Two years ago, writers Toby Barlow and Sarah Cox got together to discuss Detroit.
Negative headlines pounded the city’s reputation, but the duo knew there was more to Detroit than foreclosures and shuttered factories. Barlow proposed creating a writer’s residency within the city, but Detroit didn’t need temporary residents—it needed permanent ones. A September estimate put the number of vacant homes at 78,000, or one-fifth of the housing stock.
Applications for the residences will be available in spring 2014, hoping to select writers who are committed to Detroit for the long haul. “We want people to know what they’re getting into,” Cox said. “You’re living in Detroit and you need to be comfortable with that.”
The judges include former National Poet Laureate Billy Collins, poet Major Jackson, and writer and activist Dream Hampton. Writers don’t need to be Detroiters to apply. The winners will live in the house rent-free for the first two years and will be responsible for paying insurance and property taxes. After that, the writer will receive the deed to the house, free and clear.
Write A House also stipulates that the winners participate in Detroit’s literacy scene, but will let those individual decide how. “They could host a reading series or tutor kids,” Cox explained. “We’ll leave it up to them. We want someone who feels like they’re part of the community.”
On the day Nelson Mandela’s body was lowered into the ground, Congressman John Lewis raised his voice half a world away to exhort the December graduates of Cleveland State University to begin lives of activism and “to get into good trouble.”
Lewis, 73, told the almost 1,000 graduates that he had been “very moved” in Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of the U.S. delegation to the Mandela memorial service.
“Don’t give up; don’t give in; go forth and be good citizens, not just of America, but citizens of the world,” Lewis said, connecting his listeners to Mandela’s legacy and the American Civil Rights movement. “This is your day, not mine,” he said, with more than the snowy date on the calendar in mind.
A man of stillness and humility, Lewis moved his right hand over his heart as he accepted an honorary doctorate from Cleveland State, the latest of more than 50 such academic honors. “I’m delighted and very pleased to be with you on this important occasion,” he told his hosts. “Thank you for honoring a poor boy from rural Alabama. I was not born in a big city like Cleveland.”
But he became a man of momentous deeds – an architect of the 1963 March on Washington, a veteran of more than 50 arrests and a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Two years after the March on Washington, Lewis and SNCC co-founder Hosea Williams started across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., leading some 600 people marching for voting rights. They were beaten and gassed, and when the vigilantes and the Alabama state police were done, they had broken Lewis’ young skull.
“I was beaten unconscious and bloody in 1965 on that bridge in Selma,” Lewis told his Cleveland State audience, “but I never, ever thought about hating anyone. Hate was too big of a burden to bear.”
Cleveland State University President Ronald M. Berkman reminded the assembly that Lewis was aptly called “the conscience of the U.S. Congress.” He asked everyone to observe a moment of silence in Mandela’s memory and urged the graduates to savor the day they have earned.
Lewis entertained his listeners with boyhood stories of raising chickens, marking eggs, eating peanuts and first hearing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio in 1955. He described applying to Troy State University and receiving no reply. “My generation, we didn’t have an internet, we didn’t have a cell phone, but we used what we had to bring about a nonviolent revolution.”
He urged the graduates to find their cause. “You won’t be arrested maybe. You won’t be beaten. But do your part. The way of peace, the way of love, is the better way.”
When the Grambling State University football team refused to play this October, the eyes of collegiate sports turned to Louisiana and focused on a long-simmering problem at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs): underfunding.
Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, said in a recent op-ed that solving HBCU’s budgetary woes starts at the top. “Alumni need to be taught how to give and how to be philanthropic,” she wrote. “And this lesson must begin when alumni are students, during the first week of classes, and it needs to come directly from the president.”
One individual who has gotten the memo is Bennett College President Dr. Rosalind Fuse-Hall, who took the helm of her small liberal arts college in Greensboro, N.C., six months ago. She is continuing its momentum and is maintaining an impressive 20% annual contribution rate from graduates, beating out much larger and better known HBUCs such as Howard University.
Bennett College’s model is simple: touting the school’s strengths and aggressively soliciting donors. It isn’t as revolutionary as it is crucial. Funding for HBCUs has declined, while the day-to-day costs to run a university have soared, leading administrators to pursue to alumni giving more aggressively.
Nelson Bowman III, head of development for Texas’ Prairie View A&M University, is taking a different tact. In 2012, his HBCU rolled out a giving campaign for currently enrolled students with inspiring results—60% of freshmen pledged a gift.
“The potential has probably always been there,” Bowman wrote, “but we’ve only viewed them as students, overlooking their innate passion and willingness to engage.”
As the year concludes with a flurry of fund-raising appeals, some HBCUs have improved their pitches and upped their game. Much more than football is at stake.
