by the way…

…you’re free.  Have been for two and a half years, but who’s counting?

I mean, can you even imagine!?  Finding out you’d just slaved away for, well, nothing.  I suppose that’s an oxymoron or something.  It’s also what happened in Texas back in 1865.  Somehow it took 2.5  years for news of the end of the war and emancipation of the slaves to reach Texas.  Word finally arrived on June 19th, 1865.  We call it Juneteenth.  It’s a national holiday.  Nobody wished me a Happy Juneteenth though.  I don’t think it’s common knowledge.  And I do think it should be.

Be free!


Juneteenth celebration in Eastwoods Park, Austin, 1900 (Austin History Center)

Today in Texas History: Juneteenth

Hillary Sorin

On this date in 1865, Union General Gordon Granger (November 6, 1822 – January 10, 1876) read the Emancipation Proclamation in Galveston, thus officially ordering the freeing of 250,000 slaves in Texas. Since then, many African Americans celebrate Juneteenth as a distinct Independence Day, marking freedom from bondage.

Most Americans assume that President Abraham Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, on January 1, 1863, abolished slavery. In truth, the majority of African Americans remained enslaved after that date. The Emancipation Proclamation applied only to Confederate States. The Proclamation did not free black slaves in Border States like Maryland, Kentucky, West Virginia and Delaware, where slavery was practiced. The Proclamation targeted the Confederacy, precisely where American law held no emotional or political authority.

Juneteenth marks the abolition of slavery in Texas. The news of freedom inspired celebrations by African Americans across the state, as well as reflections on and strategies regarding the future of the Texan black community as freed people. Historian Palomo Acosta writes, “The first broader celebrations of Juneteenth were used as political rallies to teach freed African Americans about their voting rights.”

The Freedmen’s Bureau organized the first official Texas Juneteenth celebration in Austin in 1867. Since 1872, Juneteenth has remained a part of the calendar of public events. Juneteenth often includes a host of events and activities which people of all ages can enjoy. The day is often marked by dance, theater and musical performances, as well as by sport activities and barbecues. “Lift Every Voice” remains a popular and traditional song performed at most Juneteenth celebrations held across the country.

Juneteenth declined in popularity in the 1960s as the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. Calls for integration lessened the importance of black only events as African Americans tried to end de jure and de facto segregation. The rise of the Black Power Movement in the 1970s renewed interest in Juneteenth as many African Americans advocated for recognition of the uniqueness of the African American experience while also advocating for integration and equality in the country’s political, economic and educational spheres.

In 1979, state Rep. Al Edwards, a Houston Democrat, introduced a bill into the Texas legislature calling for the recognition of Juneteenth as a public holiday in the state of Texas. A state-supported Juneteenth celebration took place a year later.

Juneteenth illustrates two challenges facing the black community in the post civil rights era — fighting racism and the ideology of race while, at the same time, communicating the fact that, although the concept of race has no scientific basis, the color of one’s skin in America continues to inform the American experience on both a personal and community level. Simply stated, race may not be real, but it is lived. Juneteenth reflects this dual reality for the African American community.

Today, Texas and 29 other states recognize Juneteenth as an official public holiday. Last year, Representative Sheila Lee Jackson spoke in support of a resolution commemorating the historical significance of Juneteenth, which marks the end of slavery in the United States.

Today, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison introduced legislation honoring Juneteenth Independence Day as a federal holiday. In a statement released by the senator, she stated, “By commemorating this day, the U.S. Senate will honor the role that Juneteenth has played in African-American culture in Texas and throughout the Southwest, and it will remind us that, in America, we are all blessed to live in freedom.”


mary ellen pleasant

As I was searching the internets last week for photos of black women with white children, I stumbled upon a historical figure who, once again, I am shocked and dismayed to never before have heard mention of:  Mary Ellen (“Mammy”) Pleasant.  I want to know so much more!  Or at least the truth.  I highly doubt that Mary Ellen needed to conjure the dark forces to leverage social change, however I’m sure that that tale eased the minds of the opposition and provided ammunition for attacking Pleasant’s ideals.  I found quite a few intriguing articles on her life and chose the following two to share.  Honestly, when someone next asks me who (dead or alive) I would most like to have dinner with, Mary Ellen Pleasant will be on the short list.


