Local veteran, historian celebrates forgotten military unit

— Black History Month celebrations should not overlook the many brave African Americans who have served in the armed forces, according to one prominent Baltimore historian who also risked his life on the battlefields.

Louis S. Diggs, who has researched and documented the history of African American life and communities in Baltimore County, has published nine books about black history, including one about local soldiers who served three wars in segregated units.

“This unit, the ‘Monumental City Guards,’ started as a semi-military organization, that would just march and do drills, but eventually were called to action,” said Diggs, who will join others from the National Association for Black Veterans in sponsoring the celebration of the 135th anniversary of the unit at on Saturday, February 22, 2014 at the War Memorial Building in Baltimore at 11 a.m.

“They eventually became the 231st Transportation Truck Battalion, an important unit that helped the country a whole lot,” Diggs said.

A retired supervisory personnel staffing specialist for the Washington, D.C. Public Schools and a retired military veteran, Diggs also has put together a catalogue of 8,000 photographs that explores historic black Baltimore County communities. The photos explored the role of African American churches, the contribution of local citizens and education and social life.

In his books, Diggs, who received a bachelor of arts and a masters of arts degree in Public Administration from the University of Baltimore and who has conducted post graduate work at George Washington University in D.C., also explores the history of Owings Mills, Catonsville, Turners Station and Piney Grove.

Diggs says that that his interest in local history developed while he worked as a teacher at Catonsville High School about 20 years ago.

“When it came to the black kids who lived in Catonsville, specifically the Winters Lane community there, they weren’t able to turn a paper in because they couldn’t find anything on the history of the community,” Diggs said. “They were disappointed, and when they asked me for help, there was no way that I could or would turn them down.”

Diggs says the experience segued nicely into the first book he wrote, “It All Started on Winters Lane,” which chronicled Catonsville’s founders.

“I knew that this was an important work and that’s why I keep writing and I hope to have my next book ready for next year,” he said.

For his Black History Month plans, Diggs and members of his committee said there will be an informative discourse on African-American soldiers from the Baltimore Metropolitan Area. The discussion will center on those who served their country in three wars under segregated conditions.

“We will talk about the all African American military unit who served in the segregated Maryland National Guard beginning in 1882,” Diggs said. “They were ordered to active duty during the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.”

The 231st Battalion was the only Maryland National Guard unit ordered to active duty to support the Korean War in August of 1950, Diggs said.

The battalion was composed of African Americans, commanded by African American Lieutenant Colonel Vernon F. Green, with four assigned Truck Companies, the 147th, 165th and the 726th Truck, and the HQ&HQ (Headquarters & Headquarters) Company.

The battalion with its HQ&HQ Company and the 726th Truck Company were deployed to Korea, arriving in Pusan, Korea in December 1950.

Because the 726th was offloaded from the troop ship on December 31, 1950, they became the first of the many U.S. National Guards sent to Korea to support the War.

“The 231st Transportation Truck Battalion, whose mission is to ensure that the history and sacrifices made by these African Americans will always be alive and shared with the wider community,” Diggs said. “Several veterans of the 231st will attend the Black History Month event, which is free and open to the public. We’ll provide a free lunch and place a wreath at the Monument to Black Soldiers. It’s just so important that we reflect and remember our history in this way.”

Martin Luther King classmate celebrates black history

— When officials at Sunrise Senior Living were putting together plans to celebrate Black History Month, it was easy for them to turn to one of their most famous residents.

Reverend Marcus Wood, the last living student of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who along with a then-unknown King and 10 other black preachers integrated the Crozier Theological Seminary in Upland, Pennsylvania in the 1940s.

“About four or five months ago, he came to us with his wife, Bessie, who was also a close friend of Rosa Parks,” said Lynette Walsh, the executive director at Sunrise, which operates a location in Pikesville.

Walsh says that in their earlier days in Baltimore, the Wood’s would provide hospitality for King, Parks and other prominent African Americans because in the early-to-mid 1900s, hotels prohibited blacks.

“I don’t think the residents realized what a celebrity we had, but we’ve done plenty of tours here and I can’t tell you how many times people have recognized Rev. Wood,” Walsh said. “It’s been unbelievable throughout the community. He’s definitely a celebrity and with all that has been published; we make sure the residents know that they have a real civil rights hero here.”

A popular pastor for more than 60 years at Providence Baptist Church in Baltimore, it’s likely that it’s impossible for any to disagree that Wood counts as a true African American treasure. He’s living history.

Wood, 93, grew up in Gloucester, Virginia, as one of seven sons of Frank and Julia Wood. In 1937, he received a license to preach and officials at the Union Zion Baptist Church in Ware Neck, Virginia, ordained him three years later.

