(Texas Death Row Prisoners -Click here for a larger image)
No one has yet written a biography about Madame Stephanie St. Clair and I can hardly believe it. I was introduced to Madame St. Clair through watching the “Cotton Club.” She’s only mentioned in passing. I was born and raised in New York City and even worked for a couple of years in Harlem. Yet I heard nothing about this amazing black woman’s life and legacy. Her Wikipedia page is woefully lacking and describes her as “a female gang leader who ran numerous criminal enterprises in Harlem, New York in the part of the 20th century.” This description of St. Clair doesn’t do justice to her life.
I am very interested in Madame St. Clair because as LaShawn Harris (2008) has written:
“St. Clair’s life symbolizes the often untold narratives and experiences of black men and women who used the informal economy and crime as ways to creatively confront race, gender, and class oppression (p.70).”
Whatever happened to the Manifesto? I think that young organizers should bring it back or at the very least start creating more lists of demands…
I was invited to attend a meeting a few weeks ago by a group of young organizers who are interested in taking action to address the epidemic of mass incarceration. It is always tricky for older organizers to participate in such meetings. It is hard to know when to speak up and when to stay quiet. I mostly bit my tongue. I wanted to respect their process but when the meeting ended, I did pull a couple of the young organizers aside to offer some suggestions for how to improve their meetings. I asked if they had already developed a list of their wants and demands. They said no. They had spent several meetings already discussing their “shared values” and agreeing to “their process.” I asked if they were surprised that they had lost quite a few members since their launch. They told me that building community among themselves was crucially important. I agreed and said that there is also value though in people gathering to discuss what they want and to plan a strategy & program to achieve it. It’s a balance that many never achieve.
In the 1930s, local youth began to get more involved in protest movements. This was particularly true for Southern youth who gathered in regional assemblies to articulate demands and network. In Opportunity magazine (a publication of the Urban League), Edward Strong reported on one such gathering of black youth that took place in Tennessee in 1938. Below is the position paper of the May 1938 Southern Negro Youth Conference.
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, last month, 500 young colored men and women met in the second all-Southern Negro Youth Conference. They came to express their wants and desires — to plan a new design for living — and in the program that they adopted all their hopes and aspirations for a brighter future were reflected.
What is the aim of young Negroes of the South today? What do they want? How do they propose to move ahead? The delegates answered these questions simply and unanimously.
Black History Month officially comes to a close today. But as I mentioned in an earlier post, black history is American history so I always talk about it on the blog. Today, I wanted to highlight an important but not well-known historical moment that relates to our current prison nation: “The Negro Silent Protest Parade.”
“On July 1, 1917, two white policemen were killed in East St. Louis, Illinois, in an altercation caused when marauders attacked black homes. The incident sparked a race riot on July 2, which ended with forty-eight killed, hundreds injured, and thousands of blacks fleeing the city when their homes were burned. The police and state militia did little to prevent the carnage. On July 28, the NAACP protested with a silent march of 10,000 black men, women, and children down New York’s Fifth Avenue. The participants marched behind a row of drummers carrying banners calling for justice and equal rights. The only sound was the beat of muffled drums (source).”
Read more about this in the New York Times.
The march was organized by an ad-hoc group formed at St. Philip’s Church in Harlem. James Weldon Johnson was a key organizer of the “Negro Silent Protest Parade.” As the protesters marched silently down 5th Avenue, Boy scouts distributed fliers describing the NAACP’s struggle against segregation, lynching, discrimination, and other forms of racist oppression. It’s hard to imagine Boy and Girl Scouts in the 21st century participating in a mass protest against racialized mass incarceration…
Men, women, and children carried placards that read: “MOTHER, DO LYNCHERS GO TO HEAVEN?; “GIVE ME A CHANCE TO LIVE”; “TREAT US SO THAT WE MAY LOVE OUR COUNTRY”; “MR. PRESIDENT, WHY NOT MAKE AMERICA SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY?; AND “YOUR HANDS ARE FULL OF BLOOD.”
NAACP literature outlined the objectives and goals of the march:
We march because by the Grace of God and the force of truth, the dangerous, hampering walls of prejudice and inhuman injustices must fall.
We march because we want to make impossible a repetition of Waco, Memphis, and East St. Louis, by arousing the conscience of the country and bringing the murders of our brothers, sisters, and innocent children to justice.
We march because we deem it a crime to be silent in the face of such barbaric acts.
We march because we are thoroughly opposed to Jim-Crow Cars, Segregation, Discrimination, Disfranchisement, Lynching, and the host of evils that are forced on us. It is time that the Spirit of Christ should be manifested in the making and execution of laws.
We march because we want our children to live in a better land and enjoy fairer conditions than have fallen to our lot.
Could we get 10,000 black Chicagoans to march silently down Michigan Avenue to protest racialized mass incarceration today? If so, would anyone care?
