On this day in 1688, the General Court found Sam, the slave of Richard Metcalfe of Westmoreland County, guilty in James City County of promoting a slave rebellion. His conviction came just six months or so after a suspected plot was discovered in Westmoreland County. His sentence required him to be “severely whipt” multiple times, after which he was to be fitted with
a strong Iron collar affixed about his neck with four spriggs which collar he is never to take or gett off nor to goe off his master or masters plantacon during all the time he shall live, and if he shall goe off his said master or masters plantacon or get off his collar then to be hanged.
A version of this post was originally published on April 26, 2012.
IMAGES:Punishment collar (New York Public Library); detail of illustration from Carlos Juliao, Riscos illuminados de figurinhos de broncos e negros dos uzos do Rio de Janeiro e Serro do Frio (1960) (Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas)
Today’s Google Doodle (seen above) celebrates a Virginian (by birth): Ella Fitzgerald. The great jazz singer was born ninety-six years ago today in Newport News, but soon after her birth her parents separated and her mother moved the family to Yonkers, New York. Virginia’s loss but the world’s gain.
If you’ve never seen it before, this photograph of Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe might seem a little random, but Monroe apparently helped Fitzgerald get booked at the whites-only Macombo Club in Hollywood. In return she promised to take a front table every night. “After that,” Fitzgerald recalled, “I never had to play a small jazz club again. She [Monroe] was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”
Fitzgerald, in turn, provided inspiration for Monroe’s own (comparatively anemic) singing. Unlike the actress, Fitzgerald was a virtuoso of the voice in the way that, say, Benny Goodman was a virtuoso on the clarinet. They could do anything and while that can sometimes be thrilling, it is not always everyone’s preference. As I wrote a couple of years ago:
Sometimes virtuosity in jazz gets a bad rap. That’s because the myth of the jazzman is that of the self-taught musician—someone with street savvy, someone who awes you with his feeling, not with the number of notes he can play. That’s true, anyway, with Bix Beiderbecke, who is accused, unfairly but over and over again, with not having been able to read music. He is also celebrated for his mangled fingering and for his reticence when it came to the upper register. He is celebrated, in other words, for his lack of virtuosity.
But there is no art without form, and form, by definition, is limitation. I am reminded of the distinction Benny Green once drew between Billie Holiday and the more virtuosic Ella Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s famous scat singing, although sophisticated, skillful, and dexterous,
finally reduces the art of singing to the decadence of gibberish. Instead of aspiring to establish the voice as a second-class instrumental keyboard, the singer should attempt to raise it to the highest jazz level because of its potential value in expressing specific ideas and emotions rather than the impressionistic gestures of most instrumental jazz. The gibberish vocal makes a mockery of communication instead of exalting it.
Ouch. But Green was calling on singers like Fitzgerald to move beyond mere virtuosity, to live up to the ideals of that old myth—to be someone who awes you with feeling.
This line of thinking has been called crypto-racist. I’ll let you be the judge. I think, in the end, it’s less an aesthetic judgment than a question of taste. Whatever the case, after the jump you can find another great photograph of Ella and Marilyn (at the Macombo, no less), as well as a couple examples of the former’s music.
IMAGES: Google Doodle; Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. Original caption: “11/19/1954—Hollywood, CA: Marilyn meets Ella. Looking fit and well-groomed after her recent hospitalization, actress Marilyn Monroe (right) attends a jazz session at the Tiffany Club in Hollywood. Singer Ella Fitzgerald chats with Marilyn, who was escorted by columnist Sydney Skolsky.”
Symonds’s preaching came in the context of what today we might call a major rebranding effort on behalf of the settlement at Jamestown. Things weren’t going too well there, so the company, with permission from the king, had done a financial overhaul and now were baiting investors under the cover of God’s will. Not a bad plan, actually.
