A bittersweet homecoming

Former Rose Queen Drew Washington and her father Craig travel to Africa as part of a campaign to reconnect people with their ancestry in the 400th year since the start of slavery in America

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 10/24/2019

August marked the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade with America when, in 1619, a ship carrying 20 slaves landed at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia. This year, Nana Akufo-Addo, president of Ghana, a major slave trade hub at the time, declared 2019 the “Year of Return.” The campaign has given African Americans nationwide a chance to reconnect with and reflect on their ancestral beginnings.

Last month, the second African American Rose Queen, Drew Washington, who presided over the 2012 Rose Parade, traveled with her father Craig to West Africa to learn more about their ancestry and culture. After conducting a DNA test from Ancestry.com to locate the region their forebears originally came from, they traveled to Ghana, Togo and Benin, three small countries in the Gulf of Guinea on the Atlantic coast.

“I didn’t know what to expect regarding how the dynamics would be, being African American and going back to Africa,” said Drew, 24, who graduated from UC Berkeley School of Law in May and moved to New York a couple weeks ago to begin a job at Winston & Strawn LLP. The firm represents players’ associations of major league sports and the US women’s soccer team in their equal pay lawsuit. “But everyone we met said ‘Welcome home. You are home.’ That felt so good. It’s almost indescribable. I’d never felt like that anywhere else I’ve traveled.”

Correcting Mischaracterizations

When Drew first went to New York University, other African Americans didn’t use the term “African American” as an umbrella term to describe all black people.

“They were able to point to a country in Africa where they were from,” she explained. “They’d ask me, ‘Where are you from?’ I was so frustrated that I couldn’t answer the question, so this trip was about me being able to find those answers. I finally felt connected to a culture. I had heritage, culture and tradition that I could bring back home.”

Craig, 56, who serves as a director-chair of Tournament of Roses committees and regional contract manager at Jacobs Engineering Group, appreciated being able to correct many of the mischaracterizations that Americans have about Africa based on limited and inaccurately negative information. One of those mischaracterizations is about family.

“Family is so important in Africa, so it’s disheartening how African Americans are portrayed as not having strong families,” he said. “Where did this come from? This wasn’t our culture or foundation. Breaking up families, that’s what this whole slave trade did. Now the fabric of this bond of family has just been ripped to pieces. This is a part of African-American history that needs to be more exposed, and exposed truthfully.”

Before the slave trade and before colonial powers imposed modern country names and borders, powerful kingdoms existed in West Africa for hundreds of years, such as the Ashanti Empire and the Dahomey Kingdom. A form of slavery existed, too, among warring African tribes.

“This concept was going on within their own continent, so within the Africans’ mind, it wasn’t farfetched to trade people,” Craig said.

When Europeans first showed up, they didn’t start enslaving people immediately. They first traded goods and indoctrinated Africans into Christianity.

“They did a good job of gaining the trust of the leaders of the kingdoms,” Drew said. “Slavery already existed in Africa, but it was more like indentured servitude. They had no idea what the Europeans had intended.”

‘Its Own Genocide’

After starting their tour in Accra, the capital of Ghana, the Washingtons paid their respects at the Assin Manso Slave River. Inland Africans bound for slavery were marched shackled and barefoot for hundreds of miles over several months to the coast, where they received their “last bath” in African waters at Slave River.

“They would wash all the captured slaves and put shea butter on them to bring out a glow on the skin, prepping the body to make it look its best for the slave trade market,” Craig said.

Once the slaves got to the coast, they were held in slave castles for another few months. That’s all before they were forced onto a crowded ship, where they spent another six months crossing the Atlantic.

“In our history books, we hear about the Middle Passage and the ships being horrible, but you don’t hear about what happened on the ground before they got to the ships or to America, so it was quite the experience to be able to see that,” Drew said.

Historians estimate that between 1525 and 1866, about 12.5 million Africans were forcibly brought to the New World. Of those, only about 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage, and of those, only about 388,000 were shipped directly to North America, with the rest going to the Caribbean and South America.

“Millions of people didn’t make it,” Craig said. “The attrition was unbelievable. It was its own genocide even before they got to the ships, as well as the disease and starvation they endured along the way.”

The Washingtons also visited two slave castles: Cape Coast Castle, built by the Swedish in 1653 and later run by the British, and Elmina Castle, built by the Portuguese in 1482. The castles are about half the size of the Rose Bowl, each with an inner field, guard towers, master quarters for the governor which overlooked the courtyard, a church in the middle, and cramped, non-ventilated dungeons where the slaves were housed.

