Column: Barack Obama and the Long, Winding Road of Race

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday March 23, 2007

Some weeks ago, in a previous column, I promised to continue our discussion of U.S. Senator Barack Obama and race. And so we move forward, but on a roundabout road, because race in America does not follow a straightforward path. 

We begin with the story of Rosa Parks On The Bus, which you cannot go through Black History Month without hearing some reference to. It is actually a pleasing tale as it is now told, a fable, almost, with a courageous heroine, villains who are not too villainous—neither the bus driver nor the arresting police officers, after all, did Ms. Parks any physical harm—dignified protest in which thousands of Black Montgomery residents choose to walk instead of riding the bus, and a happy ending in which segregated bus seating is ended. 

But if you wish to understand the mind of African-Americans and what makes us continue to be so strangely frightening to much of the rest of the country even down to this day, you have to go back to an earlier, all-but-forgotten story about another Black woman on public transit, Araminta Davis. 

In the summer of 1865, just after the end of the Civil War, Ms. Davis—who, coincidentally, died in 1913, the same year Rosa Parks was born—was traveling by train through New Jersey to her home in upstate New York. When the conductor asked her for a ticket, she showed him a soldier’s pass. Believing that the pass must have been forged or stolen—how could a Black woman be legally issued a soldier’s pass, after all—the conductor ordered her to give up her seat. When Ms. Davis refused, politely, the conductor called for assistance to have her physically removed. It took four men to do it—Ms. Davis fought them fiercely, insisting that she had a right to be in the seat—and they eventually dumped her into the train’s baggage car, where she was locked up for the rest of the trip. Several months later, at her home in Auburn, New York, Araminta Davis was still recovering from her injuries from the train incident. 

The name Araminta Davis is not well-known in American history. Araminta was her birth name which she later changed after she escaped from slavery in Maryland, and Davis was her name from her second marriage. She is better known by another name: Harriet Tubman. 

Although Harriet Tubman is a national legend for her work with the old Underground Railroad, courting danger personally leading more than 300 African captives to freedom in the decade before the Civil War, few people know that she volunteered for service in the Union Army when the war began, working as a nurse, a scout, and a spy going deep behind enemy lines. On a New Jersey train in 1865, however, none of that helped her. To the conductor she was just a lying nigger woman, probably a thief, as well, taking up a seat to which she had no right and desecrating the memory of fallen army veterans, to boot. 

Most contemporary African-Americans have never heard of the story of Harriet Tubman’s troubles on that New Jersey train, but I suspect that most, if told the story, would not find it surprising. To be African-American is to have such incidents strewn throughout our own family histories. 

My father’s grandfather—George Allen—served in the Union Army in New Orleans during the Civil War in the Louisiana Native Guard. After he died, my great-grandmother, Leontyne Breaux Allen, applied for a widow’s pension for herself and her 13 children. For years she was denied it, on the grounds that she could not prove that the children—one of them my grandfather, Ellis Allen, Sr.—had been fathered by George. In effect, the army was accusing my great-grandmother of being a whore. Instead of the government pay she should have received, she had to support her family virtually on her own, with help only from the older children who had left home and gotten jobs. My cousin, Betty Reid Soskin, has collected reams of material from the National Archives containing testimony given to a hearing officer by priests and fellow churchmembers and neighbors who knew George and Leontyne in St. James Parish, Louisiana, and who swore that the children were his. I have copies of the documents, but have yet to read them all. Even now, more than a hundred years later, they are heartbreaking. 

