Black quarterbacks are out here changing the game and how we see leadership NFL’s black signal-callers make a way out of no way


The meeting between Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens and Russell Wilson’s Seattle Seahawks a couple of weeks ago, on one level, featured the kind of marquee quarterback matchup for which the NFL is famous.

But on a deeper, historical level it spotlighted two black quarterbacks (rare), each a possible MVP (rarer still) and a eureka moment that crystallized both how America views leadership, and how, week by week, black quarterbacks are changing the face and nature of the role.

With the score tied at 13 late in the third quarter, the Ravens faced fourth-and-2 on the Seahawks 8-yard line and Coach John Harbaugh had sent in the kicking team. But Jackson, 22, his second-year star quarterback, paced the sideline, urging a different call.

“Do you want to go for that?” Harbaugh asked Jackson in a late October video clip that’s been viewed more than 3 million times. “Hell, yeah, coach, let’s go for it!” the quarterback yelled. On the next play, Jackson, took the snap in the shotgun, ran right, juked left and ran up the middle for a touchdown, propelling the Ravens to a 30-16 victory.

“In my mind, they are the next generation of civil rights workers because in some ways, they’re risking their bodies to change a country.” — Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution

The significance of that moment wasn’t just in how it showcased Jackson’s elite athleticism, field awareness or football intelligence (which was also on full display in the Ravens’ win over the previously undefeated Patriots last weekend). And it wasn’t his preternatural confidence. It was that his authority was given free rein. It was that faith in a young black man inhabiting the quarterback position — which has been synonymous with leadership, and a tacit proxy for white masculinity for the century-long history of the sport — was rewarded and telegraphed around the country.

“In my mind, they are the next generation of civil rights workers because in some ways, they’re risking their bodies to change a country,” said Lonnie G. Bunch III, who in May became the first African American secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in its 173-year history. They’re comfortable and confident enough “to take that extra gear and to do that thing that hasn’t been done before.”

The pace has been glacial, but over the past 50 years, we’ve “beat back the kind of pseudoscientific ways that people used to think about African American intellectual ability” and those associations with black quarterbacks, said historian Julian Hayter, who teaches leadership studies at the University of Richmond. “These dudes are actually out here throwing their way out of scientific racism.”

James “Shack” Harris won three conference championships at Grambling State University, where he played for legendary coach Eddie Robinson. But after refusing to change positions, he wasn’t selected until the eighth round of the 1969 NFL draft. Harris nearly walked away from football before Robinson persuaded him to fight for his rightful place in the league. He went on to become the first black quarterback to start an NFL season opener, start and win a playoff game, play in a Pro Bowl and be named a Pro Bowl MVP.

Harris sees the new prominence of black quarterbacks — this season ties 2013 for the number of starters, and includes the most celebrated players in the league — as a positive development for young African Americans aspiring to do anything. The quarterback “is perhaps the most singular position in all of sports in influence and leadership. And we have more blacks today participating, but I don’t think it’s increased our ability to lead,” Harris said. “We’ve been able to lead since birth.”

Quarterback Patrick Mahomes (left) of the Kansas City Chiefs shakes hands with quarterback Lamar Jackson (right) of the Baltimore Ravens after the Chiefs defeated the Ravens 27-24 in overtime at Arrowhead Stadium on Dec. 9, 2018.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Black quarterbacks were just rarely given the chance.

Hayter defines leadership as “a co-creational process based on role agreement.” In times of crisis human beings have a cognitive need to look to people with particular traits to resolve these crises and “in some ways, sports are controlled crises, right?”

The encoding of quarterbacks as white leaders is an agreement that was birthed with the sport that emerged from mid-19th century Ivy League culture. Quarterbacks call plays that direct other players’ assignments, touch the ball the most and are the most visible players on the field. Even as football migrated South and became more blue-collar, the quarterback position retained that association with intellectualism. The positions of center, inside linebacker and especially quarterback were held out as thinking positions, too complex for black athletes to master.

As 20th century black athletic achievements destroyed racist myths about the physical superiority of white men, and the civil rights movement helped open professional sports to black athletes, white team owners, coaches, media and fans clung to myths of black intellectual inferiority.

“There’s so many stories of black quarterbacks in college who get forced to play wide receiver and defensive backs,” said Mark Anthony Neal, chair of the department of African and African American Studies at Duke University. Even Jackson, a Heisman winner, was doubted as a quarterback and criticized for not running a “pro-style” offense, which called for remaining in the pocket and reading coverage, before this standout season finally quieted that noise. Hard to ever imagine a white player with Jackson’s gifts being told to switch positions.

The question became whether black men, who were already leading black churches, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their own communities, “had the capacity to lead white men and white institutions,” Neal said.

That question becomes particularly acute when you take into account the improvisational nature of black culture and how that shapes black leadership, especially in sports.

“Underlying that message really was that not only was the league fearful of the leadership potential of some of these men — and this is of course applicable to corporate America also — but they were fearful of the way that black men could improvise,” said Neal. And that means they could change the game in ways that were not intuitive or immediately replicable for white quarterbacks. (Not so much physically, but culturally, though with constant practice, the two go hand in hand.)

Black improvisation is best understood as a kind of creative problem-solving that stems from the dynamics of black life that often require you make a way out of no way, said Neal. “How do you problem-solve lack of resources? In another context, it’s Big Momma in the kitchen with a small amount of resources and a family of 10 to feed. And how does that get done night after night, week after week, year after year?” Neal asked.

Improvisational leadership gets encoded as “genetic” — as “natural” athleticism in sports — but it’s more specifically political, environmental, economic. And it’s smart. There can’t just be one way to get something done, because that way often ignores black people or works against them. In 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened with a permanent exhibit called Making a Way Out of No Way. The off-ramp thinking required to outwit challenges or gain advantage for black people in myriad aspects of American life gets stylized, and celebrated as a bedrock of black culture when it works. And when it works repeatedly, it changes the game — music, politics, science, sports —whatever the game is.

Last year, the reigning NFL MVP, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ no-look pass against the Ravens electrified the league, but it was also a play he’d studied and practiced since college.

People have the tendency to “think that our ability to improvise means that we don’t know how to play by the rules. No, it means we know how to play within them,” said Hayter. Jazz “is not an explosion of the rules, it is understanding the rules of musical theory so well that you can bend them in a way.”

The no-look pass and the stutter-step running of Jackson, and Michael Vick before him are examples of that improvisational leadership, said Bunch. “Improvisation is how black people have historically survived. So of course when they play sports, there’s improvisation. But that’s been held against them.” Especially in football, where improvisation at quarterback has been cast as an inability to process, and make leadership decisions. The traditional model is to step back in the pocket, and take what the defense gives you. But if black people just took what we were given historically, we’d be dead.

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson reacts after throwing a touchdown in the first half against the Atlanta Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Oct. 27 in Atlanta.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“Look at Doug Williams. Just look at Patrick Mahomes. The list goes on,” said Hayter. “Look at Russell Wilson. These guys could extend the play in a way that changes our perception about what the [quarterback] position actually is. And I think in some ways that’s what people are reluctant to deal with.”

Consciously or unconsciously, for those wed to white leadership, the nature of quarterback play is perceived as a binary. Either resist adopting the changes, or, like the NBA, cede the league to black players. Rules enacted over the past 15 years to protect the quarterback, including recent changes banning a tackler from landing on the quarterback, make it easier to preserve the hegemony of white quarterbacks “trained to play a particular way,” said Neal. “You had men like a Randall Cunningham and a Warren Moon, obviously Michael Vick, come along,” Neal said, and “you now enact these rules within the game that in fact forces them to play the game in very traditional ways, and doesn’t protect them when they go against that script.”

Neal cites Carolina Panthers quarterback and former MVP Cam Newton, who has used his size and strength to run the ball, as an example. Critics say “he gets hurt because he refuses to play within this particular script, right?” said Neal. But it was that script that required his improvisational leadership in the first place: “I don’t have a great running game, I don’t have the best receivers,” Neal said, channeling Newton. “How do I solve this problem without them? I’m the most gifted athlete on the field. That’s how I solve the problem.

Sports has rarely been about fair and equal competition, “it’s been about perception, it’s been about leadership” and drawing audiences, Bunch said. And when it comes to the racial coding of the quarterback position, it’s about control. “And control is about fear.” One of the best ways to control black people has been to say they’re inferior, “but then you’ve got to put the laws in place to make sure you reinforce” those ideas, he said.

Any black person who has broken through a leadership barrier has to confront white fear that something is being taken from them, said Bunch, and their own fears about being good enough to carry the burdens of the race.

This is why the political activism of former quarterback Colin Kaepernick has kept him out of the league while playing out differently for other player/protesters. “Leaders are dangerous,” Bunch said. “If they lead down a way that makes people uncomfortable, they’re dangerous.

“The black quarterback is probably the most visible black male figure in America in terms of the number of people who see him play,” Bunch said, and that has a ripple effect as people start to recognize they have skills that transcend race. “But they never really transcend race, right? … You don’t have the freedom to be average. You’ve really got to be stellar or else you don’t get on a field.”

