when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

Posts Tagged ‘African American

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.

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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.

 

Violence as a Way of Life

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To be honest, I’d been secretly dreading seeing 12 Years a Slave, but I also knew I couldn’t not see it. The last gruesomely violent movie I saw was Gangs of New York, which a friend of mine persuaded me to go to when we were living in Amsterdam way back in ’02—I “watched” most of it with ears plugged and eyes narrowed to slits behind the shelter of my fingers. By the time we finally left the theater, I was clammy with sweat and cramped from having been bunched up in my seat for nearly three hours of torture. I’ve carefully avoided such films ever since, which is why I haven’t seen No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood or Django Unchained. If I’m going to sit through something harrowing, there needs to be a damn good reason, and Daniel Day Lewis, for all his brilliance, isn’t a good enough one for me!

Given the nature of what Brian and I are trying to do here in Virginia, I probably don’t need to explain why I had to see 12 Years a Slave. I suppose you could argue that I’ve read enough about slavery at this point to be familiar with the relentless brutality—physical, psychological, emotional—upon which the entire system was predicated and without which it could not have persisted. But I’m not sure the written word can fully capture slavery’s sickening violence, or the constant threat thereof. (I might make an exception for The Book of Night Women, by Jamaican writer Marlon James; a number of scenes from that novel have lodged in my brain and will not be ousted.) You cannot unsee the fear — and the life — in a person’s eyes as the noose tightens, or the raw, bloody flesh of a person’s back as she’s whipped while bound to a post, or the terror and disbelief of a person who wakes to find himself in chains, or the disgust and despair in the eyes of a person who is raped and will be raped again, and again. I insist on the word person, because that is what 12 Years a Slave makes most painfully clear. These were people upon whom unspeakable violence was inflicted by other people. You knew that, of course, but I think it’s possible not to really know until you see that violence (re)enacted before you.

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I have yet to meet a white Southerner who openly romanticizes his or her “heritage,” though evidence of nostalgia for an imagined/invented past is everywhere down here—it’s as much a part of the landscape as magnolia trees and Golden Corrals. I wonder what neo-Confederates would make of 12 Years a Slave? I’ll admit to fantasizing about force-screenings, though I suspect that 150-plus years of denial would not be so easily overcome. And honestly, I’m less concerned about the Stonewall Jackson acolytes (who are likely beyond hope) than those who don’t give our history a second thought. If this film can reach them and shake loose some of the persistent Old South and “America the Beautiful” mythology, it might help open the road to understanding and, ultimately, acknowledgment of where we, the American people, come from.

Because, while indisputably beautiful, the landscape itself feels sinister, oppressive—the live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, the waterways snaking through dense, nearly impenetrable vegetation. The plantation houses, too, are stripped of their romance, despite their graceful balconies and sweeping staircases. Their picturesque presence in the Louisiana outback becomes ludicrous and obscene—and might even be laughable if not for the suffering and depravity that they both embody and engender. Their very existence—the “way of life” they represent—would not be possible were it not for the unending, backbreaking labor of the enslaved.

Which is another thing the film underscores (and not, I don’t think, just because I’m primed for it after steeping myself in related reading for the past couple of years): Enslaved people built everything in sight; they did all the work, and were used up in the process. That was their raison d’être, of course, at least in the eyes of most whites. What’s striking, once again, is that there is no acknowledgment of that work in the national narrative. And by acknowledgment, I don’t mean thank-you (that would probably be too much to ask, even in this “postracial” day and age). I mean a statement of fact that enslaved African Americans carved much of this country out of the wilderness. You see it in 12 Years a Slave, as one white master or another lolls on the wraparound porch or inspects his field hands, pharaoh-like, from the comfort of his coach. True, the planter class was a tiny elite, which means the great mass of whites had to get their hands dirty too, but they were vastly outnumbered by enslaved blacks in many parts of the South. African Americans were the fuel, the engines, of the economy.

This inconvenient truth has not only been neglected or “forgotten,” it has been vigorously denied. Just the other day, I came across this passage in Leon F. Litwack’s brilliant, distressing book Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow: “‘This is our country,’ John Temple Graves, an Atlanta editor, told a University of Chicago audience [in 1903]. ‘We made it. We molded it. We control it, and we always will. We have done great things. We have mighty things yet to do. The negro is an accident—an unwilling, a blameless, but an unwholesome, unwelcome, helpless, unassimilable element in our civilization. He is not made for our times.’” Yes, the charming Mr. Graves made this speech 110 years ago, but the language of rugged individualism—the language of white men, primarily—is still very much with us today. Remember how Romney, Ryan & Co. trotted out that “We built it” slogan late in last year’s presidential campaign? Not only was that pat phrase born of phony indignation (whoever came up with it deliberately took President Obama’s words out of context), it sharply limited the “we” to exclude all but the entrepreneurs among us, as if business owners existed in a vacuum. It’s a “we” the rest of us have heard before—the “we” that takes all the credit for the toil of others.

Anyway, to get back to 12 Years a Slave, what has stuck with me, even more than the scenes of sadistic violence and forced intimacy (when, for instance, a raving Master Epps rests his arms on the shoulders of an enslaved woman who’s hanging laundry on the line and leans his head against hers—the absolute power he wields over others’ lives is clear in this gesture), is the endless unspooling of days of drudgery and hard labor. It’s also the isolation in which that labor was performed, and in which most, if not all, of life was lived. That plantation in the back of beyond was your universe—cruel, stifling, (nearly) inescapable. Even if you did manage by some miracle to escape and make it all the way to “free” soil, you still weren’t safe. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 ordered “all good citizens”—white people, obviously—to send African Americans back into bondage, no matter how far they might have fled or what horrors awaited them upon their return. This effectively made all of America a prison, not just the South, not just a particular plantation. And even free blacks were free only if they had the papers to prove it. The fragility of that freedom is heartbreakingly clear in the film. Solomon Northup’s story makes the heartbreak somewhat easier to bear because we know from the start how it will end. But what of the people Solomon leaves behind when he’s rescued from Epps? Those are the people who haunt me.

—Erin Hollaway Palmer

Written by bxpnyc

2013/11/14 at 09:52

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

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.