Words + Links

Demanding Justice for Shahidul Alam.” Aperture, August 9, 2018.

For the Forgotten African-American Dead.New York Times, January 7, 2017.

My Inspiring Year Uncovering Forgotten African-American Graves.” Narrative.ly, August 31, 2016.

These Volunteers Have Been Cleaning Up Abandoned Black Cemeteries.” Buzzfeed, July 9, 2016.

Why Does This Old Cemetery Matter?” Reading the Pictures, May 10, 2016.

Race Trips.Colorlines. Seven-part series, with Erin Hollaway Palmer, July 8 to August 3, 2015.


Tragedy and possiblity in a single frame

We had canceled today's work day at East End because there was rain in the forecast. Richmond got some, but not much. Just drizzle. So Erin and I went out. First, we hauled a plastic tub and a trash bag filled with empty malt liquor and beer bottles—a gift from anonymous, shameless party animals—out of the brush-only dumpster. Mark and Karen stopped by, gathered the bottles, and after a play session with Willow and Teacake, took them home to be recycled.

When we finished, Erin migrated toward an area in the old section of the cemetery that she had started clearing a couple of years ago. She gloved up and set to work.

I stopped to look at temporary—or courtesy—markers. There are hundreds, of various types in varied states. Many of the aluminum ones, most under 50 years old, are in decent shape. Everything is metal, even the raised letters, so they tend to last, unless some grinds them up with a lawn mower (as has happened at neighboring Evergreen).

Older markers are metal frames with glass windows. Under the glass, a slip of paper with the deceased's name, date of death, the name of the funeral home, maybe more, if they could fit it. A precious few of these slips are still legible. Most are not. Water and time have dissolved them. Some of these empty frames were planted in plots that also have headstones. Perhaps the stone was set and the courtesy marker not removed. We can assume, but can't know. Often, there's just the busted metal frame.

These, to me, are among the most tangible, powerful reminders that much of this community's history has been destroyed, allowed to disintegrate and disappear. This is tragic, largely because it did not have to be so. But this is the afterlife of Jim Crow, as Erin puts it.

But there is something else. In this same moment, in this same frame, I see possibility. Like the headstones, many of the metal markers had been enmeshed in tangles of greenbrier, English ivy, and Virginia creeper or covered in soil from decades of erosion. We see the markers because we, the volunteers, have revealed them; the ground in which they were planted has been cleared. We may never learn who that marker was placed for, but we can still honor that nameless person by continuing to reclaim the land from nature and a community's stories from obscurity. —BP

7 April 2018





A New President for UR

Photos from today’s welcome events for Dr. Ronald A. Crutcher, elected the tenth president of the University of Richmond by the school’s Board of Trustees. With Dr. Crutcher were his wife, Dr. Betty Neal Crutcher, and their daughter Sara. Crutcher is UR's first African American president.

The current president, Edward Ayers, a respected historian, steps down — and Crutcher steps up — July 1, 2015.


Archive: Harlem's Finishing School for Young Ladies, 2004

Posting this gallery on September 11, a national day of mourning and reflection, felt wrong. September 12, though, feels appropriate. These images, to me, are playful yet serious, hopeful and earnest.

Teaching comportment and fork-handling skills to young women of color may seem retrograde and bourgeois. But these Saturday-morning activities were simply vehicles for a larger project: giving these girls one more set of tools (or sharpening those they already possessed) to move and succeed in the parallel American culture where the greatest economic opportunity exists.

Yes, the girls were blasé some days, the teens more so than the little ones. But most focused their attention and energy when enveloped in the environment created by the instructors — school director Rose, volunteers like Mrs. Block, and Denise, a tremendously effective and sensitive thirtyish African American woman. Denise held sway on Saturday mornings with intensity and sincerity. She used examples the girls related to: What would you say to a person, say, an older white man who stepped on your foot unintentionally — and who said "excuse me" — as he walked past you on the subway? One of the teens, a statuesque girl who the others looked up to, uncorked a righteous sistah-girl, oh no you di'nt rap, cutting her eyes and cocking her head like she'd been wronged to the soul by the Man himself. She was performing for the younger girls, that was clear.

With a bemused smile, Denise gave her that — for about 30 seconds. Then she reeled the girls in to the task at hand. That's precisely what some people will expect from you, Denise told them; that's precisely what some people will use against you and the other black girls and Latinas they encounter, avoid, dismiss, quietly denigrate. Denise told the girls they had flexibility, choices, in that moment to react in ways that didn't make them stoop, ways that allowed them to express their dignity, and to exercise a kind of power over themselves and a potentially volatile, yet inconsequential situation. A polite "that's OK" or a nod of forgiveness would do.

Parents, mostly moms, were serious about DFI. Those who appeared to have more, financially speaking, as well as those who I believed to have less were committed to a clear set of goals that may have been fuzzier to their children: access, confidence, and yes, polish.

Iraq pulled me away from the DFI story. I contacted Rose, the director, now and again, but the school closed and she moved on to other projects. I'm pleased and proud to have witnessed this effort, this experiment. I can't say whether DFI profoundly shaped the lives of the girls I met, but on those Saturdays I saw joy, fun — plus some silliness and overimportance — honesty, commitment, optimism, and strength. All of this lodged somewhere deep in me. I know it helped me through the worst of my Iraq war experience. And it's still there.