Denise Oliver Velez

'Summer of Soul' is a musical celebration of Black joy

Mavis Staples joins Mahalia Jackson to sing "Precious Lord" at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival

The avidly awaited documentary Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) from Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson—which premiered and won major awards at the Sundance Film Festival—is now in theaters and streaming on Hulu.

There is literally too much music in the film to cover here in one #BlackMusicSunday story. However, it is important to note that the film, covering the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, represents a sweeping range of Black music genres, including gospel, R&B, jazz, salsa, blues, and African drumming, as well as pop and rock. More importantly, it is not simply a series of performances; The film is about music that is inextricably linked to the lived political, cultural, and historical experience of Black people, not only from Harlem, but in the Black diaspora.

I'm one of the people chosen to offer commentary in the film; I thank Questlove and his producers for pursuing this journey through to its fruition. Though 52 years have passed, this story is needed more than ever: In a time where the Black community is under siege, our voting rights are being attacked once again, and we face life and death issues at the hands of police and vigilantes, along with the depredations of unequal health care in the time of COVID-19, we need joy.

We need our music, which has carried us through darker times than we face now, and will continue to do so, no matter what we face.

If you've missed all the media excitement about the film and the thousands of enthusiastic posts on social media, here's the trailer.

Summer of Soul - Official Trailer (2021) Gladys Knight, Stevie

This is how Searchlight Pictures describes Summer of Soul:

In his acclaimed debut as a filmmaker, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson presents a powerful and transporting documentary—part music film, part historical record created around an epic event that celebrated Black history, culture and fashion. Over the course of six weeks in the summer of 1969, just one hundred miles south of Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). The footage was never seen and largely forgotten–until now. SUMMER OF SOUL shines a light on the importance of history to our spiritual well-being and stands as a testament to the healing power of music during times of unrest, both past and present. The feature includes never-before-seen concert performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and more.

In "Still Black, Still Proud: Unpacking the Untold Story of Harlem's 'Summer of Soul,'" The Root's Felice Leon reviews the film.

The Harlem Cultural Festival. Have you ever heard of it?
Better question: If I told you that approximately 300,000 Black people peacefully gathered at a park in Harlem (over six weekends in 1969) and watched performances from Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder, before Woodstock, would you believe me?
Prior to the news of Summer of Soul (...Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised), a documentary directed by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, I'd argue that many would say "No." Heck, I'd likely say no. But then I'd shake off that moment of naïveté and remind myself that within this racist American system, Black erasure is a pervasive. It's no secret that the contributions of Black people (across the globe) are erased from history books, an act which ultimately upholds white power and privilege.

The Root also devoted an episode of Unpack That to the documentary, helping give important societal context.

Still Black, Still Proud: Unpacking the Untold Story of Harlem's 'Summer of Soul'

Summer of Soul opens with an interview with Musa Jackson, who attended the festival. Next, we hear a voiceover from Cyril "Bullwhip" Innis, Jr., who was a beloved comrade of mine, a community organizer, and a member of the Black Panther Party in Harlem, as we see footage of a sea of Black faces. The opening music selected for the film is from a young Stevie Wonder.

I'm not going to play performances from the film today, since I hope that everyone will see it! I do, however, want to play songs from the wide range of musicians who appear, starting with Stevie Wonder.

Those of us who are old enough still remember when he was "Little" Stevie Wonder.

Still Black, Still Proud: Unpacking the Untold Story of Harlem's 'Summer of Soul'

Writing for UDiscoverMusic, Paul Sexton wrote "12-Year-Old Genius At Work: Stevie Wonder Debuts By His 'Fingertips'" in June.'s not widely remembered that "Fingertips" was a live version of an instrumental album track on which he only played percussion. Written by Hank Cosby and Clarence Paul, it was recorded for his debut album The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, released in September 1962. The studio "Fingertips" led off the disc, but although Stevie played bongos, the featured instrument was not harmonica at all. It was the flute playing of Funk Brothers member "Beans" Bowles.
By the time the Motown Revue hit the road, "Fingertips" had turned into a showcase for the frenetic harmonica playing of the 12-year-old genius, and an exciting finale to his live set. In March 1963, Berry Gordy arranged for a recording truck to capture the date in Chicago. Then, at the end of his set, with Mary Wells waiting to hit the stage as the next featured artist, Stevie was addressing the crowd.
'I want you to clap your hands'
"The name of the song is called, uh, 'Fingertips,'" he told them. "Now I want you to clap your hands. Come on, come on. Yeah, stomp your feet, jump up and down, and do anything that you wanna do." The track kicked in with a drum figure played by a young Motown house musician by the name of Marvin Gaye.

Little Stevie was beloved in Harlem, and appeared at the Apollo in 1963.

Next up, Summer of Soul brings us The Chambers Brothers, who hailed from Mississippi.

Unlike some acts billing themselves as such, The Chambers Brothers really were brothers. Growing up in a sharecropping family in one of the most impoverished parts of Mississippi, the four siblings, George, Joe, Lester and Willie, first started to sing at the Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Lee County. After his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1952, the oldest brother, George, moved to South Los Angeles and was soon joined by the other three. Here, the foursome began performing throughout Southern California, with George on bass guitar, Willie and Joe on guitar and Lester on harmonica. They toiled in obscurity for years before switching to a more Gospel/Folk sound in 1961.
In 1965 they added a drummer to the group, a White man named Brian Keenan, and moved more toward a Rock/Soul act. The group attracted national attention when they appeared at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival and were soon booked into the psychedelic venues of Electric Circus and both Filmore East and West, as well as The Apollo Theatre. They recorded their own version of The Isley Brothers' hit, "Shout" for the Vault label, but it went largely unnoticed.
The band was signed by Columbia Records in 1966 and an early version of "Time Has Come Today" was hastily recorded late that year. Unfortunately, it was rejected by the label. Instead, a more orthodox single called "All Strung Out Over You" b/w "Falling In Love" was released on December 19th, and became a regional hit. The success of that initial single gave the band the opportunity to re-record "The Time Has Come Today" in 1967.This time it became title song of their first album, "Time Has Come", and reached #11 on Billboard's Hot 100 in the Fall of 1968. The L.P. featured an 11-minute, psychedelic version of the song.

In the film they sing "Uptown," which most Black New Yorkers would appreciate, given the difficulties of getting a cab to go there.

I'm going uptown to Harlem
Gonna let my hair down in Harlem
If a taxi won't take me, I'll catch a train
I'll go underground, I'll get there just the same

That song was actually written for them by a young Betty Mabry, hostess at the Cellar Club, who would later briefly be married to Miles Davis, and become known as Betty Davis.

This footage of The Chambers Brothers performing "Time Has Come Today" was recorded in Germany in 1969—the same year they appeared in Harlem.

