Sunday, September 26, 2004

Since learning of the launching ...

of the Liberty Ship, the SS Toussaint L'Ouverture on April 4, 1944 here at the Richmond Shipyards, my mind has been racing back and re-discovering the excitement felt as a young mother lost in books when the kids were small and demanding and when escape into novels meant survival ... One of the books that held me spellbound was Kenneth Lewis Roberts' "Lydia Bailey." This served as my introduction to the Haitian Revolution. Later Roberts would draw me into his "Northwest Passage" and a lifelong fascination with the Lewis and Clarke Expedition and Sacajewea of the Shoshone (and a possible ancestor, incidentally).

But the Haitian Revolution spoke to me in a way that other wars failed to. Roberts used the times as background to his love story, but for me, at least, the background WAS the story.

It told of a Haiti ruled by Blacks and led by L'Ouverture:

The Slave Who Defeated Napoleon
by Jennifer Brainard

"...Napoleon was one of the greatest generals who ever lived. But at the end of the 18th century a self-educated slave with no military training drove Napoleon out of Haiti and led his country to independence. The remarkable leader of this slave revolt was Toussaint Breda (later called Toussaint L'Ouverture, and sometimes the “black Napoleon”). Slave revolts from this time normally ended in executions and failure – this story is the exception...."

The secondary tale was of the growing population of the Creoles (mulattos) who were the mixed-blood sons of French officers and women of color. Practice was that sons were sent at an early age to France to be educated. They were generally incorporated into the homes of their father's original French family. They returned to Haiti years later as the new elite; bright, accomplished, and sophisticated young men who eventually became numerous enough to topple the existing government. They were a challenge to Haitian-born L'Ouverture, the son of an African slave once free, and brought on the Revolution that ended his reign and his life in the dungeon of a French prison.

Daughters born of such unions were the paramours -- the equivalent of the beautiful and exotic quadroons and octoroons of the French Quarter in New Orleans, a social pattern replicated in the New World when Louisiana was a territory -- before the country was established. They were the "Geishas" of their time. Remember, we're talking here of the time of Napoleon Bonaparte's conquest of the New World in the name of France. These women were the accepted conjugal substitutions for lonely and adventurous French soldiers of fortune. This, then, is the social paradigm that describes much of early Louisiana, the new world, and my own Creole-Cajun family among many others.

If we are to accept Roberts' thesis, then the French-Haitian Revolution may actually have been far more complex than history suggests. The remnants of that Revolution persist to this day, and can be seen in our government's need to continue to challenge Black rule except when said rulers will yield to our control as in the case of the cruel and infamous Papa Doc Duvallier and his equally despotic son, Baby Doc. Interesting? Haiti has never recovered from the loss of the flamboyant and heroic leader, Toussaint L'Ouverture. He must still loom large in the history of that small and impoverished nation, and is surely an inspiration to now-deposed President Jean Bertrande Aristide and his followers if only as a reminder of those long ago heroic victories against their invaders.

How strange that a ship built in this country would be named in his honor? And, wouldn't you love to know how that came to be?

There must be some records somewhere ... .

In tracing my own family history, for instance, in the late 1700s, my father's ancestor, (French officer) Louis Charbonnet -- and family -- lived in Santo Domingo (then a part of Haiti) where he fought for the French, and returned to Louisiana as refugees in 1812. (My father, by the way -- born in 1894, bore the name, Dorson Louis Charbonnet.) My all consuming interest in Haiti is easily understood.

Even more intriguing is the biography of John James Audubon, the naturalist, and another of the names listed in the log of ship launchings. I learned some years ago that he was born in the West Indies;

(Taken from the Aubudon website.)

John James Audubon 1785-1851
The American Woodsman: Our Namesake and Inspiration

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was not the first person to attempt to paint and describe all the birds of America (Alexander Wilson has that distinction), but for half a century he was the young country’s dominant wildlife artist. His seminal Birds of America, a collection of 435 life-size prints, quickly eclipsed Wilson’s work and is still a standard against which 20th and 21st century bird artists, such as Roger Tory Peterson and David Sibley, are measured.

Although Audubon had no role in the organization that bears his name, there is a connection: George Bird Grinnell, one of the founders of the early Audubon Society in the late 1800s, was tutored by Lucy Audubon, John James’s widow. Knowing Audubon’s reputation, Grinnell chose his name as the inspiration for the organization’s earliest work to protect birds and their habitats. Today, the name Audubon remains synonymous with birds and bird conservation the world over.

Audubon was born in Santo Domingo (now Haiti), the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owner and his French mistress. Early on, he was raised by his stepmother, Mrs. Audubon, in Nantes, France, and took a lively interest in birds, nature, drawing, and music. In 1803, at the age of 18, he was sent to America, in part to escape conscription into the Emperor Napoleon’s army. He lived on the family-owned estate at Mill Grove, near Philadelphia, where he hunted, studied and drew birds, and met his wife, Lucy Bakewell. While there, he conducted the first known bird-banding experiment in North America, tying strings around the legs of Eastern Phoebes; he learned that the birds returned to the very same nesting sites each year.

