“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” Sheds Light on a Little-Known Piece of Black History

By Terrance Turner

Feb. 28, 2021

Tonight, singer Andra Day won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her portrayal of jazz singer Billie Holiday in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”. The Hulu film, directed by Lee Daniels, dramatizes how Holiday was hounded by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for her landmark song “Strange Fruit”.

The song, based on a poem by writer Abel Meeropol, depicts the widespread practice of lynching; the hanging of Black people was a common practice in the American South between the 1860s and 1960s. It was an unflinching description of the brutality that Black people often experienced: “The poem was inspired by a photograph of the lynching of two young black men in Indiana,” writes Guardian journalist Edwin Moore. “Copies of such photographs were very popular in the American South, and the images can be easily found on the web […] In many cases, the hanged victims are surrounded by smiling white people waving at the camera. They sometimes have their children with them. The horrible truth is that in parts of the South in the early 20th century, the hanging of black people in public was a family occasion; lynching was part of the social fabric.” It was that practice outlined in the lyrics of the song:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Meeropol wrote the poem in 1937, around the same time that a Senate bill meant to end lynching in the U.S. failed to pass. Meeropol brought the poem to Cafe Society, a club in New York City’s Greenwich Village. It had already been set to music, but it was Holiday’s version that would linger in the minds of listeners. Meeropol called her version “a startling, most dramatic, and effective interpretation.” Daniels depicts Day singing “Strange Fruit” in close-up, with lines about “a fruit for the crows to pluck / For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck / For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop / Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

The song became controversial; many club owners later refused to let her perform the song. But Holiday refused to back down. “‘Fruit’ goes a long way in telling how they mistreat Negroes down South,” she once said. The film depicts the tension between her husband James Monroe, manager Joe Glazer, and Holiday over the song. In one scene, Glazer decides to remove the song from Holiday’s setlist. “I’ve scratched it,” he tells her bluntly. Holiday protests that she should be allowed to sing the song: “It’s important to me.” Besides, “People pay good money to hear me sing it.” (Indeed, her 1939 recording of the song sold over a million copies, becoming one of her best-known songs.)

Glazer retorts that it’s written by Abel Meeropol, “a commie”. “I don’t care,” Holiday responds. She accuses both Glazer and Monroe of being friends with Harry Anslinger (the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics). Anslinger decides to prosecute Holiday for the song. In a closed-door meeting with lawmakers, he insists that “this Holiday woman’s got to be stopped. She keeps singing this ‘Strange Fruit’ song, and it’s causing a lot of people to think the wrong things.”

“Why is this so important to you, Harry?” asks one man. (Anslinger might’ve responded that after the failure of Prohibition, his department was soon becoming obsolete. Instead, he uses Holiday’s drug problem (and racism) as justification: “Drugs and niggers are a contamination to our great American civilization.”

It is that basis on which the federal government begins harassing Holiday. On May 16, 1947, Holiday was arrested for possession of narcotics in her New York apartment. On May 27 she was in court. “It was called ‘The United States of America versus Billie Holiday’. And that’s just the way it felt,” she recalled. She was sentenced to 366 days in jail — one year and one day. Forced to go cold turkey in jail, she eventually lost her cabaret card, which forced her to perform in concert venues and large halls. It was one more indignity in Holiday’s existence, which was marked by sexual abuse, domestic violence, and a heroin addiction that ruined her voice and her life. She was arrested and handcuffed to her hospital bed shortly before her death from cirrhosis in 1959, aged just 44.

Tonight, Andra Day won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her uncanny portrayal of Holiday. The last Black woman to win in this category was Whoopi Goldberg in 1986. (She won for her wrenching performance as Celie in “The Color Purple”.)

Black History Month

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

By Terrance Turner

Feb. 1, 2021

Today is the first day of Black History Month. It is also the 150th anniversary of a historic day in Black History. On February 1, 1871, Jefferson Franklin Long became the first Black congressman to speak before the House of Representatives.

According to the House of Representatives’ archives, Jefferson Long was born to a slave mother on March 3, 1836, in Knoxville, a small town in west–central Georgia. (Long’s father was believed to have been the son of a local white man.) “Defying the law, Long learned to read and write. Trained as a tailor, he opened a successful business in Macon, Georgia, after his emancipation following the end of the Civil War.”

