Racial identity of ‘Black Sam’ debated

Racial identity of ‘Black Sam’ debated

When the Continental Congress passed a resolution barring Black men from serving in the American army, one of the first heroes of the Revolution was an African-American, Crispus Attucks, who died in the 1770 Boston Massacre.

Surprised by the large number of slaves who responded to a British offer of freedom for all slaves who joined their forces, George Washington approved Black enlistments.

After the war, General Washington came to New York City to say farewell to his officers at a restaurant owned and run by Samuel Fraunces, a successful Black businessman from the French West Indies. When Washington moved to New York and then Philadelphia as the nation’s first president, he chose Fraunces to be his chief steward.

“Black Sam” Fraunces (1734-1795), who was renowned for his good food and business savvy, was also a spy and loyal friend to Washington, who lauded him as a patriot.

“You have, invariably through the most trying times, maintained a constant friendship, an attention to the cause of our country and its independence and freedom,” wrote Washington to Fraunces of their relationship.

Today, nearly 214 years since Frances’ death here in Philadelphia, he lies buried in an unmarked grave in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church cemetery located at Third and Pine streets in the heart of Society Hill.

Around the corner, a Pennsylvania state historical marker at Second and Dock streets marks the location of last tavern Fraunces operated following his retirement from the presidential household.

Frances ran the business for about a year until his death at age 61.

For over 30 years, Charles Blockson, historian and curator emeritus of the Blockson Collection at Temple University, has been documenting the story of Fraunces, his personal relationship with one of America’s most powerful men and the legacy that has continued with some of his over 500 descendents.

Blockson, author of “The Liberty Bell Era: The African American Story (Insight, $19.99),” along with the help of genealogist C. R. Cole have confirmed that Fraunces was born in the West Indies of African and French ancestry.

Cole, author of “Samuel Fraunces ‘Black Sam’ (Xlibris, $19.99),” has been researching the free Blacks living within the boundaries of Pennsylvania before the Civil War for the last 20 years.

Both the historian and the genealogist are of the opinion that Fraunces and his descendents are long overdue their acknowledgement as celebrated African Americans.

While the 1790 New York Census lists Fraunces (who until 1776 called himself Francis) as having been white and a slaveholder, other historians have claimed that references to “Black Sam’s” racial identity may instead refer to his temper or appearance from working in the kitchen.

“He should be given his due, so to speak,” said Cole. “Even within his family, I think the thing I noticed the most that you can explain a lot, but that’s not saying he’s not African in origins. And when you say it does not matter, what you’re saying is that it’s all going away. It dismisses a whole part of colonial America, at the same time because then you dismiss the fact that most of the skilled labor was African American.”

One of the oldest colonial structures in New York City today is the Fraunces Tavern, near Wall Street, which still serves as a restaurant and revolutionary era museum.

According to Cole, early in the museum’s history, a reporter wrote of a portrait that used to depict Frances at his namesake tavern and “described him with curly brown hair, a slight double chin and dark black eyes.

That’s missing now. What they have in its place is some guy in a white powder wig and a blue velvet coat with green eyes and no hint of a double chin. And that’s their biggest piece of proof that he’s not African American.”

While some historians have cited that there are no 18th-century references of Fraunces’ African descent, Blockson notes that “many fair-skinned persons of African descent were presumed as white from appearance unless their racial identity is known.

“While researching the story of his life, it was discovered that Fraunces’ racial identity was recorded as Negro, colored, Haitian Negro, Mulatto, ‘fastidious old Negro’ and swarthy. Fraunces was immortalized in Philip Freneau’s 1786 book of poems as ‘Black Sam.’ He was familiarly called by his nick name because of his tan complexion and his tight, curly hair. Keeping with the time, he often wore a white, powdered wig.”

The Fraunces family history includes the heroic act of “Black Sam’s” daughter, Elizabeth “Phoebe” Fraunces, whose beauty helped unravel the treachery of a British double agent’s plot to murder Washington and several military officers by adding a poison to a dish of peas placed before Washington.

She whispered to Washington the nature of the contents. Washington, according to tradition, threw the peas out of the window where some chickens were feeding. The chickens picked the peas and fell dead.

Thomas Hickey later confessed to the assassination plot and on June 28, 1776, was hung before a crowd of 20,000 people.