When he’s optimistic, he thinks “every black quarterback who throws a touchdown, who signs an autograph for a kid is really changing the way the world sees black folks.” When he’s pessimistic, he wonders “how many of us have to keep doing what we do” until black leadership is normalized.

Perhaps we’ll get to the point that even the black journeyman quarterback is a regular part of the league, and a face of black leadership. Right now, said Bunch, “we’re still kicking down the barriers.”

‘Watchmen’ episode two: ‘Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship’ HBO series asks who gets to be a patriot

The propaganda flyers were real.

Just as the opening scene from the premiere of Watchmen was based on historical events, so too, was this week’s.

Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship, (a reference to this George Catlin painting, which hangs in the Crawford house. Hang on. We’ll come back to that) commences with a German commander giving dictation to a typist during World War I. The message she’s writing is directed at black soldiers, urging them to question their pledge to serve the United States. At the time, around 1917, the military was segregated, the Ku Klux Klan and its attendant terrorism was resurgent, and black Americans, including those serving in the military, were treated as second-class citizens as a result of the strictures of Jim Crow.

The Germans hoped black soldiers would defect when they pointed out the hypocrisy of American democracy: Why would anyone die for a country that would just as soon lynch them for trying to vote?

We still don’t know much about Will (played by Louis Gossett Jr.), but we do know that his father read the Germans’ propaganda and chose to return to a country that hated him because of his blackness. And he wasn’t alone.

Mark Hill/HBO

In Watchmen, one of those soldiers was Will’s father. Will (Louis Gossett Jr.), as we now know, is not just the elderly man who uses a wheelchair and sits outside Angela’s bakery. He’s her grandfather. He’s also the little boy who was watching a silent film about Bass Reeves, the real-life man who became the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi, when the Tulsa Race Massacre began in Oklahoma. And, as Will repeatedly asserts to Angela, he’s “the one who strung up [her] chief of police.”

Will’s most formative childhood memories are fleeing the racialized violence of gunshots and fire without his parents, and the silver-screen tale of Reeves, who, in the film Will was watching, was lauded as a hero for arresting a corrupt white sheriff. As he grows up, one of the few items he has to remember his parents is his father’s World War I uniform and the note stuffed in the pocket: on one side, his father’s words, hurriedly scrawled: “Watch over this boy.” On the other, the Germans’ entreaties to black American soldiers.

One of Watchmen’s many laudable qualities is the way it employs allegory in its exploration of who holds power in America, and how the lived realities of race are difficult to shake, no matter who is in charge, including the sympathetic liberal President Robert Redford.

One of Watchmen’s many laudable qualities is the way it employs allegory in its exploration of who holds power in America, and how the lived realities of race are difficult to shake, no matter who is in charge.

We still don’t know much about Will, but we do know that his father read the Germans’ propaganda and chose to return to a country that hated him because of his blackness. And he wasn’t alone. In Mudbound, director Dee Rees illustrates in great detail the many horrors and indignities that black World War I veterans experienced if they managed to survive their experience of trench warfare. And yet, return they did.

To understand the mindset of Will’s father, and Will himself, it’s helpful to read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ essay that opens the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones elucidates a point that is vital to understanding the decision of black soldiers targeted by Germans pamphleteering. America’s enemies still use its legacy of racial discord and hypocrisy to sow chaos and upend democracy. It’s just that now, they use social media to do it.

And yet, African Americans hold fast to the promises contained within the Constitution, even when they haven’t included us under the umbrella of equal protection. Wrote Hannah-Jones:

The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals.

… My father, one of those many black Americans who answered the call, knew what it would take me years to understand: that the year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776. That black Americans, as much as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital, are this nation’s true “founding fathers.” And that no people has a greater claim to that flag than us.

Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship inspires questions about who gets to be a patriot, and how such a designation is defined, especially because so often it’s conflated with white American identity. Will, who seems so sure of the existence of skeletons in the closet of the (now dead) Tulsa police chief Judd Crawford, is a tricky character. What does he want? And why? This man is 105 years old and he still has this document left by his father. How many times do you think he’s read it, tried to understand it, and tried to imagine why his father chose to return to a country that subjected him to such vicious hatred?

It’s a testament to the skill and charisma of Don Johnson that viewers are left genuinely confused about Chief Crawford’s death until Angela discovers the Klan robe in his closet. In a nod to Oklahoma!, Chief Crawford’s first name is Judd, just like the farmhand who ends up dead at the end of the musical. But he played Curly in his high school musical production. Is he a villain? A hero? Both?

Then there’s Crawford’s interest in Native Americans. He uses “Little Bighorn” and “Custer’s Last Stand” as police codes. Hanging in his house, which we see for the first time during his wake, is the painting from which the episode takes its title: Comanche Feats of Horsemanship. According to the Smithsonian, George Catlin painted it in 1834 or 1835 after he embedded with the United States Dragoons on a journey to Indian Territory. Here’s an excerpt from the artist’s letters and notes, provided by the Smithsonian:

Amongst their feats of riding, there is one that has astonished me more than anything of the kind I have ever seen, or expect to see, in my life: — a stratagem of war, learned and practiced by every young man in the tribe; by which he is able to drop his body upon the side of his horse at the instant he is passing, effectually screened from his enemies’ weapons as he lays in a horizontal position behind the body of his horse, with his heel hanging over the horses’ back; by which he has the power of throwing himself up again, and changing to the other side of the horse if necessary. In this wonderful condition, he will hang whilst his horse is at fullest speed, carrying with him his bow and his shield, and also his long lance of fourteen feet in length, all or either of which he will wield upon his enemy as he passes; rising and throwing his arrows over the horse’s back, or with equal ease and equal success under the horse’s neck.

Is Crawford’s reverence for the Comanche real, or simply a way for him to cover up his own racism? After all, Comanche horsemen are a cavalry of sorts. And the White Night — the coordinated attack on Tulsa police — is a homonym for how the Klan thought of themselves — as white knights.

It’s obvious that Watchmen is interested in how media, especially pop culture, shapes our attitudes about society based on its presentation of American Hero Story, its fictional show-within-the-show. And two films that are seminal in American film history seem to be hanging out in the wings of Watchmen, so to speak. One is The Birth of a Nation, which helped resurrect a dormant Ku Klux Klan and served as cinematic propaganda for white supremacy. The other is The Searchers, the 1956 John Ford western starring John Wayne, who is on a mission to hunt down the Comanche who kidnapped his brother’s family. When Wayne’s character discovers the Comanche have his niece, played by Natalie Wood, he doesn’t actually intend to rescue her, but instead, to kill her because he believes that she’s been indoctrinated and/or raped by the Comanche. It’s an honor killing, of sorts, much like the white woman who is the victim of lascivious black men in Birth of a Nation, and who would rather hurl herself off a cliff than be sexually violated.

So, is Crawford drawing inspiration from the white knights or the Comanche? Judging from the Klan robe in his closet, and Will’s insistence that Crawford is no good, it’s the former.

One of the aspects of Watchmen that makes it so engrossing is creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof’s patient commitment to world-building. So what did we learn about this alternative 2019 Tulsa?

Under the Redford administration, police power has been significantly curbed. Not only are officers required to buzz their precincts to have their guns unlocked and authorized for use but it doesn’t seem like they’re allowed to stockpile DNA evidence, either. Angela is investigating Will on her own, and rather than taking him or his DNA to the police department, she takes it to the local museum dedicated to telling the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre. That’s how she discovers that Will is actually her grandfather. But given that this is a society in which people still read newspapers (even if they don’t believe what’s printed in them) and smartphones don’t exist, it’s not unreasonable to believe that law enforcement databases of DNA have been outlawed, too.

Stray, but maybe important observations:

  • In another nod to the fact that technology has been curbed in this alternate America, it’s not drones that show up to photograph the crime scene where Crawford has been hanged, but “moths,” human photojournalists rigged with motorized wings. But the police still are hostile to the photographers, who insist they have a right to know what’s going on. No matter who is in charge, control of information is paramount to maintaining power, a point that’s reinforced when the black man who runs the newsstand accused President Redford and the “libstapo” of manufacturing the squid falls to keep everyone freaked out, thereby continuing his multi-decade presidency.
  • I’m not going to list every Easter egg that shows up, but the aesthetic similarity between the clock in the Abar house, the egg timer in the bakery, and Adrian Veidt’s watch are too glaring not to note.
  • Tomatoes grow on vines, not trees. Where the heck does Veidt live? We know he’s cloned humans to make a personal army of servants and performers in his strange “plays.” Maybe he’s done some genetic engineering to allow tomatoes to sprout from trees like apples, too?
  • Apparently Dr. Manhattan (who lives on Mars) can deploy magnets and spaceships to suck up cars from Earth. Maybe Will wasn’t lying about his psychic powers, after all. His assertion certainly seems a lot less crazy in light of the episode’s closing scene.
  • The Abar marriage is radically egalitarian, and it’s also Angela’s second. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Cal, Angela’s happy stay-at-home husband, who does most of the child-rearing. In this alternate America, where Soviet communists can be police detectives (Red) and no one bats an eye, Cal is the dutiful Hot Spouse supporting his wife’s career without a lick of resentment to be found. It’s just normal. What a world!

