Finding Alfred Clarke

Alfred and Virginia Clarke images on cufflinks and brooch

I can say for certain now that I know the identity of three of my ancestors who endured enslavement and were freed under the District of Columbia’s Compensated Emancipation Act. Now I know for sure. I’ve recently learned a few precious facts about Alfred Clarke, my ancestor, his mother Elizabeth “Lizzie” Clarke and his grandmother Mary Ann Lingon.

I’m a fiction writer, a novelist. I write historically based novels about African Americans in the mid-Atlantic region. I’ve written two novels set in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington—River, Cross My Heart, an Oprah Book Club selection, and Stand the Storm, set in Washington during the Civil War era, a volatile, unprecedented time for African Americans, enslaved and free. Guided by the first-person accounts of enslaved people, filling in the gaps of dissembling and obfuscation, and ferreting out obscure historical facts, I’ve created my fictional characters.

Sometimes I feel like I have a score to settle with the historical record, an injury to repair. When I discovered facts about Alfred Clarke, I got very excited and came to a pause to consider that there was more to know about one of my direct ancestors. What does a fiction writer do when a historically true family story comes to light? How must she feel, I ask? I write historical fiction primarily from an urge to re-tell the past, to rehabilitate the skimpy, fractured, fragmented narratives of the people of the Americas, the so-called New World. Much of the national narrative of the United States is based on limited facts, racially motivated lies, and the visceral belief that all people are NOT created equally.

I’ve written about the unique path to freedom that the Compensated Emancipation Act of April 1862 opened for people enslaved in Washington, D.C. in Stand the Storm. I recently discovered specific information about my Clarke great-grandfather in a webinar produced by a writer and genealogist, Yvette LaGonterie, whose contributions to the historical record and to the Georgetown African American Historic Landmark Project are invaluable. She’s done research on Alfred Clarke because of her relationship to a branch of my father’s family. Both of my parents grew up in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., an area that had a vibrant African American settlement that included a number of historic Black churches. My father’s family was traced to Alfred and his childhood enslavement at the Georgetown Hotel, which also served as a tavern.

Thinking about the 19th century, the period in which the enslavement of African people is legal in this country is a hard moment to inhabit. I am fascinated to learn that my relative was an actual participant in the Compensated Emancipation Act, enacted by Abraham Lincoln to soften the financial loss of emancipation for slave owners who freed slaves in the nation’s capital. The plan was that the federal government would pay slave owners who made application.

The act created a free zone sandwiched between Maryland and Virginia, two large slave states. The administrative documents of the transactions created a unique cache of records, stored at the National Archives, that opened a window into the lives of the enslaved. In these records, the ages, occupations, familial relationships, and physical characteristics of the formerly enslaved are set down. This Act was a tiny, tenuous slice of freedom, specific to the District of Columbia, that emancipated my ancestors and roughly three thousand other people.

Alfred was ten years old when he gained freedom in 1862. He worked as a stevedore, as well as, at a variety of other jobs. He married Jenny Cole, who was born free, at the segregated Holy Trinity Catholic Church. The couple had ten children, including my grandfather, James Sheridan Clarke, Sr. Decades later, my father, James Sheridan Clarke, Jr. became the first and foremost altar boy for the Epiphany Catholic Church, built by the African American congregation in Georgetown who did not wish to continue worshiping at segregated Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

What do I understand now about Alfred Clarke and my other ancestors? Not too much yet. I know that they remained together in enslavement and freedom, their names appearing on census records. Mary Ann Lingon was enslaved with another woman named Mary; both girls were known to have been sold to Eleanor R. Lang at the age of fourteen in the 1830’s. Lang was a widow and the owner of the Georgetown Hotel. I might otherwise admire a woman who’d managed to operate an establishment of this size had she not accomplished this with enslaved labor. Mary Ann Lingon was a grandmother when she got her freedom; she had come from a very old settlement in Prince Georges County, Maryland called Piscataway and had been sold to Lang by William Marbury. Mary and Mary Ann remained as close as sisters throughout their adulthood.