From there, the Washingtons visited Lomé, the capital of Togo, on their way to a village in Benin called Ouidah, home to the sacred Temple of Pythons.

“I thought that was just a name, but there are real pythons inside this temple,” Drew said. “In Benin, they view the python as sacred, as gods. It’s considered disrespectful to not wear a python around your neck when you visit. You also have to walk into the temple itself where there are pythons roaming around everywhere.”

The Washingtons then traveled to Ganvie, Benin, an entire village built on stilts over Lake Nokoué. Known as the “Venice of West Africa,” the water village of about 30,000 people was built 300 years ago as a defense mechanism during the slave trade.

“They row boats to go anywhere,” Drew said. “A typical family has three boats: one for the father to fish, another for the mother to sell the fish in the market and the third for the children to go to school. They have a hospital, a hotel, a church, a mosque and restaurants, all on stilts. Even their markets are on water. The women gather on boats in the center of the village and sell toiletries, fish, food, whatever you need.”

Sharing the Experience

Part of the reason why Americans have misconceptions about Africa is because of the lack of a meaningful connection. It’s not easy for Americans to travel to Africa and virtually impossible for Africans to travel to the United States.

“I don’t know who has made traveling to those countries difficult, but it is,” Drew said. “It’s not as easy as going to Europe, where you just hop on a plane. You want to go to Africa? Hold on, you need visas, you need shots, it’s a long plane ride, there are no direct flights, the flights are expensive. There aren’t flash sales for plane tickets to Africa. It’s prohibitive for a lot of people to go, coupled with the unknown. What we’re told about it, it doesn’t seem like that’s what you want to spend your vacation time and lots of money doing. But we found that it was just the best way we could have spent our money.”

Craig pointed out that they had virtually no interaction with Americans during their trip, while they saw and met lots of Europeans.

“That’s why no one in America knows about Africa, because no one goes,” he said. “Whatever they’re told, that’s what it is. All we get fed about Africa is that it’s a warzone.”

By sharing their experience on Facebook, the Washingtons have inspired a number of their friends to consider visiting Africa as well.

“It will help take down some of the mystery about Africa,” he said. “That’s what needs to happen: someone they know has gone and done it and they see it as a possibility.”

Pasadena dreamin'

Local author Chip Jacobs launches ‘Arroyo,’ a historical novel about Pasadena and the origins of the Colorado Street Bridge, at Vroman’s

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 10/17/2019

As a lifelong Pasadenan, author Chip Jacobs thought he knew his hometown well. That is, until he started researching the real history of Pasadena and its “concrete queen,” the Colorado Street Bridge, for his debut novel “Arroyo.”

Published Tuesday by Rare Bird Books, Arroyo chronicles a fictional story that is rooted in historical fact. It takes place in 1912-13, when the bridge was being constructed, and 1993, during the bridge’s 80th anniversary celebration. While conducting extensive research on Pasadena’s history for the book, Jacobs discovered many sordid stories that didn’t comport with what he thought he knew about the Crown City.

“I tried to write an alternate version of Pasadena that doesn’t smear Pasadena’s name, but also tells the truth,” he said. “The majority of the information about the city is real. I took real incidents and built a story around them. Pasadena is very different from its coffee table canon. It is a glorious, accomplished city that has more culture, science and creativity than many other cities per capita, but it’s not perfect. I felt the weight of history on me as I wrote this book. I had to get it right. I’m trying to tell a story but also inform.”

Familiar Names

Jacobs, a Pasadena Weekly contributor, is also the author of “Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles”; “The People’s Republic of Chemicals”; “Strange as It Seems: The Impossible Life of Gordon Zahler”; “The Ascension of Jerry: Murder, Hitmen and the Making of L.A. Muckraker Jerry Schneiderman”; “The Vicodin Thieves”: “Biopsying L.A.’s Grifters, Gloryhounds and Goliaths”; and “Black Wednesday Boys.”

“Arroyo” is his first work of fiction.

Jacobs will read from and discuss “Arroyo” at his book launch at 7 p.m. tomorrow (Oct. 18) at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd. Former Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard will emcee the event, which will also feature a Pie & Burger truck (a restaurant that plays a role in the book) and wine and beer (an ode to Busch Gardens, an estate owned by Anheuser-Busch founder Adolphus Busch and one of the main stomping grounds of the book’s characters). In fact, Vroman’s Bookstore’s founder, A.C. Vroman, figures into the plot as well.

