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History

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Sewit Sium Creates Handmade Jewelry that Celebrates Black History and Inspires Cultural Pride

Sewit Sium is a designer of historically and culturally inspired African jewelry. Each handmade piece is a modern heirloom imbued with story, statement, and sentiment.
We spoke to the founder, Sewit Sium to find out more about her business.
Sewit Sium
Sewit Sium

What inspired you to start Sewit Sium?

I’ve always been captivated by the intersection of jewelry, education, and grassroots activism. Prior to starting my business, I taught Fashion Politics and Design at various High Schools in NYC, using jewelry as an educational tool, as primary source material (like a text) to teach predominantly Black and Brown youth about their history, about the world. We had powerful conversations about where we came from, where we are now and where we are going.
Sewit Sium
Much of what is conveniently omitted from NYC Public School curriculum, from common core texts. It’s crucial for us all to recognize and insert ourselves in our own stories – symbols, motifs, jewelry. I believe that this is the work that runs counter her to Western speared revisionist history. This is the urgency that Sewit Sium was born out of in 2015.
I have the opportunity to hand-make meaningful jewelry that will outlast me.  I’m always asking myself the question, what message do I want to send people 500 years from now? If the answer doesn’t revolve around truth-seeking, equality, and justice, its not usually worth my time. Nothing against abstraction.
Sewit Sium
 
We literally know about the world because of what was engraved and memorialized in jewelry and stone. Jewelry is the oldest form of decorative arts, a phenomenon that was born on the African continent. Without it, we wouldn’t know about ourselves.
This is why I’m continuing the legacy of hand-making statement jewelry encoded with this history, culture, sentiment, and love. My hope is that people adorn and become activated and inspired by my work.
I recently made Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X Medallions (took over a year!) to not only honor and channel their spirits but to remind us of what’s possible, that change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. Always has. 
Sewit Sium

How do you decide what pieces you want to create?

I don’t choose what pieces to create, I’m only a vessel of the creator. We all are. So to answer your question, the designs urgently choose me.  I usually become possessed and obsessed over the course of 3/4 months at a time. This is how collections come to me.
Designing jewelry is an exercise in memory, it’s a reconjuring. It’s a tactile political and spiritual practice, during this time I feel touched by divine inspiration. This might sound out there, lately, I’ve been channeling Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Nefertiti, the Orisha Goddess Oya, and my late father. They’ve all deeply moved me on a visceral level. Jewelry should do the same.
 
I recently re-read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, ASSATA and Ngugi Wa’Thiong’s Moving the Center. Reading key texts and writing is a huge part of my design process. 

How would you describe your design style?

Timeless, beautiful, sentimental. There’s a vintage quality, one of revival and innovation. I draw on indigenous African iconography that is relevant across time and space. I’m an activist and jewelry historian first, so my style direction is freedom bound. The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible. 
Sewit Sium
 

So far, what has been the biggest challenge and biggest reward of being a business owner?

Discipline has been an issue. I wear all the hats in my business and as it grows the overwhelm is real.  I have to do the jewelry research, design, making, marketing/selling, PR – I’m an artist, all I want to do is the research-design-making, the rest doesn’t come naturally. Making time for all of this requires an airtight schedule.
When I sleep in or procrastinate, the guilt can take me out of creativity and the present moment, still working on it. The biggest reward for me isn’t press or outward success, its those days when I get up early, meditate and complete my daily goals. The days I show up for myself and do God’s will. 

Where do you see the business in the next 5 years?

