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A champion of the people: Josie Johnson still finds hope in the struggle

MINNESOTA SPOKESMAN-RECORDER — Josie Johnson. The term “living legend” might well understate her stature in the community. She is a beloved lady with a warm hearted smile and serious political clout who has made history, indeed helped shaped it, as chronicled in her book Hope in the Struggle: A Memoir (University of Minnesota Press).

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By MSR News Online

Josie Johnson. The term “living legend” might well understate her stature in the community. She is a beloved lady with a warm hearted smile and serious political clout who has made history, indeed helped shaped it, as chronicled in her book Hope in the StruggleA Memoir (University of Minnesota Press).

On the dust cover of the memoir, Walter Mondale attests that Johnson “has always been a champion of fairness and decency, and this book shows us that while there is still work to be done, with her help, there will always be hope.”

Her friend and comrade Mahmoud El- Kati, Twin Cities historian, scholar and community griot, told Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder that Hope in the Struggle “is timely and it’s important. Many people are going to find it very, very useful because of the time and context she addresses.”

Just a partial listing of Johnson’s pedigree as a person of the people notes that she has remained active in civil rights since a teenager when she and her father canvassed to gather signatures on an anti-poll tax petition.

In the early 1960s, Johnson professionally lobbied for fair housing and equal opportunity employment. A member of the Minneapolis Urban League, she served as acting director between 1967 and 1968, after which she became a legislative and community liaison as a mayoral aide in Minneapolis during a time of turbulent racial unrest that had swept America. She co-chaired Minnesota’s delegation to the momentous 1971 March on Washington.

She is also a recipient of the Committed to the Vision Award from the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights, and the University of Minnesota established the Josie Robinson Johnson Human Rights and Social Justice Award in her honor.

In her living room, you can get a glimpse of how her life has spanned African American progress. On a wall there are artifacts from the Jim Crow era — signs reading, “Colored seated in rear” and “We serve colored carry out only.” And not far from an end table sits a framed photo of Josie Johnson and Michelle Obama together, radiantly smiling.

On June 27, Johnson enjoyed a book signing at UROC in North Minneapolis. “I was very happy to have an opportunity to [be] with our community,” she said, “and talk about what my team [Carolyn Holbrook and Arleta Little with whom she crafted the memoir] was trying to do in the book. That was the purpose.”

Asked why, when, and how she came by her lifelong commitment to making a difference, Johnson said, “I grew up in an environment where it made a difference. My dad wanted to be a lawyer, but there were no schools for Black graduate students.

“So, he became employed by the Southern Pacific Railroad and was a dining car waiter. He organized [fellow] waiters. Mother got involved in programs educating Black children, and I grew up with a community that believed in us as a people being engaged in the well-being of all.”

That principle, a strong theme in Hope in the Struggle, is an abiding aspect of what she terms the “transition of values to future generations.” In the chapter “Making Our Way,” Johnson attests, “North Minneapolis was a close-knit community before the problems of the ’60s broke out. Just like the families of my childhood in Houston, North Side families knew and looked out for one another.

“Neighbors knew the names of the children, whether they lived in the projects or in modest or middle-to-upper-class homes.” She goes on to note, “Black-owned barber shops and beauty salons, restaurants, bars and cafes, dry cleaners, grocery stores, and clothing stores thrived. The Givens Ice Cream Bar was also a mainstay in the community, owned by Archie Givens Sr. and his wife Phebe. Archie and Phebe grew up in North Minneapolis and remained there with their children while he grew his career as a real estate developer building new homes for Black families.”

Speaking with MSR, she added, “Our children need that, now. The sense of living in a close-knit community…talking to our kids about their history and who they are. Give them a sense of pride.”

She added, “The society has created an environment now [that has] made Black adults afraid of their own. They don’t stop them in the street anymore to correct them when they’re doing something to misbehave. We have fallen into that trap.”

Johnson continued, “I had an experience that was so rewarding. I was on a department store escalator one time.  Three young Black ladies, girls, were talking in [foul] language. Not what this old lady wanted to hear. I said, ‘Young ladies, you are too beautiful to talk like that.’ They turned around, covered their mouths and apologized. Wasn’t that something? I wasn’t afraid of our children.”

Johnson is troubled by the state of things not only for those children but the nation, period, since Barack Obama left office. In the Hope in the Struggle epilogue, she observes that today’s White House is far from a friend of social progress; in fact, it stands counter thereto.

“Since his election, Donald Trump has defined his presidency in his own way. He has borrowed strategies from past presidents — for example, Nixon and Reagan — that fit his definition of his presidency. And in so doing, he has created a world of confusion.”

