Tag Archives: history

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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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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Our Busy June Continues

Last Friday, the Spirituals Choir had a rare opportunity to perform for seventh-graders in the Tisbury School library. Our presentations are ideal for school groups, but unfortunately our seasonal schedule does not sync well with the school year. We start rehearsing in late April and are ready for prime time by mid-June — at which time the school year is almost at an end.

So we welcomed this chance, albeit with some good-natured grumbling about having to be in place and ready to sing by 8:30 in the morning. There are generally a few young people at each of our public presentations, but what it would be like singing for an audience comprised almost entirely of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds?

No worries there: the students were very attentive, and they asked good questions at the end. Director Jim Thomas encourages questions and comments from all our audiences. I asked a history teacher if the students had studied the Civil War. He said that he brought it up when opportunities arose but that it wasn’t a formal part of the curriculum until freshman year of high school.

One spiritual on the program was “Mama, Is Massa Gwine to Sell Us?” a poignant song powerfully sung by choir member Dr. Thelma Johnson. The choir responds with “Yes, yes, yes . . . O watch and pray.”  In slavery times it was probably sung by children younger than those in our audience last Friday.

* * * * *

The Vineyard’s libraries provide some of our favorite venues. Yesterday afternoon we returned to the Chilmark library, where as usual all seats in the program room were occupied and the library staff had to keep bringing in more. Our next presentation is at the Edgartown library this Saturday, June 24, 3 p.m.

Jim Thomas and some of the choir at the Chilmark library

Phil Dietterich at the keyboard

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American Slavery, 1852

From Frederick Douglass’s “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” a speech given at Corinthian Hall, Rochester, New York, on July 5, 1852:

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave-trade, the American slave-trade, sustained by American politics and American religion. Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market. You know what is a swine-drover? I will show you a man-drover. They inhabit all our Southern States. They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation, with droves of human stock. You will see one of these 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! The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength; suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream, that seems to have torn its way to the centre of your soul. The crack you heard was the sound of the slave-whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe. Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains! that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on. Follow this drove to New Orleans. Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shock ing gaze of American slave-buyers. See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude. Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking. Yet this is but a glance at the American slave-trade, as it exists, at this moment, in the ruling part of the United States.

I was born amid such sights and scenes. To me the American slave-trade is a terrible reality. When a child, my soul was often pierced with a sense of its horrors. I lived on Philpot Street, Fell’s Point, Baltimore, and have watched from the wharves the slave ships in the Basin, anchored from the shore, with their cargoes of human flesh, waiting for favorable winds to waft them down the Chesapeake. There was, at that time, a grand slave mart kept at the head of Pratt Street, by Austin Woldfolk. His agents were sent into every town and county in Maryland, announcing their arrival, through the papers, and on flaming “hand-bills,” headed cash for Negroes. These men were generally well dressed men, and very captivating in their manners; ever ready to drink, to treat, and to gamble. The fate of many a slave has depended upon the turn of a single card; and many a child has been snatched from the arms of its mother by bargains arranged in a state of brutal drunkenness.

The flesh-mongers gather up their victims by dozens, and drive them, chained, to the general depot at Baltimore. When a sufficient number has been collected here, a ship is chartered for the purpose of conveying the forlorn crew to Mobile, or to New Orleans. From the slave prison to the ship, they are usually driven in the darkness of night; for since the antislavery agitation, a certain caution is observed.

In the deep, still darkness of midnight, I have been often aroused by the dead, heavy footsteps, and the piteous cries of the chained gangs that passed our door. The anguish of my boyish heart was intense; and I was often consoled, when speaking to my mistress in the morning, to hear her say that the custom was very wicked; that she hated to hear the rattle of the chains and the heart-rending cries. I was glad to find one who sympathized with me in my horror.

 

Fare you well

Fare you well

Fare well, everybody

Fare you well

Fare you well

If ever I do get home

— Sung by slaves taking leave of each other when one or more have been sold away

 

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Myths About Slavery

You’ve probably run into people, most likely white people, who think that slavery wasn’t that big a deal, and even if it was, it’s over. Besides, their family never owned slaves so the whole issue doesn’t really involve them. Maybe, at some time in the past, you’ve even thought some of those things yourself.

Writes Margaret Biser in her remarkable essay: “Up until a few weeks ago, I worked at a historic site in the South that included an old house and a nearby plantation. My job was to lead tours and tell guests about the people who made plantations possible: the slaves.”

She summarizes and responds to the questions and reactions she encountered most often. For instance:

“People think slaveholders ‘took care’ of their slaves out of the goodness of their hearts, rather than out of economic interest.”

 

“People don’t understand how prejudice influenced slaveholders’ actions beyond mere economic interest.”

 

Read the whole thing here.

We flinch away from the realities, maybe because we don’t want to think about our ancestors who owned slaves, or our ancestors who were slaves, or the myriad unfreedoms in our own lives today.

Singing songs the slaves sang gives us a way to enter into a world that is so hard for us to imagine. We are moved, and so are our audiences.

Last summer the Spirituals Choir sang at the Royall House & Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts. It was a powerful experience indeed, to sing where slaves might once have sung some of the same songs we were singing. (For an account of our trip, click here.)

If you’re on Martha’s Vineyard this month, here’s our July schedule:

Wednesday, July 8, 6:30 p.m. West Tisbury library. Free.

Saturday, July 18, 7 p.m., Union Chapel. $15 at the door; under 12 get in free.

Sunday, July 19, 11 a.m., Unitarian Universalist Society, Vineyard Haven.

Sunday, July 26, 6:30 p.m., East Chop Lighthouse. Part of the Vineyard’s celebration of Della Hardman Day.

Thursday, July 30, 6:30 p.m., Oak Bluffs library. Free.

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