The bitter harvest of Richard Bibb: A descendant of slavery confronts her inheritance The families of slave owners and the people they enslaved gather for a ‘reunion’ in Kentucky

RUSSELLVILLE, Ky. — That morning, I took my measure of the place. I toured the former Bibb plantation house turned museum and explored the nearby work cabins. I paid attention to the ways the ground shifted beneath my feet. By early afternoon, I’d settled in the community room to talk with the museum director who got the idea to bring together the descendants of the slave owners and the enslaved when some of the white families arrived for a tour. I heard their voices in distant parts of the house and sensed the anger rise in my throat. It was dark, sudden, impolite. I was not ready to meet these people. They had done nothing to me, yet I felt as if they had.

Do not come in here, I warned silently.

Their voices got closer and I grew more anxious, though you wouldn’t have known by looking at me. We wear the mask. But it felt like mine was about to slip.

The author, Lonnae O’Neal, watches from a window of the Bibb House as guests begin to arrive for the reunion.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

I had joked with the only Bibb cousins I’d ever known that we were being lured into a trap. But now, the trap was real. It was all plantation houses and the ghosts of black people and white voices coming closer. I had stepped into a house of mirrors. I wanted to escape.

A couple of could-be-relatives reached out to shake my hand, and I extended mine to them as well.

Why had they come? I wondered.

Lord, why had I?


2.

The Bibb House was built around 1815 in this small Western Kentucky town about an hour north of Nashville, Tennessee. It was originally home to Maj. Richard Bibb, an officer in the Revolutionary War, his second wife and the scores of people they enslaved. In 1832, Bibb sent 31 of them to Liberia. When he died in 1839, his will freed 65 others, who were also given money and land. His white descendants included a U.S. senator and the originator of Bibb lettuce.

Granville Clark, a lawyer and president of Historic Russellville Inc., and genealogist and museum director Michael Morrow began restoring Bibb House nearly a decade ago. Along with four other historic buildings located in Russellville’s Black Bottom, an area settled by freed black people before the Civil War, it became part of the SEEK Museum (Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky).

Clark once fought to the Kentucky Supreme Court for the Bibb House, which had changed hands several times, to be a public charitable trust and hoped it could serve as “a realistic memorial to the Old South.” But deciding what that means is a whole different fight. And not simply with white people.

I did not know if I had it in me.


3.

The invitation to come to Russellville had kicked around Facebook for months before I saw it. It was the first reunion of the descendants of Richard Bibb and the descendants of the people he enslaved and emancipated.

My first thoughts came out in a string of curse words. Miss me on those plantation happenings, I told my cousins, but part of me couldn’t let it go. My father’s mother was Susie Bibb, and this was the first time I’d heard a word about her people. The first time I’d ever heard tell of any such thing as white Bibbs. A couple of white descendants were working on a documentary and would be filming at the reunion. I felt the ground shifting beneath me as I considered my options.

A copy of a sign advertising the sale of two boys on display at the SEEK Museum in Russellville, Kentucky.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

I have constructed a life with the resources and standing that allow me to encounter white people on my own terms — to decide for myself when and where I enter. But the Bibb reunion would be a departure from that. It represented something aching and unresolved that put me and mine on the shoulders falling down like teardrops side of a power dynamic. Something painful and frightening.

Clark emailed me a photo of Catherine Bibb — or Granny Kate, as she was known — taken around 1900, when she would have been in her early 60s, and said we might be related. Of all the money and land left to the enslaved people who Bibb freed when he died at 86, Catherine, who was 3 at the time, was given the most: 250 acres. That preferential treatment supports the family oral history that she was Richard Bibb’s daughter.

Granny Kate was fair-skinned, with straight dark hair. She founded a school and a church on the land given to the formerly enslaved on the outskirts of Russellville, in what became known as Bibbtown, where she acted as the unofficial mayor. Granny Kate looked like my grandmother, Momma Susie.

She stared out from the photo and I felt implicated in her gaze. Dead black people are always judging. Having put their own burdens down, they’re always asking the rest of us what we’re going to do.


4.

I can read stories of the white Bibbs in American history books. But my black grandmother isn’t in those books. Susie Bibb was an American original, and she demands to be accounted for and remembered.

Susie was one of nine siblings raised in the coal mining and railroad town of Centralia, Illinois. She was the smartest of them all in math, she used to say, but the family had no money for college. So she wept bitter tears and got married at 18.

My grandfather was a hotel chef who eventually opened a restaurant and tavern in the black part of town. My grandmother, who specialized in making pastries from scratch, worked there when she was younger. But I rarely remember her leaving the house as I got older, and rarely smiling. My grandparents’ front door was never locked, and a steady stream of people would walk in, morning to night, and stand before Momma Susie to ask for money to pay bills, to buy diapers, to tide them over until payday. If she liked the terms — high interest rates or food stamps, as I recall — she’d leave the room to reach under her mattress for money. If she didn’t like the terms, she’d tell them she didn’t have it.

A reunion guest looks at a display of photographs and drawings showing the enslaved people freed by Maj. Richard Bibb. On the mantel from left to right: Andrew Bibb, Catherine Bibb Arnold and Martha Bibb.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

She never used any kind of muscle. She simply never lent again to anyone who didn’t repay her.

Momma Susie doted on the dogs, which she cooked breakfast for and might bite her grandkids if we got too close. So she’d yell at us, reasonably, to get our damned asses out of their way. She’d warn us, too, about men, husbands especially, or sometimes white people. But mostly she’d preach — often in loud, compound expletives — about the importance of college, about getting your education so you didn’t have to depend on anyone, and about having your own money. She was a bitter black woman, and she spoke bitter black words into three generations of college graduates and postgraduates.

Momma Susie’s black family is not to be mistaken for that of the white sons of Richard Bibb: pro-slavery U.S. Sen. George M. Bibb turned Treasury Secretary Bibb, or John Bigger Bibb, who developed Bibb lettuce.

Lord, don’t you get mad about it — there was a U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bibb, but Susie Bibb loan-sharked in her pajamas from an armchair in her living room for most of my childhood.

These facts are always in historical conversation. Seven generations from Maj. Richard Bibb, these facts remain grafted onto us. They were the fire last time. They are the fire this time. They explain almost everything.


5.

Richard Bibb fought with the Virginia militia in the Revolutionary War, after which he inherited land and enslaved people. He moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where he was a land speculator and acquired around 200,000 acres from Kentucky to Arkansas. He later moved to Logan County, where the former Episcopalian became a Methodist lay minister with anti-slavery leanings. He grew tobacco, had a whisky still, raced horses and became one of the richest men in Western Kentucky. When his first wife died, he and his second wife moved from the country into Russellville. He was heavily involved in the American Colonization Society, which sought to send black people “back” to Africa, where the people he’d enslaved had never been. (On the 1832 trip to Liberia, a number of children died of cholera before they got there.)

His will, which freed everyone he’d enslaved, also gave them tools, livestock, $5,000 and roughly 3,000 acres, which the executor, his son John Bigger Bibb, deeded to them 40 years later. John’s brother George wrote a legally famous letter advising him how to continue to control the money and the land.

An 1897 Louisville Courier-Journal article about Richard Bibb said:

“Since his youth he had cared for them, and before that they or their parents had belonged to his father. He believed slavery was wrong and was taking the initial step toward putting into execution a long cherished plan. He was about to send one-third of his slaves to Liberia; the others he intended to liberate at his death. He had read a chapter in the Bible and had given out a hymn, and when his prayer was finished, many a black face was bathed in tears, and the slaves gathered about and shook Old Master’s hand for the last time and heard the accent of his kindly voice.”

This idea of Bibb as an emancipator is a source of local and white Bibb family legend. It is noted on the plaque in front of Bibb House and was an animating fact of the reunion. To me, it was simply a reminder that a complex 250-year system of human trafficking and violent plunder could only be sustained by intersecting applications of pressure and release. It just meant that Richard Bibb was arguably better than some. The gauzy lore feels like the columns and porch added to the Bibb House decades after the Civil War to lend the whole enterprise an air of magnolia.

“In an old conventional view, Kentucky was supposed to be more benign in its slavery,” said Jack Glazier, author of Been Coming Through Some Hard Times: Race, History, and Memory in Western Kentucky and a retired Oberlin College anthropology professor. He calls it a self-justifying myth. “It was without question a brutal and depraved system. That’s very much the case in Western Kentucky,” where tobacco farming required large numbers of people.

The slave quarters in the attic of the Bibb House, which is now the SEEK Museum in Russellville, Kentucky.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

After the Civil War, there was an out-migration to Illinois, said Glazier. “There’s a real story there.”

It’s the part of the story where I come in.

My cousin Marvin Vaughn, a financial analyst for an energy company in Houston, drove to the reunion with his mother, Sharon Bibb Vaughn. His grandfather, Morris, and Momma Susie were brother and sister.