“American civil rights began in the 1850’s with Mary Ellen Pleasant.”  Racism surprised African Americans like Pleasant who came to the Bay Area because they believed in a better life in San Francisco… The Bay Area, where Pleasant lived, became a “hotbed of civil rights activity” in the 19th century and the activists’ rallying cry was “eradicating slavery.”- Dr. Albert Broussard

Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814? – 1904)



Mary Ellen Pleasant is perhaps better known as “Mammy Pleasant”, but it was a name she detested. She was born a slave in Georgia some time between 1814 and 1817, the illegitimate daughter of an enslaved Vodou priestess from Haiti and a Virginia governor’s son, John Pleasants. She was bought out of slavery by a planter and indentured for nine years as a store clerk with abolitionist Quakers in Massachusetts.

Around 1841 she married a wealthy mulatto merchant/contractor from Ohio and Philadelphia named James Smith, who was also a slave rescuer on the Underground Railroad. The two worked to help slaves flee to safety in Canada and safe states. Smith died in 1844, leaving her a $45,000 fortune and a plantation run by freedmen near Harper’s Ferry, Virginia.

Because of slaver reaction to her own ongoing Underground Railroad activities, she was forced to flee to New Orleans in 1850 where she met the Vodou queen Marie Laveau who trained her in how to “pressure the powerful to help the powerless” —blacks and poor women—gain rights and jobs. She then went to San Francisco, arriving in April 1852. Because she had no “freedom papers” she passed herself off as white, while she worked as a steward and cook in a white boardinghouse and invested in real estate and various business activities.

Pleasant’s training with Marie Laveau proved beneficial. Pleasant became so successful at leveraging social change that many called her San Francisco’s “Black City Hall”. Her activities and her money helped ex-slaves avoid extradition, start businesses and find employment in hotels, homes and on the steamships and railroads of California.

In 1858 she returned to the East, bought land to house escaped slaves, and aided abolitionist John Brown both with money and by riding in advance of his famous raid at Harper’s Ferry encouraging slaves to join him.

She went back to San Francisco where her investments with an influential business partner helped her amass a joint fortune estimated at $30 million. She later led the Franchise League movement in San Francisco that earned blacks the right to testify in court, and to ride the trolleys. Her lawsuit in 1868 in San Francisco against the North Beach and Mission RailRoad was used as a precedent in 1982 to achieve contemporary civil rights. Mary Ellen Pleasant died in San Francisco in 1904. Her body was taken by friends to Napa and buried in Tulocay Cemetery. On her tombstone is inscribed “the mother of civil rights in California.”

For more information, incuding a book on Mary Ellen Pleasant by Susheel Bibbs, see


“Mammy Pleasant: Angel or Arch Fiend in the House of Mystery?”

By p. joseph potocki

Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant’s legacy is an enigma rolled up inside layers of legend, gossip, greed, fantasy, racism and conjecture.

This week’s column title first headlined Sunday’s edition of the San Francisco Call—back on May 7, 1899. That 19th century investigative hit piece featured three unflattering John Clawson illustrations portraying “Mammy Pleasant” as a bonneted evil-eyed crone. The story gobbled up the entire front page of that day’s paper. Its “Angel or Arch Fiend” dualism embodies endless confusion and contradictory assertions surrounding the life of this incredible woman—confusion and contradictions lingering on to this very day.

