Cemetery segregation: the story of South-View

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His slab is pretty elaborate for a black man of his time.

His slab is pretty elaborate for a black man of his time.

I went on a field trip with a colleague recently to South-View Cemetery in Atlanta. South-View is a place that buries people regardless of race, even as Atlanta’s more famous cemetery, Oakland, started to get selective back in the 1880’s about who was allowed to be buried there.  So, South-View was started by five former slaves in the basement of the same church where Spelman College was also founded.  It boasts being the oldest incorporated business in the country owned by African Americans.

South-View provided a place where people could be buried with dignity, irrespective of race. People could come and ensure of a safe, long-lasting burial for their loved ones. Before it’s founding, beloved family members of African Americans would have to negotiate to bury their loved ones in marshy swampland portions of other cemeteries, worrying about the fate of the remains of their loved ones. They would have to endure the indignity of entering the cemetery through a back gate instead of a front one.  South-View sought to eliminate all of that instead provided uplift to a race at a time of grief

It was no surprise to me that people were buried in death according to who they were in life.  It’s the same story across The Milford College series. The separations will be reemphasized with a burial in the upcoming, The Mayor’s Mission.  Mrs. Milford and family were buried on one side, and her former enslaved population on the other side.  Given the closeness of the burial grounds to the house, it seems certain that the population of Milford will always take care of the land—future stories in the series will tell the tale as to what becomes of the land.

Still, at South-View there is a different separation of graves.  The concept of perpetuity care developed later on, so one side consists of the graves cared for in perpetuity and those that are not.  This is the case in most graveyards and fortunately, South-View has a foundation in place to continue fund raising for the non-perpetuity side.  Still the non-perpetuity side is where most of the oldest and most interesting funerary art resides.  The separation was a reminder to me that people can be forgotten.  For example, I was surprised to encounter someone I’ve been researching on that no-perpetuity side– the grave site of one of my characters in The Mayor’s Mission, Henry McNeal Turner.

I went by myself to see the sight of where one of the greatest African American citizens was laid to rest on a hill.  The great man rests where the entrance used to be when there were horses.  His elaborate slab is placed right next to that gate, and almost seems to be as a welcoming committee for folks who, when the bell rung, were welcomed to their eternal rest in South-View.  Now? There is a different entrance and the corner where Turner rests sees far less activity and is quiet. I hope he doesn’t mind that I’ve put him in my stories, so that he’s not completely forgotten.  Maybe my stories may even bestir some to contribute to the non-perpetuity care fund. I would hope his grave site, placed under a tree, will still be made suitable for others to come and bear witness to how he risked himself to further the education and lives of African Americans in Reconstruction.

The first Election Day

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This old timey ballot box looks like Isaac made it. It’s on sale on eBay for $385.00.

I reflected upon the range of “first” Election Days in the wake of the variety of reactions this week.  We know that the expanse of suffrage occurred slowly over time.   Still, in my depiction of the “first” Election Day for the formerly enslaved men of Milford, I chose to see that day as a day of celebration. It was a day where they were being counted in this country, not as 3/5 of a person but as a voice.

Virgil Smithson is appointed as mayor over Milford, by Mrs. Milford, when in the wake of the Civil War, she decides to draw Milford as a town. Virgil is responsible for taking the papers to the then state capitol of Georgia, Milledgeville, to certify the founding of Milford, Georgia and to attest that he is the mayor of said town. It is one of the first times when he is able to use his signature, the one that his wife Amanda taught him to write.
That scene in The Preacher’s Promise is meant to represent the hope that Virgil feels in the new day coming as a result of the end of slavery. So just as that scene in Milledgeville is central in The Preacher’s Promise, so too is the Election Day scene in the upcoming The Mayor’s Mission. I hope that these depictions of the expansion of rights helps everyone to remember that there was a time when very few of us were able to vote. My scene set on the “first” Election Day was able to happen because of the Reconstruction Act of 1867. Many Americans were still left out on that “first” Election Day in April 1868. In Georgia’s case, the legitimacy of the election was not certain until the passage of the fifteenth amendment in 1870–an issue that haunts Virgil’s election to the state legislature.  Still,  the commemoration represented a new beginning. No matter what our political beliefs, we would do well to remember who came before and to keep it a festive day.

The Mayor’s Mission–Cover Reveal

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I’ve revealed the cover for my next indie pubbed release on Facebook and Twitter, but I’ve not made an official release here. The Mayor’s Mission, Book 2 of the “Home to Milford College” series will be published in November 2014. I’ve spoken about some of the circumstances of the plot and the people who appear in The Mayor’s Mission, but here is the story for those who have not yet finished The Preacher’s Promise.

Here’s the blurb:

Milford, GA 1868: Milford College is in trouble.

