On Sunday, June 23, 1963, instead of a quiet morning at home, my father packed up the entire family and took us to downtown Detroit for a civil rights march, he said. That brief explanation couldn’t have prepared me for seeing so many people that day gathering for the march. We would turn out to be 25,000 strong led by a young minister from Atlanta who I had never heard of –
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We marched down Woodward Avenue, the main drag in Detroit that goes from the suburbs right down to the Detroit River. It was there at Cobo Hall that the march ended and Dr. King gave a speech about having a dream.
Maybe inspired by the warm response of Detroiters to his words, Dr. King went on to give the same speech several months later to millions of people on the Mall in Washington, D.C. It became legendary.
I’m sure the many others who marched with Dr. King that day in Detroit look back with pride on that day we became part of history as the first to hear Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. Here’s the text of his remarks and a video of Dr. King in Detroit on June 23, 1963 –
In 1978, the year after I integrated the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), I attended the organization’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. It’s called “Continental Congress” and is several days of meetings along kicked off by a huge opening night gala. The concert in 1978 was performed at DAR’s Constitution Hall by the amazing opera diva – Leontyne Price.
If you don’t know who she is – Leontyne Price, who is still living and in her 80’s, rose to international success and acclaim in a profession and during times that were not favorable to an African-American. Among her many record-breaking accomplishments as an opera singer are 13 Grammys, outstanding performances in opera houses around the world and a Presidential Medal of honor.
Love for Leontyne Price’s singing reached a crescendo when she debuted at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1961 and the audience gave her an unprecedented 40 minute standing ovation!
With this background of success, Ms. Price came to sing at Constitution Hall. But there’s some background on that too. Constitution Hall and DAR were part of a huge controversy in 1939 when DAR denied world-renowned opera singer, Marian Anderson (and Leontyne Price’s role model) access to perform a concert there allegedly because of a policy to offer this venue only to White performers.
This sparked outrage in the States and around the world. Not only did First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resign from DAR in protest, but she invited Ms. Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Ms. Anderson’s concert took place on Easter Sunday. And I remember my mother, who was in college in D.C. at the time, telling me she was there.
Here is a video of Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial singing “My Country Tis of Thee” –
It was under the dark and pervasive specter of the DAR debacle concerning Marian Anderson that both Leontyne Price and I came to Continental Congress in 1978. I remember to this day, sitting in Constitution Hall and the chills that ran up my spine as she sang. Her voice almost moved me to tears.
There was a reception for Ms Price after the concert and someone thought to invite me. There was a long receiving line as you might imagine. I watched Ms. Price greet the many people in front of me with a broad smile and gracious handshake. She was ever the diva.
But before I got up to her, Ms. Price looked over, caught my eye and we both smiled. When it was my turn to meet her, she dispensed with formality, gave me a big hug and told me she had read about me integrating DAR.
As I stood those few minutes with her, I wondered if she was thinking as I was about what Marian Anderson would have thought about this – DAR’s first acknowledged Black member and America’s top Black opera singer both welcome guests at Constitution Hall.
I like to think she would have been proud of us.
But here I am telling my story and assuming you’ve heard the amazing voice of Leontyne Price. Here’s a video of her from October 2001, when she came out of retirement to sing at a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall for the victims of 9-11. She was 74 years old at that time. Notice how she sings “God Bless America” without the orchestra accompanying her.
If Leontyne Price’s perfect high C doesn’t give you goosebumps – nothing will!
How can you make Black history personal?
It’s odd in a family where we have military service that goes back to the earliest colonial wars that I can only find one African-American ancestor who was a member of any branch of the United States military. That was my uncle, Frederick “Freddie” Dickinson who was born in Cleveland, Ohio on August 16, 1921. I knew from this photo dated 1950 that Uncle Freddie served in the Army during the Korean War.
When I researched who of my Black ancestors enlisted during World Wars I and II or the Civil War – Uncle Freddie is the only person I could find. None of my grandfathers, great-grandfathers or great-uncles served (at least not that I’ve discovered) and my father was unable to serve because of a leg disability.
Uncle Freddie enlisted in the United States Army for the duration of World War II on September 11, 1942 in Cleveland, Ohio. His rank was private. He would have served in a segregated unit because the United States military wasn’t completely integrated until after the Korean War.
I wish I had taken time to talk with Uncle Freddie when he was still alive about his time in the service. Sadly, I didn’t know back then what I know now about family history and Uncle Freddie died on February 8, 1996. If you have family members who served in the military, sit down with a recorder and capture the stories of their experience – something that will be lost forever if you don’t.
Since Uncle Freddie, members of my current family have followed in his footsteps and given distinguished military service, most notably my first cousin, Susan Bates Hippen who served in the United States Navy from 1979 to 2004. By the time of her retirement from the Navy, Susan had achieved the rank of Master Chief Petty Officer.
And currently serving in the United States Navy is my young cousin, Okpara Kelly in the picture below. Thank you for your service, Uncle Freddie, Susan and Okpara. When I combine their service with that of our White ancestors who served in the Civil War, War of 1812, Revolutionary War, French and Indian War and all the way back to King Phillip’s War in 1675 – our family’s legacy of military service in this country has spanned almost 340 years.
When my sister and I were young girls, we would get to spend the weekend with our paternal grandmother who lived in Hamtramck, Michigan. Hamtramck is a small city surrounded by Detroit that grew up around the auto factories.