This was going to be a post about the roots of racism and their implications for organizing to end mass incarceration. Then I “watched” the Oscars on Twitter and saw a tweet by the Onion about 9 year old black actress, Quvenzhané Wallis:
My head exploded. I took to Twitter to rant about how disgusting I felt the Onion was to say such a vile thing about a child. I tried to stop there but then went on a tirade about the historical context for this sexual objectification of a black girl. I suggested that originating in slavery, the idea that black women are loose, promiscuous, and generally easygoing about sexual matters still circulates throughout the dominant American culture and has an impact on intra-racial and inter-racial gender and sexual politics.
Look, I am not dumb and I enjoy a good joke as much as anyone else. I understand that this was an attempt by the Onion to make fun of the way that actresses are talked about in the media. But I was deeply offended that they chose to pick on a 9-year old black girl in this way. I tried to take a couple of hours away from social media but still found it difficult to calm down. I am an insomniac but I was even more agitated than usual so I decided to write in greater depth about the sources of my anger and disappointment. My thoughts are inchoate and regular readers are used to this so here goes…
Fair warning: easily offended individuals and people who think racism is dead should skip this post…
I have found myself having several disturbing conversations with seemingly intelligent people over the past few days. I am trying to sort through my discomfort so I apologize in advance if this post is a muddle.
I have learned over the years to mostly steer clear of conversations about racism with white people. Not all white people but most. I have found the conversations to be mostly pointless as it is clear that the people who I am talking with have absolutely no historical context at all for the discussion.
Racism is an enduring legacy of slavery and continues to impact all aspects of American life in the 21st century. If this is not the starting point for all discussions, then we really have nothing more to talk about. Throughout the 17th, 18th and most of the 19th centuries, most white Americans either accepted slavery or actually owned slaves. Indeed the Constitution of the United States sanctioned and supported slavery.
Lately, it has been more challenging than usual to talk with black youth (in particular) about how entrenched the idea of criminality as an inherent marker of blackness is in American culture. As I have been thinking more seriously about how to better convey this idea as a longstanding and enduring one, I turned to my collection of postcards and images associating black people and watermelons.
Over the years that I have spent working with young people, I have sometimes been confronted with questions that leave me speechless (at least for a little while). I had one of these moments again last week as I was talking with a young man who is navigating some legal troubles. Seemingly out of nowhere, he asked me: “Would you be scared of me, Ms. K, if you didn’t know me?” I just stared at him for what might have been 2 minutes. And that’s a long time to be silent during a conversation. I stammered and asked: “What brings this question on?”
“Well you know that I’ve been looking for work for over a year now and no one wants to give me chance. I’m big, I’m young, and I’m black. Most of the people that interview me are women and some are black women. So I wanted to know if you would be scared to hire me if you didn’t know who I was.”
This was another of those dagger to the heart moments and I have unfortunately had plenty of those in my years of working with youth. I took a breath and I told him that if I were being honest, I would not be afraid of him during an interview but I might be if it were 11 p.m. and we were the only two people walking down the street.
“You know something, Ms. K, that’s why you my peoples. You never lie to me.”
I have written before about the role of music in the lives of imprisoned black people particularly in the South by highlighting Angela Davis’s analysis of the song Chain Gang Blues. However, it was only a cursory consideration of how music described the Southern black experience of incarceration in the early 20th century.
Many people are familiar with prison worksongs without perhaps knowing much about their origins or purpose. In reviewing the book “Wake Up the Dead” by Bruce Jackson, Craig Ruskey describes the nature and value of prison worksongs:
Prison inmates were put to work in the various institutions where they were housed. Working in the cotton or tobacco fields, road and chain gangs, or clearing forests, there were different types of songs for each type of labor. A team would choose a leader as their singer, usually a man with a clear voice who could easily be heard. ‘Proper’ singing wasn’t necessary but the volume of the voice was. Sometimes, teams or crews of as many as eight men were put to work cutting a tree down, with each member of that team supplied an axe. The reason the worksong was so important to the team was simple; with eight men swinging individual axes at the same target, without a rhythm to work by, havoc would be the natural outcome! Simply put, it was a matter of the downbeat for one team to swing, and the upbeat for the other team to swing. In an eight man team, four men would follow the lead voice on the downbeat, so as they would swing their axes into the base of a tree, the opposite team would be singing a refrain and pulling their axes away from the tree. Road gangs and chain gangs would usually work with hoes or picks and in a straight line. Again, the leader would be the man with the clearest voice and he would start a song by singing the first line, then the entire team would use that rhythm and sing the second line. Field workers had songs of a more personal nature as they worked individually, singing primarily for their own enjoyment and to pass the time.
“Go Down Old Hannah” is a song that seems to have originated from black prisoners. Here is a recording of the song made at a Texas Prison Camp by the Lomaxes.
Former prisoner and blues legend Leadbelly recorded his own version of this worksong.
He explained how he first came across the song:
They called the sun Old Hannah because it was hot and they just give it a name. That’s what the boys called it when I was in prison. I didn’t hear it before I went down there. The boys were talking about Old Hannah – I kept looking and I didn’t see no Hannah, but they looked up and said, “That’s the sun.”