Shortly after the war, Long married Lucinda Carhart, and they raised seven children. One of Long’s sons later helped run his business. (Significantly, most of Long’s clients were white — they were often the only ones able to afford custom-made clothing.)

Long’s tailor shop catered to politically connected clients and provided him the resources to become involved in Republican politics. Starting in 1866, Long began promoting literacy among African Americans, encouraging them to learn to read and write just as he had done. In 1869, he served on the Republican state committee and was a leader in the Georgia Labor Convention, which organized black agricultural workers to demand better wages, better jobs, and better working conditions.

The Georgia Republican Party nominated Long for a seat on the 41st Congress (1869-1871). According to Congress.gov, Long was selected to fill the vacancy caused by the House declaring Samuel F. Gove not entitled to the seat. (The state of Georgia was not re-admitted to the Union until 1870 because it refused to ratify the 14th Amendment. Some Congress members were expelled in the interim.)

Long won a special election for the seat on Dec. 12, 1870. But he wasn’t sworn in until a month later due to complications in Georgia’s re-entry into the Union. Still, he made history. Long was the first Black man to represent Georgia in Congress. According to the book Black Firsts, Long was the second Black man elected to Congress, the first (and only) one from Georgia elected during Reconstruction. (John Willis Menard was the first Black man elected to Congress, but he was never seated. An elections committee ruled that it was too early to admit a black man to Congress. He did, however, become the first Black man to address the House.) Long served from January to March 1871.

On February 1, 1871, Jefferson Franklin Long became the first black congressman to speak on the House floor. He spoke out against the Amnesty Bill, which would allow former Confederate politicians to return to Congress. According to the House Archives, the bill would exempt them from swearing allegiance to the Constitution.

Long pointed out that many of the Confederates were members of the Ku Klux Klan. “If this House removes the disabilities of disloyal men,” Long warned, “I venture to prophesy you will again have trouble from the very same men who gave you trouble before.” Long’s words fell on deaf ears. The bill passed anyway. But Long’s words were reported far and wide in major newspapers.

Long left Congress when his term expired on March 3, 1871. (Georgia didn’t elect another Black congressman until Andrew Young in 1972!) Long returned to his tailoring business and served as a delegate to the Republican National Conventions from 1872 to 1880. Long left politics altogether in the 1880s, per the Archives. He remained self-employed until his death in Georgia on Feb. 4, 1901.

Meeting Michael Vick (Kind Of)

By Terrance Turner

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Promotional poster for the Empowerment Tour. Courtesy of Vick’s Facebook page.

Earlier today, former NFL quarterback and Fox Sports analyst Michael Vick came to THE Texas Southern University as part of his Empowerment Tour. The speaking tour has brought Vick to several notable HBCUs, including Alcorn State and Florida A&M University. This afternoon, inside TSU’s College of Education Building, Vick spoke openly about his career, retirement, and current endeavors. He talked candidly about his failures, his successes, and the lessons he learned from both.

Vick made history in 2001 as the first black quarterback to be drafted No. 1 overall. The Atlanta Falcons drafted Vick after a stellar collegiate career with Virginia Tech, where he led the Hokies to an undefeated season and the Sugar Bowl championship game. Despite his success, everything wasn’t all roses for Vick and his family: “My family was still back home, living in the projects. I walked around as the best player in the country, but I had no money sometimes,” he revealed. “But I was happy on the inside, with what I’d accomplished.”

What he’d accomplish with the Falcons would be even more impressive. During the 2002 season, Vick broke records for passing yards and completions. He also set an NFL record for the most rushing yards in a game by a quarterback (173) in December 2002. He was named to the Pro Bowl that year — the first of four Pro Bowl spots he’d earn during his career.

Vick opened up about the pressure he felt during this time: “It was like the minute I got drafted, the pressure was not to be a bust. ‘Cause you only get three years in the league, on any contract — whether you’re a first-round pick or a second-round pick. You know, it’s always constantly about improving and getting better.” But he had other concerns — his friends, his entourage, his cash flow. “I put a lot of pressure on myself,” he admitted.