As we sat in the car watching people go in and out of the Bibb House, Marvin told me a story that Morris had told him about Charlie Bibb, our great-grandfather, about whom the only thing I’d ever heard was that he was mean and yellow. “I guess he got tired of his kids talking about that they were hungry,” Marvin said. He went to the grocery store in the white part of Centralia, said his children were hungry and asked the owner if he could get some food and pay him back later. When the grocer said no, Charlie B. bagged the food anyway, and when the grocer tried to stop him, “Great-grandpa Charlie knocked him to the floor and told him, ‘Look here, I need to feed my kids. When I get the money I will repay you, and this is what I owe you.’ ”

I hadn’t known my grandmother had gone hungry. It explained some of the preoccupation with money that ran through our family. Explained other stuff as well.


Something else Uncle Morris told Marvin: His grandfather was the son of a slave owner in Kentucky. It was another story I’d never heard.

Marvin came to the reunion because something bothered him. If the white Bibbs were so wealthy, “Why did we get such s— portions?” If we had gotten a fair share, how might that have changed our lives? These are Bibb family questions, but they stretched out across America like the arms of Jesus. Marvin came to the reunion because he wanted to land on some truth and help put a face to it. “We could be a part of the family that they don’t even talk about,” he said.

And neither did we.


6.

Two months ago, the white ancestors who hovered over my features never crossed my mind. I couldn’t name one.

But that was about to change.

Suddenly, I wanted to hear the stories. I wanted to see the documents and learn what had happened to these people and what that said about me.

The morning before the reunion, I pulled up to Michael Morrow’s research office in the Black Bottom, three blocks from the Bibb House.

Maurice Hardy (left), his wife, Latisha (right), and their son, RayShawn Payton-Kilgore, explore the upper room of the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

“I’m Lonnae O’Neal, my people are from Centralia, Illinois,” I said to Morrow by way of introduction. “My grandmother was Susie Bibb. Her father was Charlie Bibb.”

“Her father was Charles Smith Bibb,” Morrow said, correcting me. “And his mother was Pocahontas Wright.”

Morrow held the door open for me, but I needed a minute. I had never heard my great-grandfather’s full government name. Had never heard of my great-great-grandmother at all.

Morrow, 57, was raised on stories of Bibbtown. He had a speech impediment, so he hung around old people, who were less cruel and would let you listen as long as you sat still. He dropped out of college to care for his sick mother. He worked at a neighborhood food hall, did a little bootlegging and some such, but he remained fascinated by family histories and started keeping notes. People got word and started giving him their artifacts, and telling him their stories.

In a few keystrokes, he pulls up documents where my great-great-grandfather is listed as mulatto on the 1850 census in Russellville. In 1860, he’s listed as black. By 1870, John and Pocahontas lived in Centralia, where John and Pokey, as they called her, were listed as white, and they had a 6-year-old son who’d been born in Russellville, and a 2-year old daughter and an infant son who’d both been born in Illinois, as were the seven children who followed.

“Now let’s do one more thing. Let’s go to 1900,” Morrow said and showed me a census record for Charles Smith Bibb, 13, the first name where I know where I am. Then he shows me a later census with the names of my grandmother and her siblings as children. “The amazing thing is, we got the slave documents. We can prove this all the way back to slavery,” Morrow said. To a woman named Old Keziah. But the documents also leave some unanswered questions, including the identity of John Bibb’s father. Morrow has been putting the pieces together for decades, and he thinks there’s a good chance my great-great-grandfather John was the son of one of the white Bibbs.

It was too much life to hear about in one day. And we hadn’t even gotten to the reunion, which would start the following day. I closed my eyes and pictured Granny Kate, who I asked for strength.

“I think one of the reasons why African American people tend to stay away from this is because of the trauma,” Nicka Sewell-Smith, a genealogist and consultant for Ancestry.com, told me later. (Sewell-Smith also shared that her great-great-aunt Sarah was married to a different John Bibb.) People are getting killed because of race now, “and I’m going to introduce additional trauma, historical trauma, into my life?” she asked.

It’s a history that can’t be sanitized. “So we just move away from it because it’s painful and we don’t know what to expect, and we have to check our emotions,” she said. “You don’t want to lash out at someone who’s not involved just because you don’t know how to properly process, and a lot of our experience has been to just deal with it and push it down.”

Sewell-Smith reads part of Richard Bibb’s will, which frees those he’s enslaved on Jan. 1, 1840, nearly a year after he died. Some of those emancipated seemed to sell their land, but it’s hard to say since slavery was still law and some of those who’d been emancipated were re-enslaved. John Bigger Bibb moved to Frankfort, where he continued enslaving people as he perfected his lettuce. He had agents look after the land and the formerly enslaved, doling out piecemeal the $5,000 that Richard Bibb left them and not officially handing over the property until 1881.

“There was a monetary value placed on us, and because money was involved, people were going to document things,” she said. “There’s a tangibleness of slavery that you get when you can see the names of your people associated with these enslavers.” She was plainspoken, but I had a hard time following her. I think it was because I was unable to think of my ancestors as fungible. I kept attaching them to the names of my children, then viscerally resisting the thought. I eventually succumbed to the sadness of it all.

Clark, 64, who attended segregated schools until sixth grade, calls the SEEK Museum a chance to teach a history of both slavery and emancipation that he hadn’t learned growing up.

We’re “lucky to have a site that does deal with both edges of that story,” Clark says. “It wasn’t emancipation that was as pure and as perfect as you want it to be, but it lets us talk about these things.” He thinks America may finally be ready to have these conversations. But I have my doubts. I am reminded of recent stories of white anger over talk of slavery, also known as American history, during plantation tours. (This, by the way, is partially why black people prefer to sit with each other at lunch.)

From 1883 to 1908, 14 people were lynched in Logan County, the second most in Kentucky. In 2008, Morrow put up an exhibit about the 1908 lynching of four men in Russellville that led to a change in postal laws to prevent people from sending postcards of hanging, swinging, charred bodies through the mail. The men killed hadn’t been involved in the argument over wages that had left a white overseer dead; they simply passed a resolution at their local hall to help the accused raise money for a lawyer.

Morrow got a call when somebody finally cut down the “lynching tree” 20 years ago.

Descendants of Richard Bibb look at old photos and maps in the front room of the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

The night before the reunion, as part of Western Kentucky’s annual 8th of August emancipation celebration, a statue of Alice Allison Dunnigan, the first black female journalist credentialed to cover the White House, was unveiled in Russellville’s Black Bottom neighborhood, which is on the National Register of Historic Places but had a tough time getting the city to pay for streetlights and sewers. Several of Russellville’s elected officials were there. None of them is black. Of the nearly 7,000 residents of Russellville, nearly 20% are black, and more than half of those residents live below the poverty line.

The Black Bottom sits on a flood plain and has a history of getting deluged. A half-mile away, the Confederate Monument, erected in 1910, which is also on the National Register, sits atop a pedestal.

Sometimes, white people tell themselves fictions, but they need us to play along. When we disbelieve them or don’t co-sign, they turn punitive or murderous. And that’s why we didn’t believe them in the first place.

“I don’t want everybody to come together and have a Kumbaya moment,” Morrow said of the reunion. “Our people have had so many Kumbaya moments. I want everybody to come together and be real about what has happened. If they are real, maybe people can go back and start changing things.”

They are asking for our truth, I told Morrow, but I don’t think they really want to hear it.

“I don’t think it makes any difference whether they want to hear it or not,” he replied.


7.

Rachel Knight and her brother, Jonathan, are descendants of Richard Bibb’s daughter, Lucy Slaughter, and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their grandmother chronicled their family history in the 1960s with a lengthy entry on the major. After the 2017 white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left a young woman dead, Rachel, a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University, wanted to learn more about their family history. Jonathan, a filmmaker, was looking to make his first documentary. A woman they’d known growing up happened to be a professor of African American studies at the University of Kentucky and connected them with a black doctoral student and journalist to help produce it.

Traci Ellis delivers a speech at the Bibb House near the end of the day’s events.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

“Our country hasn’t dealt with issues of our country being founded on slavery,” Rachel Knight said. And neither had their family. “Our family had a history of enslaving people,” but growing up in the North, “we don’t talk about that history that much.” When she found her grandmother’s entry about Richard Bibb, “I was like, well, why isn’t that a story that we talked about?” When she learned the Bibb House was still standing, she and her brother brainstormed about adding something meaningful.

Morrow and others questioned the siblings about the proposed documentary before agreeing to cooperate. “I trusted them to do what’s right,” Morrow said. I had no such trust. As a journalist, I’m always on the lookout for the ways whiteness, power and self-interest align.

I told Jonathan Knight I’d only learned there were white Bibbs a few weeks before and he seemed surprised. “I don’t mean this to sound harsh,” I told him, “but you all aren’t centered in our lives.”

He and his sister worried a film could seem exploitative, so they were trying to listen to criticism and challenge their own privilege. “Of course it’s hard,” he said. “But I really want to be up for doing it.”