On this day in 1927, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in Buck v. Bell. If you’re not familiar, here are the basic facts:
Emma Buck of Charlottesville was considered by authorities to be a “low grade moron.” When she gave birth out of wedlock to Carrie Buck, she was committed. Later, Carrie was raped by a member of her foster family and became pregnant. To cover their tracks, the family committed her, too. And when Carrie gave birth, her daughter was declared “not quite normal.”
This situation was perfect forlovers of eugenics and advocates of sterilization, who then held sway then in Virginia. They declared that the Bucks’s supposed disabilities were hereditary and the only solution was forced sterilization. Their court case intended to prove the constitutionality of that action, and as it happens, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes agreed, famously declaring, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
If you’ve read this far, you win a prize. Now go wash yourself off.
A version of this post was originally published on April 22, 2011.
Last night, while the world was preoccupied with something else, businessman David Rubenstein, the co-CEO of The Carlyle Group private equity firm, announced a gift of $10 million toward the continued restoration of Monticello, the former home of Thomas Jefferson. A pair of slave quarters on Mulberry Row will be recreated and work will be done on the second and third floors of the main house.
Archaeologists and historians designing the project will follow a drawing Jefferson made in 1796, describing the material and dimensions of the log structures along Mulberry Row. Over the next two years, they plan to rebuild a structure described as being among “servants’ houses of wood, with wooden chimneys and earth floors.” The 12-by-14-foot dwelling would have housed a single family, representing a shift from barrack-style housing.
It’s believed to have housed members of the extended Hemings family, who held important positions at Monticello. Most historians believe Sally Hemings, a slave, had a relationship with the third president and that he was the father of her six children. In the recreated house, curators may also focus on the life of Hemings’ younger brother John Hemings, who was a highly skilled joiner and cabinetmaker.
“By bringing back the place, we bring back the people, and we’re able to put a face on slavery,” said senior curator Susan Stein. “It’s actually the lives of people.”
This marks something of a departure for the folks at Monticello. Unlike their counterparts at George Washington‘s Mount Vernon, they had thus far declined to speculate on the exact nature of slave quarters. And of course part of the problem is that not all slaves lived in quarters (many simply slept where they worked) and not all slaves were as advantaged as the Hemingses to live in these particular quarters. That said, the absence of such houses today on Mulberry Row helps us forget what Jefferson actually saw looking out from Monticello. It helps us forget, in other words, slavery.
A couple of weeks ago now, the photography blog Shorpy published an image of a man identified only as “Buzzard Pete.” With the help of Coy Barefoot, we identified him as Peter Briggs (1828–1912), a former slave who worked as a gardener at the University of Virginia. Some readers reacted positively to these images of the man also known as Uncle Peter, while others—including a faculty member at UVa. who wished not to be named—recoiled at the way they reinforced racially demeaning tropes. And, as is to be expected, we received some pushback on that front. Above are two additional photographs of Briggs; judge them as you will.
Now Barefoot has written again with more information, this time from the university’s yearbook, Corks and Curls, the many editions of which he is now in the process of digitizing.
Wanted to share this with you. I’ve attached a pdf of an excerpt from the 1890 Corks and Curls (the third edition of the series) in which students profile various African-American men who were familiar to them as members of the University community. The final profile is that of Mr. Briggs.
These profiles illustrate the racist viewpoint of the student author, to be certain, but what I found most interesting is this opening line in the profile of Mr. Bullocks: “Of the many odd and picturesque characters of the negro race that are to be met with everywhere around the University, but that are now fast passing away before the superior intellectual culture and proud assertion of equal rights on the part of their descendants …” WOW. that’s fascinating.
And the end of that profile says “Berkeley is a silent man and rarely speaks unless spoken to; but when he does become talkative, it is the talk of the good old ante-bellum darkey, not the polished small talk and chit-chat of the present generation of colored gentleman.”
I just find this fascinating how these two generations of African-American men are portrayed. And in that last passage, the author even puts in italics the words “darkey” vs “colored gentlemen.”