“I was in high school and I knew that the ministry is where I was going to be, there were no doubts,” Wood said. Wood would go on to serve as pastor at Wainwright Baptist Church in West Virginia and Bethlehem Baptist Church in New Jersey.

While in New Jersey, he made the decision to attend Crozier, where he earned his Master of Divinity degree. It’s also where he met King.

“We didn’t know that King would become the great figure he became, he was playful like the rest of us, but we also weren’t surprised because he always wanted to get people together,” Wood said. “King had a soft voice, but another reason all of us in the class knew he would do well was because his family had money and he was independent, he didn’t have a church to depend upon his living, so he could go around the country and preach.”

He says that King’s success and ultimate assassination were both predictable.

“He was the leader and he kept going to the south where we knew that he was so aggressive that there was a chance he’d be murdered,” Wood said.

Ten months before King was to preach at Wood’s church, an assassin’s bullet killed the icon.

The long-time pastor also recalled the first time King had a meal with a white person and when his wife taught King how to cook some of their favorite dishes.

“I was at the table with King when he had a meal with a white person, it was powerful. It took place at the seminary and it was a regular country meal,” Wood said. “My wife had told Martin about some of the ingredients to use in [certain meals] and he followed along.”

For his part, Wood also made his mark, preaching the gospel in several places and spreading the message of hope during the civil rights movement. He arrived at Providence Baptist Church in 1952. According to church officials, his visionary leadership resulted in numerous innovative activities and lots of progress.

Two years ago, when the church celebrated Wood’s 60th anniversary there, Governor Martin O’Malley led a contingent of more than 20 dignitaries to Providence to pay tribute to the civil rights activist.

“During some of the most volatile times in our nation’s history and in the face of tremendous adversity, Rev. Wood’s unconditional love for his fellow man has guided his life’s work every single day,” O’Malley said.

While Wood certainly misses his old friend and classmate, he says that it’s a testament to King that he gave his life for the betterment of so many.

Groundbreaking “Jubilee Showcase” celebrates 50th Anniversary

Every February we hear about the heroes and heroines of African American history but those personalities are usually African Americans themselves. However, there is one pioneer of African American television history who rarely comes up in those conversations and his name was Sid Ordower. A white man of Jewish heritage, he was a civil rights activist and both the founder and host of “Jubilee Showcase, a weekly gospel TV series that aired on Chicago’s WLS Channel 7 from 1963 to 1984.

In observance of the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking TV show, PBS has been airing an hour-long special on the groundbreaking series since late November 2013. Scores of artists and personalities appeared on the show over the years, ranging from The Staple Singers and Andrae Crouch to Rev. Jesse Jackson. At its height, “Jubilee Showcase” boasted over 250,000 weekly viewers and presented some of the biggest names in gospel. “I always used to pride myself on getting the best soloists, the greatest groups, the finest accompanists in gospel,” Ordower told the Chicago Tribune in 1992. “The idea was to get variety. We didn’t want to feature just quartets or just soloists. We wanted everything that was out there, so long as it was the best.”

Ordower’s son, Steve, has compiled the “Jubilee Showcase” compilation DVD featuring classic performances from the 1960s and 1970s featuring The Staple Singers, The Soul Stirrers, Inez Andrews, Andrae Crouch and Jesse Dixon, among others. “He did so much for gospel singers,” Mavis Staples says of Ordower. “It was during a time when gospel couldn’t even be heard. If you wanted to hear some gospel on the radio you had to get up at 4 a.m. in the morning. And then to put us on television? That was huge. Everybody in Chicago watched it, black and white. [Sid] was the one who let us know all white people weren’t bad. This was a man dedicated to letting our music be seen and heard. Young black people need to know where we came from.”

An Army captain with a double Purple Heart who fought in the Battle of Normandy during World War II, Sid Ordower launched “Jubilee Showcase” in 1963 from an auto dealership on 47th Street. As a white man active in the civil rights movement, Ordower became acquainted with gospel music because so many political activities took place in churches where he came in contact with gospel performers. He became a fan of the genre and created the television show as a mainstream showcase for the artists. Before his death in 2002 (at the age of 82), Ordower donated all of the “Jubilee Showcase” videotapes to The Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago. The DVD is available online at: http://www.jubileeshowcase.com.

Russell Wilson second black quarterback to win a Super Bowl

Going into Super Bowl XLVIII, many wondered whether black history would be made again on Sunday, February 1, 2014 at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

In 1988, Washington Redskins quarterback Douglas Lee “Doug” Williams became the first African American starting quarterback to win a Super Bowl, with his victory in Super Bowl XXII.

Could the Seattle Seahawks starting quarterback Russell Carrington Wilson become the second African American quarterback to win a Super Bowl?

Twenty-six years earlier, Super Bowl XXII was between the National Football Conference (NFC) champion Washington Redskins and American Football Conference (AFC) champion Denver Broncos to decide the National Football League (NFL) champion for the 1987 season.

