Wednesday, November 22, 2017

My father, Dorson Louis Charbonnet,
as a young man
I believe I've found the missing piece to the puzzle ... .

... the links between my grandfather, my father, and myself.

It took the long look back through these historic photographs and musing about connections; common denominators; genetic underpinnings ... and ... what holds together this entire saga of Charbonnet is that we were -- and had to be -- self-affirming.

Affirmation was withheld from both these men throughout their lives, despite their great accomplishments and years of public service.  It was true for their generation, but also for all those who preceded them.

I must have -- over a lifetime -- drawn together from family stories, an understanding of what was mis-named Creole pride, but there is something in the word that hints of over-confidence, of ego-centrism.  There is something far more powerful at work here, and I believe it has by now become a part of who we are as a family,  as Creoles, but also as African American people.   I'm not certain that our survival as a people didn't rest upon our having developed the capacity to see beyond the unmitigated brutality of slavery, Jim Crow,  and, subsequently, continuing societal rejection, to a place deep inside ourselves that sang its own songs of freedom and justice.

Self-affirmation is clearly evident in my writings.  Upon maturing, I've rarely needed validation from outside myself.  I do not believe that my proud grandfather could have accomplished the greatness that he achieved had he waited for that to be bestowed from beyond himself.  It mattered not whose names were painted on the signs under which he built his projects.  That he built them was apparently all that mattered.   He knew!

Is it really that simple?

Probably not, but for tonight, I'll take it.

I suppose this blog is not the place for exhibiting these old photos ...

... but last night while waiting for sleep to descend and the "letting go" of the day to kick in, it dawned on me that having my grandfather's achievements finally recognized and celebrated was a possibility.  That this treasure trove of family history should rise to consciousness at this moment in time may not be accidental.  I suspect that somewhere deep inside is the awareness that this unexpected celebrity status that I'm experiencing may be useful in unanticipated ways.

Now that I have uncounted numbers of folks listening, what is it that I would want to say?

Not certain what this building would become ...
I think I'd like to retroactively honor my grandfather, and all those artisans, tradesmen and crafts-persons who built this nation without proper recognition.  To cast light on his contributions and those of others who, like him, were skipped over by history.

Interior of rice mill construction.  Millwright,  L.Charbonnet
My grandfather is in the foreground

There were so very many men of color in his day, who were the teachers and leaders of the times, but who went unrecognized and unknown.

I'm hoping that this explains just why it is that so few families of color have amassed great fortunes, or even accumulated personal wealth over the past century.  This should provide at least one explanation.  Perhaps readers of color will find this a way of understanding how this has happened, and give up blaming themselves as having failed in some way.  The system was simply stacked against that happening.  And by now there are few who are even aware of the story behind what appears to be deficits we've never overcome, or a lack of training, ambition, or ability.

Louis Charbonnet was a genius, and here is the evidence in plain view, and he was only one of many who've gone unsung.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Here's my grandfather's Crescent Star baseball stadium in New Orleans, photo taken by the noted black photographer, A. Bedou, in 1921 ... .

It was built with a dance hall under the bleachers with a separate street entrance on the other side.  It took up an entire city block in the Treme´.

Of course, this was a blacks-only sports stadium.  This facility would have existed before racial integration was allowed or tolerated.

Makes one wonder -- when you see those crowds of fans attracted by the sport -- whether Branch Rickey did us any favors by signing Jackie Robinson et al into the Big Leagues.  It was then that we lost our own colorful players to the general pool of athletes -- which continues to this day.  Just maybe ... had we known the cost ... .
click to enlarge, it's impressive.
They've been stashed in an old canvas travel bag in the back of closets for nearly a century ...