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.

TIFF 2019: ‘Clemency’ and ‘Just Mercy’ offer two differing perspectives on death row One asks us to put ourselves in the position of a warden. The other follows a lawyer seeking justice.

TORONTO — Two films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival offer different perspectives of how death row affects those closest to it when people are wrongly sentenced to die.

Clemency is the sophomore feature effort from writer-director Chinonye Chukwu, who also directed the 2012 film alaskaLand. It stars Alfre Woodard as Bernadine, a prison warden who grows more and more conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners. It’s bad enough when Bernadine witnesses an execution via lethal injection that turns into a moment of torture, first when the emergency medical technician administering the IV cannot find a vein, and then when the drugs take longer to work than they’re supposed to, leaving the prisoner in agony.

Alfre Woodard as Bernadine Williams in Clemency, is a prison warden who grows conflicted over her role in the execution of prisoners.

courtesy of TIFF

Then, Bernadine struggles to reconcile what it means to be good at her job with her own opinions, as she follows the case of another death row inmate, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge). As it becomes clear to Bernadine that Anthony is probably innocent, she tries to maintain order and composure in her prison. But the energy it takes to maintain her professional demeanor at work means that something else must be sacrificed, and in Bernadine’s case, it’s her marriage. The more her husband (Wendell Pierce) attempts to get close to her, the more she pulls away. Bernadine must ask herself: Is it possible to be ethical, to be empowered, when being skilled at one’s job means ensuring that the state’s unjust decisions are completed with order and clockwork precision?

Then there’s Just Mercy from director Destin Daniel Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster, Short Term 12). Co-produced by star Michael B. Jordan and Macro, the company of former William Morris agent Charles D. King. If Clemency is an examination of the toll of complicity, Just Mercy is a journey into the psychic and spiritual rewards and pitfalls of fighting injustice. It tells the story of a real-life civil rights hero: Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson is probably best known as the person behind the new lynching memorial and museum in Montgomery, Alabama, but he has spent decades working to free innocent men, most of them black, from death row.

While it’s rewarding work, it’s not easy, which Stevenson, played by Michael B. Jordan, learns firsthand when he moves to Monroe County, Alabama, after graduating from Harvard Law. Stevenson tries to get a stay of execution for Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In the war, he was a hero, an expert at defusing bombs. But back home and neglected by the country he served, Herbert ends up listening to the voices in his head telling him to build an explosive. He kills a woman, and then the state of Alabama moves to kill him. The possibility of sending Herbert to a mental institution, which is where he truly belongs, never even materializes.

For Stevenson, witnessing Herbert’s execution crystallizes the urgency of his work, and he dives even more deeply into trying to save another man, Walter “Johnny D.” McMillan (Jamie Foxx). McMillan has been imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit. It doesn’t matter how much evidence there is to support McMillan’s innocence because a white girl is dead, McMillan is black, and another prisoner, in exchange for prosecutorial leniency, has given a statement saying McMillan was responsible.

The real reason McMillan is in prison is because the white people of Monroe County were looking for an excuse to lock him up after a white man discovered McMillan having a consensual affair with the man’s wife. Just Mercy exposes how the cogs of the Alabama justice system line up to condemn McMillan to death — from prosecutors who disregard the truth to public defenders who barely do their jobs to sheriff’s officers who terrorize Monroe County’s black residents.

It’s a new twist on the old formula of Yankee lawyers who come to the South and find a wall of community resistance to racial equality and injustice, but it’s a powerful one. That’s especially true given how the film’s screenwriters (Cretton and Andrew Lanham) contrast the real-life Stevenson and Monroe County’s most famous legal hero, Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Ultimately, both Clemency and Just Mercy continue the work of highlighting racial inequality in the justice system, leaving their viewers disturbed and impatient for change.

Tracking Serena Williams’ journey through pictures 20 images of the tennis star that chronicle her personal achievements

Serena Williams has never been average.

While growing up, as friends spent time playing outside or lounging lazily during summers, she and sister Venus were focused. For as long as their father, Richard, had the ability to teach his daughters the art of tennis, there would be practice to perfect the craft. But it would be Williams whose passion for the sport would change how audiences watched tennis and how black women were seen in the sport.

At the age of 14, Serena turned professional and eventually began beating opponents one by one internationally. Williams’ status as a young tennis pro invited scrutiny from critics who refused to take her seriously, but she showed her strength using nothing but a ball and racket.

It wouldn’t take long for fans to see why and how she would dominate nearly every court she played on. And here we are, 820 career wins and 23 Grand Slam singles titles later.

Williams may be a tough competitor who wears her heart on her sleeve, but there’s an innate beauty about her grace and humility. Even during the pitfalls and losses in her career, she still finds a smile to congratulate competitors — most of whom have looked up to her in admiration their entire careers. It isn’t enough for most girls to want to play against their idol. They still wish to be their idol.

Off the court, Williams isn’t afraid to candidly talk about being a mom to her 1-year-old daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., who seemed to give Williams’ life new meaning, a different set of expectations and unmatched motivation.

She exudes power and fearlessness and redefines the meaning of a true competitor.

She is Serena Williams, a woman who continually changes the game of tennis one serve at a time.

Serena Williams in action on a tennis court in 1992.

Ken Levine/Getty Images

Serena Williams (right) and her sister Venus (left) stand with former President Ronald Reagan (center) at a tennis camp in Florida in 1990.

Ken Levine/Getty Images

Serena and her sister Venus ride with their father Richard Williams at a tennis camp in Florida in 1992.

Ken Levine/Getty Images

Lindsay Davenport (R) gives a thumbs up as teammates, (L-R) Venus Williams, Monica Seles, and Serena Williams of the USA pose after receiving the Fed Cup trophy after defeating Russia in 1999.

JOHN G. MABANGLO/AFP/Getty Images

Serena Williams celebrates her victory against Rita Kuti Kis during the first round at Wimbledon in 2001.

Jon Buckle/EMPICS/Getty Images

Venus and Serena Williams of the celebrate gold after winning the Women’s Doubles Tennis Final during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.

Gary M Prior/Getty Images

Serena Williams on court versus Jennifer Capriati during the quarter finals of the 2004 US Open.

A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Serena poses in the first ever ESPN The Magazine Body Issue in 2009.

James White for ESPN

Serena Williams (left) and Vogue editor Anna Wintour (right) pose for a photo before the spring 2009 Zac Posen show during New York Fashion Week in September 2008.

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Serena Williams reacts as she is attired in traditional regalia on February 23, 2010 in the village of Wee, Makueni district, southeast of Nairobi as she inaugurates a school she funded. The school was built in collaboration with the charity ‘Build African Schools’.

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

Serena Williams hugs the championship trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka during the 2013 US Open.

AP Photo/David Goldman

Fans press up against a fence to watch Serena Williams take part in Nike’s NYC Street Tennis event in August 2015.

AP Photo/Diego Corredor

Serena Williams celebrates with the winner’s trophy, the Venus Rosewater Dish, on the centre court balcony after her women’s singles final victory over Spain’s Garbine Muguruza during the the 2015 Wimbledon Championships.

Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

A patron takes a picture of a photograph of Serena Williams on display at the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow. The photograph was part of an exhibition titled “The Cal: Pirelli Calendar 2016. Annie Leibovitz” as part of Photobiennale 2016 at the museum.

Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Getty Images

Serena Williams and her husband Alexis Ohanian arrive for the wedding ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle in Windsor, near London, England, Saturday, May 19, 2018.

AP Photo/Gareth Fuller

Serena Williams takes a selfie with husband Alexis Ohanian and their baby, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., before a match in the first round of Fed Cup in Asheville, N.C., on Feb. 10, 2018.

AP Photo/Chuck Burton

At the 2018 French Open, Serena Williams wore a black catsuit that she said served a medical purpose. French Open officials have since implemented a stricter dress code that bans similar suits.

Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams during the trophy ceremony after the 2018 US Open Final. Naomi Osaka won the US Open after Serena Williams accused the umpire of being a ‘thief’ in some of the most dramatic scenes at a Grand Slam final. Williams was given a game penalty for her outburst, which followed racquet smashing and another code violation as Osaka won 6-2 6-4.

Serena Williams arrives for the 2019 Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 6, 2019. Williams was a host for the 2019 Gala, which theme was Camp: Notes on Fashion” inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”.

ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

HBO film ‘True Justice’ recounts Bryan Stevenson’s crusade for the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned The nation’s most important civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall still believes in equal justice under law

Bryan Stevenson may well be the nation’s most consequential civil rights lawyer since Thurgood Marshall.

