Category Archives: slavery

The Fourth (and Fifth) of July

Do you know why Frederick Douglass gave his famous “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” speech on the fifth of July, in 1852, to be exact?

Because in the years before the Civil War, the Fourth was celebrated mostly by whites. In his speech Douglass eloquently explains why African Americans had little reason to celebrate the Fourth. When they did observe the date, it was generally on July 5.

But, as Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts note in their important article in The Atlantic, “When the Fourth of July Was a Black Holiday,” when the Civil War ended and the enslaved became free, all that changed. Then, at least in the South, it was African Americans who “embraced the Fourth like never before. From Washington, D.C., to Mobile, Alabama, they gathered together to watch fireworks and listen to orators recite the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery when it was ratified in late 1865.” White people were reportedly rarely seen in public on that day.

Kytle and Roberts add:

Throughout the South, freedwomen were conspicuous participants in Fourth of July celebrations, pushing back against the gender and, in many cases, class barriers that relegated them to the sidelines of Reconstruction politics. The domestic workers and washerwomen of the Daughters of Zion and the Sisters of Zion, two benevolent societies in Memphis, Tennessee, marched in parades each year. The 1875 parade featured a carriage carrying “a queen for the day”—a striking claim to the respectability whites routinely denied black women.

But as white supremacy reasserted itself and Jim Crow took hold, as statues to Confederate generals and leaders were erected across the South, white people reclaimed the Fourth of July.

Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts are the authors of the new book Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, which the New York Times and quite a few others have called a must-read.

On July 4, 2018, at 4 p.m. there will be a public reading of Frederick Douglass’s great speech at the Inkwell in Oak Bluffs. Come read or come listen! Either way you’ll be inspired.

Participants in last year’s reading of Frederick Douglass’s speech at the Inkwell.

 

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Dedication

The Spirituals Choir’s presentation schedule generally doesn’t begin till mid-June. Through May, we’re learning the songs we haven’t sung before, getting reacquainted with familiar ones, and coalescing as an ensemble. Our summer members often don’t return till the end of the month.

But when we were invited to sing at the unveiling of the plaque marking the 28th stop on the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Heritage Trail, no way could we turn it down.

Stained-glass windows in the Grace church sanctuary honor the Rev. Absalom Jones (left) and the Rt. Rev. John Burgess.

The 28th stop on the trail is at Grace Episcopal Church in Vineyard Haven. Grace Episcopal has demonstrated its commitment to local African-American history in multiple ways. The plaque that has been mounted near the Woodlawn Avenue entrance to the parish hall commemorates the Rev. Absalom Jones (1746–1818), first African American priest ordained in the Episcopal Church; the Rt. Rev. John Melville Burgess (1909–2003), first African-American diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church; and liturgical artist Allan Rohan Crite (1910–2007), whose mural was installed in Grace’s children’s chapel in the 1950s.

The parish hall was packed with attentive listeners as speakers introduced each of the honorees and the church’s commitment to local African-American history and the struggle for racial justice. Elaine Weintraub, co-founder with Carrie Tankard of the M.V. African-American Heritage Trail, spoke of how the trail began with a promise she made to a young student who asked where the black people were in Vineyard history. Elaine said she didn’t know but she would find out. And she did.

In the mid-1990s it seemed astonishing when the trail dedicated its fourth or fifth plaque. But the research has continued, our knowledge of the Vineyard’s African-American history has broadened and deepened, and now the trail has 28 stations on it. Now in its second edition, Elaine’s book Lighting the Trail: The African-American Heritage of Martha’s Vineyard, written with Carrie Tankard and with photographs by Mark Alan Lovewell, covers the first 26 stops on the trail.

Leigh Ann Yuen read from the powerful, inspiring Beatitudes from Slavery to Civil Rights, by Carole Boston Weatherford — published for children, but this adult was deeply moved by it. Singing the slave songs one can’t help but acknowledge the importance of faith and religious imagery to the enslaved and those escaping slavery. This little book makes it real.

After the program, everyone trooped outside to watch the unveiling of the plaque, presided over by Julia Burgess, Bishop Burgess’s daughter, a Vineyard resident. Then everyone trooped back in to hear the Spirituals Choir sing “Rise, Shine, for the Light Is a-Coming,” which celebrates the approach of the Union army during the Civil War; and “Done Made My Vow to the Lord,” in which those preparing to escape slavery on the Underground Railroad vowed that they never would turn back but would press on to “see what the end’s gonna be.”

Allan Rohan Crite’s mural in the children’s chapel at Grace church. The banner at the top reads O ye seas and floods, O ye whales and all that move in the waters, bless ye the Lord, praise him and magnify him forever.” Adapted from the “Benedicite omnia opera.”

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Fundraiser for 1854

You’ll be hearing more about this project in coming months, but for now here’s a brief introduction. When he died in 2015, the late Jack Schimmelman, a great fan of the spirituals and the Spirituals Choir, left behind 1854: A Folk Opera, a detailed concept about Vineyarders gathering to debate abolition at a hypothetical town meeting. The slave songs (spirituals) are an integral part of the piece.