Sharp-eyed Clevelanders can still spot John Anisfield’s name on the side of his old garment factory, which employed more than 700 workers a century ago. The clothing manufacturer at E. 22nd and Superior Avenue has been shuttered long decades, but the imprint of Anisfield, his fortune, and his progressive notions carry briskly into the 21st century.
John Anisfield was 16 and nearly penniless when he arrived in Cleveland in 1876, but he had an uncle, Dr. James Horowitz, who was able to place his Viennese nephew into the employ of the D. Black Cloak Company. Young John proved a quick study, rose to become a manager, quit and struck out into garment making on his own, just six years after he set foot in Cleveland.
The Civil War had remade the way Americans clothed themselves, as it remade so much of the country. The U.S. Army had taken millions of measurements of boys and men, begetting a system for sizing men’s clothing. This system and increasing mechanization fueled the ready-to-wear market from the 1860s through the 1880s, which coincided with young John’s arrival.
For approximately a half century after the 1890s, seven percent of Cleveland’s workforce toiled in the city’s garment factories, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.
Many of the founders and owners were Jews of German or Austrian-Hungarian extraction. Four of the nine founders of the Jewish Federation – the Federation of Jewish Welfare Charities of 1903 – led the local garment-making firms, said Dr. Sean Martin, curator for Jewish History at the Western Reserve Historical Society.
During this fertile period, John Anisfield began inviting his only child, Edith, downtown to his office on Saturdays, where the two would consider the family’s philanthropy. She was just 12 in 1901 when this consultation began – a full 19 years before the country decided to give women the right to vote with the 19th Amendment.
The forward-looking father and precocious daughter (Edith could read French, German, and English) sent money to Mount Sinai Hospital, the first such Cleveland institution to accept patients regardless of creed or color. When John Anisfield died in 1929, his daughter took five years to decide how to honor him: a literary prize that became the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.
“The most important legacy of the garment industry is its philanthropic legacy,” historian Martin told a packed audience at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. “The wealth they generated – not just for themselves but for their employees – is still with us.”
The 2010 Census figures tallied Harlem’s black population at its lowest since the 1920s. Such broad demographic changes have left some New Yorkers, like Jacob Morris of the Harlem Historical Society, concerned about the neighborhood’s future.
“Harlem was the capital of black America,” Morris said. “But as demographics change, a city loses awareness of its history. I wanted to do something about it, before the composition of the community changed so much that they didn’t care anymore.”
Naming streets after prominent African-Americans connected to Harlem became a galvanizing idea. Morris pursued the first street co-naming in 2005; two years later, he succeeded. Frederick Douglass Landing was christened on Chambers Street in Manhattan, which commemorated the place Douglass landed in 1838, as a 20-year-old escaping from slavery, on his third try.
Since 2007, the Harlem Historical Society has helped almost 30 luminaries take their place on street signs all over the neighborhood—including (Anisfield-Wolf winner) Zora Neale Hurston Place and (Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall Place.
Morris is especially proud of the women the society has rallied to recognize, including civil rights activist Ella Baker, who helped launch the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. “If there was a Mount Rushmore for the civil rights movement, Ella Baker would be on it,” he said.
The latest push is to honor James Baldwin. Morris said he and Herb Boyd, who wrote Baldwin’s Harlem, came up with the idea four years ago to honor James Baldwin, but needed to pinpoint an appropriate location. They chose W. 128th between Fifth and Madison Aves., the site of Baldwin’s elementary school. Because young Baldwin had a transient childhood, “the real continuity in young James’ life was the school,” Morris explained.
Baldwin’s nephew, Trevor Baldwin, joined the campaign, and the resolution passed the city’s traffic and transportation committee this month, with official news coming in early 2014.
African-American tech insiders will talk about their work stories in a new series on National Public Radio’s Tell Me More.
From Dec. 2 until Dec. 20, Twitter users can follow the #NPRBlacksInTech hashtag to follow a day-in-the-life of these “tech thinkers.” Michel Martin, host of Tell Me More, expects this feature will broaden the conversation about who staffs the tech revolution.
“‘A Day in the Life’ allows us to experience in real time the imprint that African-Americans are making on our country’s STEM engine,” Martin said. “The series throws open the door to the worlds of these highly important, but largely invisible, individuals.”
Anjuan Simmons, who this year published the book “Minority Tech,” said he jumped at the chance to give others a glimpse of his work as a software project manager. (He will be live-tweeting his day December 6.)
“We are at a potential inflection point in getting people of color into technology,” Simmons said. “After being left out of past revolutions, the technology revolution needs to be the most inclusive jump in human potential and productivity that we’ve seen in this country.”