Asked to expound on that point, she said, “Trump came in and said it was alright to be racist.  It’s alright to be sexist and treat women the way he did. Alright to make fun of people that are handicapped, have various disabilities.

“And America told him he was right. It elected him President of the United States. They still allow him to get away with that. That’s the harm he’s done to America. I wonder what that says to children still trying to develop a sense of right and wrong.”

To order purchase your copy of Hope in the Struggle: A Memoir, go to bit.ly/JosieJohnsonHope.

This article originally appeared in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

Black History

Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges, The Black Mozart

Although the music played by trumpeter John Blanke and other Blacks of his time were fanfares, ballads, and song accompaniments, they still opened doors for those who would later perform concerto and symphonic forms. One would be Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges (1745–1799).

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Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges.  Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

By Tamara Shiloh

Black classical music artists have been performing publicly for more than 500 years. England’s King Henry VII and King Henry VIII were entertained by trumpeter John Blanke, a Black court musician. According to researcher Earl Ofari Hutchinson, “the list of Africans, African Americans, and Afro European composers, conductors, instrumental performers, and singers is and has always been, rich, varied, and deep.”

But “sadly,” Hutchinson adds, “the recognition of this history has almost always come in relation to the work of a major European or white American composer.”

Although the music played by Blanke and other Blacks of his time were fanfares, ballads, and song accompaniments, they still opened doors for those who would later perform concerto and symphonic forms. One would be Joseph Bologne de Saint-Georges (1745–1799).

Saint-Georges, a classical music conductor, composer, musician, and military officer was born in Guadeloupe, an island in the West Indies. His mother, la belle Nanon, was a slave of African descent and his father, George de Bologne Saint-Georges, a wealthy colony planter from France who owned the plantation that was their home.

The family relocated to France when Joseph was about 10. There he was able to deepen his studies in classical music under tutors Jean-Marie Leclair (violin) and Francois-Joseph Gossecin (composition).

Joseph eventually worked with French fencing master Nicolas Texier de La Boessiere, who trained him to use the sword. A natural athlete, fencing was a skill that would later make Joseph internationally famous. He was also skilled as a swimmer, runner, ice skater, pistol shooter, dancer, and horseman. With one arm tied behind his back, he swam the Seine River during winter.

Paris’ Pre-Revolutionary period, he stood amongst the most important musicians being a composer, violinist, and conductor. He became music director of the private theater of the Marquise de Montesson. The conductor of the Le Concert des Amateurs orchestra chose Saint-Georges as first violin. He made his public debut as a soloist during the 1772–73 concert season, performing his own violin concertos.

It has been argued that Saint-Georges’ work demonstrated the influence of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He was thereby dubbed “The Black Mozart.” However, history shows that Mozart did not come to Paris until 1778 to study at the Paris School of Composition while Saint-Georges was a member.

Saint-Georges produced 14 violin concertos and nine symphonies between 1773 and 1785. He wrote two solo violin compositions, two symphonies, three sonatas for violin and harpsichord, and 18 string quartets divided into three collections of six quartets in each. In 1777, he began to compose several operas for the Comedie-Italienne.

“It is no exaggeration or overstatement to say that classical music does owe a debt to the Black experience in classical music,” says Hutchinson, “And the goal is to show music lovers and readers how that debt continues to be paid in concert halls everywhere.”

Learn more about Saint-Georges and other Black composers of classical music, read “It’s Our Music Too: The Black Experience in Classical Music” by Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

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Activism

“The Three Mothers,” a Celebration of Black Motherhood

Emma Berdis Baldwin, Louise Little, and Alberta King are described by author Anna Malaika Tubbs as “women who have been almost entirely ignored throughout history” in her book “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation.”

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Emma Berdis Baldwin (Digitalcommonwealth.org), Alberta King (Wikipedia.org photo) and Loise Norton Little (Twitter.com photo)
Emma Berdis Baldwin (Digitalcommonwealth.org), Alberta King (Wikipedia.org photo) and Loise Norton Little (Twitter.com photo)

By Tamara Shiloh

James Baldwin is known as “the most eloquent literary spokesperson for the civil rights of African Americans.”

A staunch supporter of Black nationalism, Malcolm X was a minister and leader in the civil rights movement. He strongly suggested that Blacks stand against white aggression “by any means necessary.”

Social activist and Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr. played a key role in the civil rights movement. He sought equality and human rights for all people of color through peaceful protest.

The common thread that bound these men was their dedication to changing the course of the nation, and that each were raised by a strong Black mother.

Emma Berdis Baldwin, Louise Little, and Alberta King are described by author Anna Malaika Tubbs as “women who have been almost entirely ignored throughout history” in her book “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation.”