The year 1854 was indeed an important one, not only on Martha’s Vineyard but across Massachusetts and the non-slaveholding states of the North. Thanks to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slave-catchers roamed the northern states at will, arresting those suspected of being fugitive slaves and returning them to captivity. The black men and women apprehended had no real rights, and anyone who aided them or interfered with the slave-catchers was subject to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. The North was fighting back by passing personal liberty laws and forming “anti-man-hunting leagues” to protect both fugitive slaves and free blacks from arrest.

In September 1854, one Randall Burton stowed away on board ship but was apprehended at Holmes Hole (Vineyard Haven). Interned aboard the Franklin, he escaped in a ship’s dinghy and eventually, with the help of the Wampanoag, made his way to New Bedford and freedom.

A script has been developed from Schimmelman’s original work. While Vineyarders debate the repercussions of the Fugitive Slave Act, Randall Burton is making his way from Holmes Hole to Gay Head. While sheriff and deputy sheriff try to catch him, others cheer him on and even actively aid his escape. The cast includes both fictional characters and those based on historical figures — and of course the slave songs have a starring role. Also central is the Griot, storyteller, singer, and a powerful figure from African traditions.

The play had a successful read-through this past Wednesday. The tentative plan is to do a staged reading this fall with a full production in the summer of 2019. To help raise funds to make this happen, a Spring Gala for 1854 will be held next Thursday, April 19, starting at 6:30 p.m. at the M.V. Film Center in the Tisbury Marketplace. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at the door or from the Film Center. This Red Carpet Event features —

  • Live music by César Atzic Marquez
  • A silent auction
  • A showing at 7:30 of Agents of Change, an hour-long documentary about the fight to include black history and other ethnic studies in college curriculums
  • The chance to have your photo taken with the Griot
  • Wine, sparkling water, and other refreshments

Please join us!

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Her Too

Not so very long ago, the phrase “marital rape” was an oxymoron. Rape meant non-consensual sex, but since a husband was entitled to have sex with his wife whether she consented or not, rape could not happen in marriage.

Nineteenth-century U.S. white feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucy Stone argued that a married woman’s right to say no to sexual intercourse was a key to women’s equality, but it was not until the 1960s and ’70s that, thanks in large part to the feminist movement, the laws began to change, and along with them popular attitudes. Now “marital rape” is widely considered a form of domestic violence.

As legions of women come forward today to say that they/we too have been subjected to sexual harassment and assault, I think of the enslaved women who endured forced sex with no recourse whatsoever. Their masters, masters’ sons, neighbors, guests, overseers — any white man with the owner’s permission — had the right to sex whenever they wanted. Not infrequently the sex led to pregnancy and the pregnancy to the birth of the rapist’s child, who would then become the rapist’s property.

I take it for granted that enslaved men and boys were also subjected to rape and other sexual abuse. Small consolation that they could not become pregnant.

The names of most of the enslaved women subjected to rape and other sexual abuse are unknown to history, but one of the few whose name survives is Celia, thanks to a 1855 court case, State of Missouri v. Celia, a Slave.

According to an eloquent Washington Post story about the case, Celia

warned the white slave owner that the rapes had to stop. Celia, 19, had endured five years of assaults by Robert Newsom, the Missouri widower in his 70s who’d purchased her when she was 14. She’d borne two of her predator’s children.

She warned him again and again. He came to her cabin anyway. She killed him with a blow to the head, cremated him in a roaring fire, and took his bones out with the ashes in the morning.

In Missouri in 1855,  it was a crime “to take any woman unlawfully against her will and by force, menace or duress, compel her to be defiled,” allowing women to argue self-defense in resisting such assaults.

Celia’s court-appointed defense attorney argued that this applied to enslaved women. Not surprisingly, the jury of 12 white men, most of them pro-slavery and/or slave owners, did not agree. Celia was convicted of first-degree murder and was hanged.

This young woman’s courage takes my breath away. Against odds far longer than what most of us face today, she asserted her right to autonomy and self-respect. When you fear the repercussions of speaking up, remember Celia.

Remember her name.

Her too.

 

 

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Singing the History

Most of the singers in the Spirituals Choir are white. I’m one of them. People sometimes remark on this, and I’d bet good money that many more notice but are too nervous to say anything out loud.

When asked, and sometimes even when not asked, why I sing in the choir, I say that the songs are beautiful and moving and that by singing them I can begin to feel my way into the lives of those who created them. No, I will never understand what it’s like to be totally at the mercy of another person, to be sold away from family and friends, to take the huge risk of boarding the Underground Railroad and beginning the long trek north.

But the spirituals make those experiences real to me in a new way. It goes deeper than history books, deeper even than the first-person accounts by enslaved people who managed not only to escape but to get their stories into print, People like Frederick Douglass; Linda Brent (Harriet Ann Jacobs), author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Solomon Northrup, whose Twelve Years a Slave was adapted into a movie some 160 years after its publication; and all the men and women whose narratives were collected by the Federal Writers Project during the New Deal.

