Women’s History Month – Quilts Connect From Pre Civil War to the 21st Century

“When you can effectively deny a man of his history, you can effectively deny him of his very humanity.” The statement from A Handbook for Teachers of African American Children by Baruti K. Kafele, an award-winning educator, whose first name means teacher, is so true.

What about women’s history? It astounds me that with all the great leaders in the world, when I ask my freshmen English class to write about heroes, most fourteen-year-old girls, choose celebrities like Lady Gaga to idolize.

“When I was your age,” I explained to my class, “women were second-class citizens. Female athletes and books about them were non-existent; very few female biographies were published.  My hero was Harriet Tubman a brave, athletic slave who escaped to freedom and then led others on Underground Railroad.”

“How did a white girl end up with a black slave for hero?”

Women were obliterated from literature, except in the role as damsel in distress. Like Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird, rebelling against the role of Southern white belle, I fought the confines of traditional womanhood in the 70s.

Lenore' s quilt for granddaughter

Yet individual acts of courage can make an extraordinary difference. Rosa Parks sat down so the nation would stand up for Civil Rights. Jane Addams, the first female Nobel Peace Prize recipient, helped poor Chicagoans survive the Great Depression. Harriet Tubman risked her freedom and her life helping 300 other slaves escape north.

Other heroes followed a more traditional path like my mom, Lenore McKinzie, who combined family and career. She instructed and nurtured, inspired and sewed. My mom’s passion led her to attend Dr. Clarice Boswell’s lecture on Pre-Civil War Quilts. Dr. Boswell explained how the codes stitched in quilt patterns signaled safe routes on the Underground Railroad and recounted her family ancestry in her book, Lizzie’s Story – A Slave Family’s Journey to Freedom.

So where is this going? Dr. Boswell’s daughter, Cathy Boswell, a 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist, entered Illinois State University the year after I graduated. In my first coaching gig, Cathy starred on the team I coached at summer camp.

Now my class was hooked; the lesson tied in with basketball and the Olympics.

My international students thought the Underground Railroad was a real train tunnel. They had never heard of Harriet Tubman. Most had no clue what a quilt was either. I handed out photocopies of the Pre Civil War quilt patterns and then passed around an example of the mini quilt cover my mom made me.  She sewed a red cardinal, Illinois’ state bird, also my Norwegian grandmother’s favorite, into the green and gold cloth as an everlasting a symbol of my own ancestry.

Dr Clarice Boswell

From Harriet Tubman to Jane Addams to Rosa Parks, “little” women made a big impact on history. From Betsy Ross to Clarice Boswell to Lenore McKinzie, American women connected generations in the great tapestry of humanity, one stitch at time.

 

Information on quilting events: http://www.northernillinoisquiltfest.com/events.html

October 20, 2011, 1:30 p.m. McHenry County Historical Society Museum: Dr. Clarice Boswell Presents – Pre-Civil War Quilts: Their Hidden Codes to the Freedom of Slaves through the Underground Railroad at the McHenry County Historical Society Museum. (Union, Illinois)

Dr. Jone’s Dream: Equal Education Long Before Brown v. Topeka Kansas

I teach at the world’s oldest and largest international school where the annual tution costs as much as a year of elite university in the states. My students, from affluent families valuing education, cannot understand how minorities denied equal education remain powerless within societies. In 1896 the 14th Amendment guaranteed full rights of citizenship to anyone born in the USA, yet Plessy v. Ferguson, a ruling that same year, upheld social segregation of “white and colored races”. Over a half century later little had changed.  The “separate but equal” doctrine provided the legal basis for racial segregation until the 1954 Brown v. the Board of Topeka, Kansas case. Thirteen families representing twenty school children, led by the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall, who became the first African American judge, challenged the Supreme Court’s decision and deemed the doctrine unconstitutional.  This helped spark the Civil Rights Movement and led to integration of not only schools, but also public places.

Dr Jones & school children

Dr Jones & school children

In 1909, long before that epic battle,  Laurence Jones, a black man with a vision, turned an abandoned sheep shed into The Piney Woods School with meager donations from an impoverished community. This was the beginning of his dream  to educate underprivileged black children in destitute, rural Rankin County, Mississippi.  Over a century later, that one room school has become a thriving 2,000 acres campus, with a high school that can justly boast “we are changing America, and the world, one student at a time.” Alumnus went on to Princeton, Howard, and Tuskegee pursuing degrees in medicine, education, marketing and other careers to become leaders in their fields.

