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Saturday, September 25, 2004

R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

and the upcoming Centennial ...

My work with the National Park Service (NPS) ended yesterday. After completing my 60-day assignment, it ended appropriately enough at a luncheon at the newly revived Port of Richmond where the AutoWarehousers (from Korea) entertained Bay Area officials and members of the industry -- along with Park personnel. The elaborate luncheon for about 200 dignitaries was simulcast to the home port in Spokane, and video-conferenced to other sites. Huge social event, and the introduction of this new industrial enterprise to the world.

The reactivated port is now the home of the 4400 brand new imported autos at any one time and that arrive on ships about 4 times each month. They're warehoused here at the port where they're prepped for shipment by rail, water, or truck throughout the country. They've brought a significant number of jobs to a city that needs them. It's an exciting operation.

Under an agreement with the National Park Service, this actively-working port co-exists with the emerging national park. Kaiser Shipyard #3 holds many of the historic landmarked park structures (the huge machine shop recently restored to historical landmarked criteria, the supply storage facility, and the slips where the 743 victory ships were launched). There is a brand new roadway that allows tourists and other park visitors to drive through to see those structures and renew the sense of the frantic 24-hour-a-day shipbuilding operations that brought women into the workforce for the first time and that contributed critically to the winning of the war against Fascism.

In addition to the restored port and waterfront, there is the continuation of the 400-mile long Bay Trail that -- when completed -- will encircle the bay for hikers, cyclers, and kayakers. The Bay Trail is incorporated into the new national park. This piece is a critical part of Richmond's 32 mile scenic shoreline, and brings us closer to completion of our part of the trail; connecting us to Alameda, Solano, and Marin county trails.

I learned so much while "running barefoot" through those studies and articles and ...

Spent lots of time being quietly enraged to discover that -- though credited with advancing racial integration by many years through his hiring policies at the shipyards -- it is also true that Henry J. brought racial segregation to the West Coast in all of its ugliness. Though by bringing the races together in Richmond's shipyards -- Kaiser may well have accellerated the move toward racial equality by a good many years -- if only as an unintended consequence of those policies.

Discovered that -- though the shipyards introduced the concept of 24-hour daycare for his workers (which enabled Rosies to enter the workforce), it is also true that those facilities were not open to African American families, who may have introduced the world to the latch-key child. And, though the federal government (HUD) hastily constructed housing on marshlands where none had been before, that housing was racially segregated, with structures built to house African Americans destroyed within 3 weeks of war's end. This in the hope that black sharecroppers would return to the south from whence they'd come. The only war housing still standing within the park boundaries are those built for white workers (Atchison and Nystrom Villages).

Being a Librarian-Technician allowed the time to spend hours reading studies produced by many historians. The collected stories and artifacts that came as a response to a national media campaign by the Ford Motor Company -- paint a fascinating picture of life in that era. I'm grateful for having had the chance to explore that. Among the lessons learned over the past 60 days:


There was some recognition by the government of the need to reward the African American workers in some significant ways. By that time the Tuskeegee Airmen; the Pearl Harbor naval hero, Dorie Miller; and the heroic tank division that fought so valiantly in Southern Europe, had earned an indisputable place in the lore of the country. In response, there were 17 victory ships named for famous black citizens. Three that were built and launched to great celebrations here in Richmond were the SS George Washington Carver, the SS Robert S. Abbott (Publisher of the Chicago Defender), and the SS John Hope (black educator). In addition there were three victory ships named for historically black colleges; the SS Fisk, the SS Xavier, and the SS Talledega.

By far the most intriguing find in the log of ships launched in Richmond in March and April of 1944, the SS Ethiopia and the SS Touissaint L'Ouverture (the latter named for the great black revolutionary leader who led Haitians against the French. What I wouldn't give to be able to unearth records of the discussions that led to these choices! When we recall that these honors were conferred at a time when segregation was still full-blown and when the country was still locked in the grip of Jim Crow, it seems miraculous that -- even then -- there were those who were trying desparately to "get it right." And, there still are.

This suggests an important rationale for the teaching of Black History to African American children. Embedded in such teachings is the invisible pride-builder of self-respect. "We, too, have heroes and I, too, can be one" comes from knowing what's gone before. I learned as a small business owner in Berkeley -- in a very low-income community -- that people learn to respect only by being respected, and that it is rarely otherwise.


Richmond was incorporated in August of 1905. This will be our Centennial year. That year begins in little more than 3 months -- and I see little preparation for what should be a monumental opportunity to share some of this history -- and to re-visit the era of the re-birth of Richmond when it grew -- almost overnight -- from a sleepy little industrial town of 20,000 to 108,000 at the beginning 1942.

