The Tuskegee Experiment

In 1932 a group of physicians started a study on syphilis in black men, which became one of the most heinous tragedies in medical history and impacted the lives of black Americans across the country – This is what happened

The Tuskegee Institution was founded in 1881, based in the Alabama it was a part of an effort to expand education for the black community in places that had previously been confederate run. In 1906, the institutions Principal, Booker T Washington, celebrated the schools 25th anniversary; praising the institute as a place where students could ‘engage with education and upbuilding of their race.’ Going on to say that the school’s upmost goal would always be,

‘to do something that would reach and improve the situation of the negro population in the south.’

This was the foundation that Tuskegee Institution was built on and yet, less than thirty years later, a team of scientists and doctors at Tuskegee would do the exact opposite. Working with the US government on an experiment that betrayed the very community they were built to serve and in doing so, they committed one of the most heinous acts in American medical history.

But before we get to what went down at Tuskegee in 1932, it’s important to know why it happened in the first place. So, lets quickly chat everyone’s favourite topics – syphilis and its impact on racist medical ideals! (don’t say I don’t spoil you)

A brief breakdown of syphilis

Syphilis is one of those STI’s that seems to have always been a thing. Seriously, it’s been knocking about for centuries, actually getting the name ‘syphilis’ thanks to a 1530 poem by Girolamo Fracastoro, in which a shepherd called Syphilus gets the STI (then called ‘The French Disease’ though the French called it ‘The Italian Disease’ because xenophobia knows no bounds) that’s right syphilis was such a big deal that people wrote poetry about it!

1936/1937 New York syphilis poster, via Library of Congress
Ok not quite that old, historians can’t quite agree how old it is, but many reckon it first appeared in the late 1400’s. – 1936/1937 syphilis PSA poster, via Library of Congress

Although its presence remains a constant throughout history, throughout the ages we see waves of syphilis outbreaks, one of these waves happened in America, where by the 1930’s it was estimated that at least 1 in 10 people suffered from syphilis. This is obviously very bad, but it’s worse when you factor in that if left untreated, syphilis has some pretty gnarly side effects, including blindness, paralysis, organ failure and something called Neurosyphilis.

Now Neurosyphilis normally develops after many years and it impacts the bodies nervous system, in particular the brain and spinal chord. There are different types of neurosyphilis (don’t worry I won’t go into all of them now!), but one of the major signs of neurosyphilis in a patient is psychiatric problems, such as depression, psychosis, dementia and mania. It’s now estimated that in the 1930’s roughly 20% of America’s asylum inmates were suffering from neurosyphilis. This was a very big problem and so of course, doctors wanted to know more about it.

Cut back to Tuskegee in 1932. The US Government were keen to look at how neurosyphilis impacted the brains of black men. Their hypothesis was that although black men were more likely to have syphillis, they were less likely to get neurosyphilis than white men.

That is quite the racist sentiment to take in, so let’s break it down. On the ‘more likely to have syphilis’ part, this was an idea that had been thrown around since the 1800’s. With many medical professionals taking the approach that black people were genetically inferior to white people and therefore were more likely to succumb to disease. Now this was backed up by figures…but that was actually because a black patient was less likely to receive an early diagnosis, get good treatment or have a quality of life that meant they were physically fit enough to fight off a horrifying disease. This was something a handful of reformers pointed out; however, massive racial prejudice was very much the order of the day – so, screw clear social economic factors. This was Darwinism and yet another sign black people were inferior to whites.

But why did they think black men were less likely to have neurosyphilis? Well this is summed up best in 1911 by one Dr E.M Hummell, who suggested that white patients got neurosyphilis as their brains were more developed, but a black person’s brain was less developed, thanks to their ‘childlike euphoria of a carefree life’ which was because:

‘(they) have not progressed very far from the primitive habits of their antecedents in the rude huts of a mid-african village’

Obviously not everyone was just going along with this argument. In 1929 a group of mostly black physicians at Tuskegee Institution (yes that same Tuskegee Institution), underwent a study on black patients with syphilis, and released a series of papers with their findings in the Journal of the Medical Association.

electron micrograph of syphilis
electron micrograph of the bacteria that causes syphilis

However, they chose to omit any mention of a hierarchal race system being a contributing factor. Something that was incredibly admirable (not to mention factually correct), but meant that predominately white physicians could say ‘Gee whizz! This is very interesting…but of course, being black still means you’re more likely to get syphilis but less likely to get neurosyphilis.’

Which was further cemented just a year later by a 1930 paper by one Dr Thomas B. Turner, which used data from 10,000 patients to claim that there was ‘sufficient proof of a profound biological difference in the races and sexes’ And of course, that black men were less likely to get neurosyphilis, because of the now beloved adage, that their brains were not as developed thanks to:

‘the lazy carefree life of a negro in contrast to the strain of civilisation.’

The experiment

And so, with all this in mind in 1932 the US Public Health Service (PHS) launched a study into latent syphilis and neurosyphilis in black men. Where did they go for this study? Tuskegee Institution of course! Not only did the school have a history of studying syphilis, but Macon Country, where the school was based, was seeing a rise of syphilis, making it as senior PHS officer, Dr. Taliaferro Clark, put it ‘an unusual opportunity’.

The plan was this – to study 400 men with syphilis (along with a control group of 200 men who didn’t have syphilis) and just see what happened if they weren’t treated.

The Surgeon General, Hush S Cummings, sold it to Tuskegee Institution by saying, ‘The presence of an unusually high rate in this county and, what is more remarkable, the fact that 99 per cent of this group was entirely without previous treatment. This combination, together with the expected cooperation of your hospital, offers an unparalleled opportunity for carrying on this piece of scientific research which probably cannot be duplicated anywhere else in the world.’ This was an amazing once in a lifetime opportunity to study the effects of syphilis! So of course, Tuskegee Institution jumped on board.

But you may have noticed a small issue here. Remember the bit about just seeing how syphilis impacted the lives of 400 men if left untreated? Well, that goes against everything every medical textbook at the time (and now!) says you should do. If someone has syphilis, you need to treat it. Not leave it for an unspecified amount of time and just see how things plays out.

However the PHS weren’t stressed about this. You see they figured two things:

1. Much of the local community who had syphillis already weren’t being treated, so was it really that ethically bad of them to not treat these men as well?

2. Once a subject was diagnosed with syphilis, they just wouldn’t tell them they had syphilis! After all, they couldn’t ask for treatment for a disease they didn’t know they had.

And so with that monstrosity of a plan in place, the team set to work getting subjects. Things didn’t get off to a good start. Before being admitted onto the programme, potential subjects had to undergo a physical and spinal tap to check that they had syphilis and the signs of neurosyphilis. However, the local black community were worried that these mysterious physicals were actually a crafty way of making young black men have a draft physical and forcing them to join the army.

particpants being tested 2
A subject is tested

So, the team came up with a new pitch, instead of calling it an experiment or programme, they’d sell it as a way for men who had syphilis to get free health care and treatments. This led to an influx of men who either knew they had syphilis (or bad blood as it was locally called) and couldn’t afford to treat it, or thought they had it but couldn’t afford to be properly diagnosed.

The final hurdle in securing all the participants was the spinal tap to check for neurosyphilis. This was an incredibly painful procedure and the team were worried that once subjects told each other how bad it was, nobody would get it. So, they doubled down on the promise of free treatment, writing to the men:

‘Some time ago you were given a thorough examination and since that time we hope you have gotten a great deal of treatment for bad blood. You will now be given your last chance to get a second examination. This examination is a very special one and after it is finished you will be given a special treatment if it is believed you are in a condition to stand it….
REMEMBER THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE FOR SPECIAL FREE TREATMENT. BE SURE TO MEET THE NURSE.’

And yes, they did use all caps on that last bit… And no, they were never actually treating these men with anything but placebos.

As the study went on, things kept getting worse. Obviously, the men who had syphilis weren’t getting treatment, but kept getting sick. Yet that wasn’t the major issue (at least for the team). In 1933 the team behind the experiment got more funding to continue the programme. However, by now they’d decided that they’d need to run the programme indefinitely, or at least until the subjects started to die. Because as one of the leaders of the programme Dr Oliver C Wagner put it:

‘We have no further interest in these patients until they die.’