The book’s characters also interact with historical figures such as Teddy Roosevelt, Rose Parade founder Charles Holder, newspaperman Charles Lummis, aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe, muckraker Upton Sinclair and others. Major scenes take place at Cawston Ostrich Farm, Mount Lowe Railway, Hotel Green (now Castle Green), the Raymond Hotel, Busch Gardens, the Doo Dah Parade and other local landmarks.

Jacobs will also present his book on Nov. 7 at Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse, Nov. 21 at the Pasadena Museum of History and Jan. 16 at the Pasadena Central Library.

Bridge to the Past

It’s rare for a book to make one laugh out loud, but Arroyo, written in clever, funny prose, does that several times. Th.e book includes fantastical scenes such as the main character, Nick Chance, racing a brand new Ford Model-T while riding an ostrich from South Pasadena’s Cawston Ostrich Farm in an early, offbeat test of machine versus animal. To find out who wins, you’ll have to read the book.

The book includes an origin story for the green parrots that fly over Pasadena to this day. There are several rumors about how the parrots got here, including that a pet store burned down in the 1970s. But in Jacobs’ telling, an excited boy chases Chance riding a Cawston ostrich, which freaks out and runs through the Arroyo, slamming into a cage holding 37 green parrots. The cage crashes open and the parrots escape, much to the chagrin of two shifty characters who intended to sell the exotic birds on the black market to wealthy patrons. In those days, feathers were all the rage in women’s fashion.

“Arroyo” takes place during the Progressive Era, a time when the Raymond Hotel still stands, when Busch Gardens (once dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world”) hadn’t yet been overrun by residential development, and when automobiles hadn’t yet overtaken horses — or in this case, ostriches — as the primary mode of transportation.

Chance starts out as an assistant manager at Cawston Ostrich Farm and then, when he gets fired from there, as a worker on the budding Colorado Street Bridge installing solar lights that he invented. But the bridge and the universe have bigger plans in store for him and his clairvoyant dog, Royo, who saves Chance from an explosion on South Fair Oaks Avenue.

The book also highlights a rarely told story about a fatal collapse of part of the bridge on Aug. 1, 1913, just weeks before its highly anticipated grand opening, albeit a story told by Jacobs himself in an article in the Pasadena Weekly published on Sept. 18, 2003, titled “Bridge to the Past.” In fact, that story was the initial seed of the idea for this book.

“It was my story in the Weekly about the bridge that galvanized this novel,” he said. “Three people got killed in the collapse. It feels like I have to get angry before I start a book, and I was angry when I walked on the bridge for the story and saw a plaque exalting the Pasadena Board of City Directors [now City Council members], the contractor who died in a car accident before the bridge even opened and the designer who wasn’t on speaking terms with the city because he was so infuriated that they added a curve to his bridge design. But they didn’t give even a mention of the three people who died during construction. It was appalling. That fueled me to write this story, and it touched a nerve.”

In that story, Jacobs wrote that the mold for the top of the ninth arch of the bridge “buckled, creat[ing] a thunderous pancaking action that snatched three workers — and almost eight more — in a violent, plunging mass. Hundreds of tons of wet concrete, scaffolding and machinery came crashing onto the floor of the valley, kicking up dust and pandemonium.”

Origin Story

The other catalyst for Jacobs to write this book was the continuing trend of people leaping from the 150-feet high bridge to their deaths in the Arroyo Seco, establishing its unfortunate and tenacious moniker, “Suicide Bridge.”

“It made me feel almost like the bridge itself was getting a bad name,” Jacobs said. “I felt like I needed to defend her. She’s a benevolent force. She’s been trashed and almost destroyed by the wrecking ball numerous times — thank God for our preservationists who value it. Somebody needed to be her biographer. That’s what I’m trying to do, to tell her origin story.”

Well over 100 people have used the bridge to end their lives, going back to the bridge’s earliest days and then the Great Depression. The first actual suicide wasn’t on the bridge itself, but rather a little way down the Arroyo, when a judge who was despondent about the death of his wife intentionally overdosed on laudanum, a Progressive Era opium tincture. One of the first jumpers, Jacobs wrote in his 2003 PW story, was the “ill wife of a Los Angeles tie maker.”

