BXP Photos + Words

The Last Word Is His

Headstone of Julia Hogget with epitaph written—and signed—by LaMotte Blakely, editor of the Richmond Times Dispatch, at Evergreen Cemetery. (Grave was uncovered in 2010 by John Shuck, cemetery cleanup volunteer coordinator.) Richmond, VA 2015

Headstone of Julia Hogget with epitaph written—and signed—by LaMotte Blakely, editor of the Richmond Times Dispatch, at Evergreen Cemetery. (Grave was uncovered in 2010 by John Shuck, cemetery cleanup volunteer coordinator.) Richmond, VA 2015

John and two stalwart cemetery volunteers, Justin and Melissa, took me to see this grave. I kept my response to myself, but I did not respond well inside. Even on her headstone, this African American woman is characterized as Mammy for eternity by a white man who held power over her. 

What kind of man signs another person's tombstone? Someone with wealth, privilege, a status in society clearly superior to Ms. Hogget's. And a sense of ownership, if not of her body than certainly of her legacy.

Now I'm trying to allow myself to see, through my perplexity and anger, another possibility: genuine tenderness, affection, even love, between Julia Hogget and LaMotte Blakely, whose family may have owned this woman before Emancipation. However tainted, exploitative, problematic, something good may have been there. 

I must ask this because as we research black-white relations for our documentary, Make the Ground Talk, from the end of the Civil War though the Civil Rights era, we find unfamiliar layers. Who held the power was almost always abundantly clear when black met white. But what we thought would be pure, static, and antagonistic relationships were more than that. Individual people negotiated with each other within Virginia's systems of discrimination and stratification. Black people fought for, earned, or took what they deserved. They met resistance, but often found assistance—or at least acquiescence—from some whites. We have made progress as a society because some people interrupted those systems, out of self-interest, goodheartedness, courage, and, yes, even love of their fellow man and woman.

Blakely, a prominent man—a journalist, spokesman for Richmond's Chamber of Commerce, editor of the Richmond Times Dispatch—has a public record, though much of it is locked behind the RTD's paywall ($9.95 buys a 24-hour key). East Carolina University's Joyner Library holds a collection of his papers. Blakely penned articles about black music. The University of Virginia holds one such piece, "Grooning and Chanting" (sic) in the papers of pianist John Powell. We get a tiny view of Blakely's sense of black folk here—sadly reductive and patronizing, but also appreciative and protective. Complicated.

"The Negro has been credited with all our musical degeneracy," Blakely wrote. "Broadway and modern music influence, via radio, is corrupting the Negro's natural ear for music. The African has not ruined our musical sense; we are ruining his."

Julia Hogget ... I'm still hunting for her. Her story deserves to be known, to the extent that it can be known.