I recently made some dope jewelry for a huge Black Hollywood production due out in 2020. Let’s just say I got to work with the legendary Ruth Carter (She did the costume for Black Panther and Spike Lee’s “X”)  Stay tuned!!! I would love to continue consulting and making animate jewels for movies that are instrumental in telling our stories.  I also want to do a PhD in the Politics of Fashion.  Of course, I’ll continue to grow my business.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

Make sure you absolutely love what you do because the money doesn’t come overnight.  Work hard and keep going. Take everything one day at a time, in a sense tomorrow is none of your business. Do your work.
Don’t compare yourself to others, you’re on your own sacred journey. Have a full-time job that supports your passion? That’s okay. Do what you can, with what you’ve got, in the place you are, in the time you are. Hang with people that support you and get your vision. Don’t commune with people that leave you feeling depleted. Get a mentor and mentor others, give back. 
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National Museum of African American History and Culture to acquire Ebony and Jet Archives

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will acquire a significant portion of the archive of the Johnson Publishing Company, the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines. The acquisition is pending court approval and the closing of the sale.

A consortium of foundations—the Ford Foundation, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—is making this acquisition possible. The consortium will transfer the archive to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

The archive, purchased at auction for $30 million, includes more than four million prints, negatives, and media that explored, celebrated and documented African American life from the 1940s and into the 21st century.

“It is a distinct honor for the museum to be invited to join the Getty Research Institute and other leading cultural institutions to safeguard and share with the world this incomparable collection of photographs,” said Spencer Crew, acting director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“We applaud the generosity of the consortium of foundations that made this acquisition possible.  And we pay homage to the vision of John H. Johnson and his commitment to bringing to the nation and the world, the story of the African American experience—in all its complexity and all its richness. Ebony and Jet were the only places where African Americans could see themselves. They were the visual record of our beauty, humanity, dignity, grace, and our accomplishments.

“Being the steward of the archive is an extraordinary responsibility, and we are humbled to play a critical role in bringing new life to these images. With the depth of its curatorial expertise and the technical skills in digitization, the Museum stands ready to marshall its forces to make this archive accessible to the widest possible audience.  We are honored to work with our recipient colleagues to make this gift to the nation possible.”

National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Museum has built a distinctive photography collection that includes more than 25,000 prints, negatives, and photographic materials. Photographers represented in the collection include Anthony Barboza, Cornelius M. Battey, Arthur P. Bedou, Bruce Davidson, Charles “Teenie” Harris, Danny Lyon, Jack Mitchell, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, Gordon Parks, P. H. Polk, Addison Scurlock, Lorna Simpson, Aaron Siskind, James Van Der Zee, Carrie Mae Weems, and Ernest Withers.

Read more about this acquisition on the Smithsonian website.

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Restoration of Nina Simone’s Childhood Home To Begin This Spring

The proposed rehabilitation of Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon, N.C., is moving forward, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The group has completed an official assessment of the house’s structural conditions and chosen a path of initial action alongside the four New York-based artist-owners, Adam Pendleton, Rashid Johnson, Ellen Gallagher and Julie Mehretu.

“We are committed to realizing the artist-owners’ dream of seeing this home preserved and reborn as an act of social justice and a tribute to Ms. Simone’s unapologetic pursuit of musical, personal and political freedom,” Tiffany Tolbert, senior field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said in the group’s official statement.

In an interview with the Herald-Journal, Tolbert said the conditions assessment found that the home’s foundation was sound, as was the house overall, but many of the materials on the home’s exterior are in need of repair.

Tolbert said the owners were presented with two paths for restoration: They could go the route of temporary stabilization, to prevent any further deterioration, or they could have the house undergo more permanent repairs. The owners ultimately decided to begin repairing the house, focusing on repairs that will prevent further weather damage, particularly from moisture.

This work, which will begin in the spring after an architect is chosen, will include repairing and painting the siding; repairing or replacing the roof, depending on further inspection; and repairing the windows to seal out moisture. The work will focus on the exterior, leaving the interior work for after a plan of how the home will be used has been developed. Tolbert said the work could begin as early as April.

The home was designated a “national treasure” in June, coincidentally coinciding with the Juneteenth holiday. The four artists had purchased the house when it was up for sale and in danger of being demolished in 2017, and later partnered with the National Trust’s African-American Heritage Action Fund to find a way to restore and reuse the home.