One of the most shocking incidents occurred in 1937, when Myrtle Ward, a young, depressed mother who had just lost her job, threw her baby off the bridge and then jumped herself. The baby landed in a tree and survived; her mother did not.

“I felt a little callous even writing about suicide, because what do I know? Think about somebody who lost a loved one there and they have to drive by that bridge every day,” Jacobs said. “I tried to keep the suicide part only a consequential element of the book, not the driving force.”

The city of Pasadena still struggles to this day with how to prevent suicides while maintaining the historical and aesthetic character of the bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In May, the city hired Donald MacDonald Architects to develop a proposal to address the issue. On Sept. 26, the city held its first community meeting for its Colorado Street Bridge Suicide Mitigation Enhancements Project to present the design of a vertical barrier with end treatments and gather feedback and ideas from the public.

“I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure some kind of barrier can coexist with the original magnificence of the Colorado Street Bridge,” Jacobs said.

Kidney love story

Former Pasadena Mayor Bill Paparian receives a lifesaving kidney from his wife, Sona, even though they have different blood types

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 10/3/2019

Former Pasadena Mayor Bill Paparian is successfully recovering from a lifesaving kidney transplant from his wife of 37 years, Sona, even though they have different blood types.

The rare and relatively new procedure is known as an ABO incompatible transplant, which only a small number of hospitals in the United States are able to perform. It enabled Paparian, 70, who has had kidney disease for 12 years, to receive the healthy organ just 10 months after starting dialysis rather than the many years it usually takes, if at all.

“I’m getting stronger every day,” Paparian told the Pasadena Weekly. “I have to confess it was a real struggle in the beginning. It wasn’t easy post-surgery. I basically was confined at home for weeks, which was pretty difficult for me because I’m normally a very active person. Two of my three sons, my oldest and my youngest, were there to take care of us. We basically had to have someone help us each day. My oldest son returned from Armenia, where he lives and works, for five weeks so he could be with me and my wife and help out.”

The surgery took place on Aug. 6 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. A criminal defense attorney, Paparian is already back to work and back in the gym.

“I went to court for the first time last week,” he said. “I was in court yesterday morning. I’m in my office right now waiting to meet with clients. I’m slowly getting back to where I was physically. I’m not there yet, but I’m slowly getting there.”

Paparian said his wife researched their options after he signed up on the National Kidney Registry and discovered the ABO incompatible transplant procedure. He said in a blog post on Cedars-Sinai’s website that Sona “stepping up like this is a real testament to our very strong relationship.”

He added that when he first went to Cedars-Sinai in 2016 he wasn’t told about the possibility of an ABO incompatible transplant.

“My understanding was that you had to find a donor with the same blood type as your own,” he said. “I’m A positive and Sona is B. So when we found out that that was an option, we went back to Cedars and we both had to go through an intensive screening process. There was a lot to it. It took a long time, about 10 months before we were finally cleared for the procedure.”

Now the Paparians are spreading the word about the procedure, which Cedars-Sinai began performing in 2005, according to a hospital blog. Only about 200 have taken place since then, and success rates are “in line with lower-risk compatible kidney transplants,” according to Dr. Stanley Jordan, medical director of Cedars-Sinai’s Kidney Transplant Program. Jordan “led the development of a process that greatly reduces the risk of the body rejecting a new kidney,” a process that “has been instrumental in the success of ABO incompatible transplants,” according to the blog.

Paparian told Cedars-Sinai that he initially resisted going on dialysis, and instead went on a “strict renal diet and even sought stem cell therapy in Florida. In October, however, he nearly collapsed while attending an event, and his doctor at Huntington Hospital told him he needed to begin dialysis.

Paparian served on the Pasadena City Council from 1987 (when it was known as the Board of City Directors) to 1999, including a term as mayor from 1995 to 1997. While serving as mayor, he visited Cuba and called for an end to the US. trade embargo against the communist-led island nation. In 2006, he ran for Congress on the Green Party ticket against Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, receiving 5.5 percent of the votes cast, or about 6,800 votes.

Bill and Sona met in 1981. Sona’s brother introduced them while she was visiting the United States from her hometown of Aleppo, Syria. According to the Cedars-Sinai blog, Bill and Sona “stayed up all night talking, causing Sona to miss her flight the next day back to Syria. Within two weeks, before Sona got on another flight home, Bill proposed to her, and they were married the next year on Valentine’s Day.”

Photo courtesy of Cedars-Sinai