The “Mammy” tag, clearly meant to be a slam, fits neatly within a cluster of Black stereotypes. While Pleasant’s tall, thin frame, her finely honed features and regal bearing contrast sharply with the rotund happy-to-be-a-slave mammy of plantation lore, the name itself attempts to place her on par with a Samba, an Uncle Tom, Step and Fetchit, or to a licentious Jezebel. The mythology of these “halcyon days” of slavery is what social historian Eric Lott calls “the dialectic flickering of racial insult and racial envy.”

Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant’s legacy is an enigma rolled up inside layers of legend, gossip, greed, fantasy, racism and conjecture. She’s been called “San Francisco’s Powerful And Sinister Ruler”, “The Black City Hall”, but also a “one woman social agency” and “the Mother of Civil Rights in California.” That covers one heck of a lot of reputational territory.

Some claim that Mary Ellen Pleasant was a mixed blood Voodoo Queen who aimed “the black arts” against her enemies, that she sold babies, murdered as many as 49 people, ran brothels, committed fraud, spied through walls on victims she would later blackmail, and that she held unholy powers over a vast network of underlings and protégés. One rival charged that Pleasant murdered the rival’s husband, and having accomplished the dastardly deed Pleasant then “put her fingers in the hole in the top of his head and pulled out the protruding brains.”

Others tout Mary Ellen Pleasant’s work as a philanthropist, her many devoted friends, both black and white, her financial wizardry, undying devotion to women’s and civil rights, and, before that—her commitment to the abolition of slavery. In fact, Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Napa gravestone reads—“SHE WAS A FRIEND OF JOHN BROWN.”

Indeed, upon Brown’s capture following his ill-fated attack on Harper’s Ferry he carried with him a promissory note signed MEP. Had not the authorities misread the letter M for a W its certain Mary Ellen Pleasant’s neck would have been stretched as did John Brown’s.

Everything about Pleasant’s formative years is subject to debate. She was born a slave in Virginia, or Georgia, or perhaps it was Louisiana. She claims to have been born free in Philadelphia on August 19, 1814. Others say she was born in 1817, give or take a year—or two. She was convent educated, or else was entirely self-taught. Her mother may have been a West Indies Voodoo Queen, or not. Her father was a wealthy white slave owner. Then again, perhaps he was a slave. Nobody knows for sure.

What we do know is that sometime between 1848 and 1852 Mary Ellen Pleasant arrived in San Francisco. She may have been accompanied by her second husband, a former slave named James Pleasant, or Pleasants, or perhaps it was Pleasance. Whatever his surname it’s clear that the shrewd, focused and ambitious Mary Ellen was a power unto herself.

James, who died in 1877, seems hardly to have factored into Mary Ellen’s life. His one notable contribution was in the co-creation of Mary Ellen’s one and only child, Elizabeth, whom she called Lizzy. However, Mary Ellen gave their daughter her first husband’s family name, which was Smith. It was only fair, since James Henry Smith had left seed money to Mary Ellen upon his death some years before. Mary Ellen built her financial empire with the help of these funds.

Once in San Francisco, Pleasant set about purchasing boardinghouses, real estate, laundries, restaurants and stock shares in mines, railroads and other business ventures. This was no small accomplishment in an era of near unfettered legal bias against both racial minorities and women. Monies from these investments built her the 30-room mansion dubbed “the House of Mystery,” atop Cathedral Hill in San Francisco.

In her later years Pleasant purchased a large tract of land set against the Mayacamas Mountains. She named it Beltane, either after Thomas Bell, or, as some critics claim, in honor of the ancient pagan celebration of the same name. Beltane lies outside Glen Ellen, in the heart of the Sonoma Valley. The stately New Orleans-style Victorian house she built there (now a B&B) is set amidst an immense flowering garden and hundreds of shady oaks. One fanciful claim is that Pleasant cast Voodoo spells from a cave somewhere on the property.

But with all her accrued wealth, Mary Ellen Pleasant seems always to have performed, or dressed as if she performed, domestic labor. It’s said that she would ride to the markets in her own custom built carriage, accompanied by a driver and a footman, each garbed in impeccable livery. Though always attired in a servant’s black dress and large white apron, she “walked like a duchess.”

