Why ‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ is a must-see The documentary tells the story of how black colleges brought our people out of slavery

I have watched Stanley Nelson’s documentary, Tell Them We Are Rising, three times now.

The first viewing was in 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival, where Nelson and his team received a standing ovation after the audience watched the film. The second was last summer at a private screening in New York, where Nelson discussed the film and filmmaking with five students from historically black colleges. The third time I joined an audience in the Oprah Winfrey Theater at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to view the film on Monday with Nelson in attendance.

Each viewing uncovers new nuggets of insight that underlined the tenacity and resilience of enslaved men and women so desperate for education that they risked death to learn to read.

Nelson said he was inspired to tackle Tell Them We Are Rising for multiple reasons.

His parents attended historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His mother, Alleluia Ransom, attended Talladega College in Alabama. His father, Dr. Stanley Nelson, attended Howard University. “That changed their lives, and it changed my life,” he said.

Nelson’s larger vision was to pay homage to a significant African-American institution. The subject was not particularly sexy, but it illuminated the quest for black freedom through the prism of higher education. “There have been just a few institutions that we’ve had as African-Americans that have sustained us,” Nelson said during a recent interview. “One of them is black colleges and universities. I thought that it was a story that nobody was lining up to tell.”

With several Emmys, a Peabody and MacArthur Fellowship, Nelson has become one of the country’s most accomplished documentarians. This film, Tell Them We Are Rising, may have been one of the most difficult he has attempted.

There were challenges and hurdles. The first was how to take a collection of great but individual HBCU stories and weave them into a narrative that described a powerful, overarching experience.

“So many times, people think of it as the Morgan State story or the Howard story or the Fisk story or the Spelman story,” Nelson said. “Nobody was looking at it as a united story.”

Unlike his powerful civil rights documentary Freedom Summer, based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, there was no one classic text to draw from. In Tell Them We Are Rising, Nelson and his team had to piece together footage, articles, photographs, “everything we could” to tell a captivating story.

The other challenge was telling the story of an institution whose history continues to unfold.

His 2015 documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, accounted for a period between 1966 to 1972 and chronicled certain watershed moments. By contrast, Tell Them We Are Rising covers the 150-year journey of black colleges in 90 minutes.

Some scenes were especially hard to watch, as the film explores historical events particularly personal to African-American viewers, such as the killings by law enforcement of Southern University students Denver Smith and Leonard Brown during 1972 protests, which remain unsolved.

Every black college graduate 65 or older lived through one of these moments, whether at a predominantly white institution petitioning for more black awareness or at an HBCU petitioning a conservative administration to take back its blackness.

But as president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund Michael Lomax said, the story of HBCUs is not simply a story of deprivation, need and want.

“The story of HBCUs as Stanley tells it is the story of powerful action,” Lomax said. “There are so many stories to choose from we had to figure out what stories would work and leave the audience with a sense of what black colleges have been and maybe where they are going.”

One of the most poignant moments of Tell Them We Are Rising takes place at Spelman College when Alversia Wade, an incoming freshman, explains why she chose the institution.

Wade spent her young academic career, from kindergarten through high school, as the single black student in her school. She describes the feeling of walking on campus and seeing a sea of fellow black students. “They all look like you,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “They all looked like you.”

Tell Them We are Rising, which airs Monday night on PBS, comes at a time when there is a hunger for positive, powerful images and good news within the far-flung black community.

On Friday, Marvel’s much-anticipated superhero film, Black Panther, will open in theaters across the country. Nelson was working on his Black Panther documentary when Marvel announced it was planning to release its superhero movie in 2018.

“When I first heard about it, I thought about Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and the bunch,” Nelson said.

There was some confusion. “People would call up and say, ‘I hear you’re working on this Black Panther film, is it Marvel or is it DC?’ ” Nelson recalled. “I said it’s neither one of them. It’s real life.”

He looks forward to seeing the film. “It’s that it’s creating so much excitement. Like, it’s something African-Americans needed and didn’t know they needed.”

The HBCU student, in many ways, is like the hero of Black Panther — a mythical African superhero existing outside the suffocating institutionalized racism that defines virtually every minute, every hour, of life for black Americans. While their institutions are often under-resourced, black students who choose the HBCU experience enjoy the psychic respite and reinforcement of being in the majority.

At a time when 9 percent of black college students were enrolled at an HBCU in 2015, the often-asked question is do we still need HBCUs? The question overlooks the reality that 90 percent of black students are spread over thousands of predominantly white institutions, leaving those who attend a significant but often overwhelmed minority. The largest concentration of young black college students resides at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities. For many young students, that alone is worth the price of the ticket.

HBCUs are not for everyone, no more than single-gender schools are not for everyone. Still, black colleges and universities are needed more than ever.

During a post-film panel discussion Monday, former Spelman president Johnetta Cole said, “If historically black colleges and universities did not exist, we would have to invent them. … Since they do exist, we have an extraordinary responsibility to support them.”

“Until racism and racialism end in this country, there will be a need for HBCUs,” Nelson told me. “Until the education system is an even playing field — from elementary school to junior high school until college, until those things are equal — we still need HBCUs. Until we have an equal society, young African-American people need a safe intellectual space that HBCUs provide.”

Lomax, the United Negro College Fund president and CEO, said Tell Them We Are Rising was “an inspirational story. It is a call to action to our community, first and foremost to invest in them, to own them, to support them and to ensure that they remain durable in the future.”

That resonates.

Tell Them We Are Rising challenges those of us who attended HBCUs. A challenge to look in the mirror, to step up, to donate what Cole referred to as the three Ts: our time, our talent and our treasure.

This is the only way HBCUs will continue to rise.

“These institutions will not survive without our support,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”


To share in the conversation about Tell them We Are Rising, join us on social media Monday, using the hashtags #HBCURising and #BHMxHBCU.

On this day in black history: Ida B. Wells gets a stamp, MLK arrested in Selma, and more Black History Month: The Undefeated edition Feb. 1

Thursday marks the beginning of Black History Month. For the next 28 days (and beyond), we will provide a daily dose of inspirational stories and videos to help explain the complex history of the black experience and black identity in America.

Historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915, and 11 years later the organization created Negro History Week, which originally occurred the second week in February. During the 1960s, it was expanded into a month on many college campuses, and in 1976, President Gerald R. Ford designated February as Black History Month.

Below are a few notable things that have taken place on Feb. 1.


1865 – First African-American admitted to the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court.

John Swett Rock was an American teacher, doctor, dentist, lawyer and abolitionist and one of the first African-American men to earn a medical degree. He was the first African-American to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.

1865 – Ratification of the 13th Amendment

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, was adopted by the 38th Congress. Ratification was completed on Dec. 6, 1865.

1960 – Sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina

Four students from North Carolina A&T College started a sit-in movement in Greensboro, North Carolina. By Feb. 10, the movement had spread to 15 cities in five Southern states.

1965 – Selma demonstration ends in 700 arrests

More than 700 demonstrators, including Martin Luther King Jr., are arrested in Selma, Alabama.

1978 – The first Black Heritage USA Series stamp is issued

The first stamp of the U.S. Postal Service’s Black Heritage USA series honors Harriet Tubman, famed abolitionist and “conductor” on the Underground Railroad.

