Day 39: James Forten

James Forten (1766-1842) was born free in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the grandson of a slave who had freed himself. After his father died, James Forten started working at age seven to help out his mother and sister, first as a chimney sweep and then as a grocery-store clerk. He also attended the African School, run by Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet. By age nine, Forten left school to work full-time.  During the Revolutionary War, Forten served on the Royal Louis. The ship was captured by British forces and he was at risk of being enslaved. Captain John Beazley, who had taken the privateer, was impressed with Forten and secured his being treated as a regular prisoner of war.

james-fortenForten was fortunate to survive the prison conditions in England where thousands of prisoners died. After 7 months he was released on parole and his promise not to fight in the war. He was returned to Brooklyn and walked to Philadelphia to return to his mother and sister and later signed up on a merchant ship that sailed to England. He lived and worked for more than a year in a London shipyard.

When Forten returned to Philadelphia in 1786, he became apprenticed to sail-maker Robert Bridges, his father’s former employer and a family friend. He learned quickly in the sail loft, ultimately purchasing the business in 1798. By 1810 his was one of the most successful sail-making businesses in Philadelphia, employing black and white workers, and Forten one of its wealthiest citizens. Having become well established, Forten devoted both time and money to working for the national abolition of slavery and gaining civil rights for blacks.  He wrote pamphlets and publicly denounced bills that mistreated free blacks. As the resettlement movement grew, Forten supported the idea of establishing black-governed nations like Liberia and Haiti. However, he also felt that many American blacks should have equal rights to property in the US as they had been here for generations. He consistently said that it was far better for them to fight for an egalitarian US society rather than to flee the country.

Forten financially backed William Lloyd Garrison in starting up start up his newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831, in which he frequently published letters signed as “A Colored Man of Philadelphia.” According to his biographer Julie Winch, Forten was “one of the most powerful African-American voices, for many thousands more throughout the North. He knew how to use the press and the speaker’s podium. He knew about building alliances, when to back down and when to press forwards with his agenda.”

He died at the age of 75 in Philadelphia. Thousands of people, both black and white, attended his funeral. His children and grandchildren remained active in the abolitionist movement as leaders, activists and educators. His granddaughter, Charlotte Forten Grimké became a poet, diarist and educator. Her diary from teaching freedmen and their children in the South after the Civil War was republished in scholarly editions in the 1980s.

For today, reflect on these words of Forten: “It seems almost incredible that the advocates of liberty should conceive of the idea of selling a fellow creature to slavery.”

Day 29: Mary Bonauto

Mary Bonauto (b. 1961) is a lawyer and civil rights advocate who has been instrumental in eradicating discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and been called “our Thurgood Marshall” by retired congressman Barney Frank.  She was born into a Roman Catholic family in Newburgh, NY. After graduating law school, in 1987, she entered private practice in Maine where she was one of three openly gay private practice lawyers in the state.  She has taken on cases in such areas as public accommodations discrimination, relationship protections (including second parent rights), vindicating First Amendment protections, and challenging anti-gay harassment and violence. Her work has informed public policy in all six New England states.

Bonauto’s first marriage case was in Vermont in 1997 that led Vermont to become the Mary.Bonautofirst state to enact civil unions and extending benefits to same-sex couples in a “separate but equal” system. Then she was the lead attorney in the Goodridge v Department of Public Health case in Massachusetts that ruled in her favor, leading MA to be the first state to allow civil marriage for same-sex couples. After similar successes in Connecticut and Maine, she took the lead in the Obergefell v. Hodges case in front of the US Supreme Court that led to the ruling that state bans on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional.  She also won cases that led to overturning Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

Mary Bonauto continues to live in Portland, ME with her spouse, Jennifer Wriggins whom she married in MA. They have twin daughters. Bonauto has also received many accolades for the impact she made, including Yale University’s 2010-11 Brudner Prize. She has been on Boston Magazine’s “Most Powerful Women in Boston” list, and was included in the list of 31 LGB history icons in 2012.

In honor of and with great appreciation for her work, take a moment to reflect on her own words that remind us demonizing the ‘other’ is not the way to go:  “When you’re in a fight for your common humanity, you cannot discount the common humanity of others.”