So then why did the Tuskegee Institution carry on working with the Public Health Service, when they knew the end result would be the death of 400 men?

There is no clear-cut reason, but there are potential contributing factors. One would be that Tuskegee Institution was reliant on donations and beneficiaries – so pissing off the US government was a quick way to stop that income coming in. Another was that Dr Eugene Dibble, the head of the school’s hospital, saw the programme as a good way to showcase Tuskegee Institution as a major player in medical research. Then there’s the argument that the school may not have known just how bad the programme was going to get – that these men would never receive treatment and that just a year in, the PHS would be actively waiting for subjects to die.

dr eugene dibble
Dr Eugene Dibble

Many historians argue that Tuskegee Institution, as well as it’s staff, including the likes of Dr Eugene Dibble and Nurse Eunice Rivers, who worked throughout the programme, were as much victims as the men whose trust the Tuskegee experiment abused. Those at the top of the programme were powerful white men and the repercussions for the Institution and staffers like Dibble and Rivers would have been severe.

In fact Eunice Rivers later claimed she only kept working on the programme so she could provide as much care as she could to the men. She said that each year the programme went on those at the top reminded her ‘you belong to us’. Eunice was adamant that she was a good nurse, who had the Nightingale Pledge hanging in her house, and that she was just doing the best she could to tend to her patients in what was a horrifying situation.

nurse Euinice Rivers
Nurse Euinice Rivers

It may be true that Tuskegee staff members like Eunice felt trapped and that they had no choice but to follow orders. But they still didn’t blow the whistle on what was going on. They carried on and we’re very much the face of the study. The men participating weren’t interacting with those at the top. In fact, Eunice admitted that many of the men called it ‘Miss Rivers Study.’

The plan to keep the men on the programme until they could be autopsied went ahead. With the programme’s leadership believing they could gain more from examining the men’s bodies once deceased than they could when they were alive. Which posed the next problem – how did they hide the fact the men were dying and they were planning on autopsying them, from the local black community. It was a tough one, as Dr Oliver Wegner bluntly put it:

‘There is one danger in the latter plan and that is if the coloured population become aware that accepting free hospital care means a post-mortem, every darkey will leave Macon County…’

So, in 1933 the team asked the government to appoint Tuskegee Institution’s, Dr Eugene Dibble, to the PHS. They hoped that seeing a black doctor on the team given a title with such clout would mean the local community would trust them more. They combined this with increasing the work of Eunice Rivers, who now offered car rides to patients on their ‘treatment’ days, gave out hot meals and even told families that in the unlikely case the worst happened, the programme would cover funeral expenses. It was a masterclass in spin; putting a trustworthy face on the programme, all in the hopes the families would sign over their loved ones bodies.

And it worked. The patients and their loved ones trusted the team. For so many years these people had no help, no choice but to take their chances on if the disease would ravage them. Not only was the Tuskegee programme offering a lifeline to its patients, but they were helping thousands more mothers, fathers, wives and children, who’d otherwise have to watch their loved ones suffer. So of course, they signed the forms allowing autopsies. Not only because the programme had helped them so much already, but because the men were having treatment, they wouldn’t die. The autopsies wouldn’t happen. That was what they were told.

a doctor takes blood from a tuskegee suibject, via US National Archives
A doctor takes blood from a Tuskegee suibject, via US National Archives

In 1941, many of the men who were part of the programme were conscripted into the US Army. The army asked these recruits to start taking anti-syphilis drugs. So of course, the Tuskegee programmes panel asked the army to withhold treatment to the 256 new recruits that were also part of the experiment. The army complied.

By the mid 1940’s pencillin had become the go to option to treat syphilis. All medical profiessionals were advised to use the medication – of course, this new medication could have massively helped all the men involved in the experiment… and of course, the PHS and the experiment panel refused to give them it. Instead doling out even more placebos.

This is around the time things started to fall apart. By the 1950’s, these men had spent almost twenty years being told they were getting medical treatment and yet most were getting continually worse. Seeing how penicillin was working on other syphilis patients, some of the men covertly went to get second opinions and were quickly given penicillin.

The Tuskegee experiment team were far from happy about this. After all, they were just starting to see the men die off! In 1950 Dr Wegner eagerly reported:

“We now know, where we could only surmise before, that we have contributed to their ailments and shortened their lives.”

dr oliver c wengle
Dr Oliver C Wengle

By 1955 30% of deceased subjects who were autopsied had been found to have died due to neurosyphilis or due to syphilis contributing to cardiovascular lesions and other issues. Of the subjects that were still alive, the team felt confident that the majority were likely to die of syphilis directly or syphilis related conditions. But that couldn’t happen if all the subjects kept secretly running off to other doctors and getting penicillin.

So, they did the unthinkable. They contacted physicians around Macon County and told them the names of men they were to not offer syphilis treatment too. They then double downed and visited black doctors and told them to do the same.

This meant that the Tuskegee experiment managed to run for forty years.

In 1972 the experiment was ended. Whistleblowers had finally stood up. By the time the study shut up shop, it is believed 28 men had died of syphillis, 100 more of related complications and multiple partners of the men had unknowingly contracted syphilis, which in turn resulted in at least 19 children being born with the diesease at birth.

What at first started as rumbling in the press, went nuclear when the Associated Press ran a report on the experiment. A panel, piffly dubbed the Tuskegee Syphilis Study Ad Hoc Advisory Panel, was quickly formed in August that year. In 1973 they released a report that stated that it was wrong for the experiment to have denied subjects penicillin treatment but that although the men did not give informed consent for what happened to them, they did volunteer to be part of the experiment. Despite the clear evidence that the men hadn’t known this was an experiment – they thought they were signing up for free treatment, not potentially signing their own death warrants.

In 1972 survivors sued in a class action lawsuit and were awarded $9 million dollars which was to be split to them and 6000 descendants of all the 600 subjects (in 2017 some descedants were still calling for the remains of the this money, so they could build a memorial garden and pay for college fee’s) 

ernest hendon
Ernest Hendon, the last survivor of the study

It wasn’t until 1997, twenty five years after the study ended that President Bill Clinton offered a formal apology on behalf on the US government, to the studies subjects. The apology was watched via a live feed by all six of the surviving subjects.

And that was that, the end of the Tuskegee experiment.

We may never know exactly how many men died as a result of being denied treatment during the Tuskegee experiment. Nor how many people outside the subject pool were infected.

The last surviving subject of the Tuskegee experiment, Ernest Hendon, who was part of the control group, died aged 96 in January 2004. But the troubled legacy of Tuskegee didn’t end with him. A 2016 research paper shows that The Tuskegee experiment led to mass mistrust of medical professionals and the Public Health Service. This in turn is estimated to have lowered the life expectancy of black American men by up to 1.5 years, in the immediate years following the exposure of the experiment.

Though the shadow cast by the Tuskegee experiment is growing fainter each year, it lives on. In the life expectancy rate for black men. In the lasting mistrust of a failed system that refused to do anything until it was far to late. And in the families who are still living with the devastation and everyday ramifications that came from those that promised to care for them.

This was interesting, where can I find out more?

There are some AMAZING resources on this. I got a lot of information on the below (all able to access online for free btw)

The legalised lynching of George Stinney

‘Why would they kill me for something I didn’t do?’ The tragic story of George Stinney and one of America’s greatest miscarriages of justice.

On 16th June 1944, fourteen year old George Stinney was executed for the murder of two young girls.  The youngest person executed in US in modern history, George was too small to fit into the electric chair. A bible was stacked onto the seat, so the electrodes could reach his head. Once sat down, his legs dangled from the chair. He couldn’t make out any last words, just cry. And when the guards put a mask over his head, it was too big. Slipping off once the electricity was turned on, to reveal his terrified tear strewn face. He was declared dead after eight minutes and buried in an unmarked grave.

His legacy should have been a footnote in history, only mentioned as ‘the youngest person executed’. But it wasn’t.

Because George Stinney had been innocent. The victim of a state sanctioned lynching.

George 2

George grew up in the small town of Alcolu, in South Carolina. The second oldest of five, his dad worked in the local mill. As did most of the town’s residents. Every day white and black workers would head to the mill, the black workers through one entrance, white’s through another. They’d watch the clock and wait for the whistle to blow. Then pack up their stuff and head home to opposite sides of the town’s railroad tracks. The white side and the black side.