In 2003, the rediscovery of The President’s House at Fifth and Market streets further highlighted the role Fraunces played in the nation’s past and future into the 21st century, as Blockson explained. “One of Samuel Fraunces grandsons, William D. Kelly (1814-1890), whom they called ‘Pig Iron,’ was one of the founders of the Republican Party supporting Lincoln and also founded the Union League. He was a friend of African people. He also helped organize the U.S. colored troops at Camp William Penn.”

So, does the controversy over the racial identity of Fraunces continue to deny him his proper place in American history as a person of African descent?

The anonymous Society Hill gravesite of an acknowledged American patriot who was a right-hand man to the father of this country serves as a sour reminder of this nation’s conflicted stance on race.

“There was no question of his origin because certainly the daughter was still in the area,” stated Cole. “Phoebe and her husband had a large successful boarding house for years in Philadelphia. I’d go out on a limb and say the grave is probably not marked intentionally.”

 

Source:  Philadelphia Tribune

Date: March 22, 2009

Byline: Bobbi Booker

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…Dr. Perri Johnson’s “Healing Feeling” returns to Philly

Dr. Perri Johnson

By Bobbi Booker

The Book Report

It’s been more than two decades since Philadelphia radio emitted the
introduction, “You’re listening to the good Dr. Perri Johnson, Music
Therapist.” While his absence from the local airwaves have been
lamented, Johnson has maintained the “healing feeling” he so often
talked about on WDAS-FM during the last 15 years as a licensed
clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. Johnson (who truly is a Dr. with
two Masters Degrees in psychology and Doctorate)has always maintained
that his work on the radio was intended to produce a pleasurable and
therapeutic effect and explores his theory in his debut book,
“Prescriptions: Therapeutic Poems for the Healing of
Depression”($13.99, Xulon Press).

“Prescriptions” is a self-help book which combines poems to help heal
depression with a discussion of the causes of depression and how to
overcome it. Each poem relates to a common experience of depression
and suggests strategies and behaviors to quarantine and reverse
various types of depression. Johnson renders psychological services to many in the film and
entertainment industry at his private practice in Hollywood Hills, CA.

Johnson grew up in North Philly, graduated from Benjamin Franklin High
School and received a BA Degree in Psychology from Temple University
while working at the school’s radio station WRTI-FM. Johnson’s
distinctive style drew the attention of WDAS who recruited him in 1970
for their experimental FM format to help shape the new sound. “It was
a compromise for me because somehow or another it had to all fit
together,” said Johnson.”We were basically doing underground rock.
They said I could bring in some of the stuff I was doing at WRTI, as
long as it blended. So they really got in my head early on that I had
to to flow.”

Radio programmers were allowing their FM air talent explore the long
play (or LP) albums in ways unknown on the AM side where the three
minute Top 40 radio format ruled. By the 1970s, FM audience size
surpassed that of AM, and Johnson was a pivotal player in that change
that started locally and resonated nationally.

“When Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ came out, I just put it on from
the beginning and let it play all the way through. That was unheard
of, radio just wasn’t do that, except underground radio and they
weren’t playing Marvin Gaye. A.M was playing ‘What’s Going On’ for
three minutes because that was the format. When we put that thing on
it blew up. It put us on the map. Then it became more about theme. And
we became a soundtrack for a lot of the (70s) movements that were go
on.”

One of those movements was disco, the indomitable precursor to hip hop
and both genres Johnson comfortable mixed during his broadcasts. In a
speaking style Johnson had perfected over the years, the popular jock
would effortlessly rhyme over the musical interludes that interspersed
his show. One of Johnson more popular rhymes over the beats of funk
music maker Hamilton Bohannon would lead to worldwide success for both men.
Teamed with Johnson’s syncopated lyrics, Bohannon’s style of music
would eventually influence the burgeoning hip hop scene with a double
hit in 1978 and1981.

“Perri fell in love with ‘Let’s Start the Dance’ and started
ad-libbing to that so I decided to put him on wax,” recalled Bohannon.
“(Philadelphia) is where it started at and then New York and all over
the East Coast and it became real, real big for me.” Bohannon’s
version of “Let’s Start II Dance Again (Rap Version)” featuring
Johnson climbed to #1 on the Billboard Dance Chart and remains among
the most frequently played radio tracks to this day.

After Johnson left the Philadelphia market, he settled in Southern
California, married had three children and eventually divorced after
17 years. “I think I’m living out the dream of my father,” explained
Johnson of his move to Los Angeles shortly after his beloved
father,Andrew, died in 1980.