The student is obviously aware of the evolving place of people of color in society, but use these sketches as a way of celebrating the older ante-bellum generation— and by comparison, showing dismay and/or disdain for the new behavior of a younger generation. really interesting.
After the jump I’ve included images of the pages from which Barefoot quotes. Click on them for larger, more readable views.
On this day in 1653, Oliver Cromwell forcibly dissolved Parliament. The legal body’s replacement, a nominated assembly of religious men known as the Barebones Parliament, voted for its own dissolution in December.
I grew up in a household more interested in the Irish, and as the above documentary declares, “To this day Cromwell remains a dark silhouette against the blood-stained backdrop of Irish history.” “Old Ironsides,” as the Puritan was nicknamed, continued—and, with his New Model Army, perhaps perfected—a long tradition of harsh warfare against the Irish that dated back to Sir Walter Raleigh‘s time. Indian fighters like Sir Thomas Dale learned their craft in Ireland, and afterOpechancanough‘s attack in 1622, Englishmen like Edward Waterhouse were calling for, in all but name, an Irish war against the Powhatans.
A version of this post was originally published on April 19, 2012.
On this day in 1644, Opechancanough and a force of Powhatan Indians launched a second great assault against the English colonists, initiating the Third Anglo-Powhatan War. As many as 400 colonists were killed, but rather than press the attack, the Indians retired.
Why? The historian Karen Kupperman writes that “American war”—which is to say, war waged by the Indians—”was premised on the assumption that a defeated enemy would withdraw. Earlier in Virginia Henry Spelman had seen a battle between the Patawomecks and the Massawomecks that ended as soon as the Massawomecks had shot all their arrows without much result. [Roger] Williams said that battles usually ended as soon as some were wounded.”
Imagine that: when you lose, you quit! Is that still an “American” value? Discuss.
Oh, and what about the first great assault? It happened in 1622, and you can read an English description of the day’s events here (with some more context here). As for Henry Spelman, his description of the Indian battle, is here (although be ‘ware that Spelman was a pore spelar, even by the irregular standards of his day):
In the time that I was ther I sawe a Battell fought betwene the Patomeck and the Masomeck, ther place wher they fought was a marish ground full of Reede. Beinge in the cuntry of the Patomecke the peopel of of Masomeck weare brought thether in Canoes which is a kind of Boate they have made in the forme of an Hoggs trowgh But sumwhat more hollowed in, On Both sids they scatter themselves sum litle distant one from the other, then take they ther bowes and arrows and having made ridie to shoot they softly steale toward ther enimies, Sumtime squattinge doune and priinge if they can spie any to shoot at whom if at any time he so Hurteth that he can not flee they make hast to him to knock him on the heade, And they that kill most of ther enimies are heald the cheafest men amonge them; Drum and Trumpetts they have none, but when they will gather themselves togither they have a kind of Howlinge or Howbabub so differinge in sounde one from the other as both part may very aesely be distinguished. Ther was no great slawter of neither side But the massomecks having shott away most of ther arrows and wantinge Vitall weare glad to retier;
On this day in 1644, then, one can assume that there was the mother of all Howlinges and Howbabubs.
A version of this post was originally published on April 18, 2012.
IMAGE: Hand-colored engraving Virginia Indians and English settlers, with Dutch Gothic letterpress, by Reys van Martin Pringe, ca. 1625 (Virginia Historical Society)
This spring, the Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, in collaboration with Encyclopedia Virginia, launched the Virginia Indian Archive. (Funding was provided by the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation and Dominion.) What follows is a short history of Virginia Indians that draws on many of the archive’s wonderful images and links to the encyclopedia’s entries. If you don’t know this history, then as a Virginian you should! Either way, though, the pictures are gorgeous!
