“[and when I saw] the Smoky Mountains . . . I thought of heaven.” A Black College Student’s Trip South

A serious young man all set for his college road trip.

A serious young man all set for his college road trip.

Oh, the joys of a summer road trip! In 1893, William Frank Fonvielle, a student at Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, waved goodbye to his friends who worked with him on the college newspaper. At the tail end of the giddy post-slavery years when young men and women like William with no first hand memory of slavery and with all the enthusiasm and confidence in the future that many college students once had (before colleges became soul-deadening reeducation camps) Fonvielle set out on a journey south armed with knowledge of the ancient languages and the stories of humanity captured in classic novels and histories.

The struggle for human freedom was an epic one tracing its beginnings further back than the African slave trade, further back into the dark recesses of human memory and written language.

It’s fair to say that William Frank Fonveille, his classmates and the many white men and women who helped educate the children of slaves saw this thrilling time as one of advance and victory. Yes, there were ominous signs in the Mississippi where a new constitution prepared the way for disenfranchisement, and in many places the newly won right to keep weapons for self defense against marauding gangs and local government tyrants was under assault, but hope remained.

The  dark signs were obscured in the Upper South by the promising property gains and improving literacy rates of the generation of black people who came after the war. When William, confident in his own future, journeyed on a train discussing Dickens with a white passenger beside him he had no idea how Atlanta with its colored restaurants, train cars and bathrooms would disturb him.

Yet I wonder if when he returned to North Carolina he really believed the doors would be shut upon another generation of blacks in the South.

Freedom is not a thing only once won. As the rights of man diminish across the globe in a dizzying number of ways we take our road trips nowadays not to investigate the course of freedom but to indulge in fantastical thinking. We take pictures of ourselves. We turn inward–but only superficially.

We let our emotions, not reality be the judge. We attend anti-gun rallies by day and massive drink-ups by night never realizing that more deaths occur each year due to alcohol (abuse and drunk driving). Factor in the crazy things we do when drunk or the suffering caused by an alcoholic parent or spouse! CLICK HERE FOR INTERESTING REAL TIME DEATH STATS.

Black Family courtesy Pinterest

Black Family courtesy Pinterest

We care more about how someone addresses us than the innocent men, women and children killed in our name. We care more about body shaming than female genital mutilation by groups of people our taxes fund.

Sgt. William Harvey Carney , Medal of Honor recipient. Wikipedia

Sgt. William Harvey Carney , Medal of Honor recipient.
Wikipedia

As young William Fonveille fretted over sitting in a sooty rail car could he be expected to imagine that one day Margaret Sanger would push for an abortion program to exterminate black people all together? When he crossed the border into North Carolina at the end of his eye-opening trip he breathed a sigh of relief. Never would his home state go the way of the Deep South. Never would freedom once fought for by whites and blacks alike be trampled over by small-minded and hateful humans seeking to destroy what they could not control: the desire of humanity to be free . . .

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This essay was inspired by “Somewhere” in the Nadir of
African American History, 1890-1920

Books I’ve Known And Loved

Rogers1Many heard the city’s siren call: freedom, freedom, freedom.  In the wake of crumbling farm communities and great and small depressions, many American-born young women (and men) moved to the burgeoning city of New York for work and a fresh start, freed from a “patriarchal”, rural society in the second quarter of the 1800’s.

The void of fatherhood with its moral-ism and lack of privacy had to be filled. The city was the permissive mother, the blind eye to the youths’ experiments with freedom. Into this world stepped MARY ROGERS the beauty. From good New England stock (the Mathers and the Rogers of Connecticut) fallen on hard times she came with her mother(or grandmother) to the city and opened a boarding house for sailors, corkcutters and clerks.

Mary, freed from the moorings of the village and the old-fashioned notions about girls working in sales (you were always selling more of yourself than you knew) took a job selling cigars to the roughs and the Tammany politicians.

She disappeared once leaving a suicide note for mother and the news was big enough to make the papers, but she returned a few days later right as rain–it had all been a joke she said. In the city women had freedom but with freedom came danger. Men thrive on danger (so say the studies), but do women?

