I have very mixed feelings about National African American History Month, also called Black History Month, which is why I haven’t added posts to my blog during the month of February. Historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History suggested the week that became the month of February’s annual observance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. Since the history of African-Americans has been the hidden and marginalized history of the United States of America, I believe there should be full integration of African-Americans in American history. I wonder if giving the history of African-Americans one month on the calendar and “American History” all year all the time, further marginalizes the important people, events, contributions and sacrifices February is supposed to celebrate.
Some say take the month and really celebrate; others say you can’t, in just a month’s time, celebrate or even tell how America became America on the backs of people who still struggle for respect and a fair share of her riches. I raise these issues though I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer to this historical equity dilemma. What I choose to do is share what I know and what I find out about Black History in America—my history—throughout the year.
All of these people, places, events, contributions, and sacrifices are too much history for a mere month, so I will continue to write about American history in all of its colorful glory when the spirit and history move me, be it February or any other month of the year.
I am planning a series of posts for Black History Month but when I saw this and it had to take precedent. Thank you, Eunique Jones Gibson of Because of Them We Can for this gem. Who better to call out all of our adult nonsense than our children. Jones Gibson is a Bowie State University alum; my husband Dr. Granville Sawyer is a professor there. So proud of the vision and talent HBCU’s give to our country!
During slavery, there was little if any dignity for African-Americans – even in death. It was against the law for African-Americans to assemble or meet as a group, so slaves were often buried without ceremony, on non-crop producing land, in graves that were often unmarked. With the end of slavery, African-Americans in the South were free to assemble, live as families, celebrate life and mourn death though segregation now stretched from birth past death; from the place you were born to where you could live, to your final resting place. For approximately 5,000 African-Americans, that final resting place was Evergreen Cemetery.
As early as 1891, just a 26 years after the end of the Civil War, when African Africans in Richmond, the former seat of the Confederacy, buried their loved ones and commemorated their lives with headstones, they did so in Evergreen Cemetery. Really four cemeteries on 59 acres— Evergreen, East End Cemetery, Oakwood Colored Section and the Colored Pauper’s cemetery— were private cemeteries maintained by the Evergreen Cemetery Association. These burial places served as the final resting place for many of Richmond’s prominent African American citizens. It is in Evergreen, designed to be the African American’s community’s equivalent of Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery which was only for whites, that Maggie L. Walker and John Mitchell, Jr., who I mentioned in last week’s post about Jackson Ward, are buried.
Evergreen Cemetery in Provenance
I learned about Evergreen Cemetery in my research for my novel, Provenance, when a prominent character’s death became a pivotal scene in the book. On his deathbed, my character, Hank Whitaker, reveals to his unsuspecting family that he is really a black man who has been passing for white. His mother-in-law, Charlotte, tries to quickly mitigate the effect that Hank’s news will have on her daughter and grandson. The following excerpts from Provenance is an example of one of the ways used Evergreen to convey how society used race and class to determine the worth of a human being.
If they were going to salvage anything, she would have to move fast. By tomorrow, Hank’s deathbed confession would be rumor. Within three days, the efficiency of gossip in Richmond society would ensure that Hank Whitaker’s passing was all people talked about. Charlotte was not about to wait for talk to turn to action – there were severe consequences for colored folks who tried to pass for white. She’d seen trees bearing the bodies of black men for doing a lot less than Hank had. “They will not take their vengeance out on Maggie and Lance, no matter what Hank did,” Charlotte vowed.
She looked at the piece of paper crumpled in her hand. She’d gotten the number of an undertaker from a colored nurse in the hospital’s segregated ward.
“Go to the hospital and get him tonight,” she instructed the undertaker after giving him the pertinent details.
“Bury him in Evergreen,” she said referring to the Negro cemetery in Richmond’s East End. She didn’t tell him Hank Whitaker was her daughter’s husband, she told them she was paying for the burial because his family couldn’t afford it. “We’re not having a service. I’ll come around tomorrow to pay whatever it costs.” With that, she had taken care of the inconvenient remains of Hank Whitaker.
She alone had presided over Hank’s burial. With the scent of freshly dug earth in the air, the two gravediggers lowered the plain pine coffin into the new grave.
“Are you sure you won’t be wantin’ a marker for the grave?” the undertaker asked her a second time. “Evergreen’s sixty acres, Mrs. Bennett. If you ever want to find this grave again—” Charlotte shook her head, no, before the man could finish.
“Then will you be sayin’ a few words before they close the grave?” he asked, hoping this woman was not as cold and heartless as she appeared. Again, Charlotte declined.
“Just cover him up,” she said. “Cover him up good.”
Evergreen Cemetery Today
Evergreen was founded and maintained by the families of the people who were buried there. Unlike the white cemeteries in Richmond, Evergreen received no public funds or support. As African-American families left the South and integration diminished the need for segregated facilities and services, sacred places like Evergreen soon fell into disrepair. Today Evergreen Cemetery is abandoned, overgrown and vandalized. Abandoned Virginia #22 – Evergreen Cemetery Richmond by Brian Sterowski, filmed in July of 2015, shows Evergreen as it is today.