The story of Virginia Indians is sometimes tragic, sometimes triumphant. Stretching back tens of thousand of years, it includes breathtaking changes and remarkable continuities. Once nomadic, Indians settled in communities to farm and hunt. Once free of the English, they now play a unique role in today’s commonwealth. At the same time, and perhaps against the odds, Virginia’s Indians have managed to preserve many of their old ways while creating entirely new traditions. There has been violence, of course, including at least three extended wars, as well as occasions, even in the recent past, of maddening injustice. But the story of Virginia Indians has largely been one of adaptation: to the environment and to the people around them.
This is what is ultimately most troubling for me about Beevor’s work. He—all at once—catalogues all the flaws of the Allies, but robs you of your moral superiority. How should we think about the Soviet Union, which, among “The Big Three,” bore the brunt of the Nazi assault? On one page Beevor will profile their heroic stand against an Army [that] sought to starve them out of existence. On another he will profile that same Army raping its way to Berlin. How do you think about the subjugators of Poland and the liberators of Auschwitz, when it’s the same Army?
Perhaps in the same way you tink about a Union Army enforcing emancipation, only to turn around and enforce the pilfering of Native American land. Perhaps in the same way you think about Britain holding out against the Nazis, while ruthlessly warring against Kenyans fighting for independence. During the Bush years there was a lot of debate about the usefulness of the concept of “evil.” I don’t have much trouble naming “forces of evil.” What I have trouble with is naming “forces for good,” to say nothing of “good wars.”
On this day in 1862, the Confederate Congress passed the first Conscription Act, making all white males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five eligible to be drafted into military service. This was the first such draft in United States history.
IMAGE: A poster urges young men to avoid conscription by volunteering for the Confederate army; Charleston, Tennessee, 1862 (Library of Congress)
The other day, while one of our readers was defending the institution of slavery in our comments section, I was performing the final edits on our new entry, The Negro in Virginia. Published in 1940 by the Virginia Writers’ Project, the book draws on the recollections of former slaves for its history of slavery, and this caused a conflict between its editor, Roscoe E. Lewis, and Lewis’s boss, Eudora Ramsay Richardson. Ms. Richardson, like our commenter, was of the “it couldn’t really have been that bad” school of slavery studies and regularly struck passages from the text she found to be implausible.
Or, as our commenter writes, “If African American slavery had been as violent as it is too often overtly misinterpreted, then it would not have endured as long as it did.” (“But why?” one is bound to ask.)
Anyway, The Negro in Virginia‘s chapter on slave punishment, “Thirty and Nine,” was particularly tough on the Lewis-Richardson relationship. That’s because it contained a remembrance by Henrietta King—a former slave then still living in West Point—that was so gut-punchingly awful that Richardson simply could not believe it; in her words, it must have been a “gross exaggeration.” To Richardson’s credit, though, she actually traveled to West Point to question Ms. King herself. And when she did, she changed her mind, writing in a letter, “She looks exactly as Mr. Lewis describes her and [she] told me, almost word for word the story Mr. Lewis relates.”
So what did Henrietta King look like, and what was the story that she told? This is what Lewis published in The Negro in Virginia:
Numerous living ex-slaves have scars and welts to show—raised, they say, by cow hides in slavery days. These marks are usually on the arms, back or shoulders. But Henrietta King bears the scars of slavery on her face. She lives in West Point, Virginia, in a ramshackle hut and is listed in the county records as being ninety-eight years old. Henrietta King is a ward of the town and gets along “tol’able well.” Her face is a hideous mask—her mouth horribly twisted across one cheek with the jagged fangs of rotted teeth protruding. One cheek is speckled with lumps—”ends of de jawbones,” she explains. She says she has no idea what she looked like before her face was smashed. “I musta been a good lookin’ gal,” she admits.
You can read the rest of the chapter to learn the details, or read her full interview here. (The queasy need not apply.) That such violence did not happen to every enslaved man, woman, or child is not the point; it did not even happen to most. The point, of course, is that slavery was founded on the possibility and, more to the point, the legality of such violence, and it is too bad that we can no longer resolve our disputes by going to visit Ms. Henrietta King of West Point. Instead, too many of us are like her mistress’s family.