“I was so close (to my father),” recalled Johnson. “He was the go-to
guy for decisions. I was successful early on and didn’t know how to
handle things, so I would go to him to get advice and just rely upon
him to be my confidante and my manager and to keep me grounded. He
steered me in the right direction and he provided the same support and
advice for others. Teddy Pendergrass use to go to him a lot and sit
and talk after Teddy and I got tight. He had a little office down on
Lombard Street and many guys would go by like Sony Hopkins and Kenny
Gamble. He was a wise guy.”

Recently, the Philadelphia radio market has witnessed a ‘return’ of
popular on-air personalities, including Miriam “MiMi” Brown who
received an on-air call from Johnson during her recent Mother’s Day
debut on WDAS. Brown, who was already besieged with well wishers
welcoming her back, received even more positive feedback after Johnson
called in.

“I believe that a part of what he lives for is to heal others and let
them know that they can be healed,” said Brown of her mentor and
colleague. “That’s what his book is all about. A lot of times we walk
through life and don’t even know what’s wrong with us. Perri’s whole
existence is to give people a better way of living and a better way of
existing on this earth and to be happy within their own skin and be
appreciative for the things that they do have. He addresses those
medical problems and helps bring about healing and solution. He is on
his quest.”

Longtime radio personality Gary Shepard also recalled Johnson’s early
plans to start a clinical practice to treat others like himself in the
entertainment business. “When he was on the radio he was putting out
words of wisdom that help people feel good about themselves and who
they are. It’s just brilliant the way he has used his poetry as a
therapeutic tool for people in a depressed state.”

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Lifestyle/Leisure/Literature

Richard Wright “was very preoccupied by the impact of racism.”

Richard Wright, the acclaimed author of “Native Son” and “Black Boy,”
was born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, but it is Philadelphia
that is honoring him with the proclamation of Richard Wright Week from
April 20- 27, 2008. Wright, who would have turned 100 this September, will
be the focus of a number of citywide presentations, including a
special Robin’s Bookstore address from the author’s daughter, Julia
Wright. The acclaimed author’s final manuscript, “A Father’s Law
($14.95, HarperCollins)” was just released by the younger Wright in
honor of her father’s birthday.

“As a present for his centennial, I dug up his last unfinished novel,”
explained Wright. “It’s the only existing draft of what he was working
on when he died. ‘A Father’s Law’ is about the relationship of a Black
police chief and his brilliant university-bound son. The police chief
slowly comes to suspect his son is the serial killer that he has been
assigned and promoted to find and punish.”

The novel was written during a six-week period near the end of
Wright’s life. “The book is unfinished, so you don’t know if the
father is imagining it, or whether the father has indeed a serial
killer for a son. It is an extraordinary book. Had he lived to finish
and perfect it, I believe it would have been a masterpiece. As it is,
it is riveting reading.”

Wright, the grandson of a slave, was born on the Rucker Plantation in Roxie,
Mississippi September 4, 1908. Soon after his family moved to Memphis,
Tennessee, in 1913, his father, a former sharecropper, abandoned the family, leaving his mother to support them alone. His family moved to Jackson, Mississippi to live with
relatives, and he graduated as valedictorian of his 9th grade class in May 1925, but left school a few weeks after entering high school. However, even as a youngster, Wright knew his calling. At the age of 15, Wright wrote his first story “The Voodoo of Hell’s Half-Acre”, and it was published in the Southern Register, a local Black newspaper.
Wright’s daughter explained that her father died prematurely at age 52
in Paris from the combined childhood effects of malnutrition and the stress of
the FBI’s continued investigation for being a member of the Communist
Party between 1932 and 1942. He departed the party in 1942 because of
ideological disputes.

“He spent some time in the communist party before effectively leaving
the United States never to return,” said Wright. “For people like (former FBI Director) J. Edger Hoover, once a communist always a communist. My father had grown beyond communism, but remained under surveillance and duress for the whole of his life, especially abroad where they were fearful he would denounce racism in the United States
in France where he lived.”

The literary giant raw and powerful prose was a source of fascination
for poet Lamont B. Steptoe. “I made a point of taking a course in
Black literature where I read ‘Uncle Tom’s Children,'” recalled
Steptoe. “I found the work compelling, poetic, nightmarish and
unforgettable. I made it a point to read everything that was published
by Wright. In 1992, I journeyed to Paris for a conference at the
Sorbonne in honor of Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes
that would bring together many of the surviving members of the heady
days of the Black ex-patriot community in Paris from the fifties up
through the late sixties. There I met Ellen Wright, Julia Wright, the
late Ollie Harrington, who was one of Wright’s closest friends and
Wright’s grandson, Malcolm.”