While Marshall stared down unrepentant racists in Southern courtrooms at a time when inequality was enforced by law, Stevenson’s work is being done decades after the most important legal battles over civil rights supposedly were won. If Marshall and his legal colleagues from the NAACP helped dismantle Jim Crow, the task Stevenson has carved out may be even more difficult: working to eliminate Jim Crow’s legacy.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” — Bryan Stevenson

He is the subject of a new documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality, which premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. EDT on HBO. Stevenson, 59, is the founder and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, and he has dedicated his career to helping some of the most scorned people among us: the poor, the incarcerated, the condemned, and even the guilty.

“I believe we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Stevenson says.

Since EJI was launched in 1989, Stevenson and his staff have won release, reversals or relief for more than 125 death row prisoners. Stevenson has prevailed in several cases he argued before the Supreme Court, including a victory in a case outlawing mandatory sentences of life without parole for children 17 or younger.

In the documentary, Bryan Stevenson makes clear that the problem with the criminal justice system starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

Courtesy of HBO

He has spearheaded the creation in Montgomery of The Legacy Museum and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors more than 4,000 lynching victims. He has earned dozens of honorary degrees and won numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant. By any measure, he has done outstanding work.

Yet, Stevenson’s achievements make up a relatively small part of the film. Instead of shouting out his many successes, directors Peter Kunhardt, George Kunhardt and Teddy Kunhardt home in on Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Stevenson illuminates the line connecting the racial disparities evident in so many parts of our society to a criminal justice system that nurtured and rationalized white supremacy, making it both legal and acceptable. In the documentary, he makes clear that the problem starts at the top with the Supreme Court.

While the high court eventually became an ally of civil rights, for many years it was just the opposite. The 1857 Dred Scott decision called black people an inferior race who had no constitutional rights. The 1875 Cruikshank case reversed the convictions of members of a white mob whom federal prosecutors had tried for their part in killing 150 black people protesting for political representation in Colfax, Louisiana. The high court said the convictions impinged on states’ rights, helping to form the legal underpinning for legal segregation and Jim Crow.

Even in the years following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the seminal ruling striking down state-sanctioned segregation in public schools, the court sometimes looked the other way in the face of evidence of obvious racial disparities, Stevenson argues.

In the film, he talks about his advocacy for Warren McCleskey, a black man convicted of killing a white police officer in Georgia during a 1978 furniture store holdup. McCleskey was the only one of four defendants sentenced to death in the case, and by the time his case made its way to the Supreme Court, his defense team had produced a study showing that in Georgia, defendants who killed whites were more than four times as likely as those who killed blacks to be sentenced to death. The court shrugged off that study in its majority opinion, saying disparity does not prove deliberate bias. Moreover, the court ruled, such disparities are “an inevitable part of our criminal justice system.” McCleskey was put to death in Georgia’s electric chair in 1991.

The HBO documentary focuses on Bryan Stevenson’s ideas connecting the plight of his clients to the nation’s racial history.

Courtesy of HBO

The film makes clear that Stevenson loses in court regularly, and when he does the consequences are often fatal for his clients. Even when he represents clients who are innocent and he is able to win, the injustices wrought by the system cannot be fully rectified because of the trauma of being imprisoned. “For me, the innocence cases are the hardest cases,” Stevenson says in the film. “I think people think of that the other way. They think, ‘Oh, it must be great to work on a case where there is clear evidence of innocence.’ ”

Much of the documentary is narrated by Stevenson, who talks about the need to eradicate “the narrative of racial difference” that infects the country and runs through its history. That is why he has poured energy into creating memorials to help Americans confront this history of racial horrors that he says often manifests itself in the criminal justice system.

“You can’t disconnect the death penalty from the legacy of lynching, and you can’t disconnect the legacy of lynching from the era of enslavement,” he says in the film. “I think that this line is a very real one.”

Yet, Stevenson has an unshakable belief in the power of the law to help make things right. “I’ve argued a bunch of cases before the United States Supreme Court, and each time I go, I stand there in front of the court, I read what it says about equal justice under law,” Stevenson says in the film. “I have to believe that to make sense out of what I do.”

‘Blacksonian’ chief Lonnie Bunch named first African American secretary of the Smithsonian The founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture brings a new look to the 173-year-old institution

WASHINGTON — Lonnie G. Bunch III, who used his prodigious curatorial, fundraising, political and people skills to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture from scratch, was named the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution on Tuesday. Bunch, a historian with more than 35 years in the museum field, will be the first African American in the institution’s 173-year history to lead its collection of 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo.

“I’m excited to work with the Board of Regents and my colleagues throughout the Institution to build upon its legacy and to ensure that the Smithsonian will be even more relevant and more meaningful and reach more people in the future,” Bunch, 66, said in a press release.

Bunch told The Washington Post that being the first African American in the post “will open doors for others.”

Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, addresses the audience at the “Watching Oprah: The Oprah Winfrey Show And American Culture” opening reception on June 7, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images

As founding director of the African American history museum, Bunch oversaw the construction of its half-billion-dollar “green building,” a first on the National Mall. Since its September 2016 opening, the museum has welcomed 4 million visitors, and the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents cited that success as one of the factors that led to the selection of Bunch.

Bunch talked to The Undefeated in 2016 about the ways history has guided and strengthened him when the work gets hard. “Right in my office is a picture of a woman who was born a slave and she is walking up a hill, carrying a hoe that’s taller than her. A basket that’s heavy,” he said. When he felt stressed, “I look at her,” Bunch said. “And I think if she’s still walking tall, well, so can I.”

Now he’s hoping his appointment as secretary will help expand opportunities for African Americans.

In a 2000 article headlined “Flies in the Buttermilk: Museums, Diversity and the Will to Change,” published in the American Alliance of Museums’ magazine, Bunch wrote about the paucity of black faces at a national meeting of museum professionals. He quoted Al Green’s 1971 hit “Tired of Being Alone”: “I’m so tired of being alone, I’m so tired of being on my own.” The African Americans at the meetings would gather after a session to note, “There were just a few of us flies in the buttermilk. Reminding us, though, that we needed no reminder, that the museum field is awash in whiteness.”

President Barack Obama (left) and founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III at the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24, 2016.

Photo by David Hume Kennerly via Bank of America/Getty Images

In 2015, when Laura Lott became CEO of the American Alliance of Museums, she said she realized his article “could have been reprinted again in our magazine and it would still be relevant.”

People of color are 39% of the population but only 11% of museum audiences. Studies from art museums, which are about a quarter of the museum universe, show only 4% of leadership positions are held by African Americans, and Lott says those numbers are likely true throughout the museum world.

Bunch’s appointment to head the closest thing the nation has to a ministry of culture will provide representation and know-how that she hopes will make a difference.

“There’s the notion that you can’t be it if you don’t see it,” she said. Bunch’s lengthy experience in the museum field means he intimately “knows the problems and the challenges, the inherent structural racism and sexism and other -isms that kind of pervade the museum field. And so he’s worked with the American Alliance of Museums and other organizations to keep bringing that to people’s attention and find ways to combat it.”

This includes a push for diversity among museum boards, where the tone is set, budgets are allocated and decisions made — 46% are all white, and the rest skew older and whiter than the general public, Lott said.

The success of the museum, known affectionately as the “Blacksonian” — it’s the Smithsonian’s third-most visited museum in 2019 — represents Bunch using all his skills, connections and scholastic rigor. He coaxed money from institutions and people and got them to donate exhibit items from their attics, Lott said. “It’s Lonnie doing what Lonnie does.”

The selection of Bunch to lead the Smithsonian is a signal that the world is changing, museums are changing and the qualifications to lead these institutions are changing, Lott said. “Lonnie as both an African American man, and as an historian and a museum professional, is an example of that.”

Life After Nipsey: heartbroken Los Angeles tries to keep running Hussle’s marathon Slain Los Angeles rapper laid to rest Thursday at Staples Center

“When you seen so much death you start dealing with Christ / If you ever make it out you give em different advice / Put my truth in this music hope I’m givin’ em light / Just another flawed human trying to get this s— right…”

— Nipsey Hussle, “Blueprint” (2016)


LOS ANGELES — Ermias Asghedom was Marcus’ boss at Marathon Clothing, a tech-friendly shop located near the corner of Crenshaw and Slauson in South Central Los Angeles. Ermias “Nipsey Hussle” Asghedom, with a team of business partners, owned and operated the store, a neighborhood staple since it opened nearly two years ago. Hussle was shot and killed in front of his store in the afternoon of March 31. A suspect has been apprehended. Hussle’s funeral, to be held at Staples Center — home to the Los Angeles Lakers, Clippers and Kings — is set for Thursday, after what is reported to be a 25-mile procession.