Mayor Virgil SBook 2 of the Home to Milford College seriesmithson has been away to the constitutional convention in the newly established state capitol in Atlanta for almost five months.  He’s late in getting back home.  Worried about her husband, Amanda Smithson manages the crowded and growing school by herself.   She’s hired an old school chum from Oberlin to help her teach the older students.  However, he’s a tad too affectionate with Amanda for Virgil’s liking.

And more problems: The Milford daughters-in-law arrive in town, determined to wrest what they see as their rightful inheritance from the Smithsons.

Just when it all seems impossible to resolve, the Smithsons must endure another crisis that threatens to tear them, and the dream of their school—-apart.

When life becomes difficult, it will take all of God’s love and mercy for the Smithsons to come together and fight. It will be the mission of the mayor and his wife to do what it takes to nurture the new and coltish educational tradition that they began together.  And to keep their love alive.

Thank you to everyone for their support and I hope people feel compelled to continue to follow the adventures of the founders to make sure Milford College gets going!

 

 

The big news is….I’ve sold!

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Signing my contract

 

 

 

 

I have signed a three book contract with Samhain Publishing! Those of you who have been so supportive about the Bledsoe sisters, July is the month for Ruby, September for Mags and November for Nettie. Thank you so much to those of you who have supported this blog. I will blog about the details of this new event on Monday, so there will be no column on Sunday. Thanks for understanding. Much love and appreciation!! Piper

Tunis Campbell—the wild man politician of the Reconstruction

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Tunis Campbell wrote a book before the war.

Accomplished African Americans like Virgil and Amanda who possessed specialized skills at the end of the Civil War must have felt incredibly overwhelmed at the work that lay before them in helping the enslaved to a better life.  Still, they plunged wholeheartedly into doing that work. Tunis Campbell, one of the most prominent politicians in Georgia at dawn of Reconstruction, was one of them.  He did his work with a flair and a somewhat reckless regard for the law, choosing to focus instead on what was morally right to him. He was an early example of civil disobedience from an African American.

Born in New Jersey, he was trained as a missionary for Africa.  In the wake of the Civil War, he was appointed as a agent for the Freedman’s Bureau in Georgia.  He was fired a year later, which tells me something about Campbell—he came to make radical change and folks didn’t like that.

He moved to a different part of Georgia,  and found a mostly black constituency in Darien in McIntosh County. and got himself elected justice of the peace (a much more powerful position then) and started to make some changes.  Edmund Drago explains it in Black Politicians and Reconstruction in Georgia, Campbell “exercised his powers arbitrarily and totally to the benefit of blacks.” Black crew members jumped ship from a British ship near Darien.  Campbell had the captain arrested and ordered him to pay court costs and the sailors’ wages. The problem was–Campbell had no jurisdiction.  He didn’t care.  He was the law in that town.

He got himself elected to the state legislature, but that didn’t stop the larger powers that be from trying to get rid of him.  They tried to bribe him, but he wouldn’t be bribed. They sought to have him arrested over the another unjust arrest of a white man.  That arrest stuck. In 1876, he was jailed for malfeasance in office.  He served about a year in a labor camp before he left Georgia for good.  He died in 1891 in Boston, Massachusetts.

It may be hard to see Campbell as a Union army chaplain and minister, but that was how he served.  Becoming a minister was one of the only ways a free African American man  could work with dignity and purpose. Ultimately, Campbell had had enough and left Georgia, but he provided an example to others of the formerly enslaved that they should not give up the fight for their rights and for equal opportunities.  Virgil represents the line between Tunis Campbell’s “radical” style and Henry McNeal Turner’s more sedate and patient approaches. Radical Reconstruction in Georgia needed all kinds of people to begin to pry open the closed doors of opportunity to everyone.

 

 

Virgil’s big brother in spirit–Henry McNeal Turner

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Henry McNeal Turner had the right spirit for getting things done, but his too-trusting nature probably came about because he had never been enslaved.

In The Mayor’s Mission, Virgil Smithson becomes involved in a central event of the early Reconstruction era. In September 1868, the white Democratic members of the Georgia House of Representatives ousted the Republican African American members on the basis that they were not allowed to hold office. On that September third day, the African American members mainly made up of prominent ministers and town officials like Virgil, appointed Bishop Henry McNeal Turner to speak on their behalf. And he does. Turner gives one of the most important speeches ever given by an African American in United States History.

Born free in South Carolina in 1834, Turner served as a chaplain to the Colored Troops during the Civil War. After the Civil War, Turner was in Georgia to help organize churches to become part of the A.M.E. denomination. A freeman all of his life, Turner certified and organized ministers and churches regardless of their literacy. According to Stephen Ward Angell in Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South, Turner was looking to capitalize on the recent gains of Reconstruction and to organize leaders. Then he sought to organize the schools to help with the problem of literacy amongst the recently installed leaders.