Day 19: St. Hildegard of Bingen

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, mystic and visionary. She is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.  When she was a young girl (perhaps 8 years old) her parents offered her as an oblate to a Benedictine monastery where she was professed with an older woman who was also a visionary. From this they formed a community of women. Hildegard became the magistra of this community in 1136 after Jutta died. She was also asked to be a Prioress by Abbot Kuno of Disibodenberg, which would be under his authority. She wanted greater independence for herself and the order, so instead asked to be allowed to move the order – a move towards greater poverty.  She was declined her request, but went over Abbot Kuno’s head for approval with the Archbishop. Despite his approval, Abbot Kuno only relented after Hildegard suffered a paralyzing illness that she subsequently attributed to God’s unhappiness with His orders to move her nuns. The nuns thus moved to the St. Rupertsberg monastery in 1150; a second monastery was started in Eibingen in 1165.

HildegardofBingenHildegard’s lasting impact is in her writings about visionary theology, in her music, and in her scientific and medicinal writings that still influence holistic medicine. She also helped to advance the role of women in society. Her order expressed great reverence for the Virgin Mary and this was reflected in her music and, while she claimed that her compositions were in praise of God, assertions have been made between music and the female body in her musical compositions.  She stated “woman may be made from man, but no man can be made without a woman.”

Her music has regained attention and popularity over the last 40 years, including many recordings.

For today, here is a writing of St. Hildegard reminding us to care for the world:

Glance at the sun. See the moon and the stars.

Gaze at the beauty of earth’s greenings.

Now, think.

What delight God gives to humankind

with all these things. . . .

All nature is at the disposal of humankind.

We are to work with it. For

without we cannot survive.

As a bonus, here is a sampling of her compositions:

Day 16: Andrew Young

Andrew Young was born in segregated New Orleans LA in 1932. His parents were fairly well-off, financially, and Young recalled his parents’ efforts to compensate for segregation by providing for their children, yet at the same time being reluctant to help less wealthy black communities in the area.  Young went on to graduate from Howard University and get a divinity degree from Hartford (CT) Seminary. While serving as pastor at a church in Marion, GA, he was introduced to the Gandhian concept of non-violent resistance. He got involved in voter registration drives, often under the threat of violence. In 1957, he moved to NY with his wife, Jean Childs, and worked for National Council of Churches’ Youth Division, as well as hosting a weekly Sunday morning tv show designed to reach out to secular youth.AYoung

After his time in NY, Young moved to Georgia in 1961 to get more involved in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), becoming one of Martin Luther King’s principle lieutenants, serving as a strategist, negotiator, and, at times, fellow prisoner.  He was with King when King was assassinated. In 1972, Young was elected to congress, and served until 1977 when he was named UN Ambassador. Among his works in congress included legislation to establish the US Institute for Peace. His time at the UN was not without controversy, including issues we see to this day, including the entrenchment of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and the continuing struggle for Palestinian rights, the latter of which was called the “Andy Young Affair” and led to his resignation.

His post-UN career included two very successful terms as mayor of Atlanta in the 1980’s, and work with foundations, corporations and institutes (including The Andrew Young Foundation) to promote education, health, leadership and human rights in the US, Caribbean and Africa. A brief stint in 2006 as spokesman for Working Families for Wal-Mart remains controversial because of his assessment about wealth distribution, racist comments about Jews, Koreans and Arabs, and questions about how much Wal-Mart contributes to GoodWorks International that was founded by Young.  But it is over the long-course of his career and his works that one sees the common-thread of commitment to the deeper issues and complexity of actions needed that his impact is seen, as exemplified by these few statements:

“In a sane, civil, intelligent and moral society, you don’t blame poor people for being poor.”

“Nobody black had learned anything from the ‘Letter from the Birmingham Jail’ or from the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. That was a revelation of white people.” 

“Surely, if we can land a spaceship on Mars, we can certainly put a voter ID card in the hand of every eligible voter.”

