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

Nutter: City needs new identity for future

 
Nutter: City needs new identity for futureMayor-Elect Michael Nutter addresses his vision of “The Identity of the New Philadelphia” at Franklin Hall in The Franklin Institute Science Museum Tuesday. — HIROKO TANAKA/TRIBUNE STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
 
As Philadelphia Mayor-elect Michael Nutter prepared to give a Tuesday evening keynote address titled “Identity and the New Philadelphia,” it was breaking news of the crime-riddled city that concerned many of the 400 guests gathered at the Franklin Institute.Moments before Nutter’s arrival, he had been briefed with a report of another Philadelphia police shooting.“Two more police officers were shot earlier this evening,’ said Nutter. “It is an unconscionable situation. We’ll do what we need to do on the streets of this city and make Philadelphia safe.”In what was Nutter’s first speech since his election, Nutter offered a visionary look at the future of Philadelphia in a dressed themed with the kickoff of the Institute’s new exhibit, “Identity: An Exhibition of You.”

Using the films “Rocky” and “The Philadelphia Story” as talking points, Nutter said residents need to embrace a new image of themselves.

Nutter says he believes the city is entering the “post-Rocky era” and suggested, “The Rocky identity is not working. For one thing, businesses do not want to come to the city if they think we’re an uneducated population not ready for the new world. And unfortunately, I have to share with you that the statistics about Philadelphia are overwhelming: We have the highest percentage of adults with a high school education and not college degrees.”

Nutter’s address and the subsequent question ad answer session was punctuated by several sustained rounds of applause while he explained his intention to expand education and employment opportunities for residents and the implementation of his get-tough policy of crime and litter.

“It’s about identity,” explained Nutter. “It’s about who we think we are and who we can be. And so as we grow our economy, as we get businesses to come here, as we think better of ourselves and each other in adopting a can-do kind of spirit and attitude.

“We have to change the model of what leadership is about in Philadelphia because that will change the model of who we are and what we’re about. So let this be the new identity of Philadelphia: the can-do city; the city that works; the city that keeps clean; the city that educate its kids; the city that works hard; the city that makes sure our streets are safe and that our kids are going to school; that we’re creating economic opportunity and that we value arts and culture.

“That we share our collective and wonderful city, not only with our suburban neighbors, but also with the rest of the country.”

 
 
=Originally Published in The Philadelphia Tribune=

Koresh dancers share joy in their art

 
 
