Monday, January 16, 2012

Aprons and Buttons - Martin Luther King, Jr., Day

It was July, 1967.  I was 20 years old, single, and was living through the Detroit riots of 1967.  Buildings were burning, and snipers were shooting people through windows and moving cars.  I couldn’t get out of my apartment after dark or even stand in front of the windows for fear of being shot.  As I tried to sleep, I remember announcements on the radio how many deaths had occurred hour by hour . . .   No one could drive on the streets at night in that neighborhood.  It wasn’t safe; it was a war zone.  At the conclusion of five days of rioting, 43 people lay dead, 1,189 injured, and over 7,000 people had been arrested.

The origins of urban unrest in Detroit were said to be rooted in a multitude of political, economic, and social factors including police abuse, lack of affordable housing, urban renewal projects, economic inequality, black militancy, and rapid demographic change.

For more than 200 years before the Civil War, 95% of blacks in the United States were slaves.  But after the war, and the release of slaves, African Americans stepped into a world of “black code” laws contrived to severely limit the rights of blacks and segregated them from whites, especially in the South.
They were separated at schools, theaters, taverns, and other public places.  So, Congress quickly responded to these laws in 1866 and seized the initiative in remaking the south.  Republicans wanted to ensure that with the remaking the south, freed blacks were made viable members of society.  But the strong southern legislatures finally gave in; in 1868 they repealed most of the laws that discriminated against blacks.

By the 1900’s the southern legislators carried segregation to the extremes.  Here are some of the years and states where it started:

  • 1914: Louisiana required separate entrances for blacks and whites.
  • 1915: Oklahoma segregated telephone booths.
  • 1920: Mississippi made it a crime to advocate or publish “arguments or suggestions in favor of social equalities or of interracial marriage between whites and Negro’s”.
  • Arkansas had segregation at racetracks.
  • Texas prohibited integrated boxing matches.
  •  Kentucky required separate schools, and also that no textbook that was issued to a black would ever be reissued or redistributed; they also prohibited interracial marriage.
  •  Georgia bared black ministers from performing a marriage between white couples. -
When the U.S. entered WW II the south was a fully segregated society.  Everything from schools, restaurants, hotels, train cars, waiting rooms, elevators, public bathrooms, colleges, hospitals, cemeteries, swimming pools, drinking fountains, prisons, and even churches were for whites or blacks but never for both.

In 1955 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which was organized after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man.  King’s efforts led to the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.  There he expanded American values to include the vision of a color blind society and established his reputation as one of the greatest orators in American history.  In 1964, he became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end racial segregation and discrimination through civil disobedience and other non-violent means.

Then the epitome of racism shocked the world.  It was April 4, 1968.  By then I was 22 years old, married, and fixing my hair when I heard on the radio that Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis.  You know how it is when you hear the news about an important event of history in the making, and you can see yourself at that time and feel the emotions of hearing that event as if for the first time.

He was posthumously award the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977 and Congressional Gold Medal in 2004; Martin Luther King, Jr., Day was established as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986.

So what does Martin Luther King, Jr., have to do with vintage aprons or buttons?  Our own History.
Now, as a collector and presenter of antique and vintage aprons and buttons, what are our thoughts about the stereotyped black mammies and their watermelon-eating children as embroidered or printed on these aprons?  Although some people are offended by them, it’s important to remember our history.  “People who cannot remember the past are destined to repeat it,” said George Santayana.  Even Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, and Bill Cosby have huge collections of Black Americana.  Collecting is not condoning.  It’s remembering.  Personally, I would never advocate repulsive bogus reproductions of these vintage artifacts of time gone by, but I also am one to say I would knowingly be politically incorrect, if I am standing up for the Truth of History and all that is Sacred.   And although these reminders can be very painful, they can also be an inspiring testimony to the strength of the African American spirit in the face of discrimination and inequality.

I have not been able to find out (yet) who actually made and wore these vintage aprons, but I will continue to research the question.  If any of you have grandmothers who might know, PLEASE let me know.  Here are some amazing vintage aprons from my eclectic collection from an era [mostly] gone by, as well as a graciously loaned photo of a Martin Luther King, Jr., button from Sally Alsbury in Arkansas.


Again, from Sally Alsbury from Arkansas, here is an image of one of her Martin Luther King, Jr., modern commemorative buttons, apparently far and few between.... Thank you Sally!


A Delightful Children's Book:  Ma Dear's Aprons by Patricia C. McKissack, Illustrations by Floyd Cooper (An Anne Schwartz Book, Aladdin Paperbacks edition January 2000, Copyright 1997.

 To all my friends and family and followers out there in blog land, thank you for reading my articles about the art and history of aprons and buttons!  Make a Great Day!  Blessings, Dianne

References:  (Brown Vs. Bd. of Education),_Jr._Day   -   "Black Americana on display at Blount library creating dialogue" by Lydia X. McCoy   -   "How to Collect Black Americana" by Marye Audet

Thursday, January 5, 2012

World War I Historical Apron – Dated Just Weeks After the Signing of the Armistice Peace Agreement

This beautiful apron reflects a story as part of strategic World War I history.  It is embroidered with the date 1-1-19, as well as “U.S.S. Ossipee” and “Ponta Delgada Acores.”  It also has two embroidered flags, one the United States flag, and the other the flag of Portugal, an ally of the U.S.A. in World War I.

The embroidered date of 1-1-19 was just 6 ½ weeks after the end of World War I.  Germany had signed an armistice with the Allies on November 11, 1918.  

Ponta Delgada is a location in Portugal, and the U.S.S. Ossipee is a ship originally designed as a cruising cutter, capable of extremely long voyages for vessels of their size. 

However, on April 6, 1917, she was transferred to the U.S. Department of Navy.  She was painted the regular war color, and continued working with the Patrol Forces until orders were received to prepare for duty overseas in the war zone.  On September 3, 1917, she joined her first convoy as a “Danger Zone Escort.”  This duty generally lasted several days. On outbound convoys, the Danger Zone Escort would escort the convoy to a meeting with the "Ocean Escort" at sea.  Later she also took on the duties of an “Ocean Escort,” securing convoys all the way to their International destinations.
 While this cutter was within the war zone, she had convoyed 596 vessels. In 23 of these, she served as the ocean escort. The Ossipee observed submarines, or evidences of their presence.  As a war escort ship, she helped convoys which were often attacked, with the loss of some merchant ships which were sunk.  Ossipee, herself, was attacked once, barely escaping destruction as the torpedo missed her by 15 to 20 feet.
So who might have made this historically significant, beautiful apron that is now 92 years old?  Since the location is in Portugal, could it have been made by the wife of an ally Portuguese sailor?  The U.S.S. Ossipee later served in World War II and was eventually retired from war service.  Who would the family have been who rode the waves and fought the fights to defend their country from the ravages of war?  Probably one fine lady who prayed every day for her husband, taking care of the children, working at home in the kitchen, wearing an apron, sewing another, dating it 1-1-19.  Or maybe a proud mother whose son had gone off to war, and she celebrated his return home with this lovely, meaningful, apron.