Alcolu was segregated, but that wasn’t unusual for the time. South Carolina had long had segregation laws in place, and as recently as 1932 these had been updated to ban a black kid from attending a white school, punish inter race marriages with up to 12 months jail time, and prevent black and white workers from sharing a bathroom, with the threat of 30 days hard labour. For George, this was just how things were. It was life.

So, when on March 23rd 1944, two little white girls rode their bikes over to George and his little sister Aime, to ask where they might find some wild flowers, George knew not to engage too much. Just in case. He just shrugged and said he didn’t know. The girls nodded and went back to their wildflower hunt and George and his sister went back to grazing the family’s cows.

But the girls never came home. Betty Binnicker, 11, and Mary Thames, 7, were missing and soon the whole town was out looking for them.

George and his dad joined the search and after talking to other volunteers, it quickly became clear that both George and Aimes must have been the last people to see Betty and Mary. Suspicions were raised, but there was still hope that the girls might have just gotten lost and would turn up.

However, the girl’s bodies were soon found. They’d been beaten to death and left in a shallow ditch. The town was shocked. Things like this didn’t happen in Alcolu. They wanted answers, they wanted a swift end to this; a culprit caught and punished – now.

George, it seemed, was the obvious suspect and so on March 25th, officers came to arrest him, along with his older brother John. The police quickly let John go, but they kept George. They questioned him without the presence of a lawyer, or his parents. Sadly, there are no clear records of what went on in that integration room, we only know that George was in there, alone, for hours. And that when the officers emerged, they had a confession.

According to police, George had caught up with the girls shortly after they’d ridden away, bludgeoned them to death and dragged their bodies to a nearby shallow ditch. That was the confession; although there was one glaring issue – the confession, hadn’t been signed by George.

Still, news that George had confessed got out and a mob formed outside the jail, armed and ready to lynch him. However, they were to be disappointed. He’d already been transferred to Columbia penitentiary, far out of their reach. But that didn’t stop the angry crowd from turning on George’s family, who were forced to flee town in fear for their lives.

Article from St Petersburg Times, Flordia,
Article from St Petersburg Times, Flordia, March 27th, 1944

Despite his young age, George was banned from seeing his family. They were terrified for him – of course they were – but they knew that George had been at home at the time of the murders. He hadn’t followed the girls after they rode away, he’d stayed with his sister, then gone back home. Multiple members of the family could vouch for that – surely that meant something.

Less than a month after George was arrested, the trial began on 25 April 1944. And it was a sham.

There are no transcripts from the three hour long trial, but here is what we do know.

African Americans were banned from entering the court room, even the Stinney family weren’t allowed in. The jury was all white and it’s foreman had actually led the search party who’d found Betty and Mary’s bodies and was related to the family that owned that land.

Then there was George’s state appointed lawyer; who specialised in tax. He’d never been involved in a trial like this and it showed. The lawyer didn’t call any witnesses for the defence, despite knowing that multiple people could offer an alibi. He also didn’t cross examine prosecution witnesses, failed to mention that George hadn’t signed his confession, or that it had been obtained in dubious circumstances.

The states case was equally shaky. There was no physical evidence that could unequivocally link George to the murder. Not to mention that although the medical examination of both girls showed no sign of rape or sexual assault, the prosecution repeatedly stated that George had raped at least one of the girls.

That wasn’t all. The location where the bodies had been found, was relatively free of any blood (which was confirmed by the states witness) making it unlikely that George had murdered the girls close by and then dragged their bodies there. Not only that, but it would have been almost physically impossible for 5”1, 90-pound George, to over power both girls and then drag their bodies.

None of that mattered. The jury took just 10 minutes to announce their verdict. Guilty. Just like that, fourteen year old George Stinney was sentenced to death.

George Stinney, center right, enters the 'death house' in Columbia Penatuary
George Stinney, center right, enters the ‘death house’ in Columbia Penatuary, along with a fellow inmate

George’s lawyer didn’t file an appeal, despite the many issues with the trial, which would normally have warranted an appeal, if not a mistrial.

The Stinney family felt helpless, but they prayed for a miracle. The NAACP got involved and they rallied supporters to write to South Carolina Governer, Olin D Johnson, for clemency, for a stay of execution, for a retrial, for anything. But their pleas fell on deaf ears. With Johnson writing back:

‘It may be interesting for you to know that Stinney killed the smaller girl to rape the larger one. Then he killed the larger girl and raped her dead body. Twenty minutes later he returned and attempted to rape her again, but her body was too cold. All of this he admitted himself.’

The writing was on the wall. George Stinney was going to be executed. George himself couldn’t understand how this was happening. Asking his cellmate:

‘Why would they kill me for something I didn’t do?’.

George never stopped protesting his innocence. But just 83 days after his initial arrest, George Stinney was executed.

George Stinney mug shot
George Stinney’s mug shot

But George’s family never stopped seeking justice for their son and brother. In the early 2000’s they were joined in their fight by a local historian, George Friarson, as well as several lawyers who offered their help pro-bono. Together they worked to gain evidence which would show how George’s case had been mishandled, the gaping injustices and lack of evidence from his trial and to finally, get the case reopened.

In 2014 George Stinney’s case was in court once more. This time, the trial took two days. Evidence was revaluated, the alibi’s provided by George’s surviving family members included and there was a new witness, Wilfred Hunter, who’d shared a cell with George and stated that George not only professed his innocence, but that his confession had been forced by the officers interrogating him.

Finally, the verdict came in. George Stinney’s conviction was declared legally void. It had taken 70 years, but George Stinney was finally proven innocent.

George Stinney's grave
George Stinney’s grave, recently updated with the 2014 court verdict

This was intersting where can I find out more? Well I would definatley look at the ACLU’s campaign around race and the death penalty. Because sadly, the miscarriage of justice that happened to George Stinney, is far from alone and still prevelant today.

The Birmingham Children’s Crusade

As hundreds of thousands of young people across the world take to the streets making it clear that Black Lives Matter, the story of The Birmingham Children’s Crusade has never been more relevant.

Birmingham, Alabama was as Martin Luther King Jr put it, ‘the most segregated city in America.’ In 1926 the city had put in place regulated racial zoning laws, despite the Supreme Court declaring such laws unconstitutional almost a decade earlier in 1917! Birmingham was a bubble. Seemingly immune to the changes going on outside its borders. Yes, there were other cities and towns desperately clinging onto these draconian laws, but none quite like Birmingham.

If Trump was an American city, he’d be Birmingham in the early 1960’s. It didn’t matter what the countries laws were, what the supreme court said or what was unconstitutional. Birmingham was not going to change with the tide. By now the cities population was 60% white and 40% black. Yet there were no black people in high up jobs within the city, in fact the only jobs they could get were in those designated ‘black areas’ or as manual labourers. There was a clear line between the haves and the have nots and dear god there would be hell to pay if anyone tried to change that.

In the early 1940’s several black families had bought homes on the west side of Centre Street, a leafy hill in the middle of the city, which until then, had been a white area. It was a defiant move and not one without consequences. The area become known as ‘Dynamite Hill’. The KKK shot out windows, doors were burned down and at least 40 unsolved bombings (most targeted at dynamite hills residents) took place between the late 40’s and 60’s.

Imagine being a black kid growing up amidst all of that. Not only faced with the threat of violence and death, but also with the insipid day to day prejudice. You could only attend the cities fair on the night reserved for ‘Niggers and dogs.’ The unofficial confederate anthem, Dixie, played from the (ironically named) Protective Life Building every day. There was not one moment where you weren’t reminded how inherently inferior you were; the city bought the white kids new school text books, but you, well you weren’t worth that.

Police investigate a bomb blasted home in 1956, credit to Jeremy Gray
Police investigate a bomb blasted home in Dynamite Hills, 1956, credit to Jeremy Gray

“We knew that as Birmingham went, so would go the South.” – Wyatt Tee Walker

In early 1963 Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Birmingham to help protestors. They launched a campaign of non-violent direct action, staging sit in’s, peaceful marches and boycotts. Knowing that even though the protestors were not using violence, the cities cops would; and in doing so they’d be inadvertently putting the cities rampant racism under a magnifying glass.

