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Black History 2024

Sammy Davis Jr.

I reflect on Black history and Disabled history with the strength it takes for Black disabled people to endure, fail, and succeed. It is a time of opportunity, for all of us whose disability work is in the greater Black community.


This year I highlight Sammy Davis Jr. because he embraced having a disability, the loss of one eye from an automobile accident in 1954. He spoke and wrote openly about how acquiring a disability changed his life from a physical perspective and what it meant to regain his life as an artist.


As we wander through life there are always undercurrents, both positive and negative. Messages of things that are happening which most often do not surface until years later. This is true of me in my disability work. How did I come to know and understand disability so well, when it was not part of my identity?


An example in 1965, at 16 years old, I read Sammy’s autobiography, Yes, I Can. There is enough rich Black arts culture history in the book to enlighten anyone as who this man was, however looking back I have come to understand the impact Sammy losing his eye made on me and how disability changed his identity. Of course, there was the title Yes, I Can, a positive statement about who he was as a Black artist and now a
disabled dancer.


For a dancer, balance is everything. It took hard work and dedication for Mr. Davis to regain the ability to dance. It took the commitment from his closest friends from the arts community to assist him with whatever he needed for his rehabilitation. 

 

It is never far from me that he talked about his disability in a very open and honest way. Sammy advocated for redesign of the Cadillac steering wheel which cost him his eye. In 1956 Sammy visited the Cadillac factory checking out the new wheel design. The cone center was revised to a safer flat design. 

 

He shared with all of us what being physically different meant and the work he put into his rehabilitation to do what he wanted to do, dance. Of course there were other things; perception, walking, driving, and reading. But it was always the dance.

Let’s not forget it was in 1972, Sammy danced Mr. Bojangles, leaping high into the air and touching down ever so lightly. This was his triumph, not only from the dance and telling the story, but his personal triumph in being an artist, a dancer with a disability. I think only dancers can truly “feel” from deep in their bones what that must have meant for Mr. Davis.

 

by Jane Dunhamn

In 1989 there was a TV special "Sammy Davis, Jr. 60th Anniversary Celebration." Black folks that paid tribute to Sammy were:

Eddie Murphy; Host, Debbie Allen, Anita Baker, Diahann Carroll, Nel Carter, Lola Falana, Gregory Hines, Whitney Houston, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Richard Pryor, Mike Tyson, Dionne Warwick & Stevie Wonder.

 

The 2 and 1/2 hour show can be found on YouTube.  Below are links for the tributes by Michael Jackson and Gregory Hines which were high points in the show.

 

Michael Jackson tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqIeV5zxC8E

 

Gregory Hines tribute to Sammy Davis Jr.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JFZbB-Zsucg

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Disability Disrupters

Disrupters create change against racism towards Black disabled people at great personal sacrifice to reputation and/or financial risk.

Louise B. Miller was a Washington, D.C. mother 

of four children, three deaf sons and one hearing daughter.  She reached the end of her tolerance for the city’s biased regulations that forced Black parents to send their Deaf children away from the District of Columbia, at their own expense, to receive an education.  She organized parents to file a class action suit against the D.C. Board of Education for the right of Black Deaf children to attend the Kendall School for the Deaf on the campus of Gallaudet College.  In 1953 the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of Miller v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia, stating that African Americans could not be sent outside a state or district to obtain the same education that white students could have within the state or district. 

Miller v. Board of Education of District of Columbia is thought to be a precursor to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the Justices decided unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional.

Dr. Sylvia Walker was a Black blind disability 

rights activist.  She was a trailblazer in identifying the needs and issues of disabled people of color and their families that had previously gone unaddressed. In 1976, a professor at Howard University, Dr. Walker founded the Center for the Study of Children and Youth and later the Howard University Research and Training Center (HURTC), focusing primarily on training low-income, disabled African American youth for employment. 

Rev. Calvin Peterson founded Disabled in Action(DIA)

in 1986 for disabled people, family members and caregivers in the greater Atlanta, Georgia area.  DIA members demonstrated against the City of Atlanta to build ramps in public buildings. In 1991 DIA led a demonstration against the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to educate about the needs and conditions of poor disabled people.  SCLC and DIA conducted a march and hosted a forum to raise awareness and sensitivity of poor disabled people.

In 1992 Rev. Peterson was appointed to serve on the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities.  DIA questioned policy and created policy changes that opened funding in impoverished communities where funding was previously overlook and denied.

In 1994, a collaborative initiative with Howard University Disability Department and DIA under Dr. Sylvia Walker publicized An Open Letter to the Churches speaking to exclusion of disabled people in the pulpit and services. 

Leroy Moore is a disabled activist, author, and founder

of Krip Hop Nation in 2007. The goal of Krip Hop is to increase awareness in music and media outlets of the talents, history and rights of disabled Black people in the hip-hop industry. Mr. Moore explains the music goes beyond the star power associated with hip-hop and that Krip Hop is about advocacy, education and overcoming oppression.  Krip Hop Nation addresses discrimination against disabled artists in the hip hop industry by publishing articles and hosting events, lectures, and workshops.

 

Krip Hop is an Emmy award winner for the theme song created for the Netflix documentary about the Paralympics.

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Tameka Citchen Spruce has been a disability advocate

since childhood. For the past 15 years she has advocated on behalf of disabled women who are abused, affordable accessible housing, voter suppression towards disabled people, health equity and racial injustices.

Ms. Citchen Spruce advocated to have charges dropped against an innocent African American young man with autism.  She works for the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition program for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families to ensure equal representation during policy decisions and service delivery.

She is a journalist with an award-winning short film, Justifiable Homicide. Her documentary, My Girl Story, depicts the lives of 3 young Black disabled girls and the intersection of disability with family and the Black community has been selected for many film festivals.

Tameka lives in Michigan with her husband and two children.

Jane Dunhamn is a parent of an adult daughter with

significant impairments. She founded the National Black Disability Coalition (NBDC) because of the lack of representation of Black disabled people and family members in all areas of disability policy which ultimately impacted the quality of their lives.

In her capacity of a member of the New Jersey State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (NJ SAC) Ms. Dunhamn, as Sub-Committee Chair convened experts from disability and criminal justice communities to provide testimony about the need for status of accommodations to inmates with non-apparent disabilities in the New Jersey Department of Corrections. The recommendations from the findings continued to be implemented today.

In 2009, at her behest, a BIC Board Member and State Senate Leader championed legislation to establish an annual review by the NJ Department of Human Services to study disability related disparities to minority communities.  The bill passed into Public Law on January 29, 2015.

 

Ms. Dunhamn was mocked and given the name Abolitionist to which she responded she “proudly owns the title bestowed upon her.”

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