Saturday, November 10, 2007

To hell with the vacuuming!

I'm in the midst of a major brainstorm here, and the imagination shall not be denied.

What if it were possible to secure the International hotel by getting the city to purchase it for safekeeping while we wade through these intriguing possibilities? This would allow Ethel's son to inherit the proceeds of the sale (the building surely has little value in today's market) in order to get on with his life. His needs must not get lost in any of this. There may be some way to get the Redevelopment Agency to turn its attention away from that long-neglected part of the community for a while longer ... maybe ... and restrain its tendency to bulldoze the site for the purpose of another scattered site project.

Then, supposing, if that were accomplished through the benevolence of the city -- we would be able to design a program that would bring together (for the purposes of educating the community and its young people to this important history) preservationists, union craftspeople, and the youth of the city to study and restore the building to take its rightful place in the colorful history of the Bay Area? The International Hotel could become the training laboratory for teaching all of the skills needed for careers in historic preservation where youth could be trained in electrical wiring, carpentry, masonry -- all of the skills associated with construction denied their parents and grandparents at the time when those two great union organizers and civil rights leaders made their life-changing contributions. What a way for the labor unions to become accountable for past sins, find atonement, and claim redemption. Alright, that's strong language -- a bit over the top -- but not too far from the reality as lived at that site at that time. The effects of their denial of equal opportunity for members of the black community are surely still visible in this city and others like it across the country.

Not to be discounted is that fact that -- like so many of the make-work projects designed by well-intentioned social agencies and nonprofits for young African Americans -- this work could hold deep meaning to those who participate, adding dignity and self-esteem. A partnership with the Black Studies Department of the community colleges would be an exciting possibility.

There must be grants available -- perhaps from the unions -- that would underwrite such an undertaking. Do you suppose?

Perhaps this building, then, could house Richmond's first version of an African American history museum.

Crazy? Maybe, but I'll bet Ethel Dotson would say a grand "Amen!" to such dreams.

And now I really do need to make that trip to the dumpster and get another load in the washer ... . Such wool-gathering is time-consuming -- but I still have the entire holiday weekend in which to find a better use for time away from my desk. My non-ranger time may be slowly shrinking -- but the complexity of Betty Soskin still demands time and space -- and that's probably as it should be.

Photo: Ethel at a happier time.

Documented connections found between Randolph and Dellums ...

There is no question. Just located an interview online, "Conversations with Ron Dellums" which has this paragraph:

"...C.L. Dellums, as you know, joined with A. Philip Randolph. These were guys that came out of the twenties, these were the old left-wing guys in the twenties. The came together (Ed. at the International Hotel?) and organized the first African American trade union in the history of America, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. These were guys who placed a great premium on the spoken word as a way of organizing, to be impressive when they challenged people. You know, people thought A. Philip Randolph and C.L. Dellums and these guys were Harvard graduates, because they developed an affect that challenged the system to deal with them intellectually, at an eyeball-to-eyeball level."

Since Dellums was at that time leading the Northern California NAACP, that work of organizing must have happened here in the Bay Area. Where would they have met but in Richmond at a site that housed the very workers they were attempting to organize?

It has been a fruitful day, thus far. However, there's still the vacuuming to do and the mountain of trash (oh how the junk mail doth accumulate when you're not looking!) to tote out to the dumpster, but I'll feel much better at Ethel's funeral services on Tuesday knowing that the work is proceeding and that hope is not lost.

Still need help, though, everybody ... .

Photo: Taken at the unveiling of the statue of C.L. Dellums that stands at the recently restored 16th Street Southern Pacific station in Oakland, California.
The ultimate irony ... .

I'm not at all sure that Ethel Dotson's determination to save her precious historic landmark won't have been in vain. How sad! We discovered midweek that she died as one of the millions of the uninsured, and that there was a desperate need to quickly raise the funds to take care of her funeral expenses. And, yes, her friends and admirers came through, and her services are being held next week, as planned. A cemetery plot was donated anonymously, and her church congregation, her Neighborhood Council, and many friends, gave as generously as they could. You must remember that this is a very low income community -- but it takes care of its own.

This is not to say that the little landmark hotel won't need to be sold at some point to satisfy her creditors or to take care of her only son who surely can't be expected to hold it for posterity when his needs are immediate.

