Organizing to end racism— The history of H.U.M.A.N.
- Published: September 19, 2019
This article is second in a two-part series. Read part one here: https://ysnews.com/news/2019/04/the-social-utopia-of-the-mystic-knights
By Bomani Moyenda and
The T-shirts and buttons of the once and future human rights organization, Help Us Make a Nation, or H.U.M.A.N., state the local group’s goal:
Started by villagers and Antioch College professors Jim Dunn and Bill Chappelle in the late 1970s, members of H.U.M.A.N. organized, marched, protested and educated in order to fight institutionalized racism and sexism, locally and nationally.
“There’s only one way to bring about the kind of change we want, and that’s through community organization,” Dunn told the Yellow Springs News in 1979.
At the time, H.U.M.A.N. had recently hosted a discussion on nuclear power following a nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, had just joined local families in protesting cuts in day care programs in the area, and would soon plan a “Moratorium on Racism” conference at Antioch, the News reported.
Dunn went on to share the meaning behind the name, H.U.M.A.N.
“You can’t be human without talking about racism, sexism, poverty and war,” he told the News. “Everyone is born with the right to be human, but powerful forces in society inhibit people from acting out that human-ness.”
In recent interviews, former H.U.M.A.N. members recalled the wide range of activities of the activist group. Members traveled to Greensboro, N.C. to march after the so-called Greensboro Massacre, in which five civil rights demonstrators were killed by Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party members. They brought icons like Saul Alinsky, Anne Braden and Pete Seeger to the village. And they gathered regularly at “floating coffeehouses” in local homes to strategize and socialize.
Although Dunn died in 1989, his legacy continues in the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a New Orleans-based group he co-founded that has trained more than a million people at its “Undoing Racism” workshops, and in the local group he started in Yellow Springs, H.U.M.A.N., which is now back.
Along with several former H.U.M.A.N. members, Carmen Lee is part of the next generation of villagers helping to revive the group, which has been defunct since the mid-’80s.
“It’s important that we remember what Jim Dunn and Bill Chappelle hoped for humanity, and that we learn how to act instead of reacting to the events of the day,” Lee said in a recent interview.
A previous article in this series explored the roots of H.U.M.A.N. in the diverse social club, the Mystic Knights of Nowhere, whose racially charged run-in with county authorities galvanized its members into becoming activists. This article recounts the birth of H.U.M.A.N. at Antioch and its lasting impact. A subsequent piece will cover the ongoing work of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and the new incarnation of H.U.M.A.N.
Origins at Antioch
H.U.M.A.N. can trace its birth to a conference held on the Antioch College campus in March 1978.
The Conference on the Status of Human Rights in the U.S. was subtitled, “Shame of America: The nation takes a look at human rights; we take a look at the nation,” and was sponsored by Antioch Community Government.
According to an early H.U.M.A.N. document, “the desire to establish a permanent organization was expressed,” at the conference. A group named Human Rights Revisited was formed by area people after the conference, but many soon became frustrated with its lack of organizational structure. In response to those frustrations, H.U.M.A.N. was officially formed on Aug. 8, 1978.
In an article in the Feb. 25, 1980, issue of the Antioch Record, Chappelle explained the group’s mission.
“H.U.M.A.N. realizes that people are disenchanted with how the country deals with the problems of the poor and the aged, and with problems of hunger, housing, civil rights, prison reform, social welfare, health care, economic disparity, unemployment and so, and we at H.U.M.A.N. have organized to do something about these basic human problems at a grass roots level,” Chappelle told the Record.
The organization’s full name, “Help Us Make A Nation,” implied that the country was not set up for everyone, and that there were marginalized groups struggling against discrimination who were systematically prevented from receiving the resources they needed to thrive.
Chappelle died in 1998, but his widow and former H.U.M.A.N. member, Joan Chappelle, recently reflected on how he saw the organization’s name as an “affront to America.”
“He was saying that this country, with its racism and other forms of oppression, wasn’t really a nation for all people,” she said. “We’ll start from the ground up, really making a nation.”
When they founded the organization, Chappelle and Dunn were not only colleagues, but close friends.
“They were inseparable,” Joan Chappelle recalled.
Dunn came to Yellow Springs to teach at Antioch in 1971. His field was social work, while Chappelle was on the faculty of the music department. Together, they designed and taught a groundbreaking course on racism.
The course was titled “Racism and Discrimination in America,” and the syllabus for the Winter 1979 semester, which can be found in the archives of the Olive Kettering Library at Antioch, was rich with iconic African American writers. That list included W.E.B. Dubois, Richard Wright, E. Eric Lincoln, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and Benjamin Quarles.
Students were given a list of recommended reading that included nearly 50 authors, and assigned to read and analyze at least one novel.
But Dunn and Chapelle asked more of students than written assignments. Lectures would be sparse and given mainly to set the stage for discussion. Oral and group presentations and discussions addressed specific areas of racism such as housing, education, employment and political disenfranchisement.
Mike Miller, a student in the course and, later, a H.U.M.A.N. member, recalled that Dunn and Chappelle would often perform stirring skits that brought issues of race and discrimination to light.
A review of the curriculum show that Dunn and Chapelle had little desire to simply instruct students on abstract concepts. Instead, they sought to transform students by plunging them into the lives of the oppressed, and have them grapple with the impact of power and domination on the less fortunate. They laid out that goal in their syllabus:
“It is hoped that we can all see ourselves as a group struggling around an issue for which there are no simple solutions. Thus, there will be only enough structure so as to facilitate that struggle.”
A unique organizing approach
In the 1979 interview with the News, Dunn explained his view of community organizing as starting with oneself.