Hussle’s “Smart Store” was a definitive moment for South Central. The space was Hussle, a child of cracked concrete, not only giving back but planting deep roots in the community where he was born and raised. The neighborhood came out in droves to the store, as did celebrities such as Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins, 21 Savage, Jim Jones and Hussle’s longtime partner, the actress Lauren London. “I remember being shot at by the police in that parking lot,” Hussle said earlier this year. “Getting taken to jail, raided in that parking lot … to actually owning that building.”

Marcus (not his real name), though, is a young man from around the way and was hired shortly after Marathon opened by Hussle’s brother and Marathon co-owner Samiel “Blacc Sam” Asghedom. “Nipsey just set off that vibe,” Marcus said via FaceTime. “You wanna be just like him. He’s not just a rapper. [He’s] a motivation. Even me working there, seeing him all the time when he comes through, you’re like, ‘Oh, s—. It’s Nip!’ You can see him every single day and it’s still a shocking surprise.”

The two bonded over financial literacy. Marcus yearned to learn more about investing and stocks. Hussle loved to create a cycle of independence those around him would take pride in. “Lead to the lake if they wanna fish,” he rapped on “Hussle and Motivate” from his Grammy-nominated 2018 Victory Lap (which re-entered the Billboard charts at No. 2 this week. Marcus, like Hussle, wanted his money to make money. “[Our last conversation] was more of a business talk.”

On the afternoon of March 31, Marcus was working in the stockroom. Loud pops rang out. He figured they were from nearby construction sites, but something told him to walk outside and check. Chaos had erupted in the parking lot of Marathon. The pops were actually gunshots. “I just seen him laying there,” Marcus said. “He was still breathing, still fighting, but the conditions were critical. It was blood everywhere, man.” Two other men were also hit.

“Nipsey just set off that vibe … You wanna be just like him. He’s not just a rapper. [He’s] a motivation.”

Instead of panicking, Marcus called Samiel Asghedom. Marcus said he attempted to console co-workers and, as he puts it, to “be mentally cool and stable in that situation.” Hussle died a short time later. Two days later, alleged gang member and struggling musician Eric Holder, 29, was charged with his murder, two counts of attempted murder and possession of a firearm by a felon.

Hussle’s death capped what Los Angeles law enforcement officials are calling a “troubling surge” that included 26 shooting victims and 10 fatalities over a week. The Los Angeles Police Department police chief stated last week that Hussle and Holder knew each other and the “dispute” between the two was a “personal matter.” Tears led to questions. What exactly did Nipsey mean by his last tweet? What was going through his mind in his final moments? His partner, London? His family? Did he know how much his death would shake South Central?

“You get your real random moments [when you think about it]. I think about Nipsey before I go to bed,” Marcus said. “I just been keeping my mind distracted.” While the world mourns Hussle’s death, all it takes is standing in the parking lot of the Fatburger restaurant near Marathon Clothing for a new truth to become clear. Hussle was well on his way to becoming a global star in the entertainment universe. And when he was pronounced dead, Hussle took a piece of South Central Los Angeles with him.


They love me all around the world, my n—a / What’s your problem?

All Get Right” (2013)

Grief’s black cloud is everywhere. Washington, D.C., Miami, San Diego, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta, Houston. London and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Fans in these cities have paid respect to Hussle through candlelight vigils. Celebrities are deeply moved, some to tears: Westbrook, Snoop Dogg, LeBron James, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Meek Mill, Issa Rae, Jalen Ramsey, Drake, John Legend, YG, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Odell Beckham Jr. and countless others. Both Hussle’s hometown basketball squads, the Lakers and Clippers, paid homage to him. The Eritrean community (Hussle’s father was born in Eritrea) was hit noticeably hard.

Some fans find solace in Hussle’s music — even as hip-hop struggles to find peace just six months after the soul-shattering death in September of Mac Miller. Hussle’s childhood poems — unearthed by an elementary school classmate, revealing a child with vision and empathy beyond his years — have gone viral. Many think constantly of Lauren London and his children, Emani and Kross, as well. There’s also the too-familiar, agonizing pain of Hussle’s parents, siblings, close friends and others — survivors of gun violence, struggling to make sense of it all.

What has so struck countless people — such as Rep. Karen Bass, who’ll honor Hussle this week on the House Floor — was Hussle’s philanthropic and entrepreneurial spirit. There were his real estate ventures — such as placing a bid on luxury beach hotel Viceroy Santa Monica with partners Dave Gross, DJ Khaled, Luol Deng and others. There’s the community pride via Hussle’s advocacy of Destination Crenshaw, a 1.3-mile open-air museum that pays homage to the black history and art of Crenshaw Boulevard. He was active in community revitalization projects, such as refurbishing and reopening L.A. skating rink World on Wheels.

He also launched Vector90, a coworking space, and Too Big To Fail, a science, technology, engineering and math pad where young boys and girls could obtain professional development skills. Deeply personal for Hussle was eliminating the gap between Silicon Valley and children in his Crenshaw community.

At the base of the fanship is Hussle’s mission to have been the master of his fate and captain of his soul. This mindset resonated deeply with fans.

Hussle’s death has shifted pop culture’s needle unlike any since Prince nearly three years ago. Hussle’s homegoing service figures to be the biggest funeral — upward of 12,000 are expected — in Los Angeles since Michael Jackson’s a decade ago.

Staples Center sources say that some of Hussle’s friends will be sending signed National Basketball Association memorabilia. This includes Westbrook’s 20-20-20 game-worn jersey and and sneakers, as well as jerseys from LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams, James Harden, Isaiah Thomas, DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Kuzma and others — all featuring personal handwritten messages to Hussle. At the base of his loyal fanship, which includes these star athletes, is Hussle’s mission to have been the master of his fate and captain of his soul.

This mindset resonated deeply with fans: “Royalties, publishing, plus I own masters,” he boasted on “Dedication.” “Taught you how to charge more than what they paid for you n—-s / Own the whole thing for you n—-s / Re-invest, double up then explained for you n—-s” was his truth on “Last Time That I Checc’d.”

“To lose a changemaker like that, it just feels like a sucker punch to the gut. How could you take such a good person like that?”

This being Los Angeles, there is no shortage of celebrity deaths. Eazy-E died of complications from AIDS. Hattie McDaniels of breast cancer at 57. Michael Jackson died of cardiac arrest, Richard Pryor of multiple sclerosis. Whitney Houston and Ray Charles both died in Beverly Hills, California. Sam Cooke, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Marvin Gaye and The Notorious B.I.G. were all murdered in the city. Tupac Shakur’s spirit eternally looms over the City of Angels, although he died in Las Vegas.

But Hussle is the first musical artist of his stature, native to Los Angeles, to die in such a violent manner. Hussle’s bodyguard, J Roc, retired immediately because he was so overcome with grief and survivor’s remorse. “I would switch places with you any day,” he wrote. “The world need you here … ”

School officials in South Central spoke off the record to say students have been deeply shaken by the tragedy. Who do we look up to now? some ask. Others remain committed to continuing Hussle’s marathon. Others wonder if this endless cycle of violence is the life they’ll always be forced to endure.

“Losing someone like [Hussle] … he was proud to be from here. He was never afraid to represent and say what he’s done in his life — good and bad. It’s tough to swallow that,” says Los Angeles music reporter and photographer Mya “Melody” Singleton. “He was only 33. He was blessed to know what he was put here on this Earth to do. … To lose a changemaker like that, it just feels like a sucker punch to the gut. How could you take such a good person like that?”

Making sense of senselessness is an exercise in futility. Hussle’s death gave immediate rise to countless conspiracy theories. And a running sentiment is that Hussle was killed over jealousy and hate. Hussle, a man of both principles and flaws, didn’t always say the right thing at the right time, but did tend to own up to his shortcomings. And when discussing Hussle’s death, in particular in Los Angeles, it’s important to look at and listen to to black women. He gushed over having his grandmother in his final video. His mother, Angelique Smith, shared a poignant message about strength, fearlessness and empathy. Samantha Smith, Npsey’s sister, honored her brother as a real-life “superhero.”

Asia Hampton, 26, visits makeshift memorial for Nipsey Hussle at his store The Marathon and shooting scene on Slauson Avenue on April 02, 2019 in Los Angeles.

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“I need you, I need you please let me hold you again,” she wrote in a heartfelt Instagram post. “I love you forever, and I will cry forever.”

“I’m feeling heroic but life is a dice game / And they dare you to blow it / You might get a stripe man, but that ain’t gon’ pay for the strollers.” Like so many Hussle lyrics now, this one from 2016’s “Picture Me Rollin’” — about his daughter, Emani — is agonizing to hear: “It’s never enough to console her / Telling, your daddy’s a soldier / She needs you right now in this moment / Not dead on your back pushing roses.” Hussle’s relationship with London was another growing branch on his tree of life. The two first met in person at The Marathon Clothing. London called Hussle her best friend, sanctuary, protector and soul in her first public statement after his murder.

LAPD officer Jonathan Moreno, left, receives a bouquet from Rochelle Trent, 64, to be placed at a makeshift memorial for Nipsey Hussle at his business The Marathon and shooting scene on Slauson Avenue on April 02, 2019 in Los Angeles.