The younger Wright noted that her father tackled astonishingly modern
themes for novels written over 45 years ago.

“He was very preoccupied by the impact of racism on the mind of Black
men and Black women,” said Julia. “That is exemplified in his study
‘The Mind of Bigger Thomas’ and his concerns throughout his whole life
on what makes a Black man angry. (He wondered) can we act on some of
these factors and give Black male minorities a rest from duress? It’s
such a present day problem and it’s being debated everywhere today.
It amazes me when I speak to audiences because I find so many time
bubbles in his work.”

“Red Ink: Celebrating the Radical Tradition in Literature” with Julia
Wright discussing Richard Wright and his work will feature Lamont
Steptoe and other area writers on Sunday April 27, 2008 at 2pm at
Robin’s Book Store, 108 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia. For more
information on various Richard Wright Week activities visit
www.robinsbookstoreonline.com or call 215-735-9600.

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…For MC Hammer, the Future Net is “in my blood.”

e-mc-hammer-lg.gifBy Bobbi Booker

A unique technology education forum featuring hip hop pioneer MC
Hammer drew community members, ex-offenders and students from the
nearby Renaissance Advantage Charter School to the Southwest
Philadelphia Mayor’s Office for the Re-entry of Ex-Inmates last week.

When Hammer heard the murder rate in Philadelphia had skyrocketed to
an average of one per day, he called his friend (and Germantown
native) Rev. Eugene Williams and pledged his help. For the past year,
Hammer (born Stanley Kirk Burrell) has reached out through his
technological initiative called LOOK University, a socially
responsible program to reduce violence through music, digital media
and the arts.

Rev. Williams explained that LOOK University is a groundbreaking
strategy that uses the digital media to educate the hip-hop cultural
community to the realities of the impact of violence, incarceration,
risky sexual practices and hopelessness.

“LOOK University is a project that teaches you how to create your own
buzz. How to use digital media and all of the tools that are available
to everybody today and how to turn that into a different message and
become an entrepreneur.”

Williams, CEO and National Director Regional Congregations and
Neighborhood Organizations Training Center, has always been concerned
with making the connections between theology and community development
and revitalization. While speaking to the 75 guests, Williams noted
that, “Language is important. These are not ex-offenders. These are
residents who are returning from prison. They are not aliens coming from
outer space. These are people that we nurtured from the cradle and
people some of us have known.”

Building upon the demand for services by the ex-offender population,
services like the Office for the Re-entry of Ex-Inmates have been
designed to provide previously incarcerated individuals with an even
broader range of transitional services to help them address the
barriers many face as they strive to regain self-sufficiency and
secure employment.

MC Hammer delivered a message that covered his dramatic journey as one
of America’s entertainment legends. As he explored his life as a
rapper who is now focused on spirituality and family, Hammer encourage
both the youths and their elders to continue to dream big. “When I
first decided I was going to rap, and again being a young man of
vision, I already owned two houses.”

However, it was Hammer’s quest to provide wider consumer access to his
music videos, like “U Can’t Touch This,” that lead him to Silicon
Valley developers. Today, Hammer is an adviser to stealth Internet
start-up, Dance Jam. “I took that information, studied that and 14
years later, when it comes to anything that marries music, film and
entertainment and placing it on the Internet, a mobile or wireless
device, I’m one of the experts in Silicon Valley.”

Hammer’s influence on hip hop culture and music was not lost on those
in attendance where half of the room vividly recalled his catchy Top
10 hits, while the other half had yet to be conceived.

“To return to our rightful position is not just ending violence, it’s
also instilling the true history so that you know who you are,”
explained Hammer during a brief history of Blacks and technology.
“Kings and queens is what you truly come from. When Napoleon got over
to Egypt, he could not believe what he saw. He said, ‘The same people that
we have enslaved are the ones who created science, math, astrology,
medicine.’ Somehow, since that day, we’ve have been tricked into
believing we are the inferior ones. Inferior!? Of course, I know how
to build businesses from technology. It’s in my blood.”

=Originally Appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune on Sunday, March 30, 2008=

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