Note: One might wonder about the bloodlines of his "French" mistress, given the context. The rest surely fits into Ken Roberts' scenario. Audubon's physical appearance, according to pictures I've seen, is about as ambiguous as my father's. Among my Sixties activist friends from Philadelphia, he was claimed as one of us; a "brotha". Perhaps he was ahead of his time, much like my own exquisitely-blended grandchildren for whom racial identity is not much more than a political choice.

Since the SS John James Audubon was built in Richmond -- keel laid on August 28th and launched on October 8, of 1942 -- do you suppose we can make a case for adding his name to our list? Doesn't it make you wonder how many other untold stories are out there?
In the event that some may be interested

in just which WWII ships were named in honor of African Americans of note. It may be important to tell you that the information comes from a paper by Steve Gilford, printed in a publication called "On This Day in KP History." I'm assuming that KP means Kaiser Permanente:

"...One reason "it was different here" was that there was a growing understanding in Washington and among more progressive employers such as Henry Kaiser, that the contributions of African Americans had become an important part of the war effort. Such realizations led to a government decision to provide a series of Liberty Ships named after prominent black Americans. Seventeen such ships were authorized. Contracts seem to have been carefully spread over the country in order to maximize their impact. The African Americans honored were:

Robert S. Abbott -- Robert J. Banks -- John Merrick -- George Washington Carver -- William Cox -- John H. Murphy -- Frederick Douglass -- Paul Laurence Dunbar -- Edward A. Savoy -- John Hope -- James Weldon Johnson -- Harriet Tubman -- Robert L. Vann -- James K. Walker -- Booker T. Washington -- Bert Williams -- George A. Lawson."

Unfortunately, many are unknown figures of history to me, so I suspect that the list was arrived at without a lot of black input. Either than, or at the time I was pretty far out of the loop.

I know that Robert S. Abbott was the publisher of the Chicago Defender, and George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson and Booker T. Washington were well known to me, but the rest I must admit ignorance of. Except for the great comedian, Bert Williams, that is. I'm also aware that it was Robert Abbott who was instrumental in bringing down controversial black historical figure, Marcus Garvey. So many stories, so little time ... .

If anyone reading this can shed some light on the rest of these names I would consider it a gift. I believe that John Hope was a well known educator.

Were I making such a list at the time it surely would have included Crispus Attucks; black soldier who died in battle at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, and Sojourner Truth. The rest of those I'd honor came into prominence during a later point in history.

I'm remembering now that there were some strong Marcus Garvey followers among my relatives, and sermons a-plenty on the Garvey Plan to return us all to Africa! Papa George (my grandfather) Allen and his every-Saturday-night-penny-ante partner, (great uncle) Daddy Joe Warnie were rabid on the subject, though they tended to be more mouth than action and never did get around to the recruitment office, as I recall. They'd have had to miss the black barnstormers next baseball season, and that'd nevah do! (One shudders to think of what might have happened to us all had Garvey recruited Satchel Paige!)

Thoughts of those two old rascals and their passion for Garvey brings to mind how Daddy Joe -- on one of his great days of black passion -- got out all of his two young daughter's (Ruth and Josie) blond and blue-eyed dolls and painted them dark brown! The girls were outraged! But were those tattered dolls to be re-discovered today in some old trunk -- they'd be valuable "artifacts" -- silent testimony to the fact that -- 20 years before the emergence of Malcolm X, there was Marcus Garvey, and that much was borrowed from his ill-fated movement toward racial pride, self-determination, and full racial equality. African-Americans had been lurching forward and falling back for decades before "Black is Beautiful" was fully embraced by young blacks, this writer among them.

Over the past year, under a grant awarded by the Ford Motor Company, a national campaign has brought a steady stream of artifacts and stories to the Park reception center -- there to be archived and stored for the purposes of future study. The stories have come from over 10,000 Rosies who worked in many capacities in many places. There are oral histories and letters, photographs and union cards, all being gathered to tell the story of the Home Front war effort. But theirs was a very different reality from the one we lived.

The National Park Service was created by our government to tell of the country's story through its structures -- and through the memories of its people. Nowhere in the nation was there a more fitting place through which to tell the story of WWII. But most of the structures that would have told our stories are no longer standing. We're far more dependent upon our story-telling and photo-albums; but those things we can provide for the sake of history.

*And, because in the process of doing the work of creating a defense system that saved the world from Fascism, there was a powerful subplot -- one that may have led to the eventual rise of the Civil Rights Movement two decades later. That, too, may well have started here in Richmond, moved out to the campus in Berkeley, then to the nation. We African Americans hold the key to the telling of those stories, and the Centennial presents the opportunity to gather and archive our "artifacts" and oral histories -- stories that will provide the links between generations that we may have neglected for far too long, and that just might shorten the distance between our children, our grandchildren, and ourselves, and provide them with a bridge to their own history.

Let the church say "Amen"!

(Note: *In writing this, I'm greatly influenced by the fact that I've been asked to do a 3-part series for a local newspaper having to do with the upcoming Centennial year (due Monday morning). The thought occurred to me that I'd already written it -- here, as a blog -- and that with a little editing... . If it sounds as if I'm writing to a selected audience of readers, that seems to have evolved in my attempt to do that editing. If I could just stop this deluge of memories...)