His efforts at organization singled him out to be elected to participate in the Reconstruction Constitutional Convention of 1867-68 (which Virgil attends). Politically, he was very conservative in manner and even, to the shock of some, supported policies that lenient to the former Confederates in allowing them suffrage and favoring a full pardon for Jefferson Davis. He even voted against inserting a proviso stating that the recently enslaved were permitted to hold office. He didn’t think it was necessary. In his Christian perspective, Turner sought to be forgiving and to make peace.

Unfortunately, this forgiving attitude about allowing African Americans to hold office came back to revisit Turner when, after the Constitutional Convention was over and he was elected to the Georgia House, Georgia Democrats united to get rid of the African American population of three Senators and twenty-six House members because they said the rights to citizenship did not include the right to hold office. After all, it wasn’t explicitly stated in the constitution so….

In his speech Turner said some remarkable things like: “No man has been more deceived by that race that I have for the last three weeks.” And “Am I a man? …If I am such, I claim the rights as a man. Am I not a man, because I happen to be of darker hue than honorable gentleman around me?” He spoke about his leadership qualities in serving as a chaplain but the twenty-nine politicians were thrown out of the House anyway.

Turner’s example is one that inspired me to reflect on how his efforts to build schools, organize churches and to seek political office began a new way of thinking about how African Americans participated in society. He certainly was a role model for Virgil Smithson, but my hero is not as patient as Henry McNeal Turner.

No alternative: The Preacher’s Promise comes from historical facts

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Amanda is based on wonderful teachers like Mary Peake who I wrote about in the spring.

Amanda is based on wonderful teachers like Mary Peake who I wrote about in the spring.

Before I return to discussions about Reconstruction Era Georgia in September and October, I want to finish out the month by defining some approaches writers may take in telling a historical story. Some people have asked for some clarification about the historical events that take place in The Preacher’s Promise. I use the blog to discuss these historical events and people and readers are always welcome to look through the archives for the historical background of my stories.

There are several types of historical fiction (and romance may come into play in any of them). I’ll discuss three of them here.

Alternative history: This type of historical fiction is relatively new, but is gaining popularity in books like The Boleyn King series. The author, Laura Anderson, has taken on the historical problem of Henry VIII’s desire for a son. Her series is based on a big historical what if: What if Anne Boleyn did have a son? Since poor Anne lost her head for not giving Henry VIII a son, we know this didn’t happen, but Anderson has crafted a trilogy (and gotten a lot of sales), for writing stories based on the alternative way history might have turned out.  No, I’m not jealous of her series. It’s a brilliant idea I wish I thought of first….

Factual Fiction: This is where The Preacher’s Promise would be appropriately placed.  There are people/events in the story that are a part of the historical record:

Reconstruction-when the Union determined to punish the Confederacy after the Civil War by putting various states under martial law and allowed some of the formerly enslaved into positions of authority. Reconstruction lasted from 1865-77, but this primary shift of power occurred mainly in the first six years or so.

  • Teachers of various races who came south to teach the enslaved after the Civil War
  • Skilled workers like blacksmiths who were able to purchase their freedom
  • Formerly enslaved African Americans who made advances in politics and leadership during Reconstruction
  • White southerners who tried to help the enslaved population after the war (a.k.a. scalawags)
  • A farm utopia like Mont Blanc in Mississippi where the formerly enslaved received assistance from white southerners and banded together to farm and make a way in the world.

I, like many writers of this type of fiction, will take these historical events, create characters and situations who lived in these times and make fiction out of it. I chose to create a romance out of it featuring African American characters who live Christian lives.

Fictional Fact:   I hope to write some of these stories one day.  This is the type of fiction where a writer takes a real life event or person and uses fiction to explain the events in their story.  Writers may create conversations or composite characters, but the life events remain the same.  The movie Lincoln falls in this category, for instance.  A lot of the books in the “wife of” genre belong here as well—stories that are told from the point of view of the wife of some famous person.  The Paris Wife, written from the point of view of one of the wives of Ernest Hemingway, is a book example.

The Preacher’s Promise is no alternative history.  Understand, we’ve been taught a particular narrative in school about African American history. For some, it is hard to buy into the belief that in some ways, 1866 looked pretty promising to the formerly enslaved.  Three things have to be kept in mind about that narrative: first, that narrative is the product of scholars who harbored certain ill feelings toward the enslaved; second, the formerly enslaved were largely illiterate and could not tell their own stories; and third, new scholarship has emerged since we were in school.

Overall, it is the job of the historical writers to keep readers firmly in the place and time they have chosen. That is my intent.  I hope that people who are reading my “Home to Milford College Series” will choose to continue reading to see how Virgil and Amanda will accomplish something great. We will next visit them in The Mayor’s Mission in 1868 as more challenges come their way.