Tolbert will be heading to Tryon on Valentine’s Day for a planning session with The Nina Simone Project, which has acted as the local point-of-contact for the project.

Interiors – Birthplace of Nina Simone (born Eunice Waymon). The furnishings are not original but were added by recent owners.

“Frankly, I can’t think of a better Valentine’s gift to Tryon, to North Carolina, and to the United States,” said Crys Armbrust, founder and leader of The Nina Simone Project.

The National Trust, along with the owners and local artists, preservationists and project partners like The Nina Simone Project, the World Monument Fund, the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Preservation North Carolina, the N.C. State Historic Preservation Office and UNC-Asheville, among others, will hold a “visioning workshop” in May in Tryon to discuss ideas for the future use of the house. Members of the public not directly associated with the project will be able to participate as well, though not in person.

“There will be opportunities for the public to weigh in, but it won’t be a public meeting,” Tolbert said. Tolbert said that ideas from the public would be included during the vision workshop’s discussions. The format for public discussion and submission of ideas is still being developed.

Armbrust declined to discuss any specific ideas that his organization will be bringing to the May meeting, but he said that he would support uses that “emphasize broad community dialogue and stress positive, personal-growth opportunities, especially for young people.”

“My greatest hope for the project is exactly what is happening: the mindful preservation of an integral historic structure closely associated with the early growth and development of Dr. Nina Simone, a music icon and civil rights activist of global merit,” Armbrust said.

 

Source: GoUpstate.com

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Danville, Virginia Celebrates Its History as a Mecca of Black Business

North Union Street in Danville, VA has been an overlooked gem of history and culture for decades.. A recent national grant opportunity will shine a spotlight on the area to the tune of $150,000.

The grant that will provide rehabilitation funds for reconstruction and improvements was originally going to be directed toward one of the many other historic sites in Danville, such as the High Street Baptist Church.

Cashiers conduct business with customers at First State Bank on Union Street in Danville. Contributed photo from History United

After some research and analysis, including a building-by-building site review, the choice was made to make the push to put Union Street properties 206 and 208 up for the national voting campaign. It was Union Street’s storied history as a mecca of black business and cultural prosperity and growth that helped it gain enough momentum to secure the votes needed.

A woman works in the safe of First State Bank on Union Street in Danville. Contributed photo from History United

“The $150,000 is great and will definitely be very helpful for what needs to happen there. It’s also going to take additional investments,” Schwartz stated.

Emma Edmunds is one of the historians with History United who helped coordinate the campaign in conjunction with the city. She along with Karice Luck helped research and market the street’s history and potential.

“I’ve been working on the civil rights movement in Danville, and there’s a lot of it that’s centered on Union Street,” Edmunds commented.

She identified the headquarters of the Danville affiliate of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where many of the demonstrations and protest movements were coordinated, as being located on Union Street. There was also a doctor’s building that housed offices of black doctors and dentists. Other cultural entities like a movie theater and restaurants were found there, as well.

First State Bank, founded in 1919 on Union Street in Danville, remained for decades as Virginia’s only surviving black-owned bank. Contributed photo by History United

Additionally, the historic First State Bank founded in 1919 remained for decades as Virginia’s only surviving black-owned bank.

Bankers there were known for bailing out jailed protestors during the civil rights movement and for being openly critical of the racist and segregationist quality of life in the community.“I think Union Street represents for African-Americans this amazing entrepreneurship and initiative during a time that was during segregation,” Edmunds commented.

Edmunds remarked that the preservation of such an area would be an asset for the community in its representation and respect for the city’s history and particularly the contribution to that history of African-Americans.

“There aren’t many cities that I know of where they have so much of that African-American historic business district intact physically,” she stated.