1990 – U.S. Postal Service celebrated Ida B. Wells as part of the Black Heritage Series

The commemorative 25-cent stamp, the 13th entry in the series, was released at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

1997 – First 24-hour black movie channel, BET/Starz, was launched

BET Holdings and Encore Media Corp. launched BET/Starz, the first 24-hour black movie channel.

New York Knicks visit balcony where King was shot Front office, players and coaches call the moment ‘chilling’

Martin Luther King Jr. was staying in Room 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, on that dismal day of April 4, 1968. He was assassinated on the balcony outside of his room at the place now known as the National Civil Rights Museum.

The day King was killed, the New York Knicks’ front-office power trio of president Steve Mills, general manager Scott Perry and vice president of player development and G League operations Craig Robinson were all in elementary school. But they each have a vivid memory of the sense of loss the world experienced.

Perry, a Detroit native, was only 5 years old.

“I just know that there was sadness in my household. I can remember that. At that young age, it was this deep sadness,” he said.

Mills was 8 years old, but he recalls the sense of loss and his parents and grandmother being in “shock.”

Robinson, the brother of former first lady Michelle Obama, was about 5 years old. He remembers the sadness, but it also was the first time he was introduced to the word “assassination.”

“I also remember it was the first time I had a discussion with my parents about death that wasn’t caused by illness or old age,” he said. “I remember that very clearly because you heard the word ‘assassinated’ and you were like, ‘What does that mean?’ And everybody was sad. It was like the whole neighborhood was sad. It was one of those things, one that you can remember a dark cloud. I don’t remember much, but I remember a dark cloud.”

For the first time, the three men visited the museum with their team, coaching staff and other members of the Knicks organization last week.

And they all got to stand on that balcony where King lost his life while in Memphis advocating for the black struggle.

Private team tours are not new to the museum, established in 1991. But this year, player and team attendance for these tours has increased.

As the world approaches the 50th anniversary of King’s death, known as MLK50, teams are taking the opportunity to treat the private tours as a bonding experience, reflecting on the legacy of King and the civil rights movement.

For Mills, being able to spend time at the museum ahead of the 2018 commemoration was special.

“We had the opportunity, actually, to go out on the balcony, so to end up out there was just incredible. It was very captivating and interesting,” Mills said.

Robinson said that the visit was far more emotional than he’d imagined because it is the location of King’s death and because of the players’ reactions.

“These young guys didn’t grow up thinking about it the way we did, and this was a first event for a lot of the guys,” Robinson said. “And even the guys who had been there before, it had been remodeled and new, and it was interesting talking to them and seeing the disappointment in the way things were. So that was emotional for me, as well, seeing their reaction.”

Mills said Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. was showing his teammates photos he’d taken on his phone a day after the visit.

“He was talking about how important it was for Walt Frazier, who was a very sort of introspective guy who doesn’t talk that much, to hear him talk about his experiences as a team and how they used to go and sit at counters and get arrested,” Mills said.

Walt Frazier and Courtney Lee at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Tom Zweibel

Frazier, a Hall of Famer who played for the Knicks from 1967-77, is the team’s color commentator.

“For our players to hear one of the legendary Knick players talk about those experiences from a personal level, I think that’s what we’re here to do, to try to get these guys connected and understand where they fit. I thought that was a very emotional moment as part of the experience,” Mills added.

Perry called the visit a tremendous learning experience.

“It was a great time for reflection about all the things that had happened in history. And when you leave there, it does really, really give me more of a sense of purpose about trying to do better and serve people.”

The mission of the National Civil Rights Museum is to chronicle key episodes of the American civil rights movement, examine today’s global civil and human rights issues, provoke thoughtful debate and serve as a catalyst for positive change, according to its website. It holds 264 exhibits, including historic collections and interactive pieces.

Knicks forward and team captain Lance Thomas has visited the museum three times, but it was his first time with the Knicks team.

“I think it was amazing, especially for us coming around this time of year,” Thomas said. “It was very powerful. A lot of people know who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is but they don’t really know the story of the things that he was a part of and the things that he stood for, and we were very lucky to be able to have that tour and to have that team experience. We saw people locking into reading a lot of the descriptions on the wall. … I think we’ve come a long way, and it’s an unbelievable testament to thriving and pushing for things that you believe in. I feel like if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were still alive, he would be proud of the progress that has been made.”

Knicks guard Courtney Lee frequented the museum during his two-season stint with the Memphis Grizzlies. This was his fifth visit.

“It’s always good to go back,” Lee said. “Especially with a different group of guys, with all the foreigners we have on our team, it was some of their first time going. So just seeing their reaction once they learned about how this country was built and the sacrifices that a lot of people made for us to live in equality — their reactions were priceless, pretty much. I can speak volumes to how Martin Luther King helped us out.”

Team veteran Jarrett Jack first visited the Civil Rights Museum when he was 15 years old.

“We had AAU nationals here in Memphis. My mom and dad are both from Louisiana, so they are familiar with the struggles and the rigors of what Dr. King and what men and women were fighting for so long,” Jack said. “They made it a point to take us even at a young age when we probably didn’t appreciate it. They would make us understand the history and kind of turn it into, instead of a basketball fun activity for us, but more of an experience. So this was probably my third time. They allowed us to go out on the balcony, which is where Dr. King had his last moments, and that was kind of chilling just to stand in the spot where he fell.”

The 34-year-old said he understands that although King is usually celebrated once a year, his legacy, his teachings and his many speeches live on daily.

“When you think about it, he’s been dead 50 years. … Five decades. … Half a century, which is a very short time for us to do things like play in the NBA or make whatever you want to do possible,” Jack said.

Visiting the museum was important to Perry because it aligns with the organization’s vision of making sure players are well-rounded.

“Basketball is something that they do as a job, but it doesn’t define them totally as people, and that’s what we want, those guys to really be well-rounded. When they’re done playing basketball, there’s a lot of life hopefully for them. Giving them a chance to experience things like what they experienced [at the museum] can go a long way,” Perry said.

For Robinson, the museum introduces some history that is not traditionally taught in schools.

The Knicks and their management team visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Tom Zweibel

“We have some foreign players on our team, and I was mentioning to Frank Ntilikina about the wall that has a lot of the black history heroes on,” said Robinson, who was Mills’ teammate at Princeton. “And I was explaining to him how, even for me, I knew who Harriet Tubman was, and I knew who Sojourner Truth was or Frederick Douglass or Dred Scott. But there were like 16 other people there who I’d never heard of. And I was just remarking at how little we get in African-American history growing up in schools. And now it’s more because you have a month now. When we were in school, you didn’t have a month. You had those encyclopedias that were beige, that every black family had, and you would flip through. But [Ntilikina] said, ‘You know, I never had any African history.’ He grew up in Belgium, family is Rwandan, and so here I am like, ‘Man, I didn’t have this,’ and then he tells me he didn’t have anything. Just watching him, that was eye-opening for me.”

The intersection of race, sports and culture exists, and the Knicks’ front office wants to encourage a climate that welcomes conversations around topics that may intrigue players.