Tubbs writes that the women were “ignored even though it should have been easy throughout history to see them…in ways that are blatantly obvious when the fame of their sons are considered.” These three mothers “have been erased.”

Research presented in the book on how Black women have been systematically dehumanized “fights that erasure.” Still, the mothers “allowed their children to thrive even when all odds were stacked against them.” The exploration of their lives begins on the island of Grenada, generations before Louise (Norton) Little was born.

To understand Little, “to know how the color of her skin influenced her thinking, in order to comprehend why her grandparents were so important in her life and, as a result, in Malcolm X’s life, we cannot begin with her birth,” Tubbs explains about researching the family back to the 19th century.

Little refused to let her children “fall victim to a mentality that told them they were inferior to anybody else. She made sure they knew how Black people were standing up for their rights not only in the United States but also around the world.”

She wrote for the Negro World newspaper and spoke at least three languages.

Like most Black families, the kitchen was the place to gather in the King’s home. It was there that both parents “taught their children about the injustices of segregation and reminded them of the importance of doing their part in changing such inequities.”

Alberta King was the most educated of the three mothers, attending Spelman Seminary, the Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute, and Morris Brown College.

James Baldwin lived in a society that degraded him, yet Berdis made sure he had the best education possible. She recognized that young James could make a difference and would do whatever she could to support his dreams. When Baldwin was honored with one of his first writing awards, Berdis accepted it on his behalf.

“The Three Mothers” is a celebration of Black motherhood throughout past and present generations and a historical account of the powerful roles of women in the Black family.

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Black History

Alexa Irene Canady: First Black Woman Neurosurgeon in U.S.

Some of Alexa Irene Canady’s advisors attempted to discourage her from following through on her plans. She experienced difficulties in obtaining an internship. But those roadblocks didn’t impede her dream. After graduating cum laude from medical school (1975), she joined Yale-New Haven Hospital in Bridgeport, Conn., as a surgical intern.

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Alexa Irene Canady. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Public domain photo.
Alexa Irene Canady. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Public domain photo.

By Tamara Shiloh

It was during a health careers summer program at the University of Michigan that Alexa Irene Canady (b. 1950) decided to pursue medicine. Her undergraduate degree was in zoology, but she was convinced that continuing her studies at the university’s medical school was what she wanted.

It was the “summer after my junior year,” Canady was quoted as saying. “I worked in Dr. Bloom’s lab in genetics and attended a genetic counseling clinic. I fell in love with medicine.”

And she never regretted her decision.

Her initial interest was internal medicine. After being introduced to neurosurgery, she changed her path. But not everyone supported her decision.

Some of Canady’s advisors attempted to discourage her from following through on her plans. She experienced difficulties in obtaining an internship. But those roadblocks didn’t impede her dream. After graduating cum laude from medical school (1975), she joined Yale-New Haven Hospital in Bridgeport, Conn., as a surgical intern.

When her internship ended, she moved on to the University of Minnesota. There she served as a resident of the university’s department of neurosurgery, making her the first Black female neurosurgery resident in the United States. When her residency ended, she became the first Black female neurosurgeon.

“The greatest challenge I faced in becoming a neurosurgeon was believing it was possible,” Canady is famously quoted.

But the road to success was not without challenges.

Canady admits that she came close to dropping out of college because “I had a crisis of confidence.” But knowing there was a chance to win a minority scholarship in medicine, “it was an instant connection.” Despite her qualifications and high GPA, she could not escape prejudices and micro-aggressive comments.

On her first day at Yale-New Haven, Canady recalls tending to a patient when a hospital administrator passed by and commented: “Oh, you must be our new equal-opportunity package.”

The tables turned when a few years later at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, her fellow physicians voted her one of the top residents.

During her 22-year career as a neurosurgeon, Canady worked with young patients facing life-threatening illnesses, gunshot wounds, head trauma, hydrocephaly, and other brain injuries or diseases. Most were age 10 or younger.

Canady shares that her biggest career obstacle was convincing the neurosurgery chairman that she was “not a risk to drop out or be fired, a disaster in a program where there are only one or two residents per year. I was the first African American woman [in the department]. Along with that, my other greatest obstacle was convincing myself that someone would give me a chance to work as a neurosurgeon.”

She admits that she was worried that “because I [am] a Black woman, any practice opportunities would be limited. By being patient-centered, the practice’s growth was exponential.”

Read more about Canady’s journey to overcoming racial prejudice, patriarchy, and sexism in “Dr Alexa Irene Canady: The Incredible Story of the First Black Woman to Become a Neurosurgeon” by Isabel Carson.

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