Tag Archives: Black History Month

Black History Month Lunch Menu?


This week a California elementary school got into some trouble for a Black History Month lunch menu, which included fried chicken, corn bread and watermelon.   For the last few years, one of these menus has made its way to the Internet every February and received some backlash. For the most part I think these menus are honest attempts at celebrating Black History Month and do not find the general idea of them offensive.  February is an opportunity to celebrate Black history and culture.  Food, primarily soul food, is a huge part of our culture and has strong roots in our history.  African slaves were given the scraps from their white masters for food.  With a bit of creativity, slaves turned these scraps into edible dishes that still appear on African American dinner tables today.  My favorite example of this is pig guts, which are doctored up and called chitlins.  I personally have never eaten chitlins, but I appreciate the history behind it.

For those who were offended, we have to remember that we celebrate every holiday or occasion with food.  Holidays like Cinco De Mayo are not complete without a trip to your favorite Mexican restaurant for tacos and margaritas.  St. Patrick’s day is full of green foods and typical Irish fare.  Having a soul food menu for Black History month seems to be the same idea.  Now I do take issue with the addition of watermelon on the lunch menu.  If you are acknowledging African American history with this menu, then how could you miss the part with Sambo, Mammy and a pickaninny eating watermelon? The connection between African Americans and watermelon is generally offensive!  Personally the only connection I make in my mind with watermelon and black folks is the picture above.  The cooks in my family, whom I affectionately call the bootleg caterers, specialize in all things soul food and I cannot say that watermelon is a fixture on their menu.  So the lesson here is celebratory Black History month menus are okay, but avoid foods that some could deem offensive, like watermelon.


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Researching my Family History this Black History Month

As I have said in many of my previous posts I love History! One of first adventures with History was researching my own family tree beginning when I was about fourteen.  Working with my mother we started the process that I would later pick up about ten years later.  As an African American the information out there is limited but there is still a lot of information that is worth discovering.  For about the last two years I have researched primarily using ancestry.com my family history off and on.  I picked up my research again this month, ironically black history month.  The experience has hands down been my favorite research project.

My favorite genealogy moment was finding out that my great great great great  grandfather, a farmer, lived in Boone County, Missouri, the same county that is home to my alma mater University of Missouri.  Before I found a census record with his name John Barnes, I was unaware that my family lived in Boone County in the 1800s.  It was such a wow moment for me! Although I was born in Kansas City, I grew up in Houston but for some reason I decided to venture back to Missouri to attend college and stayed for law school.  It was like coming full circle for me!  Mizzou was founded in 1839 and my 4x grandfather was born in 1849.  I wondered if he was aware of the nearby college that young white students were matriculating to every year.   Was it even fathomable to him that some day blacks would be able to attend this institution?  Could my 4x grandfather even imagine that he would have two 4x great grandchildren graduate from this institution about 150 years after he was born?  I walked across a stage in a county where my ancestors were farmers and marginalized.  That honestly made my degrees from the University of Missouri mean even more to me.

This is a picture of my great grandfather Homer with his father Willie Sims.  Before this picture Homer had not seen his father since he was seven years old and believed that he was deceased.  Finding anything else on Willie Sims including his parents names has been difficult and one of my biggest frustrations in my research.  Researching your family history is a rewarding and a frustrating experience at the same time but I will say that it is totally worth it! Here are a few tips that I learned over the years.  I do not consider myself an expert in genealogy but I have found quite a bit so far.

1.  People did not use their “government names”

You are going to find varying spellings of your ancestor’s names.  Do not discount a record because the name is a little different, or a nickname. For example my grandmother told me that she had an Aunt Gussie and Uncle Babe.  I found a census record with those exact names, so I thought wow they really named this man Babe! Well then I found another census record that matched up with birthdates but the name was Isaiah.  Another example is my great grandfather.  His name was likely James Monroe Harrison but I constantly see the name flipped as Monroe James.  It could be that everyone called him by his middle name. The changing names makes for very frustrating researching, but the birth dates or years helps cut down the confusion.

My great grandfather listed here as Monroe Harrison but often referenced as James Monroe Harrison.  I am starting to think Monroe may have been his middle name but what everyone called him.

2. Can’t find birth certificates? Don’t worry go for death certificates!

Death certificates are actually better because they give more information than a birth certificate.  The state of Missouri has death certificates from all counties from about 1900-1961 online for FREE!  I found death certificates for a lot of my ancestors and they included not only their birth date but also their date of death, their spouses’ name, their parents’ name, the state their parents’ were born in, and what their occupation was.  It will also tell you how they died.  From a death certificate I confirmed a rumor that a great great grandfather died from syphilis! This is one document that if filled out in it’s entirety is a great source of information!

