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Memorial Day Lesson from a Daughter of the Confederacy

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Oakland Cemetery gate, Hampton, VA, May 22, 2014, Erin photo

Oakland Cemetery gate, Hampton, VA, May 22, 2014, Erin photo

On a run last week, Erin had noticed that Oakland Cemetery, which we’d never visited, had sprouted Confederate flags. We went back to look today, figuring we’d find another memorial to the mythical Southern Way of Life and the Lost Cause.

Instead, we found a 65-year-old white woman named Marquita talking to a younger black woman and a black man amid the headstones. The black woman, angry and crying, was struggling to find her father’s burial site. The man was there to put flowers on his daughter’s grave, now an overgrown patch of weeds, and to find another family member.

Marquita, who recently joined the Daughters of the Confederacy at her brothers’ behest, also has relatives buried at Oakland. Black and white buried together, something we haven’t seen in old, post–Civil War and segregation-era cemeteries around here.

We walked up to the group as Marquita explained to the woman why she couldn’t find her dad’s grave. The cemetery’s owner, Allen Simmons, had buried people every which way—casket atop casket, pointing this way and that, under walkways—with or without permits. Over the years, Simmons and his company, Oakland Estates & Grounds LLC, got hauled into Hampton court and dinged for misdemeanors like “improper upkeep of cemetery.” Found guilty more than a few times, Simmons was fined—$2,500, $1,000, $500—didn’t pay, and kept on disrespecting the dead.

In 2005, Simmons told a reporter from the Daily Press, the local paper, exactly where he stood: “I kind of agree with the city. They have something to complain about,’” he said. ‘But our plan is to abandon the cemetery because we have no funds.’” And abandon it he did; and then he died.

The Commonwealth of Virginia doesn’t want to take responsibility for Oakland, nor does the city of Hampton. There are, however, plots at Oakland that are picture perfect—headstones upright, grass manicured. Families with means take care of these, but only these.

So, like the city’s primarily African American cemeteries, this rare integrated burial ground would be totally consumed by nature if not for a band of volunteers.

Marquita Latta plants flags at upended headstones of black servicement, Oakland Cemetery, Hampton, VA, May 24, 2014

Marquita Latta plants flags at upended headstones of black servicemen, Oakland Cemetery, Hampton, VA, May 24, 2014, BP cell phone photo

Marquita is a voluble woman, today wearing a cowboy hat glittered in blue with white stars to match the stripeless corner of Old Glory. I hope she won’t mind me calling her eccentric, because she is. She’s adopted Oakland, along with a group of people she calls family—Tim, a Son of the Confederacy, who was cutting the grass on his new riding mower; Sarah (I think that was her name), who was doing the same on the old one; and others. When Erin and I arrived, they had all been trying to help the crying woman find her dad’s grave. They stuck a thin metal probe into the earth, hoping to hit stone or anything hard; then they dug a small hole. Nothing.

Marquita peeled off from the group to show me something at the far end of the cemetery, a heap of six headstones—all of them official Veterans Affairs, government–issued ones. African American service members, she told me. She and her comrades had pulled them from the woods but didn’t have the equipment to set them upright. She’d called the VA, she told me, and the local black chapter of the American Legion. More nothing.

As I stood there, this Daughter of the Confederacy—as in an actual member of that national organization—added a few more American flags to the ones she’d planted before we arrived.

Erin overheard Tim talking to the man who came to visit his daughter and find his relative’s grave marker. They didn’t find it—so Tim, the Confederate Son (this according to Marquita), dug a small hole in a spot where the grave might be, just the right size for the African American man to fit a vase of flowers. Tim asked where the daughter was buried and then piloted his mower over to the plot and cleaned it up. The man (he left before I got his name) then planted his second tribute, a bouquet of white flowers.

As we pedaled away, Erin waved goodbye to Tim. He returned the gesture with the flag he was holding, the Confederate stars and bars.

(Where’s the) Rage against the Machine?

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The University of Alabama’s student government may have flip-flopped its way into the 21st century. In mid-April, UA’s senate voted to adopt a resolution supporting the racial integration of the school’s nearly all-white fraternities and sororities after killing a similar measure just a few weeks earlier.

