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Sister Spies: Mary Bowser and Mary Touvestre
Commentary by Black Kos Editor Denise Oliver Velez

Growing up, I loved the stories I read about Harriet Tubman, and her brave forays into slave territory to spy and lead others to freedom. At the time, there were a few other black women like Sojourner Truth, whose stories were written about as tales of resistance and I knew family legends that were passed down about my own strong enslaved ancestors, but the library seemed to be pretty bare of reading material on other black women who had resisted enslavement.

That is beginning to change, and I can only hope we will see more in the years to come.

If you have not yet read the historical novel The Secrets of Mary Bowser, I strongly suggest you add it to your reading list. Yes it is fiction, but fiction grounded in historical research by author Lois Leveen, who discusses her book in an excellent NY Times piece, A Black Spy in the Confederate White House.

Mary Bowser, born into slavery in Virginia sometime around 1840, was, alternately, a missionary to Liberia, a Freedmen’s school teacher — and, most amazingly, a Union spy in the Confederate White House.

Her wartime career is all the more astounding because her espionage depended on the very institution that was meant to subjugate her. Chattel slavery was predicated on the belief that blacks were innately inferior — leaving a slave woman not so much above suspicion as below it — yet Bowser demonstrated the value of black intelligence, in every sense of the term. But the truth about the woman who went from slave to spy is fascinating and revealing precisely because it remains incomplete.

I first became aware of Mary Richards Bowser's extraordinary exploits, when Vertamae Grosvenor, seen here in a photograph taken in the Jefferson Davis dining room, reported on her in a piece for NPR.

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The Spy Who Served Me: A Tale of Espionage from the 'White House' of Jefferson Davis

Vertamae Grosvenor was looking at the history of servants at the White House in Washington and came upon a story of espionage at another executive mansion -- in Richmond, Va. It happened during the Civil War. Here is Grosvenor's essay for Morning Edition:

I started researching the history of servants in one White House and came upon a tale of intrigue and espionage inside another one. It happened during the Civil War.

Grosvenor talks about Mary Bowser and her former owner Elizabeth Van Lew:
Mary Bowser was born into slavery in the household of John Van Lew, a wealthy hardware merchant in Richmond, Va. Van Lew's daughter Elizabeth freed Mary Bowser and all her father's other slaves after he died. Elizabeth Van Lew, who never married, was known as an eccentric who sometimes walked down the streets of Richmond, head bent to one side, holding conversations with herself. Some called her "Crazy Bet".

"Crazy Bet" Van Lew inherited a lot of money and her father's society connections. She used some of the money to send her former slave Mary Bowser to school in Philadelphia and later Elizabeth used her connections to get Mary Bowser a servant job in President Jefferson Davis' Confederate White House.  

Now, thanks to the research of author Leveen, more tantalizing details have come to light.
Bowser began her life as property of the Van Lews, a wealthy, white Richmond family. Although her exact date of birth is unknown, on May 17, 1846, “Mary Jane, a colored child belonging to Mrs. Van Lew,” was baptized in St. John’s, the stately Episcopal church for which the elegant Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond is named, and in which Patrick Henry delivered his 1775 “give me liberty or give me death” speech. It was extremely rare for enslaved or free blacks to be baptized in this church. Indeed, other Van Lew slaves received baptism at Richmond’s First African Baptist Church, indicating that Mrs. Van Lew, the widowed head of the household, and her daughter Bet singled out Mary for special treatment from an early age.

Some time after being baptized, Mary was sent north to be educated, although it is unclear precisely when or where she attended school. In 1855, Bet arranged for the girl, then using the name Mary Jane Richards, to join a missionary community in Liberia. According to Bet’s correspondence with an official of the American Colonization Society, however, the teenage Mary was miserable in Africa. By the spring of 1860, she returned to the Van Lew household, and eventually to St. John’s Church, where, on April 16, 1861 — the day before the Virginia Convention voted to secede — Wilson Bowser and Mary, “colored servants to Mrs. E. L. Van Lew,” were married.