Still Black, Still Proud: Unpacking the Untold Story of Harlem's 'Summer of Soul'

Gospel is up front and present in the film, represented by artists I've featured here in the past, like Mahalia Jackson and the Staples Singers. We get to see the enthusiastic Harlem reception of the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and learn that, as popular as the Edwin Hawkins Singers became with their hit "Oh Happy Day," they were heavily criticized by their own Pentecostal elders for their worldly fame.

The Edwin Hawkins Singers did a half-hour television special in 1971.

The Edwin Hawkins singers TV

I was especially pleased to see jazz artists Max Roach and Abby Lincoln featured at the festival and in the film footage—not just because of their superb artistry, but because of their commitment to social change and the struggle for Black rights, here and in Africa. As Marc Anthony Neal wrote of the We Insist—Freedom Now! Suite in 2019, it was "An Early Soundtrack to Black Lives Matter."

If the opening tracks "Driva-Man" and "Freedom Day" captured the spirit of Roach and Brown's original vision, the closing tracks "All Africa" and "Tears for Johannesburg", written after the Sharpsville Massacre of 1960 brought international attention to South African Apartheid, capture the increasing Global vision of African American artists and activists.
The literal centerpiece of the Freedom Now! Suite was the song "Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace" in which Lincoln's vocals and now iconic screeching was prominently featured. The song, originally intended as a ballet, sonically reproduced both the trauma and possibilities of Black life in an era overridingly defined by protest and threats of violence. As Roach would reflect decades later in the Boston Globe, on the occasion of the beating of motorist Rodney King, "I have pictures of black men hanging from trees, tarred and feathered, barbecued…This kind of thing, I'm afraid, is part of the fabric of this country, and I'm not sure when it's going to stop."

It's 37 minutes worth listening to.

We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now

I hope this little taste of music today whets your appetite to see the entire film. Trust that I've barely scratched the surface of the list of performers: Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Fifth Dimension, Sly and the Family Stone, Ray Barretto, Hugh Masekela, David Ruffin, Nina Simone, and more are featured in this stunning piece of history that somehow lay buried for 50 years.

Most importantly of all, for me, this film shows the soul of Harlem to the world—a Harlem that is filled with concertgoers who don't resemble the "scary" Black people too often demonized by those outside of the Black community.

Black music is Black history: Our spirituals

Every February when we celebrate Black History Month in the United States, and when we teach it in the classroom or to our youngsters at home, the perfect accompaniment to books and stories is Black music. Black music here was born out of trouble and strife, out of uplift and joy, out of resistance and survival. It has existed since the beginning of our time here in the United States and the diaspora. Black music is rooted in the continent of Africa, and it will carry us into the future.

Though Black music has taken many forms over time, changed with each generation, and been performed in many different cultures by ethnic and racially diverse artists, many of whom are not Black, there is a fundamental thread that ties it all together: Black spirituality. When I speak of "spirituality," I do not mean religiosity, though many Black musicians and their music have come out of the Black church. I speak of a force that combines both the will to endure and survive with the joy of life.

So let us begin this #BlackMusicSunday with Black spirituals.

Though social scientists and anthropologists have made it clear that race is a social construct invented to justify and perpetuate inequality and white supremacy, we are equally clear that the history of systemic racism in the Americas has created Black cultures (yes, plural). It is through the musical products of those cultures that we can learn and grasp not just material history, but the spiritual and emotional byproducts of 500 years of oppression and fierce opposition to same. To understand the souls of Black folks, we must all learn to listen, and listen to learn.

That listening should begin with the music that was sung, stamped out with feet, hand-clapped, called out, and responded to by the Africans brought to America in chains, whose "Negro Spirituals" became the base for gospel, blues, jazz, R&B, hip hop, rap, and the anthems of the civil rights struggle.

The first time I heard cultural historian, activist, and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon sing "Old Ship of Zion," the hair stood up on my arms and I didn't know why.

In the liner notes of her 1975 album Give Your Hands to the Struggle (reissued in 1997 by Smithsonian Folkways), Dr. Reagon writes about the song.

"'The Old Ship of Zion,' a spiritual and gospel hymn, is also associated with the culture of the 19th century Underground Railroad. A congregational singing of this song goes on for many verses as the singers build it together. You can add as many verses as you like about this image of a ship bringing hope and life, set against the memory of that other ship of slavery and death. The song has probably remained so important because of its connection to those of us who are living evidence of having survived the experience."

These are lyrics that have survived centuries.

I was lost to sin and sorrow
Tossed about on life's raging sea
Then I saw so far in a distance
'Twas a ship, seem to be
Then I saw the Captain beckon
Savior- like, His hand to me
'Tis the old ship of Zion
Get on board, follow me
'Tis the old ship of Zion (3X)
Get on board, get on board
Other choruses:
It will carry you through danger…
It has landed many a thousand …

Now I understand: The ship of death and the ship of hope are two sides of the coin Black people have received in the America they've built with their blood, sweat, and tears. I could feel it.

Choral conductor Dr. Rebecca Lynn Raber's 2018 doctoral dissertation investigates the coded messages in spirituals. She devotes an entire chapter to "The Old Ship of Zion."

"I'm no ways weary, I'm no ways tired. Oh, glory, hallelujah! Just let me in the Kingdom when the world catch on fire! Oh, glory, hallelujah! Oh, get your ticket ready, the ship will soon be leaving! Oh, get your ticket ready to go!"
These lyrics from the spiritual, "The Old Ship of Zion" (arranged by Richard Harrison Smith), are thrilling to sing. They become even more compelling after discovering that they served as a coded message for enslaved Africans in the United States, designed to provide hope, comfort, and even secret information leading to escape and freedom.

A 2008 episode of the PBS series History Detectives, narrated by anthropologist Wes Cowan, explored the discovery of a "slave songbook."

The president of the Mayme A. Clayton Library & Museum in Culver City,California has discovered an unusual book in his late mother's extraordinary collection of African American artifacts.
The small, cloth-bound book, titled Slave Songs of the United States, has a publication date of 1867 and contains a collection of 136 plantation songs.
Could this be the first book of African American spirituals ever published?
History Detectives explores the coded messages and the melodies that laid the foundation of modern blues, gospel and protest songs of future generations.

You can watch the full segment here; it's just 17 minutes long.

You can read the full transcript here.

Cowan learns that the collection of Black spirituals was the first of its kind, collected by three white abolitionists from the north: Charles Pickard Ware, William Francis Allen, and Lucy McKim Garrison. He heads to Howard University to speak to Dr. James Norris, who's a professor of music there.