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“When I think of myself as a black woman, and him as a father, and I think of him having Lauren as his partner, I feel like that has to be one of the worst nightmares that any black woman can go through,” says Singleton. “I think about [his children, Emani and Kross] and what they’re gonna have to endure as they get older. I thought [he and Lauren] were one of the cutest couples. It was so cool to see that they really were each other’s equal. And it’s heartbreaking to see that she has literally become part of a sisterhood that nobody wants to be in.”

The despair is palpable for Los Angeles DJ Iesha Irene. “I knew Nipsey knew this. [But] I just want black men to know we really ride for y’all. Nobody is gonna understand you like us. Nobody is going to love you like we do. Even when you leave this Earth, we still mourn you in death. It makes me sad that the world doesn’t love you as much as I do.”


“Where Nipsey got caught up is where so many other n—as got caught up,” says my Uber driver, Chris. He’s a Watts native. Chris didn’t like when a clearly grieving Westbrook, a Los Angeles native, apparently shouted out Hussle’s Rollin 60’s Crips set after his iconic 20-20-20 (equals 60) triple-double against the Lakers on April 2.

“You can’t have one foot in the game and one foot out. It’s just not how this works. But beyond all that … Nipsey … should be saluted because, while I wasn’t the biggest fan of his music, it’s no denying [he] had a good heart, regardless who he banged with. He was actually doing something positive. That’s more than I can say for a lot … out here. But still, if you from here, you know how they get down. And Russ from here!”

“Here” are the ’hoods of Los Angeles — and there’s a long and complex history of gang culture. Yet on April 5, hundreds of Bloods, Crips and other gang members held a private a ceremony at The Marathon Clothing. Leaders from Compton, Inglewood and Watts met the day before and decided to honor Hussle with a peaceful demonstration.

Instagram Photo

“We having a gang truce and rally so all the different gangs in L.A. can get together and celebrate the life and gift of Nipsey,” said Eugene “Big U” Henley, a 60 who managed Hussle during his career’s early stages. “It’s a lot of people who were calling who said they wanted to get together and come to the vigil and pay respect.”

Most are taking a wait-and-see approach, but there is some hope that Hussle’s death can produce some change moving forward, both within gang culture and in the city and country’s collective mindstate.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever recover from this,” says Irene. “But … I would like to hope that these gangs continue not just talking the talk for the sake of what’s going on right now. I would hope that they continue to promote unity. Beyond that, I hope that the rest of the nation, especially us as black people, [we] take notes from what Nipsey was doing, and what he was trying to do and what he did do, and try and implement that in our daily lives.”


The walk to Hussle’s memorial is nerve-wracking. LAPD officers are blocking off streets but mostly keeping to themselves. The Nation of Islam distributes copies of The Last Call with Hussle on the cover while directing pedestrian and street traffic. But along the way, so many landmarks command attention. There’s the liquor store where part of the “Rap N—as” video was filmed. The ’hood staple, Woody’s Bar-B-Que. The Slauson Donuts where Hussle and London did a portion of their recent, and now painfully immortal, GQ shoot. There’s the sign on a garage door, alongside photos of Muhammad Ali and biblical passages, that says, “LET THE HEALING BEGIN … ”

Racks in the Middle,” the last single Hussle released before his death, now sounds like a self-created eulogy, and it blares from cars. Those walking on the sidewalk rap along with Hussle. Others passionately sing Roddy Rich’s hook. It’s like Shakur’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” was 23 years ago — a goodbye first to his slain best friend Stephen “Fatts” Donelson. Then to himself. “We just embrace the only life we know / If it was me, I would tell you, ‘N—a, live your life and grow’ / I’d tell you, ‘Finish what we started, reach them heights, you know?’ ” Hussle’s cries kick down the doors of the soul.

Because his voice booms out of every car speaker, the closer The Marathon Clothing becomes, the harder it is to make out which Hussle songs are playing. The black All Money In (his record label) truck still sits in the parking lot, as does (at least as of last week) his black Mercedes GLE 350. In front of the Shell gas station at the corner, locals sell paintings and portraits commemorating Hussle, while music directs mourners to an informal memorial’s line. South Central’s ode to its own royalty.

“I would switch places with you any day … The world need you here …”

The line lengthens as afternoon transitions to dusk. To get to the parking lot and the memorial, mourners must walk through the same alley Holder ran through once he permanently altered the course of Crenshaw’s history. This is walking through trauma to attempt to deal with trauma. Perhaps no better description of life in the ghetto. “Put a circle around Nipsey,” a man says, holding a slab of ribs while waiting in line, tears streaming down his face from behind black sunglasses. “He put a circle around us.”

The number of mourners on the evening of April 6 reaches nearly 500. A potluck of ages, races and ethnicities converge on Hussle’s final living place. Saying goodbye is what brings them all here. Love for Hussle keeps them. African Americans are 20 percent more likely than the overall population to suffer from severe mental health problems. Among these conditions, is post-traumatic stress disorder: black people are more likely to be victims of violent crime. Black children are more likely than other children to witness violence. It’s difficult not to think of these hurdles walking around Hussle’s ground zero.

For many, this isn’t their first makeshift memorial. Nor will it be the last. Barriers block off the parking lot where Hussle last stood. That’s part of the moment’s symbolism too. Hussle died on the land he owned. Now the neighborhood tries to piece together how life goes on without him.

Outside what was long ago dubbed by the community as “Nipsey’s Fatburger,” a man and woman console one another through conversation. “You going to the funeral?” she asks. “We have to. We owe that m—–f—– that much.”

“Hell, yeah, I’m going to that m—–f—–,” responds the guy, pulling on a cigarette. “Without a m—–f—ing doubt.”

Similar conversations are heard inside the Fatburger. “It’s a shame Nipsey had to die for the ’hoods to come together like this,” a woman says, eating her fries while looking at the different gang sets and neighborhoods standing in line for food. “I guess … everyone needs a reality check and a starting point. If they come together, and we stay together, at least it feels like Nip didn’t die in vain.” That’s true, yes, but 3420 W. Slauson Ave. is, unfortunately, rap’s newest public tombstone. It follows Koval and Flamingo in Las Vegas and Fairfax Avenue and Wilshire Boulevard only 7 miles from where Hussle died.

On March 31, the world lost a man, a father, a partner, a visionary and an activist. Los Angeles, in particular South Central, lost a lifeline. Hussle’s creative spirit was lighthouse of prosperity built by a person who refused to give up on blocks many deemed a terror zone. Hustle had the swag and the community activist spirit of Tupac. The spectacular cool and charisma of Biggie Smalls. And the enterprising foresight of Jay-Z. While he surely Slauson’s Malcolm X, make no mistake — Nipsey Hussle was Nipsey Hussle. And one day soon, the corner of Slauson and Crenshaw will bear his name.

“My city won’t ever be the same. I won’t ever be the same,” Irene says. “He was the black American dream. That’s why this hits different. You found yourself in him.”

Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ has a message for those who can hear above the screams Lupita Nyong’o is the two-faced queen come to warn us of what happens when we keep our own brethren out of sight and out of mind

This essay includes spoilers.

After seeing Jordan Peele’s new horror film, Us, I wondered if the director had created it as a warning to himself to resist the siren comforts of wealth, fame and his own id after the smashing reception he received for last year’s Get Out. Forget the voiceless and pay the price, Us seems to be croaking at its audience.

Allow me to explain: Us is about a middle-class black family, the Wilsons, who go on vacation to California only to find themselves at the center of a revenge plot 30 years in the making. The father, Gabe (Winston Duke), is a big, corny teddy bear of a man who is overcome by an almost pathological need to keep up with the family frenemies, the Tylers. The Tylers, who are white, have a nicer car, a bigger boat and a more modern, better-equipped vacation house. Gabe, much to the chagrin of his wife, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), wants to go to the beach to hang out with Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) and compare boat notes. Adelaide wants to stay home and read instead of making small talk while Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss) sips her mommy juice. It turns out Adelaide’s nervousness is about way more than hanging out with a bickering white couple and their bratty twin daughters.

The Wilsons are soon visited by a family that is a twisted mirror of their own: a husband, a wife and two children, all clad in red jumpsuits and tan leather driving gloves on their right hands. Each of them is equipped with sharp brass shears that are useful for stabbing people and cutting the heads off of rabbits.

It turns out everyone, including the Tylers, have these red-clad doppelgängers, who refer to themselves as “shadows.” The shadows live underground, tethered to the whims of their sun-basking counterparts. They are a permaclass of the unseen, unheard and unacknowledged, and none of them has the ability to speak — except Red, who communicates with a creaking, disturbed hollowness, as if an animal had chewed halfway through her vocal cords. When Adelaide enjoys a Christmas of gifts, merriment and a hearty dinner, her shadow is forced to dine on raw rabbit. When Adelaide gets married, has sex and gives birth to two children, so too does Red. The shadows are crude copies of humans who experience pain, torture, madness and imprisonment from all the things that give their doubles pleasure.