Coming into Super Bowl XXII, the Broncos were favored to win because most experts thought both teams were equal in terms of talent with Elway considered by many as the superior quarterback to Williams.

The odds were stacked in Elway’s favor. He had won the NFL Most Valuable Player Award and was selected to start for the AFC in the Pro Bowl, while Williams had played just five regular season games in the 1987 season.

The game would be decided on January 31, 1988 at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, California. By the time the game ended, the Washington Redskins had defeated the Broncos by the score of 42–10, winning their second-ever Super Bowl. Elway was sacked five times and threw three interceptions, while Williams became the first black man to win a Super Bowl as a quarterback. He was named the game’s MVP after going 18 of 29 for 340 yards and four touch down passes in a 42-10 bucking of Elway’s Broncos.

Born August 9, 1955, Williams is best known for his remarkable performance in Super Bowl XXII. Williams also became the first player in Super Bowl history to pass for four touchdowns in a single quarter, and four in a half.

Going into Super Bowl XLVIII, league MVP Peyton Manning and his Denver Broncos were heavily favored. However, by the time the game ended, black history was made again with Wilson and the underdog Seahawks defeating the Denver Broncos.

In an ironic twist of fate, the lopsided 43-8 win marked the second time that Elway had been beaten by a black quarterback. The former Denver Broncos quarterback now serves as Vice President of Football Operations for the organization.

Wilson passed for 206 yards and two touchdowns, joining Williams as the second African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

MLK: Militant of the 21st century

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hasn’t been this alive since 1968.

He is no longer that visually distant, two-dimensional figure, limited to speaking a single sentence taken out of context and shorn of its true meaning. Instead, the honest scholarship and media commentary considering what King faced and what he did have broken through the obscuring fog of conservative, and yes, centrist, propaganda.

In part, that is because, today the confrontation between the forces of progress and the racist reaction to that progress is sharper than any time since the 1960s.

Today, as in the 1960s, American society is grappling with elevating new groups of Americans to full citizenship. Today, as in the 1960s, it’s being forced to confront the meaning of its widespread poverty and joblessness, and its diminished educational opportunity. Today, as in the 1960s, black Americans’ right to vote is under siege from conservatives, as are women’s reproductive rights. And today, as in the 1960s, the country is debating the extent of government’s responsibility to protect individuals’ access to opportunity.

Dr. King’s words and actions seem relevant again because they’ve always presented a challenge to the status quo and always urged individuals to live up to humanity’s best possibilities.

That command has become particularly compelling again because of the remarkable juxtaposition of present-day developments and anniversaries of past landmark events. The latter include: the 50-year anniversaries of the climactic years of the Civil Rights Movement, especially the year 1963, when King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech at the March on Washington; and of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, whose support of the civil rights struggle, tentative though it was, made him blacks’ most

important presidential ally since Abraham Lincoln. And it also includes the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

The completion of the King Memorial in Washington— and the welcome controversy about its design helped immeasurably as well. The controversy itself was a metaphorical breath of fresh air, blowing away at least some of the clouds of stultifying hero-worship that had for too long distorted the fact that the real Martin Luther King, Jr. was, above all, a great provocateur.

Speaking in the early 1990s, when the conservative political ascendancy was at its height, Rev. Hosea Williams, one of King’s lieutenants during the civil rights struggles explained, “There is a definite effort on the part of America to change Martin Luther King, Jr. from what he was really about— to make him the Uncle Tom of the century.” Williams insisted, “In my mind, he was the militant of the century.”

Williams was right, and King’s importance— his militancy— is still not completely understood today.

He didn’t “make” the Civil Rights Movement. He wasn’t its operational leader or its major tactician but he was its national and international spokesman. Speaking in that rich baritone, he could turn words into emotions that were otherwise inexpressible and into word-pictures that represented the entire tapestry of the centuries-long black freedom struggle.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 13-year life on the national stage brilliantly represented the courage it took in those decades to challenge the seemingly overwhelming power of the South’s racist power structure. Far less acknowledged is the courage it took for King— after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and his being awarded the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize— to resist the temptations of partial success and his own fame.

Instead, King kept moving leftward, to confront the racial and economic injustice that had created and maintained the black ghettos of the North, and the national hubris that had led America into the quagmire of war in Southeast Asia.

For this he was pilloried by President Lyndon B. Johnson, much of the white liberal establishment and a good portion of the civil rights and black political establishment. His insistence that nonviolence was still a viable means of social change was ridiculed, as were his plans to stage a multiracial Poor Peoples March on Washington and involve himself in the bitter sanitation worker’s strike in Memphis, Tennessee.

But those difficult years were actually King’s finest hours. At the moment of his assassination, he was standing where he had begun his public life: with ordinary black people who were being unjustly denied their human rights.