When my grandparents, Ralph and Betty McKinzie, retired from teaching at NIU and DeKalb High School, they dedicated two years of service teaching at Piney Woods.  During Easter break 1968, on a trip to visit my grandparents, we drove through the deep South where I saw ram shackled lean-tos, the remnants of slavery.

Jim, Ralph, Betty McKinzie, Martha Olson, Dr. Jones

 

“How come the Negroes live in shacks?” I asked with the innocence of an ten-year-old.

“Because they are so poor.”

“Why are they so poor?”

“Because they don’t have any land.”

“Hey, I see lots of land,” I said pointing towards a sprawling plantation with stately white pillars. “The whole town could fit in that house; it’s bigger than a hotel!”

At Piney Woods School, my brother and I played basketball with the black boys on a dirt court in a sun-baked paradise surrounded by pine and honey-scented pink and white magnolias. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

“Isn’t it great how well they get along?” my dad asked.

My sisters and new friends

“If only we could remain children in our hearts,” my grandma replied.

As we piled suitcases on top of the Rambler to head back North, a young girl peeked behind her big sister’s cotton skirt to stare at the first white family she’d ever seen.

“Schootch together,” Grandma said, “so I can take your picture.”

I stood by my new friend, the color of chocolate, and beamed as the camera clicked.  Then I reached over and took her soft warm hand in mine. It fit just perfect.

Photographs of my childhood remain etched in my soul forever.  Just as my grandma had hoped, I remained a child in my heart, befriending people from all four corners of the globe in my international community where I teach as an adult.

 

http://www.pineywoods.org/

 

 

 

President’s Day February 21 and Family Ties to the White House

Many people I meet in Europe look clueless when I tell them I am from Illinois, but their faces light up when I add,  “from the Land of Lincoln.”  They may be unable to locate my home state on a map, but they have heard of Abraham Lincoln.

February is a fitting time for Presidents’ Day, which commemorates their birthdays on the third Monday of the month, in honor of our first President’s birthday, George Washington.

Abraham Lincoln’s was born February 12th.  If Ronald Reagan had lived, he would have turned one hundred on Feb. 6th.

My grandfather, who passed away at age 96, almost made it to the century mark. Even in old age, he never forgot his own birthday.  Hard for a guy to forget, when a President of the United States called up every year to remind you.

Coach Mac & President Reagan in the Oval Office - courtesy White House photography

Now what kind of a man – who knew the glamour of Hollywood and the glory of the White House – would remain kind enough to call his old college coach every year to extend well wishes?  Reagan played right guard for my grandpa, Coach Mac, at Eureka College from 1928-1932.  Though grandpa remembered Reagan for being a better orator than athlete, the relationship forged on a football field at the small private, Christian school in central Illinois lasted a lifetime. “Dutch” Reagan and Coach Mac remained together for every crucial moment of each other’s career.

Reagan delivered my grandfather’s retirement testimonial speech at Northern Illinois University and presented his award at the Washington D.C.Touchdown Club.  Coach Mac attended Reagan’s Presidential Inauguration and dined at the White House.  When my grandpa under went hip surgery, Reagan’s White House doctors’ consulted with my grandpa’s surgeon.

Whether one agreed with Reagan’s conservative policy or not, history will remember our 40th President (1981-1989) as a gifted communicator whose vision led to sustained economic growth, an end to the Cold War, and a restoration of the nation’s confidence.

When I look back, I will remember the man from humble beginnings, who grew up a stone’s throw from my hometown, who found it fitting to honor my grandpa, also of modest origins, with a phone call every year.

Put party loyalties and politics aside. And though indebted Illinois has it’s share of problems, I take pride knowing my home state helped shape a few good leaders, from Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, to Ronald Reagan in Eureka, to President Barack Obama in Chicago.

Illinois is a good place to grow up; February is a good month for birthdays.

