"Once In A Lifetime" (1983), Beatings, Ben Fields, Booker T. Washington, Central Park, Death, Ida B. Wells, Institutional Racism, James Blake, James Frascatore, Morning Oregon, NYPD, Police Brutality, Racial Harassment, Racial Incidents, Racism, Spring Valley High School, Talking Heads, University of Missouri, White Vigilantism, Yale University
A young African American woman refuses to leave her seat. Authority figures arrive to demand that she leaves. She refuses again. One authority charged with “upholding the law” then picks the young woman up and drags her from her seat. But this isn’t Spring Valley High School near Columbia, South Carolina. Nor is it 2015. This incident involved the anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells, who sat in a first-class ladies car on the segregated Memphis and Charleston Railroad train rolling through Tennessee. It occurred on May 4, 1884. Except it was three White men, who dragged and threw the then not-quite-twenty-two year-old off the train for refusing to give up a seat she paid for.
Just like with the Black teenager whom Ben Fields assaulted in the name of the law, I’m sure one of the things Wells might have thought was, “This is 1884. Why is this still happening?” The circumstances that led to both incidents were obviously different, but the racism that led to these violent responses was not.
With all that has occurred to break the illusion that Americans live in a twenty-first-century, post-racial utopia, Americans still bring up the times in which we live whenever racism rears its ugly head. Whether it’s the NYPD tackling ex-tennis star James Blake in September, the Black teenager at Spring Valley HS in October, or the responses to Black students at the University of Missouri or Yale in the past week, the need for temporal incredulousness is often present in the midst of these racist incidents. “You would think at some point they would get the memo that this isn’t okay, but it seems that there’s no stopping it,” Blake said after the incident with Officer James Frascatore.
At what point or time? As if saying “Why is this happening in 2015?” has anything to do with bringing systemic, institutional, individual, and internalized racism to an end. If there had been truth and reconciliation commissions at the end of Jim Crow in the South in the 1960s and 1970s, maybe then Americans can quote the year as evidence of irrational racial dissonance. If the federal government had provided reparations after Emancipation in 1865 or after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, perhaps then what year this is would matter. Racism and racists have never cared about the year or the supposedly multicultural, progressive times in which Americans lived.
Before his death in 1915, Tuskegee Institute founder Booker T. Washington experienced something all too many Americans of color face year after year. Washington delivered two speeches at churches in Manhattan on Sunday, March 19, 1911. That same evening, Washington went to an apartment building on West 63rd Street near Central Park, allegedly to meet up with a friend of his accountant on business. After attempting to find this mystery person at the building twice, Henry Ulrich, a 40-year-old White male, confronted Washington and punched him in the head. A White bystander handed Ulrich a walking stick and together, the two men chased Washington toward Central Park, hitting him with the stick on his head and face at least a dozen times. It wasn’t until Washington fell into the arms of NYPD Officer Chester Hagan, at a southwest entrance to Central Park, that the attack came to an end. After his initial arrest, Washington produced his identification papers. Only then was he released, allowed to press charges against Ulrich, and taken to a hospital to get 16 stitches and recover from his head bashing.
Despite having the support of Andrew Carnegie, former New York City mayor Seth Low and President William Taft, Washington’s assault charge was destined to fail. The New York and national press — yellow journalism at its best in 1911 — tried Washington on their front pages from March 20 on. Laura Alverez did a wonderful job in misrepresenting herself as “Mrs. Ulrich” in defense of her paramour at the trial. Alverez accused Washington of saying, “Hello, Sweetheart” to her — a dog whistle back then for the ultimate taboo of interracial sex — when Washington was outside the apartment building. Two of the three judges voted on Monday, November 6, 1911, to acquit Ulrich of the assault charge, news the national press gleefully reported. Among them was the Morning Oregonian, which had “‘Beating Up’ Darky Brings No Punishment to Man” as part of its headline.
All this took its toll on an already sick 55-year-old Washington, a man already suffering from hypertension and high-blood pressure. The result was a physically and emotionally diminished Washington after 1911. Booker T. Washington died on November 16, 1915. The power Washington had exercised as an advisor to Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Taft and as a racial accommodationist (some would say, an apologist) who befriended White philanthropists, it didn’t matter. His poor health may have been the symptom, but racism in all its forms was the ultimate cause.
It does not matter what year it is. Racists don’t care. It doesn’t matter if African Americans and White progressives hold die-ins in Ferguson, Cleveland and New York. Blacks and other people of color don’t have the same right to breathe without a racist’s say-so. It doesn’t matter if respectable Blacks wear nice suits and ties, attend Harvard, establish a university, or serve as President of the United States. Americans of color are all criminals and playthings in the eyes of racists, and the power structures for which they work have been set up to preserve racial inequality for centuries. And it doesn’t matter if liberals Black, White and Brown call for healing. Racists don’t want healing, and calling for it without acknowledging a flesh-eating, bacterial-infested wound like racism doesn’t do Americans any good. Booker T. Washington learned that lesson in 1911, and Ida B. Wells learned it in 1884. Millions of other Americans of color have learned that lesson all too well today.