Leveen has also found that  Mary Richards/Bowser told her own tale:
But the former spy had already told her own story, publicly and privately, in the period immediately following the war, as recent research has revealed. Nevertheless, her own accounts don’t amount to straightforward autobiography, because she deliberately concealed or altered aspects of her life, as she carefully constructed her own identity and positioned herself in relation to the larger black community.

On Sept. 10, 1865, The New York Times published a notice for a “Lecture by a Colored Lady“:

    Miss RICHMONIA RICHARDS, recently from Richmond, where she has been engaged in organizing schools for the freedmen, and has also been connected with the secret service of our government, will give a description of her adventures, on Monday evening, at the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

There can be little doubt that this was Bowser. And yet, as the use of a pseudonym suggests, she was consciously constructing a public persona. Reporting on the talk, the New York-based newspaper the Anglo African described Richards as “very sarcastic and … quite humorous.” The audience might have been most amazed by her description of collecting intelligence in the Confederate Senate as well as the Confederate White House, and aiding in the capture of rebel officers at Fredericksburg, Va. But her acerbic wit shone best when she described her time in Liberia, where “the Mendingoes … never drink, lie, nor steal,” making them “much better than the colored people are here.” (She concluded by admonishing young people to pay less attention to fashion and more to education.)

There is only one unconfirmed picture of Mary Bowser.

 photo perhapsBowser_zps4f0733a8.jpg

She is portrayed here by actress Vernice Jackson.

In 1995, Bowser was inducted into the U.S. Army Intelligence Hall of Fame. While researching more about Bowser, I wound up (much to my surprise) on the CIA website, where I found "Black Dispatches: Black American Contributions to Union Intelligence During the Civil War", by P.K Rose.

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It was there I learned of another Mary.

Mary Touvestre, a freed slave, worked in Norfolk as a housekeeper for an engineer who was involved in the refitting and transformation of the USS Merrimac into the Virginia, the first Confederate ironclad warship. Overhearing the engineer talking about the importance of his project, she recognized the danger this new type of ship represented to the Union navy blockading Norfolk. She stole a set of plans for the ship that the engineer had brought home to work on and fled North. After a dangerous trip, she arrived in Washington and arranged a meeting with officials at the Department of the Navy.

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The stolen plans and Touvestre's verbal report of the status of the ship's construction convinced the officials of the need to speed up construction of the Union's own ironclad, the Monitor. The Virginia, however, was able to destroy two Union frigates, the Congress and the Cumberland, and run another, the Minnesota, to ground before the Union ironclad's arrival. If the intelligence from Touvestre had not been obtained, the Virginia could have had several more unchallenged weeks to destroy Union ships blockading Hampton Roads and quite possibly open the port of Norfolk to urgently needed supplies from Europe.

I am hoping that an enterprising researcher/writer will take on the task of fleshing out more details of her story as well.

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                  News by dopper0189, Black Kos Managing Editor

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Due to the surge of gang violence in Chicago’s urban communities, when many people hear the phrase “African-American men in Chicago,” they instantly associate the conversation to violence, but two African-American men in Chicago are changing that perception slowly but surely. Techyville: Beating the Odds: Two African-American Men Launch Thriving School for Coding.
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Mark McGee and Neil Stern c0-founded Starter League, a thriving coding school that teaches people how to build websites and apps. According to McGee, the school acquired more than $1M-$2M in revenue last year. In the past two years, more than 500 people from 30 states and 15 countries have traveled to Chicago to take classes at a school started by McGee and Stern.  McGee and Stern are part of the fewer than 1 percent of tech start-ups founded by African-Americans.

When McGee was asked whether he realizes the significance of an African-American playing a key role in the tech start-up world, he said: “Honestly, no, because I’m just too busy focusing on going forward. We really feel that if you give someone the opportunity and inspire them and show that there are people who look like them that are doing this, then they can do this too.” McGee and Stern’s services have expanded beyond their building and will be offered in 16 Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Next summer, Starter League will teach coding to 16 teachers in CPS, who will then offer classes to their students. Coding classes at the Starter League school cost $8,000 for a three-month course.