WES COWAN: To the enslaved African, what did these songs mean?
DR. JAMES NORRIS: These songs were everything. He had to sing about his condition. Being sold … his family being separated. He had to sing to just keep his plain mental bearing.
COWAN: He tells me that plantation owners often forced enslaved Africans to attend church to hear the message of Christianity ... a message that missionaries carefully tailored to justify slavery. But the enslaved men and women took this new language and created their own spirituals ... songs that often contained coded meanings, bringing messages of hope and, sometimes, visions of escape.
DR. NORRIS: "Roll, Jordan, Roll." Jordan was what? A river you had to cross. Okay, that could have been what? The Mississippi or the Tennessee River. Crossing into a better place. Old Satan was the slave master. Hell was being what? Sold further South.
COWAN: So … in spite of the fact that the words were actually biblical, their meanings were very personal.
DR. NORRIS: Personal.
COWAN: Dr. Norris explains that even though the words were from Christianity, these songs have their roots in Africa, where music was infused into every aspect of life. In the Americas, the enslaved Africans were forced to adapt.
DR. NORRIS: They weren't allowed to use instruments they brought with them. They took them from them. So what, they improvise with what … [clapping hands] … hand clapping. On the side of the … [slapping leg] ... what? Improvise. I look at them and I marvel, over how we got through all of this. But how we got through it all by what? Singing.

The film 12 Years a Slave used one of the most well-known coded songs, "Roll Jordan Roll." The biblical river of Jordan represented the rivers, like the Mississippi, to be crossed to flee enslavement.

The first group to popularize Negro spirituals were the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, as profiled in a 2019 episode of Black History in Two Minutes (or so).

The Fisk Jubilee Singers: Perform the Spirituals and Save Their University

Fisk University was founded in Nashville, Tenn. in 1866. As an institution for African-American students, their first years of inception were pivotal. In 1871, while facing serious financial concerns, the school's treasurer and music teacher decided to create a tour with a choir known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

Bringing the sacred artistry of spirituals to the world around them, the Jubilee Singers leaned on the love, dignity, and passion the songs brought their enslaved ancestors. The tour was well-received, especially by white patrons who had only seen black people on stage in minstrel shows.

By using the highly revered art of spirituals, the choir's commitment to saving the university is one of their most notable contributions to black history.

It's amazing how much you can learn in two minutes (or so).

Also in 2019, PBS released an episode of American Experience focused on the group.

On November 16, 1871, a group of unknown singers — all but two of them former slaves and many of them still in their teens — arrived at Oberlin College in Ohio to perform before a national convention of influential ministers. After a few standard ballads, the chorus began to sing spirituals — "Steal Away" and other songs" associated with slavery and the dark past, sacred to our parents," as soprano Ella Sheppard recalled. It was one of the first public performances of the secret music African Americans had sung in fields and behind closed doors.
"Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory," produced by Llewellyn Smith, tells the story of a group of former slaves who battled prejudice and oppression to sing their way into a nation's heart. Eventually, they would perform for presidents and queens, tour the United States and Europe, and establish songs like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "This Little Light of Mine" as a cherished part of the nation's musical heritage. The program features today's Fisk Jubilee Singers performing these and many other spirituals; Dion Graham narrates.

The concert in Oberlin was the turning point in a daring fundraising experiment for impoverished Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where the singers were students. Established in January 1866, Fisk taught freed slaves how to count their wages, how to write the new names they had chosen for themselves, and read both the ballot and the Bible. Despite emancipation, the South was a dangerous place: Fisk students who dared teach in the countryside were routinely assaulted and whipped by Ku Klux Klan nightriders; one was shot at in his classroom; another had her school building burned to the ground.

It's worth your time.

Here is the Jubilee Singers' performance of "Steal Away to Jesus," performed live at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in 2019.

"Steal Away to Jesus," along with "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Roll, Jordan, Roll," are attributed to the authorship of a Black man, Wallace Willis, who was enslaved in the Choctaw Nation by a man named Britt Willis.

Wallace Willis was born on a plantation in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Wallace "Uncle" Willis and his wife, Aunt Minerva, were slaves of Britt Willis, a wealthy half-Irish, half-Choctaw farmer. When the Choctaws were relocated by the United States government as a result of the Indian Removal Act, Britt Willis walked the Trail of Tears with his Choctaw wife to Oklahoma's Indian Territory. Among the 300 slaves that made the trip with Britt were Wallace and Minerva.
The group settled near Doaksville, Oklahoma, which is located near present-day Hugo and Fort Towson. It was here that Wallace composed "plantation songs" while working the cotton fields of Britt Willis. Britt's granddaughter, Jimmie Kirby, recalled: "Mama said it was on a hot August day in 1840. They were hoeing the long rows of cotton in the rich bottomland field. No doubt [Wallace] was very tired. They worked in the fields from sun-up to sundown. And sundown was a long way off. South of the field, he could see the Red River shimmering in the sun. Can't you just imagine that suddenly Uncle Wallace was tired of it all?" Two of those songs included "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Steal Away to Jesus."
Before the American Civil War Willis and his wife, Aunt Minerva, were sent by their owner to work at the Spencer Academy where the superintendent, Reverend Alexander Reid, heard them singing. In 1871 Reid was at a performance of the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University and thought the songs he had heard the Willis's singing would be good for the Jubilee Singers. He furnished them to the group, which performed them in the United States and Europe. Wallace Willis' musical contributions live on far past Civil War America his songs of hope, freedom and faith continue to resonate with generations of each passing era. Although Civil War-era documentation surrounding Wallace Willis is scarce, it is often reported that Willis and Minerva lived out their lives in Old Boggy Depot after emancipation in the U.S.

Though we associate Nat King Cole with jazz vocals and piano, here he is on The Nat King Cole Showin 1957, singing a duet of "Steal Away to Jesus" with his guest, the Queen of Gospel herself, Mahalia Jackson.

And here's contemporary gospel singer Robert Robinson of Minnesota performing a moving solo of "Swing Low Sweet Chariot."

One of the spirituals known to be used as an aid in the escape from slavery is "Wade in the Water."

Harriet Tubman used the song "Wade in the Water" to tell escaping slaves to get off the trail and into the water to make sure the dogs slavecatchers used couldn't sniff out their trail. People walking through water did not leave a scent trail that dogs could follow.

"Wade in the Water" was published for the first time by the Fisk Jubilee singers in 1901. It would cross over into jazz; the Ramsey Lewis Trio's version made it to the top of the charts on a 1966 album of the same name.

My favorite contemporary performance of "Wade in the Water" is performed by none other than Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Those of you who follow Black dance are probably familiar with the stellar performance of "Take me to the Water" as part of Revelations,choreographed by Alvin Ailey; his company premiered it in 1960.

In September 2020, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the company still produced the dance segment together, dancing apart.

You may not go to church or be part of an organized religion, but I hope the music and dance presented here today has deepened your understanding of the roots of Black music and lifted your spirits.

Join me in the comments section below for even more.

Democratic Rep. Joyce Beatty and Columbus City Council President pepper sprayed at protest

Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin, and Franklin County, Commissioner Kevin Boyce, were all pepper-sprayed today, during a protest outside the Ohio Statehouse, where people were peacefully demanding an end to police brutality and marching for justice.

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Reclaiming the herstories of black woman suffragists

Watching Democratic Party women don white to attend the State of the Union address back in January in honor of the suffragists’ battle for the vote evoked mixed feelings. I felt pride as a feminist, and pain as a black woman aware of the fact that our battle for voting rights is still unresolved.