“She got relatives livin’ here in West Point now,” King told her interviewer. “Dey all know me an’ know how come I look dis way. Met one of dem—Missus’ granddaughter, I reckon—not long ago. She crossed de street to de other side an’ made b’lieve she didn’t see me. But it don’ bother me none. She’ll be wid ole Missus one o’ dese days.”
IMAGE: Washington, D.C., 1916. “Convention of former slaves. Annie Parram, age 104; Anna Angales, age 105; Elizabeth Berkeley, 125; Sadie Thompson, 110.” National Photo Company Collection glass negative. (Shorpy)
On this day in 1861, and after all the nastiness of Fort Sumter, Abe Lincoln issued a call for 75,000 troops. What’s worth remembering is that Virginia had not yet seceded; in fact, the Virginia Convention then in session in Richmond had voted more than once AGAINST secession. But the president of the United States asking the commonwealth to provide 2,340 troops to potentially march on South Carolina (which is to say, “to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections, repel invasions,” etc.) — that was the last straw, apparently.
The convention voted to secede two days later, and forevermore, we have celebrated this anniversary as Tax Day!
Other stuff happened on this date, I realize—Luther Porter Jackson died, for instance, Jerry Falwell got married, and so did Annie Dillard (again)—and I also realize that we’re still two years away from the surrender’s 150th anniversary … but still. How amazing is it that on this day in 1865, at five in the morning and almost four years to the minute after the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter, Union general Joshua Chamberlain (a.k.a. Jeff Daniels) assembled elements of the Fifth Corps along the main street of Appomattox Court House as part of the formal surrender ceremony. The Union men reportedly saluted passing Confederates, who saluted back.
It’s not clear that this is how things actually went down, but as with many legends, it hardly matters at this point. Our entry elaborates:
The power of this moment, however embellished by subsequent narration, has captured many an imagination, its sublimity appealing to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. A subject of popular Civil War art, for example, it has also appeared in recent books on business leadership, the importance of forgiveness in personal relationships, and spirituality for ministers. For many it closes the unsettling, complicated history of the war on an inspiring and reassuring note, and in certain areas of popular imagination it may prove far more difficult to dislodge or qualify than the story that Grant and Lee signed the surrender papers under an apple tree, a legend that arose after Lee spent time waiting for Grant on April 9 in an apple orchard.
Enjoyed your post about “Buzzard Pete.” I believe that is Mr. Peter Briggs (1828–1912). I discuss him (with a photo) on page 89 of my book The Corner. You’ll notice the excerpt on that page from the student newspaper College Topics on his passing (October 5 issue), includes this line:
Two generations of students remember the slight, under-sized figure with his bowed legs, the cheerful laugh and Rebel Yell and buzzard dance.
And the picture Barefoot published? Uncle Peter by Rufus W. Holsinger, a detail of which you can see above. According to Barefoot, Briggs was born into slavery on December 25, 1828, just south of the university, and after the Civil War worked as a gardener on Grounds. Upon his death in October 1912, students paid for a funeral and published the obituary Barefoot mentioned in his note. It reads:
The death of Uncle Peter removed from the University life one of its most interesting familiar figures. Two generations of students remember the slight, under-sized figure with his bowed legs, the cheerful laugh and Rebel Yell and buzzard dance. With the approach of old age and its attendant ills, Uncle Peter became a public charge of the University community and has been for several years a general favorite of the students and professors. Although there is not a single case on record of him having begged, he received frequent tokens of regard from his University friends.
He regarded every student as his friend and saluted you with a deep bow, a raising of his cap and an inquiry as to your health. The high esteem in which he was held by his boys was evidenced by the liberality with which they subscribed to his burial fund. His last words to his wife were characteristic of the man: “What are you crying for? I’m all right, I’m safe.” May the kind, suffering old soul rest in peace.