“In my experience, white people don’t have the muscle for this conversation,” I said. Jonathan assured me that they did. I decided to take him at his word.

I noted that they’d asked my cousin, attorney and author Traci Ellis, to facilitate a discussion about race, and that white people were good for asking black people to do work — physical, emotional, spiritual — for free. “Black people are always you all’s raw material,” I said. The “you all” wasn’t specifically Jonathan and Rachel. It was a collective, a cohort of whiteness, organized in a system of racialized privilege. The royal you all.

Rachel owned her house in Brooklyn, New York, and I pointed out that my daughter lived in a Brooklyn townhouse split into three apartments where she splits her rent with two roommates. I felt angry, though she had done nothing to me. So few white people show up for these conversations that the ones who do come in for a lot of the work of the race. I wondered aloud if we were going to talk reparations.

After hours of talking, Rachel, who hadn’t been feeling well all day, looked peaked, and I felt for her. “It’s a lot, I know,” I said. “It’s a lot for us too.”

Speaking our racial truth can feel physically, socially or financially unsafe. There’s a wide berth we often give white people so as not to make them uncomfortable or angry. But in the shadow of the Bibb House, I couldn’t do it. The black ghosts of Russellville weren’t having it.

I don’t know if she got it. But I finally understood why I’d come to the reunion: to give the white Bibbs, as stand-ins for the people who baked inequality into America, their bags to carry. And all their crosses to bear. The ones that have been forced on black people that rightfully belong to the whole nation.


8.

The morning of the Bibb reunion, I wore a green dress to remind me of the green chair my grandmother sat in as she received borrowers. I lingered in the hotel parking lot praying to Momma Susie that I might represent her at this gathering.

Chairs and tables covered the front lawn and dozens of people, black and white, from 28 states, were milling about, with more steadily arriving. The center hall of the Palladian-style Bibb House museum features two pairs of iron shackles under glass that were found in the dirt on the grounds. In an adjacent room, a copy of an enlarged notice hangs on the wall: “One or two likely Negro boys, about 10 years old” for sale.

I forced myself to approach a middle-aged white woman in one of the upstairs rooms.

Old shackles found on the grounds of the Bibb plantation house on display at the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Michelle Anderson, a schoolteacher from Redlands, California, was a descendant of Lucy Booker Bibb and Thomas Slaughter. She was there with her son and daughter-in-law, both professors at Knox College in Illinois.

Her cousin took a DNA test, which is how she found out about the reunion, the documentary and Richard Bibb. The stories are powerful, “but you know it’s historically what it is, and we just embrace it to understand and, you know, make at least sense of it today.”

It all sounded perfectly reasonable, but I wanted to get away. The shackles. The 10-year-old boys for sale. The picture of Granny Kate staring at me. Minute by minute, this place felt oppressive, frightening and surreal.

I excused myself to talk to Latisha Hardy, from Louisville, Kentucky. She was there with her husband, Maurice, and their son. Until a few months ago, she hadn’t known there were white Bibbs either.

Maurice had white people in his Georgia family tree and understood the push-pull of wanting, but not wanting to be there. “It gives you feelings you don’t want to feel,” he said. “Because you know their money is built off your work.”

I sought out my cousins Ellis, from Oak Park, Illinois, and her sister, Amber Johnston, from outside Atlanta. Their late father and my late father were brothers. “This is opening up some stuff I didn’t even know I felt,” said Ellis. “I’m trying to hold that in.” To not come unglued thinking about “the wealth and the atrocities that happened in this house.”

White people kept coming up to her, “and they’re being appropriate, and wanting to talk and wanting to engage, but I feel like I need a minute,” said Ellis. “I might need forever.”

Ellis said she thought of Charlie Bibb, who had been an abusive man, and how abuse ran through the Bibb family, “and I never interrogated that further.” But now, she was thinking of “post-traumatic slave syndrome” and generational trauma. Her son, Jalen, 25, had visited the lynching exhibit the night before, and this morning he decided to stay at the hotel instead of attending the reunion.

Several Bibb descendants gather in front of Arnold’s Chapel Church, which was founded by Catherine (Granny Kate) Bibb in Bibbtown.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Her sister, Johnston, said they left Atlanta three hours late because she obsessed about retwisting her nearly waist-length hair. It’s similar to how black people dressed up for demonstrations and marches. It’s part of the armor we don.

When the formal program began, Morrow talked about discovering Maj. Bibb’s will and how he’d made finding the Bibb descendants his life’s work. “The Bibb family and these Bibb slaves have went all over America and done all kinds of things,” he said. The Bibb story is “a story about race. It’s a story about family. It’s a story about slavery. It’s a story about wealth. It’s a story about abuse. It’s a story about neglect.”

Ellis stepped to the lectern on the Bibb House lawn and told the hushed crowd, “When I pulled up, voices started in my head. Normally, I don’t hear voices.” She sat alone in the house’s 110-degree attic, the sleeping and work quarters for the enslaved, and she held a quilt. Spending time in the building and on the grounds, she said, “one of the strong feelings I had was rage.” She urged us to honor our feelings and have a “courageous conversation” about race.

My cousin asked the descendants of the enslaved what they would want to say to the descendants of the slave owners. And much later, when the moment was far behind us, I thought of plenty of words.

They went like this:

We are not like you.

We are not going to do to you what you did to us.

We are not going to burn your teenagers alive or put your grandmothers to work scrubbing our floors. We won’t break every bond of fellowship or citizenship to gain advantage, and then lie to ourselves and others about how precisely we’ve hoarded privilege in every institution of American society. We won’t call the police every time we feel uncomfortable or are made to share space. You are so afraid of us, of our anger and emotion, only because you know what you would do. It’s everything you’ve already done. This is why you’re always marveling at our power to forgive, because you, yourselves, do not.

That’s what I would have said later.

But in that moment I had just two bitter words. I said them out loud. And I meant every bit of them.

My cousin Sharon whipped her head around and tried to shush me, but I just faced forward steadily. I didn’t apologize. I said what I said.

I believe it was the ghost of Susie Bibb, answering my prayers.

Ellis had us break into groups and gave us a series of questions about race. My table included Michelle Anderson’s son, Jon, a scholar of African languages and linguistics at Knox College, and his wife, Nathalie Haurberg, an astronomy and physics professor at the college.

Toward the end of the program, I asked our table if white people talked to each other about race and what they said. Anderson stood up to tell the full group his answer: “No, I don’t think those conversations really happen. I think they happen in small circles, but in general, they are missing and I think a lot of people wish it would all go away. Each of us, as the white cousins here, as I will refer to them, are only where we are in life because of our black cousins, and we need to face those privileges that we have lived with for 200 years as the result of this house and the house across the street.”

Traci Ellis’ grandson, Christian, who is almost 2, takes a nap during the family reunion at the SEEK Museum.

Nate Packard for The Undefeated

Ellis ended the program by facing the house to tell the ghosts of those enslaved by Richard Bibb that we had returned. That we were their wildest dreams.

I was spent, more invested than I’d wanted to be in desiring something meaningful to come from this gathering. I hugged those who’d sat at my table. A few white people came up to talk to me about their family, to share their opinions on race relations, what they’d done in the civil rights movement, and about the president. I could hear them better this time.

Rachel looked stronger, I thought. She was glad they had helped convene the reunion.

The next day, eight carloads of black Bibbs, the extended Knight family and a couple of others toured Bibbtown. I sat with Amber’s children on the steps of Arnold’s Chapel Church, founded by Granny Kate. The last resident of Bibbtown, Marilyn Gill, had died a few years earlier in a fire so hot it melted coins. Her nephew died of a heart attack a few weeks after that.

“Some of you all might still own property here,” Morrow told us. “More brains are better than one, and I’m hoping you all can start to sort this out.” He hoped we would help find out about every acre Maj. Bibb gave the black Bibbs and who was heir to what in 2019. That we would join the struggle for truth, and the land beneath our feet. We are each other’s harvest.

I followed Jonathan back to Russellville until it was time to turn down a different road. I pulled up alongside him. Hard to know what to say through open car windows to a man whose ancestors had enslaved yours. So we just said goodbye. I was glad to have met him. It was a start, I thought.

Or maybe it was no such thing at all.

At some point, my cousins will likely do a more sophisticated DNA test to figure out more precisely if and how we might be related to Maj. Richard Bibb, and perhaps we’ll figure out if we have a claim to some of that Bibbtown land.

But it felt like such an old fight. And at that moment I was ready to get back home to my carefully curated black life, where the ground was steady beneath my feet and the old ghosts were much more quiet.

Hair care pioneer Joan Johnson made ‘Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen cosmetics’ a feature of black identity Her company sold an uplifting version of black hair care — by any product necessary

When I learned that Joan Johnson had died a few days ago at 89, I felt an instant pang.

Johnson was the co-founder of Johnson Products, which in 1971 became the first black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange. She was from the South Side of Chicago, where I spent half of my childhood. (She was married to my mother-in-law’s first cousin.) And it was her company that, among other staples of black grooming products, gave us Ultra Sheen.