It has taken me a few days to digest the death of Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn.  She was strength personified!  I will miss my friend, supporter and college professor.  She was amazing in theâÂ�¦

� AprilDRyan (@AprilDRyan) December 30, 2018

Her obituary in TheNew York Times was titled “Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, 77, Dies; Historian Recognized Black Suffragists”:

Dr. Terborg-Penn, a professor of history at Morgan State University in Baltimore for more than three decades, was the author of seven books, most notably, “African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920” (1998). It was one of the first book-length examinations of black women in the suffrage movement, and it challenged the existing narrative that was dominated, and framed, by white activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Dr. Terborg-Penn’s book was a counterweight to “History of Women’s Suffrage,” a six-volume work, begun in 1881, that was edited by Anthony, Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage. That opus more or less erased from the picture the many black women who Dr. Terborg-Penn said had attended suffrage meetings, organized suffrage clubs and promoted the cause. Stanton, moreover, had expressed racist views, especially when arguing that women should have the vote before black men. Dr. Terborg-Penn identified more than 120 black women, including Mary Church Terrell and Sarah Parker Remond, and described “hundreds of nameless black women” who had participated in the suffrage fight but whose activity had been little noted and their speeches seldom recorded.

Black women, she said, were shunted aside in the history books because their goals had diverged from those of the white, mostly upper-middle-class women who had led the charge. White women wanted parity with white men, while black women, only just emerging from slavery, wanted to use the ballot box to fight the racial oppression that was engulfing the South.

As plans move forward for major 2020 centennial celebrations of the passing of the 19th amendment,I am afraid that amidst all the pride and pageantry, the ugly underbelly of that history will be ignored, avoided or completely erased.

I’ve looked at some of the centennial websites like the 2020 Women's Vote Centennial Initiative and downloaded the teaching tools, and at first glance noted that prominently featured are Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Harriet Tubman. Yet even the site “Women Leading the Way: Suffragists and Suffragettes,” which includes Mary Church Terrell and Francis Harper in the painting that is central to the project, gives no real sense of a movement fractured by racism.

This article, written  by Tammy L. Brown for the 170th anniversary of Seneca Falls, could have been written for 2020. It’s titled “Celebrate Women’s Suffrage, but Don't Whitewash the Movement's Racism”:

When suffragists gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, in July 1848, they advocated for the right of white women to vote. The participants were middle and upper-class white women, a cadre of white men supporters and one African-American male — Frederick Douglass.  The esteemed abolitionist had forged a strong working relationship with fellow abolitionists and white women suffragists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. No Black women attended the convention. None were invited.

Although women of color were profoundly absent at Seneca Falls, a greater degree of cultural inclusion was on the horizon. In May 1851, African-American abolitionist Sojourner Truth spoke at a women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio. During her famous speech on the abolition of slavery and the promotion of women’s rights, Truth allegedly bared her breast and proclaimed, “Ain’t I a woman?”  It was a melodramatic act and statement, but as historian Nell Painter argues, it never happened. Instead, it was a quaint fiction crafted by convention organizer Frances Dana Gage and other white feminists who depicted Truth to white audiences as a genuine albeit primitive ally in the fight for women’s rights. Thus, the 1851 convention marked a modicum of progress, but this progress is tainted by white suffragists’ attempts to control Truth’s voice.

By the turn of the 20th century, Black suffragists such as Mary Church Terrell represented intersectional feminism at its best. Born to former slaves in Memphis, Tennessee, Terrell earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin College and served as president of the National Association of Colored Women. In February 1898, Terrell spoke at the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in Washington, D.C. Her speech forced powerful white women attendees to reflect on the compounding oppressions and systemic violence that Black women endured during slavery. She ended on a more optimistic note — praising the sheer grit and intellect of freed women. Terrell’s rhetorical style echoed the American ethos of self-made men and women, but she oversimplified the historical reality that the paths to racial and gender equality are long, jagged, and still unwinding.

Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech has become a “truth” cited everywhere—and yet much of it is fiction. Visit The Sojourner Truth Project:

Most people are familiar with the popular version of Sojourner Truth's famous, “Ain’t I a woman” speech but they have no idea that this popular version is not Sojourner's  speech and is vastly different from her original 1851 speech.

This popular but inaccurate version was written and published in 1863, (12 years after Sojourner gave the "Ain't I a woman" speech), by a white abolitionist named Frances Dana Barker Gage. Curiously, Gage not only changed all of Sojourner’s words but chose to represent Sojourner speaking in a stereotypical 'southern black slave accent', rather than in her distinct upper New York State low-Dutch accent. Frances Gage’s actions were well intended and served the suffrage and women's rights movement at the time; however, by today’s standards of ethical journalism, her actions were a gross misrepresentation of Sojourner Truth’s words and identity. By changing Truth's words and her dialect to that of a stereotypical southern slave, Frances Gage effectively erased Sojourner’s Dutch heritage and her authentic voice. As well as unintentionally adding to the oversimplification of the American slave culture and furthering the eradication of our nations Northern slave history. Frances Gage admitted that her amended version had “given but a faint sketch” of Sojourner's original speech but she felt justified and believed her version stronger and more palatable to the American public then Sojourner's original version.

The site has some recordings of what her Afro-Dutch accent might have sounded like.

In 2011’s “The ballot and black women,” I wrote about and recommended Rosalyn Terborg-Penn’s book African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920 as a place to start to learn some of the erased history. In the Journal of American History, reviewer Jane Rhodes wrote:

Bookcover:African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920

This study of African American women's roles in the suffrage movement breaks new ground. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn draws from many original documents to take a comprehensive look at the African American women who sought the right to vote. She discovers numerous Black suffragists previously unknown. Analyzing the women's own stories, she examines why they joined the woman suffrage movement in the United States and how they participated in it - with white women, Black men, as members of African American women's organizations, or simultaneously in all three. Terborg-Penn further discusses their various levels of interaction and types of feminist philosophy. Noting that not all African American woman suffragists were from elite circles, Terborg-Penn finds representation from working-class and professional women as well. They came from all parts of the nation. Some employed radical, others conservative means to gain the right to vote. Black women, however, were unified in working to use the ballot to improve not only their own status, but the lives of Black people in their communities. Drawing from innumerable sources, Terborg-Penn argues that sexism and racism prevented African American women from voting and from full participation in the national suffrage movement. Following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, state governments in the South, enacted policies which disfranchised African American women, with many white suffragists closing their eyes to the discriminatory acts. Despite efforts to keep Black women politically powerless, Terborg-Penn contends that the Black suffrage was a source of empowerment. Every political and racial effort to keep African American women disfranchised met with their active resistance until Black women achieved full citizenship

We see that same resistance and persistence today as black women continue the struggle to vote, and are also running for office in greater numbers than ever before.

In the photo at the top of this story, Terborg-Penn is standing in front of an Anna Julia Cooper exhibition that was held at the Anacostia Museum in Washington, D.C. Cooper was a noted intellectual of her time: a feminist, scholar, educator, and activist.