In the times (at home) that I give to blogging I need now to spend researching the connections between the Northern California chapter of the NAACP during the war years when it was headed by C.L. Dellums (yes, that would be the uncle of Oakland mayor, Ron Dellums) and his connections with A.Philip Randolph, creator of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. I've made an appointment to visit with the mayor next week to explore this. There must be some way to establish the historic value of Ethel's building so that its worth to black history will bring the help we'll need to get it purchased toward the goal of restoration. The Pullman Company figured powerfully in that era and (surely) in the life of the International Hotel. That history will be important now to the justification for national landmarking and eventual restoration. The International Hotel must first be saved.

In searching the web I found this from California Newsreel:

"...In response to the race riots of 1919, Randolph and Chandler Owen formed the National Association for the Promotion of Labor Unionism Among Negroes. Soon a group of Pullman car workers asked Randolph to help them organize the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The film revisits the group's bitter 12-year battle with the notorious Pullman Company, which tried repeatedly to destroy the union using spies and firings. The 1934 Wagner Act finally created a level-playing field, enabling the Brotherhood to win an organized contract in 1937, the first ever between a company and a Black union."


"...When WWII began, the federal government was still segregated and African Americans
excluded from all but menial defense industry jobs. Randolph leapt onto the national stage when he called for a march on Washington in protest. (According to CORE founder, James Farmer, "Roosevelt could not take the chance that 25,000 people would be protesting in Washington when he was calling the U.S. the arsenal of democracy." Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8002 banning such discrimination and the march was called off."


"...Later, as the Cold War heated up, President Truman announced the first peace-time draft. But he left the armed forces segregated. Randolph called on Black men to resist the draft until Truman relented, presaging the protests against the Vietnam War. Truman was furious, but in 1948 he issued an executive order integrating the military."

The piece ends with:

"...In 1963, Randolph called again for a march on Washington. He was the only civil rights leader who could unite other leaders in the movement. 250,000 came in response. When he introduced Dr. King, "symbolically, the torch was passed from one generation of fighters to another."
Would it not be incredible if this tiny (seemingly) insignificant International Hotel can be proven to have played a prominent role in the telling of the story of railroading as a change agent in African American life; could elevate this important labor history; and could become a critical factor in the telling of the story of this remarkable leader, Asa Philip Randolph?

Anybody out there want to help me make these connections? I believe much of what we'll need can be found online. We'll need to tie him to the War years and to a period spent in Northern California. His association with C.L. Dellums might prove fruitful in our search. The possibilities are tantalizing ... .

For Ethel Dotson ... .

For us all.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Requiem for a most courageous hero ... .

Let me tell you about this vital life force called Ethel Dotson:

She came to my attention only in recent years -- pressing environmental issues at city council meetings; speaking to the injustices and the constant dangers of ignoring the brownfields under our feet; toxic lands left over from war-related industries created during World War II. She was the bane of corporate interests -- the chemical laboratories and petroleum refineries that dominate life in this community. She challenged them all fearlessly on our behalf. Ethel watched as those poisonous lands were restored to use by ambitious real estate developers with short memories -- re-defining what brownfields means, and creating housing where her life experience would surely prohibit. Ethel and her siblings were born to WWII war worker parents in Seaport -- one of the temporary housing projects built on the lands of former chemical plant; a site that -- in the years since -- has produced a cell of cancer victims far above the national norm. She was relentless in her warnings.

Foremost of Ethel's concerns, however, was her almost obsessive dedication to the restoration of the tiny International Hotel that housed black railroad men on their layovers prior to and during the decades preceding WWII. She continually called out for whatever action might be necessary to save this important landmark. My ranger partner, Lucy, and I visited her there one day and got a tour of the 20 tiny upstairs single-occupancy rooms and the cluttered large reception room on the ground floor that reflected her personal taste for the flamboyant. She proudly showed us her collection of newspaper articles and vintage photographs that spelled out the history of her struggle to protect the building for posterity -- for the telling of this important Black migration story that preceded that of World War II. The stories of black waiters, cooks, and Pullman porters who discovered the West Coast and the Bay Area (as did the men of my own family) at the far western end of their railroad runs on the Acheson, Topeka & Santa Fe and Southern and Western Pacific rail lines -- decades before World War II.

Though still under a system of informal racial segregation, the Bay Area provided a sanctuary for black families where these men might bring their wives and children out of a hostile south. Ethel purchased the little crumbling building some years ago, knowing that it would some day be important to the telling of those stories. She knew that one day Richmond would be an important destination in Black Tourism. She was preparing for that. The development of Rosie the Riveter World War II/ Home Front National Park might well lend importance to those stories, and she gave her life to saving this critical element for the preserving of that history. But it is important to note that her work on saving the structure predates the existence of the park by some years.