Sick of their fate, the shadows emerge to conduct a massive, blood-soaked untethering. There are harbingers of disaster everywhere in the film that all point to the same Bible verse, Jeremiah 11:11: “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”

Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson in Us, written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele.

Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

Us is a jagged allegory for the pitfalls of capitalism and the resentment that mounts when we pretend those whose labor we exploit for our happiness do not exist. As social commentary, it’s not as razor-sharp as Get Out. But it still feels like an exceptional accomplishment, mainly because Peele created a role that is a worthy showcase of Nyong’o’s talent. In Us, Nyong’o is the unforgettable two-faced queen come to warn us of what will happen when we keep our own brethren out of sight and out of mind. She makes Red’s movements just as studied, precise and creepy as her voice. It is a virtuosic performance and wickedly fun. You get the sense that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?-era Bette Davis would hate Nyong’o if she were her awards season competition, before perhaps warming to her with grudging respect.

Peele has been explicit that Us is not a film about race, and yet it pulls off something that feels transcendent, both because of the unstudied blackness of its cast and because of Peele’s commitment to smartening up a genre typically defined by gore, monsters, cheap scares, or all of the above. In the history of the Oscars, only six horror films (The Exorcist, Jaws, Black Swan, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense and Get Out) have been nominated for best picture.

In both Get Out and Us, Peele builds on a tradition of black horror as social commentary and pushback against white stereotypes of blackness that extends as far back as Duane Jones’ turn as Ben in Night of the Living Dead (1968). Ben, who is actually the hero of the film, ends up getting shot and tossed on a funeral pyre when white rescuers assume he’s an enemy. This, after he’s spent the movie saving a bunch of white people from marauding ghouls looking to eat live flesh.

Peele delights in playing with tropes and subverting them. In Get Out, the black protagonist actually gets to live. In Us, the white family is deemed inessential to the plot and gets offed by the second act. In Us, the clue to Adelaide’s status as a misfit lay in her inability to snap on beat to a rapper’s ode to the communal consumption of a dimebag. Later in the movie, that same song gets reinvented with heavy, spooky, sonorous strings, courtesy of composer Michael Abels, who also scored Get Out. He simultaneously celebrates the genre and critiques it. Peele offers something for everyone: winks and Easter eggs for fanboys who consume movies as though they’re video games to be figured out, highbrow allegory for those who need more than an imaginary monster to keep them up at night, and now a fantastically twisted antihero played by an Academy Award-winning queen.

Furthermore, he broadens appreciation for the genre. Peele managed to get Oprah Winfrey (who is on record as someone who avoids scary movies) and plenty of others who are horror-averse to not only sit through Get Out but marvel at it and then see it again. He’ll likely accomplish something similar with Us. Both are too zeitgeisty to miss.

In the context of horror history, in which films such as King Kong, The Spider and The Creature from the Black Lagoon used monsters as stand-ins for black people, Peele’s success feels like a multilayered triumph. It wasn’t that long ago that a thoughtful horror film by a black director was pooh-poohed by studio executives for being too ambitious. When Bill Gunn released Ganja & Hess in 1973, in which the need for blood functioned as a metaphor for drug addiction, it was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival. But American film executives were so turned off that it was recut and released as the hackneyed Blood Couple. If you wanted to see Ganja & Hess, it was nearly impossible. The Museum of Modern Art possesses the print.

Almost 50 years later, Peele is getting the recognition that bypassed directors such as Gunn, and he is slashing his own path through Hollywood with remakes of The Twilight Zone and Candyman. He’s said repeatedly that Us is about how we are our own worst enemies. Maybe Peele is also thinking about how to avoid becoming his.

Madison Curry as young Adelaide in Us, written, produced and directed by Jordan Peele.

Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

Phil Freelon, America’s most prominent black architect, designs for the culture The ‘Blacksonian,’ Atlanta’s civil rights center — and a Durham bus station — are all part of his legacy

It was a brisk early afternoon in January, and I was sitting in a van in Durham, North Carolina, with Phil Freelon, arguably the most prominent working African-American architect in the country. Freelon is best known for designing the National Museum of African American History and Culture and other major museum projects — among them Atlanta’s National Center for Civil Rights, San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora, and Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. But on this day, we were admiring, of all things, a bus station.

“If you go around the country and visit bus stations, they’re usually seedy and dirty,” he said. “But they don’t have to be.”

And the Durham Station Transportation Center, which Freelon designed, wouldn’t be out of place on the gilded campuses of Apple or Google. The center, which opened in 2008, has a glass exterior topped by a sleek metal roof sloped like a beret, covering an airy, minimalist interior lounge and ticketing area.

“In my career, I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it,” he said. “You’ll notice there’s no graffiti. Now, I don’t think everyone going to catch a bus looks around and says, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful building.’ But I think they soak in the ambiance, and I’m happy about that.”

Durham Station Transportation Center

James West/J West Productions LLC

The paradox of architecture is that it’s all around us, and yet, for many people, the profession remains esoteric. “If you have a talented young African-American, their family will likely know a lawyer, doctor, teacher or a clergyman, but not an architect,” Freelon said. “My parents, who were both college-educated, didn’t know an architect of any color, and certainly not a black one.

“Diversity is a huge problem in our profession. The profession is small — there are only 110,000 licensed architects in the United States, compared to 1 million attorneys and 800,000 physicians. And only 2 percent of architects are African-Americans, a lower ratio than with lawyers and doctors.”

Freelon, 65, has attempted to change that on several fronts: through his hiring practices, visits to predominantly minority schools to speak about his work, and the establishment in 2016 of the Freelon Fellowship, which provides financial aid so a student from an underrepresented group can attend the Harvard Graduate School of Design. And since he founded his eponymous firm in 1990, much of his work has been focused on designing libraries and other academic buildings for historically black colleges and universities and cultural projects in traditionally black neighborhoods.

Currently he’s involved with a major expansion of the Motown Museum in Detroit, a mile-long open-air museum along Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles and the North Carolina Freedom Park in downtown Raleigh. “He’s designed nearly every major museum or public space dedicated to black culture in the United States,” Fast Company magazine observed when it named Freelon its Architect of the Year in 2017.

“Of course, you don’t just wake up one morning and the Smithsonian wants you to build a museum,” Freelon said. “There’s 30 years of work that leads up to that.”


Before he had ever met an architect, Freelon had decided to become one. He grew up in Philadelphia, where his mother was a school administrator and his father was a salesperson for Cordis, a Miami-based medical device manufacturer. Freelon attended Central High School, an academically rigorous, predominantly white, all-boys magnet school, which also produced the famed architect Louis Kahn. Citing the influence of his grandfather, Allan Randall Freelon Sr., a Harlem Renaissance-era painter, Freelon said he was drawn to classes in the visual arts, as well as drafting and design. He also took inspiration from his strolls through the city, visiting the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “Only later,” Freelon said, “did I learn that a black architect, Julian Abele, helped design the museum,” including the iconic steps featured in Rocky.

Freelon had his mind set on attending a historically black college or university (HBCU) and enrolled at Hampton University in Virginia. “It was the height of the civil rights movement and Black Power, and I had an Afro and was very socially engaged,” he said.

Freelon plowed through the curriculum. “He was an excellent student, meticulous and curious,” said John Spencer, chairman of the architecture department, whom Freelon credits as his first mentor. Believing he would be more challenged at a larger university, Freelon transferred to North Carolina State, although he was anxious about moving deeper into the South. “When my father used to attend his company’s annual conference in Miami in the ’60s, he couldn’t stay in the downtown hotels and would stay in the black neighborhood of Overtown,” Freelon recalled. But a visit to Raleigh reassured him.

“At N.C. State, Phil and I were two of only a handful of black students at the College of Design, and there weren’t any black professors in our discipline,” recalled Percy Hooper, now an associate professor of industrial design at N.C. State. “We didn’t feel segregated from the white students, but we ended up spending a lot of time together, supporting one another.” The coursework was demanding, and there wasn’t a lot of downtime. To unwind, the friends would ride their bikes or, more ill-advisedly, toss around ninja stars.

During summers, Freelon worked for a professor at the Durham-based architectural firm of John D. Latimer and Associates and continued at the firm’s Taunton, Massachusetts, office while pursuing a master’s degree at MIT, which he completed in 1977. He worked briefly for a large firm, 3/D International in Houston, before returning to Durham to join O’Brien Atkins Associates, where he soon became the firm’s youngest partner.

“I’ve learned that if you build something beautiful, people will respect it.”

Freelon helped design schools, churches and other buildings around the state. “As a young architect, you’re not a specialist and you tackle a wide variety of projects.” A significant step in his career, he said, was being tapped as lead designer for Terminal 2 of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. “Of course, it’s since been demolished and rebuilt,” he said, chuckling. “At this stage of my career, there are a few buildings that I’ve designed that have been torn down.” (He later designed an award-winning parking garage at the airport, as well as the airport’s general aviation building.)