As sad as the facts are, I was enormously satisfied to learn about Alfred Clarke and pleased that a significant historical event I’d written about in my novel, Stand the Storm, had worked to emancipate my ancestor. I’ve been scratching around in this yard for a while in my fiction. It is gratifying to feel that, through fiction, I told a truth about people in my family though I didn’t know it. The discovery of these three Clarkes is a validation of my process. The bits of Alfred’s life that have emerged are threads I can take up and spin into a narrative. I’ve looked at photos and tried to become haunted by the folks staring back. I look long at them and try to absorb their thoughts to embellish my fiction. Now when I look at Alfred, I think I recognize a Clarke soul. 

I may never write a straight family history. Without letters or diaries, I’m not likely to learn much more than names, places, and occupations about my biological family. Yet, they inspire me. Knowing about some of the things they did, their answers on census records tells me about their family circle, what work they did and their aspirations, their perseverance, their thrift and their mindfulness of their children’s future. I like the way fiction can put the historical event into the middle of an ordinary person’s life and illuminate the two simultaneously.

The D.C. Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862 changed the lives of a few thousand people and its effect rippled much further afield. I enjoy imagining what those effects may have been. Oh, but these people, newly discovered and tantalizingly within reach, are my muses now. Their scant facts are my nourishment. 

Most recently, a photograph of Alfred Clarke has been installed permanently in The City Tavern, a private club that occupies this oldest historic building in Washington, D.C. Alfred Clarke and his relatives are the only persons known to have lived and worked in this building. The City Tavern is on the National Register of Historic Places.

a set of cufflinks and a brooch contains the images of Alfred Delaney Clarke and Virginia Cole Clarke
Breena Clarke delivering the keynote address at the installation of the Alfred Clarke photograph.
This is my fictional account of the ways the Compensated Emancipation Act affected individuals lives.

An earlier version of this essay was published in “I’m Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and Hope, edited by Breena Clarke and Amy Newmark.

New and Now

Announcing

A NEW workshop with Breena Clarke: 

How They Must Have Felt: developing an emotional landscape in historical fiction. 

This workshop created and led by Breena Clarke is one of six being offered as part of the Hobart Festival of Women Writers’ Fall Workshop Series. We’re entering our ninth year of platforming the work of women writers across all genres. Since 2013, we’ve held a three-day Festival of readings, workshops, panels and performances in Hobart, New York, the Reading Capitol of New York State. The pandemic has caused us to suspend the in-person Festival again this year. We’ve maintained presence for women writers, however. In September 2020, though we were unable to come together in person, we created several virtual readings https://bit.ly/3rA4xLT featuring videos made by Participating Writers. 

Beginning in September 2021, we are offering six, four-week zoom workshops. Each session will be 90 minutes. These workshops are priced at a very friendly fee and are under the leadership of six distinguished professional writers: Bertha Rogers, Breena Clarke, Mercy Tullis-Bukari, Elena Schwolsky, Stephanie Nikolopoulos, and Mary Johnson. 

Breena Clarke, co-founder and co-organizer of The Hobart Festival, is the author of three historical novels. Join her for How They Must Have Felt: developing an emotional landscape in historical fiction, to explore how you can fill the gaps in the mainstream narrative to richly build the interior lives of your characters. 

Have you begun a novel? Have you come too far to turn back, but feel you’re stuck in a slurry of characters and events and ideas and points of view and styles and genres? Then, you confront the skimpy historical record for people like your protagonist. How do you engage the rich interior lives you are looking for? 

Authors often face empty spaces when researching the past for the voices of people outside of the racial, social, and economic mainstream of American history. – Breena Clarke

Faced with the incomplete historical record of people of color, fiction writers must speculate about the past, filling in the interior lives of people left out of mainstream narratives. The process of constructing these lives requires reimagining geography, history, sociology, etymology and popular culture. Over the course of four consecutive weeks in September – 9/11,9/18, 9/25 & 10/2 –  Breena Clarke will help you explore the techniques fiction writers can use to create voices of the interior lives of the past. Participants will discover practical strategies to get started laying out an emotional landscape for their fiction.  

As a special bonus, Breena Clarke will read and critique your first 50 pages. Are you off to a great beginning for your novel or are you confused about where to start? All participants in this workshop may submit a manuscript (limit 50 pages) at the completion of the workshop and each will receive a comprehensive critique of their work. 