I’m not sure anything gets blacker than this, and if I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’.

Johnson Products sponsored the syndicated dance program, Soul Train.

Recently, the news has been full of reports of white teachers, counselors and coaches aggressively policing black hair. My thinking is that if you don’t know that Ultra Sheen is still just $1.21 in grocery stores, then you have no business opening your mouth.

Truth be told, I’ve had a hard time finding those small jars of hair grease for several years. Consolidation in the industry and the move of white-owned firms into the black market led to Johnson Products being sold several times, starting in 1993. It was eventually acquired by Procter & Gamble and later sold to a group of black investment firms. When I’d luck out and spot it on the shelves of some beauty supply store, I’d hoard two or three jars out of both nostalgia and need.

It was the product itself, the not-too-heavy blue grease (or green if you needed the extra dry formula) that had one job — to manage (lay down, wave up, detangle and shine) black hair — it always did what it was supposed to do. It became baked into the daily grooming rituals of my childhood in a way that made it a totem for an era. A pre-gentrification, get-your-education, no-frills time when black people needed neatness, at a minimum, at an accessible price point. It was a tool, rather than a status product, which distinguished it from the fancier, more self-important black hair care lines that followed — especially when white companies moved into the lucrative black hair care market they’d long ignored.

In 1971, Joan Johnson’s Johnson Products became the first black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange.

Courtesy of the Johnson family

Long before hair tutorials on YouTube, I raised my daughters using Ultra Sheen and a spray bottle of water to provide the foundation for every hairstyle known to black girlhood. I once finished off my own $200 haircut and color with a palm full of Ultra Sheen my stylist jokingly called “European de frissant.”

George “Pete” Johnson II, my husband’s second cousin, grew up hearing the story of how his father, a production chemist for black-owned soap and cosmetics manufacturer Fuller Products, couldn’t get a business loan. But he got a $250 vacation loan that he and his wife, Joan, used to help start Johnson Products in 1954. They created, packaged and distributed hair care products from their basement before opening a production plant on the South Side in the mid-1960s that employed around 500 people at its height. According to Black Enterprise magazine, the company controlled roughly a third of the black hair care market by the late 1970s.

“My mom was the backbone in all of this,” Pete Johnson said. “She was the woman that, along with my father, envisioned the company.”

She was always good with money and initially did all the accounting and acted as the company’s de facto comptroller. She gave to local causes even before they had much to give. She later became a trustee at Spelman College. “My mom really felt the need to empower not only us as a culture, but black women,” Johnson says. We needed an identity “of us being just as elegant, just as gracious and beautiful as anybody else.”

It’s an ethos that showed up in the stylish clothes, hair and makeup she wore every time she walked out of her front door. When you left home, “you better be completely groomed, clean and smelling good,” said Pete Johnson. She always told us to strive for perfection “and it starts with how you look, how you present yourself.”

“My mom was the backbone in all of this. She was the woman that, along with my father, envisioned the company.” — Pete Johnson

It was a way she thought black people could change self-perceptions, and white perceptions of the race, that much of the culture has since moved past but was considered gospel in its day.

Johnson also believed that graciousness translated into how you treated people. “I saw that firsthand as a little boy,” said Pete Johnson. “We had a place in Endeavor, Wisconsin [a small town near the Wisconsin Dells] and we’d get some of the Native Americans coming to our house asking for food.” When his two older brothers ran around behind them making mock Indian noises, “My mom snatched them boys up so quick,” Pete Johnson recalled. “She didn’t play that. You had to respect everybody.”

The company’s product line also included other hair care and grooming products. Johnson Products sponsored the syndicated dance program, Soul Train, and a huge swath of black America will remember the line, “makers of Ultra Sheen, Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen Cosmetics,” voiced by Soul Train host Don Cornelius, for the rest of our lives.

In a Facebook post, educator Cassandra Smith of Prince George’s County, Maryland, remembered how the yellow creme satin press specifically enabled her Sunday church press and curls. Karen Parker, a Washington event curator and producer, calls both the blue and green Ultra Sheen part of hair washing day in her Afro-Caribbean childhood, and the product of choice for greasing her grandmother’s scalp.

And of course Afro Sheen made Afros shine.

“I also remember the joy of putting the sheen on your Afro,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, who is likely the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to have ever voiced that particular recollection. He met Joan and George Johnson when he was president of the Chicago Historical Society, and they talked about the power of those weekly Soul Train plugs. “In a way, the Johnsons captured the tenor of the time and used that desire to express one’s blackness as a key to their marketing strategy,” he said. “Whenever I think about the commercials, I smile and recall a time when we were all discovering our blackness.”

Beginning in the late 1970s, the models on the boxes of Johnson Products’ Gentle Treatment relaxers became their own form of black celebrity. (I once worked with a reporter who’d won the vaunted Johnson Products Gentle Treatment model search.) Before the natural hair care revolution of the last decade helped us move beyond the white gaze, they represented an aspirational version of black respectability that saw black womanhood as beautiful and cultured in a way that corresponded with hair that should always be worn appropriately straight.

Joan Johnson wanted to “lift us up” as a people, Pete Johnson said. The message from white culture, “I believe, back then, was that we were less than, but we weren’t.”

Step one in proving that was looking good. It’s something Joan Johnson believed black people could accomplish, by any product necessary.

Toni Morrison made me stop wanting to be white Slavery took our bodies. Cultural hegemony tries to take our minds — and destroy our hair. Morrison gave it all back to us.

“Can’t nobody fly with all that shit.

You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” – Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon

I’m here to give thanks. Toni Morrison freed me. She freed me from the burden of wanting to be white. She taught how to put down blue eyes and use my brown ones.

I had promised myself that now that the day had come and Morrison has passed, I would not be afraid. But it is a promise I cannot keep.

Even now, I feel the keyboard rise unevenly against my fingers and my heart feels like a possum trapped in a box. What will people think? They’ll judge me. They’ll pity me. My race card will be snatched. I’ll get canceled. The whole world knows her résumé: Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, Princeton professor, speaker of truth. No adjective is too big, and no verb can contain the glory of her oeuvre, the ripple of her effect.

I would no more appreciate Toni Morrison than Harriet Tubman could eulogize the North Star. She, as she says in Song of Solomon, is a woman who could fly. With her words, I can see the mountaintop. She taught me real freedom, freedom of the mind.

Slavery took our bodies. Cultural hegemony tries to take our minds — and destroy our hair. Morrison gave it all back to us — if we have the strength to take it. What did she say in Beloved? They do not love your body. So you have to love it and love it hard.

This is not about being seen — a watered-down approximation of affirmation if ever there was one. We are seen every day and seen wanting, thanks to the economic demands of a scientifically ignorant people who built a sweet land of “liberty” on the backs of other, darker humans. It’s not right to own people. But it seems almost worse to convince yourself and those you enslaved and their descendants that it has something to do with their own inferiority. That’s twisted. Morrison put it back straight.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison photographed in New York City in 1979.

Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

It can be hard to remember to be free — to remember whose best thing I am.

My world sometimes looks like a series of planks I hammer together in front of me, stepping on the last to hammer the next. But it’s mine, free and clear. There can be long breaks between finishing one board and picking up the next, but Morrison understood that. Her books are full of magic, but there are no magical Negroes.

Examining her loss, I feel as if Morrison has always been with me. The Black Book haunted me with nightmares of what they would do to my brown body if they caught me, Song of Solomon strengthened my mind when I thought being brown was wrong, Beloved soothed my soul when being a brown girl felt worthless and then again when it felt like too much.

Her stories are mine, although the names and details were changed. Here is the spot under my chin where I burned my neck trying to look like Laura Ingalls. This is the elderly Italian woman who works at my local grocery — always eager to tell the white woman ahead of me how to braise her beef but anxious and silent when bagging my groceries. Here’s how I wear Hall & Oates T-shirts in order to short-circuit racial profiling.

Lately, I’d been dwelling on omens. Sullen, murderous days slinking one into another, casting shadows of old terrors. Nine in Charleston, 11 in Pittsburgh, 22 in El Paso, so many more in ones and twos. Earthquakes in pairs. Countless aftershocks.

But Morrison taught me to pity those empty bags of death who think automatic rifles can stop us. She showed me that first at Pilate’s stove and then in the clearing behind Sethe’s house.

My wings hold the shape of her words, and so they cannot fail. I know now that as the shadows gather shape in the wagon to take me back to Sweet Home that I will hold my chin high, pick up the hammer, laugh and say,

“Me? Me?”

Food for thought: Chef Todd Richards says soul food is the equal of haute cuisine He’s working with Ludacris and just won a major Cookbook of the Year award

Chef Todd Richards is on a mission, both inside and outside the kitchen, to ensure that soul food is appreciated as exquisite cuisine.

