In November, the local chapter of Omega Psi Phi, the African American fraternity, gave Erin and me the Citizens of the Year Award for our work at East End. We're proud of what we have done there, but we have many partners in the effort who have been at it much longer. We also know there are Richmonders accomplishing amazing things for their communities, so we were surprised and a bit abashed. We know that the award isn't our alone. Nonetheless, we are honored.
Our nomination came from a member we met during a work day at the cemetery around Memorial Day. Mr. Thomas Taylor had come to clear his family plot with his brother Charles. We talked, then we emailed. We invited the Taylor family to our photography opening at the University of Richmond, and Thomas came. According to the awards dinner master of ceremonies, he had lobbied the brothers something fierce on our behalf, burned up some phone lines and a few ears, too. He prevailed.
I spoke for a few minutes after accepting our award, a polished, engraved stone in the shape of a brick. It seemed both paradoxical and fitting to be standing in that room, among African American men who had pledged their loyalty to the more than century-old organization. I am not a Omega man. In fact, I have never been much of a joiner, I told the audience. But my father, Eddie Palmer, was a Que, as brothers call themselves. He joined while at Virginia State College, now University. He reconnected with the fraternity decades later, after he retired and moved back south, back home from Philadelphia. In 2008, he received a pin for his 60 years of membership. I knew this was a milestone for him, but it didn't resonate for me—until 2011. That April, a group of Omega men, roughly half a dozen, gathered silently at my father's casket during his viewing at Whiting's Funeral Home in Williamsburg, where he was born. They grieved with us. They were his silent, graying, civilian honor guard. It wasn't until then that I understood the fraternity's importance to my dad, I told the room full of Omega men and guests. The history is powerful.
I did not say—and did not feel it was appropriate to say—that I didn't follow my father into the fraternity for another reason: because I tended not to follow my dad into anything, if I could help it. During and after my parents' divorce, his bitterness and rage terrified me. He did not behave well, and I was too young to comprehend what he was feeling much less to empathize with him. I kept my distance for decades, and I nursed some powerful anger. As an adult, I told him how I felt as our family unraveled—awful, isolated, and, strangely, guilty—and he told me how devastating it was for him to lose everything in middle age. We didn't settle anything, but we reached a kind of rapprochement as I entered my 40s and he progressed toward 80.
Erin and I moved to Virginia because of Eddie, specifically a heap of photographs he left behind. These images, hundreds from the early 20th century into the 21st, hint at a deep and wonderful history—of Magruder, the town from which he was evicted in 1943; the community of people, many descended from the enslaved, that was displaced and to which he belonged; and the many untold (and undertold) chapters from the American past of which they are parts.
Omega Psi Phi, the country's first Greek organization established at a black college, was founded at Howard University in November 1911. It would become a social and professional anchor for black men in a segregated, repressive society; its guiding principles: Manhood, Scholarship, Perseverance, and Uplift. That year, the organization that became the National Urban League took shape. (The NAACP was founded in 1909.) Our president was William Howard Taft, who supported measures taken by states to restrict voting rights of African Americans guaranteed under the 15th Amendment. "This is a great protection to the negro," he told the nation disingenuously in his 1909 inaugural address. Also in 1911: "60 black Americans were known to have been lynched"; more than 1,000 black people were lynched between 1900 and 1914.
My dad spent a lot of time on the campus of Hampton Institute (University as of 1984) as a teenager, so he would known about the Ques. Hampton's chapter wasn't chartered until 1947, but Omega Psi Phi was up and running at Richmond's Virginia Union, established in 1919, and at Virginia State as of 1927. (He attended State in the late 1940s, left to join the Army, then resumed his studies in the mid-1950s.) I asked him why he spent so much time on Hampton's campus as a high schooler. He gave me his incredulous, Come on now, boy look. “I came down to look at the ladies. I was a boy with all systems working!” Eddie wasn't much of a joiner, either, but I suspect he signed up with the fraternity because the Ques were polished, serious, respected. They radiated discipline. And they had status. That would have mattered to a young black man living in southeastern Virginia, where American apartheid was less lethal than in Alabama or Mississippi but no less humiliating.
Our brick now sits on a shelf in our living room among small, framed portraits of friends and family, and in front of the American flag from Eddie's casket that had been tightly folded by a U.S. Army honor guard from Ft. Eustis at his funeral, and then sheathed in a soft vinyl pouch.