Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Rosa Parks, Doris Topsy-Elvord, Education & Civil Rights

Unlike Rosa Parks, who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, Doris Topsy-Elvord got early lessons in racial tolerance in an unlikely place--the Mississippi Delta. 

Doris Topsy-Elvord Former City Council Member Long Beach, California
Doris Topsy-Elvord
First Black Female 

City Council Member 
& Vice Mayor
Long Beach, California
Rosa Parks, Mother of the Civil Rights Movement
Rosa Parks
Mother of the
Modern Civil
Rights Movement
Daughter of devout Catholics, Doris Topsy-Elvord was born in 1931 in Vicksburg, Mississippi, which neighbors Alabama, home state of Rosa Parks. Having attended college, Topsy-Elvord’s parents and Rosa Parks' parents were professionals and were not associated with plantation work like many other local families--black, white, Chinese, Italian and others--that relied on indentured sharecropping arrangements for their livelihood. 

In these sharecropping arrangements, families needed all hands, including the children's hands, to work the land, help plant and bring in the crops to pay the landowner his share of the crops and settle the bill at the farm store. 

In Mississippi, Doris Topsy-Elvord's mother was a nurse at a Vicksburg hospital and her father owned his own business. In Alabama, Rosa Parks' mother was schoolteacher and her father owned his own business. These families had comfortably independent lives, except for Jim Crow laws that affected all people of color in the South and nationwide. Jim Crow laws made life for African Americans like Doris Topsy-Elvord and Rosa Parks seem as though the Union had not defeated the Confederacy and won the Civil War, although during the War, between 1862 and 1863, Vicksburg, overwhelmed by Union troops, was captured by Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863, a strategic maneuver by Lincoln's Army. The importance of Vicksburg was significant to the Union due to its location on the Mississippi River as a supply port.

Jim Crow laws ruled education in the southern United States in the 1930s, but somehow, Vicksburg schoolgirl, Doris Topsy-Elvord escaped school segregation before the Civil Rights Movement, unlike Rosa Parks, who was forced to attend segregated schools throughout her education.

Library of Congress
However segregated and modest their lives were, Topsy-Elvord's parents wanted for their daughter the same thing white parents wanted for their sons and daughters--a good life that a college education could bring. The Elvords wanted education for their daughter, in spite of the fact that she was born near the beginning of the nation's Great Depression (1929-41), which caused the stock market to crash and destroy the fortunes of both wealthy and modest family fortunes. 

Ironically, this global political upheaval had little impact on some African Americans and other poor families, many of whom were white, with little if anything to lose living hand-to-mouth in tents and cars. Sending their children to college was the last thing on their minds with jobs impossible to find and food nearly as scarce.

Segregated public school education in those days in most of the South was inferior for black students like Rosa Parks with school districts using most of the money allotted for white schools, teachers and school buses. Segregated schools in those days did not provide school buses for transporting black students to school. Black children like Rosa Parks walked several miles to school. Unlike Rosa Parks, however, whose mother was a schoolteacher, many students were the children of sharecroppers who were not educated and were unable to help their children with their lessons.

Rosa Parks, Young Adult
Rosa Parks, Young Adult
Unlike Rosa Parks, Topsy-Elvord was sent her to the integrated Catholic school in Vicksburg, where her parents sacrificed to pay for tuition, school supplies and textbooks. This was not a possibility for Rosa Parks during her education 17 years earlier in Alabama where there were no integrated schools. Although Rosa Parks' mother was a school teacher, Parks lived on a farm with her grandparents miles from her segregated school. In that part of the South, during the era of Jim Crow laws, education was remote. However, Rosa Parks managed to get an education and to go on to become Mother of the Civil Rights Movement in 1955, when she sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, heralding Martin Luther King into the role of Leader of the Civil Rights Movement

Topsy-Elvord lived with her parents in the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, with the integrated Catholic school within a short walking distance from their comfortable home. What her family had in common with their non-plantation non-black immigrant counterparts, who also lived in their neighborhood, was the choice of a good school for their children and the desire to educate their children, a key to improved economic status and social standing, the same desire of the white community. 

As difficult as it is to believe—knowing the history of race relations in Mississippi—the Vicksburg Catholic elementary school that Topsy-Elvord attended, Saint Mary's, until she was nine years old, was integrated with the children of minority immigrants from many parts of the world, including children from the city's Chinese and Italian families. Students in this private religious educational setting were not separated by race, so Topsy-Elvord had always been in school with students of other ethnic groups. Ironically, Catholic schools in Mississippi were some of the first schools in the southern United States to become integrated, a move encouraged by Italian families that had attained prominence in the Vicksburg professional and religious community.