Day 10: Prince Ea

Prince Ea is a poet, activist, speaker, director, and content creator who has touched the hearts, minds and souls of millions of people worldwide. He was born as Richard Williams in 1988 in St. Louis and took the stage name Prince EA when he graduated from the University of Missouri-St. Louis with a degree in Anthropology and Latin honors. “Prince Ea” comes from Sumerian mythology meaning “Prince of the Earth”. In 2008, he released the mixtape “the Adolescence” as a free download. A few days later, he recorded an Prince Eaamateur rap video that won a VIBE Verses award giving him $5000 in music equipment and a full-page article in VIBE Magazine. He proceeded to win other competitions and awards. In 2009, upset by the state of the music industry, Prince Ea, started a movement named “Make ‘SMART’ Cool” (SMART is an acronym for “Sophisticating Minds And Revolutionizing Thought”). This movement attempts to “promote intelligence to everyone, everywhere and integrate it with hip-hop. To create and nurture, without discrimination or preference, a community of free-thinking individuals under the singular purpose of promoting the ideals of education, intelligence, unity and creativity throughout the world at large.”  A successful underground clothing line with increasing support from artists has been developed as well.  By creating positive, inspirational and thought provoking content, Prince has accumulated over 300 million views on the Facebook and YouTube platforms alone.

Today, Prince Ea consistently speaks at conferences and gives lectures to high school/university students nationwide, on the topics of self-development, education, living your passion and the importance of being motivated and engaged in the classroom. He has continued to produce music and perform in major venues. By creating positive, inspirational and thought provoking content, Prince has accumulated over 300 million views on the Facebook and YouTube platforms alone. His productions promote awareness and call for change on everything from race relations to protecting the environment (such as with this video).

Prince’s primary mission is to allow the grace of God/Universe to work through him creating content that spreads awareness, excites, entertains and ultimately galvanizes listeners/viewers to recognize the power, peace and equanimity within themselves. He believes that the only way to change the world is to change the individual.

For today, reflect on these words: “Where there is division, there is conflict and conflict starts wars; therefore, every war starts with labels…but deep down inside, we were meant to connect.”

And, if you have time, watch this Prince Ea production from which these words come: “I am NOT Black, You are NOT White.”

Day 4: Coretta Scott King

Coretta Scott King (1927-2006) was born in her parents home in Marion, AL, with her paternal great-grandmother Delia Scott, a former slave, presiding as midwife. Her mother, Bernice, had a 4th grade education, worked as a school bus driver, church pianist and for her husband. She was also a member of the local Literacy Federated Club. Obie, Coretta’s father, was the first black person in their neighborhood to own a truck. He also ran a barber shop, a general store, and a lumber mill. The latter was burned down by white neighbors after he refused to sell his mill to a white male logger. Among Coretta’s ancestors were people of Irish and Native American ancestry, including a maternal grandfather, Martin Van Buren McMurry, born to a Black Native American mother and her white master. Martin’s father never acknowledged Martin as his some and, despite being able to pass for white, Martin detested the notion of “passing”. Martin is noted for having inspired Coretta’s passion for education.

Coretta King

Coretta first attended Antioch college as part of its Interracial Education. Her older sister, Edythe, was the first African American to attend Antioch in this program. Coretta said “Pioneering is never easy” as she credited her sister for making her own time at Antioch (where she studied music) easier. It was also here that she became politically active, due largely to her experience of racial discrimination with the local school board.

She transferred from Antioch to the New England Conservatory of Music on a scholarship. It was here that she met and married Martin Luther King, and their participation in the struggle for African-American equality escalated until they became central to the movement. After Martin’s assassination in 1968, she approached singer Josephine Baker to take over the leadership of the movement. Baker, citing concern that, with her 13 adopted children, said she could not risk her life at that time, so Coretta assumed the leadership. She quickly expanded that work to include involvement in the Women’s Movement, the LGBT rights movement, and anti-war movements that continued until her death. She was  instrumental in getting Martin Luther King Day recognized as a Federal Holiday, founded the King Center, and was the 2004 recipient of the Gandhi Peace Prize.

Despite having experienced the brunt of racism’s worst – burning of her father’s business, home assaults, assassination of her husband – she remained a steadfast inspiration for peace and love.  In her own words: “Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than the hated.