... more than 2 dozen of these fading photographs of various inventions and constructions of my grandfather, Louis Charbonnet.  As I've moved from one house to another over 9 decades, they found new stash sites in each, but rarely were they brought into the light to be viewed and appreciated. Instead, they'd been consigned to history.  So it had been with my father, Dorson, who had served as apprentice to his father, as did his 6 brothers. Dad had moved them from place-to-place over as many decades in his time before they came to me,  there being no one else standing by to receive them.  They're mine by default rather than intent.

A few weeks ago, I turned them over to a friend, John Nutt,  a fine film editor, for enhancement and transference to a more contemporary format to be shared with other members of the Charbonnet family.  Upon completion, he and Ann put them on a thumb drive, and in the process, I've held the originals in hand for remembering and wondering ... and you would not believe how many memories have been recaptured and reclaimed.

I can almost feel his presence ...

Over recent days I've been posting some of them on Facebook to share with family and friends, and realized for perhaps the first time, how important his contributions were to the African American narrative, and to the life and technology of this nation.  The fact that his great works were never attributed to his talent and skills, but had to be done under the licenses and permits of white contractors or not be done at all, must be shared.  In his time a black man could not apply for nor be assigned a patent for his creations. Because this is not the story of my grandfather, alone, but was/is the fate of many who lived through those dark times.

Find myself wondering if we haven't lived into a time when the national deficits are less attributable to the poor education of blacks than to the mis-education of whites? We've lived into a time when we've produced a generation, many of whom truly believe that it was they, alone, who created the nation, and all that it contains or has achieved, (except maybe for jazz and gumbo).  At a time when the talents and contributions of all others remain hidden because credit was withheld through racism and bigotry.

The man in the window lends scale to this structure
My grandfather was educated through correspondence courses from Tuskegee University in Alabama.  Among my most treasured possessions are the dozen or so textbooks that he studied from.  They sit on a small bookshelf in the hallway of my condo,  just below the portrait seen above ... collecting dust... .

He was a millwright and architect with many constructions and inventions in New Orleans and elsewhere.  A millwright takes a function and creates a machine with which to perform it.  Among his would be this banana conveyor that was created on the dock at Mobile, Alabama, to move the fruit from ships to the dock.  That would have been in the teens of the 20th Century.

Fortunately, Elise Mattison's research turned up this photo of a  successor conveyor.  It is credited to the US Army Corps of Engineers.   The year of this photo is 1938,  and was taken on the same Mobile, Alabama, wharf.  The date of my grandfather's construction was 1906. That it is an updated version of my grandfather's work is clearly evident.

I once owned the blueprints to this invention, but over the years they were lost in the confusion of moving from one place to another.  Wish I had them still, though I'm not certain it would be possible to establish a claim to their origin in my grandfather's name at this point.  A white man named Edelson held the patent under which the conveyor was registered, and the contractor under which the work was done was another named Woodward.  These photographs are the only remaining record of his major contribution to the industry.

There are many photos of other constructions, which includes a rice mill; a huge baseball stadium for games played by the traveling Black leagues, Corpus Christi High School, St. John deBertrand's Convent for the Holy Family Sisters -- the first Order of black nuns in this country; Corpus Christi Catholic Church in the Treme; bridges and barges, and various buildings; the decorative iron works on the mansions throughout the Garden District and Upper St. Charles Avenue, etc., in old New Orleans.

I'm scheduled to travel to Washington, D.C. in spring, and am planning to deliver this collection to the new and wondrous National Museum of African American History and Culture, after giving family members enough time to download it into their own collections.  We now number in the hundreds, I'm sure, and our young members deserve to own it.

I feel strangely relieved after posting this, maybe because I feel connected to true greatness, for a man for whom recognition was not a part of his bargain with life.  He saw service to his nation as an obligatory requirement of citizenship; which, by now, is deeply embedded in our family's DNA.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

After my Tuesday program this week, Kaiser Permanente's archivist, Lincoln Cushing ...

and his team of 3 (himself, a cameraman, and 2 journalists) came to the Visitor Center to create the second in his planned series of PodCasts on the Kaiser WWII Home Front story.  We met in our classroom where they were already set up and ready for the shoot as I ended my talk in our little theater just across the hall.