Photograph circa 1900: Photograph courtesy 
Library of Congress
Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-131516
"Mississippi was a racially conscious society, and Italians were sometimes dismissed as second-class citizens because their skins were darker than those of whites of northern European ancestry. The Italian immigrants who were tenant farmers were downgraded because they did the same work as blacks, who were at the bottom of the social scale. Italians experienced bigotry and prejudice, directed at their ethnic background. 

The Ku Klux Klan and other similar groups targeted Catholics, including Italians, Italians in Mississippi By Charles Reagan Wilson. Photo above: Early banana importers and distributors were mostly Italian immigrants. The Alfonso family in Gulfport and their Standard Fruit Steamship Co. imported fruit from Honduras, distributing it throughout Mississippi and elsewhere.

No Wanted Chinese Poster
No Chinese Poster
Washington State 

Historical Society
A tradition beginning in the 19th Century explains integrated Catholic schools in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where Topsy-Elvord attended. When indentured Chinese workers finished building railroads and levees in California and other parts of the Northwest, they were burned out and driven from their homes, no longer of any use to that society. Their displacement attracted Mississippi Delta plantation owners to California to import displaced Chinese workers to Delta farms to replace slave labor after Emancipation. 

There, Chinese families became part of the natural human landscape, influencing their neighbors with their Chai tea rituals, exotic spices, herbal remedies and Eastern medicines.

Through labor agents, the same tactic was used to import southern Italian, Lebanese and Syrian indentured servants to Mississippi Delta plantations to pick cotton alongside the Chinese and black workers who had stayed on farms after being freed. 

On the other hand, Jews who landed in the Mississippi Delta were inexperienced at farming, having been legally prevented in Europe. This meant they had no farming background and were unable to produce a living in that way. Many became peddlers of goods and storekeepers as they had done and their parents had done before leaving Europe. They bought goods at the port in Vicksburg and made their way inland to sell their wares. "At the close of the Civil War, there were 90 Jewish families in Vicksburg. They own 35 stores in the town," GOLDRING-WOLDENBERG INSTITUTE OF SOUTHERN JEWISH LIFE

White Sharecroppers During the Great Depression
White Sharecroppers
During the Depression, immigrant families who were already entangled in tenant farm agreements were further victimized by the crashed economy and unable to pay their farm debts so they could leave the sharecropping system. Many ran away, leaving in the dead of night with their few belongings. Finding work in other locations, however, was impossible at that time with hungry people filing into cities looking for free food, public relief and charity handouts. 

Jobs had become scarce for all workers and especially for immigrants, who were customarily subjected to increased discrimination and bigotry in times of economic distress. So, like former slaves, some unfortunate farm workers, including white sharecroppers, stayed on plantations where they could get a meal, even though, the meal cost them their freedom and held them in virtual slavery by the dishonest bookkeeping of farm owners who operated in the same fashion as before the Civil War. The difference was the workers were not exactly slaves; they were in debt to the farm store, a predicament also shared by a large number of poor white families who owned no land. 

Immigrants, who earned their way off of plantations, got jobs or opened businesses in Vicksburg, and sent their children to Catholic school where they could learn English and get an education. Most of these immigrants, unwelcome to reside in white neighborhoods and send their children to white public schools, lived among African Americans. The Delta's dominant class considered some immigrants as undesirable for assimilation as African Americans because of immigrants' dark complexion, foreignness of their customs and former cotton-picker status, regardless of the white racial classification these immigrants may have claimed. 

Racial classification was so blatant in the United States during the early 20th Century that southern Italians were classified as a different nationality from northern Italians, who thought themselves to be more “white” and more closely related to the French and Germans. This classification seems to have been based on shades of complexion—fair-skinned northern Italians as opposed to dark-skinned southern Italians. 

“When we lived in Vicksburg, Mississippi,” Topsy-Elvord said, “I went to school with Italians, Chinese and other nationalities. The kids there treated me like I treated them. It was based on character, not color. We lived in the same neighborhoods, too.”

Often, people who are educated and have been exposed to other cultures look at society and life in a more sophisticated way. Topsy-Elvord's childhood experience in race relations may account for her later success in an atmosphere that could have felt discouraging to others. This does not say Vicksburg, Mississippi, was a bastion for racial tolerance. It says Vicksburg, a southern city with racial problems, may have forced its minority communities into a fragile social order that developed out of an economic rather than racial climate, unlike West Coast and northern cities that did not have the same history and, in many ways, ignored racial issues. 