A recent photo essay in The Nation, Reclaiming Black History, One Grave at a Time by Brian Palmer and Erin Hollaway Palmer, is a powerful statement on the years of official neglect that, along with the English ivy and other invasive plants, have swallowed the East End Cemetery of Evergreen Cemeteries. The history of prominent early 20th century African-Americans and World War II veterans buried there is now further obscured by the indignity of also having their graves buried. A BBC film by Colm O’ Molloy is about photographer, Brian Palmer, who is working to document the graves in East End Cemetery as a way to raise the awareness of this loss of history and heritage.
However bleak the current state of Evergreen Cemetery, there may still be a future to the past this historic site represents. Several historic and civic associations, as well as local college students and community volunteers, are working to save the history that Evergreen represents for all Americans. A video of Evergreen Cemetery Historic Marker Dedication by the National Park Service features magnificent images of Evergreen’s history and a glimpse of what its future could hold.
Geography plays a large part in Provenance as my characters search for a place to call home spans continents. However, the search begins in the Deep South, Richmond Virginia in the early 1900’s, only a few decades after the Civil War. Though African-Americans were freed from slavery, it would be decades before the law ensured their right to live free. So, African-Americans carved out safe havens for themselves; segregated communities were there they lived, loved, played, prayed and thrived, becoming the Homeplace for generations of black families. In Richmond, that place was Jackson Ward, a community on the edge of downtown.
Jackson Ward, nicknamed the “Harlem of the South,” was the largest African American community in Richmond and the center for their commercial and entertainment activity. Because of segregation and in spite of it, communities like Jackson Ward thrived as a self-sustaining economy pulsing with black commerce including banks, retail stores, restaurants, real estate offices, barbers, hair salons and even a nationally renowned theater, the Hippodrome. African-Americans designed, built and lived in row and town homes that are now architecturally important for their cast iron porches and columns. They worshiped in churches that dated back to 1857 and, schools and a library educated the community’s black residents. An armory built in 1895 in Jackson Ward is the oldest in the country built for African American troops.
Jackson Ward, considered the “Wall Street of the South,” had a thriving banking and insurance industry. Residents like John Mitchell, Jr., an early civil rights activist and editor of the Richmond Planet newspaper, founded the Mechanics Savings Bank. Maggie L. Walker, the first woman of any race to charter an American bank, Consolidated Bank & Trust, served as its president. She also founded the St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank, which helped more than 600 African-Americans become homeowners.
In Provenance, Jackson Ward is home to Mrs. Delora ‘Del’ Holder, a character that resonates with so many readers. She is the moral center of the book, a well of wisdom and humanity that sustains a family in their most difficult time. Del’s home and family in Jackson Ward are what sustained her. While Del is a fictional character, real places like Jackson Ward sustained people of color. In the relative safety of these segregated communities, though many were the target of racial violence, they nevertheless offered communal nurturing and concern that was not available elsewhere. They gave African-Americans an environment in which to exceed the potential others believed they did not have.
Like many black communities, Jackson Ward was diminished, however not completely destroyed when, in the 1950’s, it was divided during the construction of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system. It was designated a National Historic Landmark district in 1978 and is currently enjoying a resurgence. Maggie L. Walker’s home is a National Historic Site run by the Park Service and there are historic walking tours through Jackson Square.
During a recent interview I mentioned that the scene that launches my novel takes place in a sundown town. While the interviewer knew what a sundown town was, she asked me to explain the term for listeners who might never have heard of them. The short answer is that it is a community that required people of color to leave town before the sun went down. They could work there from dawn until dusk but after dark, they became prey. I was well into adulthood before I ever heard the term sundown town. I assumed the reason for my ignorance was because I had grown up in New York City and not the south where I believed only sundown towns existed.
For my novel, Provenance, I created the fictional city of Llewellyn, a sundown town in southern Virginia. As I researched this abhorrent social practice I learned that there were many very real “sundown towns” throughout the United States – they were not unique to the south or to African-Americans. Communities from Connecticut to California placed signs at their borders warning African-American and other ethnicities—including the Chinese, Japanese, Jews, Native Americans and Mexicans—that they had better leave town by sundown. If they were caught inside city limits they were subject to harassment or worse by the police or vigilantes. The book, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen was a great resource.
Sundown towns were a form of racial apartheid throughout America but not the only tactic used to segregate communities. Restrictive covenants ensured that homes in a community could not be rented or purchased by people of color and the Federal Housing Authority only offered mortgages to non–mixed housing developments. As dramatized in Lorraine Hansberry’s ground-breaking and award-winning 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” some white homeowners sought to buy out black families when they purchased homes in their communities. There were communities that burned crosses in the front yards of black homes to scare them away and some white neighbors went farther and burned down the house of a black family just to maintain the racial status quo.
I knew racial discrimination existed north of the Mason-Dixon Line. My father, Kenneth Drew, was a New York City Human Rights Commissioner and he and my mother, Corien Davies Drew, founded a community based newspaper that was very active in the civil rights movement in New York and beyond. However, in doing the research for my book, I was surprised to find that one of the most egregious sundown towns was Levittown, New York. In Martha Biondi’s book, To Stand and Fight: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Postwar New York City, the author notes that Levittown, regarded as the model for postwar suburbs across the country, held the distinction in 1953 “of being the largest community in America with no black population.” Just as remarkable, though the developers, Abraham, William and Alfred Levitt were Jewish, they would not sell homes in Levittown to Jews.
