when the dust clears

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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.

 

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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.

A Journey Toward Healing in Yorktown, Virginia

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Young lady photographs newly installed wayside at the old Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery, Yorktown, VA,  July 23, 2013

Young girl photographs newly installed wayside at the old Shiloh Baptist Church Cemetery, Yorktown, VA, July 21, 2013

A rough encampment for enslaved people was set up on July 23, 1863—150 years ago today—near Fort Yorktown, Virginia, a Union stronghold in Rebel territory. It took the generic name “slabtown.” That’s what many such camps were called because the shacks built by the self-emancipated women and men—otherwise known as fugitive slaves—were thrown up with any material at hand, including irregular, bark-covered tree slabs left over from timber milling. Residents later called it Uniontown for obvious reasons. They founded a church called Shiloh Baptist and built a town around it.

Last Sunday, Shiloh joined with the National Park Service to dedicate “waysides,” those hefty informational signs you find at national parks, to honor the community, which no longer exists. Given the rather difficult history of the Shiloh–NPS relationship, the event was an amazing example of hatchet burying and cooperation.

Uniontown survived the Civil War, endured Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and thrived into the 20th century. Then the National Park Service started eyeing the land, which happened to be part of the Yorktown National Battlefield. Lord Charles Cornwallis, commander of British forces, surrendered there to General George Washington, in 1781. The NPS wanted the area pristine for the bicentennial. The black folk were in the way.

Former residents of Uniontown and friends look at new wayside at the Yorktown National Cemetery, Yorktown, VA, July 23, 2013

Former residents of Uniontown and friends look at new wayside at Yorktown National Cemetery, Yorktown, VA, July 21, 2013. Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer

“A community generally known as Slabtown still forms a wedge into the Yorktown Battlefield,” wrote Newton Drury, the park service’s director, in 1946. Just three years later, he referred to a “significant acquisition” in Uniontown. That was the beginning of the end for the community.

The NPS started offering to buy land from residents. “There was an agreement that nobody would move out without informing the others about what was on the plate—what the National Park Service offered,” a former resident named Sherman Hill told us. But “after all the years, you started distrusting one another.” He believes that the NPS used a divide-and-conquer strategy to break the community’s cohesion—and to get the land for bargain prices. It worked. They cleared everyone out by 1977, though one man who lived far from the battlefield (but still on land the NPS wanted) got life rights. When he dies, the park service gets his land.

But on Saturday, Shiloh’s Pastor, Barbara Lemon, shared a podium with Supervisory Park Ranger Diane K. Depew, and Dan Smith, Superintendent of the Colonial National Historical Park, at an eight-plus-hour symposium hosted by the church. Heavyweight scholars, an African American Civil War reenactor (and park service employee), and two Hampton University history majors held forth on the exodus of the enslaved and the genesis of Slabtown. On Sunday, all gathered at the Yorktown National Cemetery and Battlefield to unveil the waysides. It was a moving end to a remarkable weekend.

Young boy lays wreath on the grave of a Yorktown soldier who served with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, Yorktown, VA, July 23, 2013

Young boy lays wreath on the grave of a Yorktown soldier who served with the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, Yorktown, VA, July 21, 2013. Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer

All injustices have not been remedied, and all wounds certainly have not healed. After nearly 40 years, the NPS has done nothing with much of the land acquired from Uniontowners. It is underbrush and patchy grass clearings in the woods. And yet, some kind of healing happened here. For that, we should be grateful—and ready for the next step.

Juneteenth, African Burial Ground, New York City, June 19, 2013

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Here’s the piece I shot and wrote for Parade.com on the day of.

From the BXP photo archive: David Duke, white supremacist/GOP office holder, July 4, 1991

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Man holding Nazi-era sign at rally for David Duke. Translation is "The Jew: War Agitator. War Perpetuater." New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

Man holding Nazi-era sign at rally for David Duke. Translation is “The Jew: War Agitator. War Perpetuater.” New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

I’d already been thinking a lot about the Ku Klux Klan when the publication of Anthony Karen’s new photo book, White Pride, was announced. When slavery and the Civil War ended, the Klan swept in to preserve the South’s social, political, and economic order by terrorizing the newly freed, who might have been tempted to exercise their new rights. Karen’s gentle comments to an interviewer about the “pro-America” folks who flock to the group and its white supremacist brother/sister organizations struck—actually hammered—a nerve.

I remember photographing “Dukefest” in 1991, on the Fourth of July no less, in New Orleans. Louisiana state legislator David Duke—also founder of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the National Association for White People—was firing up a campaign for governor. The shape-shifting Duke was as slick as goose excrement, playing up his equal-rights-for-downtrodden-whites rhetoric and downplaying his Nazi uniform-wearing and Klan-klothed days. Some of Duke’s adherents, however, didn’t get the play-nice-for-the-camera memo. They did what they could to jostle the out-of-town reporters, spill beer on us. Thankfully, the cops knew the drill and prevented anything untoward from happening. They made it safe enough for Danny Schecter, me, and other non-Aryans to document the scene: a crowd of white folks barbecuing and gamboling at the center of City Park in one of the blackest (as in African Americanest) cities in the U.S.

David Duke at a campaign event during his run for Louisiana governor. New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

David Duke at a campaign event during his run for Louisiana governor. New Orleans, LA, July 4, 1991

Duke was a manipulator, if not the most masterful one. He wasn’t urbane (or smart) enough to sanitize himself so he could slide into the mainstream of the Republican party. (There’s only so much scrubbing you can do to get rid of the stink of fascism.)

Duke appealed to a swath of disaffected, poor white folks who believed that affirmative action and other programs designed (sometimes poorly) to mitigate discriminatory practices and policies were the stake in the heart of their dreams.