On its face, this is a historic move. To alumna Jessica Patrick, it may very well be “a step in the right direction” toward greater diversity. Patrick—Jessica Thomas while at UA and now a an attorney in Nashville—was the subject of Bama Girl, a documentary that chronicled her 2005 campaign to become UA’s first African American homecoming queen. (Along with other candidates of color, she lost.)

History, however, gives us ample reason for skepticism. Former governor George Wallace made his notorious stand in 1963 on the steps of the school’s auditorium for the “southern way of life,” known nowadays as “state-sanctioned racial discrimination,” and against the enrollment of Vivian Malone and James Hood. More recently, UA has made national news for eruptions of old-school Dixie racism in the social sphere. The Crimson White, the school newspaper, ran an exposé in 2013 of the systematic exclusion of African Americans from prominent and powerful white fraternities and sororities.)

The recent resolution is a symbolic statement by students, not a plan of action that commits anyone to do anything, including the school’s administration. But it is something, one might say. “It’s only a step forward, but it is a step forward, and it should be encouraged,” University of Alabama law professor Paul Horwitz said in an email.

The Root requested comment from the University President’s office about the measure but received only a general statement asserting the university’s commitment “to a welcoming and inclusive campus.” University President Judy Bonner did speak out against the segregation of and discrimination by white Greeks last year after the Crimson White’s 2013 investigation, which revealed that two high-achieving African American women had been rejected by 16 sororities. (The U.S. Justice Department found that situation so serious it assigned a U.S. Attorney to monitor the situation.)

Nathan James, a Crimson White columnist, sees the yes vote as a straight-up PR move. “It’s clear from the previous vote where our senators’ loyalties lie, and that hasn’t changed because media pressure forced them to backpedal,” he wrote in an email to The Root. The “pressure” James describes built up after national and international news media hammered student government’s March 2014 decision to kill the first “diversity resolution.”

Terence Lonam, a progressive activist on campus from the class of 2017, is similarly skeptical. “When the last SGA senate voted to kill the original integration resolution, which I think honestly represented the state of race relations in Greek life at Alabama, I was horrified but not shocked – the powers that control a large segment of my campus, namely the Machine, are stuck to traditions that have kept them in power with relative ease.”

The Machine? Yes, “the Machine,” a secret society with deep roots in the muck of Jim Crow whose members are chosen from 28 of the school’s white Greek societies. The Machine has fought the move to integrate the Greeks through the immense—and stealthy—political power it wields in student government. A chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon, an umbrella organization of historically white Greeks founded in 1870, the Machine has operated and schemed at UA for a century. No surprise that it’s kissing cousin to Yale’s Skull & Bones.

So how does the Machine run? “UA’s Greeks vote in a bloc,” explains James, “they always elect representatives from a specific set of Greek organizations; these representatives, once elected, fight to preserve a segregated Greek system; students who run against Machine-backed candidates are frequently the targets of harassment and death threats; and elections featuring Greek candidates are frequently affected by voter fraud.”

“Death threats” leaps off the page. So we asked James to substantiate that charge. He provided links to news stories, including one from CNN, in which students made credible claims of such threats and other forms of nefarious Machination. Some, like the CNN.com piece, are more than a decade old. Others are quite recent.

“The Machine shouldn’t be overestimated, but the simple fact of its continued secretive status should be recognized as an obstacle to everything else the University of Alabama, its students and administration, want to achieve,” said Horwitz.

He writes with some authority. His wife, Kelly, was defeated in a Tuscaloosa city—not UA campus—election for Board of Education by Cason Kirby, a 26-year-old recent UA law school grad and former SGA president, under dodgy circumstances. AL.com ’s reporter on the UA beat, Melissa Brown, and others reported on emails sent to voting-age students by Machine-connected Greeks, pledging free booze and limo rides to the polls. (Kirby, a former member of Kappa Sigma, a frat identified in the Crimson White investigation as Machine-connected, did not return a phone call from The Root.)