“I try to make myself available to talk about all that stuff when they want to talk about it,” Robinson said. “I try not to be sort of editorial with my comments because, first of all, we have a professional relationship, so I don’t want my feelings to be their feelings. But secondly, of course, with my history and my familial relations, I sort of try and keep church and state separate, but whenever they want to talk about something political, I’m always right there to talk about it. And you would probably be surprised by the number of times we talk about that stuff. We have quite a few players who like to engage in what’s going on in the world today.”

Mills agreed with Robinson, saying that the three of them are always open to “answering questions, giving a perspective and letting guys have an opportunity to frame what they’re experiencing and give them some perspective.”

Perry said their doors are always open for issues beyond the players’ profession.

“That’s just how I was raised to be as a person,” he said. “I think one of the broader lessons and the type of culture that we want to have here when you start talking about sports and how it intertwines with society is unification, and that’s what we’re about.”

Memphis Grizzlies players and coaches share sentiments about playing on MLK Day An event-filled weekend and win over Lakers gives team an edge going into MLK50

When NBA players live and work in a city where Martin Luther King Jr. made such an impact, they find themselves faced with a duty to defend their home court. The Memphis Grizzlies maneuvered their way to a 123-114 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Monday at the FedEx Forum in the 16th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration.

The day consisted of many festivities including the honoring of WNBA and NBA players during the 13th Annual National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award. This year’s recipients were Penny Hardaway, Sam Perkins, James Worthy and WNBA All-Star Swin Cash. The award recognizes dedicated contributions to civil and human rights and laying foundations for future leaders through their career in sports in the spirit of King.

(From left to right) Grizzlies interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, Penny Hardaway, Sam Perkins, Bernie Bickerstaff, Swin Cash and James Worthy tour the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee.

Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

The weekend was filled with events that included a discussion at the National Civil Rights Museum (“MLK50: Where Do We Go From Here”) with Cash, Grizzlies guard Mike Conley and Lakers center Brook Lopez. Before tipoff on Monday, the honorees participated in the Earl Lloyd Sports Legacy Symposium.

Sports teams often visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which houses the location where King was shot. Check out what players had to say about playing in Memphis on MLK Day while the city prepares for MLK50, the 50th year commemorating King’s death.


“When you have this opportunity to pay that respect, you do this job with the best of your ability. You give everything that you’ve got in honor of those who had to fight those fights for you and the sacrifices that they made for you. … Understanding how the organization, the city, and the community fought to get the game back on Martin Luther King Jr. Day was an eye-opening thing. It was an awareness of just how important this game is and how much it means to be played today.” – Grizzlies interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff

“This is my second time that I remember being part of MLK Day. It’s a special game, special moment for a person that did a lot for not only African-Americans but for us as a society. It’s always good to come out here and celebrate him.” – Grizzlies guard Mario Chalmers

“It means a lot [to play in Memphis]. It brings a lot of my passion out and makes me want to play harder for the organization and for the Memphis fans. It’s my first MLK Day playing. It felt great. I’ve visited [the National Civil Rights Museum] twice. I learned so much about history. Coming from Canada, you don’t really know a lot because it’s very multicultural. I figured out a lot of things, like how to appreciate my culture more.” – Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks

“Coming out here every night and playing for Memphis means so much to me because the fans are great. I’ve got a lot of fan base from when I was in school. I can put up two jerseys: one for college and one for the NBA. Martin Luther King gave us a chance to chase our dreams, so I’m happy to play on this day.” – Grizzlies guard Tyreke Evans

“It’s an absolute honor to play on this holiday, I think. For where we are as a world and where we’re trying to go, Martin Luther King Jr. stood up for what was right. But what really separates him is he really emphasized doing it through a peaceful manner, and all he wanted is what everyone should want and that’s equality. To be able to play on this day, especially with a sport where you get so many people from different backgrounds and different places across the world, it’s an honor.” – Lakers head coach Luke Walton

In Memphis, the changing legacies of Elvis and Martin Luther King Jr. The city loved the singer but struggled for years to honor the man who was killed at the Lorraine Motel

I didn’t know the two white men. And if they knew of me, it was only because I was the newest black reporter at the morning newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee, the city where Elvis Presley grew up and Martin Luther King Jr. died.

“Well,” one of the men said as I entered the men’s room, “if they are going to have a national holiday for him [Martin Luther King Jr.], they should have one for Elvis too.” The men looked stricken when I entered the room, as if hearing their conversation would cause me to judge them, the newspaper, the South …

I looked away.

I didn’t want to seem to judge or scorn them with my eyes. Besides, even as a struggling young reporter, I’d learned to look for meaning in people’s speech that went beyond the words they spoke. And in the man’s tone, I’d heard a reverence for the supposed “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” and not disdain for the slain civil rights leader who’d been assassinated in Memphis in 1968.

For many outside of Memphis, Elvis was the ultimate appropriator of black culture: a continuation of the white King of Jazz (Paul Whiteman) and the white King of Swing (Benny Goodman), a forerunner of the supposed white kings of rap (Eminem and Vanilla Ice), pretenders whose claims to their respective thrones melted into pools of absurdity.

But during his rise to stardom in the 1950s, Elvis had been a majestic talent: an electrifying singer and performer. In his 1960s movies, which were usually formulaic showcases for his talents, Elvis exemplified a boy’s idea of a cool man. He drove fast cars, he chased pretty women and he knocked bad guys out with deft blows. And he was beautiful, just as Sam Cooke and Ray Charles were. Like them, Elvis’ voice and life straddled Saturday night and Sunday morning, the secular and divine.

More important to many in Memphis, Elvis, a native of Mississippi, was a Southern man who’d come home again and stayed there. His generosity among the locals was legendary. People proudly wore the jewelry he’d given them. They drove the Cadillacs he’d given them too.

On Sundays, Memphis radio stations played Elvis’ gospel music, for which he won his only three Grammys. He’d died in 1977. He was just 42, and in the early 1980s in Memphis, many were still trying to come to grips with his death.

Meanwhile, in the early 1980s, Memphis had come to grips with Martin’s death in one place in a disdainful way: at the Lorraine Motel, where the civil rights leader had stayed before his assassination. Martin’s room was marked by a few pastel ribbons and little else. I continue to be haunted by the mournful breeze I saw stirring the fraying ribbons.

I’d gone to the sagging motel to interview Margaret Walker, who regaled me with stories about the racism and the sexism she’d had to overcome to produce poems such as For My People.

Walker was staying in a room just a few doors down from where Martin had stayed in the hours before an assassin’s bullet claimed his life on April 4, 1968. When I walked by Martin’s last room, I saw a black woman sitting on the bed in another motel room a few feet away. A white man was putting on his suit or taking it off. This was in the middle of the day.

A lot has changed since then. Since 1991, the former Lorraine Motel is a part of the National Civil Rights Museum. In the early 1980s, Memphis largely neglected Beale Street and its blues heritage. Today, Memphis and a revitalized Beale Street celebrate the blues.

Furthermore, Memphis has had black mayors. Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, have too, circumstances that would not have been possible without the crusade that Martin led.

Indeed, the powerhouse football programs at Alabama and Georgia, which will be on display in the national championship game Monday night in Atlanta, wouldn’t be possible without the modern civil rights movement either. So many of the teams’ key players are black. Neither football program was integrated before 1971.

Today, people all around the world will mark what would have been Elvis’ 83rd birthday. They will sing his greatest hits. They will watch his movies. And those who knew him will tell stories about what made the man special.