I hope to write more in depth about prison worksongs as American cultural artifacts in the future. Today I want to focus, instead, on the ways that Southern blacks who had been imprisoned expressed their reenslavement after Emancipation through song. I contend that these songs of the early to mid 20th century represent testimonials about the injustice of the criminal legal system for blacks.
The convict lease system and the chain gang were so prevalent in the South that they inspired many songs besides Chain Gang Blues. One of these songs titled “Standin’ On the Corner” has been recorded by several artists and has been reinterpreted many times. The song dates back to the early 20th century and in it, the singer usually describes how he was “Standin’ on the corner, doin’ no harm,” when “Up come a policeman and grab me by the arm.” He is taken to a judge, who winks at the policeman and says “Nigger you get some work to do,” and sends him “shackle bound” for six months on the chain gang.
Below is one version of the song that I could find on Youtube. It isn’t my ideal version but it offers an opportunity for those who’ve never heard the song to hear it performed for the first time.
In the post-Emancipation South, black people knew that they could be picked up randomly for anything. The Black Codes criminalized “vagrancy,” unemployment, and all kinds of other things. As such, the theme of wrongful imprisonment permeates many of the prison-inspired songs that were collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the South. One famous song titled “Penal Farm Blues” describes the experience of being snatched up and imprisoned for no apparent reason:
Early one morning : on my way to the penal farm
Baby all I’ve done : ain’t done nothing wrong
Loaded in the *dog* wagon : and down the road we go
Oh baby : oh baby you don’t know
Into the office : then to the bathhouse below
And with a light shower : baby we change our clothes
All last night : baby it seemed so long
All I’ve done : I ain’t done nothing wrong
I’ll tell you people : the penal farm is a lonesome place
And no one there : to smile up in your face
You can listen to Scrapper Blackwell’s version of the song below:
These songs of prison and captivity shaped what we have come to know as the blues. As I mentioned in my earlier post about Chain Gang Blues, Angela Davis suggests that imprisonment was a central theme in blues music. This is borne out over and over. One of my favorite musicians, the great John Lee Hooker (who Bonnie Rait re-introduced to the mainstream in the 1990s) recorded his version of Prison Bound in 1949. In the song, he tackles the important ideas of the separation from loved ones and the sense of abandonment that can come from being incarcerated.
When they had my trial, baby
You know you couldn’t be found
When they had my trial
Baby, you could not be found
But it’s too late to cry, baby
Your daddy’s prison bound
I have lamented the fact that current hip hop artists seem to shy away from creating art that reflects substantively on either their personal experiences of incarceration or on prison reform more broadly. This makes me appreciate the prison-inspired music of the early 20th century all the more. The songs are historical artifacts that shed light on our collective past. I wonder what artifacts future generations will be examining to understand our current epidemic of mass incarceration. It’s hard to think of any songs from our era that might endure in the way that Chain Gang Blues has.
As regular readers of this blog know, I collect prison artifacts. I mostly focus on pre-1960s items (with a particular interest in the early 20th century). A couple of weeks ago, I decided to add to my collection of original vintage mug shots; I have dozens ranging from the early 20th century through the 1970s. I won’t go into why I started collecting these photographs — that will be a story for another day.
So I came across this Bertillon criminal card for sale online. These mug shot cards were known as Bertillon cards after the French law enforcement officer, Alphonse Bertillon, who pioneered criminal identification techniques such as anthropometry (measurement).
I knew instantly that I had to have this one. The card provides some basic details (though I won’t list them all).
Criminal Name: Laura Scott
Reg No: 23187
Height: 67.8 inches
Crime: Pt. Larceny & Prior
Sentence: 5 years
Measurements taken: August 8, 1905
Laura Scott’s face is mesmerizing. There is a look of defiance in her eyes. This is the look of a woman who has been through this before. And then that incredible hat…
Aren’t you curious to know Laura Scott’s story? Well I certainly was and since I am a complete nerd, I set out to learn everything that I could about this black woman who was incarcerated at the infamous San Quentin Prison in 1905.
How did Laura Scott end up on that Bertillon card? Well, an item that appeared in the August 5, 1905 edition of the Los Angeles Herald offers some initial clues:
“Laura Scott, negress, pleaded guilty yesterday to a charge of grand larceny and was sentenced to one year in San Quentin prison. The woman was accused of stealing (85?) and a gold watch and chain from Carson. ”
Over the next few weeks, I will share a story of Laura Scott with you. It’s a story that has led me to the California Archives and to Census Records from the 1800s. It’s a story cobbled together from disparate sources and is based on my original research. Laura Scott’s story has its roots in Reconstruction era Alabama, in the Black Belt and takes us all the way to California at the turn of the 20th century. Through Ms. Scott’s story, I hope to provide a portrait of what life was like for female prisoners in the late 1800s-early 1900s in the U.S. I hope that you’ll continue with me on this journey.
P.S. Reading about the history of San Quentin Prison makes me appreciate this song by Johnny Cash even more…