Horwitz notes that grassroots opposition to Machine politics cannot be ignored. “Some of the most important moments on campus this year—complaints and marches about continued segregation, resistance against adults who were involved, disgust with corrupt voting-bloc tactics that spilled off campus this year and into the local school board elections—came about because of undergraduates, mostly in the sororities, who were disturbed by what they saw and heard and willing to put themselves on the line to do something about it.”

So where does that leave us? With a student organization that has Alabama influence and national ties and clings tenaciously to inherited privilege and power. It may not be able intimidate and machinate with impunity as it did when it still had Jim Crow muscle, but it remains an influential and clandestine political bloc —members do not acknowledge the group’s existence—at a public university with a long history of racial discrimination.

The Machine’s power endures in large part because the UA’s leaders, the adults in the administration, have chosen to remain silent about the group for decades upon decades. Their silence equals tacit approval. That tacit approval amounts to active support for a secret clan of hyperempowered and historically privileged youth to discriminate.

“The Machine is not all-powerful or all-important,” Professor Horwitz wrote in a recent Crimson White op-ed. “But as long as it’s around, every other problem will be that much more intractable. It needs to become a public, accountable group. Or it must be killed, forcefully and publicly.”

God Sees All

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Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Charles Byrd drove his front-end loader to the end of the gravel road. He cut the engine, hopped out of the cab, and nodded at me. “That’s Maggie Walker’s grave,” Mr. Byrd said. I had just photographed the curved headstone without noticing who it honored, Maggie Lena Walker: savings bank founder, newspaper publisher, civic leader, Jim Crow battler, daughter of an enslaved woman.

Under my feet.

Mr. Byrd, a contractor, said he was heading to the mausoleum that Mr. Harris, who was working in another part of Evergreen Cemetery, had told him about. He took a narrow, grass footpath that looked promising into the trees.

Charles Byrd, Contractor, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Charles Byrd, Contractor, Evergreen Cemetery, Richmond, VA, April 23, 2014

Mr. Byrd shouted for me in barely a minute.

As you approach from the side, the crypt looks more stately than spooky. The part of the building that isn’t obscured by leaves and branches appears solid. Tendrils of ivy creep down the walls from its roof. But as you swing around to the front, down a slight hill, you see tragedy head on—a huge, ragged hole has been punched through the cinderblock façade. I gather that the ugly gray bricks had been laid to cover an earlier desecration of the original door. The name carved into the stone at the top of the structure is “Braxton.”

We stared into the hole at the exposed coffins.

“Why would somebody do something like this,” Mr. Byrd said, not asking me, just saying.

I feel this whenever I document human ugliness: a surge of adrenalin and my news reporter’s predatory hunger mashed up with disgust and anger. Sadness, too.

Rust had destroyed the finish of the casket directly in front of us. The fixtures were busted. The lid had been wrenched off. The two caskets to the right had been dragged off their shelves as far as they would come. The floor was heaped with shattered headstones, trash, a woman’s wig. It seemed that the people who did this had plenty of time to destroy and despoil. We didn’t know how awful the story was—the dead had been pulled from their caskets—until afterward, when we Googled our way to video a by KIDA Productions. (Scroll down to “Evergreen Cemetery: History in Ruins.”)

Evergreen Cemetery is enormous. It’s part of a patchwork of African American graveyards that covers acres of Richmond’s east side, East End Cemetery among them. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of graves have been absorbed by the forest. They are invisible beneath the green and brown tangle. Volunteers from the Virginia Roots Cemetery Restoration Project, local colleges, professional landscapers, even the army’s Fort Lee do regular cleanup operations. A local chapter of black fraternity Omega Psi Phi minds the plot where Walker and John Mitchell, Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, are buried. But nature is very aggressive here, hard to fight with limited resources; the cemetery’s owners made no provision for perpetual care, which led to its current state. And then there are the vandals. (Volunteer wrangler John Shuck tells us that “an issue” with the owners of Evergreen has ended cleanup efforts there. Volunteers are now working at East End. Here’s a link to their Work Calendar for folks who want to pitch in.)