Funny, I remember Grandma’s house on Grand Haven Street like it was yesterday –
- The big console TV sitting in the living room with the stuffed pheasant on the top that Grandpa had shot
- The polished dining room table where we sat for Sunday dinner
- Grandpa’s gun rack sitting in the hallway (complete with his collection of shotguns and rifles)
- Always something that smelled great cooking in the kitchen and
- Grandma’s little red dream book on the side board.
I always wondered what a “dream book” was. Grandma explained it was how she picked her –
My grandmother would look up a word or phrase to define her dream. Then she would pick the corresponding number and that’s the number she would play. Here’s a sample page from a dream book:
It wasn’t until many years later that I learned the numbers or “policy”, as they were also called, was actually an illegal lottery. It was a form of gambling in the Black community that was popular from the late 1890s to the 1960s.
The game is played by players betting on a series of three numbers from 0 to 999. Numbers runners would collect the money from the bettors each day, leave each bettor a receipt from what was called a policy book, and then take the cash and policy book to the clearing house, also known as a policy bank.
A player would win if his/her numbers matched a preset series of three numbers, which were found in daily newspapers as the last three digits of either the NYSE total, U.S. Treasury balance, or total bets at a selected racetrack. The numbers game seldom favored the players because the results were often fixed.
Sounds like a mom and pop business right? It wasn’t. The Black people who were in charge of the policy rackets in various cities, like Harlem, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago became multi-millionaires. As the Mafia realized how much money was being made, they tried to push Blacks out and run policy themselves.
For the average person in the community, like my grandmother, though, the numbers game was not big business. It was a little gamble – risking a few cents for the chance to make a dream of a better life come true. Some won and most didn’t.
Here’s a popular song for the many policy game losers called the “Policy Blues” that was recorded in 1939 by a blues singer name Blind Blake –
I never asked Grandma if the little red dream book worked for her. But I do know that she lived to be 97 years old and enjoyed living her later years surrounded by the people she loved and who loved her back. Knowing my grandmother, I’m betting that was the dream of a lifetime for her.
And how do you put a number on that?
On June 20, 1943, my father went out on a Sunday afternoon date to Detroit’s Belle Isle. Back in the day, Belle Isle was this amazing recreation venue on an island in the middle of the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor, Canada. It was free and it was open to Blacks and Whites.
Although there’s been a severe decline in the island in recent years, it’s still a place where people go to relax during the summer. Over the years, Belle Isle offered –
- A lovely boulevard and network of paths for strolling and cycling
- A canal where you could rent boats and go canoeing
- A zoo
- A conservatory/greenhouse
- An aquarium
- A band shell for concerts
- A casino
- Boat and yacht clubs
- Sandy beaches
- Food vendors and even
- Pony rides for little kids
So for a young man of limited means like my Dad, Belle Isle was the perfect place for a Sunday date. He and his date (this was pre-Mom) would have taken a streetcar to Jefferson Avenue in Detroit and then walked across the McArthur Bridge to the island. The bridge is the only way on and off the island and it’s here that the 1943 race riots exploded.
The story of how the riots started is best told in this PBS article from the “American Experience” series:
Two rumors circulated which exacerbated the conflict. At the Forest Club, a nightclub in Paradise Valley which catered to the black population, a man who identified himself as a police sergeant alerted the patrons that “whites” had thrown a black woman and her baby over the Belle Isle bridge. The enraged patrons fled the club to retaliate. They looted and destroyed white-owned stores and indiscriminately attacked anyone with white skin.
Similarly, white mobs had been stirred up by a rumor that a black man had raped and murdered a white woman on the bridge. The white mob centered around the downtown Roxy Theater which harbored a number of black movie-goers. As the patrons exited the theater, they found themselves surrounded by gangs who attacked and beat them.
As rumors about the incidents in Paradise Valley and the downtown area spread through the night, so did the nature and the extent of the violence. White mobs targeted streetcars transporting black laborers to work, forced the cars to come to a halt, and attacked the passengers inside. They also targeted any cars with black owners, turning them over and setting them on fire.
Because my father was on Belle Isle when the riots started there, he was caught in the middle. My father was injured there on Belle Isle. As the mob moved across the bridge on to the island, Dad was attacked and beaten on the banks of the Detroit River right by the bridge and suffered a severe injury to his leg.
Thank goodness, he was rescued and taken to the hospital. He was one of the lucky ones. In his later years, my father would tell me he saw “terrible” things on his way to the hospital but he refused to say more.
Here’s a video that tells about the toll the 1943 race riots would take on Detroit:
After the riots ended, my father continued on with his studies to become a doctor. He met my mother the next year and they married in 1945. Unfortunately though, my father’s injury from the riots resulted in a severe and persistent bone infection in his leg.
There were no antibiotics then and the only treatment available would have required Dad to sit out his last year of medical school with no guarantees the treatment would work. Instead, my father opted to have his leg amputated at the knee in 1946.
As a child, I knew my father had a wooden leg. I’d see it standing against a chair when I came in to say “good morning”. But Dad never talked about how he lost his leg and it seemed the unspoken agreement that none of us would ask. And we didn’t.
I was adult before Dad would finally share the story of what happened that summer day in 1943. But as I think back, I understand now why my father had put the incident behind him and moved on. He refused to dwell on the negative.
That’s the kind of man he was.
P.S. Today is the 94th anniversary of my father’s birth. Remembering you, Dad. Always, always.