Several things stand out from all this: One, the sentence that Barefoot quotes sets off all kinds of alarm bells for historians who have read widely on the depiction of African Americans before, during, and after the Civil War. The “faithful slave” is an all-too-familiar trope—cheerful, loyal, childlike, and non-threatening—and one that during slavery days served to soften the edges of an inherently violent institution and then, post-emancipation, to justify white supremacy. Who but a faithful slave, a black Confederate, would make himself known for his rebel yell at a time historians have identified as the nadir of race relations in the United States?
Two, none of this says anything about who Buzzard Pete actually was but only how he was depicted by white people. And those depictions can, simultaneously, be sincerely loving and borrow from traditions that dehumanize black people.
Three, what’s interesting about the Holsinger photograph above, as opposed to the picture that appeared on the photoblog Shorpy, is how it resists all of that racist baggage. The coat is a bit tattered, true, but otherwise “Uncle Peter” could be a university professor.
Four … except for the fact that he is identified only as “Uncle Peter.” True, many people depicted in the Holsinger collection, both white and black, go unnamed or only partially named. But slavery too often rendered African Americans either nameless or singly named. A plantation was filled with field hands named Billy and Peter and Moses, making it difficult—and not by accident—to carve the individual man out of the slave.
All of which is to say—five—that we owe Coy Barefoot thanks for giving Buzzard Pete/Uncle Peter a full name: Peter Briggs. It’s not just that this makes research so much easier (immediately I was able to find him in census records and even in the Charlottesville telephone directory); it’s that it gives him humanity. That’s no small thing, even a century and change after his death.
On this day, sometime between 1853 and 1857, Lewis Miller composed an ode to the Virginia spring in his notebook:
the Beautiful Sugar Maple’s Tres are Growing here, and we find honey and good water, Now beams to heaven the violet’s dewy eye; the bird’s cheerey melody, Sweet April comes, where the dove in the vocal grove, As April, though a cloud be on her brow, Smiles, through her tears, the beams of hope and love …
It goes on like that, but spring in Virginia really is “surpassing fine,” as William Styron wrote in The Confessions of Nat Turner. Although, not to be a whiner, but this spring … wait, what spring? It’s 90 degrees!
Anyway, as for Lewis Miller, the Internet doesn’t have too much to say about him, which is why we’re excited to have an entry in the works about his drawings. Here is how it begins:
Many of Lewis Miller’s watercolor sketches depict enslaved people in Virginia. Historians have drawn heavily on these to inform their interpretations of bondage as practiced in the state during the years leading up to the American Civil War (1861–1865). Miller, who lived from 1796 until 1882, was a Pennsylvania native who worked as a carpenter and often visited his brother in Virginia. His watercolors and the texts that accompany them are rare, because few artists of his time bothered to depict or write about slaves. His pictures are also valued for their relative emotional detachment and credibility, for Miller fancied himself a recorder, not an agitator, activist, or commentator. He avoided shading his subjects with personal opinion in lieu of drawing and writing what he saw and heard …
So much of it begins, really, on this day in 1606, when King James I granted the Virginia Company of London a royal charter. “Go west, young men,” he proclaimed, more or less, “and bring me back the loot!” It was a total disaster—at least in the short term.
By this day in 1861, Virginia’s economy had certainly turned around, but other problems loomed. George Tucker lay on his deathbed at the Albemarle County home of his daughter, having been struck three months earlier by a falling cotton bale, and he must have wondered about the closing words of his epic History of the United States, from Their Colonization to the end of the Twenty-Sixth Congress, in 1841. Here he is on page 433 of volume 4:
It is, therefore, most gratifying to believe that the great mass of the American people will ever agree with the solemn warnings of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and of their successors, and, indeed, of every statesman entitled to public confidence, that our welfare and safety, as well as national greatness, are all dependent on the continuance of our political Union.