In 1989, Freelon received a fellowship to study independently for a year at Harvard. The next year, he left O’Brien Atkins to launch his own firm, the Freelon Group. It began as a one-man shop and grew to more than 50 employees, about 40 percent of whom are women and 30 percent people of color.

“When I decided to start my own practice, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do and not do,” Freelon said. “I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.” Freelon also said he had little interest in upscale residential projects, the multimillion-dollar homes that fill the pages of Dwell and Architectural Digest, the ubiquitous coffee table magazines of the aspiring bourgeoisie. “The only home I’ve ever built is my own,” he said.


Phil and Nnenna Freelon in 2015

Lissa Gotwals

One afternoon, I joined Freelon and his wife, Nnenna, at their suburban home, a 15-minute drive from downtown Durham. The modern, two-story structure with a matching separate studio space features a warm combination of concrete, steel, glass and laminate siding. The sloped lot abuts a pond and runs the length of a football field. There’s a long path from the house to a fire pit and a steel animal sculpture that the Freelons named Kareem Abdul-Giraffe.

Inside, the New Standard Quintet, a Chicago jazz group, played on the stereo while the couple’s dog, Count Basie, perched by the couch. Earlier, Freelon had told me how he met his wife. Nnenna, a Massachusetts native, was finishing her undergraduate degree at Simmons University in Boston. She was on a visit to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she was considering pursuing a graduate degree in health care administration. A mutual friend introduced them. “We met on our friend’s front porch, and for me it really was love at first sight,” Phil Freelon said. It was a swift courtship. With only her undergraduate thesis to complete, Nnenna moved to North Carolina, they got married and she quickly became pregnant. She put graduate school on hold and eventually turned to her first love, jazz singing, and is now a six-time Grammy Award nominee.

“Phil is one of those lucky people who always knew what he wanted to do,” Nnenna Freelon said. “For most of us, it’s more circuitous. I was blessed to have a husband who was passionate about what he did and wanted me to find what I was passionate about.”

For a globe-trotting professional singer and star architect, Durham isn’t an obvious home base. Why not New York, Los Angeles or Chicago? “When you have kids, your life changes,” Phil Freelon said. “We figured we could live here and get in an airplane and go where we needed to go. I’m a huge family guy, and I love being a father. That was most important.” The Freelons have three children, who all live nearby. Deen Freelon, the oldest, is a tenured professor at the UNC School of Media and Journalism. Maya Freelon Asante is a visual artist. And Pierce Freelon, the youngest, is an activist and former Durham mayoral candidate who runs Blackspace, an after-school entrepreneurship and social media program for disadvantaged youths.

“I wasn’t going to design prisons, strip malls or casinos. The work that excited me were schools, libraries and similar projects that positively impacted the community.”

“It’s been impressive what Phil has done here,” said Kevin Montgomery, the African-American president of O’Brien Atkins whom Freelon recruited to that firm in 1988. “He was able to develop a firm in a midsize market that has global recognition and can compete with much larger firms in places like New York and Chicago.”

That proved to be the case with the Smithsonian museum, a project, Freelon said, that was more than a decade in the making. A couple of years after his Museum of the African Diaspora opened in 2005 in San Francisco, Freelon teamed up with New York’s Max Bond to win a contract from the Smithsonian to complete the planning and pre-design work for the African-American museum on the National Mall. A year later, the Smithsonian announced an international design competition, and Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye approached Freelon and Bond about joining forces.

“David is the highest-profile architect of African descent in the world, and we had our eyes out for what he was going to do for the competition,” Freelon said. “We met and determined we had similar approaches and values, so the team was expanded.” They also added another firm, Washington-based SmithGroup, which had previously done work for the Smithsonian. More than 60 groups, representing firms throughout the world, sought the commission. The Smithsonian eventually culled the field to six, provided them with stipends and asked them to produce designs within 60 days.

Team members from Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, who designed the winning concept for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, meet with members of the Smithsonian Institution: (from left to right) Hall David, Peter Cook, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture Lonnie Bunch, David Adjaye, Phil Freelon and Smithsonian secretary Wayne Clough in front of a model of the winning design in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 2009.

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

“We were competing against all these starchitects,” Freelon said, including I.M. Pei, Norman Foster and Moshe Safdie. A committee composed of members of the Smithsonian, the architectural press and academics picked the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup design.

When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne hailed the building’s “powerful strangeness” that “embraces memory and aspiration, protest and reconciliation, pride and shame.” He continued, “The museum’s skin — has that typically benign architectural term ever been more charged? — allows it to stand apart from the Mall’s white-marble monuments like a rebuke.” The most recent accolade came in January, when the American Institute of Architects named the museum one of nine winners of its 2019 Honor Awards.

During the opening ceremonies, which included a Kennedy Center performance by Nnenna, Freelon was walking with a cane. He’d experienced leg troubles the previous year, although at first he didn’t think much of it. “I was run-down anyway, because 2015 was an intense year,” he said. Not only was he finishing the museum, he was also teaching at MIT. He had also just completed a merger of his firm with the global architecture powerhouse Perkins + Will, which had been courting Freelon for more than a decade. Freelon now oversaw the firm’s North Carolina operations from Durham.

“It wasn’t just that Phil was a superstar — and he really is the Michael Jordan of architecture,” said Perkins + Will CEO Phil Harrison. “We wanted Phil because of his design sensibility, which is modern but not cold. There’s a real humanism you can see in all his work. And with his staff you see a real diversity, not just in demographics but in thinking.”

When Freelon traveled to D.C., he would jog around the Mall to stay in shape. “I noticed I’d use the same effort, but it was taking me longer and longer to complete my course, and my right foot was dragging.”

After meeting with several doctors, Freelon was referred to Richard Bedlack, who heads Duke University’s Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Clinic. Freelon was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is progressive and incurable. It attacks the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and in time results in total paralysis and, ultimately, death — typically within two to four years after the diagnosis.

Freelon was “shocked and disappointed,” he said, and there was a brief period of denial. But after a few months, Freelon told his staff and took a month off to ponder his future. “But I decided to go back and work full time,” he said. Now, he uses a heavy electric wheelchair and works less and mainly from home. He remains on the Perkins + Will board of directors and is closely involved in ongoing projects.

“I’m an optimist by nature, and I look at my prognosis as a glass half full,” Freelon said. “I’m relieved I was able to raise my children and have a career and family.”


Architect Phil Freelon at the offices of Perkins + Will in Durham, North Carolina.

Endia Beal for The Undefeated

One can drive a mile in almost any direction around Durham and come across a building Freelon designed. With his sister-in-law Debbie Pierce driving Freelon’s customized van, we visited the Durham Bulls’ Athletic Park, home to the country’s most famous minor league baseball team featured in the movie Bull Durham; the Durham County Human Services Building, an airy, glass structure with a huge courtyard that replaced a grim, Soviet-style bureaucratic bunker; and several science buildings on the campuses of North Carolina Central, an HBCU, and Duke University.

Few professions offer their practitioners a chance to leave a physical legacy, and I offered to Freelon that he must feel proud as we revisited his creations. He laughed and alluded to a famous Frank Lloyd Wright quote: “A doctor can bury his mistakes, but an architect can only advise his clients to plant vines.”

Of course, Freelon didn’t view his works as mistakes. He was being self-deprecating. But it was also significant that on our tour he insisted I visit a few buildings he didn’t design.

We parked in front of Duke University Chapel, a majestic Gothic structure with a 210-foot-tall bell tower. The chapel, along with other significant structures on Duke’s campus, including Cameron Stadium, was designed by Julian Abele, an African-American architect who was the chief designer for the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer. “The story goes that when Abele came down here to do site work he had to dress up in overalls and pretend he was a common laborer or he wouldn’t have been allowed on campus,” Freelon said. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the university formally acknowledged Abele’s contributions, placing a portrait of the architect in the lobby of the main administration building and naming the main campus quad Abele Quad.

Later, we pulled in front of a small church in a historically African-American neighborhood. Opened in 1931, it was originally a church for the deaf, who were recruited to work in Durham’s noisy cigarette manufacturing plants. More recently, it had been rented to various congregations. Eventually, it was put up for sale and Phil and Nnenna Freelon purchased it. We went inside, where workers were renovating the space. Freelon had hired a friend who had more experience with such work to be the architect.

The Freelons created a nonprofit, North Star Church of the Arts, to operate the building as a community space. (An inaugural service will be held Feb. 17.) “We’ll have spoken-word nights, after-school programs, maybe some weddings and other ceremonies,” Freelon said. “We just want to give back to the community.”

We were in the back of the church. The pews had been pulled out and stacked to the side, and we looked toward an imaginary dais.

Freelon has been involved in building celebrated structures that will last for many years. The Smithsonian museum likely will survive as long as our republic. But here he was inside a humble church that he didn’t even design, smiling. “Nnenna and I wanted this to be our legacy project,” he said.