                Mark McGee

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This one comes directly from the department of #fail NBCLatino: Bloomberg Businessweek cover blasted as offensive for depictions of Hispanics, blacks.
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Bloomberg Businessweek has sparked a torrent of criticism after its cover depicted exaggerated cartoon versions of Latinos and blacks greedily grabbing for money for a story about a housing rebound across the country.

“Oh wow, oh wow, that is very offensive,” said Aracely Panemeno, the director of Latino affairs for the Center for Responsible Lending, as she first opened up a photo of the cover on her computer. “It is highly offensive and inaccurate with an intent to promote and perpetuate the myth that communities of color were undeserving of the credit and housing they received and are to blame for the housing crisis, when in reality the opposite is true. They were targeted with predatory loans.”

Bloomberg Businessweek tells NBC Latino it regrets the cover, dated February 25.

“Our cover illustration last week got strong reactions, which we regret,” said editor, Josh Tyrangiel in a statement. “Our intention was not to incite or offend. If we had to do it over again we’d do it differently.”

A Pew research study found that Hispanic household wealth fell by 66 percent from 2005 to 2009 and African-American wealth fell by 53 percent, identifying the principal cause as plummeting house values, which led to the erosion in wealth among all groups. Janis Bowdler, the director of economic policy at The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) says this information along with the fact that by 2020 half of all first-time home buyers will be Hispanic, makes the Bloomberg Businessweek cover even more offensive.


             
Bloomberg Businessweek magazine came under fire for their cover depicting minorities greedily grabbing cash.

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Haiti's former ruler Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier has appeared in court for a hearing to determine if he can be charged with crimes against humanity. BBC: Haiti's ex-ruler 'Baby Doc' Duvalier attends court.
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At the hearing he denied responsibility for abuses carried out during his time as president, between 1971 and 1986. Human rights groups say hundreds of political prisoners were tortured or killed under his rule. He returned to Haiti in 2011 after spending 25 years in exile in France.

Opponents and supporters of Mr Duvalier turned out for the hearing, with some of his alleged victims just metres away from him in the packed courtroom. It was the first time he had faced them, having failed to attend previous hearings.

Supporters dressed in the black and red colours symbolic of Mr Duvalier's rule chanted "Long live Duvalier" as he entered the courthouse.

Mr Duvalier's lawyers had asked for the session to be held in private, arguing he was unwell. The hearing was requested by his alleged victims, who want to see him stand trial for crimes against humanity.



Jean-Claude Duvalier denied responsibility for crimes carried out under his 15-year rule

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A U.S. budget cut that could save lives in Africa. The Obama administration could revolutionize aid and save billions -- if only Congress would stand up to the farm lobby. Foreign Policy: Let Them Eat Subsidies.
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To understand both concepts, it is important to underscore the degree to which America's food aid programs, by far the largest in the world, have also served as corporate welfare over the years. Let's start with the concept of ‘cargo preference.' In the mid-1950s, Congress legislated that 75 percent of all U.S. food aid be shipped aboard U.S. vessels. The law was originally passed based on a justification that these cargo ships and their crews could help serve as a reserve for the U.S. Navy in times of war. Such a military justification is now completely anachronistic, and indeed many of these ‘U.S. flagged vessels' are actually foreign-owned. All that cargo preference restrictions now achieve is to make U.S. food aid slower and more expensive to deliver, while giving these shipping firms a huge entitlement. The General Accounting Office has suggested that the law annually adds some $200 million to the budget in unnecessary transportation costs, and USAID has estimated that up to half of its spending on food aid goes to transportation costs.