Sometime in the mid 1860s Mary Ellen Pleasant hooked up with a stockbroker named Thomas Bell. The “canny Scot” was money savvy, but lacked imagination. Pleasant took him under her wing. Together they created one of the largest financial partnerships in that era of San Francisco. Pleasant and Bell may (or may not) have been lovers.

It’s said that Mary Ellen arranged Thomas’s marriage to the future Teresa Bell, having first instructed Teresa in the “genteel arts” necessary to flourish in elite society. Others say Thomas Bell discovered the beautiful Teresa on a visit to a house of ill repute. No matter which story is true it seems the marriage provided adequate cover from charges of miscegenation, which might otherwise have been leveled at the cohabitation of the white Thomas Bell with the octoroon (or perhaps quadroon) “Mammy” Pleasant.

What’s undeniably true is that Mary Ellen Pleasant was actively involved in the Underground Railroad, and that she placed both former slaves and geographically displaced freemen as domestics in many of San Francisco’s “better” households. She also clearly advocated for and personally rescued unprotected and often attractive young white women, who Mary Ellen then trained to become the wives and mistresses of wealthy men in The City.

These actions led to many of the questionable charges against her, since persons beholden to Pleasant for their livelihoods provided her their eyes and ears within San Francisco’s most prominent households.

Mary Ellen was well into her 80’s when her finances began to unravel. She’d both overextended her business dealings, and had incurred the wrath of her former protege, Teresa Bell. Mary Ellen had exposed Teresa’s young lover to embezzlement charges, landing him a stint in San Quentin prison. As payback, the mentally unhinged Teresa became Pleasant’s eternal foe. She set to pummeling Pleasant’s good name—even long after seeing Mary Ellen to her grave. The sensitive nature of Thomas Bell’s and Mary Ellen Pleasant’s financial partnership allowed Teresa to gain control of their mutual resources following Thomas’ death. As a result Mary Ellen Pleasant was stripped of her wealth and forced into bankruptcy.

Pleasant’s diaries were stolen and lost to posterity, while many of Teresa’s hallucinatory rants made their way into newsprint following Pleasant’s death. Consequently, Teresa Bell’s accounts fundamentally shifted the Mary Ellen Pleasant mythos into the realm of evil phantasma. Fortunately, contemporary scholars have begun setting Mary Ellen Pleasant’s record as straight as a story with such twists, squiggles and gaping holes can be set. As confusing and contradictory as her life story may be, Mary Ellen Pleasant optimistically forecast her own legacy when she wrote:

“… You can’t explain away the truth.”

Mary Ellen Pleasant


the first lady’s mix

New York Times

In First Lady’s Roots, a Complex Path From Slavery

Fraser Robinson III and his wife, Marian, with their children, Craig and Michelle, now the first lady.

By RACHEL L. SWARNS and JODI KANTOR Published: October 7, 2009

WASHINGTON — In 1850, the elderly master of a South Carolinaestate took pen in hand and painstakingly divided up his possessions. Among the spinning wheels, scythes, tablecloths and cattle that he bequeathed to his far-flung heirs was a 6-year-old slave girl valued soon afterward at $475.

In his will, she is described simply as the “negro girl Melvinia.” After his death, she was torn away from the people and places she knew and shipped to Georgia. While she was still a teenager, a white man would father her first-born son under circumstances lost in the passage of time.

In the annals of American slavery, this painful story would be utterly unremarkable, save for one reason: This union, consummated some two years before the Civil War, represents the origins of a family line that would extend from rural Georgia, to Birmingham, Ala., to Chicago and, finally, to the White House.

Melvinia Shields, the enslaved and illiterate young girl, and the unknown white man who impregnated her are the great-great-great-grandparents of Michelle Obama, the first lady.