On one balmy Sunday Mary went out for a walk and never came back. Mother worried, as did her present boyfriend, the corkcutter, who was to meet her in the evening to go promenading on Broadway as everyone did. On Monday the corkcutter searched Manhattan. He searched the rural retreat of Hoboken (a paradise on Earth). He worried himself back to drinking.

And then Mary was found floating dead on the rocky shores of New Jersey. The beautiful cigar girl murdered! And not just murdered but violated in unspeakable ways!

The papers went mad for the story. The outraged public read in horror each gruesome detail of the autopsy (leaked to the papers a little each day). No newspaper man in his right mind would ignore the story that tapped into the fears middle class people had about the sexualized city. And look what had happened to this pretty girl with no protection!

A great manhunt began. Many men were wrongfully accused. The CORKCUTTER was soon found dead as well–alcohol and laudanum poisoning (most likely self-inflicted, but who really knew?).

Illustration from Poe's The Mystery of Marie Roget

Illustration from Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget

Even Edgar Allen Poe was mesmerized and wrote a mystery story:“THE MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET. But all the men’s stories checked out. Why had Mary gone to Hoboken alone? On her deathbed a tavern owner in Hoboken confessed to helping an abortionist get rid of Mary’s body after a procedure gone awry. Seems the abortionist had connections to Madame Restell of New York, the notorious abortionist.

Despite its growing popularity in the city and lack of enforcement against it, abortion was reviled by most average citizens. As a thing done on the quiet no one really had to think about it. Ironically rural cultures had better infrastructure when it came to dealing with bastard children and out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Until the procedure made headlines (and Madame Restell was all about making headlines) the city could uneasily look away, but no longer.

Huge crowds of protesters threatened the madame in her home until the cops fought them off. Mary remained at once a tragic figure and a morality tale. Alone, young and seduced by men Mary was left to fend for herself and murdered at the hands of a woman who flaunted her skills as a killer of babies (people thought it was murder after the first quickening when the mother could feel the baby move).

Mary’s death was retold in countless fictionalized novels and newspapers; her real story illustrated over and over again for a public bent on lapping up the most grotesque details. Public and private lines were forever blurred in the papers. Mary was one girl, a girl of mystery still, but beautiful. Everyone said so.

MADAME RESTELL committed suicide in 1878 by slitting her throat.

Pulling Mary from the river.

THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF MARY ROGERS by Amy Gilman Strebnick

An Ideal Woman and Why We Hate Her

Oh, don't you look  so smug in your perfection!

Oh, don’t you look so smug in your perfection!

“. . . she carried out her duties as mistress of a small family with ‘piety, patience, frugality and industry’. Moreover,

‘… her ardent and unceasing flow of spirits, extreme activity and diligence, her punctuality, uprightness and remarkable frugality, combined with a firm reliance on God … carried her through the severest times of pressure, both with credit and respectability …’ (The General Baptist Repository and Missionary Observer, 1840).” bbc history of victorian women

Here’s why we don’t like you, dear: You make us look bad–and selfish. You save money, dress with no hint of muffin-top or dirty flip-flop feet and in general seem to  actually take your place in society seriously.

 

We moderns scoff at manners and “rigid” rules. You see the value in a well-run household. And damn those studies that actually prove children thrive  in predictable, nurturing settings! And the homemade family suppers you insist upon–turns out you were annoyingly right about them as well.

 

Keeping busy at the church? Statistically people who attend church regularly are more active in their community so just being spiritual doesn’t seem to cut it. As much as we brow beat you, dear, and try to convince you that being an office manager is as important as raising the next generation of adults and that being a salaried employee automatically makes you happy and that free love and the abandonment of your place as moral arbiter will make you EQUAL to men, you demur with that look of placid innocence we despise.

 

You don’t have to have rabid Facebook wars–pro-choice vs pro-life–that honestly would make you sick. You give us that scolding look that shows how shocked and dismayed at how hostile and ugly we’ve allowed ourselves to become. At least pretend to have some manners, you say. Our language shocks you and how we laugh when children repeat it!

 

You’re not sure you believe in evolution at all. Unless there’s a species that devolves. You wonder at how often we speak of happiness instead of goodness and we laugh at you mockingly. If there’s no such thing as truth then there’s no such thing as goodness. You’d know that if you were paying attention to something other than being perfect.

 

You look at us like we’re mad.