“[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

On New Year’s Day: A Reverie With Henry O. Tanner

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Henry O Tanner, the son of a slave transcended race through his art and through his Christianity. Back then educated people didn’t just assume that Christians were reactionary bigots (of course some did). Christian themed art wasn’t seen as offensive but part of the long and spectacular tradition of Western civilization.

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Tanner was the first African American artist to gain international recognition and one of the few favorite students of Thomas Eakins to be honored with a portrait.

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After moving to Paris he painted Daniel and the Lions’ Den which gained acceptance into the Salon and brought an exceptional opportunity to travel to the Holy Land.

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He didn’t hide his Christianity.

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He found his hope and comfort in God where “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Racism hurt him. He admitted to being a rather timid, shy soul and the episodes of prejudice in his life pained him deeply. I wonder how Christianity which at one time was such a comfort to the weak, the poor, the outcast and the sinful has become in some circles a sign of stupidity and delusion.

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It seems impossible  not to accept that miracles are a part of life–intellectually impossible– as I sit here breathing perfectly made air with a moon controlling waves that crash in just such a way and water perfectly pitched to allow for fish and whales. God announces Himself all around.

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If everything was made from nothing then that’s a miracle. If miracles exist then annunciations and created things may come from a creator of the miraculous. A painting is created. It’s also a miracle. If our brains are random molecules there is no purpose for creating. The odd ability to create and for others to create makes the notion that there is no original creator seem ridiculous to me.

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If you read the Bible end to end there’s a miraculous story–not just the Jesus Christ part, but the way the whole thing ties together, the way things written hint at bigger things . . .

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and littler things like the moments of intimacy that fill our lives with satisfaction and a strange yearning to go deeper, to make connections and to love one another.

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Here’s hoping your new year is blessed with the miraculous.

http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/online/tanner/tanner_main.html

https://middlemaybooks.com/2013/04/10/thomas-eakins/