As the nation’s eyes started to turn towards Birmingham, the cities government became scared and tried to quash the campaign. In April 1963 they banned the protests and raised bail for protestors arrested to several thousand pounds (in todays money). As the campaigners rallied, the city doubled down. Even arresting Martin Luther King Jr. It was becoming harder and harder to get adults to protest, after all many were far from financially well off, could no longer afford bail and if arrested, it could mean their families had to choose between food or rent.

But there were still protestors to keep the fight alive. Birmingham’s young people. They wanted to step up to the plate, not only because if they were arrested it wouldn’t have the same financial impact on their families, but because they wanted change. They were sick of being expected to just take prejudice and the threat of violence as a fact of life. They wanted to claim their rights and reclaim their futures.

And so, The Birmingham Children’s Crusade was born.

protest

We didn’t hate white people…We hated the system. That’s what we were protesting about.” – Janice Wesley Kelsey

Flyers were sent out and top students and high school athletes were bought on board to help recruit other kids. The cities Sixteenth Street Baptist Church became HQ for the campaign. Teenagers and children alike were taught how to be silent when arrested, to not run if faced with a snarling police dog and to stay down if a cop knocked them to the floor. They were asked to bring a toothbrush with them to the protests, as they wouldn’t be given one in jail.

They knew the risks going into this. The goal was to fill up the cities jails and to protest peacefully. They’d likely be beaten, have hoses turned on them and abuse screamed at them by white supremacists. The kids knew that they couldn’t fight back, they even had to pledge to remain nonviolent. Whatever happened to them, they couldn’t raise a hand. But they signed up anyway, with nine-year-old Audrey Faye Jenkins telling her mum ‘I want to go to jail.’

On the morning of May 2nd 1963, Audrey, along with three to four thousand children marched on the streets of Birmingham. Some went straight from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, others met with their classmates at school before hitting the streets. Singing and praying as they went.

Audrey Faye Hendricks
Audrey Faye Hendricks

Almost immediately the arrests began. In the first day over 1000 kids were arrested. School buses were commandeered to take them to jail. Audrey was the youngest known person arrested and she spent seven days in jail; at just nine, she wasn’t even allowed to call her parents. Audrey, along with all those arrested were packed into cells, even when the jail was hundreds over it’s capacity limit.

But it didn’t stop at the arrests. As predicted police used hoses to quell the protests. The powerful jets slapping the kids to the pavement and against walls. One of those who was pinned to buildings by the cop’s hose was fourteen-year-old, Carolyn McKinstry, who said:

“It felt like the side of my face was being slapped really hard. It hurt so bad I tried to hold on to a building so it wouldn’t push me down the sidewalk, and it just flattened me against the building. It seemed like it was on me forever. When they finally turned it off I scooted around the side of the building and felt for my sweater. They had blasted a hole right through it. And then for some reason I reached up and touched my hair. It was gone, on the right side of my head. My hair, gone. I was furious and insulted.’

The pictures of this brutality became front page news across America.

kids are pinned to the wall by hoses during the protests
Teenagers are pinned to the wall by hoses during the protests

Despite calls from everyone including US President John F Kennedy for the children to return to safety and stop protesting, the kids took to the streets again the next day. Even people like Carolyn, who were still injured from the day before, took up their placards.

By May 3rd Birmingham’s jails couldn’t fit any more kids. The cities Commissioner of Public Safety (again, ironic job title there), Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, ordered the hoses that were fired at the protestors be ramped up to a level that could rip bark from a tree. In addition, he allowed the use of attack dogs on the child demonstrators.

And still, the Children’s Crusade would not stop.

Soon the city was on its knees. The entire country was watching and appalled. Birmingham firefighters refused orders to use their hoses on the kids anymore. Bull Connor was losing his grip and becoming ever more ferocious in his tactics against the protestors. The cities fairground was turned into a makeshift jail and Connor urged Birmingham’s white citizens who were watching the protests to come and see the ‘dogs at work’ when they were let loose on the kids. When one leader in the cities civil rights movement was injured after a hose was used against him, Connor mourned that the attack hadn’t left the man ‘carried away in a hearse.’

Meanwhile at the fairground/new jail, things were beyond bleak. One jailed protestor, then 16-year-old, Gloria Washington Lewis, recalled that she shared a cell with a girl whose arresting officer had raped her. The girl’s attacker came back to rape her again that night, getting into the cell. After Gloria and her fellow inmates fought him off, they were sent to County Jail. Nobody told her parents she’d been moved. With Gloria saying:

‘Every time somebody would get out, I’d say, ‘Call my daddy… the jail kept saying I wasn’t there.’

High School student Walter Gadsden being attacked by dogs during the protests
High School student Walter Gadsden being attacked by dogs during the protests

On May 10th local leaders from both sides made an agreement to end the protests. It was agreed that all the arrested children would be freed and that local businesses in Birmingham would de-segregate.

Despite this, things were slow to change in Birmingham. Although many businesses did comply with the new de-segregation laws, there was still an undercurrent of white supremacy, which tragically culminated in the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the former HQ of the Childrens Crusade, in September 1963.

The KKK had laid dynamite by the church basement and set it off. Killing four girls as they changed into their choir robes – fourteen-year olds, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, and eleven-year-old Carol Denise McNair.

16th_Street_Baptist_Church_bombing_girls
(clockwise from top left): Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. In 2013 President Obama awarded each girl the Congressional Gold Medal

Although the immediate aftermath of The Children’s Crusade was marred, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a turning point for the city and all of America. JFK had watched the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in shock. The treatment of the kids and their bravery made it clear that change across the whole country, not just Birmingham, was essential. Leading to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

It showed and continues to show, the difference that young people can make when it comes to politics and change. With The Birmingham Children’s Crusade leading the way for millions of other young changemakers. The young people that are out there right now, continueing this long fight for the government, law and society at large to realise that black lives, like every life, matters. 

Revolution by rouge – the beginnings of the black beauty industry

Before there was Fenty, there was Madame CJ Walker. But not only her, there were dozens, then hundreds and then thousands of people, who built the black beauty industry. And those pioneers didn’t just want to make rouge, they wanted a revolution.

For many years, much of the beauty products sold to the black community, were made and developed by white owned companies. Which went just as well as you’d imagine. Most of them were designed to bleach skin and make it lighter in colour. Playing up to the idea, that the darker a persons skin tone, the more undesirable they were. This had some unfortunate merit, based in slavery.

It was an acknowledged fact of life, that slaves who had lighter skin were far more likely to work in plantation homes than those who had darker skin. And although slavery had been abolished decades earlier, these white owned companies were more than happy to harp on that light skin was best.

They advertised their products in regional and national black newspapers, with some going so far as to claim their products ‘removed black skin’.

Advert from Charleston's Afro American Citizen in 1900
Advert from Charleston’s Afro American Citizen in 1900

Oh, and if this wasn’t bad enough, the ingredients in these products were horrific.

Mercury and lead were particularly popular and white salesmen actually wore rubber gloves when demonstrating the products. Because though they were happy selling this shit to the black community, dear god they didn’t want this poison getting on their skin.

And the community fought back. In 1912, pharmacist Mrs. J.H.P. Coleman spoke to the National Negro Business League and urged them to stop promoting these products, which she quite rightly summaised were:

‘Positive insults to our self respecting ladies.’ 

But obviously, just not buying these products wasn’t going to fix the issue.

So much of the racism and prejudice in Jim Crow’s America focused on protecting the white ideal of beauty and blocking any notion that to be black and beautiful could be a possibility.

How do you combat this? With:

Beauty Culture

This was how many of the pioneers of the black cosmetic industry in the early 1900’s described what they were doing. They were not only going to come up with better beauty products, but they wanted to create a better culture of beauty.

If you’re a make up user, then you know that swiping on lipstick and blushing your cheeks isn’t just part of your daily routine, it’s a ritual that yes makes you feel beautiful, but also fills you with confidence and armours you to take on the world. Which is why the idea of the black beauty culture was so terrifying to white supremacists. 