Next Monday, Martin will be remembered too. He led a movement for equality, justice and peace that didn’t start with him and won’t end with us. In the darkest hour, Martin said, light a candle. When what he called the mountain of despair loomed highest, he said, pluck a stone of hope from that mountain.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a measure making the third Monday in the year a federal holiday. The holiday began to be observed three years later. And this year, the national King observance falls on what would have been Martin’s 89th birthday.

In some ways, the ritualized ways we remember Martin, including the replays of his most famous speeches and sermons, his greatest hits, have become a kind of forgetting, not of Martin but of our shared responsibility to help make America a better country and the world a better place.

So it won’t be what any one of us does next Monday, but it will be what we can come together to do next Tuesday and beyond that will honor Martin. During his life, he was an American and world leader. He challenged his country to live up to its highest ideals.

And his words, deeds and example challenge each of us, now and always, to find ways to further that noble cause.

These black women owned 2017 Meet the women who shook up sports, culture and more

Yes, 2017 was a rough one. But it was also a year of black women fully stepping into their power. From athletes to activists to writers to filmmakers to curators, these black women are truly Undefeated.

 

Serena Williams

Serena Williams waves to the crowd as she leaves the court with the Daphne Akhurst Trophy on Jan. 28 after winning the women’s singles final of the 2017 Australian Open against her sister Venus Williams at Melbourne Park in Australia.

Scott Barbour/Getty Images

What a year it was for Serena Williams, arguably the greatest athlete ever. She won the Australian Open, her 23rd Grand Slam singles title, while eight weeks pregnant. She gave birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., in September and married longtime beau and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian in a dream wedding in November — and Nike just named a building after her. She’s already making plans to defend her Australian Open title in 2018.

 

Dee rees

Dee Rees poses for a portrait in New York City on Oct. 11.

Kholood Eid for The Undefeated

Dee Rees, who made the critically acclaimed Pariah and the Emmy Award-winning Bessie, has directed a new American classic with Mudbound, a sprawling post-World War II epic that follows the lives of a sharecropping family and the family that owns the land. Although the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been resistant to movies distributed by Netflix, if there’s any kind of justice in the world, Rees, a product of historically black Florida A&M university, will be nominated for an Academy Award for best director.

 

the nigerian women’s bobsled team

From left: Brakewoman Akuoma Omeoga, driver Seun Adigun and brakewoman Ngozi Onwumere.

Courtesy the Bobsled and Skeleton Sports Federation of Nigeria

You’ll do well to remember the names: Akuoma Omeoga, Seun Adigun and Ngozi Onwumere. They have made history as the first African team to qualify for the Winter Olympics in the bobsled category. And this will be the first time Nigeria has been represented in the Winter Olympics. All three women are sprinters, and Adigun, who founded the bobsled team in 2016, competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics. The team will head to Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February to compete for a medal.

 

tiffany haddish

Tiffany Haddish was the breakout star of the most successful comedy of the year, Girls Trip. She became the first black woman stand-up comic to host Saturday Night Live. In addition to a Showtime comedy special, she appeared in Jay-Z’s video for “Moonlight,” which satirized Friends; published a book; starred in The New York Times‘ annual “Greatest Performers” portfolio; and next year, she’ll be producing and starring in a satirical thriller with John Cho. The question for the last black unicorn isn’t “What will she do next?” but “What can’t she do?”

 

munroe bergdorf

Munroe Bergdorf is a British social activist, DJ and model who in August 2017 became the first transgender model to appear in a L’Oréal campaign. She was fired after the Daily Mail surfaced Facebook posts where she spoke out against racism and white supremacy and called for better understanding of systemic injustice. The 30-year-old hasn’t let any of that stop her, though. She signed a new contract with the U.K. beauty brand Illamasqua, is working with The Huffington Post on a new docuseries and continues to speak out against racial and social injustice.

 

sloane stephens

Sloane Stephens of the United States reacts after receiving her check for her victory against compatriot Madison Keys in the women’s singles final at the US Open tennis tournament on Sept. 9 in Flushing, Queens, New York City.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Sloane Stephens made history in September when she won the US Open vs. Madison Keys. She also became only the fourth black woman to win a Grand Slam singles title, after Althea Gibson, Venus Williams and Serena Williams. What makes Stephens’ success all the more remarkable is the foot injury and subsequent low ranking she overcame to get back to the top. Another victory Stephens completed this year? Graduating from Indiana University East with a degree in communication studies.

Jesmyn Ward

Author Jesmyn Ward hit the “nerd lottery” this year when she was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. She was one of 24 people honored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation with a $625,000 prize. Ward, who wrote the award-winning novels Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing as well as the James Baldwin-inspired essay collection The Fire This Time, teaches at Tulane University in New Orleans and lives in her home state of Mississippi.

rujeko Hockley

Curator Rujeko Hockley has been shaking up the art world with her focus on exhibiting works by black women artists. Hockley, who was the assistant curator of contemporary art at the Brooklyn Museum before heading to the Whitney Museum of American Art, organized the traveling exhibit We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85, which is now on display at the California African American Museum. She was also recently tapped to co-curate the 2019 Whitney Biennial, an exhibit of contemporary American art, typically by young and lesser-known artists.

Wnba teams

Top: The Indiana Fever kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Phoenix Mercury on Sept. 21, 2016, in Indianapolis. Bottom: The Phoenix Mercury stand and kneel during the national anthem before the game against the Minnesota Lynx on Sept. 30, 2016, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images; David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images;

While NFL players have been garnering attention this year for kneeling to protest police brutality, WNBA players have been consistent in their social activism, and it started before 2017. In addition to kneeling, players from multiple teams have been catching fines for wearing T-shirts in support of #BlackLivesMatter and have held news conferences to speak out against police brutality.

lena Waithe

Lena Waithe

Steve Granitz/WireImage

Lena Waithe, who penned the instant classic “Thanksgiving” episode of the second season of Master of None, made history this year as the first black woman to win an Emmy for comedy writing. Waithe also wrote and produced The Chi, a TV series for Showtime based on her experience growing up on Chicago’s South Side. It premieres in January, and if she isn’t nominated for multiple awards, we will eat our hats.

ava duvernay

It’s Ava DuVernay’s world, and we’re just living in it. In this year alone, DuVernay earned a Peabody, a BAFTA and four Emmys for 13th, her documentary about mass incarceration in the United States. She also produced season two of the critically acclaimed OWN drama Queen Sugar and hired all-women directing teams for each episode. DuVernay also landed on the cover of Time as part of their “First” series and will be releasing her adaptation of the classic fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time in March 2018.

maame biney

Maame Biney takes the corner on her way to victory in the women’s 500-meter A final for a spot on the Olympic team during the 2018 U.S. Speedskating Short Track Olympic Team Trials at the Utah Olympic Oval on Dec. 16 in Salt Lake City.

Harry How/Getty Images

Maame Biney, a 17-year-old from Washington, D.C., who was born in Ghana, just qualified for the Winter Olympics in speedskating, making her the first black girl to do so.
This tweet really says it all:

Memphis Grizzlies honor civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. with new Nike uniform Front-office execs discuss the ‘I Am a Man’-inspired look in our exclusive interview

The NBA’s most meaningful uniform of the season honors the civil rights movement, an iconic slogan, and one of the era’s most fearless, Martin Luther King Jr.