 
By BOBBI BOOKER

 
Koresh Dancer Fanju Chou-Gant
 
Lifestyles Headlines
The seeds for the creative dance force known as the Koresh Dance Company began when its founder, Ronen Koresh, was a small boy growing up in an Israeli village.
An uncle took the shy 10-year-old to the side to demonstrate a few dance steps so the youngster could participate in a family gathering.
Those nascent steps unfurled the first essence of creativity that Koresh has harnessed into evolving from a noted street dancer to blossoming as a world-class choreographer and performer.
“The creative part was always there,” recalled Koresh. “But there was also a part of me that wanted to perform a lot.”
And perform he did. By his mid-teens, he was studying jazz and ballet at the Batsheva Dance Company, a Tel-Aviv group co-founded by legendary dancer Martha Graham.
At 17, he choreographed his first show featuring 40 female dancers in a performance before an audience of 3,000 people. By the time he was 18, he was drafted for compulsory military service and he’d never even worn jeans.
“Here is a country that is 15 years old. There were no lights in the streets. No cars. Nobody to call. Nothing. I had one pair until I was 20,” and Koresh laughed. “That’s why I have an obsession with jeans now.”
Koresh was determined to continue dancing, and after appealing to his officers, he was allowed to pursue his dancing, but only after he had completed his day’s work as a soldier.
After his discharge, Koresh headed straight for New York to study with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and then to Philadelphia to join the (now defunct) jazz dance company Waves.
In 1991, the Koresh Dance Company was founded and has since been lauded as “The Ailey II of Philadelphia,” by Dance magazine.
Koresh Dance Company’s performances feature an eclectic repertoire of over 50 works by Koresh, as well as guest artists such as Brian Sanders, formerly of Momix, Hector Vega and Donald Byrd.
The company’s critically acclaimed work attracts increasing audiences across the nation, and Koresh’s reputation for passion and outstanding technique regularly results in sold-out performances. The company presents bi-annual home season concerts, and performs on tour at various national festivals, performing arts centers, university performance venues and charity benefits.
Koresh Dance Company also teaches dance at all levels and offers free arts education to underserved youths in the region. Koresh says similar opportunities offered when he was a child created the dancer he was destined to become.
“I am a product of outreach myself,” he said. “I didn’t grow up with money. We grew up with nothing. People reached to me and when I was a kid (so) I didn’t pay for classes. They kind of pulled me out of the community into a world where maybe if I didn’t do what I did, I may have been a hoodlum. You never know.”
Company members give lecture-demonstrations in local public schools so the students can see a performance and talk to the dancers about their art and work. The students also participate by dancing in their own “master classes.”
“Talent is a powerful thing,” said Koresh. “It gives you the feeling of self-respect and self-esteem when you know that you possess inside you something that nobody else does, or not a lot of people do. It’s kind of a light that’s inside you. It’s a little light bulb inside your heart that just lights up because a lot of people live in darkness all around them. All they see are not very nice things all day and then there is this light bulb that gives you direction.”
When Koresh came to the region in the mid-1980s, he felt welcomed by the people and the potential.
Today, at age 46, he looks forward to expanding his vision of maintaining the artistic legacy Philadelphia is renowned for.
“There is something in Philadelphia that is so magnificent and so beautiful,” said Koresh, whose company is currently on a 24-city tour. “I think that we have a responsibility to make this city the best. The art and culture is the light and soul of the city. If we all continue to support it and put it on the map it will become a beam of light that will shine everywhere, and people are going to come to Philadelphia and would want to be a part of the culture in Philadelphia.”
The Koresh School of Dance, at 2020 Chestnut St., will host its 15th anniversary celebration Fall Bash next Saturday. The evening will include a special performance by the Koresh Dance Company. For more information, call (215) 751-0959 or visit www.koreshdance.org.=Originally Published in The Philadelphia Tribune on Sunday, October 7, 2007=
 
 
 

…“Everyplace has stories and they don’t get told a lot.”

By Bobbi Booker

Photo Credit: James Keyser 2003
Winner of both the Newberry Award and the Coretta Scott King Medal, Christopher Paul Curtis has become one of the most important voices in children’s literature today. His new book, “Mr. Chickee’s Messy Mission” (Wendy Lamb Books, $15.99) continues to delight young readers with Curtis’ uniquely humorous brand of story telling.

Born in Flint, Michigan, Curtis spent his first 13 years after high school on the assembly line of Flint’s historic Fisher Body Plant #1. Although he resides in Windsor, Canada with his wife, Kaysandra, and their two children, his heart remains in Flint, the partial setting of many of his books. “I’m a Flintstone to the bone,” Curtis enthused. “You don’t think that’s something we say with pride, but we do anyway.”

With grandfathers like Earl “Lefty” Lewis, a Negro Baseball League pitcher, and 1930s bandleader Herman E. Curtis, Sr., of Herman Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression, Curtis felt he was destined to life beyond the factory. “Oh, I hated working in that factory, but like so many people I was trapped. I had to have a new car and I had to pay the bills and I couldn’t get out. It was soul crushing. It was a really tough job physically, mentally and emotionally. I had to quit finally because I wasn’t heading for anything good working in that factory.”

During breaks at the factory, Curtis honed his writing skills enough to convince his wife to suggest that he take a year off from the factory to see if he could make it as a writer. “We had a long distance relationship and he use to write me a lot of letters,” said Kay. “I know he is funny and a good writer and I just thought it was something that he wanted to do and if I could help him in anyway, then we would see how it goes for a year.”