“Soul food will always be the greatest part of American cuisine,” Richards said. “But we’ll go to someone else’s culture, eat their food and make no complaints. Culturally, we can no longer do that. Our food is the most vibrant part of what we have to do. It’s up to us to command respect for our food.”

The self-taught chef’s debut cookbook/memoir, Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes, was recently named American Cookbook of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Richards is the culinary director of Jackmont Hospitality, the company that oversees two restaurants at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport: Chicken + Beer, owned by Grammy-winning rapper Ludacris and named after his 2003 album, and One Flew South, which bills itself as the first “upscale” establishment at the world’s busiest airport.

Eric Vitale

“I wanted to make sure our stories are being told to inspire different generations coming forward,” said Richards, 47. “You have a cuisine that is the backbone to American culture, but you don’t find it in every single neighborhood in every part of the country.”

Richards is the culinary director of Jackmont Hospitality, the company that oversees two restaurants at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport: Chicken+Beer, owned by Grammy-winning rapper Ludacris and named after his 2003 album, and One Flew South, which bills itself as the first “upscale” establishment at the world’s busiest airport.

“To have an album like Chicken-n-Beer that’s inspirational, generational, and also represents Atlanta gives me great inspiration to go in there and cook the best food because I’m not only representing myself,” Richards said. “I’m representing one of the most successful artists in the world while representing a city that is the mecca of culture. Everyone comes here to understand black culture.”

The two-time James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef: Southeast also oversees Richards’ Southern Fried, a restaurant located east of downtown in Krog Street Market. There, he fuses soul food with other global cuisines via items such as collard green pho, hot chicken macaroni and cheese, and a chicken sandwich topped with pimento cheese and chow chow.

“I talk to us, black people, first because if we’re not proud of our food, then none of this makes any sense. I can’t expect someone to be proud of our food if we’re not proud of it ourselves.” — Todd Richards

The Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s reviewer praised Richards’ Southern Fried as “very delicious, beautifully brined, crispy-skinned and obsession worthy.” Garden & Gun said Richards’ staple offering is “the best hot chicken in Atlanta.”

Richards sees no difference between preparing soul food and fine dining. He prefers to marinate his meats over a span of days. Time and patience, he says, are essential for preparing quality dishes and matching them with comparable price points. Black-owned restaurants, he adds, should never be frugal when selecting food items.

“It changes the narrative of what black food is,” he said. “It’s a technical-driven food that should not be considered as cheap. Why shouldn’t it have the same ransom as duck confit? If you think about technique, they’re absolutely the same.”

Richards moved to Atlanta from Chicago in 1993 and landed a job as a butcher at a Kroger grocery store. He later became a line cook at Blue Ribbon Grill, where he was introduced to his mentor, Four Seasons Hotel executive chef Darryl Evans. Richards did stints at The Ritz-Carlton hotel chain and helped the Oakroom at the Seelbach Hilton restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, earn a AAA Five Diamond Award.

Richards then worked at a number of restaurants in the Atlanta area. A contestant on Food Network’s fifth season of Iron Chef America, he says that each job in a restaurant contributes to its long-term success.

“People think being a dishwasher is the worst job in the restaurant,” Richards said. “It’s actually the most important job. They’re in charge of cleanliness and sanitation. If I don’t have a clean pot to cook in or plate to put it on, then the restaurant doesn’t function. What they do is not menial labor.”

Cedric McCroery, the chef de cuisine at One Flew South, said Richards inspired him to look at cooking as a form of storytelling. “Sometimes the story is obvious,” McCroery said via Facebook. “Sometimes it’s meant to be realized in combination of flavor, taste and presentation. That lesson inspired me to refocus.”

Richards’ cookbook/memoir, “Soul: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes,” was recently named American Cookbook of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Richards’ next project is to revamp Anderson’s Old Fashion Bar-B-Q in southwest Atlanta’s Florida Heights community. The effort is rooted in his relationship with his deceased father, who taught him how to prepare barbecue. He is also aiming to reinvigorate black food culture in a community with limited meal options beyond fast food.

“Fine dining is in my brain, but barbecue is in my soul,” he said. “Legacy is probably one of the most important things. Everybody wants it. Every culture has something in every single neighborhood except for us.

“I talk to us, black people, first because if we’re not proud of our food, then none of this makes any sense. I can’t expect someone to be proud of our food if we’re not proud of it ourselves. We cannot make our food cheap. We are people that have had the harshest conditions to grow some things, but it’s the most delicious food.”

Richards refers to his work inside and outside the kitchen as “black excellence” and believes it’s his duty at this stage of his career to empower the next generation of culinary professionals from marginalized communities.

Joshua Lee, Chicken+Beer’s executive chef, attests to Richards’ mentorship. “I really admire his work ethic and his drive to push others,” he said via Facebook. “He’s very dedicated to bringing light to soul food cuisine, very hands-on, and clear-cut when it comes to assuring that everyone understands his vision.”

“Who’s coming after me?” Richards said. “It’s easy for me to show up, but the Joshua Lees and Cedric McCroerys of the world are working with me and following me. I get to affect the minds of a lot more people, take young people and find out what’s really great about them.

“They got it after this. They have to go out and make their own legacies so that the traditions that we forged in this country can continue.”

Some simple advice from New Orleans superstar Leah Chase shaped this chef’s career The Queen of Creole Cuisine, who will be buried Monday, ‘always made you feel loved’

Once small nugget of advice from famed chef Leah Chase shaped Damion Banks’ entire career.

“Continue the art of simplicity and you will go farther and farther in the culinary field,” the Queen of Creole Cuisine told Banks.

Since his first encounter with Chase about 15 years ago, Banks has worked to express himself creatively while also striving to keep it simple, just as Chase told him.

Banks was one of many chefs across the country mourning the death of Chase, who died June 1 at age 96 and is scheduled to be buried Monday in New Orleans.

Before Chase became known as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, she worked as a waitress in the French Quarter. In 1946, she married Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., a local musician. His father, Dooky Chase Sr., had opened a bar and sandwich shop in the Treme neighborhood. Eventually, Chase and her husband transformed the location into a dine-in restaurant. Besides serving locals and celebrities, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant often served as a meeting place for politicians and civil rights leaders, and was one of the few places where the races mixed and dined together.

Chase received a lifetime achievement award from the James Beard Foundation in 2016. In the past week, mourners took to the streets to celebrate Chase’s life and legacy with a traditional New Orleans second line complete with brass bands and banners to let passersby know whom they were honoring. Many former patrons, including former President Barack Obama, used social media to express their condolences.

The loss was especially tough for chefs who have followed Chase’s career and were inspired by her exceptional culinary skills.

“It’s hard,” said Banks, 46. “It’s not just that she was a local legend that we lost. It’s like family that was lost. She reminded me so much of my grandmother that I actually cried when I heard [the news of her death]. I feel like I lost my grandmother twice.”

Banks never took for granted the occasional moments he shared with Chase over the years. Each time, she offered a few words of advice that Banks added to his daily life as a chef.

Banks began his career with a summer job washing dishes in the kitchen of Austin Leslie, another world-renowned chef of Creole cuisine. Banks’ uncle, who was the sous chef for Leslie at the time, wondered whether Banks should stick to art, rather than food. Instead of being deterred, Banks was determined to prove his uncle wrong.

Before Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, Banks appeared several times with Chase at multi-chef events around the city, including a dinner for then-Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu. Both of them were also featured in a PBS documentary highlighting five black New Orleans chefs that was originally scheduled to air right before the storm hit.

President George W. Bush (left) holds the hand of Leah Chase (right), the owner of Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, where he and first lady Laura Bush took part in a dinner with Louisiana cultural and community leaders in 2007 in New Orleans.

Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

As busy as Chase’s life remained, she was never too busy. He would re-introduce himself to Chase and each time, she’d already known who he was.

“She was always available to talk,” Banks said. “Even at her restaurant. It always felt great when she remembered me. I know I felt special, but that’s how she made everyone feel. She treated everyone the same. We were all VIPs. No matter who Mrs. Chase talked to, she always made you feel loved.”

In 2011, years after Banks earned his position as executive chef at the now-closed Olivier’s Creole Restaurant in New Orleans, Chase and her family would drop by for dinner. Although Banks had come far in his culinary journey, including cooking for celebrities and international figures, the knowledge that Chase was in his dining room waiting patiently for one of his creations to be served still made him nervous.

Banks still remembers the first time she came to the restaurant and the entree he prepared for her: Roasted duck breast with a raspberry plum coulis, roasted asparagus, and dauphinoise chips.

“I remember she was tasting all the food and sampling everything and I was somewhat scared because this is a local legend,” Banks said. “I was doing Creole food and I wanted it to be impressive to her but I didn’t want to go too much over. But she enjoyed it. She was very impressed with it.”

Damion Banks (left) and Leah Chase (right).

Damion Banks

In one of their last encounters, Banks shared the news that he was starting his own business, Beauchamps Catering. And he knew exactly what he’d envisioned for the new company.