“I speak for the colored women of the South, because it is there that the millions of blacks in this country have watered the soil with blood and tears, and it is there too that the colored woman of America has made her characteristic history and there her destiny is evolving.”

Born in 1858 in North Carolina to her enslaved mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, and her white slaveholder, Anna Julia Cooper spent her lifetime of over a century redefining the limitations and opportunities for women of color in a society set up for their disempowerment and subjugation. A distinguished scholar and educator, Cooper saw the status and agency of black women as central to the equality and progress of the nation. She famously wrote in her 1892 book A Voice from the South, “only the BLACK WOMAN can say when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.” She fought tirelessly throughout her life to re-center and uplift the voice of black women in pursuit of a more just society for everyone.

She founded the Colored Women’s League of Washington in 1892, and seven years later helped open the first YWCA chapter for black women, in response to their unwillingness to allow women of color into the organization. She spoke at the Pan African Congress and the Women’s Congress in Chicago, with a speech entitled “The Needs and the Status of Black Women.” It was also in this last decade of the 19th century that Cooper published her landmark text A Voice From the South, in which she dissects the way black women are affected by living at the intersection of oppressions and explains their status and progress as a definitive marker of the status and progress of the nation. In VFTS, Cooper also emphasizes the need to privilege black women’s voices, criticizing white scholars who wrote about and acted as authorities on the lives of black men and women despite their ignorance on the subject. Cooper believed that black women’s subjection to intersecting oppressions gave them a unique and invaluable outlook on society, arguing that rather THAN being suppressed, it was the voices of these women that needed to be front and center as society moved forward.

Cooper’s achievements both in and outside of the classroom garnered contempt from white colleagues and supervisors, and she was dismissed from M Street School in 1906 after a controversy erupted surrounding her character and behavior. As a testament to her reputation and achievements at M Street School, Cooper was re-hired in 1910 as a teacher by a new superintendent. Motivated rather than defeated by this scandal, Cooper decided to return to school, and in 1924 became only the fourth black woman in the United States to receive a doctorate degree, attaining her Ph.D at the University of Paris.  While teaching and working on her doctorate, Cooper was also raising five children whom she had adopted in 1915 after her brother passed away.

A Voice From the Southis free online.

Here’s another text to add to your reading list, by historian Faye E. Dudden: Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America:

Bookcover: Fighting Chance: The Struggle over Woman Suffrage and Black Suffrage in Reconstruction America

The advocates of woman suffrage and black suffrage came to a bitter falling-out in the midst of Reconstruction, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed the 15th Amendment because it granted the vote to black men but not to women. How did these two causes, so long allied, come to this?

Based on extensive research, Fighting Chance is a major contribution to women's history and to 19th-century political history--a story of how idealists descended to racist betrayal and desperate failure.

From the Introduction:

This book examines how woman suffrage and black suffrage, allied for so long, came to a bitter falling-out in the midst of Reconstruction, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton opposed the Fifteenth Amendment for granting black men the right to vote but not women. It shows that, aside from racism, money and politics helped influence the outcome of this conflict. It looks at how Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, believing they had a fighting chance to win woman suffrage after the Civil War, tried but failed to exploit windows of political opportunity, especially in Kansas, succeeding only in selling out their long-held commitment to black rights and their invaluable friendship and alliance with Frederick Douglass.

Dudden pulls no punches when describing racist screeds against the 15th Amendment, which would give black men the right to vote:

She dipped her pen into a tincture of white racism and sketched a reference to a nightmarish figure, the black rapist. If the nation gives the vote to black men but not to women, she wrote, it will encourage “fearful outrages on womanhood, especially in the southern states” If the Fifteenth Amendment is passed, she warned, woman’s “degradation” will be complete and “persecutions, insults, horrors” will descend upon her. It was February 1869 and the Ku Klux Klan was terrorizing the South, but the author of these words was no female Klan member. She was feminist pioneer Elizabeth Cady Stanton editorializing in the Revolution, the newspaper she and Susan B. Anthony had been publishing for over a year. Stanton and Anthony repeatedly predicted rape—“fearful outrages”—and insisted that black men were their enemies, “more hostile to woman than any class of men in the country.”

A long-standing alliance, marked by incompatibility but durable nonetheless, was breaking up. How did the advocates of woman suffrage come to this? How did black rights and women’s rights, causes that had formerly collaborated, come to such a rupture? At the same time she laced her editorials with racist resentments, Elizabeth Cady Stanton also wrote openly of her regret at “this antagonism with [black] men whom we respect, whose wrongs we pity, and whose hopes we would fain help them realize.” This falling-out, this “antagonism,” has been called “one of the saddest divorces in American history.” In the upshot, black men would get the vote in 1870 and women would have to wait for suffrage until fifty years later.

Along those lines, author and editorial writer for The New York Times Brent Staples recently wrote and absorbing piece titled “When the Suffrage Movement Sold Out to White Supremacy”:

Americans are being forced to choose between a cherished lie and a disconcerting truth as they prepare to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment in 2020. The lie holds that the amendment ended a century-long struggle by guaranteeing women the right to vote. The truth is that it barred states from denying voting rights based on gender but “guaranteed” nothing. More than a dozen states had already granted millions of women voting rights before ratification, and millions of other women — particularly African-Americans in the Jim Crow South — remained shut out of the polls for decades afterward.

While middle-class white women celebrated with ticker tape parades, black women in the former Confederacy were being defrauded by voting registrars or were driven away from registration offices under threat of violence. When the black suffragist and civil rights leader Mary Church Terrell petitioned her white sisters for help, they responded that the disenfranchisement of black women was a race problem — not a gender problem — and beyond the movement’s writ.

This counterfeit distinction was familiar to black suffragists, who had argued for more than 50 years that they could no more separate gender from race in themselves than shed their skins. The movement, however, had tended toward a definition of “women” that was implicitly limited to people of the gender who were white and middle class. Its most prominent advocates — Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony — drove home that notion by rendering black women nearly invisible in their hugely influential “History of Woman Suffrage.” As the push for white women’s rights neared its goal — a constitutional amendment — the movement hedged its bets by compromising with white supremacy.

This was not the first time Staples has addressed this issue. In 2018 he wrote “How the Suffrage Movement Betrayed Black Women”:

The most blatant example of accommodationism came in 1913 when organizers of a huge suffragist parade in Washington demanded that black participants march in an all-black assembly at the back of the parade instead of with their state delegations. Wells famously refused. Terrell, who marched in a colored delegation as requested, believed at the time that white suffragists would exclude black women from the 19th Amendment — nicknamed the Anthony Amendment — if they thought they could get away with it. These episodes fueled within the African-American community a lasting suspicion of white suffragists and of the very idea of political cooperation across racial lines.

