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Returning the Bones
IN THEIR BONES
Dramaturgy by Sally Ollove
The ART/MXAT Institute at Harvard University
Bebe's family history is a reflection of America, with a legacy
stretching back to before the founding of the United States.
Bebe’s grandmother Sarah (pictured) had been enslaved on
a South Carolina plantation and could vividly recall how
American life changed after the enactment of the
Emancipation Proclamation. Through Sarah, slavery was in
the living memory of Bebe’s family as they made their way
in Texas through the Great Depression, WWII, and throughout the Jim Crow era. Bebe's other grandmother was a Cherokee medicine woman who continued to treat patients until her dying day. Bebe would carry memories of her both her grandmothers during her work as an Civil Rights activist.
“YOU MAY NOT SEE the change you want happen in your lifetime,
but change will come.”
Though Bebe would eventually settle in Cleveland, the story of her youth, and her family, is intricately bound with the story of African Americans in Texas. As her obituary read: “Like a true Texan, she wore cowboy boots, churned butter, rode horses, and raised chickens.” While the African American experience in Texas had many parallels to the experiences of those elsewhere in the South, Texas’s fiercely independent cowboy culture and entry into the United States made it unique. The majority of the first African Americans in Texas entered as slaves in the middle of the 19th
century. After the annexation of Texas by the United States, enslavement took off rapidly. Where there were only 13,000 slaves in Texas in 1840, by 1860 there were 169,000, 30% of the population of the state. Slavery in Texas looked similar to slavery in the eastern southern states as Sarah would have known it: brutal lives for slaves and harsh slave codes that allowed
slave owners to discipline mostly how they saw fit.
One such law capped the number of lashes a slave could receive for a minor infraction at 39. Texas’s proximity to Mexico meant that rather than try to escape North, slaves would attempt to reach the Southern border. Like Canada, but unlike the northern free states, Mexico refused to return escaped slaves, declaring these refugees free as soon as their feet touched Mexican soil.
"It's getting EVEN MORE DANGEROUS for us here now than it used to be, I'll have you know"
Sarah would have been in her mid-twenties on Juneteenth, the day Union General Gordon Granger took over Texas and ordered the Emancipation Proclamation to be observed, though many former slaves had to fight for months to get Texas landowners to acknowledge the new law. After Juneteenth, Texas civil rights went back and forth as different majorities claimed the state legislature. Most legislatures did their best to limit newfound freedoms, but there were a few periods of advancement. They were able to strike down laws meant to force African Americans back into agricultural servitude and slowly shifting from an economy based in slavery to one based on free
labor by the late 19th century.
However, these brief windows of hope were quickly crushed by laws meant to suppress black voters -- both a poll tax and primaries in which only whites were allowed to vote. These legal efforts were coupled with illegal acts of terror against black citizens that went unpunished by law enforcement: from 1865-68 over 1500 acts of violence against African Americans were reported across the state, with countless more going unreported. 352 black Texans were lynched between 1882 and 1968.
“Daddy wanted to work in the white hospital and couldn’t… thought that wasn’t right, SO HE BUILT HIS OWN.”
Many African Americans fled the state during the early twentieth century, but among those who stayed were the citizens of freedmen towns: communities founded and built by former slaves which were away from white supervision. One such community existed in the north part of Bryan, Texas, where Bebe’s family lived on a farm-like compound. Like the shtetls of Eastern Europe, freedmen communities were largely self-sustaining and sought minimal contact with those in power. White people rarely entered them. These communities were more commonplace in Texas than anywhere else in the country. Though they began to decline in the 1930s due to the Great Depression and the pull of opportunities in the North, their legacy lingered in robust black-owned businesses such as newspapers, schools, colleges, grocery stores, funeral homes,and even medical practices, which catered to African American clientele. Bebe’s father’s medical practice was one such business.
“When you simply FOLLOW YOUR HEART, what others call bravery becomes a matter of course."
1936, an important year for 11 year old Bebe personally, was also a momentous year for African Americans in Texas, due to the year-long celebration of the Texas Centennial. African American achievements were celebrated throughout the state and October 19th was declared Negro Day, which brought together African Americans from across the state, who used the opportunity to organize and strategize to end segregation and discrimination. From this watershed moment, three organizations emerged: the Texas State Conference of Branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Texas State Negro Chamber of Commerce, and the Texas Negro Peace Officers Association. The three began a systematic campaign of legal challenges to the segregation laws that lingered from Reconstruction. Two of the major civil rights victories came from these Texas challenges: Smith v. Allwright which made white primaries illegal and Sweatt v. Painter which helped African Americans gain access to graduate and professional schools and lay the groundwork for Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas. Bebe’s family was active in these efforts, and what she learned would color her later work as a psychiatrist. These civil rights achievements were made under the shadow of violence and intimidation.