Throughout that year Curtis crafted his outstanding debut in children’s literature with “The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963.” His second novel, “Bud, Not Buddy,” became the first book ever to receive both the Newbery Medal and the Coretta Scott King Author Award.

“I would tell you that even though I thought he was good,” reflected Kay. “But, I didn’t think he was that good.”

Since Flint is an automobile town, once you leave the factory, you also leave behind the social fabric of the area. Curtis, however, remains true to his hometown roots and frequently visits family or catches a pickup game of basketball with friends. Although he’s lived in Canada for nearly two decades, Flint continues to influence his writing today.

“Everyplace has stories and they don’t get told a lot,” explained Curtis. “And that’s what I tell kids, nothing happened in Flint, but I just told my story about Flint. I could write a thousand stories about things that have happened in Flint. Flint is a very important part of all of my stories so far.”

=Originally Published in The Philadelphia Tribune on February 20, 2007=

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…A subject that is universal to all: Love.

By Bobbi Booker

Social activist, renowned author of more than 20 books, iconic feminist, and beloved teacher—bell books (lower case, please) is well known for her unapologetic intellectual writing. In language that is both spare and powerful, the poetry of “When Angels Speak of Love” (Atria Books, $16.95) offers the romantic reading public hooks as a major modern poet to contend with. Each of the 50 poems of “When Angels Speak” are designed to be read aloud, cherished and celebrated. Each numbered poem captures an emotion, or offers wisdom with straightforward language and clarity, leaving the reader with the resonance of hook’s fiery voice.

Readers of bell hooks’ scorching attacks on racism and sexism might be surprised to see her take on the elusive subject of love, but her previous four titles on the topic—from “All About Love” to “The Will to Change” –have made her the go-to source for contemplative contemporary literature on love. A theme in hooks’ most recent writing is the ability of community and love to overcome race, class, and gender. The interconnectiveness of these series of books on the elusive emotion was evident when she first wrote in “All About Love” the following: “When angels speak of love they tell us it is only by loving that we enter an earthly paradise. They tell us paradise is our home and love our true destiny.”

All of her books on love deal with the fleeting aspects of romance and society’s misuse, yet dire need of it. In poem Number 2 from “When Angels Speak”, hooks writes: in love/there are no closed doors/each threshold/an invitation/to cross/take hold/take heart/and enter here/at this point/where truth/was once denied.

hooks adopted her pen name from those of her mother and grandmother. Her name uses an unconventional lowercasing, which, to hooks, signifies that what is most important in her works is the “substance of books, not who I am.”

In her own unique way hooks continues to engage the public with the subject that is universal to all: Love.

=Originally published in the Philadelphia Tribune on February, 23, 2007=

Is Michelle Obama’s Scaling Back at Work for Her Husband’s Campaign Front-Page News?

Is Michelle Obama’s Scaling Back at Work for Her Husband’s Campaign Front-Page News?

Originally published on Tuesday, May 15, 2007
By: Bobbi Booker, Special to BlackAmericaWeb.com

News of Michelle Obama’s decision to scale back her duties as VP of community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals and hit the presidential campaign trail with her husband, Barack, has put the spotlight back on the professional and personal choices career women must often make.

The press coverage of Mrs. Obama also reveals the newfound role political spouses play in modern-day elections. Two of the presidential contenders wives — Elizabeth Edwards and Ann Romney — are respectively battling cancer and multiple sclerosis, and another spouse — Bill Clinton — is a former president.

“I think she’s constantly surprised at what people chose to make news,” Katie McCormick Lelyveld, communications director for Michelle Obama, told BlackAmericaWeb.com. Lelyveld said a recent front-page Washington Post story, which first announced Obama’s decision, had initially misreported Mrs. Obama’s intention to leave her job.

“As of May 1st, she reduced her hours to 20 percent and, as we all know in the age of Blackberries, is very hard to quantify exactly how much she is working,” explained Lelyveld. “She still goes to meetings, manages her administrative responsibilities and stays on top of some of the projects that she’s been working on because her career has always been very important to her. Completely leaving it at this point is not something that she’s doing.”


