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Black History

Learning Black History Year-Round – Jesse B. Blayton Sr. – The Voice of Black Atlanta

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From a small brick building located two blocks from what is now The King Center boomed a voice for Black Atlanta: Jesse B. Blayton Sr. a professor at Clark Atlanta University. It was 1949, and radio was the most popular medium of mass communication for the Black community.

Blayton (1897–1977), wanted to produce on-air shows that blended language, music, politics and culture aimed specifically at Black audiences. So he started WERD and broadcast information relevant to Atlanta’s Black community from sunup ‘til sundown. It was the first radio station owned and operated by an African American in the United States.

Born in Fallis, Okla., Blayton first worked with investors to raise money to start the station. “When that didn’t work out, he went in his pockets … $50,000 later, he started the station [on his own],” said Ricci de Forest, who is continuing the WERD’s legacy, during an interview with National Public Radio.

After Blayton graduated from University of Chicago, he relocated to Atlanta. It was there he established a private accounting practice. After passing the Georgia accounting examination in 1928, he had become the first Black Certified Public Accountant and only the fourth African American nationwide to hold the certification. He later taught accounting at Atlanta University, where he had little success in recruiting Black students for the profession.

Difficulty in recruiting lay in the fact that white-owned accounting firms would not hire Black people. Blayton had the only Black-owned firm in the South; it was small and had few openings. Thus jobs were non-existing. In the 10 years that followed, there were only seven other Blacks in the U.S. who had achieved that accountant status.

At WERD, Blayton pioneered what he called “Negro-appeal music,” which included early versions of rhythm and blues music that could not be found elsewhere on the air. There were other stations broadcasting music for Black audiences, but WERD was the only one that was Black-owned. By 1954, there were approximately 200 Black-oriented radio stations, but fewer than a dozen were owned by Blacks.

The growth of WERD, its roots in the Black community’s history, is storied. The station was instrumental in the Civil Rights Movement. “King wouldn’t have had a radio station to coordinate with the Movement if WERD hadn’t been here,” de Forest said. “Dr. King’s office was on the first floor of the building and he would broadcast from upstairs.” King used his office for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The building in which WERD was located, Prince Hall Mason on Sweet Auburn Avenue, is an original Madame C.J. Walker beauty shop. Today, the space houses a museum dedicated to the station and hosts live performances weekly.

WERD, music and information for the Black community at its best, was sold in 1968 when Blayton retired. He died in 1977 in Atlanta and was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1995.

De Forest keeps the station alive by broadcasting an online version of WERD.

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Bay Area

West Oakland Black Woman Owned Food Collective, “The Black Culinary Collective (BCC)”

“We are doing our part to change the narrative of excellence being categorized as an exception for black makers.

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   A group of Black women who own food businesses are rising from the devastation of the pandemic by sharing a commercial kitchen in West Oakland.

     The Black Culinary Collective (BCC) is led by Chef Reign Free, owner of Red Door Catering, which opened in 2006. 

    Red Door Catering has a 5,000-square-foot kitchen space.  During the pandemic Free’s catering business fell and her business was damaged during the protests.  

     Free also knew other Black chefs who didn’t have the money to rent commercial kitchen space during the pandemic.  

      And so, she applied to and received $50,000 from the Oakland Black Business Fund, which, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, is “an organization that aims to address Black entrepreneurs’ historical lack of access to capital, to help members join the collective rent-free.”

     The collective currently has four members (Teas With Meaning, Baby Bean Pie, Pound Business, and Final Sauce) and is looking for six more.  The members will share the kitchen, sell their goods to the public on-site, and collaborate on projects.  Members will also receive consultations, mentoring and advice on their food businesses.

     BCC hopes to open in August and will be located at 2925 Adeline St. Free continues to raise funds to help collective members have up to a year in the collective rent-free. 