In red marker, someone has written on the center coffin, “God Sees All”; and at the rim of the hole, “Smile. Your [sic] On Camera.” Perhaps a deterrent to further outrages. Perhaps not.

 

Virginia Valentine

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The forecast promised clear skies on Friday the 14th, but it was hard to see how. We’d driven up to Richmond on a lark Thursday, only to discover that there’s a magic line somewhere between here and there — the snow hadn’t stuck for more than a few hours in Hampton, but Richmond was just peeking out from under a heavy wet blanket. Which is not to say the main roads weren’t clear and buses weren’t running — they were. But the Library of Virginia — the reason we’d come — was inexplicably closed. (Really, Richmond? Where’s your “rebel” spirit now? Stashed away in all those monuments, I suspect!) Happily, Lamplighter was not. We spent the afternoon huddled over our laptops in the chilly porchlike part of the café as dense gray clouds gathered. At one point, there was a flash of lightning (which I somehow missed) and a huge clap of thunder (which I did not), and snow blobs, not flakes, began falling soon after. It was already starting to accumulate as I headed for the car, and by the time I’d circled back around to pick Brian up, it was coming down thick and fast.

I’m not sure how long it took us to get to Williamsburg (a journey of about 50 miles), but somewhere along the way the snow stopped and the rain started and the road was miraculously clear. The next morning, when I cracked the blinds in our bedroom, the church steeple across the street was glowing pink through the bare branches — sun! We emerged blinking into the unfamiliar glare and headed back up the highway to Williamsburg, hearts aflutter. No, not because it was Valentine’s Day (Brian says, It was?), but because we were finally going to be allowed back on Camp Peary, a nearly impenetrable fortress, albeit one with a see-through fence. After much wrangling with the public affairs officer, Brian had been able to secure permission for us to visit again — for 30 minutes, with no cameras of any kind, and with a maximum of three other family members.

We had asked the three siblings pictured above — Lieutenant Palmer Jr., Ann Jones, and Dot Harrold — to join us, and we met at June’s house after lunch at Pierce’s Barbecue. Like Brian, they too are great-grandchildren of Mat and Julia Palmer; their grandfather was John Frank Palmer, Brian’s great-uncle. Both Ann and Dot were born in what used to be known as Palmertown, which was swallowed by the U.S. Navy in the early 1940s. John Frank lived there, and so did Big Daddy, Brian’s grandpa Lewis, along with other Palmer aunts and uncles. All were evicted when Camp Peary was built — collateral damage of the war effort and the defense of our great nation. The fading house you see in the picture below stood outside the perimeter of the new base and so narrowly escaped destruction, until a fire burnt

Dot and Ann in front of the old house, Williamsburg, Va., circa 1941.

Dot and Ann in front of the old house, Williamsburg, Va., circa 1941. Courtesy of Ann Jones.

it down years later. A new, brick house was built in its place, where the youngest sister lives today.

Ann and Dot climbed into June’s pickup truck, and we followed along behind. The entrance to Camp Peary is only about 10 minutes from June’s house, just down Rochambeau Drive and across 64. I was more aware this time of the military trappings through the minivan window, and I couldn’t help but notice the scary-looking automatic weapon lying on a bright blue pad on the ground. The cemetery we’d come to visit is tucked away in a wooded clearing next to a firing range; “operations” had apparently been under way when we got to the gate. These were stopped, obviously, before we were allowed anywhere near the place.

All was quiet when we arrived. Our minders stood back as the five of us entered the burial ground, which has been fenced in since our last visit (February 2012 for me; the summer of that year for Brian). In the two years that have elapsed, I have come to regard the people buried there as “our people.” Mat Palmer has come to life in our minds (and before our eyes — there’s a picture of him on the wall of Mt. Pilgrim Baptist church, which he helped build). He died in 1927, before Dot and Ann were born, but their daddy knew him, and they know of him. His wife, Julia Fox, has remained more elusive. According to marriage records, she was born in Gloucester County, just across the York River from where Camp Peary stands today. She was most likely a “contraband,” one of the thousands of enslaved people who flocked to Union-held territory during the Civil War and in so doing emancipated themselves. Her parents and her two siblings appear in the 1865 Census of the Colored Population in York County, but she is nowhere to be found — she would have been about 10 years old at the time. Where was she?