The Merritt Building on Union Street once housed offices of dentists and doctors, a large room for dances and events (top floor), a drug store/pharmacy (street level) and the office of the civil rights groups during the 1963 movement (street level). Contributed photo from History United

Making sure the stories of all the buildings and the people who passed through Union Street are preserved can help foster growth for the future, too.“I think you can tell a lot about the present and understand the present better by understanding some of the past of Danville,” Edmunds said. “I think all African-American children should know about it.”

Luck likewise agrees. Her research produced previous tenants in the building located at 206 and 208 Union St. as including a shoe maker and repair shop in 1906, a billiards parlor in the 1920s, a barbershop and later a furniture store in the 1950s and most recently a shoe shine shop in the 1960s to 1970s.

In Luck’s view, First State Bank is arguably the greatest cultural prize of the neighborhood for its nearly 100 year history. Beyond being a pillar for the community, it was one of the only sources of loans for black community members allowing them to purchase houses. Yet every block on the street has history worth preserving, she said.

“North Union Street has so much rich history, even the buildings have a story to tell,” Luck stated. “Once the tobacco warehouse district, decades later it became the center of black businesses.”In the 1920s, workers at the large Dan River Fabrics mill on Memorial Drive would pass through Union Street to reach food and commerce destinations it offered.

The street also managed to sustain business operations while much of the rest of downtown Danville fell into economic decline. The street also is home to one of the oldest stores in Danville still in operation, Abe Koplen Clothing.

The grant, which is funded by American Express in conjunction with Main Street America, Delta Airlines and National Geographic, will see to it that as much as possible of the site is restored and repaired without replacing. The buildings will be leased, but the future tenants have not been announced yet. Interest is developing but first much work is to be completed by the grant’s summer 2019 deadline.

 

Source: GoDanRiver.com

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The First Woman Bank Founder Was Black. She Just Got Her Own Monument

Maggie Lena Walker was the first woman of any race to start a bank. St. Luke’s Penny Savings, gave loans to Black business owners and residents at fair rates, then recycled the interest earned to keep building the community.

In 1901  Maggie is quoted as saying, “First we need a savings bank. Let us put our moneys together; let us use our moneys; let us put our money out at usury among ourselves, and reap the benefit ourselves. Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”

Interior of St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, c. 1917
Maggie L Walker National Historic Site

Now, a 10-foot bronze statue of a 45-year-old Walker standing tall is surrounded by inscriptions tracing the life of the woman who early on helped her mother, a former slave, by delivering clothes as a laundress.

Maggie L. Walker and the officers of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, c. 1917
Maggie L Walker National Historic Site

She then became a newspaper publisher, teacher, bank founder, businesswoman, civil rights leader, entrepreneur and mother.

“She is in her rightful place in the heart of this city,” Liza Mickens, another of Maggie Walker’s great-great-granddaughters.

She is facing Broad Street, Mickens said, where African-American people weren’t always welcome. She is also at the gateway to Jackson Ward, a historic African-American community that she helped inspire.

During its long history, the bank founded by Maggie Walker benefited the Black community in Richmond. By 1920, it had issued more than 600 mortgages to black families, allowing many to realize the dream of home ownership.

It also provided employment for Black people who’s only other options were menial or labor intensive jobs.

The statue is located in downtown Richmond at Broad and Adams streets, which is a gateway to the Jackson Ward neighborhood where many of her life accomplishments occurred.

-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson

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Where Have All the Black-Owned Businesses Gone? – The Atlantic

At the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., a hallway of glass display cases features more than a century’s worth of black entrepreneurial triumphs.

In one is a World War II–era mini parachute manufactured by the black-owned Pacific Parachute Company, home to one of the nation’s first racially integrated production plants. Another displays a giant clock from the R. H. Boyd Publishing Company, among the earliest firms to print materials for black churches and schools.

Although small, the exhibit recalls a now largely forgotten legacy: By serving their communities when others wouldn’t, black-owned independent businesses provided avenues of upward mobility for generations of black Americans and supplied critical leadership and financial support for the civil rights movement.

black-owned
Kay’s Valet Shoppe, 1938–1945. Photo credit: Teenie Harris

This tradition continues today. Last June, Black Enterprise magazine marked the 44th anniversary of the BE 100s, the magazine’s annual ranking of the nation’s top 100 black-owned businesses.

