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.


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.


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.


Galway Kinnell, 1927-2014

The Pulitzer Prize winner, former Vermont poet laureate and field worker for the Congress of Racial Equality, US Navy veteran, Rhode Island native, died October 28, 2014.

You can listen to him read his poem Oatmeal.

Photo is from a 2011 Academy of American Poets event honoring Rose Styron in New York City.

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."

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.

Ten Years Ago, in Iskandariyah, Iraq

Yesterday, I posted a short piece with photos to my wordpress blog marking the 10th anniversary of my first day in Iraq.

The following is an expanded gallery of images from that first "embed" with 1st Battalion/2d Marine Regiment. For captions, just hover your cursor over the large image.


Dred Scott & George Washington (Edited)

Eleven George Washingtons—and one George A. Washington—served in a single infantry regiment during the Civil War. One is buried at St. John’s Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland,  a quiet site in the center of the city with roughly 700 graves behind weathered stone walls. I visited with my wife in May.

His grave is as well tended as the rest in this beautiful cemetery, and it is marked with the official headstone granted to veterans, a small marble tongue poking up through the thick green grass.

We know very little about “our” GW. According to his headstone, he was born in 1845 in Maryland, a slave state that stayed in the Union, and died in 1917. A 25-year-old “George Washington” appears on the 1870 U.S. Census, living in Frederick. He was a farm laborer; his wife, Carline (or Caroline), kept house. Neither could read or write. They had two small daughters, Mary, 3, and Jane, 5 months.

I doubt whether he or any of his fellow George Washingtons of the 23rd United States Colored Infantry were born with that name. The unit was organized in Arlington, Virginia, within sight of Freedmen’s Village, a camp for people who had escaped slavery. Shedding the name forced on you in bondage and then taking a new one was common practice after one’s emancipation—or self-emancipation, in the case of the Georges and tens of thousands of others.

It’s both fitting and ironic that these men claimed this most American of names. Founding father Washington prospered through the labor of the people he enslaved. “Washington frequently utilized harsh punishment against the enslaved population, including whippings and the threat of particularly taxing work assignments,” says the website of the museum devoted to him, George Washington’s Mt. Vernon. He’d threaten to sell family members of the enslaved to masters in the West Indies. And Washington was, as we know, a man of his word.

Like most “colored” units—there were more than 160—the 23rd was initially kept out of combat. Many Union commanders found the idea of fighting side by side with “darkies” unconscionable. Black troops guarded supply wagons, buried the dead, and did “fatigue duty”—any labor that didn’t require them to bear arms. But battlefield segregation gave way to military necessity: The generals needed armed men, even black ones, to kill Confederates. The 23rd fought in some of the bloodiest engagements during the latter part of the Civil War. It took the highest casualties of any unit at the infamous Battle of the Crater at Petersburg. The 23rd entered Richmond after it fell and was present for Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865.

The church to which the cemetery is attached, St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic, doesn’t identify George Washington as one of the “notables” interred there. Among the men it celebrates are a U.S. senator from Delaware, Maryland's 29th governor, and "a refugee of the Negro Insurrection of 1791 in the French colony of St. Domingue."

The last of these, Etienne Bellumeau de la Vincendière, apparently never lived in Frederick—he preferred Charleston, South Carolina. His slave-owning family did, however. The Vincendière plantation in Frederick County was noted for a "brutal, Caribbean style of bondage" and "aggressive displays of subjection,"  Michael E. Ruane wrote in a 2010 Washington Post about the excavation of the family's estate, L'Hermitage.

A resident of the Vincendière home, Jean Payen de Boisneuf, possibly a cousin, is also interred at St. John's. The church's website tells us that he was "one of those who condemned Marie Antoinette to the guillotine." What they don' t tell us is how Boisneuf put his bloody hands to work here during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. "Boisneuf was accused of 'cruelly and immercifully beating and whipping' slaves Harry, Jerry, Abraham, Stephon, Soll and George," reports Ruane. "Two or three negroes crippled with torture have brought legal action against him," wrote a Polish gentleman who visited their plantation, now a National Park Service property, in 1798.

"Members of the family were charged in nine state court cases with cruelty against their slaves, a remarkable occurrence when mistreatment of slaves was commonplace," NPS  archaeologist Sara Rivers-Cofield told Ruane. (All charges were dismissed, not surprising for those barbarous times.) File this celebration of enslavers under Brutal Irony.

There's more.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Brooke Taney, also a Marylander, has pride of place, both in church history and in the burial ground. (There’s a grander tribute to the judge in his home state: USCGC Taney, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter named for him that was decommissioned in 1986, has been preserved as a “museum ship.” It’s anchored in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Pride of place indeed.)

“Chief Justice Taney is considered by many to be one of the great Chief Justices,” the website says—an interesting description of the man who wrote the 1857 majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which held that men like the Georges “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

That’s the quote people most often pull from Taney’s historic decision, but it’s only the tip of the ideological iceberg on which he floated.

[Blacks] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race.

In his dissent, Justice Benjamin Robert Curtis, saw past and precedent quite differently:

It has been often asserted that the Constitution was made exclusively by and for the white race. It has already been shown that, in five of the thirteen original States, colored persons then possessed the elective franchise, and were among those by whom the Constitution was ordained and established. If so, it is not true, in point of fact, that the Constitution was made exclusively by the white race.

Curtis’s well-reasoned argument did not hold the day. Prejudice—specifically, the all-consuming desire to preserve the power of Taney’s class to exploit the labor of another class of people—won in our high court. U.S. Senate candidate Abe Lincoln spoke out against the Taney decision two weeks after it was handed down and in his famous “House Divided” speech the following year. Roughly three years later, the Civil War exploded, with this issue at its roots.

Along with my wife, I have written a lot of about how certain strands of our collective American past, in this case the African American ones, have been excised from the stories we tell ourselves as a nation. That’s what Make the Ground Talk, our documentary, is about. People have asked us, politely: Why do the stories you’re telling, about a largely black Virginia community uprooted in 1943 to build a navy base, matter? How can one compare the sagas of nameless, formerly enslaved people like Washington to those of great and powerful men, justices and generals who made decisions and took action of national and international significance?

These are small stories, when considered in isolation. But they are also “small” because we have been taught to regard them as such.

One vital measure of American greatness, which has been applied selectively, is the distance one travels from the proverbial dirt-floored shack to a loftier place where one’s actions and creations benefit many people in society—or earn one mountains of money. What if we applied that measure to the long and brutal struggles of people like the George Washingtons, Harriet Tubman, or Robert Smalls, an enslaved man who commandeered a Confederate ship, steamed it past Rebel defenses into Union hands, and later served five terms in the U.S. Congress? What if we held these journeys toward justice up against the paths trod by great men like Taney, obstructors of justice, champions of enslavement, and beneficiaries of unearned privilege? Or our founding fathers?

For several decades, historians, students, archivists, genealogists have unearthed raw material that has allowed us to reexamine the past and build a better, more honest American history. In George Washington (of Frederick, Maryland), we have such material, tangible and accessible, right in the middle of town, to flesh out the stories that need to be told.