He is buried in the University of Virginia Cemetery. Meanwhile, four years to the day and 750,000 (!) lives later, Robert E. Lee issued his General Orders No. 9. Serving as his farewell address to the Army of Northern Virginiaon the occasion of its surrender, the orders praised his troops’ “unsurpassed courage and fortitude.” He also explained that they had been “compelled to yield to overwhelming numbers and resources,” both claims becoming fixtures of the Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War.
The Lost Cause, our entry suggests, is “an important example of public memory, one in which nostalgia for the Confederate past is accompanied by a collective forgetting of the horrors of slavery.” That forgetting was helped along by Jim Crow laws that attempted to remove African Americans from sight. One such law prohibited blacks from marrying whites (one of its earliest precursors can be found here)—
—Although on this day in 1967, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in Loving v. Virginia, a case that would eventually lead the court to strike down that ugly law and so engage in just the sort of “judicial activism” our first black president (!) now decries.
A version of this post was originally published on April 10, 2012.
The performers call for racism to magically heal itself through major chords and willpower. It’s The Secret by way of Tinkerbell. Paisley doesn’t want to talk to the coffeeshop guy about racism any more than LL wants to talk to white folks about mandatory minimums or systemic disparities in educational outcomes. They each want to know that ‘We’re cool, right bro?’ without actually engaging the ugly substance and legacy of American history. “Accidental Racist” deserves every ounce of clowning it gets, but a song this earnest that actually grappled with racial divisions wouldn’t merit such epic shade-throwing. Unfortunately, the aesthetics here are exactly as simple, cheap, and foolish as the sentiments. Indemnity masquerades as forgiveness, and squeezes critical self-examination conveniently out of the picture for stars&bars fans.
On this day in 1865, three days after the disaster at Sailor’s Creek, and one week to the day after the fall of Richmond, Robert E. Leesurrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant. Well, what he did was negotiate the terms of surrender. The actual surrender didn’t happen until three days later, by which time Lee was in Richmond and Grant in Washington. Regardless, the conventional wisdom is that each man handled himself magnificently and, as a nation, we have benefited from the grace of this moment. Our entry complicates this view:
But recent scholarship shows that the surrender at Appomattox did not inspire all citizens toward reconciliation. Some members of Confederate associations, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, argued vehemently in the twentieth century against the erecting of a peace monument at Appomattox. Some have suggested that the leniency of Grant’s terms anticipated, and in some ways encouraged, a more general northern leniency toward southern racism during and after Reconstruction (1865–1877), and with respect to the history of African Americans in the United States, the surrender at Appomattox began new conflicts even as it ended others.
Yesterday I was pointed to the photograph directly above, which appeared on the photoblog Shorpy, and asked: Who was this guy Buzzard Pete? Well, for starters, here’s what Shorpy tells its readers:
Charlottesville, Virginia, circa 1905. “Buzzard Pete.” Evidently a celebrated figure on the University of Virginia campus, fondly recalled decades later in various alumni publications. 8×10 glass negative, Detroit Publishing Co.
A quick Google search turns up some of those alumni publications. For instance, in the 1914 alumni bulletin, the president of the class of 1909 writes of his last-minute decision to attend Finals:
so I persuaded a poor old negro woman to get sick and let me take her to the University Hospital, for which kindness of my part she was to pay my expenses to and from Charlottesville and a pretty good fee on the side.
Well, sir, she “bit,” and after leaving her to the tender mercies of Johnny Neff, I made for that “Big Tent,” and I never had such a good time in my life! I didn’t have to go anywhere else to meet my old friends, for under the shade of that “Big Tent” I met faculty, alumni, students, and even “Uncle Henry.” In fact, everybody but poor old “Buzzard Pete” and the “Co-eds” were there.
While it is true, per Shorpy, that there is a certain fondness here, it also seems to be true that African Americans are little more than children and mascots, at least for this writer. The same attitude is at work in the Virginia Reel magazine, which features the poem “Alumnal Lament (1921).” It ends this way:
A black old man all filled with glee—
A grizzled face I’d like to see;
A cracked old voice I’d like to hear
(Ah, ’twas music to the ear!);
“Yassuh! Yassuh! Hee-hee-hee!”