That pressure was augmented by media scrutiny, especially after news broke in 2007 about a dogfighting ring involving Vick. The resulting investigation and media coverage tarnished Vick’s image, cost him millions, forced him to file for bankruptcy, and landed him two years in prison. After serving his sentence, however, Vick was reinstated. He joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009. In the 2010 season, Vick shined. He led the Eagles to the playoffs and helped them win the NFC East title. Vick continued to play, with varying degrees of success, until his 2017 retirement. Vick is now a Fox Sports NFL analyst and public speaker. He touched on all of this during his appearance at TSU, answering audience questions about his fall from grace, eventual comeback, and life post-retirement.

Afterwards, admirers lined up near a merchandise table for an autograph session and photo op with Vick. Predictably, the lines were lengthy and disjointed. I got to the front after roughly 20 minutes, only to learn that you couldn’t take a picture unless you’d bought merchandise. So I bought a $20 T-shirt and went to the back of the line.

“Have all of your phones out and on camera,” the police told us, over and over again. I complied, and once I finally got back to the front, I made sure my newly purchased shirt was visible. I approached Mr. Vick, shook his hand, and handed my phone to one of his handlers, so he could take our picture.

Big mistake.

I promise I was more excited than this.

This is what happens when you participate in a rushed photo op and trust other people with your phone.

For the record, Vick himself was great — relaxed and approachable, he posed for endless photos and signed God knows how many T-shirts. (The guy in front of me wanted Vick to sign his leg so he could get it tatted. Not sure how that went.) I thanked Vick for visiting our HBCU, stating that his appearance would mean a lot to the high school/college kids there.

“I appreciate that,” I remember him saying as he gamely signed my T-shirt.

And in a flash, it was over. Just like this post. Check back later for more from today’s revealing chat with Michael Vick.

Remembering Katherine Johnson

By Terrance Turner

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Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley Research Center in Virginia. Photo courtesy of NASA.

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose work made American space travel possible, died Tuesday at the age of 101. Johnson broke both racial and gender barriers over the course of her career. But she also made game-changing calculations that helped the U.S. achieve President Kennedy’s promise of landing a man on the moon. Only belatedly did she earn the credit and praise that she deserved.

She was born Creola Katherine Coleman on August 26, 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She was the youngest of four children. She had an early interest in math: “I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did,” NASA quoted her as saying. “I couldn’t wait to get to high school to take algebra and geometry,” Mrs. Johnson told The Associated Press in 1999. But according to the New York Times, her hometown’s segregated school system only allowed black children to go up to the sixth grade. So every fall, her father moved the family 125 miles away to Institute, West Virginia. There, Katherine and her siblings attended the West Virginia Collegiate Institute, which is now West Virginia State University, per the Times.

Katherine began high school at 10 (!) and graduated at age 14. Then she entered West Virginia State, where she took every available math class available by her junior year. She graduated summa cum laude in 1937 with a double major in mathematics and French. She then took a job as a teacher. But she left that job when she (and two men) became the first black students to integrate West Virginia University in 1940.

By this point, Katherine had married James Francis Goble, a chemistry teacher. The new Mrs. Goble left the university when she realized she was pregnant with her first child. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, banning discrimination in the defense industry. In 1943, the Langley laboratory — established by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA — began advertising for black women trained in mathematics.

For most of the 1940s, Mrs. Goble served as a stay-at-home mother to her three daughters. She later returned to teaching. But in 1952, she heard that Langley was looking for black female mathematicians. She applied for the job and was eventually hired. She joined the West Area Computing Unit, to which black women were regulated. That branch was run by fellow mathematician Dorothy Vaughan.

Before electronic computers, Johnson was one of several black female mathematicians — or, as she memorably put it, “computers who wore skirts”. The facility was initially segregated by race and gender, but by the time she joined, the kitchens had already been integrated. Bathrooms were still segregated, but white ones were unmarked. Mrs. Goble unwittingly integrated those bathrooms by using them before she knew they were for whites, according to the Times. No one reprimanded her, and she continued.

She joined NACA in June 1953. Two weeks into her tenure, the Flight Research Division asked to borrow Goble. She helped calculate aerodynamics of airplanes. But according to NASA’s website, Mrs. Goble also analyzed data flight tests and investigated a plane crash. While she was finishing this work, her husband died of brain cancer in December 1956.