Coming together in the back of my brain are some seemingly unrelated but surely connected events:

A few weeks ago we reeled from the senseless killing of a 17 year-old African American honor student, Terrance Kelly. He was only 2 days away from escaping a questionable future in a crime-ridden corner of the community. He'd received an athletic scholarship and was leaving for Oregon to enter college. The 16 year-old youngster who wielded the gun that ended Terrance's life's only defense was that he'd been "Dissed." (i.e., disrespected.) I'm not sure that any of us is aware of just how important that word has become in communities where -- since slavery, Jim Crow, (yes) and the struggles for equality in this city following WWII -- there has been so little respect to draw upon.

Due to inadequate education from revisionist textbooks that left out all references to meaningful black history until recent years and despite the efforts of a few enlightened teachers ... with little opportunity to understand the why of it, the lack thereof may have become lethal in some frightening way. "Dissing" is the word used by youth, but the feeling expressed by the word is universally recognizable ... a feeling that crosses the generations and robs us all of some immutable something that we can rarely define, that by now is buried deep in the DNA of our children, that bleeds out of our pores, restricts our vision, and profoundly limits opportunities to gain and live a lifestyle worthy of achieving it.

My work with the National Park Service has ended far too soon. I was just getting into the rhythm of it. Now I'm seriously considering ways to get this city to engage me to oversee a yearlong centennial celebration. Far fetched? Of course it is. They have no idea that they even need one, or that they need me to give it life. As has been true many times in the past, I'm running around with answers to questions that nobody is asking!








Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Tragic Five Degrees of Separation --

Some years ago we received news from a dear cousin living in Southern California that her 21 year-old son, Billy, had died the night before in a horrible gun accident. He was serving in the navy, and while sitting on his bed in conversation with his best friend -- somehow, the gun in the hand of his buddy was discharged and Billy was killed instantly. We mourned. No charges were filed. It was a complete tragedy.

My late sister's son, Thurmon, about a year later ... was shot and killed in his own home under circumstances we never understood. No one was ever charged. His only sibling, Gail, was left alone. My sister and her husband having both died a few years earlier of natural causes. He was a 29 year-old father of three daughters.

Then, about five years ago, the 23 year-old young male cousin was driving home at around midnight on an Oakland freeway when a sniper killed him in a random act of violence. A few weeks later, and after terrorizing late night drivers, he was caught, but before that happened -- several other innocent victims had lost their lives to his rifle aimed from ambush - and all just for the hell of it! He's serving time now in prison.

This weekend was my birthday (or at least a few days prior), and toward late afternoon my son, David, and his two younger daughters arrived with five live crabs purchased in the Pacific Market in El Cerrito. He came prepared to do a crab feed; multiple cloves of garlic, a fragrant bunch of parsley, lemons, and a package of Zatarains Louisiana crab boil fixings. They spent the afternoon with Dorian and me, with David busily in the kitchen doing the honors, and Tamaya and Alayana watching videos while Dorian busily crocheted her latest colorful afghan.

Something was wrong. I could feel it. Within the hour David began to talk. "Kokee was almost killed last night, Mom."

On Saturday night, his eldest daughter -- 22 years old, and her boyfriend were leaving a sports bar in Sacramento and were stopped by two young men with a gun. There was an attempted robbery. They took her cellphone and what they could find in her wallet, and while busy with her they began to get rough. Her boyfriend took on one of the assailants screaming to her to run for the car. A gunshot rang out in the night! She ran as fast as she could -- terrified! In her telling of the story later -- after dinner (she and the other grandchildren joined us after six o'clock), she tearfully told us how she'd run frantically -- hearing footsteps running behind her -- and thinking that she was about to be shot to death (thinking that her friend lay dead). But -- just before reaching the car he overtook her. It was her friend who had survived, and she was safe for the moment.

They drove away without realizing that he'd been shot in the neck. The bullet had entered soft tissue and exited without penetrating any vital organs. He didn't know that he'd been shot until she saw the blood. She took off her t-shirt and applied pressure to the wound as he looked for the nearest hospital. It was in Davis, a few miles out of Sacramento, but they made it safely.

It was a sobering birthday party. We felt particularly close. Rhico (her younger brother) brought his girlfriend for me to meet for the first time. They're both seventeen and in love. Such beautiful and loving kids. It was all so bittersweet. The fragility of life was keenly evident to us all.

After they'd left and I was picking up the gift boxes and tissue paper and absently folding it as if I have some guarantee that we'll all be here this Christmas when much of it will be recycled. I found myself remembering Thurman, Billy, and Christian, all in their graves so young.

