“[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.

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

Green Acres, Garden of Eden, America

I don't miss Wall Street a bit.
I don’t miss Wall Street a bit.

I’m not one of those people who think all back-to-the land people are pretentious hypocrites. Americans were bred for it. Bred with the desire to change their surroundings in order to meet their needs and ascetic (and aesthetic) desires. Bred to spend little time on book learned philosophy and more time on blowing up mountains for railroads and installing solar panels to be “off the grid.”

We like the romance (or once did) of living nearly government free. We like the romance of the nomadic Sioux Indians on horseback because we’ve all come to this continent as wandering, fleeing people. We take photographs of “primitive” people with “simple lives” not because we like exhibitions at zoos, but because despite our almost diametrically opposed other desire for the most up-to-date material goods–there is a sense in us that simplicity will free us from ourselves.

Making some homespun music--sorta sounds like a violin.
Making some homespun music–sorta sounds like a violin.

Americans strive and want progress–an endless list of accomplishments to prove our worth, but at the same time we’ve known that this proving, this rat-race, this hard-driving road over scattered rail lines leads to no where in particular.

The manufacture of solar panels leads to industrial waste and not every person really wants to depend on their local weather for the wheat berries they grind themselves, but sometimes in the face of vicious human corruption that feels like it’s getting progressively worse, we type into our smart phones a search for a real estate agent in the middle of nowhere.

We can have horses then and grow our own stuff and wear home-made clothes with fabric from our sheep (who won’t have parasite over-load and die). We’ll live with the bears until they knock over our honeybee hives. We’ll uneasily buy a gun and shoot it into the air when the first shadow of a grizzly lurks in the yard. Then we’ll get so angry at a fox after it feasts on our chickens which we carefully raised from chicks shipped cross-country from a hatchery (we wanted a heritage breed) that we REALLY shoot and kill something.

Little baby chicks enjoying life before fox eats them.
Little baby chicks enjoying life before fox eats them.

When Europe killed Christians, slashed down their forests and found technology, the most desparate and brave people crossed the ocean to the last Eden. We’ve been figuring out what to do in it ever since.




Army Boots  Winslow Homer

Waiting before the front gate was a man on horseback: Maj. John Baytop Cary of the 115th. With his silver gray whiskers and haughtily tilted chin, he appeared every inch the Southern cavalier.

Butler, also on horseback, went out to meet him. The men rode, side by side, off federal property and into rebel Virginia. They must have seemed an odd pair: the dumpy Yankee, unaccustomed to the saddle, slouching along like a sack of potatoes; the trim, upright Virginian, in perfect control of himself and his mount.

Cary got down to business. “I am informed,” he said, “that three Negroes belonging to Colonel Mallory have escaped within your lines. I am Colonel Mallory’s agent and have charge of his property. What do you mean to do with those Negroes?”

“I intend to hold them,” Butler said.

“Do you mean, then, to set aside your constitutional obligation to return them?”

Even the dour Butler must have found it hard to suppress a smile. This was, of course, a question he had expected. And he had prepared what he thought was a fairly clever answer.

“I mean to take Virginia at her word,” he said. “I am under no constitutional obligations to a foreign country, which Virginia now claims to be.”

“But you say we cannot secede,” Cary retorted, “and so you cannot consistently detain the Negroes.”

“But you say you have seceded,” Butler said, “so you cannot consistently claim them. I shall hold these Negroes as contraband of war, since they are engaged in the construction of your battery and are claimed as your property.”



Contraband   Winslow Homer