Old Buzzard Pete I’d like to see—
Again, a certain fondness but one that is wrapped up in a heinous and dehumanizing stereotype. Buzzard Pete appears again in verse, this time in a publication no less celebrated than H. L. Mencken‘s Smart Set; you can read it here. You can also see above how Buzzard Pete’s image was transformed into a postcard and, more recently, into a piece of modern art. (No, I don’t understand the significance of the matches, either.)
I asked an authority on the African American experience at the University of Virginia about Buzzard Pete. On the condition of anonymity he wrote to me the following:
I know little about him. I was once asked to deliver a lecture (1980s or 1990s) for (white) alumni on the subject of black UVA ‘characters’ including “Buzzard Pete.” While conducting preliminary research I encountered photographs of him and others so blatantly racist that I declined to deliver the lecturer; I also felt the lecture invitation was an underhanded means of denigrating African-Americans.
This was one of the few times in my scholarly career that as an African-American I felt so strongly about a racist document that I refused to discuss it with the public. I have never denied that we [the University of Virginia] hold such materials, but sometimes have a visceral reaction to some of them.
He added that photographs of Buzzard Pete have appeared “on racist sites and postings, especially by those opposed to African-American students and faculty at UVA (yes, even in the 21st century).”
So who was Buzzard Pete? As with so many African Americans in Virginia history, we don’t know much. That’s how it is with people whose humanity is not fully recognized—we don’t even know their full names! We can guess, however, that his story—and what it might mean to us today—is more complicated than the folks at Shorpy have thus far suggested.
A strong, but highly nuanced and conditional, case can be made that President Abraham Lincoln was wrong to violently prevent secession much as Russia is wrong to do so now against illiberal Chechnya. Historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel persuasively contends that had Lincoln let South Carolina and its allies leave prior to the firing on Fort Sumter, the Upper South would have stayed in the Union. Limited to a weak rump of Gulf coast states and South Carolina, the new nation would have faced a grim future of isolation, slave revolts, runaways, and eventual collapse.
An even more powerful moral case for self-determination can be made, though Confederate multiculturalists will never do it, in defense of the insurgents at Harpers Ferry led by John Brown. If any individual during the civil war period deserves the accolade of hero, it is not Lincoln or Davis but Brown’s ally, Lysander Spooner. Spooner’s antislavery interpretation of the Constitution had inspired Frederick Douglass during the 1850s. Later, Spooner opposed the war but, all the while, he was consistent in his support for the inalienable rights of all individuals.
A year after that, a group of women began looting shops in downtown Richmond to protest a lack of food. They had just been denied a meeting with Governor John Letcher and decided, in the tradition of their Rockingham brethren, not to go easy.
A year after that, were among the first to enter Richmond. Okay, actually, they entered the city on the third, but the city fell on this day in 1865, with Confederate general A. P. Hill being killed in the fighting by a bullet through the heart. (Both Jackson and Robert E. Lee are said to have called for Hill on their deathbeds.) On the same day, one of Lee’s top aides, Walter H. Taylor—in what can only be described as an odd bit of timing—received permission to leave the breastworks at Petersburg and travel to the capital city to marry his fiancée, which he did, probably passing the bluecoats on his way back out of town.
April 2, 1865, was a Sunday morning, by the way, which means that the Reverend Charles Minnigerode, a German immigrant, was holding services at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. That’s where Confederate president Jefferson Davis was when he learned that the city was about to fall.
So much drama! And yet it didn’t stop with the war. On this day in 1917, Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany, and in 1960, sixteen African American high school students attempted to use the all-white Danville Memorial Library, only to have the city close the facility in response. Herr Plecker, methinks, would have been proud.
A version of this post was originally published on April 2, 2012.