Ours is a loving family with little contact with the world of violence. There are no questionable lifestyles to worry over among the young. Nonetheless, how typical is it that four young people in one family will have encountered death or threat of death by gunfire? I truly don't know... .

I thought then of the NRA and of the empty arguments in defense of "The Right To Bear Arms" and it felt so hollow and so meaningless. I recalled those faces of gun advocates smugly chanting their mantra, "guns don't kill people, people kill people!"

I called Kokee earlier this evening to assure myself that she's okay, and that her young friend is recovering well. "He is in a lot of pain, but seems alright considering." She is so young. I am so frightened this night... .

Michele, my co-worker has been visiting her son-in-law for the past nine months. He's been hospitalized after suffering grave gunshot wounds. He was kept alive for weeks on a ventilator. No one knows if he'll survive, eventually, or whether he will ever walk. I'm not sure just why, but I worked all day today without mentioning Kokee's brush with death to her. Got home more tired than usual, I suppose from the effort it took to spare her the confirmation that the world has gone mad.

When did life become so cheap and good people so expendable?

Do you suppose this is in anyway related to our having been in a continuing state of war for such a long time? Or, despite studies to the contrary, does the expression of violence all around us de-sensitize the living so that death becomes no more than the ordinary state of un-being?

Sunday, September 19, 2004

I must admit that lately

(since starting my last position), I've been aware of how constricted I was feeling. So much of what I've been feeling might have bled into my work day -- much was rising that I've been holding back for fear of crossing some invisible line that I've set for myself. The result is that I'm more and more aware of the anger building. I've a new appreciation for the times that I've used my computer as a way to vent, and to work through the accumulating discomfort caused by the necessary re-visiting of a painful past.

This morning I watched the author of "We Also Serve," on CSpan's Booknotes. She has written a new book about African American participation in all of the nation's wars since 1776. She spoke in her introduction about how little she'd listened to her own late father's war stories, and of how much she regrets it now. Found myself nodding with understanding at her revelations gathered from the stories of old warriors of earlier wars; WWII, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the current occupation forces in the Middle East.

Though her book deals specifically with black veterans of the armed forces, my own experiences over the past weeks -- while being immersed in studies of the Home Front is really not much different.

She arrived at the same place that I have in some important ways. She stated during her interview that these people had fought valiantly, were passed over for advancement, were not considered full-fledged members of the fighting forces until the Korean war when integration finally was enacted and advancement was finally possible. Most worked in support service branches, and as valets and maids to officers, or served in segregated units with white commanding officers. There was a heartbreaking account of one soldier whose work consisted of burying the dead in the field. I could barely listen ... .

Those men and woman came home as broken and maimed as their white counterparts, but faced the evils of full-blown segregation upon their return, and few of the benefits enjoyed by others. So it was with the homefront workers. The firsts Medals of Honor were awarded to black heroes in 1990, several decades after WWII during which they were earned for valor.

I discovered only this week that one of the several historic sites that have been incorporated into the Rosie the Riveter/Home Front National Historical Park was the Maritime Child Development Center, a state of the art 24-hour child care center that had a staff of 30, a fulltime psychiatrist, medical staff, etc., in the first of its kind and credited to Henry J. Kaiser's dynamic leadership -- but was reserved for white children, only. And this was not in some southern state, but here in California in what has become the most progressive area of the country.

The author of "We also served" arrived at the same conclusion that has consumed me over the past weeks. I, too, believe that the African Americans still struggling for survival against all odds in this city are owed a tremendous debt. This was the heroic generation that gave all, were hated and despised, were discouraged from putting down roots in this land of promise. We were just two generations out of slavery. I know, because I am one of them.

I was spared the degradation of having lived in the South, so had a head start on progress. I cannot imagine what it was like for those who were faced with abandonment at war's end, with no chance to have meaningful work or an education. Returning to the sharecroppers life was no longer an option, but facing a future in the hostility of Jim-Crow America must have been challenging beyond imagination.

I'm finding ways to address this need to tell the stories. This city will celebrate its centennial in 2005. WWII which came mid-century is the epochal event in its life. It will afford us the opportunity to re-visit some of that history and, perhaps, approach the celebration of that earlier time armed with the wisdom gained two decades later, during the Civil Rights Revolution of the Sixties.

Perhaps the most hopeful thing I'm discovering is that -- where there are still many mountains to climb in the overcoming of racism -- the numbers of people willing to climb them, together -- has grown exponentially over the years since WWII. And, there are now a significantly large number of us working hard to "get it right."

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