Not surprisingly, both Republicans and Democrats have long believed that simply buying food for humanitarian crises closer to where it is needed makes a great deal of sense. Let's say there is a crisis in South Sudan and the United States wants to deliver food assistance. Currently, the U.S. government buys excess crops in Kansas or Iowa. These crops are then transported overland, let's say to New Orleans. The food is then put on a U.S.-flagged ship that may or not actually be owned by an American company. This ship then makes the arduous journey around the tip of South Africa or through the Suez, and then offloads, probably in Tanzania. The food is then shipped overland through Kenya and into South Sudan where it is distributed.

Now let's consider what almost every other country and multilateral organization on Earth does when it needs to deliver food aid to South Sudan. It finds a local or regional market where appropriate food is available closest to South Sudan. It purchases the food directly in Kenya, Tanzania, or Ethiopia, and moves it with minimal transportation costs to where it is needed. It is faster, cheaper, and saves more lives. It makes sense.



                       US Corn fields

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Pride in Africa’s achievements should be coupled with the determination to make even faster progress. Economist: Aspiring Africa, The world’s fastest-growing continent.
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Celebrations are in order on the poorest continent. Never in the half-century since it won independence from the colonial powers has Africa been in such good shape. Its economy is flourishing. Most countries are at peace. Ever fewer children bear arms and record numbers go to school. Mobile phones are as ubiquitous as they are in India and, in the worst-affected countries, HIV infections have fallen by up to three-quarters. Life expectancy rose by a tenth in the past decade and foreign direct investment has tripled. Consumer spending will almost double in the next ten years; the number of countries with average incomes above $1,000 per person a year will grow from less than half of Africa’s 55 states to three-quarters.

Africans deserve the credit. Western aid agencies, Chinese mining companies and UN peacekeepers have done their bit, but the continent’s main saviours are its own people. They are embracing modern technology, voting in ever more elections and pressing their leaders to do better. A sense of hope abounds. Africans rightly take pride in conferences packed with Western bankers keen to invest in their capital markets (see article). Within the next few months MasterCard will have issued South Africans with 10m debit cards. Even the continent’s politicians are doing a bit better, especially in economic management and striking peace deals. Average GDP growth is humming along, at about 6%. Governance is improving: our correspondent visited 23 countries to research this week’s special report and was not once asked for a bribe—inconceivable only ten years ago.

This is a welcome transformation, but it is still incomplete. The danger is that Africa settles for today’s pace of change. Only if Africans raise their ambitions still further will they reach their full potential. They need to take on the difficult jobs of building infrastructure, rooting out corruption and clearing the tangle of government regulation that is still holding them back. And they should hurry.




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Blacks face health consequences as a result of pollution. The Root: How Climate Change Affects People of Color.
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Chances are, if you are a person of color, climate change isn't at the top of your list of concerns. President Barack Obama's remarks on the issue in his State of the Union address and inaugural speech weren't what made you cheer. Finding a job, keeping the lights and heat on, and guarding the health and safety of your kids are your priorities -- and what you want your political leaders to prioritize, too.

But climate change should be at or near the top of our political agenda, and here's why. Hurricane Katrina showed us that neighborhoods with the fewest resources have a harder time escaping, surviving and recovering from natural disasters. And last year's Superstorm Sandy, droughts and record-breaking heat -- which occurred with increased frequency and ferocity -- taught us that these natural disasters aren't so natural after all. They are the result of climate change caused by pollution that our communities know about all too well.

Communities of color have been suffering the health effects of climate-altering pollution for far too long. Sixty-eight percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant -- one of the biggest sources of carbon pollution in America. That might help explain why African-American kids have a much higher rate of asthma: 1 in 6, compared with 1 in 10 nationwide.

African Americans living in Los Angeles are more than twice as likely to die during a heat wave as other residents of the city. That's because cities develop "heat islands," which are created by an abundance of concrete and asphalt. People of color more densely populate urban areas that are prone to the heat-island effect. And folks living in these areas also tend to have limited access to cars and air conditioning.