Because the pioneers of beauty culture weren’t just about to change the cultural landscape cosmetically. They were going to exfoliate the crap out of it, remove the long term damage that lay under the surface and create a fresh canvas on which to build something truly beautiful.

Annie Turnbo Malone
Meet Annie Turnbo Malone, the definition of a boss.

Bossing Beauty

Annie Turnbo Malone was one of the first beauty culture pioneers. And, she had zero qualifications to her name. But she did have a love of chemistry and hair dressing. Which she decided to combine to create safe and effective hair care.

Now, this was a huge deal. In the same way many make up products aimed at the black community sucked, hair care was awful too! Many women with African American hair had no choice but to use products or home remedies that left their scalps not only itchy and irritated, but with a real risk of major hair loss. Annie’s products helped change that.

But Annie didn’t stop at inventing hair care. After all, this was just as much about creating a cultural shift as it was about the bottom line. So, Annie took her company, Poro and branched out.

In 1918 Annie Turnbo Malone opened the worlds first cosmetology school that specialised in black hair and beauty. 

One of the reasons this was so important, was that for many black women of the era they didn’t have a slew of potential career options at the time. For example, in St Louis, where the school was based, women were banned from all but domestic work.

Yet, Annie’s institution created not only new opportunities, but ones that didn’t exist before. It’s graduates went on to open their own salons and businesses. And it’s estimated that around 75,000 jobs were created through the Poro school over the next few decades.

For evidence of just how amazing this was, check out old copies of The Green Book (many are digitised online which is just *chefs kiss*), where you can literally see beauty parlours boom as the years tick on.

poro
Students of Poro

Ok, so what if you can barely braid and hairdressing and cosmetology aren’t your calling? Well, how about sales? 

One of the big issues for black culture pioneers was that not many department stores would sell their products. So, they got round that by hitting the streets.

Through Poro, Annie had a small army of sales people, who went door to door and town to town, selling her products (in fact of these women was Sarah Breedlove, who’d go on to be known as Madame CJ Walker and run her own army of sales agents)

Then there was Anthony Overton, who owned Overton Hygienic Manufacturing Company (catchy) and had a smaller sales force who went to shops and small businesses to sell their products. Along with mail orders and advertisements in regional black owned publications.

By selling this way even more jobs opened up; just to give you an idea of how many that was, by 1919, Madame CJ Walker had around 25,000 sales agents.

Much of these sales forces were made up of women and as with the beauty schools, it was about creating transferable skills, just as much as boosting revenue. There were training schemes for prospective agents and those that completed their courses for Madame CJ Walker were given a diploma from her Lelia College of Hair Culture.

example of a CJ Walker advert
Example of a Madame CJ Walker advert, which replaced cartoon depictions of women with actual examples (in this case, her!)

Creating the new

Along with the obvious finical and career benefits, advertisements for these sales reps also touted something else – change.

In one advert recruiting for Poro the headline reads:

“Be a Poro Agent. Be an active force for GOOD.”

This was very much going towards the idea of the ‘New Negro‘. An idea that grew with the Harlem Renaissance in the 1910’s and 20’s.

It was about throwing off the Jim Crow stereotypes and embracing racial pride, culture and self expression, along with rising political advocacy and fighting for change against racist ruling.

In 1925, The New Negro, published an essay called ‘The task of negro womanhood.‘ which in part discussed how the ever prevalent stereotype of the ‘grotesque Aunt Jemima’s’ helped tear down not only a woman’s self esteem but her role in society. Stating that:

‘the intrinsic standard of beauty does not rest in the white race’

Beauty Culture took all of this on board. Now doing triple duty; creating new formulas, developing a new job market and solid ensuring everything from their products to their marketing empowered the customer.

Many of the sales agents also joined advocacy groups and clubs. This was reflected all the way to the top.

  • Madame CJ Walker publicly joined the NAACP’s anti lycnhing movement 
  • Annie Turnbo Malone donated thousands to boost local charities and schools. 
  • Anthony Overton published The Half Century, which built itself around speaking out on African American issues. 
packaging for high brown
Example of the packaging for Overton’s best selling High Brown Face Powder

By the mid twentieth century, white owned companies like L’oreal and Avon were now supplying safe beauty products for all ethnicities (though let’s be real, in terms of cosmetics, the colour ranges were still not acceptable until fairly recently)

African American women were able to pick up make up and hair products with a lot more ease. However, the struggle for a fair and equal beauty industry still goes on today.

Although Madame CJ Walker probably remains the most prominent figure of the early black beauty industry. It’s vital we remember the story of the rise of black beauty culture as a whole.

A tale as much of self entrepreneural spirit as social injustice and a revolution by way of rouge.

The people that worked in and built beauty culture, not only provided solid make up and hair care, but helped forge an entire cultural shift that changed thousands, if not millions of lives.

Further reading: Writing and researching this topic I came across so many fantastic books and papers, which I’ve linked to throughout the article. However, here are some that were beyond useful and I urge you to read in full (seriously they are so amazing!)

What was The Green Book?

Now the inspiration for an Oscar winning film, the story of The Green Book is in fact one of the most vital, dark and yet uplifting chapters of black history

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that day comes, we will continue to publish this information for your convenience each year”- The Negro Travellers Green Book 1948

In 1936 New York mailman, Victor Hugo Green published a book that he hoped would help other black New Yorker’s travelling outside of their boroughs. It listed restaurants, bars and hotels that served ‘coloured’s’ and was immediately embraced by the African American community. However people wanted much more from Victor’s book. Because after all, why just explore New York when the whole United States was out there?

But there was a snag. The freedom of the American road trip wasn’t free. Not if you were black.

Just driving out of state, be it for work or pleasure, was a journey full of hidden perils and humiliation.

Want a hotel room? Somewhere to eat, a drink or get gas? Well the average black traveller was walking straight into a mine field. Businesses were able to pick and choose who they served, which meant the road was littered with whites only establishments. Some businesses even deliberately had three clear K’s in their names, e.g Mississippi motel Kozy Kottage Kourt. It could easily take hours of driving around before a sole ‘colored welcome’ sign finally came into view.

And that wasn’t just infuriating, it was dangerous.

‘Sundown towns’ were all over the USA. These all white communities operated a law that stated that by sundown all ‘colored people’ had to be out of town. Route 66, that pillar of American top down freedom; almost half of the counties lining it had sundown towns.

The penalty for being in a sundown town after dark was getting your arse thrown in jail. Or worse.

So when your were hitting an open road that was lined with signs that read ‘Nigger, Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here’ and with the very real threat of violence hanging overhead, it was more than easy to feel like African American travellers had no friend. And that was why the green book was so important.

Front cover of the 1948 Green Book, from New York Public Library

By the early 1940s, Victor Hugo Green was printing a new issue of the Green Book every year.

The books information was crowd sourced, with readers sending in tips and locations, that were constantly checked and updated. The books popularity boomed, sold in churches, corner-shops and Esso stations (a rarity as a gas station that openly welcomed African Americans) with each print run snapped up immediately, communities had to start circulating sold out copies amongst themselves.

And you best believe that The Green Book lived up to its reputation that you should never leave home without a copy!

Let’s say for example that in 1947 your Gran asks you to come visit her in Georgia, it’s a long ride, which means you’ll have to have an overnight pit stop in Alabama.

Well thanks to the Green Book you know to plan your route well in advance,so you can make sure you hit one of only nine towns in the state that were known to have overnight accommodation for black travellers. Oh, and that five of those towns didn’t actually have open hotels, but homeowners who were happy to house African Americans. Which in turn saved you inadvertently driving round hostile sun down towns in the hopes of finding non existent hotels or facing the obvious dangers that came with sleeping at the side of an unknown road.

Victor Hugo Green, founded of The Green Book and owner of a pretty jazzy tie

Not only was The Green Book a life line in its own time, today its still an incredible resource, especially when it comes to tracking the civil rights strides being made in America during it’s time.

Each year the book got bigger and this was in part thanks to the rise in the black middle class and the expansion of black owned businesses. Which ultimately helped lead to more African Americans hitting the road and exploring the country that they’d been barred from for too long. By 1962 there were a whopping 2,000,000 Green Books in circulation.

But this isn’t just about the book selling more and getting heftier, you see it’s tone started to change too.