Historians are rightly warning groups involved in suffrage commemorations not to overstate the significance of the 19th Amendment. It covered the needs of middle-class white women quite nicely. But it meant very little to black women in the South, where most lived at the time and where election officials were well practiced in the art of obstructing black access to the ballot box. As African-American women streamed in to register, Southern officials merely stepped up the level of fraud and intimidation.

By this time, the former suffragists of the North were celebrating the amendment and were uninterested in fighting discrimination against women who were suffering racial, as opposed to gender, discrimination. As the historian Rosalyn Terborg-Penn writes: “Within a few years, white supremacy was victorious throughout the South. Unlike Black men, who had been disenfranchised within 20 years after the ratification of the 15th Amendment, Black women had lost the vote in less than a decade.” It would take another half-century — and a new suffrage campaign, with black women in a leading role — before that black community was fully enfranchised, through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In the fall of 1916, four years before the 19th Amendment would make it unconstitutional to deny voting rights on the basis of sex, African-American women in Chicago were readying to cast their first ballots ever for President. The scenes in that year of black women, many of them the daughters and granddaughters of former slaves, exercising the franchise, was as ordinary as it was unexpected.

Theirs was a unique brand of politics crafted at the crossroads of racism and sexism. African-American women had always made their own way. In Chicago, they secured a place at the polls by way of newly enacted state laws that, over 25 years, extended the vote to the women of Illinois, gradually, unevenly and without regard to color. The real story, however, is an older one that stretches across generations of black women’s ambition and activism. It only sometimes intersects with better-known tales of how white women campaigned for their political rights. And yes, sometimes black and white women clashed. Still, the history of black women and the vote is one about figures who, though subjected to nearly crushing political disabilities, emerged as unparalleled advocates of universal suffrage in its truest sense.

Some of the erased and suppressed history that is being brought to light in academic texts and journals is making its way to a broader audience via social media, like this piece from Now This:

It has become tradition for people to put 'I Voted' stickers on Susan B. Anthony's grave on election day in Rochester, New York. NowThis producer Luria Freeman argues that women's suffrage icon Anthony does not deserve your 'I Voted' stickers because of her well documented history of racial bias. While she had abolitionist roots, Anthony and her colleagues did not want to give Black people the right to vote. Perhaps we should honor Sojourner Truth or Ida B. Wells on election day instead?

Though well-researched and documented, much of this history is still not incorporated into standard middle, high school, and college American history curricula.

Some students are shown videos like this one, released back in 2012:

Just in time for Women's History Month, Soomo is pleased to announce the release of our new parody music video, Bad Romance: Women's Suffrage. The new video features Alice Paul engaging in the "militant" tactics of the latter years of suffrage movement and the dramatic ratification of the 19th Amendment. The video has such rich content that we feature it in two new assignments for our Americans Governing collection

A teacher left this comment on their website:

Hi!  I am a 7th grade Humanities teacher and I love your videos.  I know my students would be intrigued and watching the videos would be an excellent start to a discussion of civil rights and women's suffrage.  I was saddened to see no women of color in your Bad Romance video, though.  Students should see that women of all races fought for and benefit from the right to vote.  For my students especially, who are primarily Black and Latino, seeing images of white women only in the political sphere increases their feelings of marginalization, powerlessness, and ultimately the kind of disenfranchisement that you are speaking out against.  I hope you can bear this in mind for your next productions.  Thanks, and keep up the otherwise great work!

Ama Ansah examines Alice Paul through a black historical lens:

Shortly after her appointment to NAWSA’s Congressional Committee, activist Alice Paul organized a grand demonstration for women’s suffrage. Having worked in the more radical British suffrage movement before returning to America, Paul understood the power of mass demonstrations. Though she expected to run into difficulties securing permits, navigating the press, and even in recruiting participants, Paul was not prepared for race controversy.

When the Women’s Journal published a letter to the editor asking if there would be Black participation in the parade, Paul requested fellow organizer Hellen Gardner to contact editor Alice Stone Blackwell. Gardner requested that Blackwell “refrain from publishing anything which can possibly start that [negro] topic at this time.” Gardner and Paul feared that after the “very hard fight” to gain permission for the parade, addressing race would cause them to “lose absolutely all we have gained and more.” Paul later told Blackwell, “the participation of negros would have a most disastrous effect” upon the suffrage cause by upsetting southern voters. Parade organizers resolved to “say nothing whatever about the [negro] question, to keep it out of the papers, [and] to try to make this a purely Suffrage demonstration entirely uncomplicated by any other problems.” Instead of viewing Votes for Women as part of a broader push for social equality, Paul separated racial equality from electoral equality.

Nevertheless, Black suffragists rallied. Activists Adella Hunt Logan and Mary Church Terrell encouraged Black women’s clubs across the country to participate. Women at Howard University reached out to Paul, expressing interest in joining the parade. Howard’s Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority president Nellie Quander wrote to Paul, asking to march but expressing concern over rumored segregation. Days before the parade, the state contingent from Illinois telegrammed Paul asking if Black marchers were welcome. Evidently not receiving an answer, the Illinois group and their sole African American participant, the activist and long-time suffragist Ida B. Wells, arrived as an integrated unit.

I don’t remember learning any of this history in my early college days in the mid ‘60s, even at Howard University.

It wasn’t until 1970 that the first Women’s Studies program was founded in the United States, one year after the founding of the first Black Studies program. Black women historians faced challenges in both areas and in academia as a whole, as detailed in Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower:

Bookcover: Telling Histories: Black Women Historians in the Ivory Tower

The field of black women's history gained recognition as a legitimate field of study late in the twentieth century. Collecting stories that are both deeply personal and powerfully political, Telling Histories compiles seventeen personal narratives by leading black women historians at various stages in their careers. Their essays illuminate how--first as graduate students and then as professional historians--they entered and navigated the realm of higher education, a world concerned with and dominated by whites and men. In distinct voices and from different vantage points, the personal histories revealed here also tell the story of the struggle to establish a new scholarly field.

Black women, alleged by affirmative-action supporters and opponents to be "twofers," recount how they have confronted racism, sexism, and homophobia on college campuses. They explore how the personal and the political intersect in historical research and writing and in the academy. Organized by the years the contributors earned their Ph.D.'s, these essays follow the black women who entered the field of history during and after the civil rights and black power movements, endured the turbulent 1970s, and opened up the field of black women's history in the 1980s. By comparing the experiences of older and younger generations, this collection makes visible the benefits and drawbacks of the institutionalization of African American and African American women's history. Telling Histories captures the voices of these pioneers, intimately and publicly.

Reading Terborg-Penn’s essay titled “Being and thinking outside of the box: A Black woman’s experience in academia” gives you a sense of what some black women historians faced in pursuing their studies.

In the past, I have likened my development as an academic to “a black history journey.”1Even in the 1960s, in the eyes of traditionalists in the so-called ivory tower, taking this journey meant being outside of the box. At the time, traditional history departments where I enrolled had not quite acknowledged the legitimacy of black history as a field of study.