At the top of the list stood World Wide Technology, which, since its founding in 1990, has grown into a global firm with more than $7 billion in revenue and 3,000 employees. Then came companies like Radio One, whose 55 radio stations fan out among 16 national markets.

David L. Steward: chairman and founder of World Wide Technology, Inc.

The combined revenues of the companies that made the BE 100s, which also includes Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, now totals more than $24 billion, a nine-fold increase since 1973, adjusting for inflation.

A closer look at the numbers, however, reveals that these pioneering companies are the exception to a far more alarming trend. The last 30 years also have brought the wholesale collapse of black-owned independent businesses and financial institutions that once anchored black communities across the country.

In 1985, 60 black-owned banks were providing financial services to their communities; today, just 23 remain. In 11 states where black-owned banks had headquarters in 1994, not a single one is still in business. Of the 50 black-owned insurance companies that operated during the 1980s, today just two remain.

Over the same period, tens of thousands of black-owned retail establishments and local service companies also have disappeared, having gone out of business or been acquired by larger companies.

Reflecting these developments, working-age black Americans have become far less likely to be their own boss than in the 1990s. The per-capita number of black employers, for example, declined by some 12 percent just between 1997 and 2014.

What’s behind these trends, and what’s the implication for American society as a whole? To be sure, at least some of this entrepreneurial decline reflects positive economic developments. A slowly rising share of white-collar salaried jobs are now held by black Americans, who have more options for employment beyond running their own businesses.

The movement of millions of black families to integrated suburbs over the last 40 years also is a welcome trend, even if one effect has been to weaken the viability of the many black-owned independent businesses left behind in historically black neighborhoods.

But the decline in entrepreneurship and business ownership among black Americans also is cause for concern. One reason is that it largely reflects not the opening of new avenues of upward mobility, but rather the foreclosing of opportunity.

Rates of business ownership and entrepreneurship are falling among black citizens for much the same reason they are declining among whites and Latinos. As large retailers and financial institutions comprise an ever-bigger slice of the national economy, the possibility of starting and maintaining an independent business has dropped.

Read the rest of this article by Brian Feldman @ The Atlantic

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Harlem’s Schomburg Center Named Historic Landmark

The Harlem-based, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has been named a national landmark by the US Department of the Interior. It was chosen as one of twenty four other places that “depict a broad range of America’s rich, complex history.”

According to press release from the DOI:

“The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City represents the idea of the African Diaspora, a revolutionizing model for studying the history and culture of people of African descent that used a global, transnational perspective.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg

The idea and the person who promoted it, Arthur (Arturo) Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938), an Afro-Latino immigrant and self-taught bibliophile, reflect the multicultural experience of America and the ideals that all Americans should have intellectual freedom and social equality.”

 

 

Support the institution by checking out their 2017 events here!

 

-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson

 

 

 

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Jeanette Epps: First Black Astronaut To Board The International Space Station

On January 4th, NASA selected aerospace engineer and astronaut, Jeanette Epps as one of the crew members that will be boarding the International Space Station in 2018.

Dr. Epps will become the first Black astronaut to board the ISS when she launches on her first spaceflight in May 2018.

In 1992 she earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at LeMoyne College in her hometown of Syracuse, New York. She went on to complete a master’s of science in 1994 and a doctorate in 2000 in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland.

Dr. Epps previously worked for Ford Motor Company where she received patents for her research related to automobile frontal collision.

jeanette epps

After leaving Ford, she spent seven years with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a Technical Intelligence Officer before becoming an astronaut.

When asked about her hobbies and interests, she said “One of my favorite hobbies/interests is working with kids of all ages to teach them about science and technology. Other hobbies that I have, when I am not working, include traveling, reading, and trying as many new things as I can!”

