News of police stops of African Americans in their cars brought memories of incidents my father had experienced during the mid-1930s through the early 1960s. His band played a lot of gigs in Philadelphia. Every Saturday around 5 o’clock he would gather his sheet music and the case holding his saxophone, and drive into Philadelphia where they performed at different clubs. Coming home to Doylestown, at 3 or 4 in the morning, he would be pulled over on 611 just south of home. Always by the same cop.

And always with the same interrogation: The cop asked for his driver’s license and registration. Then he’d ask where was he coming from and where was he going. He responded politely with the same answers. After I and my five brothers and sisters reached our teens, my father would caution us about behaving properly out in public: “Be respectful and never draw attention to yourself”. We failed to understand why he told us to “behave”. We always behaved.

Years later when an adult, Daddy had shared with me the police interrogations. I tried to imagine what else, as a Black man driving those country roads and city streets at night had he been subjected to? No wonder he gave us “the talk”; he was probably terrified that something like that would happen to us.

We were raised in Doylestown which in the mid1950s was a sleepy community of just over 5,000 people. It was a time when my family was called “colored”. The term “Black” was still years away, as was the ethnic term “African American”. There were only eight “colored” families in the Borough. We jokingly described ourselves as Raisins in a Sea of Rice.

As siblings of color when we stepped out the door, we walked into a milieu where our lives interacted with a majority of white friends.

I’ve often wondered how my family’s life would have been different if we had grown up in either Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas or Virginia or elsewhere. But we grew up in Doylestown, Pennsylvania where only on rare occasions the ugliness of racism reared its head. There’s only one time I can remember being called a “N****r”. As a 10-year old tomboy I picked a fight with a boy after he called me the “N Word”. I won the battle of our fisticuffs under the merry-go-round, surrounded by shouts of kids taking sides for me or him. I was banned from the playground for a week.

Since George Floyd’s murder the loudest voice for change is recognizing education’s failure to include 400 years of African American history and culture in our public schools.

The illustrations on my 1st Grade reading primer featured Dick and Jane, Spot the dog, Mother and Father, the mailman, the police officer and the fireman. I never gave much thought that this 1949 primer showed white faces on every page. Now the current introductory readers have progressed to reflect the faces of America’s diversity.

In my 5th Grade McGraw-Hill Geography text, the awareness of my skin color was reflected back at me from a page devoted to the African continent. The hand-drawn illustration remains embedded in my mind: An African child crouched in a hole with arms hugging his knees. Only the crown of his head is exposed. The African plain of tall grass in the distance is on fire and rages toward the boy in the hole.

The brief narrative accompanying the image explained that as the fire burned through the grass and reached the dugout protecting the boy, it singed his hair. The caption explained how Africans’ hair became “curly” as a result of the fire that raged across the African plain. My two sisters—one older and the other a year behind me, also remember that image.

During 1965 through 1975 I lived in California. Even at that time there was a diverse racial population. Often, I was asked, “What are you? Mexican? Philippine? Hawaiian? Native American? Who are you?”

This was the period of the Anti-War protests, Black Power and the Civil Rights Movement.

Not until 1999 after a journey to Ghana, a country on the West Coast of Africa, did I discover “Who” I was. When my feet touched this African country for the first time, the air embraced me with an aroma heavy with the psychic energies of Black and Brown civilizations. Three more times I would travel to Africa and each time the Motherland welcomed me with its pungent odor.

The frightened African boy hiding in a hole? Gone and replaced with my anxiety as I stepped carefully along a stone passage into the underbelly of a massive fortress built in 1653 by Swedish traders. Cape Coast Castle logged timber and mined gold before the lucrative trade of Africans, already a success in other fortresses constructed during the late 1500s.

Captured Africans were kept in a dungeon with stone walls that rose nearly 30 feet, with sunlight slipping in through one small window near the ceiling. The floor measured approximately half a basketball court. Standing near a wall, I listened as the guide described how hundreds of male Africans were crowded into this space before herded through a passageway onto the beach, then loaded on to a ship, bound for the New World.

I moved closer to the wall and ran the palm of my hand across the smooth blocks, wondering if the African DNA in me could’ve struggled for survival while cramped in this suffocating prison. I inched my fingers between two blocks and scraped granules of detritus into my hand, wrapped them in a tissue and brought them to America. They are more than what my ancestors carried when stolen from the Motherland.