Majoring in history at Queens College was fine because in this male dominated department nobody noticed women. This ultimately worked to my advantage because I did not stick out as a “colored” student activist as I had when I majored in biology as a freshman, then sociology as a sophomore, and experienced discrimination that I was not prepared to meet. Faculty in biology and sociology at Queens College expected black students not to succeed, and our grades often reflected these negative faculty expectations. This pattern did not appear to exist in the history department. We were taught primarily Western culture with a sprinkling of European colonial history. If you performed well, as I did, you were rewarded. However, in this environment, students did not learn about non-Europeanized societies. For the most part, I followed the traditional path since I had changed my major two times and needed to graduate.


After commencement, I went on to graduate school as my parents expected me to do. I wanted to go to Howard University, but I also applied to other universities in Washington, D.C. I was accepted at George Washington University (gwu). Disappointed that I had not heard from Howard in time to apply for my guaranteed loan, I enrolled at gwu, not knowing that the admissions staff apparently assumed that I was a white student. They saw my last name of Dutch origin, my undergraduate college with its low minority enrollment, and my black-and-white photo, which made my skin appear to be lighter than it is. When my new adviser assumed I was in the wrong office and asked if I needed directions, I realized that I was in the South and the graduate school had made a mistake by accepting me.

My own experiences in art history, urban studies, and anthropology were both comic and tragic. In grad school I wanted to study social hierarchies within the black community and examine women’s roles, especially among black elites. A white member of my committee asked me: ”Black elites? Black people have elites?”

As more women enter the field and get published (which in and of itself is a story worth telling), “history” will change. The challenge then becomes getting people who have already been indoctrinated to believe one view to become open to thinking about another, and changing white feminist history to include those of us who are black or women of color, no matter how uncomfortable or rancorous parts of that history are.

I will be following upcoming plans for 2020 centennial celebrations closely. They began in my home state of New York in 2017 and will continue through 2020.

What plans are being made in your area for the 2020 centennial? What stories will they be telling?  What black suffragist women are included? Will there be an abridged and sanitized version, or the truth with both warts and wonders?

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The program is available with transcripts (here are part 1part 2, and part 3).

In the segment titled ” This mom helped uncover what was really going on with Flint’s water,“ we hear the story of stay-at-home mom LeeAnne Walters, whose husband Dennis is in the Navy, and their children Garrett, Gavin, JD, and Kaylie.

The Walters’ 4-year-old twins, Garrett and Gavin, were the first to show problems after swimming in the family pool.

“Gavin started breaking out every time he’d get in the pool,” says Walters. The rash was bad enough that Walters took him to the doctor. “And the doctors kept telling us it was contact dermatitis.” She says they told her that “he’s coming into contact with something that he’s allergic to.” Later, Walters says her doctors suggested it was eczema. They gave her a cortisone cream to rub on Gavin’s rash, but by July 2014, it wasn’t just Gavin. His twin brother Garrett got the rash too.“And we took them in and they told us it was scabies, so we treated them with a pesticide,” says Walters.

Tiny mites cause scabies, and the common treatment is a chemical that’s also in some pesticides. It’s even in some mosquito nets and flea collars.The rash on four-year-old Gavin Walters' foot.Walters rubbed the prescription cream on her twin boys from the neck down.“I spent a ton of money because all the laundry that we had, all the bedding that we had, we took it to a laundromat,” she says. Walters was relieved when the boys’ rash went away, but that feeling didn’t last long.Walters remembers the day the rash came back, because she had a bunch of people over to celebrate her daughter’s high school graduation."... all the people that were here swimming and drinking the water, all of them broke out."“And all the people that were here swimming and drinking the water, all of them broke out,” she says.

She scheduled another doctor's appointment for her four-year-olds. She got the same diagnosis, but Walters really had some doubts about the scabies diagnosis, especially after the party.“The third time they tried to convince us that it was scabies, I said, ‘nun-uh, no.’ The cream wasn’t working on Gavin - period. He had that rash for more than a month straight.”Walters wasn’t standing for it anymore, so she took Gavin to a dermatologist down in Brighton. They scraped in between Gavin’s little toes, and put it under the microscope.“And she verified by doing the skin scrapes that there was no scabies. There was no live anything – no dead anything – no eggs, so no scabies,” she says.She still didn’t know what caused the rash, but Walters noticed something. Gavin’s rash flared up every time he swam in the pool, and every time he took a bath. Something clicked.It became clear to her right then that Gavin’s rash was caused by something in the tap water.

In December 2014, the Walters family stopped drinking Flint tap water, and LeeAnne contacted the city. The city sent Mike Glasgow, Flint’s utilities administrator, out to her home—and she pointed out her water was orange. He had their water tested. He was also the person who notified her that the lead levels were sky high. She took the twins to the doctor, and found out that Gavin had lead poisoning. 

That’s when Curt Guyette, an investigative reporter for the Michigan ACLU, got involved. Together they produced “Corrosive Impact: Leaded Water and One Flint Family's Toxic Nightmare” and “Hard to Swallow: Toxic Water Under a Toxic System.”

After a state-appointed Emergency Manager severed Flint's ties to the Detroit water system, residents were left to use water pumped in from the Flint River, water they say was not only smelly and toxic but costlier than the clean water they'd received from Detroit. LeeAnne Walters - a stay-at home mom with four sons and a husband in the Navy—had seen other numbers reflecting the quality of drinking water at her Flint home that were devastating. But 13,200? She’d never seen anything like this.

LeeAnne Walters wasn’t through. She contacted Marc Edwards.

Marc Edwards is an environmental engineer, and a professor at Virginia Tech. He’s studied the corrosion of old water systems for decades. Edwards has tested probably 30,000 homes for lead in his career. He’s never seen anyone with higher lead levels than Lee Anne Walters’ home in Flint.

On that warm, Tuesday afternoon in August, when Walters called Edwards to tell him how awful that meeting with the state went, Edwards remembers hanging up the phone and physically shaking with anger. “I mean this is an imminent and substantial endangerment to children, and for me sitting 15 hours away, I can't believe how people could just sit there and let other children drink that water,” says Edwards.

“I mean, how could you do that?” Edwards couldn’t sleep. He decided he had to drop everything. He got four grad students together, and a bunch of lead test kits. Two days later, they loaded up in Edwards’ 13-year-old white “soccer mom” mini-van and drove 15 hours straight – directly to Flint.

You can read the story of the research activism on the Flint Water Study website.

This was not the first time Edwards and his researchers have been in the news for dealing with lead in a major U.S. city’s drinking water.

Edwards's research in the mid-1990s focused on an increasing incidence of pinhole leaks in copper water pipes. Homeowners contacted him about the leaks, some of which were occurring 18 months after installation. After a century of using copper for water pipes, the expectation is that they will last for 50 years in residential applications. The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) funded Edwards's research into the cause of the leaks.