Viewed by many as a powerful symbol of black advancement, Mrs. Obama grew up with only a vague sense of her ancestry, aides and relatives said. During the presidential campaign, the family learned about one paternal great-great-grandfather, a former slave from South Carolina, but the rest of Mrs. Obama’s roots were a mystery.

Now the more complete map of Mrs. Obama’s ancestors — including the slave mother, white father and their biracial son, Dolphus T. Shields — for the first time fully connects the first African-American first lady to the history of slavery, tracing their five-generation journey from bondage to a front-row seat to the presidency.

The findings — uncovered by Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist, and The New York Times — substantiate what Mrs. Obama has called longstanding family rumors about a white forebear.

While President Obama’s biracial background has drawn considerable attention, his wife’s pedigree, which includes American Indian strands, highlights the complicated history of racial intermingling, sometimes born of violence or coercion, that lingers in the bloodlines of many African-Americans. Mrs. Obama and her family declined to comment for this article, aides said, in part because of the personal nature of the subject.


more obama love

As someone who is consistently accused of either holding negative ideas about what being black is and/or trying to be white, I cannot tell you just how much gratification I got out of reading President Obama’s response to the reactions to his recent NAACP 100th Anniversary speech.  In this Washington Post interview with Eugene Robinson he explains that though he was speaking directly to a group of affluent, successful, educated African Americans who are dedicated to raising their children to be the same that one should not

“underestimate the degree to which a speech like the one I gave yesterday gets magnified throughout the African American community,” Obama told me in the Oval Office, where a bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. surveys the room in silent admonition. “Folks on Friday go in and get their hair cut, they’re getting ready for the weekend, they’re sitting in the barber’s chair, and somebody said, ‘Did you see what Obama said yesterday?’ It sparks a conversation. . . . And part of what my goal is here is to make sure that I’m giving a lot of folks permission to talk about things that maybe they’ve talked about around the kitchen table but don’t get fully aired in public.”


I am no Obama, but I must admit that I feel like this is exactly what I’m trying to do.  Get everyone talking about this uncomfortable stuff in ways that almost seem too honest because we’re just not used to having the conversation.  I have been accused of airing “our” dirty laundry.  This always leaves me thinking, “Why not?  Dirty laundry just creates stagnant funk.  Let’s air it out and move on.”

This next bit really spoke to me as well.  Whenever I highlight the widely accepted generalizations of blackness that tend to be negative and also tend to inform the definitions of blackness held by both whites and blacks, I am hoping that by looking back and seeing where these ideas came from and how they seeped into our consciousness that they will be exposed for the ridiculous, limiting notions they are and then will be dispelled.  I’m never saying “that is what blackness is and we ‘mulattoes’ are not like that.”  I just mean that there are many ways to be black.  Mainly just being born black and then living your life as you.  Whoever that turns out to be.  Whoever you turn out to emulate, hang out with, enjoy the music, company, writings of.  I think we’re American first.  And yes being black in America is still not the same as being white in America.  We are still on the outside.  But, in my opinion, the tragedy lies in thinking that’s where one belongs and making a conscious choice to stay on the outside.  Perhaps in order to reject the mainstream as they have rejected us. But with all of it’s faults, this country has a lot to offer a life.  Sometimes I think people are so busy being “black” (or whatever one has been taught to believe should infom their identity) that they miss out on some of the riches of simply being American.

“One of the ways that I think that the civil rights movement . . . weakened itself was by enforcing a single way of being black — being authentically black. And, as a consequence, there were a whole bunch of young black people — and I fell prey to this for a time when I was a teenager — who thought that if you were really ‘down’ you had to be a certain way. And oftentimes that was anti-something. You defined yourself by being against things as opposed to what you were for. And I think now young people realize, you know what, being African American can mean a whole range of things. There’s a whole bunch of possibilities out there for how you want to live your life, what values you want to express, who you choose to interact with.”

…Said Obama: “I do think it is important for the African American community, in its diversity, to stay true to one core aspect of the African American experience, which is we know what it’s like to be on the outside.