Until the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, sundown towns, restrictive covenants and government aided and financed housing discrimination were legal practices in the United States. A sundown town informs the story of a family in my novel and is now considered a relic of the past. However, there are still segregated communities throughout the United States; be they white or black, they remain a critical factor in dictating the social, economic and racial climate in America.
In my research about Paris between the Wars, I kept seeing a name I had never heard of before. Why had I never heard of this Black American so prominent in French history? As I read about him, and as you’ll read here, his story is so compelling that I had to include him in my book. I discovered remarkable people and events in history through research for Provenance, however, none were more remarkable than Eugene Jacques Bullard, America’s first black military aviator. Because of the color of his skin, he was never allowed to fly for his own country; so he flew for France and became one their most renowned and decorated military heroes.
He was born Eugene James Bullard, on October 9, 1895 in Columbus, Georgia. Bullard’s father, William, instilled in his children that they had to maintain their dignity and self-respect in the face of the white majority’s determination “to keep blacks in their place.” William’s convictions nearly cost him his life and after witnessing his father’s near lynching, Eugene at age 11, with just five years of schooling, ran away from home fearing that he had seen a preview of his future in Columbus. He earned his way by tending and learning to race horses. An English family that hired him told him that racial discrimination did not exist in England. By the age of 17 in 1912, Bullard stowed away on a German ship leaving Norfolk, VA for Aberdeen, Scotland, seeking opportunity he could not find in the United States.
Bullard performed in vaudeville and earned money as a prize-fighter eventually settling in Paris. He joined the French army at the start of World War I, was wounded twice and awarded the Croix de Guerre for bravery at the 1916 Battle of Verdun along side the Harlem Hellfighters, a battalion of African-American soldiers who were also left out of the history books. Bullard’s wounds made him unfit for infantry so he trained as a pilot in the Lafayette Flying Corps in the French Air Force. He flew 20 combat missions and was credited with downing two German aircraft in the world’s fight for democracy. When the U.S. entered the War in 1917, they recruited American pilots from the Lafayette Flying Corps and though Bullard passed the physical and was renowned for his aeronautical skill, he was not accepted – only Caucasians were allowed to fly.
After World War I, Bullard settled in Paris where he was an entrepreneur. He owned the popular Paris nightclubs, Le Grand Duc and L’Escadrille, an athletic club and other successful business ventures. His circle of friends included Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Langston Hughes and French flying ace Charles Nungesser. With the outbreak of World War II, Bullard, who spoke English, French and German, joined the French resistance, was wounded and barely escaped when the Germans occupied Paris.
Eugene Bullard returned to the United States to heal, planning to go back to Paris after the War. However his businesses were destroyed and the life he knew in Paris had moved on without him. With the money the French government paid him for the loss of his property during the war, he remained in New York City, working as an elevator operator in Rockefeller Center and living in virtual obscurity.
However, the French people never forgot the war hero they nicknamed the “Black Swallow of Death.” For his distinguished service to France during World War I and II, his adopted country awarded Bullard their highest military honors: Médaille Militaire, Croix de Guerre, Volunteer’s Cross (Croix du combattant volontaire), Wounded Insignia, World War I Commemorative Medal, World War I Victory Medal, Freedom Medal, and the World War II Commemorative Medal. In 1954, the French government asked him to help relight the Eternal Flame of the Tomb of the Unknown French Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. In 1959, he was named Knight of the Légion d’honneur. In 1960, when France’s President, General Charles de Gualle, visited the United States, it was Eugene Bullard he asked to visit with. Having no idea who he was, the State Department had to scramble to find him before de Gualle’s visit. Eugene Bullard died of stomach cancer on October 12, 1961 at the age of 66. He was buried with military honors in the French War Veterans’ section of Flushing Cemetery in Queens, New York.
In 1992, the McDonnell Douglas Corporation donated a bronze bust of Bullard by sculptor Eddie Dixon to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum where it is displayed in the Legend, Memory and the Great War in the Air gallery. On September 14, 1994, the United States finally recognized the hero that could not fly for his own country by posthumously commissioning him the rank of Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force.
Eugene Bullard as a Character in Provenance
I included Eugene Bullard as a character in Provenance because he embodied what the fictional characters in the book were searching for—the opportunity to live undefined by their race. My characters visit his popular night club Le Grand Duc, where celebrities and dignitaries in Paris vie for the attention of this dark-skinned American. Bullard illustrates the courage and commitment people of color had to have to achieve their potential. Bullard makes another appearance in Provenance during his later years in New York, again demonstrating that life extracts a cost for everything. In his courage, passion, conviction and pathos, Eugene Bullard is in every way a remarkable American that deserves more than his county gave him.
Note: This is the second in a series of blog posts I’m doing about some of the history I uncovered while researching Provenance. For posts in the series click on the From Provenance Research under Categories.