     “It’s important for the people who work in the food and beverage industry to not only know how to cook, but to understand the history and the cultural significance of those that came before us,” Free told the Oakland Post. “We are doing our part to change the narrative of excellence being categorized as an exception for black makers. 

     “The companies that are a part of the collective have established the discipline that allows them to see their vision with clarity and purpose; having a beautiful space that supports learning, collaboration, and service allows us to continue to scale in ways that will positively affect the next generation. The more we share our gifts and talents within our community, the more our communities will thrive.”

 

     For more information, go to BlackCulinaryCollective.com

The San Francisco Chronicle, Mercury News, and Oaklandside.org were sources for this report.

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Activism

Democrats in Sacramento Take Steps to Make Voting Easier

Recently, in some states, most notoriously Georgia and Florida, lawmakers have taken steps to restrict voting access and rights for many Americans. But in California, policymakers and legislators are doing the opposite, making proposals to simplify the voting process and expand access to the polls. 

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The electoral process is foundational to the durability of America’s democratic structure.

And as the battle for fairer voting laws rages on, politicians and activists on the political Right claim they are responding to allegations of widespread voter and election fraud. Those on the Left say they are rallying to fight a coordinated political offensive to restrict access to the polls and increasing reports of voter suppression.

Recently, in some states, most notoriously Georgia and Florida, lawmakers have taken steps to restrict voting access and rights for many Americans. 

But in California, policymakers and legislators are doing the opposite, making proposals to simplify the voting process and expand access to the polls. 

Invoking the violent history of voter suppression in the South that her parents endured, which sometimes involved murders — California Secretary of State Shirley Weber says it is a priority of hers to “ensure the right to vote.” 

“I tell people all the time that no number is good unless it’s 100% in terms of voter participation,” Weber told the Public Policy Institute of California. “Why didn’t 5 million go to the polls? We need to figure out where they are and what stopped them from going.”

In the California Legislature, an amendment to Senate Bill (SB) 29, which passed earlier this year, was one bill in a broader legislative effort to secure the right to vote in vulnerable communities.

Before that amendment passed, California law dictated that a ballot would be mailed to all eligible voters for the November 3 statewide general election in 2020 as well as use a Secretary of State vote-by-mail tracking system to ensure votes are counted. 

SB 29, which the governor signed into law in February, extended those requirements to any election “proclaimed or conducted” prior to Jan. 1, 2022.

A record number of voters participated in California elections in 2020. Some political observers attribute that spike to the vote-by-mail system instituted last year.

“To maintain a healthy democracy in California, it is important to encourage eligible voters to vote and to ensure that residents of the state have the tools needed to participate in every election,” the bill reads.

Senate Bill (SB) 583, introduced by California State Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton), would require the Secretary of State to register or preregister eligible citizens to vote upon retrieving the necessary paperwork from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

Citizens who do not wish to be registered can opt-out of the process altogether.

Newman stressed the importance of access and simplifying the voter registration process. 

“In our state there are an estimated 4.6 million U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote who have not yet registered,” Newman said. “Our obligation as the people’s elected representatives is to make the process simpler and more accessible for them.”

On April 27, the Senate Transportation Committee passed SB 583 with a 13 to 3 vote. The Appropriations Committee has set a hearing for May 10. 

Senate Bill (SB) 503, introduced by Sen. Josh Becker (D-Menlo Park), proposes that if a signature shares enough characteristics with a previous signature from the same voter, then it would be recognized as official on voting paperwork.

Current law dictates that a signature has to match exactly for it to be considered valid.

Disability Rights California (DRC), a non-profit advocacy organization that advances and protects the rights of Californians living with disabilities, has come out in support of SB 503.

“Studies have shown that signature matches disproportionately impact voters with disabilities,” Eric Harris, director of public policy for the DRC wrote in a letter. 

“Voters with disabilities, including seniors, are more likely to vote by mail and would have to sign their name on their ballots,” Harris argued. “A voter’s signature changes over time and for people with disabilities, a signature can change nearly every other time one is written. Some people with disabilities might have conditions that make it difficult to sign your name the same way multiple times.”