Celebrating the Rosa Parks in your Neighborhood

[audio:http://pattymackz.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/07-Momma-Hold-My-Hand-11.mp3|titles=Momma Hold My Hand]I teach at an international school with students of over a hundred different nationalities where the notion of racism is non existent, so during Black History Month every February I try to help my students understand how prejudice can pass through generations even in a nation founded on democracy. Though I grew up in small town, USA, at the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, I don’t have a racist bone in my body. I credit that to the two families who taught me that everyone should be treated equal; the white one I was born to, and the black one I adopted through basketball.

Barb Smith was as much a part of the history of my community, as the brick in the foundation of Sterling High School where I lived out my hoop dreams. As an adult, I saw only her once a year at the Smith-Hereford Family July 4th Reunion where I was welcomed home like a long lost child. It was no surprise that she was the catalyst for the event that united family, friends and neighbors, from Alabama to Wallace Street to 11th. She brought people together long before that tradition began.

She never aged. When she wrapped you in a hug, though small built, you felt like you could break in half from the strength of that love. Hardworking. Resilient. Courageous. She was like the Rosa Parks of the Sauk Valley, taking a stand for human justice long before the lawmakers got around to it. At a time when Jim Crow Laws were still deeply ingrained in the social fabric, she chose to remain colorblind, ignoring the dictates of society.

Didn’t matter what side of the tracks you were born on. All people were her people. And nobody went hungry. There was always a spare rib, a plate of greens or a piece a pie left to feed another hungry child.

She had 6 children, 23 grandchildren, 37 great grand children and 8 great great grand children, but it didn’t matter if you were kin folk or not; she knew long before the rest of the country all blood is red and “we all God’s children.”

She was meek but mighty, a tiny woman with an enormous heart. And a smile so big that it could light up the universe.

Any friend of the family was a friend for life. She made everybody feel special. Whenever she knew I would be back in town, she baked me lemon pie. We had a standing joke ever since I first tasted her famous lemon meringue pie as a teen, and announced, “I never tasted no white folk pie that good.”

She laughed and her laugh was infectious. Laughter rings throughout my memory of her.

She had a faith strong enough to move mountains and a love so enduring to withstand generations of hardship and loss. Yet she lived each day as though it were a blessing and loved each soul as though he or she were heaven sent. All who knew her felt gifted.

Although I can still hear her hollering her daughter’s and my sister’s name, the year they won the state basketball championship, she was a cheerleader for all of us. I can still see her smile, feel her hug; I can still taste her love filled lemon meringue, sweet and tart, smooth and creamy.

Though she no longer walks this earth, baking pie and bringing good cheer, she winks down on us in every ray of sunshine and each twinkling star. We know without a doubt, we are better people for having known her. Every time I help a neighbor, encourage a friend, care for a loved one, every time I do the right thing, I remember Mom Smith and stand a bit taller.

in remembrance of Barbara Smith, click on this link to listen to Momma Hold My Hand

Celebrate Books – The Memory of Mankind

Celebrate Books The Memory of Mankind For the past 29 years during Banned Books Week, late September, librarians and educators unite to celebrate our freedom to read and heighten our awareness of the liberty to treasure the written word.

I fell in love with words in childhood, while raised in a teachers’ family I was exposed to the beauty of books at an early age. I devoured books voraciously until I reached adolescense when reading was decidedly uncool.

I renewed my passion once I moved abroad in my twenties. Words took on a new allure when the written word in English was not readily available while living in a francophone and germanic language country. Then books in my mother tongue were like gold.

For two years, after a severe whiplash accident, my eyes could not focus on words in any language. When I finally recovered and the letters on the page stopped wiggling, I developed an ever greater appreciation for books.

The intellectual freedom to access ideas, to express opinions and to read what I want is my birth right as an American citizen. Protected by the 1st Amendment in the U.S. Constitution, as part of the Bill of Rights, it is a privilege we often take for granted.

Today I spend a part of my day trying to convince teenagers to invest energy in discovering books. Maybe if students know the book I assign to read had once been banned, they will be lured into cracking open the cover.

It is amazing the number of books that have been on the hit list, including some of the greatest books ever written, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, as well as, the Diary of Anne Frank, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Beloved by Toni Morrison and Color Purple by Alice Walker, to mention a few.