In 1942, Topsy-Elvord's family left Mississippi and moved to Long Beach, California. “I was the only African American student at St. Anthony when we got to Long Beach,” said Topsy-Elvord. As a nine-year-old child, when she first entered St. Anthony, she said she learned more about racism than she had ever known in Mississippi. “And it was in Long Beach, California, that I first heard the “N” word.” In 1949, Topsy-Elvord became the first African American to graduate from St. Anthony High School in Long Beach. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Woolworth Sit-ins & Jim Crow Laws

Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and other sit-ins and demonstrations destroyed Jim Crow laws and changed civil rights.

Alexandria Library 
Sit-in & Arrest
Even libraries were 
segregated. Those 
participating in sit-ins 
were punished  and jailed.

George Zimmerman Family
Photo: CNN
Great Grandfather
Mother, the infant

Those historic civil rights actions are being remembered as protesters demonstrate against the George Zimmerman verdict.

How do the more recent demonstrations against Trayvon Martin's death in the Zimmerman case differ from historic civil rights marches? One difference is that historic protests were aimed at crushing Jim Crow laws, a specific set of statues written especially to discriminate against former slaves after the Civil War. These laws were supported, in part, by organized racist groups that were formed to enforce Jim Crow laws, outside the real law. On the contrary, protests of the George Zimmerman verdict in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin are not aimed specifically at any group of persons organized to destroy freedom of people of color or interfere with their ability to get an education. Right?

Some say that the system is structured against people of color and interferes with their education and their freedom. The question that arises in the Zimmerman case is: Who are the people of color? Certainly Trayvon Martin is a person of color. But what about George Zimmerman, whose great grandfather is said to be a black man? Wouldn't that make George Zimmerman a black man? The one drop rule would certainly apply here. Historically, if it can be shown by a person's appearance or demonstrated in a person's bloodline that African heritage is present, then the person is classified as black. If George Zimmerman is technically a black man, how can the death of Trayvon Martin be a white-on-black offense and not black-on-black? I'm simply asking questions. Please, provide your own answers.

The Woolworth Sit-ins starting in 1960 were not the only sit-ins or the first protests of Jim Crow laws. Throughout the  history of slavery in the United States, people demonstrated against violent treatment. After emancipation, people demonstrated against violent treatment and inferior access to services and facilities. One hundred years later, people were demonstrating to be allowed to vote.

This article is intended to look back at little known protests and figures leading up to the modern Civil Rights Movement, which some say stated officially when Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott and launch Martin Luther King as the leader of the movement.

In 1939, African-American civil rights attorney Samuel Wilbert Tucker, organizer of a sit-in to desegregate the Alexandria, Virginia library. Tucker, was born 100 years ago on June 18, 1913, the same year as Rosa Parks

Tucker, born in Alexandria, Virginia, rose to the rank of Major in the United States Army during World War II, spent most of life, since age 14 when he refused to give up his seat on a streetcar to a white passenger, fighting Jim Crow laws and leading the cause for civil rights.

Virginia public library case was an early example of the non-violent Civil Rights Movement, led by Martin Luther King, that would spread across the nation through the 1960s. These protests were intended to give the word public it true meaning that included African Americans and other people of color in the access to public facilities and services, and equal education, to prepare them for a college education.

That same year, 1939, Marian Anderson's attempt to defy Jim Crow laws launched her as the voice of civil rights. 

Marian Anderson was not just an important American singer, she was a U.S. civil rights leader in her own right. Choosing to sing opera and recital music, Anderson brought classical music to the African American community as well as to the world. Much of her career was centered in Europe because of Jim Crow laws in the United States.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt & Marian Anderson
On the eve of World War II (WWII), Anderson and many others--like A. Philip Randolph, labeled the most dangerous black man in America--played a crucial role in fueling the Civil Rights Movement when she and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt put their heads together and arranged for the Lincoln Memorial performance after Marian Anderson was snubbed by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR, the organization in charge of Constitution Hall in Washington DC. When Jim Crow laws prevented Anderson from singing at Constitution Hall, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped to arrange a concert for Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial, where the African American opera singer drew an audience of more than 75,000. Read more about Marian Anderson, Jim Crow laws and Civil rights.