On Friday, the Memphis Grizzlies announce the release of its MLK50 City Edition uniform. The new look marks the fourth and final installment of the series of uniforms presented to all 30 NBA teams by Nike in the company’s first season as the league’s official apparel provider. Nike’s Association and Icon uniforms follow the traditional home and away concept. The Statement uniforms (for example, Golden State’s “The Town” jerseys) are geared to styling big games and rivalries, while the City uniforms, which have yet to be fully released across the league, draw inspiration from each team’s community.

Memphis, Tennessee’s, version of the City uniform honors the 50 years that have passed since the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike for racial, social and economic justice. The movement was sparked by the deaths of two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were killed by a malfunctioning garbage truck on Feb. 1, 1968. The strike brought King to Memphis, where he was assassinated on the balcony outside of his room at the Lorraine Hotel, the very day after delivering his now timeless “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

The stark and subtly designed black-and-white uniform, with an underlined wordmark, draws inspiration from the “I Am a Man” slogan, which served as a powerful rallying cry in bold lettering on protest signs wielded during strike marches. The Grizzlies will debut the jerseys on the court in a nationally televised home Martin Luther King Jr. Day matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, set for Jan. 15, 2018. The team is also scheduled to wear them on April 4, 2018, in support of the National Civil Rights Museum’s (located at the Lorraine Motel) remembrance of the 50th anniversary of assassination of King.

The Undefeated spoke with Grizzlies president of business operations Jason Wexler, as well as John Pugliese, the team’s vice president of brand, content marketing, broadcast and communications, about the process of bringing the tribute to life.


How did the idea come about — to honor the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike?

Wexler: As there’s been greater flexibility in uniform design over the years. And, locally as we approach the 50-year anniversary of MLK’s death, we felt that maybe there was an opportunity in the lead-up to express the history of how we got here. The difficult thing was the uniform design would have to be 100 percent spot-on to be completely respectful, and completely understanding of the magnitude of the history we’re trying to bring awareness to. We were committed going into it, that if the design wasn’t spot-on, respectful and understanding, we weren’t going to do it unless we could get the design perfect. We really commend the designers at Nike for coming through.

When did the Nike design process begin, and how hands-on was the Grizzlies organization?

Wexler: We understand the importance of MLK Day, and the anniversary of his death being [at its] the 50th year in Memphis. So we really gave Nike a lot of background with regard to what we’ve done with the museum. We shared with them what our intentions were from the organization for this year, and the things we want to recognize. They were able to look at that, combined with their take on the history of Memphis. It was really a great partnership in terms of design, and part of that is fueled by the fact that Memphis is the second-biggest Nike city in the country. Their North American Logistics Center is here, so their design was really motivated both by the history, and Nike’s physical presence, and civic presence, in our community.

 

The Grizzlies will debut the jerseys in a nationally televised home Martin Luther King Jr. Day matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 15, 2018.

Why the ‘I Am a Man’ sign?

Wexler: When you look back to the history of what led to April 4, 1968, it came from the sanitation workers’ strike, and those signs are the most iconic image of the strike. And the church, Clayborn Temple, where the strikers organized, and marched from is literally across the street from FedEx Forum. The Civil Rights Museum is four blocks away. We’re in their backyard. So when we were looking for design inspiration and we look back to that moment in time, that’s the most iconic image.

Getty Images

One thing that really struck me about it, too, is last year when the team was doing a tour of the National Civil Rights Museum, Elliot Perry, one of our owners, who does radio commentary, and player support with respect to player initiatives in the community … he was leading this tour and he points to a person in the photo, and goes, ‘This is my grandfather.’ So this is somebody we know, and work with every day. In this city, this is a very much so alive connection. It’s history but it’s not ancient history. It’s history that’s very present among us daily with the people who are in … Memphis. We’re not looking back so far — we’re looking within ourselves to try and find the right inspiration.

Was the plan always to keep the uniform simple, like the ‘I Am a Man’ sign?

Wexler: Once you decide on the sign as the design influence, it’s so powerful in and of itself, and the starkness of it is so powerful. You look at all the photos of the era, and they’re all pretty much black-and-white photos. You see all these incredibly dignified people leading marches dressed in their dark suits and ties, and it’s inherently a somber moment and event. To sit there and try to dress that up or add flair or pizzazz to it would just do a disservice. If we could not get the tone and aesthetic exactly right on this, we weren’t going to do it. And I think part of the tone and aesthetic was appreciating the inherent seriousness of the subject matter and being respectful of that.

“The uniform design would have to be 100 percent spot-on to be completely respectful, and completely understanding of the magnitude of the history we’re trying to bring awareness to.”

What’s the significance of the use of blue on the mostly black and white uniform?

Pugliese: We utilized Beale Street Blue accents on the both logos in the waistline and the collar on the back. The reason why we wanted to use Beale Street Blue was to highlight location. Our address is 191 Beale St., and Clayborn Temple, where all the protest started, is adjacent to us, right next door, we’re in their backyard. And Beale Street is also the site of the new I Am a Man Plaza opening in April 2018.

Do you remember seeing the final design of the uniform for the first time? What was going through your mind?

Wexler: You go through a fair number of uniform iterations in the course of design, but when we pulled up the screenshot of the jersey, with Memphis in that same block font that everyone here knows and that single underline, you look at it and go, ‘This … captures what we’re trying to do in bringing recognition and awareness to the history here.’ It draws a direct … respectful and purposeful correlation … it was just clear that it worked. Once we landed on that design, the amount of refinement was nominal. The designers really got it.

Pugliese: It’s respectful and powerful together. And it was really the starkness of the wordmark, and how it was treated. When we saw it, we were all taken aback, and knew we had something special.

How did the Grizzlies players react to the design of City Edition uniform?

Pugliese: A few players have seen it, and they got it right away … especially the ones who have been here for a while. They’ve been part of this community, seen the work that we’ve done in partnership with the museum … they immediately got it and loved it … Mike Conley, first and foremost, who’s been here for his entire career, saw it and understood it.

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Wexler: Mike’s understanding of MLK Day … we put on an entire weekend of events, discussions and conversations in and around the game, and Mike has always been a part of that. He knows that imagery as being so immediately recognizable.

“It’s history but it’s not ancient history. It’s history that’s very present among us daily with the people … in Memphis.”

How often will the Grizzlies be wearing this uniform?

Pugliese: There are two key dates. We will debut it on Martin Luther King Day and end on the anniversary of his assassination. But we’ll wear it a few other dates, also. We want to tell the story throughout that entire date range.

How important is this uniform — with regard to the legacy of MLK, and the civil rights movement — in the city of Memphis?

Wexler: Emerging out of the remembrance of Dr. King, we are trying to bring awareness and attention … As the Grizzlies, what we can do is use our megaphone and our platform to make sure that everybody locally, nationally and globally understands what the history is, and bring attention to the National Civil Rights Museum, which has done a remarkable job of documenting that history.

And [it’s about] what we refer to as a ‘call to reflection’: ‘Where do we go from here?’ The ‘I Am a Man’ slogan is bigger than just a uniform, hence why it was inspiration and not a literal translation onto the uniform. We’re not trying to be the interpreters of what that slogan means to the city, we’re just trying to bring awareness and reflection, and let other people make those decisions.