On my mother’s side my grandfather, Thomas Reid, Sr., came to California in the late nineteenth century after fleeing for his life from his native Griffin, Georgia. “Trouble with the white folks,” the older ones in my mother’s family used to say, but none would be more specific. Trouble with the white folks in late nineteenth century Georgia could not be taken lightly. Reports of lynchings during that time include several that occurred in and around Griffin. In one, in 1899, Ralph Luker reports in the History News Network ( /25530.html) that a Black man named Samuel Wilkes was accused of killing his white employer. “A crowd of 2000 people take him about a mile and a half out on the road to Palmetto” near Griffin and Newnan, Georgia, Mr. Luker writes. “Children in the crowd are sent ahead to gather up firewood. Wilkes is hung and burned. Sunday's banner newspaper headlines notified the public of the event and, after church, special trains from Griffin and Atlanta bring additional site-seers out to the Palmetto Road for the occasion. Witnesses gather charred remains from the fire.” 

For the most part, lynchings did not follow African-Americans to California, but the indignities did. My grandfather, a skilled carpenter, could not get carpentry work in the Bay Area, and so had to support his 13 children—including my mother—as a laborer and a janitor. One of his brothers, who remained in Griffin, was a skilled brickmason. Many years later, after he had died, his grandchildren took me around Griffin to show me the many buildings he had constructed which, because of Georgia’s segregation laws, he could not enter once they had been completed. 

Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, my father, Ernest Allen, Sr., joined the Oakland Fire Department in the late 1940s, during a time when the OFD was strictly segregated. African-American fireman were limited to assignment to West Oakland’s Engine 22, and were not allowed to rise to officer’s positions. In 1952, when my father asked to be transferred to an East Oakland station to be closer to our family, his transfer was denied, and when he filed a complaint to the chief, he was suspended. According to a recent scholarly article by former UC Berkeley student Sarah Wheelock, the Oakland African-American labor leader C.L. Dellums, uncle of Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, “called the suspension an ‘administrative lynching’ and ‘an attempt at intimidation of the Negro firemen in the department.’” My father became a plaintiff in a lawsuit to desegregate the Oakland Fire Department. One the lawyers later became Oakland’s first Black Mayor, Lionel Wilson. They lost the lawsuit, but shortly afterwards, the OFD broke up its policy of segregated assignments. 

But not its policy of indignity towards Black fireman. Wheelock quotes Sam Golden, one of the early African-American OFD pioneers who fought to bring Black firemen into the department: “It was August 5, 1955, that was the day they integrated and I went to 29 Engine,” Mr. Golden said. “The first day I went there, I checked in with the captain. The captain called me into his office and told me what I could do and what I couldn't do. One of the things I couldn't do was eat with them. I had to bring my own mattress out and sleep on the watch bed whenever I was on watch. We were told that we had a special bed that we were sleeping in. There was another black firefighter on the other shift, and we both slept in the same bed.” 

By that time, my father was no longer welcome in the Oakland Fire Department. He had cashed in his city pension, and resigned. 

This is my family history. I doubt if it is appreciably different from most African-Americans, whose family roots go back to the slave trade, and then through slavery, and the hundred years of terror that followed the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. It is intertwined with our searches to uncover our family histories and genealogy, but much of it involves personal memories, as well—once, for example, after we got a flat tire in West Oakland and did not have a spare, watching police in West Oakland make my father sit on the curb for a half hour in front of his two sons while they checked to make sure the car actually belonged to him. My father was a property and business owner at the time, but that did not help him evade police suspicion. He was Black. 

Such memories invoke anger in most African-Americans, historical anger, inherited anger, suppressed in order to keep our sanity and go about our day-to-day business without going off, but anger that never completely goes away. My father died with that anger. I will, too. It is one of the legacies of being African-American in these latter days. 

Because he does not have that history, that African-American anger is not present in Barack Obama. This African-American anger cannot be manufactured, or transferred. It is burned into us like the old slave brands, in a crucible of history and memory and experience. It is an unsettling and a frightening thing, both to African-Americans ourselves and to our white brothers and sisters and neighbors and co-workers and friends, even when its source is not recognized or its essence manifested in any observable action. And because Mr. Obama does not have that inherent African-American anger, he is attractive to our white brothers and sisters in this country in a way that no African-American of our time will ever be. 

But that is a subject we will have to further explore in another column.