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In 1942, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sponsored sit-ins in Chicago, in St. Louis in 1949 and Baltimore in 1952.

Rosa Parks had challenged Jim Crow laws in Montgomery bus policy twelve years before she boarded the bus on December 1, 1955, and started the Nine months before the boycott, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was dragged off a Montgomery bus by police, handcuffed and jailed on March 2, 1955. Her case, got little notice and no support. Review and purchase Claudette Colvin at links on left. In 1943, Parks refused to board the bus using a rear entry, the door for black bus riders. Parks and her mother had always refused to enter the bus through the rear door, while other black riders had to use the rear door. 

Book: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
Claudette Colvin: 
Twice Toward Justice 
by Hoose, Phillip M. 
(Google Affiliate Ad)

On March 2, 1955, nine months before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was dragged off a Montgomery bus by police, handcuffed and jailed, but her case, got little notice and no support. 

At the end of 1955, Rosa Parks ignited the Montgomery Bus Boycott and helped to launch Martin Luther King as the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. This legacy affected civil rights and race relations in America from Jim Crow city buses to black actors in Hollywood films

In 1957, a minister organized student non-violent sit-ins in Durham, North Carolina at the Royal Ice Cream Shop. The protesters were arrested for trying to occupy the whites only section of the business. After being convicted in North Carolina courts, the seven appealed their case in the United States Supreme Court. The high court refused to hear the case.

An Oklahoma I Had Never 
Seen Before: Alternative
Views of Oklahoma His
(Google Affiliate Ad)

On August 19, 1958, Clara Luper, private citizen and mother of two, staged the most effective anti-Jim Crow law luncheon counter sit-in in American history before the Woolworth sit-ins some two years later. Luper, frustrated with segregation in her hometown of Oklahoma City decided to take action. 

By the late 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement had officially begun and individuals and groups nationwide were organizing protests of Jim Cow laws.

Clara Luper led twelve children from the Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council, including her own children, to desegregate a drugstore lunch-counter. Clara Luper and the children began a six-year series of sit-ins at other lunch counters, restaurants, and cafes in Oklahoma City, leading to desegregation in three other states.

Woolworth Sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960

Woolworth Sit-ins 1960
The Woolworth Sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960 occurred two years after Clara Luper protested in Oklahoma City.

The Woolworth sit-ins were more influential in changing Jim Crow laws because they received national attention in the mainstream and black presses, drawing attention to the growing need to change Jim Crow laws. In some ways the Woolworth sit-ins were a culmination of the civil rights protests of the 1950s, which picked up in momentum in the 1960s and raised awareness to a new level under the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King.

Rosa Parks
Woolworth's Sit-ins, Rosa Parks and Jim Crow LawsWoolworth's sit-ins, riding the waves of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Greensboro Four helped to destroy Jim Crow laws by integrating lunch counters and making getting into college and good public schools possible for black students.

Morrill Land Grant College Acts, Jim Crow & Woolworth'sThe 1890 Morrill Land Grant College Act required that former Jim Crow law Confederate states make getting into college possible for African Americans.

When we compare these historic civil rights struggles with crowds wandering aimlessly on the streets of some cities professing to protest the shooting death of Trayvon Marting at the hands of George Zimmerman, the motives seem a little week against those of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, the Greensboro Four, the Freedom Riders, Brown v the Board of Education, and so many others. You may begin to wonder, yourself, if this current protest is perhaps a mere hijacking of Trayvon Martin's death and the George Zimmerman verdict to use a boy who has died and his grieving family for selfish political reasons that have little to do with freedom, education or justice.

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Sunny Nash is the author of Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's (Texas A&M University Press), about life in the Brazos Valley with her part-Comanche grandmother during the Civil Rights Movement. Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses as essential for understanding U.S. race relations; listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida. 

by Sunny Nash 
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Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash--author, producer, photographer and leading writer on U.S. race relations in--writes books, blogs, articles and reviews, and produces media and images on U.S. history and contemporary American topics, ranging from Jim Crow laws to social media networking, Nash uses her book to write articles and blogs on race relations in America through topics relating to her life--from music, film, early radio and television, entertainment, social media, Internet technology, publishing, journalism, sports, education, employment, the military, fashion, performing arts, literature, women's issues, adolescence and childhood, equal rights, social and political movements--past and present—to today's post-racism.

Lyndon Johnson Civil Rights Act of 1964 
Destroyed Jim Crow laws in the federal 
legal system of the United States.


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