History Calling in Harlem

Richard Cohen – The Washington Post

Copyright The Washington Post
…During the presidency of Herbert Hoover, Congress appropriated funds for the mothers of soldiers killed in World War I to go to Europe to visit their graves. The government then divided the women by race. “White mothers sailed to Europe in style while black mothers whose sons had been killed in their country’s service were assigned to ‘cattle ships.’ ” This is from William E. Leuchtenburg’s forthcoming “Herbert Hoover,” a wonderful and instructive biography.
If you read history, you come across these ugly episodes all the time. Racism in America was not just about school segregation, or blacks in the back of the bus, or even the eruption of violence we hear so much about, but also an insufferable ordinariness, a daily slap in the face, thousands and thousands of cuts and abrasions and an attempt to crush the spirit.
Harlem knows all about that. It is the capital of black America. The man up on the stage, Rangel, is the lineal-political descendant of Adam Clayton Powell, the first black congressman from New York. Powell, too, now has a street named for him.
Another book: In her memoir, Helen Gahagan Douglas wrote about hiring a black secretary. This was 1945, shortly after she had been elected to Congress and five years before she would be slimed by Richard Nixon as the “Pink Lady” in the dirtiest of all senatorial races. The secretary was named Juanita Terry, and she was forbidden, Douglas wrote, to eat in the “staff cafeteria or dining room of the House of Representatives. . . . I raised a storm and ended segregation” — and one of those to benefit was Powell’s own secretary.
In 1967, Powell was expelled from Congress for corruption. By then, his brilliance and fervor had turned to anger and entitlement — a mixture made toxic by the color of his skin. When voters returned him to office nevertheless, I went up to his headquarters in Harlem, and he said “Keep the faith, baby” and gloried in a sweet vindication. But by 1970 he had lost his seat (to Rangel), and by 1972 he was dead, only 63, a tall man brought low by a refusal to stoop…
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