 

-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson

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Ana Flavia: First Black Model to Win Brasil’s Ford Models Contest

On December 10th, Ana Flavia of Salvador, Bahia, became the first Black model to win Super Model of The World – Ford Models Brasil’s 34-year old modeling competition.

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Ana, 20, won a four-year contract with Ford Models in the amount of $150,000. She competed with 15 other candidates that were recruited from various regions of the country.  

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“It was wonderful”….”I’m opening doors for other Black girls. I received lots of messages telling me that I was being an inspiration. “

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-Tony Oluwatoyin Lawson

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Annie Turnbo Malone: One of the First Black Women Millionaires in the U.S.

If you haven’t heard of Annie Turnbo Malone before today, you aren’t alone. When we found out about her, we were amazed that despite her amazing achievements, she isn’t a household name. So, who is Annie Malone?

Annie Turnbo Malone

Annie Turnbo Malone

Annie Turnbo Malone (August 9, 1869—May 10, 1957) is recorded as one of the U.S.’s first Black female millionaires based on reports of $14 million in assets held in 1920 from her beauty and cosmetic enterprises, headquartered in St. Louis and Chicago.

PoroBeautyCulture0001

While Annie was growing up, the popular style among Black women was the “straight hair” look.  Black women were moving from the braided cornrow styles they’d associated with the fields of slavery and began to embrace a look which, for them signified freedom and progression toward equality in America. The beauty industry at the time, had critics who were concerned that the promotion and glamorization of hair-straighteners (and, worse, skin-bleaching creams) would lead to the internalization of white concepts of beauty. This is obviously still an issue to this day. (Think Lil’ Kim)

Annie Turnbo Malone
Poro Advertisement

Annie was mindful that such products had a negative perception attached to them. Perhaps this is why she trademarked her beauty products under the name “Poro” (a West African word for an organization dedicated to enhancing the body spiritually and physically.) There also some elements of the term that indicate beauty.

Annie Turnbo Malone
Poro Advertisement

Annie began to revolutionize hair care methods for all African Americans in the early 1900’s. In 1902, she moved to St. Louis, hired some assistants and began selling her products door-to-door.

Annie Turnbo Malone
Poro products
Annie Turnbo Malone
Poro Pressing Oil

One of her protégés was Sarah Breedlove who would later be known as Madam C.J. Walker. Walker actually worked as a “Poro Agent” for Annie for about one year. Walker is often credited as the originator of the Black beauty and cosmetics business and the direct distribution and sales agent system that Malone developed.

Annie Turnbo Malone
Young C.J. Walker

By 1917, as United States entered World War I, Annie Malone had become so successful that she founded and opened Poro College in St. Louis. It was the first educational institution in the United States dedicated to the study and teaching of Black cosmetology.

Annie Turnbo Malone
Poro Shipping Department

By 1926, the college employed 175 people and franchised outlets in North and South America, Africa, and the Philippines employing some 75,000 women. Malone had become a wealthy woman.

Annie Turnbo Malone
Poro College, St. Louis, MO

 

Annie Turnbo Malone
Poro College, St. Louis, MO

Despite her wealth, Malone lived conservatively and gave away much of her fortune to help other African Americans. She is one of America’s first major Black philanthropists.

Annie Turnbo Malone
Poro Fleet of vehicles
Annie Turnbo Malone
Poro college delivery truck

She contributed thousands of dollars to educational programs, universities, to the YMCA, and to nearly every Black orphanage in the country. Her $25,000 donation to Howard University was among the largest gifts received by a private donor of African descent. She also served as board president of the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home from 1919 to 1943.

Annie Turnbo Malone
Poro College Graduation Atlanta 1939

Malone died in Chicago on May 10, 1957. By the time of her death, she had lost her national visibility and most of her money to lawsuits and tax debts. Having no children, her estate, valued at $100,000, was left to her nieces and nephews.

Annie Turnbo Malone