Though writing a novel is often compared to a long-distance run, it can also be compared to a 50-yard dash. There is value to both approaches. Putting your head down and pushing forward quickly with all you’ve got can energize your project. Come join me and we’ll see how far we can take your novel. Make a commitment to yourself and the novel inside you. Tell your story.

We hope you’ll support Hobart Festival of Women Writers by registering for a workshop with one (or two or all six) of our participating writers. This is a great way to help us maintain a platform for women writers and a way for you to develop your own creative work. 

We’re pulling through and it is because of you. 

Please note: All workshops are open to every lover of books and language regardless of gender. 

This workshop is offered as part of the Fall Workshop Series for Hobart Festival of Women Writers. Information at www.hobartfestivalofwomenwriters.com

https://www.hfwwnow.com/blog/bhqrfagi734gcvabdadjj6ifhoivl3 Read “An Accumulation of Grievances,” Breena Clarke’s most recent work in NOW, the online journal of the Hobart Festival of Women Writers. NOW is an online platform for the most important and scintillating work in essay, fiction and poetry by Participating Writers of Hobart Festival of Women Writers. Go to http://www.hfwwnow.com

Read the most recent book in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series I’M SPEAKING NOW: BLACK WOMEN SHARE THEIR TRUTH IN 101 STORIES OF LOVE, COURAGE AND HOPE, edited by Breena Clarke and Amy Newmark with an introduction and two personal essays by Breena Clarke. This book includes 101 personal narratives of the lives of Black women living today. https://bit.ly/3fVUzPx.

Commemoration of Devastation/ Rebirth of Hope

June 1. 2021 marks the 100th anniversary of the most devastating racial conflict in American History.

Viola Fletcher, 107, one of the last living survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre testified before Congress, May 2021

https://www.npr.org/2021/05/19/998225207/survivors-of-1921-tulsa-race-massacre-share-eyewitness-accounts

In 1890, a group of migrants fleeing the hostile South settled an all-black town called Langston, 80 miles west of Tulsa. Oklahoma wasn’t yet a state, and its racial dynamics weren’t set in stone. The architect of the settlement, Edwin McCabe, had a vision of Oklahoma as the black promised land. He sent recruiters to the South, preaching racial pride and self-sufficiency. At least 29 black separatist towns were established in Oklahoma during the late 19th century. for more information about the Tulsa Massacre

Following World War I, Tulsa, Oklahoma boasted one of the most affluent African American communities in the country, known as the Greenwood District. This thriving business district and surrounding residential area were referred to as “Black Wall Street.” In 1921, a series of events nearly destroyed the entire Greenwood area.

In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Black Tulsa was looted and burned by white rioters. Individuals used private planes to deliver turpentine bombs onto homes in Tulsa’s black neighborhood. The governor declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firefighters in putting out fires, took imprisoned blacks out of the hands of vigilantes, and imprisoned all black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.

Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, over 800 people were treated for injuries, and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. In 2001, the Tulsa Race Riot Commission released a report indicating that historians now believe close to 300 people died in the riot. A long lost manuscript by Oklahoma lawyer, B.C. Franklin, father of famed African-American historian John Hope Franklin (1915-2009), describes the attack by hundreds of whites on the Greenwood neighborhood. It is a handwritten, breathtaking account of the events. Tulsa Massacre – Smithsonian Magazine 

 visit the website of the Tulsa Historical Society for more information: Tulsa Historical Society

Announcing a new book from Chicken Soup for The Soul 

I’m Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and HopeThis anthology, co-authored by Breena Clarke and Amy Newmark contains 101 compelling, honest stories and a dozen poems, from over 100 Black women. The anthology also includes two stories by Breena Clarke. The stories are timely, relevant, and very much reflect today’s reality for our community. Paired with quotes from contemporary and historical Black women, the essays are arranged in eleven chapters, each headed by a stunning poem and each of these personal essays has been edited with respect for the writers and their individual truths.

From the introduction by Breena Clarke:

The stories in Chicken Soup for the Soul: I’m Speaking Now Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and Hope are straightforward accounts of daily lives. Some are bursts of bright recollection of events or incidents from the past that have stamped the authors’ lives. Some of the stories are sweet, tender remembrances, evoking pictures of beloved forebears who give us the gritty lessons for survival. Some of the narratives are of dreams and goals the authors set for themselves and their children juxtaposed with fears and trepidation. Some of these stories are raw, unsettling accounts of trauma. Some are funny, and some are not. 