“As an organizer, you need to get in touch with yourself, to develop self-knowledge and self-acceptance and self-discipline,” Dunn said. “I’ll know who I am — I can accept who I am — and therefore I can put what I am into action.”
Dunn went on to reflect on the training needed for the work of community organization.
“Organizing isn’t just something you go out and do. There is as much skill involved as in any other profession,” he said.
The structure of H.U.M.A.N. reflected Dunn’s philosophy of organizing. The early founding document lays out three committees — organizational development, community education and social action.
In the document, the “floating coffeehouse” was listed as a key tactic. The coffeehouses were held in people’s homes around town and at Prether’s Lodge in Clifton, the official gathering place of Mystic Knights. The coffeehouses served as public forums on specific issues and were an effective tool for mobilizing participation in H.U.M.A.N.
According to Diana Dunn, Jim Dunn’s widow, he borrowed the idea of the coffeehouses from nationally known recording artist, songwriter and folklorist Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, known as Brother Kirk, from New York City.
The local coffeehouses provided a relaxed atmosphere where members could get to know each other better. They also gave people a place to find their “voice” through musical performances, poetry readings, skits and other modes of performance, members recalled recently.
One former member referred to the coffeehouses, usually held on Sunday afternoon, as “church.” Another said they were about “raising consciousness.” Miller recalled that when someone was giving a moving performance, Dunn would yell, “Spirit’s in the house!”
To Miller, the coffeehouses were also a place for members to share their problems and get support.
“Jim would give everyone a chance to express themselves about the problems and issues they were struggling with,” he said.
Aminnulah Ahmad, a Dayton activist who provided security for several well-known civil rights advocates, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., also found value in the informal coffeehouses. As a black militant working in social services, Ahmad was going through “tough times,” and found comfort at the coffeehouses.
“When I came over here to the coffeehouses, it was a relief,” he said recently. “I settled, because people showed me a lot of love. People here embraced me, and I feel like that’s why I’m still alive today.”
Pam Davis, a Dayton social worker, also found relief in the Yellow Springs coffeehouses.
“It was an oasis. We came to the coffeehouses to get rejuvenated,” she said.
Another H.U.M.A.N. member, Victor Garcia, commented on the social aspect of the coffeehouses, which would sometimes last all day and night.
“Jim believed in doing serious work, but he also liked to have a good time,” Garcia said.
Intense training workshops were another key component of H.U.M.A.N.’s activities. One such event was mentioned in the
Feb. 11, 1981, issue of the Yellow Springs News. Featured entertainers for a weekend workshop included Brother Kirk; The Creekside Players, a Dayton-based Black theater company; and a number of local area entertainers, such as poet and storyteller Harold Wright, and guitar and banjo player David Finch. The event concluded with a concert cosponsored by H.U.M.A.N. at Kelly Hall featuring the Harambee Singers from Atlanta and guest speaker Ron Daniels, chairperson of the National Black Political Assembly.
The annual H.U.M.A.N. Day was a major event, featuring some of Dunn’s far-reaching civil rights connections. The 1979 H.U.M.A.N. Day featured, along with Brother Kirk, Mayor Unita Blackwell, of Mayersville, Miss., the first Black femalemayor in that state. Over the years, the annual H.U.M.A.N. Day celebrations and other activities drew the likes of civil rights troubadour Pete Seeger, who played several benefit concerts at Antioch; the Rev. C.T. Vivian, who later joined forces with Dunn and Dick Gregory to form the beginnings of the Peoples’ Institute for Survival and Beyond; and Eddie Carthan, the first Black person elected in Mississippi since Reconstruction.
H.U.M.A.N. members traveled, too, both to protest and to train. For example, Dunn took a contingent of members to Carthan’s hometown after Carthan was convicted, along with six of his friends, of assaulting a police officer. Carthan said he had been framed, and was later acquitted.
H.U.M.A.N. members attended a training at the legendary Highlander Center in Knoxville, Tenn., which had taught many activists skills in community organizing and nonviolent civil disobedience.
H.U.M.A.N. member Neal Crandall recalled the impact of the trip.
“We were dealing with heavy hitters” Crandall said. “We got exposed to some nationally known activists who were in it to win it.”
Another memorable trip was to protest a Ku Klux Klan rally in nearby Middletown, where Donna Silvert encountered the face of hate for the first time.
“The scariest thing to me was that it was the first time I was face-to-face with [a Klan member], and they looked like anyone,” Silvert said.
H.U.M.A.N. members demonstrated at the Ohio Supreme Court to restore welfare funds, walked barefoot down U.S. Route 68 from Springfield to demonstrate the plight of poor mothers who could not afford shoes for their children and were county leaders for Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign.
In addition to issues of poverty, sexism and racism, H.U.M.A.N. members got involved in a wide variety of issues, from freedom of speech to farm labor organizing. To Joan Chappelle, that was one of the strengths of H.U.M.A.N.
“We all struggled with our own issues and with trying to understand all the other issues that were out there, and tried to coalesce as a group,” she said.
Dunn moved to New Orleans in 1985 to focus on his work with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, which he had founded a few years earlier with Ron Chism and other activists. Building upon the curriculum that Dunn and Bill Chapelle created for the “Racism and Discrimination” class they taught at Antioch, the “Undoing Racism” workshops were born.
But Dunn’s departure left a power vacuum in Yellow Springs. H.U.M.A.N. members took about a year off to reassess and then formed the Human Organizing Committee. But, Crandall said, it was not the same.
“We continued to organize around combating racism, but it never had quite the same energy as the first incarnation of the group.”
The final article in the series will look at the goals of the new H.U.M.A.N. and Dunn’s work at the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.