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AP VideoA lot of attention is being paid as Michelle Obama publicly makes a transition from her status as a private citizen with a white-collar job to possibly become America’s first black First Lady. Last year, Essence magazine listed her among “25 of the World’s Most Inspiring Women” while Ebony anointed the Obamas one of “America’s 10 Hottest couples.”While Obama reportedly makes doubly her husband’s income, she is still the primary caretaker of the couple’s two young daughters. Like her husband, Obama attended Harvard Law School, and according to insiders, she is crucial to her husband’s success. As a Chicago native, Mrs. Obama as been credited with introducing her husband to mainstream America. He is now the junior senator from Illinois.

Last week, Mrs. Obama made her first visit to New Hampshire, one of about a dozen solo campaign stops she has made. Since Barack Obama’s formal announcement in February, she has made 16 joint appearances with him.

“Barack has given people that hope, but he’s going to get tired. This is a long campaign,” Michelle Obama told Democrats gathered for a house party in Windham, New Hampshire. “I joke he’s not going to be able to bring people to tears with every speech that he makes. He’s going to make stumbles.”

She told those gathered of the sacrifices her parents made to put put her and her brother through Princeton University on a working class salary. She said that dream of supporting a family and putting children through college seems to be getting further away, even with loans.

Obama says she believes as president, her husband could change things for the better, and that if she didn’t believe that, she’d tell him to do something else.

Obama told the Washington Post that she grappled with her decision to work after the birth of her daughters.

“Every other month [since] I’ve had children I’ve struggled with the notion of ‘Am I being a good parent? Can I stay home? Should I stay home? How do I balance it all?'” she said. “I have gone back and forth every year about whether I should work.”

Obama does not fit into the neat definition of either stay-at-home or working mom. While she is a vivid example of a full-time executive mother who is supportive of her spouse, her decision to scale back in her job duties is ultimately very personal.

“I believe you should let women decide what they’re going to do, as long as they have all the options, they should do what they want,” Martha Leslie Allen, Web editor for Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press, told BlackAmericaWeb.com. “Part of the problem that pushes women out of most jobs is it is hard to have all the responsibilities of a career with children when there isn’t good child care, and it isn’t equally divided. And those responsibilities fall onto women.”

Lelyveld speculates the reason Obama’s decision is front-page news is “perhaps it’s because she’s a woman whose maintained her own career. I don’t know why that’s news, but people think it is.”

The more than 280 comments in the Post‘s “On Balance” blog late Monday reflected a variety of viewpoints on both Mrs. Obama’s decision and the media’s coverage of it.

“The day I read about the aspiring first husband quitting his job to support his aspiring president wife will be a great day,” opined a poster named Meesh. “I think the media report on this type of stuff because our country is very partisan, and news like this is potential fodder for either side. The media thrive on controversy. Issues like these evoke strong emotions, and people want to read about it.”

“I think it’s clear that in America, we’ve come to expect the two parent household, and women are clearly in the workforce,” according to Kari, who offered that “when you note that women’s work is still not valued as highly as men’s work in real dollars, and then take into account the backlash against strong working political figures like Hillary Clinton and the backlash against the strength the 41st First Lady Bush endured, you could see why Mrs. Obama made her decision … Being smart and funny and articulate is wonderful, if you’re a smart, funny, and articulate woman working to further her husband and family. Following your own ambitions comes at a political price.”

Another comment, from Common Sense, read, “Personally, I’d like Michelle Obama to be First Lady in 2008, but politics is pressure, even for political families. It’s no surprise that she has left her job. I’m certain she’ll be a benefit to her husband in the campaign. Even so, she will have a high profile, and I doubt this will damage her career. By the way, I don’t equate being outspoken with being ‘strong.’ A leader doesn’t simply give orders; a leader is defined by who will follow based on personality, character and principles. Hillary Clinton is not ‘strong’ by that measure. Hillary is a divider, not a uniter. I’m sick and tired of dividers. That’s reason enough to support Obama. I couldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton at gunpoint.”

Associated Press contributed to this story.