AVAILABLE EVERYWHERE JUNE 1, 2021

For information about this book go to https://www.chickensoup.com/book/235516/im-speaking-now

and view the trailer https://youtu.be/mLhKVarkIe4

Books by Breena Clarke

River, Cross My Heartan Oprah book club selection and a classic of African American fiction is now available for your e-reader.

“The acclaimed bestseller–a selection of Oprah’s Book Club–that brings vividly to life the Georgetown

I’m Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and Hope

A new book from Chicken Soup for The Soul

I’m excited to announce the publication of Chicken Soup for the Soul’s I’m Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and HopeThis anthology contains 101 compelling, honest stories and a dozen poems, from over 100 Black women. The anthology also includes two stories of my own.

Our publication date is June 1, 2021

I worked closely with Amy Newmark, the publisher of Chicken Soup for the Soul to choose these pieces from the thousands that were submitted in a very short period, from November 2020 to January 2021. These stories are timely, relevant, and very much reflect today’s reality for our community. Paired with quotes from contemporary and historical Black women, the essays are arranged in eleven chapters, each headed by a stunning poem and each of these personal essays has been edited with respect for the writers and their individual truths.

From my introduction:

The stories in Chicken Soup for the Soul: I’m Speaking Now Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and Hope are straightforward accounts of daily lives. Some are bursts of bright recollection of events or incidents from the past that have stamped the authors’ lives. Some of the stories are sweet, tender remembrances, evoking pictures of beloved forebears who give us the gritty lessons for survival. Some of the narratives are of dreams and goals the authors set for themselves and their children juxtaposed with fears and trepidation. Some of these stories are raw, unsettling accounts of trauma. Some are funny, and some are not. 

In my living room in Jersey City opening a box of books.

I’ve been discussing the stories, spreading the word. Here’s a podcast on FOXOLOGY with Silver Rae Fox on Blog Talk Radio. https://www.blogtalkradio.com/foxology/2021/05/10/author-breena-clarke-serving-us-chicken-soup-for-the-soul.

I’ll be talking about this book on radio and podcasts. Keep in touch through my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/breena.clarke

and through Twitter at Breena_Clarke

For more information about Chicken Soup and about this book, go to www.chickensoup.com

I hope you see yourself and your sister and all of the women in your life reflected here. I hope you will read these narratives and come to understand and appreciate the challenges Black Women face in contemporary American life regardless of your color on the American racial spectrum. These stories are for all of us because they are true. And each personal essay is accompanied by a quote from an outstanding contemporary or historical Back Woman. These are an inspiration and proof that, though we are speaking now, we have not previously been silent only unheard, unaccounted for, un-included.

If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other peoples’ fantasies for me and eaten alive.

— Audre Lorde

FOLLOW US ON SOCIAL MEDIA:

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/ChickenSoupfortheSoul/

Twitter – @ChickenSoupSoul

                @AmyNewmark

Instagram – @chickensoupsoul

                    @amynewmark

Book Link – https://bit.ly/2Regvww

Hashtag – #CSSImSpeakingNow

FOR MORE ABOUT Breena Clarke, go to WWW.BreenaClarke.com

Stand The Storm online discussion

Join Breena Clarke for a discussion of her novel, Stand The Storm on Saturday March 13th at 2:00pm EST. This event is the inaugural event of The Book Canopy, a place to read, enjoy and discuss books by women authors. 

In Stand The Storm, I wanted to accomplish a narrative that created a fuller picture of urban enslavement in Washington, D.C. at mid-nineteenth-century. I wrote also about the Compensated Emancipation Act enacted by Abraham Lincoln that freed enslaved persons residing in Washington, D.C., on April 16, 1862, nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Now, much to my surprise, I’ve learned facts about my direct ancestor who gained his freedom under this edict along with his mother and grandmother. I’m delighted to learn that an event I’d written about in my fiction had a true historical impact on my family. On Saturday, March 13th, I will be joined by arts facilitator, Chesray Dolpha to discuss Stand The Storm and the lives of enslaved people in our nation’s capital in the Civil War era.