During the Holocaust and other troubling times in history, books were burned, which reminds us of the danger when restraints impose limits on cultures, races and religions.

Though many books are challenged due to language or content, few remained banned, like Adolf Hitler ‘s Mein Kampf which publishers refuse to reprint to prevent inciting right wing extremist’s violence with Hitler’s destructive ideology.

Ironically often times the religious zealots are the first to challenge books in public education even though the freedom to establish and to exercise religion, was the basis of the Bill of Rights on which our nation was founded. Puritans, Quakers and others left Europe in pursuit of place where they would be free to practice the religion of their choice.

Words can never be underestimated. They make humans distinguishable from animals. By comprehending the hopes, conflicts, aspirations, successes and failures of people in time and space, we can better understand the self. Without literature, education would have no articulated spirit and our function would be survival rather than aspiration.

The only positive outcome of making books taboo that I can foresee is enticing rebellious adolescents to turn on to literature, one “bad” word at time.

Hiding in the Secret Attic of School

Sixty five years after the anniversary of Anne Frank’s death in Bergen Belsen,  the young girl remains a teenager forever, her memory kept alive by the millions who  read her story.
My 9th grade English class try to comprehend the atrocity of world history. We not only analyze the Holocaust ; we also visit a concentration camp. « It is so depressing, » Invariably students say, « why do we have to study. This ? »  Yet, painful as it may be  a young minds, we must bear witness  to the past.
I told the class that they could ever play a game by my rules or  take a test. « The game starts when we walk outside this door.  No talking.  If you speak, you will be sent back to the class room.  Bring your journal and a pen; leave everything else in the room. » 
Single file, 18 students followed me down the hall, up two flights of stairs and down a narrow passageway under the sloping roof of the old building.  I unlocked the door to an empty room, no bigger than a boxcar.  When I close the shutters on the dormer windows, I say, »This is like the black out of houses during WWII bombings. We are in the secret attic of the school.  Write a descriptive piece using all five senses.  You can imagine you are writing a journal entry during the Holocaust, you can invent a story of the Swiss hiding from their French neighbors, former oppressors, or you can pretend the teachers turned against students and I am  hiding you to save you from being taken away.  You have to survive one class period in without a sound. »
Students slouched against the sloping walls.
A couple boys scuffled  over the three wooden chairs.  Others lay on the floor.  Only the rustle
of paper and pens scratching across the lines breaks the eerie silence.  No one spoke.  Even my hyperactive drummer boy stopped tapping. 
The air was hot and stuffy from too many bodies crowded into too small of space, squeezed
so close together our elbows touched. I felt like I was suffocating.
My thirteen-year old students were the same age as Anne Frank when she went into
hiding.  How different their lives?  Affluent kids from privileged backgrounds dressed in designer jeans and shirts, feet clad in various name brand of tennis shoes in rainbow colors.  My six girls, a minority, stopped writing occasionally to brush their long, luxurious hair from their bright, inquisitive eyes.
 I glanced around the room at my students -American, British, Czech, French, German, Guadamalean, Indian, Italian, Japanese, Scandinavian, Swiss , Trinidadian, -not long ago we were divided by ideology in a world war.  Allies vs. Nazis, the axis of evil, set to annihilate all but the Aryan race. Today we are classmates and friends at an international school without walls in Switzerland, a neutral country without borders.
« I feel locked, not in a room, but within myself, » one Israeli student wrote. « Even though we are not alone without communication we’re not together. The intense atmosphere of silence can quickly make the toughest mind fragile. »
« I feel oppressed. » wrote another.  « My back hurts  from sitting on the floor.»
I cannot help but compare these kids to those of Anne Frank’s time or to my generation coming of age at the heels of the Civil Rights and Women’s movement.  I pods, I pads, Internet, cell phones,
television, today’s teens connected 24/7 by instant messaging and the world wide web.  When was the last time these children listened to silence, turned out the universe and tuned into the self ? 
These multi cultured, multi ethnic, children are our future.  They are the ones who will stop nuclear war, negotiate peace, end terrorism, prevent oil spills and contain other man made disasters with more cooperation, better technology, brighter minds.
And I the aging teacher will become a shadow of the past, a faded memory of an era when I
tried to change lives  the old fashioned way, one idea at a time.