President Obama, I just love you and I promise that by focusing on my “unique experience” I am not detaching from the larger struggle. K?


rabbis of color

I read an interesting article on the “first” ordained African-American female rabbi here.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a bit about biracials in there….

Alysa Stanton, now 45, recently passed another milestone on her spiritual journey. On June 6 in Cincinnati’s historic Plum Street Temple, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College, the Reform rabbinical school, making her the movement’s first African-American rabbi and the first African-American woman ordained by a mainstream Jewish denomination.

…She converted in 1987. Her mother and siblings quickly accepted her decision, although, she says, “none are running to the mikvah.” But many of her friends and fellow Jews were suspicious. “It was unusual in that I wasn’t converting because of marriage but because of spiritual reasons,” says Stanton. “My Christian friends thought I’d grown horns and some of my African-American friends thought I had sold out. And the Jewish community wasn’t as welcoming as it is today, either. It was a very difficult period.”

Stanton may be a new face in the mainstream rabbinate, but black rabbis have a long history in America. To Gordon, the very notion of a “black rabbi” is a nebulous modern distinction, particularly as a deeper understanding of genetics displaces earlier conceptions of race. There are Jews of all stripes, he says, “who are publicly known as white people but who in older times would have been known as ‘mulattoes’ or in some cases, given today’s term, ‘biracial.’” Thus, there may “already have been some technically African-American Jewish rabbis.”

Black Woman Rabbi


speaking of “black enough”


I was happy to come across this article ( on the notion of “black enough.”  I’m wondering today why, when I call attention to the absurd and potentially damaging rigid notions of blackness and whiteness, people feel the need to challenge me instead of challenging these notions.  And the one that says that black and white cannot co-exist without the degradation of one, maybe even both, of them.  I do not agree with Taylor’s assertion that “it may be too late in history as well as potentially dangerous to be tampering with the socio-cultural definition of blackness even though the definition is a product of slavery.”  I think it dangerous not to tamper with it.  I think the American consciousness  is infected with racism (colorism at best).  We trace the disease back to slavery.  I don’t think we will heal and prosper and achieve the greatness intended for the nation until we rectify this situation. These definitions. I certainly do agree with his last statement though.

Are You Black; Black Enough; and Who Decides?

By Robert Taylor

In the wake of the claims of Tiger Woods and the election of a mixed race but Black President, a question has been raised in black internet chat rooms around the country as to whether there is a legal or biological definition of who is black.

Actually, there is no law operable today which defines what percentage of “black blood” makes one black. The oft-repeated notion that one drop of black blood makes one black is a cultural definition which has neither a legal nor biological foundation…It is basically a socio-cultural attitude based in major measure on how a person looks.

…Simply put, in America, if you “look” in anyway black, you “are” black. That is not law. That is not science. It just is – a practical reality. Thus Tiger Woods’ mother may be from Thailand and Tiger may object to being called black. But it does not make a practical difference.

Further, it may be too late in history as well as potentially dangerous to be tampering with the socio-cultural definition of blackness even though the definition is a product of slavery. When the Census Bureau decided a few years ago to include a category called “mixed race” in the census, many people rightfully saw it as potentially divisive, asking what practical good does the “mixed race” category serve, but to further divide people along largely artificial lines.

Finally, if one just has to ask the question, the real question should not be “who is black” but instead “who is white.” The scientific theories of Evolution and “Out of Africa” are very clear: There is only one “race” on the planet Earth and it had its origin in East Africa (around present-day Ethiopia) and then spread to all other parts of the world. Adapting to environmental conditions such as the degree of sunlight and developing in relative isolation, some groups evolved lighter skins and others evolved darker skins…Thus technically every person on the planet – from the darkest skinned person in the Congo to the lightest skinned person in Sweden – is of African ancestry.

Therefore the answer to the question above is YOU decide if you are Black enough and whether you realize it or not that gives you tremendous power.


you don't have to black to love the blues