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

 

 

 

 

The Fighting Colored Troops of New Market Heights

I’ve developed an enormous appreciation for Civil War reenactors during the two years Erin and I have been researching for and shooting our documentary, Make the Ground Talk. Hardcore reenactors know their history, from the minutiae of buttons and biscuits to the details of their characters and units and the moment-to-moment evolution (or devolution) of battles.

But the hardcore men who portray soldiers of the United States Colored Troops — as well as the men and women who play enslaved and free people — dig especially deep into archival material and newly unearthed research on 19th-century African America. Their research goes beyond the standard great-general, tactic-and-strategies history, out of both necessity and conviction, into the lives of the largely ignored people who turned the tide of war toward the Union. By embodying women and men who actually lived, who fought for their own freedom, and that of the Union, they act as emissaries from the past. Their very presence expands and reshapes the work-in-progress we call American history.

The September 2014 reenactment of the battle of New Market Heights was historic in its own way, Malcolm Beech, a reenactor and president of the USCT Living History Association, told me. The USCT — African Americans in general — are usually slotted in to such events as an afterthought, he said. "In some places in the South with these reenactments, you’d think the Confederates won, because they organize the scenarios. They decide the order of battle. In New Market Heights today, this is one of the first times that African Americans were at the table, describing and participating with the scenarios.”

With my incessant questioning, I was keeping Beech from the buffet dinner event organizers had laid on. So I let him sign off: "It’s no different than when people tell you about cowboys and Indians. As long as the cowboys write the books, cowboys always win," said Beech whose brow was glistening from the late evening sun I had compelled him to endure. "We have to tell our own stories. We have to write more books. We have to do more research."