Demonstrators march at the 'Forward on Climate' rally. (David McNew/Getty Images)

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I was holding off reporting on this story until a clearer picture of the motives behind this were established. TalkingPointsMemo: Family: Slain Mayoral Candidate Beaten, Burned.
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The body of a slain Mississippi mayoral candidate was beaten and burned, a family member said Monday.

Marco McMillian’s godfather, Carter Womack, said McMillian’s family received the information from the Coahoma County coroner. Coroner Scotty Meredith declined to comment Monday, and a spokesman for the Coahoma County Sheriff’s Department had no immediate comment.

But a person with direct knowledge of the investigation confirmed to The Associated Press that McMillian had some bruises and there were burns on at least one area of his body. The person wasn’t authorized to publicly comment and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The cause of death has not been released. An autopsy was performed, but toxicology tests are pending, and authorities say it could take two weeks to get those results.

Womack said the coroner told family members that someone dragged McMillian’s body under a fence and left it near a Mississippi River levee last week.

McMillian, 34, was a candidate for mayor of Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta.



          Marco McMillian was the first openly gay, viable candidate for public office in Mississippi.

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Voices and Soul 

Photobucket

by Justice Putnam 
Black Kos Poetry Editor
 

We live in a world of fragments. The very letters of this writing are merely pixelated points making a line and some kind of sense. This world of fragments, if looked at too closely, will seem to be nothing more than incoherent snippets of time. But if looked at from just the right distance, will seem to be magnetic alphabet tiles on a refrigerator door, spelling out a found poem that paints a picture of a world we cannot escape; a world of fragments...

kenyans/Michelangelo

imprisonment boom has developed-- a built-in growth dynamic-- the 
number of prisoners continues to grow while crime drops-- and had
even prevented-- Crime never does stay down for long-- experts say--
though crime has been declining for six years-- In 1996, the incarcera-
tion rate for black men was-- eight times the rate for white men--
Crime never does stay down for long-- experts say-- a built-in growth
dynamic-- independent of crime-- Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals--
and had even prevented-- Crime never does stay--

recent radio interview-- sheriff-- declared proudly-- “sexually explic-
it”-- he has formed the first women’s chain gang-- in the world-- More
than two-thirds of the prisoners-- pre-trial defendants-- sheriff--
defines “sexually explicit” as-- “personal photographs, drawings, mag-
azines, and pictorials that show frontal nudity”-- if that painting would
affect prison security-- the judge agreed-- allowing materials depicting
“frontal nudity” in the cells-- could lead to-- harassment of female 
guards, creating a “hostile work environment”-- sheriff-- declared
proudly-- formed the first women’s chain gang-- on more than 500 talk
shows-- “sexually explicit”--

Some expressed the opinion-- American marines and officials had done
too little-- to dig out-- victims from the rubble-- in the crucial early
hours of the disaster-- and had even prevented-- Some expressed the
opinion-- materials depicting frontal nudity-- could lead to unconstitu-
tional conditions-- including excessive use of force against inmates--
deliberate indifferent to inmates’ serious medical needs-- creating a
“hostile work environment”-- those who died were-- all Tanzanians
employed by the embassy-- including excessive use of force against
inmates and deliberate indifference-- to dig out-- victims from the rub-
ble-- “environment”--

materials depicting frontal nudity-- could lead to conflict among pris-
oners-- two inmates could get into a fight if the atheist said, “Look at
the size of the genitals on Jesus Christ”-- materials depicting nudity--
are “reasonably likely” to be-- the cause of violence-- a Michelangelo
painting of a nude Christ-- an inmate-- was banned from having 
Playboy delivered to his cell-- if that painting would affect a prison securi-
ty-- experts say-- “Look at the size of the”-- sheriff--

relatives of victims expressed a quiet outrage-- “personal pho-
tographs”-- too little to help-- Kenyans were paying with their lives for
American foreign policy decisions-- a built-in growth dynamic--
embassies will always be vulnerable-- searchng for survivors-- They 
are not designed to be armed forts in hostile territory-- “We trained
cameras on the street”-- “suspicious vehicles were reported”-- The larg-
er the number of prisoners-- experts say-- the bigger the number of 
people who will someday be released-- There were no American deaths
in the Tanzanian bombing, officials said--