The Undefeated does 2017 The highs, the lows and the must-reads

Here at The Undefeated, we spent a trying 2017 attempting to cover the world through your eyes. We had the Colin Kaepernick saga on lock, the NFL protests covered. We learned from Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng that “the biggest misconception is people thinking Muslims are terrorists.” We reveled at Whitley Gilbert’s wardrobe and watched Tarik Cohen shine at North Carolina A&T before he was a rookie standout with the Chicago Bears. We showed you chic street style at Afropunk, brought back Drumline and demonstrated that love knows no color. 2017 was a tough year, but TU brought it to you, warts and all.

Hey, 2017, we’d hate to miss you but love to watch you leave.

Experiences

Collage of significant black Americans

The Undefeated 44 most influential black Americans in history A collection of dreamers and doers, noisy geniuses and quiet innovators, record-breakers and symbols of pride and aspiration.

Sports

Artist rendition of LeBron James making his way to the court from the locker rooms

LeBron Is Crowned On a Detroit night, about a decade ago — via 48 points in double overtime — LeBron graduated from ‘phenom’ to ‘grown man’

Culture

Artist rendition of Whitley

Whitley’s World “You can’t unsee A Different World. You’ve seen it, it’s kind of engraved in your psyche.”

HBCUs

Photo of the Honey Beez performing

Alabama State Honey Beez bring positive plus-size attitude to HBCU dance scene “Where one of us lacks, the other one will pick up. We’re plus-size girls and we still go through bullying in college. But we’re more confident now, so it’s not as bad. But we have a real sisterhood, and this is our home away from home. The Honey Beez took me all the way out of my shell, and I love it.”

The Uplift

Serge Ibaka and his daughter in a pool

NBA standout Serge Ibaka is a standout single father too “Since I was young I always dreamed of myself traveling, envisioned at least three, four kids, five. And then, I’m living my dream right now and something I always love to do, and it’s fun. It’s really changed my life. It’s changed everything about me. The way I think and the way I live my life. It changed everything.”

Videos

Leon Bridges at his piano

Leon Bridges sings his rendition of the national anthem The critically acclaimed soul singer explores the themes of the anthem, creating a beautiful rendition that feels like both a hymn and a benediction

Original Photography

Woman with a wig made of pink flowers

Inside Afropunk “They’re just the ‘standard of beauty’ and here you can be what you want and THAT’S beauty.”

Podcasts

The Plug podcast logo

The Plug It’s the debut of The Plug, hosted by Chiney Ogwumike, Kayla Johnson, Justin Tinsley and Tesfaye Negussie. In episode 1, the crew dives into current events, discuss LaVar Ball’s latest news, NFL social activism and more. Plus, hip-hop icons Jadakiss and Fabolous join.

  • All Day – The Undefeated Podcast: Clinton Yates spent a day in New York profiling various parts of the culture, when news broke that a legend had died. After spending the morning with the creators of Jopwell, a startup helping students of color in the tech industry, the the afternoon with Nike for a new shoe release, he ends up in Queens to talk with a family friend and musician about the life and influence of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy.
  • America’s Black History Museum: 9/20/16 – Jill Hudson, Justin Tinsley and Clinton Yates talk about the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the 86th Emmy Awards. Plus, Mike Wise discusses his story about Joe Paterno.
  • Morning Roast – The gang is all together, talking national anthem protests, possible NFL players strike, potential renaming of Yawkey Way and latest Bachelor in Paradise drama.
  • The Morning Roast & Live at NABJ – Clinton Yates is in for Bomani, and in hour three he is joined by Marc Spears and Myron Medcalf to discuss all the happenings at the National Association of Black Journalists convention.
  • Rhoden Fellows: HBCU 468: 5/11/17 – Stephen A. Smith praised Isaiah Thomas’ compelling effort in the playoffs and explained Kevin Durant’s impact on Golden State. He also talked about attending a historically black university.
  • O.J.: Made in America: 6/11/16 – Domonique Foxworth is joined by guests Jason Reid, Raina Kelley, Ezra Edelman, Sarah Spain and Carl Douglas as they take a look at O.J.: Made in America.

Remembering Mamie ‘Peanut’ Johnson The first woman to pitch in the Negro Leagues dies at 82

Hank Bayliss must have thought he was doing something. The Kansas City Monarchs third baseman was having himself a day running his mouth as he stood opposite of 5-foot-3, 115-pound Mamie Johnson.

He exclaimed that the right-handed pitcher was “no bigger than a peanut.” And he was no better at hitting after talking all that trash. Johnson, a Ridgeway, South Carolina, native, struck him out and turned the jab into her nickname.

She took all of the slights in stride, including when the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, an all-white league, turned Johnson away. She decided to play three seasons with the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro Leagues from 1953-55.

“They didn’t let us try out,” Johnson said in a 2003 interview with NPR. “They just looked at us like we were crazy, as if to say, ‘What do you want?’ ”

Johnson, the first woman to pitch in the Negro Leagues and a mentee of Negro Leagues baseball legend and Baseball Hall of Famer Satchel Paige, died on Dec. 19. She was 82. Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, announced her death. She was the last of the three women who played in the Negro Leagues to die. Toni Stone and Connie Morgan died in 1996.

“It’s a sad day for all of us,” Kendrick said Tuesday. “We lost a member of our family. She was truly a pioneer.

“It’s representative of the inclusive nature of the Negro Leagues, that it created an opportunity for women to do things that they weren’t allowed to do in the rest of the country.”

The Clowns, Hank Aaron’s team before he joined Major League Baseball, recruited Johnson to play on the team. Johnson compiled a 33-8 record in her three seasons with a .270 batting average.

Johnson credited Paige for her unhittable curveball.

“Tell you the truth, I didn’t know of his greatness that much. He was just another ballplayer to me at that particular time,” Johnson told The State (Columbia, South Carolina). “Later on, I found out exactly who he was.

“I got to meet and be with some of the best baseball players that ever picked up a bat, so I’m very proud about that,” Johnson said in an NPR interview.

It took many years for people to see Johnson, who was born in 1935, as a trailblazer. But when she finally started to get her due, it came in droves.

When she was out of season, Johnson attended New York University and eventually received a nursing degree from North Carolina A&T State University. At the conclusion of her career, Johnson focused on raising her son, Charles, and practiced as a nurse for three decades.

The 2002 book A Strong Right Arm, by Michelle Y. Green, is based on Johnson’s story. The White House hosted Johnson in 1999, and that same year, Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Bob Coble presented Johnson with a proclamation. A decade later, the Library of Congress welcomed her as a guest lecturer for a symposium.

A year before her Library of Congress lecture in 2008, Johnson and other living alumni from the Negro Leagues era were drafted by major league franchises. The Washington Nationals drafted Johnson, as she spent most of her adult life in the nation’s capital. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, has Johnson in two exhibits: one dedicated to members of the Negro Leagues and another for women who have pioneered in the sport.

Ridgeway presented Johnson with a key to her hometown and named a street in her honor. In 2012, Mo’ne Davis, the phenom pitcher for the Little League World Series’ Anderson Monarchs, was introduced to Johnson.