From the late 1940s The Green Book started to become less of a data bank of places that people were ‘allowed’ a respite from the daily barrage of discrimination, rather a tool that got people where they actively want to go.

As the travel pages became more aspirational, time was taken to highlight the African American owned businesses that travellers would pass. Everything from shops, funeral parlours and insurance brokers were celebrated. With full articles detailing the jobs these companies were making, the communities being built around them and the local political influence all this way having.

The Green Book wasn’t a getaway around Jim Crow laws, it was about bounding over them towards a better future.

The 1961 Green Book, now also featuring travel outside of the US in major resort countries, from New York Public Library

Despite their immense popularity Victor Hugo Green never earned a fortune from his books. Concentrating profits on further expanding the green book.

Victor died in 1960, his wife Alma picking up the role of editor and pushing The Green Book forward as America entered an era of growing civil rights.

Then in 1964’s the Civil Rights Act, made segregation illegal for public businesses. And just like that, the Green Book was obsolete, closing in 1966.

It was exactly what Victor Hugo Green had dreamed of, writing almost twenty years before ‘it will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please’. Finally that day had come.

Further Reading: The New York Public Library has an amazing collection of digitised Green Books that you can read through HERE.

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Claudette Colvin: The forgotten Rosa Parks..

Claudette Colvin is the civil rights revolutionary whose name you haven’t heard of, but you have to know!

In March 1955, 15 yr old Claudette refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger. She was dragged off the bus and arrested.

But her actions that day sparked a movement that would end America’s bus segregation.

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s Rosa Parks story. Except it happened to Claudette 9 months earlier. And was then omitted from history.

newspaper clipping
claudette newspaper clipping.jpg
Newspaper headlines following Claduettes trial

On 2nd March 1955, Claudette was coming home from school in Montgomery, Alabama. A smart kid, with a rebellious streak, Claudette dreamed of being an attorney, or maybe the President of the United States. Hey, she dreamed big.

And it was just this that made Claudette stick out. She was proud of her darker skin, bucked the trend of straightening her hair, proudly wearing it natural, and she was passionate about growing up to be someone who’d shake shit up.

The other kids thought that Claudette was ‘nutty’ and she was ok with that.

Still though, growing up poor and black in Alabama, her dreams of a future as a civil rights fighter seemed a long way away. So she boarded the bus home, walked to the back and took a seat in the ‘coloured section’.

The back of the bus was a fact of life for Claudette. Segregation was law, it was in school, church, theatres. Hell, she’d not even been able to try on her shoes before buying, because she’d bought them from a ‘white’ store.

But a fire was starting to burn in Claudette.

3 years earlier, police had descended onto her school, when they arrested fellow student, Jeremiah Reeves.

The 16 year old black boy, was charged with raping a white woman. Jeremiah claimed innocence; that it was consensual. But it didn’t matter. Either way, it was an interracial relationship.

It took an all white jury less than half hour to find the teenager guilty and 6 years later he was executed.

Claudette watched Jeremiah’s arrest from her classroom window. She saw his countless fruitless legal appeals. Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks and the whole NCAPP, fighting for his freedom, that never came.

So when Claudette sat in her seat that day in 1955 and refused to get up, she was thinking about Jeremiah.

She was thinking about how she’d never experienced what it was like to be an equal. How her life was seen as less. And how, she’d paid for her seat on that damn bus and she didn’t have to move if she didn’t want to!

The bus driver threatened to call the cops, unless Claudette moved for the white woman.

Claudette didn’t move.

In a rare later interview, she said:

‘History had me glued to the seat. Harriet Tubman’s hands were pushing down on one shoulder and Sojourner Truth’s hand were pushing down on the other shoulder. I was paralysed between these two women, I couldn’t move.’

The white students on the bus turned on Claudette. Shouting, ordering her to get up. One of the black students shot back:

‘Well she don’t have to do nothing but stay black and die.’

When police boarded the bus, Claudette argued that she had paid her fare. Her right to her seat was her:

‘Constitutional right’

They didn’t care.

The police. dragged the 11th grader off the bus. She was beaten and arrested. Then the teen was taken, frightened and alone, to the city jail.

Claduette Colvin

Later that night, Claudette was bailed out. She’d been charged with disorderly conduct, which meant she’d violated segregation laws and she was also booked for assault and battery (thanks to a small scratch an officer obtained whilst dragging Claudette off the bus)

2 weeks later and Claudette’s dreams of a  bright future were pretty much over.

Her arrest was splashed across the papers, with some members of her community effectively disowning her as word of her actions spread.

And though 2 of Claudette’s charges had been dropped, the ‘assault and battery’ charge was upheld. This was a serious charge she’d have permanently on her record.

And then there was the fear. Claudette’s father staying up all night with a shotgun close at hand, just in case the KKK should target the family for Claudettes actions, attacking them in their home.

Claudette had no idea what was going to happen next, but if her current situation was a sign… it probably wasn’t going to be good.

rosa parks

And that’s when Rosa Parks entered Claudette’s life.

Rosa Parks was the secretary of the local Montgomery chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). She’d already spent decades as a activist, boots on the ground, helping in unjust court cases, organising the local civil rights movement and helping black teens who found themselves entangled in a whole heap of trouble, just like Claudette.

Two weeks after Claudette made her stand on the bus, Rosa got in contact. She invited Claudette to come and tell her story to a local youth group that Rosa ran. She did and soon enough, Claudette was secretary of that group.

Rosa Parks would spark conversations with the kids, discussing the discrimination that ran rampant in Montgomery and what they could do about it.

When it felt like Claudettes life was over, Rosa Parks was there. Making her peanut butter on crackers and delivering much needed letters of support.

And then everything changed….

Claudette fell pregnant. 

Portrait of Claudette Colvin by Robert Shetterly
Portrait of Claudette Colvin by Robert Shetterly

There was a revolution brewing in Montgomery. The chance to stand up, take this injustice to court and finally end bus segregation. It was a revolution that had been sparked by Claudette. But she would not be its poster child.

Whoever fronted this thing would have to be spotless, someone the white press couldn’t tear down with ease. A black, unwed teen mother, was thought not to fit the bill. 

Philip Hoose who later wrote a book about Claudette further explained the decision: “They worried they couldn’t win with her…Words like ‘mouthy,’ ‘emotional’ and ‘feisty’ were used to describe her.”

Another teen was briefly considered as a candidate from which to build a monumental lawsuit, that could end bus segregation. Mary Louise Smith, had refused to give up her seat. just a few months after Claudette’s stand. However following unsavoury rumours about her family, she too was turned down.

And so, on December 1st 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus and was arrested, the revolution was built around her. 

Rosa Parks Booking Image
Rosa Parks booking photo

Rosa Parks arrest led to the Montgomery bus boycott, which in turn led to the historic, Browder v. Gayle case, which ended bus segregation in Montgomery and Alabama.

For this trial, Claudette Colvin was a key witness. However much like her stand on the bus, history has not remembered this. In fact the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History, referred to Claudette as a ‘test case’ before Rosa Parks true stand.

There were a myriad of reasons that Claudette was erased from history, but perhaps the most heartbreaking, was this advice given by her mother: 

“My mother told me to be quiet about what I did. Let Rosa be the one. White people aren’t going to bother Rosa — her skin is lighter than yours and they like her. ”

And yet, despite it all, Claudette isn’t bitter.

She moved on and learnt to accept the fact that it wasn’t her name that went down in history. She went on to have another son, eventually settling in New York, where Claudette helped organise the union 1199 (The National Health Care Workers’ Union, once described by Martin Luther King Jr as his favourite union) 

It’s only in the last few years that Claudette Colvin has started to have her story heard and true to herself, the first thing Claudette wanted to know when she found out a book was being a written about her, was if it would be in schools.

This was interesting, where can I find out more? I’d suggest checking out Phillip Hoose’s book, Twice Toward Justice, its written for a younger audience, but it was the first book that started to get Claduettes story out to a modern audience. 

Life After Little Rock: Elizabeth Eckford

In 1954, the American Supreme Court declared the continuation of school segregation to be unlawful… though it would be 3 years until Arkansas capital city, Little Rock, actually acted on this.