I’m fairly certain now that she, too, is buried on Camp Peary, right beside her husband of nearly forty years. The gravestone is cruelly blank, which hadn’t struck me two years ago. I don’t think I even saw it. At that time, Mat and Julia had only just become real on paper — we had visited the York County Court House the day before and seen their marriage record, dated July 17, 1873 — and I didn’t yet realize the turn our lives had taken. This time, though, I felt a bond between us and would have liked to sit and stay awhile.

Instead, we climbed back into the van and were driven the short distance to the exit. Rather than heading back to the library, we asked Ann, Dot, and June to show us where Palmertown used to be. Ann had told us you could still see the shadow of the road that ran through it, and sure enough, there it was on the other side of the fence, clearly visible through the trees at this time of year. It’s called Samoa Road now (is that supposed to be a secret?). A little farther along, we came to their stomping grounds, to use Ann’s words. That’s Daddy’s truck, they said, laughing and pointing at an old white Ford half buried in brush. And down the old driveway is the wooden garage, ramshackle now, and the remnants of a small barn where the cow and pigs were kept and the mailbox discarded. Keep going down the hill and you’ll come to the swamp, where they played as children, swinging on vines across the water.

The stories started to burble up as they stood in the woods, remembering. The black snake coiled in the corner of the garage that spooked June as a boy. The thigh-high snow that came right before Dot was born. The aproned midwife, Mary Jones, whose house is still standing, over by where June lives now. These are the stories we hope to share before their outlines dim. —EHP

Daddy's old mailbox, Williamsburg, Va., 2014. Photo by Brian Palmer.

Daddy’s old mailbox, Williamsburg, Va., 2014. Photo by Brian Palmer.

Postcards from the Great Dismal Swamp

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Ever since I came across the Great Dismal Swamp in the Rand McNally road atlas, I’ve wanted to see the place for myself. I’ll confess that this whole region—in fact, pretty much all of Virginia—was indistinct in my mind. (And I’m someone who loves maps and geography, thanks to my proud shunpiker parents, who pored over the atlas before every car trip in search of the roughest, remotest roads they could find.) It only began to take shape on our third voyage south, when we turned Brian’s lost passport into an impromptu honeymoon down the Eastern Shore, over to Hampton, on to Petersburg, and up through the Shenandoah Valley. That’s when I started to study the map.

It’s also when I started to study American history, my knowledge of which was patchy at best. I’d never been all that interested in pilgrims and pioneers, Rough Riders and robber barons, Confederates and carpetbaggers. But as Brian and I delve deeper into the history of slavery, the Civil War, and the dark decades that followed, the southern landscape has begun to take on new meaning for both of us.

Somewhere in the piles of articles and books and pamphlets we’ve accumulated, I had read that enslaved people sought refuge in the Great Dismal Swamp on their long journey to precarious freedom in the north. The twisting, infinite waterways and thickets of underbrush provided cover from slave hunters and their snarling bloodhounds, but it was a forbidding shelter, infested with mosquitoes and other beasties, snakes, and bears. Even so, for many it was preferable to bondage, becoming more than just a stop on the Underground Railroad, a permanent hiding place and home.

Colonies of maroons established themselves in the swamp, perhaps as early as the late 17th century, according to J. Brent Morris’s recent New York Times post, raiding neighboring plantations, then retreating to the thorny, bug-ridden bog to elude any pursuers. The whole piece is fascinating, but this bit is worth quoting at length:

The considerable numbers of maroons who used the swamp as a base for these attacks, as well as those who settled in the innermost communities of the deep swamp, were constant thorns in the side of plantation society, both militarily and ideologically. Through trade, appropriation and their own ingenuity, maroons obtained or made weapons and developed remarkable skills as guerrilla fighters. Just as important, however, was their symbolic variance from the ideological foundations of American slavery: the notion that African-Americans could not survive without benevolent white supervision, that they did not truly desire their freedom and that they were pathetically inferior to the ‘master race” in every way. Rather, they challenged white authority and stood for centuries, unsubdued, as a powerful rebuke to the Slave Power.