Segregation was still the law and racial tensions were high when Bebe went to college at Howard University in 1941, spurred by new economic opportunities created by WWII manufacturing in the state. The onset of WWII brought an influx of population to the city of Beaumont, TX, 150 miles east of Bryan, forcing integration due to housing shortages and straining the city’s food supply.
In 1943 a white woman claimed to have been raped by a black man, sparking a riot, the effects of which were felt around Texas. Around 3,000 angry white citizens stormed City Hall. Leaderless and disorganized, when the woman couldn’t identify her rapist, the crowd’s anger boiled over and they rioted, destroying black owned businesses and terrifying black neighborhoods. Eventually the city was placed under martial law until the violence was quelled. Two black men and one white man were killed in the riots and over 100 black-owned homes were burned, leaving the inhabitants homeless. The riots spurred some in renewed dedication to fighting injustice and others to retreat, intimidated by the large scale of the violence. It’s not hard to understand why even with Bebe’s strong ties to Texas, she might consider a future elsewhere.
“To them, AN AMERICAN is all I am.”
Understandable, then, why Europe held such appeal for African Americans seeking a different kind of life. Though they occasionally made their way to Paris in the 19th century, the first major influx of African American expats came at the end of World War One when some soldiers, having received hospitable treatment from the French, decided not to return home where they couldn’t be sure they would be welcomed home with open arms. In fact, they were right to be suspicious. While returning African American soldiers were greeted in some places as heroes, others were targeted for violence, especially in the South, as an effort to put them back in their place. Understandably, some chose not to even try and made homes and lives for themselves in Europe. Post-war Paris became an epicenter for African American culture abroad. Jazz fever swept France, bringing with it a new appreciation for Americans generally and African Americans specifically. Musicians, writers, and visual artists all made their way across the ocean for opportunities denied them at home. All of them remarked on how welcome they seemed in France, which didn’t have any of the intense racial consciousness of America: “They had a freedom you didn’t get [in America]. Over there you didn’t have to hide away,” remembered jazz musician Elliot Carpenter. These expats included dancer Josephine Baker, who became a European sensation, cabaret owner Ada Bricktop Smith whose nightclub Bricktop’s was the gathering place for American expats including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein among others, and poet Langston Hughes, who washed dishes in Montmartre cabarets while honing his writer’s voice.
Most of this expat community left during the war and the Occupation and did not return. Instead, the cycle repeated itself: African American soldiers, overcome by the hospitality of the French,who often favored African American soldiers over their white counterparts, elected to stay in Europe rather than face second class citizenship at home. Unlike their predecessors, who came for artistic opportunities and discovered treatment as equals, these expats settled in Paris because they were treated as equals, and found their callings after settling there. Many of these expats were sharply critical of the United States’ treatment of their fellow minorities, including Richard Wright and James Baldwin, two of the most prominent post-war black expats.White America was well aware of how the French perceived their policies. “For God’s sake, don’t let these foreigners turn you into a brick to hurl through our window!” Wright was told while attending a 1946 party at the American Embassy. Meanwhile, expat after expat marveled at how easy it was to walk down Parisian streets, date who they wanted, eat where they wanted, with no concerns about segregation or fears of racial reprisal:
“I met a lot of people in Paris,”said Baldwin, “I even encountered myself.” One can understand how tempting it must have been to African American visitors like Bebe to stay.
Bebe’s Texas childhood and European adventure stayed with her throughout her career as a doctor, as she broke barriers for herself. They stuck with her when she returned to Europe with her husband, a surgeon, and encountered Germans eager to tell her that they were not Nazis while trying to get her to sponsor their immigration to the United States. They stuck with her when she co-authored a paper on the effects of segregation on the psyches of children. They stuck with her when she pursued psychiatry at Yale and when she returned to Bryan to help out her father’s practice during summers. They stuck with her when she used her psychiatry skills to train activists to withstand psychological abuse when sitting at ‘Whites Only’ lunch counters in protest. They stuck with her when she treated white patients and patients of color who had never been treated by a black doctor before. And they stuck with Gin Hammond, who knew in her bones that her aunt’s story needed to be told.
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