A Tale of Two Women: Bessie Chapman 1909 – 2013 and Renisha McBride 1994 – 2013: "The More things Change..."
by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
Betsy Chapman, age 104, and Renisha McBride, age 19, died within a week of one another in Detroit. Ms. Chapman fled Georgia at a young age, seeking a degree of safety in the North. Ms. McBride met a ghastly end, a victim of the same racist violence that “previous generations of Black folks left the South to escape.”
The Tale of Two Women: Bessie Chapman 1909 – 2013 and Renisha McBride 1994 – 2013: The More things Change, the More They Stay the Same
by BAR editor and columnist Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo
“Wafer only needed to pay $25,000 to walk out of jail after killing Renisha.”
The opening paragraph of Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye laments that Marigolds cannot blossom in all soil and that the “earth itself is barren.” Her metaphors are instructive. The Marigolds symbolize Black children and the earth is the country in which the flowers attempt to grow. America has proven to be polluted soil for the aspirations and lives of African-Americans. In an atmosphere of moral depravity and pervasive, inveterate racial discrimination, the gun culture, misconstrued by some as a constitutional right, very often leads to fatal outcomes.
It is the autumn in the American empire where the lives of two African-American women, separated by generations and time, crossed paths in the city of Detroit where millions of blacks from southern states fled to escape state sponsored violence. In this city, Betsy Chapman (my maternal Great Aunt) died at her home on October 25th and Renisha McBride was murdered on November 2nd. My Great Aunt was nearly 104 when she passed of natural causes and Renisha was 19 years old. Despite their age differences and the spectrum of social evolution, it is important that we consider the lives of these two women and reflect on the circumstances of Renisha’s death as a gruesome indictment of violent racism in America.
Betsy Lou Chapman was born in Dublin, Georgia on November 6, 1909. She was the twelfth of thirteen children of my Great-Great Grandparents Thomas and Mary Wood. My great aunt received her formal education during an era of Jim Crow when it was illegal for Negroes to attend public schools. Fortunately for Aunt Betsy, an uncle who had studied in the north returned to Dublin and opened a church school. Dublin, Georgia, in 1907 was completely segregated and Negroes, who were primarily farmers, were targets of the police, Klu Klux Klan and other white supremacists that violently deprived them of their constitutional and human rights. Despite state sponsored violence directed towards the black community, passion for freedom burned unabated in this generation.
My aunt often told us that one example of this passion for freedom is a little known African-American tradition where Black people counted their birthdays by the number of years that had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865 - called the “Year of Freedom.” From this vantage point, Aunt Betsy was born 44 years after the “Year of Freedom.” It was this kind of wisdom and courage that fueled the Back to Africa and later the Civil Rights movements.
The era of the 1930s likely represents the first intersection between Aunt Betsy and the family of Renisha McBride. It was during this period, commonly referred to as the Great Negro Migration, that millions of African-American families moved from the South to northern cities like Detroit. The goal was to escape the brutality of Jim Crow and the violence that system levied against the black community. The generation fleeing the South would soon realize that Detroit, although different from Georgia and Mississippi, was infected and infatuated with violence against Blacks, particularly the small ethnic communities around Detroit, such as Dearborn, Michigan, where Renisha was murdered.
“Born in different historical eras, their lives illustrate the persistence of white supremacy.”
The brutality of Renisha’s murder has shocked even veteran urban dwellers. The accused murderer, Theodore Wafer, 54, literally shot Renisha’s head off with a 12-gauge shotgun through his locked screened door.
He used the same excuse that his forefathers would have used (if questioned) in Georgia or Mississippi, claiming that he feared for his safety. Wafer’s attorney, as in the Trayvon Martin case has also cited the Stand Your Ground law as a defense.
The Black community in Detroit and around the country is enraged at the rush to criminalize the victim. Instead of investigating the racism that clearly played a role in this tragedy, recent media reports of Renisha’s death have focused on autopsy results that indicate elevated alcohol levels and a trace of cannabis. McBride's attorney responded:
"I don't think the fact that she was intoxicated changes anything," he said. "Her being intoxicated on the toxicology report would make her less of a threat than more of a threat. The bottom line is, he should've called 911 when he heard a disturbance, and we know for a fact that the police would've been there in two minutes. Instead, he did the reverse. He took his shotgun, went on the porch, and blew her head off and then called 911."
Wayne County Prosecutor Kim Worthy announced second-degree murder, manslaughter and felony firearm charges against Theodore Wafer last week. Wafer was indicted and quickly released after the Court imposed an inconsequential bail of $250,000 – reduced to a 10% payment that meant Wafer only needed to pay $25,000 to walk out of jail after killing Renisha.
150 years ago, the US Supreme Court in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford decided that Blacks were not functionally human and that:
“[African Americans] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it.”
Despite the 85-year span between their births, Betsy Chapman and Renisha McBride died days apart, with Renisha meeting the violence in Detroit that previous generations of Black folks left the South to escape. Born in different historical eras, their lives illustrate the persistence of white supremacy. They experienced the American journey as a fluid continuum.
From the murder of four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama to the hunting down and depraved murder of Trayvon Martin, the system has consistently permitted whites to destroy the dreams and lives of African-Americans with impunity. Renisha will never enjoy the longevity of Betsy Chapman. Still, the struggle to make “The Year of Freedom” a meaningful reality is within our reach. Comparing the racial violations of two African-American women who were born 85 years apart and on different sides of the Mason-Dixon line demonstrates the moral imperative to “reset” the compass and direction of African-American political struggle.
Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo is the author of No FEAR: A Whistleblowers Triumph over Corruption and Retaliation at the EPA is available through amazon.com. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo worked at the EPA for 18 years and blew the whistle on a US multinational corporation that endangered vanadium mine workers in South Africa. Marsha's successful lawsuit lead to the introduction and passage of the first civil rights and whistleblower law of the 21st century: the Notification of Federal Employees Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act). She is Director of Transparency and Accountability for the Green Shadow Cabinet.