Thanks to a huge amount of pressure from the Little Rock NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) it was agreed that in September 1957, 9 black students could enrol at the -until then- whites only, Little Rock Central High School.

They became known as the Little Rock Nine. A group of teens, all specially picked for their intelligence and desire to learn. All of them were about to make history. And all of them would be ripped to shreds in the process.

Of the 9, one would became an overnight icon for American civil rights. 

Meet Elizabeth Eckford, if you don’t know her name, I guarantee you know her face:

The infamous 1957 image of 15 yr old Elizabeth Eckford walking to Little Rock Central High School
Elizabeth Eckford, in the infamous image of her walking into Little Rock Central High, 1957

That day, that picture, would change everything for Elizabeth. But on the morning of September 4th 1957, Elizabeth had no clue of the dark path that lay ahead. Her biggest concern? What to wear for the first day of school.

Elizabeth’s Dad paced the family home, as her Mum finished up doing her hair. Making sure it perfectly complimented the white and navy dress that Elizabeth had specially made for the day.

The family didn’t have a phone, so Elizabeth didn’t get the messages that, for their safety, the Little Rock Nine kids were being escorted to school.

So, whilst the others kids gathered together, entering the safety of a car convey. Elizabeth grabbed her lunch money, said goodbye to her parents and ran for the bus. Just like any other high schooler.

Which was how, totally unprepared and alone, 15 year old Elizabeth was confronted with this.

Elizabeth Eckford on the walk to Little Rock Central High School, 1957
Elizabeth Eckford walking through a mob, on her way to Little Rock Central High, 1957

Just like that, Elizabeth was set apart. She wasn’t just one of the Little Rock 9, she was an icon of the horrors of the Jim Crow era. Her image indelibly seared into American History.

Of course, this didn’t mean she was protected from her schoolmates.

Documents from the school show that Elizabeth received a constant barrage of abuse. Here are just some examples, from her first term at Central High:

October: Elizabeth hit with a shower of sharpened pencils.
October 28: Elizabeth shoved in hall.
November 20: Elizabeth jostled in gym.
November 21: Elizabeth hit with paper clip.
December 10: Elizabeth kicked.        December 18: Elizabeth punched.

Elizabeth tried to defend herself by sticking dress pins through her binder, creating a sharp shield. But it didn’t stop the constant stream of racist insults.

And in the locker room, she was totally defenceless. There, her classmates would scald her with hot shower water and leave broken glass for her to tread on.

In a 2018 interview with Vice, Elizabeth spoke of how she, and the other members of the Little Rock Nine were treated, saying:

‘We were knocked down stairs, kicked, scalded in gym showers, body-slammed into wall lockers. We were generally knocked-about every day. It never ceased.’

Members of the Little Rock Nine pose together, 1957
Elizabeth and the other members of the Little Rock Nine with then Arkansas NAACP President, Daisy Bates

Barely a year after Elizabeth walked into Central High, Little Rock voted to shut down all its public high schools, rather than desegregate them.

Central High shut and Elizabeth and her family left behind the media circus. Moving to St Louis, where Elizabeth got her GED. She studied for a college degree and became one of the first African Americans to work in a non-janitorial position in a St Louis bank.

On paper it sounds great, but Elizabeth’s reality was far from it.

Little Rock had left her with a lot of trauma. She’d experienced the worst kind of abuse. Every day. For a year.

At the same time she’d became a poster child for civil rights. Her picture continued to be everywhere, holding Elizabeth up as icon of stoic strength, of fighting back and overcoming.

As she sank further into depression, Elizabeth felt far from the pillar of strength she was painted as.

It was at this time that she made several attempts on her life.

School photo of Elizabeth Eckford.png
A school photo of Elizabeth Eckford

Then in 1967, in a bid to start a new life for herself, Elizabeth joined the army.

Keen to erase Little Rock from her past, she didn’t mention it to any of her squad mates and actively worked to keep any publication that might even feature her name, well away from the mess hall.

By 1974, Elizabeth had left the army and made the surprising decision to return to Little Rock. She told the Arkansas Democrat:

‘I came back because I felt I was chased away and because I thought it was cowardly and I wanted to come back and prove I could live in this situation. I don’t intend to be driven out’

Elizabeth got a job in Little Rock’s Welfare Office. And, over the next few years she had two beautiful sons, Erin and Calvin. Though the relationships with the boys Dads didn’t work out, she doted on her boys.

Finally it looked like things were falling back together for Elizabeth and her little family. But there was one big issue: depression.

Depression isn’t something you can run from. It’s something you have to tackle head on. It takes medicine, therapy, support and help. Something that a low income black single mum in Arkansas in the 1970s, didn’t have.

So when the depression caught up with Elizabeth, it hit her. Hard.

Elizabeth couldn’t work anymore, going on Veterans disability benefit. As her income dried up, she sank ever further, hardly leaving the house. She would miss meals so she could afford toys for her boys, and spend hours just desperately trying to get out of bed.

All the while, Elizabeth was dodging calls from journalists who were looking for an interview with a woman she didn’t recognise. That towering figure of silent strength, the famous Elizabeth Eckford.

And so, she stayed hidden away, trapped in a deep well of depression.

This lasted for almost 20 years.

But then in the late 90s things turned a corner. Elizabeth finally got access to support and help. And slowly, she started to regain the strength to get back up again.

In 1997 she reunited with the rest of the Little Rock Nine, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of that fateful day in 1957.

And it was here, that the world found out that Elizabeth had befriended perhaps the most unlikely woman:

Hazel Bryan follows Elizabeth Eckford into Little Rock Central High, 1957
Hazel Bryan. The teenager who followed Elizabeth on that first day of school in 1957, hurling a barrage of racist abuse.

6 years after Little Rock, in 1963, A now 23 year old, Hazel Bryan, called Elizabeth and apologised.

Just like Elizabeth she’d been scarred by Little Rock, but for very different reasons. Hazel could never leave behind her actions, the pictures of her 16 year old self haunting her.

Elizabeth accepted her apology (though, until then she’d never actually known the name of the white girl that had hurled the abuse) and the girls went their separate ways.

Hazel married and had 3 children, living an affluent middle class lifestyle. And, as time went on, she tried to make up for her past. She volunteered as a counsellor to black students and worked with low income mothers to be. She worked in peace groups and charities. She even confronted her mother over her racist beliefs, causing a huge family argument.

She did everything she could for both personal and public atonement. But it never came.

Then in 1997, ahead of Little Rock’s 40th commemoration, she was asked to meet Elizabeth Eckford.

Once more, Hazel apologised to Elizabeth, who once more, accepted.

Then the two mothers talked about their children, their lives and realised they had a lot in common. So they agreed to take another picture together.

Almost 40 years after Hazel followed Elizabeth to Central High, screaming racist abuse at her. The woman meet again outside the school. This time, their arms around each other.

Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Byran pose outside of Little Rock Central High, 1997
Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Byran pose outside of Little Rock Central High, 1997, in a picture that would once more sweep America

The picture was immediately everywhere. Dubbed ‘reconciliation’, it was a symbol that America was moving on from its dark past. That it’s previous sins could be forgiven. It was hope for Little Rock and communities like it across America. And it was all tied up in a neat package.

Elizabeth and Hazel took it all on. Sitting together for interviews, documentaries and political calls. They bonded over their kids and would meet up to go to flower shows, and have meals together.

And, in an unpredictable turn of events, Elizabeth grew protective of Hazel.

Hazel was one of the only members of the white mob to publicly acknowledge their deeds. And so, Elizabeth stuck up for her new friend. When the true motive behind Hazel’s frequent public apologies were questioned by the other members of the Little Rock Nine and the media, it was Elizabeth who came to Hazel’s defence.

But, gradually the friendship started to crack.

The crux of the issue was Elizabeth realisation that Hazel hoped one day her friend would move on from her actions in 1957.
Elizabeth later said:

‘She wanted me to be cured and be over it and for this not to go on anymore… She wanted me to be less uncomfortable so that she wouldn’t feel responsible.”

By the early 2000s the pair weren’t speaking.

Though Elizabeth had cut ties with Hazel she made one acceptation. Allowing the picture of the pair, once called ‘reconciliation’, to continue being sold at a centre that told the story of The Little Nine. Keen that the centre wouldn’t lose funds from one of its best selling items.