As a child, Johnson had such a passion for pitching that she would forgo her work with the crops to play baseball. Her uncle, Leo “Bones” Belton, taught her how to throw by tossing stones at crows that sat perched on her grandparents’ fence.

“It’s what people do in the country,” Johnson told The State in 2010. “You use what you had.”

Said Kendrick: “We lost a voice with her passing, but her legacy plays on at the Negro Leagues Museum. Hers is a story of hope, a story of perseverance and an example of how to overcome adversity and achieve your dreams.”

‘The Rape of Recy Taylor’ explores the little-known terror campaign against black women Just as black men were lynched, black women faced systemic sexual violence under Jim Crow

For Southern black women, the era of separate but equal was also a decades-long reign of white sexual terror. If Southern trees bore strange fruit, the homes and streets they shaded contained secrets that until recently have largely been swept over and ignored.

The Rape of Recy Taylor, a documentary that opens in New York theaters Friday, concentrates some much-needed sunlight on this period of American history and the women who lived through it. Directed by Nancy Buirski, the woman behind both the narrative film Loving and the documentary The Loving Story, The Rape of Recy Taylor brings attention to a little-discussed but common reality for black women in the Jim Crow South: racially motivated rape by white men.

Taylor lived in the small town of Abbeville, Alabama. In 1944, when she was 24, Taylor was walking home from church when she was kidnapped, blindfolded and raped at gunpoint by six white men. Forced to beg for her life, Taylor promised to stay silent so she could go home to her husband and 9-month-old daughter.

But Taylor wasn’t silent. Left on the side of a dark country road, Taylor walked home and told her family about what happened. Rosa Parks, who began her career in civil rights as an anti-rape activist, came to Abbeville to agitate for the prosecution of Taylor’s attackers. For their troubles, Taylor’s home was firebombed, forcing her and her family to move in with relatives. When the family turned to the police, they found no refuge. Rather than pursuing justice, Abbeville’s sheriff circled the home of Taylor’s relatives, eventually stopping to drag Parks out and threaten her with jail if she did not leave town.

It’s a horrifying account, made worse by two startling facts:

1) Taylor’s rape was not an exceptional occurrence. It was part of a continuous campaign of terror that was just as much a threat to women as lynching was to black men.

2) The history of black women as victims of white terror has largely been ignored, silenced and minimized, even as their quest for safety fueled their pursuit of civil rights as far back as the 1890s.

What happened to Taylor and countless other black women and the obscurity of their story within the broader narrative of American history is emblematic of the way black women’s trauma is repeatedly given short shrift even today. The absence of black women from the spotlight of #MeToo has historical roots that predate Taylor’s rape. Taylor’s story isn’t just about her. It’s about thousands of women just like her whose stories we may never know, who were victimized and brutalized without recognition or recompense for their injuries.

A campaign of terror

Buirski’s documentary focuses on Taylor’s life and the devastation that followed her attack: Her marriage fell apart, she was unable to have more children and her only child died in her early 20s in a car crash. The book that inspired the film is far more expansive and devastating. Historian Danielle McGuire spent a decade researching At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. She writes of more than 40 separate cases but insists there are far more stories that went untold, calling her work “the tiniest tip of the iceberg.”

“Between 1940 and 1965,” McGuire wrote, “only 10 white men were convicted of raping black women or girls in Mississippi despite the fact that it happened regularly.” It was rare for white men to be arrested for attacking black women, and even less likely for all-white grand juries to indict them. Convictions were even rarer.

“These are not just bad apples,” McGuire told me during a recent interview. “This is part of a systemic approach to dehumanizing black women and girls.”

In one chapter, McGuire detailed an attack against Melba Pattillo, a 12-year-old Arkansas girl. A white man chased her into the woods, tried to pull off her underwear and rape her, and yelled, “I’ll show you n—-s the Supreme Court can’t run my life.” The attack happened on May 17, 1954, the afternoon the Supreme Court announced its decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

In the same chapter, McGuire recounted the story of Annette Butler. On Mother’s Day 1956, four men in Tylertown, Mississippi — Ernest Dillon, Ollie Dillon (his brother) and their friends Olen Duncan and Durora Duncan (who were cousins) — went searching for a black woman to rape. Armed with a shotgun, they entered the house of Stennis Butler, a black sharecropper, and took his 16-year-old daughter, Annette, holding off her mother at gunpoint. The men drove her away deep into a swamp, raped her, then left her to find her own way home. They were charged with “forcible ravishment and kidnap.” Ernest Dillon pleaded guilty to assault and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The other three men served no jail time for rape. One pleaded guilty to kidnapping, another was acquitted despite a confession and the third had his charges dismissed after his trial produced a hung jury.

At best, white law enforcement officials were lackadaisical about investigating sexual assaults on black women. At worst, they were perpetrating such assaults, not only on public streets but also in jails.

“These are not just bad apples. This is part of a systemic approach to dehumanizing black women and girls.”

In March 1949, Gertrude Perkins, 25, was assaulted by two Montgomery, Alabama, police officers. She was walking home in the dark when they stopped her, accused her of public drunkenness and forced her into their car. They drove, McGuire wrote, to the edge of a railroad embankment and raped her at gunpoint.

Even if men were convicted of rape, the political system found ways to excuse them. According to Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, Cole Blease, the governor of South Carolina from 1910-14, made prolific use of his pardoning powers, issuing 1,700 during his tenure. Blease pardoned both black and white men who had been convicted of attacking black women and girls. In an official pardoning statement, Blease stated, “I am of the opinion, as I have always been, and have very serious doubt as to whether the crime of rape can be committed upon a negro.”

McGuire details how rape was used with lynching to terrorize and subjugate black people in the years leading up to and during the civil rights movement. Other historians, such as Darlene Clark Hine, have stated that the onslaught of interracial sexual violence visited upon Southern black women during Jim Crow was just as much a motivator for the Great Migration as lynching was.

“If you have a slave culture for hundreds of years, what happens when slavery ends?” McGuire said. “Does the culture change? That was part of my question doing this research, and the answer was of course it didn’t. White men were raised to believe that they could do whatever they wanted to do to black women and there would be no punishment, and when they did whatever they wanted to do, there usually wasn’t a punishment. These are lessons handed down from grandparents and fathers, uncles. They were encouraged to get a black woman for their first sex act so that they could practice … in the ’40s, they just picked them up on the side of the road just like Recy Taylor.

“It happened all the time.”

Disappearing history

If the violation of black women was so widespread that it contributed to one of the most monumental migration patterns in American history, why don’t more people know about it? How did our understanding of black women and interracial rape begin with slavery and end largely with the conclusion of the Civil War?

There are multiple reasons for this absence: Race men like Booker T. Washington didn’t think civil rights organizations had a role to play in protecting black women from rape. White women’s organizations were equally reluctant to acknowledge that their husbands and sons were attacking black women. White women like Rebecca Latimer Felton, America’s first female senator, not only ginned up fear that black men were raping white women en masse, they sucked away attention from the real epidemic of rape that was actually occurring.

Furthermore, the documentation of abuse was limited. Often, stories of abuse were passed down orally by grandmothers and mothers. Even now, it’s difficult for historians to find detailed, written accounts of these attacks. McGuire referred to it as “detective work.”

