when the dust clears

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Posts Tagged ‘slavery

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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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.

A Tree Grows in Hampton

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Emancipation Oak, Hampton University campus, January 1, 2013

Emancipation Oak, Hampton University campus, January 1, 2013, Erin Hollaway Palmer photo

We spent much of our last day in Virginia under the Emancipation Oak on the Hampton University campus. The weather was borderline miserable—wet, cold, gray—but it was the right place to be. It was also the right time to be there: 150 years from the day the Emancipation Proclamation became law.

People gathered beneath this tree in January 1863 to hear the Proclamation read for the first time in the South. Among the listeners were men and women who had escaped from bondage and sought freedom behind Union Army lines, in places like Hampton’s Ft. Monroe, a Union stronghold in secessionist Virginia. By the end of the Civil War, tens of thousands of African Americans had fled to the safety of the fort and its environs.

Ft. Monroe map by E. Sachse & Co., 1862

Ft. Monroe map by E. Sachse & Co., 1862

Long before the Proclamation, in May 1861, Union General Benjamin Butler had refused to return the escaped men and women to slaveholders. He shrewdly claimed these people as “contraband of war.” Wartime law allowed Butler to seize the “property” of those rebelling against the United States, and that’s precisely what Confederates considered their slaves to be.

"Cumberland Landing, Va. Group of "contrabands" at Foller's house," May 14, 1862, Photo by James F. Gibson, from the Library of Congress

“Cumberland Landing, Va. Group of ‘contrabands’ at Foller’s house,” May 14, 1862, Photo by James F. Gibson, from Library of Congress

While the strength and dignity of self-liberated black folks is made plain by photos such as the one above, it’s clear from cartoons that even “enlightened” journalists clung to patronizing and racist stereotypes—though you gotta love the bare-chested brother blowing a raspberry at Rhett Butler (no relation to Benjamin).

Political cartoon, circa 1861, from Library of Congress

Political cartoon, circa 1861, from Library of Congress

Harpers Weekly cartoon, June 29, 1861

Harper’s Weekly cartoon, June 29, 1861

Those gathered beneath the Oak had freed themselves, but they’d only stay free if the Union won the war. Historian Eric Foner reminds us in his op-ed in the New Year’s day issue of the New York Times that the Proclamation “could not even be enforced in most of the areas where it applied, which were under Confederate control.” But the document signaled Abraham Lincoln’s commitment to eradicating slavery and was a giant step toward the 13th Amendment, ratified at the end of 1865.

People started calling Ft. Monroe “Freedom’s Fortress,” and waves of so-called “contrabands” converged, and then dispersed across the area. They founded several communities radiating from Hampton; some, like the one that grew around the fort, were dubbed “Slabtown” for the ersatz materials freedmen used to build their shelters. More than a few of my ancestors undoubtedly settled in these encampments, which grew into towns. We visited the site of Yorktown’s Slabtown on our trip.

A path through what was once Slabtown, Yorktown, VA, December 31, 2012

A path through what was once Slabtown, Yorktown, VA, December 31, 2012

On our drive home north on Route 13, we passed through New Church, Virginia, on the border with Maryland. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this store, but each time the glowing sign reminds us of the durability and insidiousness of the Rebel myth.

Dixieland minmart/gas station, New Church, VA, January 1, 2013

Dixieland minimart/gas station, New Church, VA, January 1, 2013, Erin Hollaway Palmer photo

Dateline: Hampton, VA, December 29, 2012

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After coffee at Lamplighter Roasting Company—go if you’re within 50 miles of South Addison Street in Richmond—we found our way to Chop Suey Books (thanks, Toby!), where we seized the opportunity to feed our bulging Civil War library. The rest of the morning we spent rooting through dirt and tangled ivy for the grave of A. Maben Hobson, Brian’s great-grandfather’s probable owner.

BP @ Lamplighter Roasting Co., Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012 (Beverage: Black Eye)

BP @ Lamplighter Roasting Co., Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012 (Beverage: Black Eye)

Erin at Chop Suey Books, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

Erin at Chop Suey Books, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

FindAGrave.com told us Hobson is buried at Hollywood Cemetery, eternal home to thousands of dead Confederate soldiers and their president, Jefferson Davis. Ah, the Internet!

“Major Alexander Maben Hobson” appears in the cemetery’s records, complete with the location of his grave, but he is not in the ledger of interments kept at the main office. The assistant general manager pointed us toward Hobson’s probable plot and wished us luck.

Members of interlocking families—Hobsons, Mabens, Pembertons, Cullens—are packed into a small parcel of land in Section P. Many of the headstones are remarkably well preserved, including those of AMH’s parents, John Cannon (born in 1791 in Cumberland Co., VA; died 1873) and Mary Shaw Maben (“born at Dumfries, Scotland, April 10, 1795,” died 1871). Two of AMH’s children, both of whom died as infants, are there, too.

Hobson grave, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

John C. Hobson grave, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

We hunted, we pecked, but we saw no headstone for AMH. Erin felt a hard spot beneath the thick ground cover through her boots. Tugging back the ivy, we found the headstone of John Maben Cullen, son of James and Jane. Still no AMH. So close… (“The exact location of the grave is unknown,” the cemetery’s historian writes, “although it is possible he lies in an unmarked grave in the Hobson family plot.”)

On our way back to the main office, we spotted Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s grave—the bright red battle flags flapping in the winter pallor kind of gave it away. Moving to some white Southerners, perhaps, deeply saddening and kind of grotesque to us. Wounded at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthourse in 1864, Stuart reportedly told his men, “I’d rather die than be whipped.” He got his wish.

Grave of James Ewell Brown Stuart, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

Grave of James Ewell Brown Stuart, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

Joyce and Lankford Blair welcomed us to the Magnolia House, their lovely Hampton inn (no, not the Hampton Inn, though we did stay at one in Richmond), with big hugs and half a dozen warm chocolate chip cookies. And here we are.

—BP. Additional reporting by EHP.

The Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation at the Schomburg Center, NY, NY

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Wonderfully diverse crowds lined up last week at the Schomburg to view the early version of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln on September 22, 1862. 150 years ago.

The document stated that “on the first day of January . . . all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

The Emancipation didn’t end slavery; it was but another shot across the Confederacy’s bow. The words on the page became reality largely because countless shots, rhetorical and metallic—some of the latter fired by members of the 180,000-strong U.S. Colored Troops—actually connected.

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