It’s been 400 years since slave traders hauled human beings out of Africa. We survived the captors, the Middle Passage, bondage and the struggle for Freedom. Now is the time to sit across from one another and solve our differences.

There is a Ghanaian word spoken in the Twi dialect: Sankofa. It means “Go Back and Get It. The hen reaches back for the egg symbolizing that before knowing Who you are, you must first learn Where you came from.

Black Lives Matter

“The Sins Committed In The Name of Progress”

Another CH construction picMy February 9 post, Preservation Zero. Progress One featured Addison Hutton, the architect who designed the 19th Century Bucks County Court House. On February 17, Grafitti on East Court Street promised to write about the protesters who painted THE SINS COMMITTED IN THE NAME OF PROGRESS on the construction fence surrounding the demolition site of the old Court House. With a large can of black paint and some brushes, three teenagers plastered the message on the entire length of the fence along E. Court Street, from Broad Street down to the intersection where the streets of Main, Shewell and Court finger away in different directions.

The image above appeared in my February 17 post.

Somewhere there is a photograph that was taken within days after “THE SINS …” graffiti was discovered on the fence. It possibly was published in The Doylestown Intelligencer (now called The Intelligencer), according to a persistent researcher at the Doylestown Historical Society who found a third or fourth generation image in the Spruance Library’s microfiche collection.The photographer must have snapped the picture from the second or third floor of the old Doylestown Boro School which was located catty-corner at Broad & Court Streets. The words are invisible in that image. After inquiries to other historians, former and current publications, and a post on the ‘Growing Up In Doylestown’ facebook page, I came up empty in my search for that photograph.

Over 50 years ago the buildings across the street on East Court Street that face the Court House were homes to Doylestown families. If you walked on the pavement after 10 on any given evening it was typical to find no lights at all shining from the windows of those homes. And as you walked not one human being would cross your path. Now the homes are attorney offices. On this particular July 1958 night, three teenagers decided to make a statement about the loss of the nearly century old County Court House that was being demolished to make way for a more “modern” building.

I spoke to two of the three artists: Ed Greiner and Anne McHugh. Anne who lives in New Jersey apologized for not trusting her memory about this incident that happened 57 years ago. She did however get me in touch with Ed who now makes his home in Maine. The three of them were able to accomplish their task on a dark July night in 1958. Their only fear had been  the prospect of getting caught by their “arch enemy” – Doylestown Police Officer George Silk. Officer Silk often stopped young people who were walking around town after dark; so this midnight excursion was a bold move by the three of them. Not anywhere close to being “juvenile delinquents”, if caught the prank might have been considered Destruction of property or Vandalism.

They hurriedly slapped the words “THE SINS COMMITTED IN THE NAME OF PROGRESS” across the fence along E. Court Street. In a letter to this blog, Ed confessed, “I did drop an ‘M’ or else a ‘T’ from committed, but I was never a strong speller. I made up the statement (maybe). We probably may have had a getaway car and driver.” Ed gets his activism from his mother, Martha Darlington, best described by Ed as a “preservationist”. He recalled how she was a faithful attendee at the County Commissioners’ meetings where she expressed her opposition of losing this iconic structure to the wrecking ball. Each time she spoke during public comments, Ed said “… she was steamrolled”. His mother was one of those Doylestown citizens who pitched in around town when something needed to be done. “Once”, Ed told me, “She gathered some people to go into the woods surrounding Font Hill to clear away underbrush. “She even recruited a Boy Scout troop to help.”

Ed also recalled how back in the day the expanse of lawn surrounding the Court House was a venue for band concerts. At that time there was only one memorial on the lawn, a World War I fountain with two soldiers–one cradling a wounded soldier. After the new court house was built the fountain was relocated to the corner of North Main and Broad Streets. The lawn is now a place with memorials to five wars and a sixth to fireman killed in the line of duty.

Within days after its appearance, local residents would stand in front of the fence, arms crossed in front of them as they silently stared at the message. Before a week had gone by the message was covered over with dark green paint. I smiled every time I walked past the fence because looking closely, the three protestors’ message was still visible. It was a half-ass attempt to suppress a statement that in the 21st Century could be painted on demolition fences  surrounding old treasured buildings or land speculators bulldozing farmland.

Elizabeth Biddle Yarnall, the niece of Addison Hutton, described her uncle in her biography of him as a “Nonconforming Quaker”. Addison would be pleased that almost a hundred years later, three teenagers admired his vision enough to pay homage to him with a classic graffiti statement.