This is what I believe is my 4x great grandfather’s death certificate. Notice the different spelling of his name.  Here it is listed as Jno but other records including census records list his name as John Barnes. His date of birth and place of birth also indicates that he was born into slavery.

3. Remember important dates!

1890- In 1890 there was a census but unfortunately a fire ruined it about a hundred years ago.  I was SO mad when I found this out!  I think it may have held the information about my one elusive ancestor.

When slavery ended- Understand that there really is not one date for this and it really varies depending on the state.   I have kind of used the date of the 13th amendment, 1865, a few years after the emancipation proclamation was signed. This is benchmark date because before then you likely will not find you ancestors in census records.

-The Great Migration around 1910-1930 – This was the point where African Americans began to migrate north for better opportunities.  During this time frame I found my family moved from Southern states like Tennessee and Mississippi to Missouri.  This may be the time frame that you will find your ancestors moving as well so keep that in mind.

4. Don’t forget siblings!

At first I was only researching direct lineage and was not bothering with my ancestors’ siblings.  One day I got bored and started adding siblings and I discovered even more information just from them.  More importantly this will give you more sources for your direct ancestors.  For example my great great grandfather’s sister’s death certificate gave me an alternate name for their father, which was helpful with my research.

5. Realize that some information will be wrong and be open to conflicting information.

The main thing I find that is often wrong is birth dates.  I assume that many of them may not have really known their birth date.  Oral history is also helpful but can be wrong as well.  Be open to information that conflicts with what you heard from grandparents and others. Even more frustrating are official government documents that are completely wrong. Early on my in research I found my great great grandmother Gertrude’s death certificate which listed her mother’s name as Gertrude as well but no maiden name.  I was never able to find other supporting documents that her name was Gertrude but I went with it for about two years.  Just recently I finally found a census record that proved Gertrude’s mother’s name was in fact Cora and her death certificate was wrong.  I initially did not trust what my research uncovered particularly since my initial source was a death certificate but things seemed to fit with Cora better.  I was never able to find anything about Gertrude Sr. that fit other details I knew.  Once I switched to Cora I found a lot more information.

It is so easy for these things to happen!  Many African Americans could not read or write and had to depend solely on the staff at these government offices when filling out these documents.  That opens the door for plenty of room for error.   Then I cannot help but to question how their race played into how seriously their death certificates were taken by workers at these offices.   Then there is just plan human error on the part of the informants.   If they did not really know they may have guessed just to put something down.  Whatever the reason is you will find errors but you will have to use logic and other clues to find the real answer.

6. Keep your tree open!

If you decide to use ancestry.com to compile your research (I do recommend it) make sure that your tree is visible to others on the site.  Ancestry.com will not allow the public to see living people on your tree for privacy reasons..  This is a great way to find long lost living relatives as well as a source for more information for your tree.  Not long after I joined Ancestry.com I found one of my mother’s first cousin who she’d never met.  It was great to connect and share information.

Good luck researching! Let me know if you find anything interesting!

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Black History Month: Celebrating the lesser known historical figures

A few Black History Figures that you might have missed

I LOVE history, especially African American history, so of course I love the month of February because it is a time of year that everyone stops to appreciate the history that I enjoy year around.  African Americans reached where they are today because of the sacrifices of so many African Americans over the course of history. Most Americans of any race can name the big leaders and activist, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois to name a few.  Black History Month is a great time for us to look beyond the most famous African American leaders and look to others who made large contributions to the civil rights movements yet do not receive the same recognition.  Here are a few African American history makers they you may not have heard of.

1. Charles Hamilton Houston

We have all heard of Thurgood Marshall but few are aware of the mastermind behind the Brown v. Board case and the cases that led to that decision.  Charles Hamilton Houston a Harvard law grad set the path for the NAACP legal branch but unfortunately died before he could see his dream completed.  Houston was instrumental in making Howard Law School the training school for the nation’s greatest civil rights attorneys.  He saw it as an opportunity to build an army of attorneys who could carry on the fight for equality in America’s courts.  One of his students was future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  With a constant flow of the best-trained civil rights lawyers, Hamilton mounted one of the most important aspects of the Civil Rights movement, the attack on the legal front. Working for the NAACP legal branch, Houston litigated Murray v. Pearson, Gaines v. Canada , and other cases that laid the groundwork for the monumental case Brown v. Board of Education.  At the time of his death Brown was in its initial stages.  Colleagues stated that on his deathbed, Houston discussed with colleagues the possibility of attacking segregation itself as unconstitutional and unequal.  This of course was the theory that would later prove successful in the Brown case. Although he did not live to see the final outcome of his work Houston’s work changed the make up of American schools and the legal aspect of the Civil Rights movement.