It’s a little like being in a play. In rehearsals you work your way into the character, then in performance you are that character for an hour or two. When you go back to being yourself, traces of the character often remain in your memory and maybe even in your heart.

So at the beginning of the very long Fourth of July weekend Margaret Jordan’s Washington Post op-ed caught my eye: “Too Many Americans Still Don’t See Black History as Their Own.” Jordan, a D.C. native, writes about the long-vanished family history she sees as she walks around the city. A member of the Montpelier Foundation, she writes about a new exhibition at Montpelier, James Madison’s home, “which tells the story of what life was like as a slave on the plantation of our fourth president.” And she writes this:

In the retelling of U.S. history, there is an incomplete and frequently inaccurate story of African American history. At best, it has been the auxiliary exhibit, with slavery a disconnected footnote in the larger tome of our nation’s story. Descendants such as me, who were lucky to grow up knowing the names of their ancestors, know these stories. But most Americans have not been taught to see and embrace African American history as part of their history as Americans. Indeed, in the telling of American history, we have failed to fully grapple with the reality of slavery and its lasting hold on society. This has consequences.

That’s it. That’s why I sing the spirituals and why I believe Americans of all colors and ethnicities can and should embrace them as part of our history, difficult as it can be. In self-defense the mind recoils from thinking too hard about slavery, like the finger recoils from a hot burner. But the spirituals offer a way into the history, and a way of integrating slavery into the history of the nation.

* * * * *

The Spirituals Choir’s annual full-length presentation at Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs, will take place on Saturday, July 22, at 7:30. Most of our performances, at libraries, schools, and houses of worship, are free. The tickets for the Union Chapel presentation are $15 and support the work of the U.S. Slave Song Project, of which the choir is a part. (Children under 12 get in free.) Lavert Stuart will once again be our guest organist.

 

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Two Sides of July Fourth

On July 5, 1852, abolitionist, activist, and former slave Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, New York: “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass died in 1895, but his speech lives on. On Martha’s Vineyard there are usually two community readings of the speech each year. One takes place at the Federated Church in Edgartown on July 3, the other at the Inkwell beach in Oak Bluffs on the 4th.

This was my second year reading at the Inkwell. That’s us, this year’s readers, in the photo. I’m kneeling in front with the purple hat mostly covering my face. Gail, also part of the Spirituals Choir, is second from right in the front row.

I can’t speak or listen to Douglass’s words without hearing in my mind the slave songs we sing in the Spirituals Choir. This year what I heard most vividly was Douglass’s evocation of the “human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn!”

I can’t stop thinking of “that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn.” One of the songs in our repertoire this summer is “Mother, Is Massa Gwine to Sell Us?” In it a girl — I’m sure it’s a girl — sings that line, and the choir answers: “Yes, yes, yes . . . O watch and pray!” Then the girl sings “Gwine to sell us down in Georgia?” And again the answer is “Yes, yes, yes . . .”

The way Dr. Thelma Johnson, member of the Spirituals Choir, sings those lines will break your heart.

So do Frederick Douglass’s passionate words, evoking the slave who can’t celebrate liberty on the Fourth of July because he is not free.

The slave songs keep the slaves’ experiences alive. That’s why I sing them. Frederick Douglass’s words do likewise. That’s why we read them every year on the Fourth of July.

 

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A Surprise Guest in Edgartown

Our presentation at the Edgartown library this past Saturday went very well. Both the library and its sunny, spacious program room were new when we sang there last year. The acoustics were as wonderful as we remembered, and so was the hospitality. After the presentation choir and audience chatted over lemonade and coffee, strawberries, chocolate cake, and cookies.

At some point I noticed a mature gentleman moving about the room taking pictures.The zoom-equipped camera around his neck identified him as a photographer — not for him the smartphones or point-and-shoots of most of us. During the Q&A, he identified himself as Daniel Williams. For 30 years he has been documenting Emancipation celebrations, not only in the United States but abroad as well. A book is in the works.

Everyone knows about the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which freed the slaves in the rebelling Southern states — but not those in slaveholding states that had never left the Union, and not those in the parts of the Confederacy that were by then under Union control.

Emancipation came gradually: the Wikipedia article on the subject notes that “Slaves in the District of Columbia were freed on April 16, 1862,” and on June 19 Congress passed legislation abolishing slavery in current and future U.S. territories. For various reasons, news of the Emancipation Proclamation did not reach Texas until mid-June of 1865, an occasion that is now widely celebrated as Juneteenth. Legal slavery did not officially end in the U.S. until the 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.

So there are several emancipation milestones to celebrate. Two songs in the Spirituals Choir’s 2017 celebrate Emancipation: “Rise! Shine! For the Light Is a-Coming” and “Great Day.”

It was a thrill to meet Mr. Williams and learn of his work, and needless to say, we look forward to hearing more.

Accompanist Phil Dietterich on the left, director Jim Thomas in blue

Some of the choir

 

 

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