It was this article, in fact, that spurred us to action on Sunday. (Oddly enough, a few days before, during a marathon session at the University of Chicago’s marvelous Special Collections Research Center, I’d come across a number of references to the Dismal Swamp Land Company—founded by none other than George Washington—in the musty 200-year-old papers of a certain Fielding Lewis, proprietor of Weyanoke plantation on the James River. More on that later.) From Hampton, Brian and I drove down to Suffolk, on the south side of the James, and parked alongside three other cars at the Washington Ditch entrance to the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.

The perfect fall weather—cool, still, with a bluebird sky—went a long way toward masking the treacherous nature of the swamp, which at one point covered over a million acres in this corner of Virginia and North Carolina. Still, as we strolled along the double track to Lake Drummond, a nine-mile hike in and out, we tried to invoke the ancestors: How would they have read the landscape, the channels and pools, the hummocks and scrims of scum, the large piles of seed-laden dung? On less benevolent days, how did they stay warm and dry? How did they eat? As the sun dropped in the sky and the woods around us became an impenetrable tangle of shadows, we quickened our step, arriving gratefully at the car, where we cranked up the heat as soon as we got in. Yes, it was in the 50s. Goes without saying that the ancestors were a hell of a lot tougher than we.

Erin Hollaway Palmer, October 22, 2013

Postcards from Elmerton, Brian and Erin, October 4, 2013

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Someone cuts the grass, though he or she (or they) doesn’t clean up the clippings, which had gathered into little brown mats on the upended gravestones when Erin and I visited Elmerton Cemetery last week.

We’d driven by before, even stopped the car and peeked. But we’d never really taken the whole place in.

There’s no sign that bears the name of the graveyard, which is smack across the street from a bus depot. But there is one dedicated to the cemetery’s most prominent inhabitant, Mary S. Peake.

Peake was remarkable. A free African American, she taught black children secretly before the Civil War, because to educate them publicly was illegal. During the war, she opened a school in Union-held territory.

Missionary Lewis Lockwood wrote a short book about her, The Colored Teacher of Fort Monroe. He tells us that Peake inculcated her students with Scripture and “considered singing an important part of a right education.” Lockwood seems to have been quite enamored of Mrs. Peake. She died at 39 of tuberculosis.

Peake’s headstone and those of her family members are set apart from the others in a fenced-in plot at Elmerton. They’re in good condition compared with others. Many have clearly been toppled, some smashed—by human hands—which is striking and sad.

Two years ago, the Virginia Department of Transportation published a survey of sites that might be affected, directly or indirectly, by construction to improve Interstate 64 and the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. That survey included Elmerton. These sections of the report are devastating:

Although a cemetery for the first generation of African Americans following emancipation, including Mary Peake, the cemetery suffered from decades of neglect during the twentieth century. In an effort to restore the cemetery, volunteers dedicated time to clear overgrowth and debris, sadly causing significant damages as well. While the cemetery was established during a crucial time in African American history, and contains the remains of an important individual, the cemetery is in extreme poor condition, and historic African American landmarks with a higher degree of integrity exist within the region. As such, the resource is recommended Not Eligible for individual listing in the NRHP [National Register of Historic Places] under Criteria A–C.

I suppose this means African Americans need only a few landmarks to our history and achievements, ones “with a higher degree of integrity,” chosen by state agencies. Let the others crumble and disappear.

When a place such as this is no one’s responsibility, it’s easy and cheap to say it’s everyone’s—Hampton city, the state of Virginia, regular citizens, black folk. Like me. But if it were, Elmerton wouldn’t be in a shattered and neglected state.

Photo: Bethel vs. Heritage, September 26, 2013

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Hampton VA--Fort Monroe scenics; Chesapeake Bay; Darling Stadium football

Army JROTC at football game, Darling Stadium, Hampton, VA