that women had an even more difficult time being admitted to law school, she applied to Howard University as “C.E. Ray." She graduated in 1872 as a Phi Beta Kappa and passed her bar exam the same year. However, despite her ambition, discipline, courage, and intelligence, the first black female lawyer was unable to maintain a law practice.

She returned to New York City in 1879, and she became a teacher in the public schools as well as an activist with the National Women’s Suffrage Association and the National Women’s Suffrage Association. Eventually she married, moved to Long Island, and died at the age of 60 from bronchitis.

Maybe what makes Charlotte Ray especially admirable isn’t her historic milestone of being the first black female lawyer, but that in face of failure as a lawyer, she didn’t turn her back on the community that failed to support her dream, but renewed her commitment to making others' lives better. That is the definition of heroic.

for more info, check out Charlotte's wikipedia entry

February 12, 2008

Bessie Coleman helped black women soar


The “friendly skies” of aviation have not always been that friendly to women pilots.  Currently there are about 4,000 women airline pilots out of the nearly 80,000 male airline pilots.  The first female airline pilot was Helen Richey, who was hired by Central Airlines in 1934.  After only 10 months on the job, she resigned because the all-male pilots union would not allow her to join.  Broke and jobless, she committed suicide in 1947.  (By the way, United Airlines currently has the most female pilots.)

Although history’s flight toward more women pilots has been turbulent, there is one woman who shares a lot of responsibility for launching women into the air in the first place.  Bessie Coleman (pictured), 1892-1926 — also known as “Queen Bess” — was the first African American woman airline pilot, as well as the first American woman to receive an international pilot’s license. Too often, Amelia Earhart is seen as the pioneer woman aviator. Hopefully that will change.  Too poor to stay in college, Bessie took a job as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop in Chicago, where she heard about the adventures of pilots returning from World War I.  It was there that she also met two powerful black businessmen, Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, one of the country’s most influential black newspapers, and real estate developer Jesse Binga. 

These two men encouraged Bessie to take up aviation, even though they knew she had to move to France to learn because no American flight schools would accept her as both black and a woman.  After earning her pilot’s license and international pilot's license, she returned to the U.S.

Photo of Bessie Coleman, public domain

Dr. James West — inventor of the electret microphone


In 1996, I published a book titled "Black Profiles in Courage." It was my take on American history that included the contributions of black Americans. In so many of our history books, the efforts of black Americans go unrecognized. Since publishing that book, I’ve come across much more information that fits this profile. So, I’d like to give some acknowledgment to Dr. James E. West, whom I did not know of back in ’96. In 1962, Dr. West and his partner Gerhard Sessler invented the electret microphone used in almost 90% of all microphones built today — over 1 billion a year.

Dr. West was raised in Virginia and almost was discouraged from pursuing physics due to the Jim Crow system in place when he was going to school. At that time, the only professional jobs that blacks could hold in Virginia were teacher, preacher, doctor or lawyer. Dr. West recalls that his father introduced him to three men who had earned doctorates in chemistry and physics. The best jobs available to those men were working at the post office. Dr. West’s father did not want him to take a long, arduous road and end up working at a post office.

But Dr. West was not to be denied. He speaks of discovery as being “… the best high I ever had …” He has gone on to acquire over 200 U.S. patents and now teaches at Johns Hopkins University where he is trying to recruit more minority and women faculty.

Photo of Dr. James West, public domain

Captain Kareem

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is considered by many fans and sportswriters to be the greatest basketball player of all time. The 7-foot-2 Hall of Fame center, famous for his indefensible skyhook, dominated the NBA for 20 years, first with the Milwaukee Bucks then with the Los Angeles Lakers. Before that he was the star of the UCLA Bruins teams that won three consecutive NCAA championships. Kareem was the NBA's MVP six times, a 19-time all-star and set the NBA all-time records in nine categories. He is the NBA's all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points, a record that may never be broken.

Since retiring as a player in 1989, Kareem has balanced his love of basketball with his love of history. In 2002 he led a USBL team, the Oklahoma Storm, to a championship. Since 2005, he has been the special assistant coach for the Lakers, working with Andrew Bynum.

In 2008 he was chosen The Greatest Player in College Basketball History.

Kareem also remains intellectually active, authoring six bestselling history books intended to popularize the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history. His books include "Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement"; "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes"; "A Season on the Reservation," which chronicles his time teaching basketball and history on an Apache Indian reservation in White River, Ariz.; and the current New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance."

His audio adaptation, "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Audio & Musical Journey through the Harlem Renaissance," is a four-volume compilation read by Bob Costas, Avery Brooks, Jesse L. Martin, and Stanley Crouch, and features private and fascinating conversations with dozens of icons, including Coach John Wooden, Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson, Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones and Billy Crystal. He has also been written to L.A. Times, under the Sports section.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been appearing on various radio stations and TV shows, as well as the most relevant websites talking about his life and his new audio book, On the Shoulders of Giants.

All images are property of unless otherwise stated. All info copyrighted and owned by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is not replicated without permission.

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