King’s refusal to submit offers a lesson to take to heart at this moment when conservative politicians and theorists are trying to restore inequality of opportunity as the law of the land. It tells us we should adopt King as The Militant of the 21st Century, too.

Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His essay, “Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Great Provocateur,” appears in Africa’s Peacemakers: Nobel Peace Laureates of African Descent,” to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in March.

Newseum opens ‘1964: Civil Rights at 50’ exhibit

On Friday, January 17, 2014, the Newseum opens “1964: Civil Rights at 50,” a yearlong exhibit about Freedom Summer, a bold campaign organized by civil rights groups in 1964 to register black voters in Mississippi.

“1964” features powerful images of Freedom Summer, from volunteer training sessions in Ohio to clashes with segregationists and the search for three missing civil rights workers who were later found murdered. The photographs were taken by Ted Polumbaum, a freelance photographer working for Time magazine, whose passion for social justice led him to Mississippi in the summer of 1964. The Polumbaum photographs are part of the Newseum’s permanent collection and will be on display in the exhibit through December 28, 2014.

“The exhibit powerfully illustrates the risks that student activists took 50 years ago to defeat segregation,” said Cathy Trost, vice president of exhibits and programs at the Newseum. “Photojournalist Ted Polumbaum recorded the dramatic events of Freedom Summer and left behind a remarkable collection of images capturing key moments in the fight for civil rights.”

On January 18, at 2:30 p.m., Nyna Brael Polumbaum and Judy Polumbaum, Ted Polumbaum’s widow and daughter, will discuss his photographs and legacy as part of the museum’s Inside Media series. The program is included with paid admission to the Newseum.

Over a 40-year career, Ted Polumbaum (1924-2001) covered some of the biggest stories of his time, including the civil rights movement and Vietnam War protests, for the newsmagazines Time, Life and The Saturday Evening Post.In 2003, his widow, Nyna Brael Polumbaum, donated more than 200,000 of his images to the Newseum’s collection.

“1964” is a companion exhibit to “Make Some Noise: Students and the Civil Rights Movement,” which opened at the Newseum in August 2013. “Make Some Noise” spotlights key figures in the student civil rights movement, including John Lewis, now a U.S. representative from Georgia, and Julian Bond, who later became chairman of the NAACP. The exhibit also features a section of the original F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where in 1960 four African American college students launched the sit-in movement, and a bronze casting of the Birmingham, Alabama jail cell door behind which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. penned his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in 1963.

The Newseum’s Digital Classroom website features a free learning module called “Making a Change,” which explores the civil rights movement through the lenses of historical connections, media literacy, and civics and citizenship using videos, archival news footage and interviews. These standards-aligned lesson plans will help teachers enhance student engagement with Newseum content, their communities and their peers across the country.

The Newseum is located at 555 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. in Washington D.C. For more information, visit: www.newseum.org.

UMBC president keynote speaker at Johns Hopkins’ MLK ceremony

— The Johns Hopkins community gathered on Friday, January 10, 2014 to celebrate the civil and human rights legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. A packed Turner Auditorium paid tribute to King’s memory and heard words of inspiration from a leader in the fields of education and civil rights.

US Senator Benjamin Cardin, Johns Hopkins Hospital President Ronald R. Peterson, UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, Johns Hopkins Medicine CEO Paul Rothman and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake enjoy the sounds of Johns Hopkins gospel choir, Unified Voices, during the celebration.

Photo Credit: Johns Hopkins University

US Senator Benjamin Cardin, Johns Hopkins Hospital President Ronald R. Peterson, UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, Johns Hopkins Medicine CEO Paul Rothman and Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake enjoy the sounds of Johns Hopkins gospel choir, Unified Voices, during the celebration.

Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), spoke to the Johns Hopkins community about leadership and about his experience as a child in 1960s Birmingham, Alabama.

Retired Johns Hopkins cardiac surgeon Levi Watkins Jr., former associate dean for postdoctoral programs and the commemoration’s founder, hosted the program. Johns Hopkins’ own Unified Voices choir performed.

Hrabowski recounted a story of being arrested as a 12-year-old protesting the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which killed four young girls. As he and other children sat in the Birmingham jail for days, they heard King speaking outside.

“All of our parents were outside the jailhouse,” Hrabowski recalled. “And Dr. King said to all these children who were behind bars, ‘Stay strong. For what you do, this day will have an impact.’”

Reflecting on King’s legacy Hrabowski said, “The message of King must be that each of us is a leader.” He continued, “and that we must think about how we treat people of all types. We must be supportive of people who are different from ourselves and appreciate them.”

In its 32nd year, the annual celebration of King’s legacy has become a Johns Hopkins institution. Hrabowski joined a distinguished list of leaders who have spoken at the celebration, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King III, Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder and many others.