“I keep it simple, but at the same time, I love art,” Banks said. “I keep the art of simplicity, but I like for people to see my food and eat with their eyes. If I explain it, if I write my menu down, everything that you read in the descriptions, you’ll be able to taste everything that I’ve explained to you.”

In that chat, Chase left Banks with one last gem.

“I give a lot of effort because I’m allergic to failure,” Banks said. “I’m destroyed by it, but it’s also growth. Mrs. Chase told me to always work hard. Give all the effort that I could. No matter what I did, if I had that, I’d always be successful. It was the truth.”

That was Leah Chase, practicing the art of simplicity.

A black neighborhood’s complicated relationship with the home of Preakness Baltimore’s storied horse race faces an uncertain future in the city

In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.

However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.

“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”

Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.

Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.

Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.

In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.

Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.

The 5100 block of Park Heights Ave is the closest thoroughfare to the race track. The area is in need of investment and redevelopment, and many shops are vacant or boarded up. The Preakness has not brought any significant opportunity to the area over the years.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.

If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.

Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.

City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.

Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.

Track workers prepare the track for the two weeks of racing to come as Preakness nears on the calendar. Pimlico race track is falling apart and the owners would rather take the historic race out of Baltimore than repair it. But who is left behind? The black community that surrounds Pimlico.

André Chung for The Undefeated

In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.

Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.

The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.

Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Melvin Ward, who grew up in the Park Heights neighborhood near Pimlico, is the owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food near the race track.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.

Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.

The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?

“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”

Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.

Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.

LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”

Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.

LaDonna Jones owns property near the track. Her cousin, Roderick Barnette helps her take care of it. Their views differ on whether or not the track should close. Jones wants it to stay but wants to see reinvestment into the community and Barnette would rather see it go because it’s never benefitted the community.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”

When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”

Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”

Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.

Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.

Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.

Michael Sorrell took Paul Quinn College from barely surviving to thriving The school’s WE Over Me Farm, born out of desperation, boasts the Dallas Cowboys as a client

An interview with Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College and one of Fortune magazine’s 2018 World Leaders


When Michael Sorrell agreed to a controversial decision to disband the football program at Paul Quinn College in 2007, he saw it as the only way to save the financially troubled historically black college. Located in a working-class African-American neighborhood in south Dallas, Paul Quinn was on the verge of shuttering unless Sorrell, a relative novice in higher education, somehow came up with a miracle.

Paul Quinn was founded in 1872 and was the first institution of higher learning for African-Americans west of the Mississippi River. But as enrollment plunged from 1,000 to 150 students and annual deficits soared to as high as $1 million a year a decade ago, the school devolved into an eyesore, with several buildings in disrepair while others sat vacant.

No one wanted to be the president of Paul Quinn, which is why Sorrell, a Dallas-based attorney with no experience in higher education, initially accepted the job on a 90-day contingency basis as the board of trustees searched for a full-time president. Sorrell, who was part of a group in negotiations to purchase the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies and name him team president, awaited his fate. When the deal to acquire the Grizzlies fell through, Sorrell became Paul Quinn’s permanent president.

His idea to terminate the football program and convert the field into the state-of-the-art WE Over Me Farm where students can work, and from which food is donated to the surrounding community and sold to area businesses for profit, was born out of Sorrell’s desperation and innovation. It worked because Sorrell convinced everyone, including himself, that it couldn’t fail.

Paul Quinn, which was once on the verge of bankruptcy and de-accreditation, has seen its enrollment increase to more than 550 students today, and the graduation rate for students enrolling in 2006 and 2009 improved from 1 percent to 13 percent. In August, the school broke ground on a 40,000-square-foot educational and residential building made possible with $7 million in donations — the school’s first new building in 40 years. Paul Quinn now operates at a profit and has received the most seven-figure gifts in school history while securing full accreditation from the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools.

“I took some criticism, but we couldn’t afford football,” Sorrell told The Undefeated. “The dominant reason for us terminating the football program was economic. But another reason was maybe there’s more than one way out of poverty for young black men. Maybe your mind will sustain your climb out of poverty more than your body.”

A lunch meeting with Dallas businessman and environmentalist Trammell S. Crow prompted Sorrell to reveal there wasn’t a single grocery store for miles to accommodate the community surrounding Paul Quinn. Crow inquired about the feasibility of an on-campus garden. Sorrell suggested the football field, which had been unused for two years.

“He said, ‘Can you do that?’ I said, ‘I’m the president,’ ” Sorrell said. “So he gave some money to turn 30 yards of the football field into a community garden. He also gave money so we could open up a community garden at the church across from the school.” Crow later connected Paul Quinn with Pepsi Co., which also contributed financially to the farm. In 2014, Crow provided the largest gift in school history, $4.4 million, and has become so influential that the new building will be named after him.

“We didn’t know anything about farming,” Sorrell said. “We were inexperienced, but we had righteous rage and we were unafraid to fail. True failure would have been never trying to improve the condition of people in this community, and we thought that was wrong.”

Students at Paul Quinn College at the football field turned farm.

Courtesy of KSJD Radio

As of August, the WE Over Me Farm has grown more than 60,000 pounds of produce and features a 3,000-square-foot greenhouse. Some of the produce is consumed in the dining halls. It’s also sold to Dallas restaurants and grocery stores. The school’s largest customer, Legends Hospitality, serves AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. In 2015, Paul Quinn hired a farm director who specializes in organic farming and opened a farmers market that brings together 10 to 12 vendors each week. Popular items include collards, mustard greens, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, garlic, okra, cucumbers, corn, peas, watermelon, cantaloupe, pumpkins and squash.

“It saved our school in one regard because it changed the narrative,” Sorrell said. “No longer were you going to talk about Paul Quinn from the perspective of a need institution that did not have what it needed and should be pitied. When you are in a crisis, you have to change the narrative, and that’s what it allowed us to do. It gave people a reason to look at us and see hope. It’s one thing for me to go around giving speeches about believing and hope and we’re going to accomplish things. It’s something entirely different to give people tangible proof of hope. And from that moment forward, we began to exceed people’s expectations.”

Speaking at the prestigious SXSW EDU Conference & Festival in March in Austin, Texas, Sorrell emphasized that what works at Paul Quinn won’t necessarily yield similar results at schools with greater resources. For instance, cutting football wasn’t the only way to go. But it was considered the best way among other options.

“When I was a young college president, I was stressed out,” said Sorrell, who was named one of Fortune magazine’s 2018 World Leaders, one of only two college presidents to receive the honor. “I had just turned 40. I was frustrated. I was in charge of a school that was failing and there was no guarantee this was going to work. I faced a very real possibility that Paul Quinn College could have survived Reconstruction, it could have survived Jim Crow but it couldn’t survive my presidency. That scared the daylights out of me. At Paul Quinn, people look at our students and dismiss them. Eighty to 90 percent of our students are Pell Grant-eligible. Our average ACT score is 17. So what? That’s just numbers on a page. Maybe the problem isn’t that you couldn’t learn. Maybe the problem is that people couldn’t teach you.

“There was no path forward for us simply doing what other schools did because they were doing it longer and better. That wasn’t going to work for us. We weren’t that type of institution. We didn’t have those type of resources. Our way forward was going to have to be something different. And that different for us was turning the institution around and saying if we were going to design a university for today’s students, what would that look like? If we were going to demand our place in higher education, how would we break down the doors? We were going to have to be less of a college and more of a movement.”

The WE Over Me Farm was only the beginning. In 2013, Paul Quinn experimented with an urban work college in which all students are required to work at jobs on campus and later off campus for potential employers. Students have $2,400 of their wages go toward their tuition and keep the rest. In 2017, Paul Quinn was designated by the U.S. Department of Education as the ninth federally recognized and the first historically black work college.

“What’s truly amazing about what Paul Quinn has become is this idea that we created our own system of higher education,” Sorrell said. “We lost 80 percent of our student population in my first two years. We’re now over 550. We’ve had to manage that growth because we didn’t have [sufficient] housing. There were no urban work colleges [before Paul Quinn]. That model did not exist. If you live on campus, all of our residential students have a job. They work an average of 15, 16 hours per week. They work on and off campus. They have work transcripts so they can show what they can do, and they have their academic transcripts to show what they learned. We also reduced tuition and fees and made it easier for students to graduate with less than $10,000 in student loan debt. We have taken aim at what we have felt are the most dominant issues of our day and are working to solve them.”

In July, Paul Quinn announced that the inaugural site of its urban work college network will be in Plano, a Dallas suburb. Thirty-three students will live in apartments the first year, and corporate sponsors will provide paid internships and classroom space.

“We’re not saying our way is the only way or the best way. We’re saying what we believe yields the best results for the community we serve.”

“We want to open Paul Quinn global campuses and urban work colleges all over the world,” Sorrell said. “Plano was our expansion model. This is about identifying your competitive advantage. We’re in one of the strongest, most thriving business centers in the country. Why wouldn’t we craft a way that allowed us to take full advantage simply of what we have in our midst?

