Wednesday, February 29, 2012

James Bradley paid the actual price of freedom

James reads and I consult my notes in Covington KY
It was $700.

The statue of James Bradley, honoring anti-slavery activity in Kentucky, is one of the several statues along the scenic Covington Kentucky Riverwalk portraying persons having a strong association with the Ohio River and its history.

In Bradley's autobiographical letter, he was about 3 years old “when the soul-destroyers tore me from my mother’s arms, somewhere in Africa, far back from the sea”.

Sometime around 1819, he was taken to a plantation in South Carolina where he was given his name James Bradley after the surname of the man who purchased him. He recalls being treated physically well there, however, later in his own words he wrote, "...from the time I was fourteen years old, I used to think a great deal about freedom. It was my heart’s desire; I could not keep it out of my mind. Many a sleepless night I have spent in tears, because I was a slave. I looked back on all I had suffered – and when I looked ahead, all was dark and hopeless bondage."
After many years he managed to earn $700, about $15,000 in today's money, by sacrificing precious sleep to do extra work on the plantation and finally bought his freedom in 1833. He headed for the closest free state which was Ohio and crossed the Ohio River near this statue.

Lane Seminary was in Cincinnati's Walnut Hills
In 1834, Bradley learned of Lane Seminary which was run by the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe who later raised US awareness of the plight of slaves in her 1852 book Uncle Tom's Cabin. Bradley was admitted to the school and was the only black person admitted to an American institution of higher learning before the Civil War. He participated in the highly publicized Lane Seminary Debates regarding the cruelty and immorality of slavery which helped shift students and many Americans toward that point of view.

Not much is known of James Bradley after he left the school. Nothing more is written about him. I hope he at least lived to see the day decades later when the end of the US Civil War finally began the process to free his people from, in his words, "the soul destroyers" and "hopeless bondage" of slavery.

The bronze statue to honor him was made and installed in 1988 by sculptor George Danhires as part of Cincinnati's bicentennial.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Piqua, Piqua, Will Rock You - The Mills Brothers!

Growing up and getting their start in Piqua OH in churches and other local venues in the late 1920's, The Mills Brothers, Herbert, Donald, Harry, and John Jr., were a popular jazz and pop vocal quartet for several decades. They created their unique vocal style of imitating musical instruments when one of the brothers forgot his harmonica and he was forced to improvise without it. Later, when they were on Brunswick Records the label boasted “No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other that one guitar”. I couldn't help but be reminded that 40 years later, the rock band Queen, also known for their unique vocal style, would make a similar brag of "no synthesizers were used on this record" because people mistook their multi-multi-tracked guitar sound to be synthesizers. (I make several more Queen references. If you enjoy that keep reading.)

Herbert, Donald, Harry, and John Jr. performed on Cincinnati's 5000 watt WLW radio which allowed them to reach audiences as far away as Chicago and New York City. The brothers were billed under various other names for these shows such as Four Boys and a Kazoo and the peculiar Tasty Yeast Jesters, which sounds like some modern Indie rock band but this name came from the sponsor of the show, Tasty Yeast.

After a broadcasting executive heard them in late 1930 on WLW, CBS Radio signed them to a three-year deal becoming the first African-Americans to have a network radio show. After this, they became national stars and their version of the jazz standard Tiger Rag went to #1 in 1931, which became the first recording by a vocal group to sell one million copies.
They followed up with a string of hit songs. In 1934, they became the first African-Americans to perform for British Royalty including the Queen (Mary, not the band). During the War Years, they continued churning out the hits and touring worldwide to great acclaim and delight.

Mills Brothers monument in Piqua
In 1943 The Mills Bros had their biggest song with Paper Doll going to #1 and selling 6 million copies. Not bad for a song that was recorded in 15 minutes. The group remained active up through the rock and roll era still topping the charts and appearing on popular TV variety shows such as Jack Benny, Perry Como, and the Tonight Show.

After four decades and 71 chart singles (Queen only had 18), The Mills Brothers disbanded after their final hit Cab Driver in 1968 which happened to be the same year Brian May met Roger Taylor forming the basis for the rock band Queen.

Over the years since, The Mills Brothers performed reunion shows with different members. The last original Mills Brother, Donald passed away in 1999 at the age of 84. The son of John Jr, John Mills III and Elmer Hopper of the Platters currently tour as a version of "The Mills Brothers" much in the same way Brian May and Roger Taylor still perform without Freddie Mercury or John Deacon as a version of "Queen".

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Segregated Soldiers in Hillcrest Cemetery

original crude hand-made gravemarker
Geocaching sometimes takes me to interesting and forgotten places that pique my curiosity after scratching the surface a bit. Hillcrest Cemetery, a Cincinnati OH cemetery on Sutton Road in Anderson Township is one of those places.
Its 14 acres were established as a resting place for the remains of African-American US veterans and members of their families. Most of these men served in the Civil War, the Plains Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, World War I & II, and Korea.

The bodies of nearly 1,000 African-American veterans rest in this ground and most fought for their country despite not having equal rights at home under the law. Upon returning from their sacrifices they were still met with segregation and racism. These men came to be here because Jim Crow laws even applied to burials in many places in the US prior to the 1960's. Cincinnati was no different. There are several other segregated cemeteries with African-American veterans in the area including United American Cemetery and Beech Grove Cemetery.

Sadly, over the years, Hillcrest's private ownership fell into dispute. With no one caring for the grounds, the cemetery became vandalized and run down. Erosion had even exposed some graves and vaults to the point where bones were visible and groundhogs had taken up residence. No one wanted to assume responsibility for its maintenance. In 2002, the Ohio National Guard with assistance and funds from private, local and state organizations helped with the restoration of the property and replaced or restored many missing headstones for these forgotten men and their families.

Buffalo Soldier
I am sure there are many forgotten stories to tell in this graveyard. Being an aficionado of local ties to Native American history, one marker, in particular, caught my eye on my 2nd visit here.

Pvt Nelson Morrow of the US 24th Infantry Regiment was one of the "Buffalo Soldier" units organized of black men to fight in one of the many hundreds of confrontations with Native Americans. The US Army dubbed them the "Indian Wars" which occurred west of the Mississippi from the Civil War up until 1898. The Cheyenne supposedly came up with the term Buffalo Soldier because the curly black hair reminded them of buffalo fur. The Lakota called them black wasichu which meant "black white person".
Here also rests an American paradox. Morrow is a young post Civil War "free" black man sent off by his country to kill or force another group of individuals into Indian reservations only to return home and live out his days in segregation even upon his death. Pvt Morrow probably felt he was doing the right thing to get his share of the American Dream and improve his own lot in life or perhaps he had no real choice in the matter, but nonetheless his story still represents the struggle of two ethnic groups of Americans that certainly didn't get their piece of the freedom pie as easily as others... or at all. At any rate, it is good to see that the men buried here have at long last been given some respect and recognition by the local community in the country they served.