A group of Washington, DC homeowners asked Edwards to investigate their corroding copper pipes in March 2003. Suspecting the water, he tested for lead. The accepted limit for lead in drinking water is 15 parts per billion (ppb). Edwards's meter, which could read values up to 140 ppb, showed off-the-scale readings even after he had diluted the sample to ten percent of its original strength. The water contained at least 1,250 ppb of lead. "Some of it would literally have to be classified as a hazardous waste", he said. At the time, WASA recommended that customers in areas served by lead pipes allow the water to run for 30 seconds to one minute as a precaution. Edwards's tests showed that the highest lead levels occurred 30 seconds to a few minutes after the tap was opened.

When Edwards brought his concerns to WASA, the agency threatened to withhold future monitoring data and research funding from him unless he stopped working with the homeowners. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) discontinued its subcontract with him. With his funding cut off, Edwards paid his engineering students out of his own pocket so that they could continue the research

Meanwhile, at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was looking at data on lead levels in blood samples.

Although the residents of Flint, Mich., had been complaining for months about the color, smell and taste of the community’s water, state and local officials maintained the water supply was safe. Mona Hanna-Attisha, M.D., M.P.H. FAAP, however, was not convinced. A dinner party conversation with a water-quality expert stoked the Flint pediatrician’s curiosity and compelled her to seek evidence that would prove the water supply was toxic.“As the stewards of these children, it is our responsibility to protect them,” said Dr. Hanna-Attisha, a mother of two. “When there is a clear violation of public health that is going to impact these kids today and forever, we couldn’t not do anything.”


Dr. Hanna-Attisha released her data on Sept. 24, but officials refused to accept the findings. They called her work “unfortunate” and said it fueled public discontentment in a time of “near hysteria.” Despite a “constant nauseous feeling” and minimal sleep, Dr. Hanna-Attisha stood her ground. Her team had checked and double-checked the data, run p-values over and over again. They knew they were right.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha asked Eden Wells, M.D., the state’s chief medical executive, to take a closer look. The two doctors, who had worked together on immunization promotion earlier in the year, compared Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s results with the testing performed by state epidemiologists. They noticed the state’s sample included children who would not normally drink Flint water. After reanalyzing their data, state epidemiologists confirmed Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s findings: The water supply was contaminated with lead. Finally, the children of Flint had been heard.

Community activism and outrage in Flint has been ongoing. Melissa Mays, co-founder of the activist group Water You Fighting For?, has her own story to tell.

“My children would ask me, ‘Why does the water smell funny? Why is the water yellow?’ They would come running out of the bathroom screaming because the bath would be yellow or blue, and they’d say, ‘Mom, something’s wrong with the water again.’” Mays says the water quality directly impacted all three of her children’s health, potentially with long-term consequences. Tests confirmed that everyone in the family has high levels of lead, copper, aluminum, tin and chromium in their bloodstream.  

“My middle child is 12,” continues Mays. “He fell off his bike and he has two buckle fractures in his wrists, just from falling over. So his bones are weaker. My oldest has holes in the smooth sides of his teeth. The dentist believes it’s because of the lead. And my youngest is still struggling. We can’t get his white blood cell count above 4, when a year and a half ago, it was 10.4. So his immune system is compromised, and he’s getting sick basically whenever somebody sneezes. And they’re all now struggling in school: memory, brain fog. ... I’m terrified for my kids.”

Mays formed “Water You Fighting For,” a group that aimed to raise awareness of the problem, and to call on the government to act. But rather than anger at the dangerous levels of chemicals, she received ridicule. The authorities continued to encourage residents to drink the water, despite knowledge that it was potentially harmful. The former mayor would even go on TV and drink tap water, just to show it was safe.

Lanice Lawson and her nephew Leon started collecting and distributing thousands of bottles of water and raising money to get more via an effort called Bottles for the Babies. And Rachel Maddow’s intense recent coverage has helped bring the situation to the attention of a national audience. 

Lead in paint (and now in water) has historically been a major public health issue, with activists facing off against special interests.

Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children, by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, details that history.

In this incisive examination of lead poisoning during the past half century, Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner focus on one of the most contentious and bitter battles in the history of public health. Lead Warsdetails how the nature of the epidemic has changed and highlights the dilemmas public health agencies face today in terms of prevention strategies and chronic illness linked to low levels of toxic exposure. The authors use the opinion by Maryland’s Court of Appeals—which considered whether researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s prestigious Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI) engaged in unethical research on 108 African-American children—as a springboard to ask fundamental questions about the practice and future of public health. Lead Wars chronicles the obstacles faced by public health workers in the conservative, pro-business, anti-regulatory climate that took off in the Reagan years and that stymied efforts to eliminate lead from the environments and the bodies of American children.

I have deeply personal (as well as political) reasons for following what is happening in Flint. As a child, my parents used to take me to visit the daughter of friends at a New York state mental hospital. She had lead poisoning from eating the paint on her crib, and became too violent for her parents to keep her at home. I never forgot her, and while a Young Lords activist in New York City, helped mount a campaign to test all the children in our community. Jack Newfield, a well-known columnist for the Village Voice,did a series of articles about our actions—which ultimately forced the city Department of Health and city politicians, including Mayor John Lindsey, to address the issue. I know from past experience that apologies are not going to cure children with lead poisoning.

Community activists are calling for Gov. Snyder’s arrest.

The impact of this preventable tragedy will affect families in Flint for the rest of their lives. Flint’s new mayor, Karen Weaver, has said replacing the pipes could cost $1.5 billion.

But there is no dollar amount that can pay for the human cost to children and their parents.

Melissa Mays says after Flint switched its water supply her sons went from being straight-A students to struggling with basic studies. “And I worry because they’re gonna need tutors,” Mays said. “Because I don’t want them to just be set aside and (told) ‘Well okay, your IQ’s a little lower.’ No. I want them to be where they were before this happened.” Yet Mays says there’s little money available for tutors. Daily life in Flint has drained her family’s savings.

“Our garbage disposal just corroded, so that’s another hundred bucks. Went through three water heaters and they’re $500 a pop. And that was…that was it. ‘Cause the rest of it’s gone towards medication. Me being off work and he’s had to miss work from time to time to take care of me and the kids. So yeah, we’re paycheck to paycheck at this point.”

Ironically Mays says her water bills have skyrocketed. Refuse to pay them and the city will shut off the taps. On top of that, Child Protective Services could remove any children living in a house with no running water.

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A Look at Who Gets Left Out of Black History Month

Once again, the month of February is here, marked as Black History Month on calendars in the United States and Canada (October in Great Britan).  

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I Have Watched People Killed By Our Insane Drug Policies

It is hard to believe that there is so much resistance against the distribution of this inexpensive collection of items—the contents of "kits" distributed by Needle or Syringe Exchange Programs (NEPs and SEPs). Public health officials, AIDS researchers and activists involved in harm reduction are all in accord—NEPs save lives, reduce the transmission of HIV and Hepatitis C, and save millions of dollars in health care costs (from the NEPs and SEPs website):

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