But it would be condescending, one might say racist, to assume that Duke’s stalwart supporters didn’t know of his fascist roots. There were (and still are) plenty of conservative groups that don’t wave the flag of racism and anti-semitism. So one might assume that a fair portion of Duke’s followers were attracted to these very things in his barely concealed past.

I’m looking forward to seeing Karen’s book. I want to know if the photographer sees and works both compassionately and critically. I have no doubt that his subjects’ individuality and the circumstances of their lives may be interesting, even compelling. But a book focused on members of America’s oldest terrorist organization must also explore its subjects’ relationship to the Klan’s legacy of hate, brutality, and murder—a legacy they have chosen to embrace. Otherwise, it’s simply environmental portraiture—or propaganda.

Update from the Producer/Directors of Make the Ground Talk

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A few Saturdays ago, we led an audience at William and Mary’s Lemon Project Symposium on an audiovisual tour of the research we’ve done for our documentary, Make the Ground Talk. Our show started where we began our actual journey: Camp Peary, the military base that seventy years ago swallowed Magruder, the town where Brian’s father and his parents were born, and where the grave of his great-grandfather, Mat Palmer, still lies.

One of the most important things we’ve learned during our months of reading, talking, and filming—other than that Mat was a Union Army vet who had been a slave—is that many other historic black Tidewater communities were uprooted and displaced, usually by Uncle Sam, in the 20th century. Land was seized both by the government through eminent domain and by “market forces,” often large institutions that applied the tremendous economic and political power they wielded in pre–Civil Rights America.

We shared with folks at W&M—many Palmers as well as academics and others who have guided us this far—a realization we had a few months into our work. To do justice to the small story, that of Magruder and Brian’s family, we needed to tackle the much larger one: the series of evictions that erased a constellation of communities connected by family, church, and other fundamental bonds.

After the talk—we think it went well—we spent another week in Virginia, using Hampton as our base once again, to explore new places and meet people with stories about communities like Magruder, Uniontown, and Acretown. Najla Kurani told us how her grandparents, white folks who moved to Magruder from Indiana (by way of Panama!), found their property, coaxed food out of the poor soil, and then lost it to the Navy when everyone else did. With his wife, Louise, Brian’s cousin Horace Smith led us through Bible study, our first, and vividly described life in Grove, the place where many black Magruderites like the Palmers resettled. The club at Grove’s Log Cabin Beach on the James River was a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the network of nightclubs across the South where black entertainers—Fats Domino, Little Richard, B.B. King, and many others—performed for black folks, who were banned from white clubs. The club’s DJ had a slogan, which Rev. Horace bellowed for us at his kitchen table: “Everybody’s gabbin’ about Log Cabin!”

But the archives were calling us, too. Family historians, women like Brian’s late Aunt Ethelyn and late cousin Jean who laid the foundation for our work, have said that the Palmers originated in Amelia County. Knowledge passed verbally from forbears tells us this. But there’s also some documentary evidence: A marriage register from York County lists Brian’s great-grandfather Mat’s parents, Winnie and Lewis, and his place of birth, Amelia. Other documents, though—actual affidavits attached to Mat’s Union Army pension application—point to Goochland County (which we visited in November). So we headed west to the Amelia County Clerk’s office to hunt for answers.

We’d been told this was the red (as in Romney, not Lenin, red) part of the state, so we’d braced ourselves for a tepid reception in both Amelia and neighboring Nottoway County, where we stayed. While hardly Kumbaya country, the small town of Blackstone is almost exactly half African American, half white. Cars in the Grey Swan Inn’s gravel lot sported Obama-Biden bumper stickers. Turns out these cars belonged to our lovely innkeepers, Jim and Christine Hasbrouck. (Even better, Jim roasts his own coffee. Need we say more?)

Amelia has a slightly different feel. Perhaps it’s the monument to the “Confederate Dead” smack in the middle of town, in front of the courthouse. At the antiques shop across the street, we came face to face with a man-size Sambo-esque statue to which someone—perhaps the shoppe’s frosty owner—has affixed a handwritten note in “dialect” talkin’ ’bout “massa.” The rotund figure is merely the largest in a collection of Jim Crow–era curios.

That said, our guide to the clerk’s archives, Juanita Booker, was African American, as were Leroy and Sylvia Hatcher, the proprietors of our lunch spot, Hatcher’s Dining and Catering—which is separated from Mammy Land by a tiny parking lot. We haven’t gotten used to these juxtapositions.

At the clerk’s office, we dug into ancient deed books, marriage registers, and volumes of wills in search of Mat Palmer’s parents. Since slaves were property and recorded as such in documents, we searched the names of potential owners, beginning with the Hobsons, the Goochland family that owned Mat. Dig, dig, dig. Sigh, sigh, sigh. Harrumph. Then, a familiar name: Maben, a family with multiple connections to the Hobsons. Erin found the names “Winney” and “Lewis No. 2”—one of three Lewises— and “child William,” in the will of one David Maben. We levitated and beamed for a few seconds, despite the shock of seeing these names listed among feather beds and farm animals. These may or may not be our Winnie—Winney?—and Lewis, but we’ve found one more thread to follow on our journey.

Detail from will of David Maben, Amelia County Circuit Court Clerk's office, Amelia Courthouse, Va., March 21, 2013

Detail from will of David Maben, Amelia County Circuit Court Clerk’s office, Amelia Courthouse, Va., March 21, 2013

Our next tasks: create a reel with segments of our strongest interviews and other video imagery, and—wait for it—our first fund-raising push. We’ll be setting up on either Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Stay tuned.