Her only caveat was that all the pictures sold were labelled with a sticker that read:

True reconciliation can occur only when we honestly acknowledge our painful, but shared, past

Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan sign posters of their famed picture 'reconciliation'
Elizabeth and Hazel Bryan during a poster signing of their famed picture ‘reconciliation’

Elizabeth stayed low for the next few years. She’d managed to rejoin the workforce in 1999. Becoming a probation officer, renowned for both her firm nature and ability to connect with her charges.

She also threw herself into speaking; going to schools to talk to students about her experiences.

At first Elizabeth kept a waste paper basket at hand, just in case she needed to be sick. But as time went on, the fear shed and the waste paper basket sat forgotten. Elizabeth was finally able to stand on stage alone, a woman who both embraced her past and had outgrown its trauma.

Then in 2003, it all fell apart, when, on New Years Day, her son, Erin, was shot and killed by police.

Little Rock Police were called by neighbours after they saw University student, Erin, firing an assault rifle into the air.

Police surrounded Erin, shooting him with a bean bag round. Erin then pointed his gun towards the officers, who opened fire. Erin was shot 6 times, dying of his injuries.

Erin had suffered from numerous mental health issues for years. No charges were pressed and Elizabeth later said that she feared her son had been trying to commit suicide by cop.

Headline from LA Times, 2003
Headline from the January 3rd 2003 edition of LA Times

Friends and family grew increasingly concerned, that with this latest devastating blow, Elizabeth would once more sink into an unreachable pit of depression.

But she didn’t.

Despite it all, Elizabeth rallied. Not as the iconic impenetrable pillar of strength of that photo, but with grit and determination. She fought and she struggled and she rose again.

To this day, Elizabeth continues to work and give talks.

She speaks of her experiences from 1957, of racism and the everyday inequality black Americans face.

In 2017, Elizabeth used Kickstarter to publish a book on her experiences, The Worst First Day. The book acts both as an autobiography and as a guide to children, who, just like Elizabeth did, face insurmountable odds. Reminding them that that no matter how many people tell them they can’t, they can make something of themselves.

And in, September 2018, Elizabeth stood in front of another crowd of students, as she received an honorary degree.

Her speech outlined how anyone can make a difference in this world. Because as Elizabeth knows first hand:

‘You don’t know what you can do until you have been tested.’

Elizabeth Eckford in front of Central High, Little Rock in 2007
50 years later, in 2007, Elizabeth Eckford stands strong outside of Little Rock Central High

This was interesting, where can I find out more? Well, first off I’d suggest looking at Elizabeth’s book, The Worst First Day.

Researching this, we also found this amazing article by David Margolick, incredibly illuminating. He has also written a book about Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryans friendship, Elizabeth and Hazel: two women of Little Rock, that is truly fascinating.

The fight for Betty Boop’s soul

Almost 90 years ago, Betty Boop appeared in the 1930s cartoon, Dizzy Dishes. Over the next few years she’d transform from the anthropomorphic dog sidekick/girlfriend of leading man, Bimbo, to a woman who ran her own show.

Decades later she remains an icon, and a very profitable one at that! You can go almost anywhere in the world and pick up Betty Boop merch. Whether it’s a ‘Betty Boop Red’ MAC lipstick, an emblazoned tee or a $750 Boop inspired Zac Posen dress. The Betty Boop business is still booming.

But the story behind this gold mine is a dark one. Steeped in racism, theft and an infamous court case that saw a bloody battle for Betty Boop’s very soul.

Betty Boop and Bimbo gif.gif
Believe me when I say, that wink is covering a LOT of scandal and wrong doing

Helen Kane had been treading the boards for years before she got a break. Vaudeville, singing troupes and chorus lines. You name it, she’d done it.

But then in 1928, Helen landed her big break. Snagging a gig singing at The Paramount Theatre, right slap bang in the middle of New York’s Times Square.

Helen took to the stage and sang (the then popular song) ‘that’s my weakness now’ with a kind of coquettish knowing and humour that captivated the audience.

Then mid song, Helen busted out something truly unexpected – scatting:

‘Boop boop a doop’

Overnight Helen and her boop a doops were the talk of the town.

Months later, Helen sung what would become her (and Betty Boop’s) most well known hit, I wanna be loved by you (signature Boop oop a doops included!)

And just like that a star was born.

Helen kane header
Meet Helen Kane

Films soon followed Helens stage success and by 1930 she was one of America’s most loved rising stars.

Her quirky flapper sex appeal and unique singing style, ensured that there was nobody quite like Helen Kane.

Until Betty Boop came along

Helen Kane and Betty Boop side by side
Side by side for comparisons sake

Helen was understandably furious at her cartoon clone. Angrier still, that she wasn’t getting a dime from her!

So Helen took Betty Boop’s creators, Max Fleischer & Paramount, to court.

Fleischer claimed that Betty Boop was inspired by the likes of Clara Bow, as well as Helen Kane, but Helen argued that EVERYTHING about Betty was Helen: the look, the mannerisms, the voice! Helen’s case looked iron tight!

BUT Helen had a secret. You see, that act that made her so unique, the one she was fighting for… it wasn’t her act. She’d stolen it. From a black singer, called:

 

Baby Esther

Baby Esther
Enter Esther Jones, better known by her stage name, Baby Esther

Esther Jones had gotten the nickname, Baby Esther, thanks to the high pitched cutesey voice she sang in.

A favourite of Harlem clubs like The Cotton Club, Esther was a rising star in the jazz world. Both because of her voice, that managed to be adorable and sexy, AND her unique style of scatting:

‘Boop oop a doo’

Sounds familiar huh?

Esther worked at her scatting by learning from the greats. Listening to the other Cotton Club artists and likes of Louis Armstrong, to hone her craft into a signature scatting style.

And then in 1928, Helen Kane came to see Baby Esther perform.

Months later, Helen was performing those signature scats to adoring audiences.

Hlene Kane image
Not looking quite so innocent now Helen…

But the secret of Betty Boop’s true origins didn’t stay secret for long.

Helen was suing Boop’s creators for $250,000 (roughly 3.5 million in today’s money) and with kind of money at stake, the defence came at Helen hard…

They bought in Baby Esther’s manager Lou Walton 

Helen was rumbled.

Lou not only explained how he and Esther had created and developed her ‘Boop Boop’ style BUT he also testified that Helen Kane had come to see Baby Esther perform, just before Helen debuted her ‘unique sound’.

This revelation effectively ended any hope Helen had of winning the case. 

In fact, neither woman would win this fight. You see Baby Esther was nowhere to be found, never appearing in court. By the the time the trial wrapped up, she was presumed dead.

Betty Boop’s creators, Flieschman and Paramount left the court on a high, effectively getting out of two law suits. One from the woman they knowingly stole from and one from the woman they unknowingly stole from.

As for Helen Kane, she used the trial press to rebrand herself – The Original boop boop a-doop girl. Releasing records and even a rival cartoon under this moniker.

 

copy of Helens comic
One of Helen’s rival cartoon strips

And Baby Esther? Well, after she’d served her purpose as a legal defence, she was dropped. No efforts were made to recompense her (or in her absence, her family). There would be no revival of her work.

Baby Esther had been literally white washed from history.

To this day, it’s near impossible to find Baby Esther mentioned in books on this era. There are whole documentaries on Betty Boop’s creation that totally leave out Baby Esther. And, hands up, we’ve also contributed to this – mentioning Helen Kane on Twitter and not also talking about Baby Esther. We were very rightfully brought up on that!

Stories like that of Baby Esther are often forgotten from history, omitted both by the actions by those of their era and then not perused by those that follow. That leaves us with a false history, and how can we possibly learn from the past, if we’re not seeking out its truth!

So, it’s important that we not only tell these stories, but actively seek them out. 

Baby Esther and her work are just being re-discovered. That’s one facet of history that’s finally being made right, but it won’t be the last. There will be more. More untold stories, more people whose lives were written out, more uncomfortable truths. It will change how we see history and that can only be a good thing.

This was interesting where can I find out more? I’d suggest you go check out surviving recordings of Baby Esther, which you can do by hitting THIS LINK and heading to YouTube.

 

 

 

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