to help them extricate-- including excessive use of force-- several 
Kenyan rescue workers complained-- American marines and other
American officials-- and had even prevented-- them from taking dead
Kenyans out of the embassy-- from searching for survivors there-- And
embassies will always be vulnerable-- “personal photographs, draw-
ings, magazines, and pictorials that show frontal nudity”-- are reason-
ably likely-- to be-- the cause of violence-- “If it’s a war between the
Americans and other people, they should take the war elsewhere”-- to
help them extricate people-- Many of the inmates are housed in tents--
in hostile territory-- there were no American-- quiet outrage-- frontal
nudity--

either because of their own criminal propensities or-- a Michelangelo
painting of a nude Christ-- in the crucial early hours of the disaster--
rescue workers-- Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals-- “If it’s a war
between the Americans and other people”-- sheriff-- if that painting 
would affect-- armed forts in hostile territory-- to help them extricate
people-- either because of their own criminal propensities or-- will
always be vulnerable-- Many relatives of the victims-- of racial dispari-
ty in the nation’s prisons-- materials depicting “frontal nudity” could 
lead to conflicts among prisoners--

though crime has been declining-- the incarceration rate for black men
was eight times the rate for white men-- either because of their own
criminal propensities or-- more than 500 talk shows-- Several Kenyan
rescue workers complained-- Crime never does stay down-- including
excessive use of force-- there are also sharp regional differences-- 7 of
the 10 states-- being in the South-- the incarceration rate-- banned from
having Playboy-- “should take the war elsewhere”--

harrassment of female guards-- unconstitutional conditions-- excessive
use of-- Drug Enforcement Administration-- drug crimes constituted 
the biggest source of growth for female inmates-- statistical branch of
the Justice Department-- housed in tents-- materials depicting “frontal
nudity”-- a Michelangelo painting of a nude Christ-- drug crimes-- 
deliberate indifference to medical needs-- if the atheist said-- “sexually
explicit”-- “personal photographs”-- recent radio interview-- “most
people who work in the prison business”-- “don’t look for drops in
crime”-- due process-- Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals--

the larger the number of prisoners-- Several Kenyan rescue workers
complained-- dig out victims from the rubble-- “most people who
work in the prison business”-- independent of crime rate-- female
inmates-- depicting “frontal nudity”-- American foreign policy deci-
sions-- statistical branch of the Justice Department-- Playboy-- “should
take the war elsewhere”-- either because of their own criminal propen-
sities or-- American--

black men-- will always be vulnerable-- because they are not
designed-- if a painting could affect-- being in the South-- 
Michelangelo-- “We trained cameras”-- “personal photographs”--
“suspicious vehicles”-- the judge agreed-- Playboy-- in his cell--
female inmates-- “frontal nudity”-- female guards--

in the crucial early hours of-- Playboy-- those who died were all-- the
cause of violence-- or their experience behind bars-- Drug Enforcement
Administration-- “most people who work in the prison business”-- 
sheriff-- because they are not designed-- either because of-- the larger
the number of prisoners-- Crime never does-- show “frontal nudity”--
the first women’s chain gang--

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals-- of racial disparity-- while crime 
drops-- and had even prevented-- Christ-- the cause of violence--
American marines and officials-- has helped reduce-- black men-- due
process-- rate for black men was-- stay down-- “Look at the size of
the”-- Drug Enforcement Administration-- number of prisoners--
incarceration rate-- “If it’s a war”-- on the street-- get into a fight-- get
into a fight if the atheist said-- American marines and officials had done
too little to help-- Michelangelo--

-- -- Judith Goldman

 

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Welcome to the Front Porch

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Originally posted to Black Kos community on Tue Mar 05, 2013 at 12:59 PM PST.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges.

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