“The farm was just the tip of the iceberg. That gave people the first example of us being able to do things that people weren’t doing or hadn’t done. We’ll use what we have to serve our institution and the community we serve. We give away close to 15 percent of everything we grow. Our largest customer is the Dallas Cowboys because, you know, we still run a business here. But, quite candidly, the farm is wonderful, but the farm isn’t what makes us special.

“I’ll tell you what I tell everybody: We are just warming up,” Sorrell said. “We haven’t even taken our best stuff off the shelf yet. We’re not saying our way is the only way or the best way. We’re saying what we believe yields the best results for the community we serve.”

Oscar-nominated film about Emmett Till contemplates how racial terror affects those left behind Kevin Wilson Jr., the director of ‘My Nephew Emmett,’ is still in film school

Kevin Wilson Jr. has spent more than half his life thinking about Emmett Till and the night he was murdered.

A few days from now, he might just win an Oscar for it.

Wilson, 28, is the director of My Nephew Emmett, which is nominated for an Academy Award for best live action short film. The film looks at the day Till was kidnapped from the viewpoint of his uncle, Mose Wright, the relative Till was visiting in Mississippi in the summer of 1955.

When Wilson was an undergraduate studying journalism and mass communication at North Carolina A&T University, he mounted a play about Till. That one adopted Till’s own perspective as an audacious 14-year-old boy from Chicago going South to visit relatives. Wilson had begun working on the play when he was a 15-year-old student at Hillside High School in Durham, North Carolina, which has one of the most respected theater programs in the state.

It’s terrifying, as a black person, to put yourself in the shoes of Till, an innocent snatched from his bed, kidnapped, tortured, murdered and thrown into the Tallahatchie River like so much garbage, all because he’d made the mistake of co-existing for a few moments with a white woman named Carolyn Bryant.

You know the story: Till was at a grocery store in Money, Mississippi. Bryant accused him of whistling at her and later lied to federal prosecutors, telling them that Till had touched her. Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother J.W. Milam rode to the Wright house the night of the alleged interaction and took Till at gunpoint. When his broken body was recovered from the Tallahatchie, his mother, Mamie Till, insisted that his casket remain open at his funeral for the world to see what had happened to him. Till’s body was eventually exhumed and reburied, and his original casket is now on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Wilson learned that story when he was 5 years old. His mother, now 54, had not yet been born when Till was killed, but the story reverberated through her childhood just the same. In 1995, she told it to Wilson, her only child, whom she was raising alone. It was a way of protecting him. That’s the legacy of Jim Crow and the terrorism of the lynching era: Half a century after Till’s death, his killers are still robbing black children of the right to grow up peacefully naïve. Wilson has two children of his own, and he plans to educate them similarly.

“It’s still very much relevant because we have, still, people of color, even in present day, who are being killed and no one is being held accountable for it,” Wilson said by phone from Los Angeles a few days before the Academy Awards. “So I think until we get to the point where a life is taken and we can just automatically say, ‘OK, a life was taken. There’s no debate. Someone is being held accountable for it,’ we have to continue telling those stories.”

Half a century after Till’s death, his killers are still robbing black children of the right to grow up peacefully naïve.

Although Wilson speaks with the authority of a filmmaker many years his senior, he won’t finish film school at New York University until later this year. He’s one of two Spike Lee protégés contending for awards Sunday night. The other is Mudbound director Dee Rees, who, along with co-writer Virgil Williams, was nominated for best adapted screenplay.

Lee brought Rees to speak to his class last semester, Wilson said, and he also gave Wilson the funds to finish his film when he came up short in postproduction. Once Wilson decided as an undergraduate that he was more interested in directing than acting, he spent a summer immersing himself in Lee’s work. He watched Do the Right Thing every single day, and he read everything he could find that the famed director had published, including his journals.

Do The Right Thing is the movie that made me fall in love with cinema,” Wilson said.

That love is evident in My Nephew Emmett. Wilson insisted on filming on location in Mississippi, although it upped the production costs, and he treats the story with the intellect and considered beauty that’s typical of the Disciples of Spike. Shot by cinematographer Laura Valladao, My Nephew Emmett forces its audience to think about space and proximity. When Bryant (Ethan Leaverton) and Milam (Dane Rhodes) ride on the Wright house and threaten Mose at gunpoint, they do so under the cover of night. There’s no physical distance in this crime — the men are close enough to wet Mose’s face with spittle. So often, the crimes that took place against black people during Jim Crow, whether it was lynching or sexual assault, happened in small towns where victims knew their assailants, a twisted flip side of the way small-town life is often celebrated as simple and bucolic. The Jim Crow era was marked by physical closeness and heavily enforced psychological distance, a theme Rees explores in Mudbound as well.

In My Nephew Emmett, Mose Wright is forced to decide whether to sacrifice Till to his attackers or subject the entire family to similar treatment by refusing to give up his nephew. The threat of sexual assault looms when one of the attackers grabs Mose’s wife, Elizabeth, played by Jasmine Guy.

“I’m a father, and I was curious about that feeling of having to decide between your son, or nephew in this case, and the rest of your family,” Wilson said. “It’s an impossible decision to make. And then what happens after that, after you make that decision. I think that Mose’s story is one of extreme courage; to be able to identify these men on camera, he was putting his life at risk. His entire family had to leave that home. They didn’t go back to that home after that night. They all moved back up to Chicago eventually.”

My Nephew Emmett is part of a wave of new projects about Till. Taraji P. Henson is producing and starring as Mamie Till in a film that John Singleton is directing. Steven Caple Jr., the director taking over the Creed sequel from Ryan Coogler, is writing an HBO miniseries about Till produced by Jay-Z and Will Smith.

“Mose’s story is one of extreme courage; to be able to identify these men on camera, he was putting his life at risk. His entire family had to leave that home.”

Wilson is a good example of why it’s worth paying attention to shorts, even if you’re a casual film buff. It’s not always easy to see all of the contenders in one place, and few movie theaters screen them (My Nephew Emmett is available on iTunes). But they can be a good predictor of future success and often offer glimpses of a director’s storytelling acumen because their brevity demands discipline. For example, Roger Ross Williams, the director who won the Oscar for best documentary short for Music by Prudence, went on to create the tender and inventive feature-length documentary Life, Animated. Damien Chazelle initially made Whiplash as a short before turning it into the feature-length project of the same name. It won three Oscars — for best supporting actor (J.K. Simmons), sound mixing, and film editing — and was nominated for best picture and best adapted screenplay.

Wilson is now trying to find funding for his next project, a feature-length thriller. Sunday, he’ll be in a room full of people with the deep pockets to help him.

“My goal is to be able to make a feature film every year and do television in between or commercials in between and plays in between,” Wilson said. “To be creating every day.”

‘The Quad’ recap: Ghosts of the past rear their ugly heads Eva Fletcher’s past continues to haunt her, while Cecil Diamond unearths memories that will change his life

Season 2, Episode 5 — The Quad: Native Son

After a week of waiting for a new episode, The Quad is back! And with a new episode, new drama unfolds. That’s what we’ve been waiting for, right?

The episode begins with what’s presumably Bryce Richardson still dreaming of being a member of Sigma Mu Kappa — a dream that was snatched away from him when his roommate, Cedric Hobbs, got him in trouble with the rest of the fraternity and he was kicked off line. The scene then transitions from Richardson’s nightmare to Eva Fletcher with a new boy toy, a nice escape from the hell she’s been dealing with.

After her arrest for assaulting a police officer, Fletcher has been on a crusade to end police brutality and clear her name. Fletcher’s attorney warns her that reporters have been digging around into her past, especially her medical history, to check the officer’s claim that Fletcher’s erratic behavior may have stemmed from drug use. The attorney vows to get to the bottom of things and urges Fletcher to let him take care of the situation. After all, it’s what he’s being paid to do.

On the field, BoJohn Folsom is facing a gaggle of angry teammates. After a fight broke out at a party between him and a top football recruit, which resulted in punches being thrown, coach Eugene Hardwick didn’t take too kindly to the news. The players complain to Folsom as Hardwick makes them roll the length of the field as punishment.

In the dorms, Richardson’s father, whom we hadn’t seen since last season, pays him another intense visit after hearing from his brother that things weren’t going so well with the fraternity. Bryce doesn’t want to run the risk of ruining the family’s legacy, but he knows he can’t tell his father the truth about his situation. Richardson’s ear-hustling roomie, Hobbs, overheard the conversation. Since he’s partially at fault for the mess, Hobbs approaches Miles Thrumond (Quentin Plair) and threatens to have the fraternity suspended on grounds of hazing if Richardson isn’t let back on line. It was a good try but a failed attempt. Hobbs went back to the drawing board for Plan B.

