I started out to write a book about a man. By the time I finished my novel, Provenance, it had become the story of five women—distinctly different in age, outlook, and objective—and how they uniquely shaped their lives as they changed the life of one man. Mother, Grandmother, Caretaker, Counselor, Lover—these women became provocateurs and touchstones in the life my primary character, Lance Henry Withers. They also shaped me as a writer as I came to understand the complexity of each character and the role they played in the arc of Lance’s life. Several factors informed that actions of each woman in Provenance—when and where lived, marital status, social restrictions, age and most importantly, aspirations. These were key in how each woman acted and reacted in a story that surprisingly – even to the author—gave them equal footing with the primary character.
I begin Provenance in the early 20th century and followed my characters through five decades—a period of remarkable change in the lives of the women in the book as well as women in the real world. My character, Charlotte, was born in 1881 with a burning ambition to change her circumstances and, the sobering fact that she needed the complicity of men to make her dreams reality. Maggie, Charlotte’s daughter and Lance’s mother, was the opposite of her mother. She sought dependence—first on her husband and then her son—suffering betrayal and loss that she was not equipped to deal with without a man. Del, who managed the Whitaker household, became a study in wisdom, determination, and dignity during a time and place, the 1930s in the segregated south, when these were attributes not afforded people of color. Belle, was a woman before her time. During the 1930’s to 50’s, she was as sexually and socially unconventional as she was independent, intelligent, and beautiful teaching Lance how to live fully and successfully. And Emma, who embraced the emerging independence of women in the 60s and 70s, taught Lance about true love, and how it thrives when a man and a woman are equals.
Five women—provocateurs and touchstones—who changed a life as they, and the world around them, changed.
It is a story that invites the envy of this writer of fiction. A Tolstoy-worthy tale replete with unimaginable wealth, unbounded love, profound loss, revolution, a daring escape, theft, intrigue, and a treasure trove of the world’s most remarkable art. Sergei Shchukin, a Russian textile heir, and magnate began buying art on trips to Paris. His love of the unconventional art and artists he found in Paris after the Great War lead him to start his collection. However, the deaths of his wife, sons, and brother led him to try to fill the void created by their loss, with art. His grief led to Shchukin’s frantic collection of more than 275 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modern paintings including multiple works by Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, Matisse and Van Gogh.
As it is in Russian tragedies, Shchukin would not only lose his family but his country, home, art collection and ultimately, his name. When Lenin began his purge of the bourgeois during the Russian Revolution, Shchukin, fled to Paris — his opulent home and prized art collection were seized by the state. The new Russian government had no use for Shchukin or his decadent art; they planned to dismantle the collection and destroy it. The wife of the director of the Hermitage was thankfully a lover of modern art and convinced her husband to distributed the collection to Russian Museums away from Moscow. For nearly 100 years, the magnificent paintings languished in obscurity. Shchukin’s name was erased from the collection’s provenance and from the history of commerce and art in Russia.
Shchukin’s story is the stuff of fiction, except that it is real. And in August of 2016, through his grandson’s efforts, the collector and the collection once again made art history in the landmark exhibition, “Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection,” at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. The exhibition, featuring 130 Impressionist, post-Impressionist and Modern works from the collection of this early 20th-century collector, is scheduled to close on March 5, 2017. If, like me, Paris is not on your itinerary, Richard Nahem, an ex-New Yorker who writes his I Prefer Paris blog from “a fabulous 18th-century apartment in the fashionable Marais district of Paris,” has taken some stunning photographs of the showstoppers in the exhibition.
Every art collection tells the collector’s story but rarely is one as vivid in art and as exciting and tragic in life as that of Sergei Shchukin; a story so real, it seems the stuff of fiction. Though I did not know about Sergei Shchukin when I wrote my novel, Provenance, the similarities between Shchukin and my protagonist, Lance Henry Withers, are striking. Because of government persecution, they both sought refuge in Paris. Shchukin and Withers lost the countries of their birth, their homes, and their names. They used art to heal the profound loss of home and loved ones. Influenced by Gertrude and Leo Stein, they became lovers of what was unpopular art during their time in Paris—Impressionism, post-Impressionism, and Modern art. And by collecting art, they found a way to once again experience love and life. They were truly kindred souls—real and imagined—in life and in art.
There is nothing better than spending a rainy Sunday basking in the warmth and company of book lovers. Yesterday I had just that kind of perfect afternoon with the Readings of Diaspora Book Club. The visit was hosted by Tina Boyd whom I met at the 2015 National Book Festival last Fall. She contacted me after the Festival and invited me to join her book club when they discussed my novel, Provenance. There was plenty of spirited talk, laughter, insightful questions and delicious food to fuel the discussion in the comfort of Tina’s beautiful home.
It was truly a wonderful experience for this author to meet such passionate readers; to hear their opinions and impressions and know that they connected with my characters and the story I tried to tell. Thank you Tina and all of the members of Readings of the Diaspora Book Club. It was an honor and a pleasure to be in your company yesterday.
Is your book club planning to read Provenance? I’d be glad to visit or Skype in for your discussion.
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.
I had the great pleasure of being a guest today on The Maggie Linton Show on Sirius XM Radio Urban View, Channel 126. Maggie’s warmth and professionalism makes you feel like you’re sitting in her living room chatting. She is a great champion of writers; as an avid reader she features authors writing in many genres and her interviews are always perceptive and engaging. Today was no exception!
If you missed my appearance on The Maggie Linton Show here’s the interview – I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed being Maggie’s guest. Leave me a comment and let me know what you think and, be sure to listen to Maggie’s show, Monday through Friday, Sirius XM Radio Urban View, Channel 126.
Author Donna Drew Sawyer on The Maggie Linton Show – Friday, February 5, 2016
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.
Lose yourself in a book this holiday season. Give or receive the gift of love and desire, intoxicating success, the brilliance of Paris, the enchantment of Florence, the threat of war, allure of art, love of money and the fear of discovery —all in the pages of Provenance: A Novel. Experiences of a lifetime without ever leaving your chair.
Last night our digital video recorder (DVR) lost half of our 60 Minutes recording so I called the cable provider to see what the problem was. I had to wait about fifteen minutes with the customer service representative on the line so the cable box could reset and we could test another recording. We started chatting to pass the time and at one point in the conversation she told me she liked to read more than watch television. I told her I was the same way and asked what kind of books she likes,
“I like a book that really pulls me into the story and I like books that have history in them.”
I told her I had just written a book like that and told her a little about PROVENANCE.
“Is there a Kindle edition?” she asked. I said yes. She was silent for a few minutes then said,
“I just bought your book. The first line reads, “’Hank, run!’ was the last thing he heard Junior say.”
First time I’ve ever been thankful for a cable company glitch. Sold a book and got my DVR working again. Thank you CSR Ms. M!