About a month ago I'd received a short list of questions that would be asked, and as usual, I'd totally forgotten I've ever seen them, and would just respond in the moment.  That seems to be the only way I can handle such interviews.  It's truly beyond my power to do otherwise.

Lincoln is doing great work in documenting the history of Henry J. Kaiser, and has been so helpful to me over years when sources for my work were, contrarily, deeply hidden in time yet far too recent to have been recorded by today's historians in most cases.  I've relied on my own memory, plus access to the work of the University of California's Bancroft Library, the repository of much that has yet to be processed into written material for those entrusted with the passing along of those stories to a succession of current and future educators.   I've unwittingly become one of those educators, though not by the traditional route.  I'm an outlier in the system, but my work is now included in that body of study, to my continuing surprise.

One of his questions had to do with an historic appearance by the late great and highly controversial baritone, Paul Robeson, at a noon hour singing of the National Anthem at Moore Dry Dock in Oakland.  I'm familiar with a photo of that event, having run across it some years ago among the many photographs in the E.F. Joseph collection.  He was appearing before thousands of workers, though I had no personal memory of the historic event at the time, nor was I aware of any newspaper accounts of it having happened at all.

I do, however, have memories of that great man who was a known Communist, of course, and more importantly, a friend of a family friend, Berkeley's Matt Crawford.  This would have been at a time when Communism meant little more than any other political party (Democrat, Republican, Socialist, Marxist, Libertarian, Green, Tea Party, etc.) and -- at a time when I'm a mere teenager -- and a fairly unsophisticated one at that.  To say that I was politically naive would have been an understatement.

Robeson was in town for a concert appearance somewhere in the Bay Area, and was taking the time to gather together friends and supporters to meet under the marquee of Oakland's Paramount theater to picket Walt Disney's animated racist film, "Song of the South."  And, of course, I was among the recruits, and spent the afternoon marching in my very first picket line in a procession of other young friends and elders, led by Robeson and Crawford.

I'm somewhere in this picket line, but can't locate me ...
Afterwards the young people in the group were invited to Matt's home for a lemonade party and a game of "Spin the Bottle," an innocent kissing game played in a circle on the living room floor while the elders gathered around the kitchen table for more serious talk. It was during the game that the spinning bottle stopped in front of me at one point -- which meant a light kiss on the cheek by Mr. Robeson who was in the circle for a few moments.

Wish I  could say that it was thrilling, but I can only recall that -- this would have been at a time before his fame would have been established, or, that his reputation for stands against the Democracy as practiced at that time would have been so sullied.  At a later time, he would be brought up on charges; he would appear before the United Nations with Attorney Bill Patterson, and charge "Genocide!" in the name of African Americans; at a time before his passport would be confiscated by the State Department; or his travels abroad as an artist disallowed.

I don't remember the year, but it was well before WWII, so had no relevance in the PodCast, but I found myself wishing that it did, for Lincoln's sake ... it would have made that history far more compelling, would it not?

I do remember Robeson as a powerful and articulate man who provided me with my first experience of political activism, and that probably set the pattern for later times in my own history when I fully expected myself to be held accountable for always working toward forming that "more perfect Union." That accountability was not only an obligation in living a meaningful life, but was the genesis of an ever-deepening sense that I had a moral responsibility to be just that as an American citizen.

When I think about him at all, I suspect that Robeson's objective was closer to my own innocent moral code than anything else.  History may yet exonerate this great leader, and raise him to be the deserving icon for our young that have been so starved for heroes at a time when to dare was/is life-threatening.  To risk stepping out (or kneeling for just cause) is to cause permanent discrediting of the darer.

I'm not certain what the PodCast will show, but Lincoln seemed satisfied with the results, despite the lack of connecting to a more dramatic Robeson story.