The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 launched a competition between America and Russia to explore space. The next year, NACA became NASA and essentially desegregated. Katherine became part of the “Space Task Group”, taksed with getting NASA into space. The next year, she married US. Army Captain James A. Johnson. They would remain married until his death in 2019.

So it was as Katherine Johnson that she co-authored a 1960 report “Determination of Azimuth Angle at Burnout,” which describes the complex equations needed for orbital spaceflight. Mrs. Johnson became the first woman in the NASA flight division credited as author on a research report. Some of her calculations are shown below.

Her responsibilities came to revolve around flight trajectory — the path of a flying projectile, such as a rocket. In her autobiography, Reaching for the Moon, Johnson recalled: “I knew from my college studies that the rocket’s trajectory into space would be in the shape of a parabola, a plane curve that is identical on both sides and shaped roughly like the letter U. (In this case, our parabola would look like a upside-down U.) The fact that both sides are identical made it fairly easy for me to predict where the capsule would be at any particular point in time. To retrieve the astronaut safely, we had to make sure that we understood the exact place and time that space capsule would touch down.”

“For an orbiting object to land at a specific location on Earth at a specific time, it has to be navigated to a precise point in outer space. That point, called azimuth, is where the process of bringing the spacecraft down to the landing point would begin,” she explained. Johnson went on to explain that the 1960 report “determined the azimuth angle — the angle of the capsule’s velocity — at the precise moment when the astronaut flying the capsule would turn its rockets off. At that point, the force of gravity would take over and the capsule would free-fall down to the landing point.”

Research mathematician Katherine Johnson at her desk at NASA Langley Research Center with a globe, or “Celestial Training Device,” in 1962. (NASA)
Katherine Johnson at her desk in 1962. The “calculator” she used is to the left. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

In 1961, Johnson calculated the trajectory for the flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. According to Forbes, Johnson did the calculations entirely by hand. It was her calculations that helped recovery crews find Shepard when his capsule landed in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1962, Johnson verified the trajectory for John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth. Those calculations were done by an IBM computer, but Glenn didn’t trust them. Glenn asked that Johnson to double-check the numbers on her desktop calculator: “If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go.” Johnson re-calculated everything by hand: the numbers matched, and the mission was successful.

In 1969, Johnson calculated the trajectory for Apollo 11, the historic moon landing. Her math helped coordinate the lunar module and command module in orbit. And in 1970, it was her calculations that saved the Apollo 13 crew. According to NASA, “oxygen tank No. 2 blew up, causing the No. 1 tank to also fail. The command module’s normal supply of electricity, light and water was lost, and they were about 200,000 miles from Earth.” 210,000 miles, to be exact. To survive, the crew had to get in the lunar module, using it as a “lifeboat” to save what was left of the command module’s oxygen supply. From there, they had to make a loop around the Moon to put themselves back on track to return to Earth.

Johnson was prepared for that. Forbes recalls: “Every time Johnson worked on a space mission, she calculated backup trajectories, which would get the crew home if an emergency disrupted the original flight plan. She also devised backup navigation charts; if a spacecraft’s electronic navigation systems failed, astronauts could manually take sightings of a single star to find their way home again. The Apollo 13 crew used Johnson’s charts and backup trajectories to get home.”

Johnson contributed to the Space Shuttle program, which began in 1972 and eventually launched the Columbia in 1981. After 33 years at Langley, she retired in 1986. But she remained active, playing bridge and spending time with family and friends. According to the Daily Press, Johnson kept occupied even into her nineties: “Johnson continued to live on the Peninsula and remain active, singing in the choir at Carver Memorial Presbyterian Church. She was learning to speak Spanish at age 98 and still playing bridge at 99.”

In 2015, President Barack Obama honored Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The next year, author Margot Lee Shetterly detailed the stories of Johnson and other female “computers” in her book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. The book was made into a film, where Johnson was played by actress Taraji P. Henson. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (the highest-grossing nominated film). And when Johnson appeared with the film’s stars at the Oscars, she received a standing ovation.

Johnson is survived by two of her daughters, six grandchildren, and many more great-grandchildren. Of course, the work that she did — and the history-altering missions to which she contributed — will live on forever.