Although Fletcher was told to let the attorney handle her situation, of course it’s Fletcher fashion to go and find more trouble. With a little digging, Fletcher finds another man, Dave Hill, who filed a lawsuit against the same police officer, then dropped it. She finds Hill at a shop where he works as a mechanic and listens to his story before trying to persuade him to join her on the crusade for justice. Hill, explaining to Fletcher that he wants no part of her mess, rips up the attorney’s business card that Fletcher had given him as soon as she leaves.

In the midst of all the chaos, the student body has disapproved of Fletcher’s leadership, and the most recent series of unfortunate events has dragged her ratings even further down the hole. There have been police checkpoints set up near the school — most of them involving the unnecessary harassment of students. On top of that, Fletcher has canceled the school’s Spring Holiday Fest, which is a huge Georgia A&M University tradition. Hobbs encourages the student body not to be so hard on Fletcher, and if they want to reach her, it’s simple: Text her. She’d given out her number at the beginning of the year for students to do so.

Bad idea.

Hobbs’ idea leads an angry student body mob to Fletcher’s inbox, where she begins to receive disrespectful and hate-filled texts every two minutes. Not the best thing for someone suffering from panic attacks and anxiety. Fletcher steps out to go grocery shopping, but even her normal routine is disrupted by Mark Early, the police officer who assaulted and arrested her. He warns her that he has seen the “glassy look” in people’s eyes before, implying that Fletcher was under the influence of something the day she was pulled over. Fletcher stands her ground but is shaken after the officer leaves. She returns to Dave Hill to tell him that she has once again been harassed. This time, Hill decides to join her crusade by adding himself to the witness list.

Returning to the dorms, Folsom still tries to keep an upbeat attitude despite teammates, including his roommate, Junior, being mad at him. After getting out of an awkward conversation with Junior, Folsom makes a nightly store run to pick up some gifts to make things right with Tiesha (Aeja Lee). Before he can safely make it back to his dorm, Folsom is jumped by guys avenging the friend he punched at the party.

Junior hadn’t noticed the extent of Folsom’s injuries until the next morning. Bloodied and bruised, Folsom remained in bed while Junior informed the rest of the team about what had happened. Hardwick pays Folsom a visit in the dorm and tries to take him to the hospital but is blocked by Folsom’s father, who angrily scolds Hardwick for not taking care of his son.

On a lighter note in the episode, Cecil Diamond appears to be living his best life. His cancer is in remission, the problem children from his band have been removed and living carefree seems to be the new motto. Diamond walks into the club, where he’s immediately greeted by his old band buddies, who ask him to sit in on their set. The youngest of the bunch, the drummer of the band, immediately takes issue with it. Diamond can’t figure out where the hostility is coming from until a friend drops by campus to see him. He delivers the news that the hot-headed drummer is Diamond’s kid.

Yes, you read that correctly. Diamond is the father of a 26-year-old he’s meeting for the very first time. The world isn’t ready for another Cecil Diamond, but it will make the upcoming storylines that much more interesting.

With so much going on in Fletcher’s life, and so few friends to turn to, Fletcher invites colleague and “friend” Ella Grace Caldwell over for drinks and appetizers. She confides in Caldwell, even after Caldwell and dean Carlton Pettiway have already shown they can’t be trusted after going behind Fletcher’s back and making their own deals. Fletcher picks this moment to be honest. She begins to talk about the cop and how reporters have been poking into her background, which leads to the real reason that she resigned as president from the prior institution. She tells Caldwell about the affair that led to her divorce and resignation. Caldwell seemingly reserves judgment, but a few short scenes later she declares to Pettiway and Diamond that maybe Fletcher isn’t the right person for this job.

Finally, there is good news for Fletcher. The district attorney’s office successfully filed charges against Officer Early, and Fletcher gained the satisfaction of finally having something go right in her life. But the scene also reveals Fletcher’s new man, a doctor, who leaves a large bottle of alprazolam – better known by the brand name Xanax — on her nightstand. Was the officer right all along? Is it possible that Fletcher is abusing prescription drugs because of her anxiety? All signs point to yes, since Fletcher refuses to go to the pharmacy to get prescriptions filled.

Back on the yard, the latest class of Sigma Mu Kappa men is being revealed to the campus. When the time comes for masks to come off, it is revealed that Richardson is the ace of the line. One by one, masks come off. The tail at the very end of the line? Hobbs. Seems like Richardson will have a lot of making up to do to his roomie-turned-frat-brother from now on.

‘Unsolved’ aims to dispel all the misconceptions about Tupac and Biggie Television Critics Diary: Two promising shows about Bad Boys and ‘Good Girls’

PASADENA, California — Last year, FX made it impossible not to obsess over O.J. Simpson. This year, they’re hoping they can do the same with Gianni Versace and the serial killer who murdered him.

So of course other networks were bound to join in and try to get a piece of that true-crime ratings juice.

Which brings us to Unsolved: The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G., USA’s 10-episode limited series, which premieres Feb. 27.

Unsolved jumps back and forth in time from 1997, the year Biggie Smalls was murdered, to 2007, when Detective Greg Kading (Josh Duhamel) and Officer Daryn Dupree (Bokeem Woodbine) are trying to close the still-unsolved case. And it aims to dispel all of the misconceptions about Smalls and Tupac Shakur, particularly for an audience that didn’t follow every detail in the case.

“There is a huge misunderstanding that these men were gangsters, and therefore that they should be seen in a negative light,” executive producer Mark Taylor told me at the Television Critics Association press tour here. “A lot of that came from the media. It’s an easy way to categorize people. It plays into a lot of racial fears. But it doesn’t capture who they were. It doesn’t fully capture who anyone is to say they’re a gangster.”

It’s a useful revisiting, based on the real-life Detective Kading’s book Murder Rap. Jimmi Simpson plays Los Angeles Police Detective Russell Poole, who investigates the case in 1997. USA has only released the pilot to the press, but it appears to have the makings of something truly addictive. There’s a deeply chilling scene between Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace (Aisha Hinds), and Simpson, and at a press tour panel on Tuesday, Simpson squeezed his eyes shut and gestured with his hands as he tried to convey the depth of his appreciation for Hinds’ performance.

All of that is wonderful, but what you really want to know is whether USA found actors who effectively captured Biggie and Tupac.

Yes. The answer is yes.

Marcc Rose, who played Tupac in Straight Outta Compton, is revisiting the role for Unsolved. The producers found a newcomer in rapper Wavyy Jonez to play Biggie, and it’s a relief to see that he’s not just doing an impression. Both men give their characters depth and an unexpected youthful playfulness under the direction of Anthony Hemingway. There’s one scene in particular where the two are playing under a sprinkler system in the California sun with real, but unloaded, guns, and Hemingway makes his point: They were just kids when they died in 1996 and 1997, barely adults on paper and even less so in spirit.


Retta, Mae Whitman and Christina Hendricks, stars of the NBC show “Good Girls.”

Maarten de Boer/NBC via Getty Images

NBC has a new dramedy from creator Jenna Bans that follows three suburban Detroit moms who decide to hold up a grocery store after they find themselves and their families in dire financial straits.

Good Girls stars Christina Hendricks, Retta and Mae Whitman as moms Beth Boland, Ruby Hill and Annie Marks. Beth discovers that her used-car salesman husband, played by Matthew Lillard, has not only been cheating on her with his spokesmodel but has also mortgaged the house several times over and maxed out their credit cards trying to save his floundering business. Ruby’s daughter has a rare kidney disorder that requires either a transplant or a drug that costs $10,000 a month out of pocket. And Annie is a struggling mom to a genderqueer tween whose well-off father wants to sue her for full custody.

NBC is selling this show as a cross between Thelma and Louise and Breaking Bad, which I suppose makes sense. Mostly, it reminds me of Set It Off, the 1996 film starring Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett, Vivica A. Fox and Kimberly Elise as four desperate women who turn to robbing banks to get the cash they need.

Good Girls tries to capture all of the ways women are ignored, disrespected and underappreciated while also portraying the danger that women face — Annie has her own #MeToo moment — and managing to be darkly funny.

It’s Retta who brings a wonderful, tender ordinariness to the show. She and her husband, Stan (Reno Wilson), both work low-paying full-time jobs, neither of which affords them great health care for their daughter, played by Lidya Jewett. Retta spoke at length Tuesday about how she immediately responded to the script, precisely because she’s playing a person and not a best friend, or a meter maid, or a postal worker, or some other stereotype of what dark-skinned, plus-size black women are imagined to be.

Ruby and Stan have a loving, working-class marriage. Retta told me that Bans alerted her a few days ago that Ruby and Stan were going to have a fight because they have a sick kid and money’s tight. It makes sense.

Still, “I f—ing had a panic attack,” Retta said, “because I was like, ‘I love — don’t let them get into a fight!’ My thing is, because I love Ruby and Stan so much, and I love them together, and I love our kids — our kids are super f—ing cute. The kids are so cute, and Lidya is so damn smart. We just love being together. A lot of times, you know, you don’t necessarily loooove to perform with the kids. We love our kids. I’m having anxiety about the fight that we’re going to have to have.”