The tiny hotel lay just across the street from the vast Pullman Yards where those famous sleeping cars would pull in for cleaning and restocking before being coupled to trains that would take travelers back across country. The Pullman company maintained -- only a block away at the corner of South Street and Carlson Boulevard -- a standard full-service hotel for whites, only, (conductors, brakeman, engineers, etc.), but did not accommodate black workers. That "white" hotel was torn down years ago as the neighborhood changed. The huge Pullman yards currently house a number of warehouse-type discount businesses. The train tracks leading into the huge buildings have long since been filled in or paved over for parking. Ethel's little hotel has little to identify it, except for her persistent reminder of its importance to the telling of the African American story. It was probably built sometime in the 1920s or before. She had succeeded over the years, in getting the City to grant it historic landmark status. Federal recognition is yet to be achieved. She'd gotten herself named to the Commission on Historic Preservation in the hope of advancing that goal over time.

Because of her instinctive sense of its future importance, she lived in it, alone, without utilities (no gas service) and therefore no heat for years. I'm sure that she saw the need to protect it by taking up residence against the day that the wrecking ball would descend upon a building that would be marked for abatement as abandoned property at some point. She never could hope to be able to afford, financially, what would be needed to fully restore it. Meanwhile, she was determined to hold it by sheer moral force until the cavalry arrived to save the fort!

Lucy and I (with the full support of our superintendent) were able to include Ethel as one of our informal "docents" on a later bus tour, and to add the International Hotel to our interpretive agenda as one of Richmond's historic points of interest. She was so proud! At some point there may well be ways to create culturally-specific tours that will allow us to tell the multiple stories this developing park has to tell. At that time, Ethel's little hotel will be as important to African American history as the Maritime Child Development Center is as the progenitor for Head Start programs in the field of education, or, as the Kaiser Field Hospital marks the birth of the HMOs.

A member of city staff came to my cubicle one day recently to tell me that Ethel was at Alta Bates hospital -- that her cancer had progressed beyond hope of recovery. That she was expected to die within the next two weeks. They didn't know our Ethel. That was at least two months ago. On that very day I drove in to visit -- in full uniform, hat, badges, and all. This visit was meant to give at least a hint of how important she was not only to me as a friend, but officially, as a sister non-traditional historian, and that she and her quest for recognition of that little hotel would be fulfilled somehow. That there were many who had heard her plea over the years and that the issue was vital to us all. I counted upon not having to say the words that would make a promise that I had no power to keep in any real sense. She knew that and made no demands. Instead she gave me contact numbers for her son, told me that she had given him her Power of Attorney, and that I should get in touch with him upon her death. She never actually uttered the word, "death," but only "after ... ".

I need to tell you that I'd never seen her looking so radiant. Her hair was not massed atop her head as usual (creating its own unique turban), but snaked its way across her pillow in unbelievably intricately-woven thick wooley braids that would have reached her waist had she been standing erect. Her smooth cinnamon-brown skin was free of cosmetics -- with not a scintilla of her bright red rouge. No lipstick. No dangling earrings nor rings-on-every-finger. No floor-length colorful ethnic gown or multiple bracelets. Just Ethel. Lovely against the pillows and so pleased to see me. She was comfortable and glowing from somewhere inside. This was an Ethel I'd never met. She spoke of having been "...close to death only the day before and then brought back." She believed she'd experienced a miracle. She told me that she was in no pain and that she was expecting to be going home to her mother's Parchester Village house that very afternoon. Ethel was at peace. It made me recall the words of a wise friend at the time of my mother's passing. "No life is complete without a death." I believe that Ethel knew, and gracefully accepted the inescapable truth that life is finite. She had used her time on the planet well, and I believe was keenly aware of that -- deep in her soul. Seen as a Cassandra by many, I truly believe that her persistent warnings with regard to environmental injustice were heard and that some will quietly carry on her work as collectives of the concerned over the years.

I leaned over and kissed her cheek and took leave after our brief visit. This would be the last time I'd see her. we'll need to get to work on restoration of the International Hotel -- as we celebrate the life of one of Richmond's heroes. The late Northern California NAACP president and union organizer, C.L. Dellums; the legendary creator of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A.Phillip Randolph; and yes, former Pullman porter and later Justice of the US Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, were there to welcome her home -- a fantasy that came to mind as I dropped off to sleep last night ... .

Arrangements pending.