You can learn a tremendous amount about our country’s history and its present state by reading whose death didn’t merit an obituary in The New York Times.
The newspaper launched “Overlooked” last March, in time for International Women’s Day, with a series of obits for 15 remarkable women whose deaths went unremarked upon at the time of their death. (Author Sylvia Plath, journalist Ida B. Wells, Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells led to a medical revolution, Margaret Abbott, the first American woman to win an Olympics championship.)
During Black History Month, the paper is adding a series of prominent black men and women who didn’t receive obituaries.
Scott Joplin, for instance, the pianist and composer behind “The Entertainer” and “Maple Leaf Rag,” who died in 1917. From the “Overlooked” obit: “In the post-Civil War era, the cruel breath of slavery and the aborted plan of Reconstruction still hung over the American South. But in the Joplin home, banjo and fiddle music filled the family’s evenings, giving the children — Scott in particular — a sense of music’s power to move.”
Joplin died penniless and was buried in an unmarked grave.
His music wove its way throughout the 1973 movie “The Sting,” which renewed the public’s interest in him. “It was as if the nation had suddenly discovered a new and dazzling composer,” the obit reads. “Joplin’s grave was given a suitable marker. And in 1976, he was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his contributions to American music.”
Also: Major Taylor, the first African-American world champion in cycling and the second black athlete to win a world championship in any sport. He was living in Chicago when he died, broke, in 1932. The Chicago Defender published a short obituary at the time.
Also: Civil rights pioneer Elizabeth Jennings, who refused to leave a whites-only trolley on her way to her organist gig at the First Colored American Congregational Church in Lower Manhattan. She was kicked off, sued the trolley company for damages and won — 100 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat for a white passenger.
Also: Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first black baseball player to play in the major leagues — as catcher for the American Association’s Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884 — long before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Also: Margaret Garner, whose “Overlooked” obit reads, “Motherhood, across race, language, country and culture, is understood to be complicated and powerful: a tsunami of gut and joy and fear and heartache. Garner found herself in that fleeting, lightless instant of a mother’s incongruous love on a frigid night, when slave catchers surrounded her cousins’ home and when she made the decision, in one soul-chilling moment, to slit the throat of her 2-year-old daughter rather than return her to slavery.”
Garner’s life story inspired Toni Morrison’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Beloved.” Her death went unremarked upon in newspapers. Until now.
The new series of obituaries, online and in print, adds a dozen lives to the “Overlooked” project.
“Many of them were a generation removed from slavery,” obituary editor Amisha Padnani writes in a note to readers. “To carve a name for themselves, they sometimes had to make myth out of a painful history, misrepresenting their past to gain a better footing in their future. They were ambitious and creative, becoming painters and composers, filmmakers and actors. Others used their imaginations to invent and innovate. Often they felt an unspoken greater mission to break the constraints society placed on their race.
“Some managed to achieve success in their lifetimes, only to die penniless, buried in paupers’ graves,” Padnani continues. “Almost all of them reached deep within themselves to push back against harsh circumstances, the likes of which are unimaginable for many of us today.”
Unimaginable, but essential to read and digest and remember, if you want to understand our nation’s painful, often shameful, past.
(Article written by Heidi Stevens)