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‘Singing our Praises’ brings neglected historical events to light

The Appalachian Online

A forum was held Wednesday evening to highlight heroes that have been misrepresented or forgotten in history and to encourage students to look further into important historical events that can often be traced back to suppressed leaders.

The event, titled Singing our Praises, was hosted by Appalachian State University’s Social Justice Educators, the Rho Theta Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated and the Omicron Kappa Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated.

The forum included discussion on Black Wall Street, the Harlem Renaissance, the Warren County [Polychlorinated Biphenyl] Landfill and SisterSong. Mariah Webber, senior psychology major, said most people are unaware of these events due to scarce research and information.

Webber said Black Wall Street, also referred to as Little Africa, was an area in Tulsa, Oklahoma during the late 1800s through the 1920s and home to the most oblivious riot to date.

Black Wall Street was a large and prosperous business hub with 600 businesses, 21 churches, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores, two movie theaters, six private airplanes, one hospital, one bank and it had its own school system, Webber said.

“The average dollar would circulate between 28 to 56 times before it would leave the community and that was very rare for a community,” Webber said. “It was black people supporting black businesses in a predominantly black area.”

From May 31 to June 1, 1921, riots arose against Dick Rowland, a young black man working as a shoe shiner, who was allegedly accused of raping a white woman co-worker in an elevator. Due to lack of research, there is speculation as to what actually occurred.

In the end, rioters got ahold of Rowland, murdered him and concluded with the complete destruction of Black Wall Street. The incident left over 300 African Americans dead and 9,000 homeless.

Webber said more research needs to be done on the incident and that the limited availability of research didn’t provide as much depth as she hoped for.

“So, having this program serves to get the ideas fostering so we can begin thinking about incidents in black history for next year without coming up with the traditional Rosa Parks and [Martin Luther King Jr.],” she said. “These are the types of things that people need to know and be raising awareness about.”

Mary Lyons, senior art education major, said it is very interesting and frustrating that the incident of Black Wall Street and the Harlem Renaissance were both occurring at the same time period as the roaring 20s, a time that many people refer to as a time that everything was supposed to be pretty.

“[The Roaring 20s] is one of the homecoming themes and I’m going to vote on it, because it’s one of the few places where we can actually talk about black history and we can actually shed some light that [African Americans] existed even when you just want to see white people and reflect on how it was so pretty and a great time of female liberation,” Lyons said.

Aaron Douglas was an artist during the Harlem Renaissance that portrayed the common sentiment at the time that enlightenment, education and intellectual investigation was the way out of slavery. He is uncommonly noted or heard about.

“The divide is so constantly reinforced that black history is not American history and [Douglas] really reflected on that,” Lyons said.

Douglas captures and represents African American figures in empowered, strong and dignified poses, despite being subjugated and denied in their own lives, which Lyons clings to sometimes, especially being a student at Appalachian and often being unappreciated.

Spoken word poetry in its current form also began from the Harlem Renaissance and is a precursor to hip-hop. Lyons said it’s a beautiful way to draw attention to current conditions in a way that people can understand and relate to.

A poem written by Danez Smith helped Lyons deal and validate the mixed emotions that she felt in a way that dominant culture does not after the non-indictment on the Ferguson case this past year.

“Part of the idea of this event was to embrace history that culture isn’t going to tell us about if we don’t remember and celebrate,” Lyons said. “I think [art] is an awesome way to investigate different things like our culture and social justice and it’s a great way to raise attention to issues that we’re dealing with, because so many things can be swept under the rug if we let them.”

Julia Grainger, junior women’s studies major, then presented on the Warren County PCB Landfill that occurred in North Carolina in 1982. PCB is a toxic chemical belonging to a broad family of man-made organic chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I’m really passionate about this moment in history, because people don’t hear about it, people aren’t taught about it, but it’s one of the first cases of environmental justice and even today we talk about it as if it was a white movement when it wasn’t,” Grainger said.

Grainger said the chemical was illegally dumped, creating a toxic waste landfill that stretched up to 14 miles, in a county that to this date continues to be a majority nonwhite community, thus showcasing environmental racism.

Protests were led by Benjamin F. Chavis, executive director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice at the time in 1982, and although over 500 people were arrested, a majority being black women and men, the government still failed to bring justice.

The government failed to bring justice even after recognizing their fault in the incident, because once it’s a state issue it causes national attention and increases the chance of being blamed for the incident, said Tyson Fernandez, junior criminal justice major.

The forum concluded with a presented from Rachel Clay, senior women’s studies major, on SisterSong and the Fight for Reproductive Justice, which was a fight against white supremacy and patriarchy.

Clay explained that white women endure forced reproduction to increase the white population, while black women endure forced sterilization to reduce the black population. Reproductive rights is one of the most instrumental and comprehensive movement that has ever involved women of color, she said.

In North Carolina, it is illegal to have a planned home birth and midwives of color have been instrumental in the fight for reproductive justice, because there is a lot of racism surrounding a majority in arrests of midwives of color and white midwives.

“Think about going into your own travels, research, majors and the things that you’re learning about,” Grainger said. “Think about it from a different perspective and try and find the true starting point of it and realize that it’s never really white people that started [a movement].”

STORY: Chamian Cruz, News Reporter

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