For now, the Senate Appropriations Committee has tabled SB 503, placing the bill in what the Legislature calls a “suspense file,” where it awaits further action by lawmakers. 

At the federal level, lawmakers have introduced two bills in the U.S. Congress to expand voting rights, the For The People Act of 2021 and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

The For The People Act, or H.R.1, proposes a three-pronged approach to expanding election access: Voting, campaign finance, and ethics.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington Bureau and senior vice president for Advocacy and Policy, compared the current voting rights battle to that of the Civil Rights Movement in a press conference about H.R.1 and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

“If you look at some of those 1960s shots of the C.T. Vivians of the world, of the Joe Lowerys and so many others that helped lead Americans to those registration sites, you’ll see them actually literally being beaten to the ground,” Shelton said, referring to well-known Civil Rights Movement activists. 

The John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, or S.4263, would amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to restore the powers it lost after the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby v. Holder.  In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws requiring states and local communities to first clear any changes to voting their local laws with the feds, was unlawful.  

“Well, we’ve become more sophisticated in our disenfranchisement,” Shelton continued. “We want to make sure that we stop that disenfranchisement all along the way and that’s why we’re convinced that a bill named for John Lewis and a bill that speaks for the people are bills that need to pass.”

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Black History

Odetta Gordon: Citizen of the World

Bob Dylan once commented that “hearing Odetta on record turned me on to folk singing.”

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Odetta Gordon (1930–2008) was born in Birmingham. After her father’s death, she moved to Los Angeles with her mother. What she didn’t leave behind was the soul of Birmingham. The city’s deep Southern music had become a part of young Odetta’s being.
At age 13, Odetta studied piano, had voice training, and taught herself to play the guitar. Later, she earned a degree in classical music from Los Angeles City College and performed in a 1949 production of Finian’s Rainbow in San Francisco. Soon (1950s) she would emerge as an important figure in the New York folk music scene.
Gordon relocated to New York City, where her talent was supported by performers such as Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger. With their encouragement, she performed and recorded more widely. Her repertoire included a distinctive blend of spirituals, slave songs, prison and work songs, folk ballads, Caribbean songs, and blues. Her career had taken off.
In New York, Gordon released her solo recording, Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues (1956), followed by At the Gate of Horn (1957). Bob Dylan once commented that “hearing Odetta on record turned me on to folk singing.” Her voice beckoned four repeat performances at the Newport Folk Festival (1959–65) and subsequent appearances at Carnegie Hall, on television and in several films including Sanctuary (1961).
Gordon’s career continued to blossom. She performed with symphony orchestras and in operas worldwide. She was a featured performer throughout the states, her audience weaving through various cultures. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dubbed Gordon “queen of American folk.” She had the “ear” of the people, thus  were next on her agenda.
In 1963, Gordon performed at the historic March on Washington and took part in the March on Selma. She sang for President Kennedy and his cabinet on the nationally televised civil rights special, Dinner with the President. Through addressing political and social issues Gordon had become an important advocate for civil rights; an activist for social change.
Sadly, the movement lost steam and interest in folk music began to wane. As a result, Gordon’s career started to lose its fire. Still, she continued to perform throughout the 1960s and 70s internationally. She recorded Odetta Sings the Blues (1967) and in 1974, appeared in the television film The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. In 1987, the concert marking forty years of her life as a performer (1986) was released as the live recording Movin’ It On.
In 1999 President Clinton awarded Gordon the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given in the arts in the United States. The Library of Congress, in 2003, named her a Living Legend.
Gordon is remembered as an American folk singer who was noted especially for her versions of spirituals and became for many the voice of the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. She passed away on December 2, 2008, at the age of 77.

Source:  https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/odetta-gordon-41
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Odetta
Image:  By Jac. de Nijs / Anefo – Nationaal Archief, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31277817

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