2.  Fredi Washington

I recently encountered Fredi Washington’s story when I watched her in the original Imitation of Life.  In the 1934 version of Imitation of Life Washington played a young black women whose appearance allowed her to pass as white.  For Fredi Washington art imitated life.  As a young black actress trying to break into Hollywood in the 1930’s Freddi Washington’s light appearance would have allowed her to pass but Washington vehemently refused.  Of course the roles for African American women during this time were limited.   Due to her own experiences Washington became a civil rights activist, helping form the Negro’s Screen Actor’s Guild of America.  I personally find Washington’s story intriguing on so many levels.  I have been surprised with the lack of information that I have been able to find about Fredi Washington, there seems to be very little written on her.  I am currently searching for more information about her life.

3. Lloyd Gaines

Without his pioneering effort I literally would not be where I am today.  Lloyd Gaines was a graduate of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri who dreamed of attending law school in his home state.  Although he was clearly qualified to attend University of Missouri School of Law, he was denied admittance because of his race. With the help of NAACP legal fund led by Charles Hamilton Houston, Gaines took his fight to the courts. University of Missouri and the state of Missouri suggested building a law school at Lincoln University or sending him to a law school outside of the state of Missouri just to prevent Gaines from attending University of Missouri School of Law.  Before the Supreme Court, Charles Hamilton Houston argued that this was not enough.  A hastily established law school would not meet the separate but equal standards the court set to uphold.  The Supreme Court agreed and held that Gaines was entitled to admittance to the University of Missouri School of Law.  Building an equal law school or forcing blacks to attend law school outside of the state would not suffice.

Unfortunately Gaines never had the opportunity to attend the University of Missouri School of Law.  He disappeared not long after the Supreme Court made its decision.  There has been much speculation about what actually happened to Lloyd Gaines.  Many believe that he met the fate of so many other pioneers during that time and others feel that the pressure got to him and he left the country.   I personally am more inclined to believe that Gaines was the victim of foul play.

Older African Americans often tell younger generations that people died for you to have these rights and privileges yet you do not exercise them.  For me it was eerie to look at Lloyd Gaines picture prominently hanging in the law school lounge because I knew, that without his sacrifice, which likely cost him his life, I would not be able to attend the University of Missouri School of Law.  It has honestly makes me emotional at times.  I will always appreciate his sacrifice and his fight for equality.

4. Harry Belafonte

I am sure you heard of Harry Belafonte as an actor and singer but did you know that he was also a major player in the Civil Rights movement?  In his book Why We can’t Wait, Martin Luther King Jr. highlights how instrumental Harry Belafonte was in the Civil Rights Movement.  Belafonte’s home was the site of many meetings between other Civil Rights leaders in New York.  During the times when Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King were arrested following demonstrations, they looked to people like Belafonte to raise funds for bail.  Belafonte is credited with raising fifty thousand dollars for bail money for Dr. King and others.  The actor financed many other activities including the freedom rides and voter registration drives.  Belafonte is an excellent example of a celebrity using their fame to benefit others.  His type of dedication is so rare among the celebrities of today. At 83 Harry Belafonte continues to advocate for civil rights and similar causes around the world.  A documentary entitled “Sing Your Song” profiling Belafonte’s life as a civil rights activist recently premiered at the 2011 Sundance film festival.

5. Barbara Jordan

My knowledge of Barbara Jordan is mainly due to the fact that I grew up in Houston.  My mother worked at the main post office in downtown Houston that was named in her honor and while I was touring colleges in high school I visited the Barbara Jordan papers collection at Texas Southern University.  Barbara Jordan is definitely considered a history maker in Texas African American history but I think she also deserves to be honored outside of the great state of Texas.  After being the first African American woman to serve in the Texas state legislature, Barbara Jordan was elected to the United States Congress.  Jordan was the first African American woman to be elected to Congress from a Southern state.  While in Congress Jordan served on the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment trial of Richard Nixon.  Jordan also delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1976 making her the first African American woman to do so.  Barbara Jordan, a trailblazer, opened the door for so many other African American women lawmakers.

6.  A. Phillip Randolph

The 1963 March on Washington is a pinnacle moment in African American history but it was not the first time that this type of event was attempted.  Almost twenty years before in 1941 A. Phillip Randolph planned the first March on Washington.  The organizers of the first march hoped that they could bring the attention to the plight of African Americans seeking employment in the defense industries during wartime.  Following the successful planning of the march, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which prohibited discrimination in defense industries.  The President and his advisors feared the image that a March on Washington would portray during wartime and worked hard to reach another solution.  With their goal reached, the 1941 march was called of.  Randolph was also credited with the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor organization to receive a charter from the American Federation of Labor.   Randolph’s contributions to history are overshadowed by the greats that came after him but he clearly laid the foundation for what was to come.

* There are a few more weeks left in February.  I may add an additional post if I think of any other history makers.

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