And these threats weren’t memorialized in song, as was lynching in Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit.” If there were references, they were so oblique as to require their own decoder ring.

Even in places dedicated to telling the story of black American history such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., or the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, there is limited acknowledgment of interracial rape during Jim Crow, and certainly not as a reality endemic to black Southern life.

The Blacks in Wax Museum has an entire room dedicated to the horrors of lynching, which includes a re-creation of the murder of Mary Turner and her 8-month-old fetus in Brooks County, Georgia, but nothing specifically about the rape of black women during Jim Crow. The Blacksonian does include displays of news clippings about the assaults on Taylor in 1944 and Perkins in 1949. And it also produced videos that include quotes from Ida B. Wells and Dorothy Height about the threat black women faced.


While black women such as Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs and Anna Julia Cooper were all devoted to mobilizing to secure black women’s safety from sexual violence in the 1890s, they’re remembered chiefly as anti-lynching activists or as buttoned-up practitioners of respectability politics. The same goes for their ideological sisters who came later, like Parks and Height.

In her speech as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, Terrell addressed their estrangement from the rest of society.

“We wish to set in motion influences that shall stop the ravages made by practices that sap our strength, and preclude the possibility of advancement,” she said, referring to rape by white men.

Cooper bitterly implicated black men in black women’s victimization. “It is absurd,” she said in 1892 in A Voice From the South, “to quote statistics showing the Negro’s bank account and rent rolls, to point to the hundreds of newspapers edited by colored men, and lists of lawyers, doctors, professors, D.D.’s L.L.D.’s etc. etc. etc while the source from which the life-blood of the race is to flow is subject to the taint and corruption of the enemy’s camp.”

While the national office of the NAACP was working to dismantle separate-but-equal, the organization determined that any mention of interracial marriage or sex would derail its efforts. “Everything had to be as asexual as possible,” McGuire said. “Working on rape cases of black women who had been assaulted by white men would screw that up.”


There is so much photographic evidence of lynching, in part because it was a public spectacle, complete with photographers who profited from the murder of black people the way modern artists might sell concert posters. Genitals and other body parts of black men were preserved in jars and kept as mementos. Their charred bodies, hanging from trees, served as ominous warnings to other black people that they best remember their place.

But there is little visual record of the interracial rape of black women, save for photographs of them clutching their obviously biracial children. In The Rape of Recy Taylor, Buirski offers these images as a small record of an enormous epidemic.

We use art to document and memorialize the human condition. But the art that preserves the experience of black women during Jim Crow is limited and often deliberately opaque. The race films of the early 20th century are among the few remaining cultural artifacts that re-created black women’s experiences under threat from white men. Buirski employs their footage in her documentary.

But, by and large, the work of tracking and quantifying interracial sexual assault is difficult for historians. The language referring to such attacks in first-person accounts is often not explicit, although news clippings from the black press were clearer. Furthermore, there was a concerted effort to silence and discredit black female victims. That silencing was often twofold: first in the primary documents, such as white newspapers and police reports, and then again by white historians and archivists who may have deemed such accounts unworthy of preservation. In Taylor’s case, her attackers slandered and dismissed her as a prostitute whom they paid.

There is little visual record of the interracial rape of black women, save for photographs of them clutching their obviously biracial children.

“There wasn’t a good uniform record keeping of these kinds of assaults, largely because of racist police forces that didn’t take black women’s stories seriously, and also because a lot of these assailants were police officers,” McGuire said. “Sometimes within their own community there would be perhaps shame and silence in coming forward for a crime like this just because of the gender politics of the time, which were not limited to racial groups.”

When sexual violation was recorded, survivors often recounted their experiences through allusion. A woman might not say she was raped, but that a man “talked under my dress” or “played with my body.”

While “Strange Fruit,” the dirge made famous by Holiday, is the most recognizable protest song of the lynching era, there is no such work from the era that deals so explicitly with the threat of rape. Instead, in the same way historians must read between the lines of slave narratives, oral histories and other accounts of rape, so too must those examining art of the era. And so songs such as Nina Simone’s chilling rendition of “Pirate Jenny” and Aretha Franklin’s “At the Dark End of the Street” take on more sinister undertones when interpreted through this lens. They’re both songs appropriated by black women to tell different stories from the ones they were originally telling. The difference in tone, phrasing and the style in which these songs are sung is designed to evoke a dark, unsettling horror.

That sort of opaque doublespeak was another form of self-preservation. Anything other than silence could be punished with death. Remember, Taylor’s attackers firebombed her home because she told her husband what happened to her. Just as it was de rigueur to ignore that slaveholders owned fair-skinned children who bore their features and mannerisms, it became standard to look at black women during Jim Crow and ignore the obvious source of their lighter-skinned children.

Modern implications

There are through lines from the epidemic of sexual assault during Jim Crow to our modern era. The most obvious may be the case of Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma police officer who sexually preyed on poor women of color with criminal records. His predation was directly connected to the way law enforcement made black women’s lives worse. If black women weren’t directly victimized by police, their assaults weren’t taken seriously, which is why white men were so rarely prosecuted for them.

Even the current #MeToo moment is different for white and black women.

“I think the floodgates have opened for white women,” actress Gabrielle Union recently told The New York Times about #MeToo. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence whose pain has been taken seriously. Whose pain we have showed historically and continued to show. Whose pain is tolerable and whose pain is intolerable. And whose pain needs to be addressed now.”

The Equal Justice Initiative is behind the national lynching memorial that will open in 2018 in Montgomery. An official from EJI told me the organization has plans for “an entire section dedicated to the sexual exploitation of black women, including Ms. Recy Taylor” in its Legacy Museum, which will open on April 26. But it doesn’t appear that there are plans to include sexual violence against black women in the lynching memorial, which will exist alongside the museum.

“I don’t think they need to be separate because, again, it’s part of the same terror structure, systematic terror against black people,” McGuire said. “Part of the issue that I’ve always had with cold case civil rights investigations and even in some ways the Equal Justice Initiative’s focus on lynching is that it becomes heavily gendered and is another way of kind of disappearing black women’s experiences under a regime of white supremacy and American apartheid. By focusing on those kinds of cases only, we’re not getting a full picture of the reign of terror that existed and that was inflicted upon black communities and black bodies. It ends up focusing on what happened to black men.”

Even as she was decrying lynching, Wells made a similar point in 1900 to a crowd gathered in Chicago.

“The negro has been too long associated with the white man not to have copied his vices as well as his virtues,” Wells said. “But the negro resents and utterly repudiates the efforts to blacken his good name by asserting that assaults upon women are peculiar to his race. The negro has suffered far more from the commission of this crime against the women of his race by white men than the white race has ever suffered through his crimes. Very scant notice is taken of the matter when this is the condition of affairs. What becomes a crime deserving capital punishment when the tables are turned is a matter of small moment when the negro woman is the accusing party.”

The way these stories were silenced reinforces a social hierarchy that contends black women should be grateful for attention from white men, even if it’s unsolicited or unwanted. Worse, it tells the world that black women and the assaults on us simply don’t matter. Ignoring this area of history has enormously harmful consequences, feeding into how we process accusations of sexual assault from black women today.

The rape of Recy Taylor and so many other unnamed, unrecognized and unheard black women reminds me of Cooper’s words from 1892: “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 … race enters with me.’ ”