View a video reading recorded by the author and enter the world of The Coats Family, a self-emancipated, African American family in mid-nineteenth century Washington, D.C. who survive and thrive as tailors and quilters.

https://youtu.be/p8ZJw1Rk_kY

REGISTER FOR THE DISCUSSION at https://www.thebookcanopy.org. And register for the Book Canopy newsletter to receive information about the upcoming book discussions.

for more information about Breena Clarke’s books, go to http://www.BreenaClarke.com

The Book Canopy: a discussion of Stand The Storm

Join Breena Clarke for a discussion of her novel, Stand The Storm on Saturday March 13th at 2:00pm EST. This event is the inaugural event of The Book Canopy, a place to read, enjoy and discuss books by women authors. 

I’m honored to have been invited to inaugurate the Canopy Book Club. I look forward to discussing Stand The Storm, a novel set in the mid-nineteenth century that follows the lives of a self-emancipated African American family.

at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.

Alfred Clarke and Virginia Cole Clarke
In Stand The Storm, I wanted to accomplish a narrative that created a fuller picture of urban enslavement in Washington, D.C. at mid-nineteenth-century. I wrote also about the Compensated Emancipation Act enacted by Abraham Lincoln that freed enslaved persons residing in Washington, D.C., on April 16, 1862, nine months before the Emancipation Proclamation. Now, much to my surprise, I’ve learned facts about my direct ancestor who gained his freedom under this edict along with his mother and grandmother. I’m delighted to learn that an event I’d written about in my fiction had a true historical impact on my family. 

On Saturday, March 13th, I will be joined by arts facilitator, Chesray Dolpha to discuss  Stand The Storm and the lives of enslaved people in our nation’s capital in the Civil War era. 

REGISTER FOR THE DISCUSSION at https://www.thebookcanopy.org.  And register for the Book Canopy newsletter to receive information about the upcoming book discussions. 

Want a signed, personalized copy?   
I'll sign and mail you a personalized hardcover copy of Stand the Storm for just $10 + shipping if you purchase it here. Or  obtain a copy from your public library, an independent bookseller, or anywhere books are sold. 

NOW What?

SPREAD THE WORD! An exciting project is upcoming in a popular literary series. Chicken Soup for the Soul is thrilled to announce a new title for Black women writers, publishing June 1, 2021. Chicken Soup For The Soul. I’m Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and Hope. I’m really pleased to serve as a coauthor for this new Chicken Soup for the Soul book.

So, I’m calling out directly to the strong and diverse community of Black Women Writers: Now is the time for Black Women to tell our story in all of its complexity. 2020 is the time, and this is the place for the deeply personal essay, the intelligent commentary, wryly or wildly humorous takes own modern life or the narrative witness to history. 

Share your dreams, your triumphs and, your failures. Write about your lives and community, which have unique challenges not well understood by others. This unique collection of stories will be for readers of all colors. Readers of color will recognize their struggles in these pages, and all readers will benefit from an inside view of Black life in America, Canada, and the diaspora.

We’re looking for everything from the serious to the silly. There will be 101 stories, so we can go wide and deep, and we’d like to share stories from Black women of all ages, from late teens to women in their nineties.

Link here for submission guidelines and a comprehensive list of suggested topics.

https://www.chickensoup.com/story-submissions/possible-book-topics

Please submit to this collection. Let’s speak now about our beauty and our ugly, our sweet and our fraught, our boiling and our simmering.

Chicken Soup For The Soul. I’m Speaking Now: Black Women Share Their Truth in 101 Stories of Love, Courage and Hope.

The deadline for story and poem submissions is JANUARY 15, 2021 but submissions will be reviewed as they come in, so please don’t wait until the deadline. 

Read my story about a dog in NOW, an online journal

https://www.hfwwnow.com/blog/95h3zk8uu650o7agjgc6qaiaedropg

NOW, an online journal of The Hobart Festival of Women Writers https://www.hfwwnow.com is a project created during this unprecedented time. Edited by Breena Clarke, Cheryl Clarke and Esther Cohen, this journal is a collection of work of twenty-one authors who have been Participating Writers with The Hobart Festival of Women Writers 2013 – 2020. NOW presents the wide swath of genre, style and subjects that these womens’ work represents.

For more information about Breena Clarke, go to http://www.BreenaClarke.com

Breena Clarke’s Books

NOW, an online journal

Hobart Festival of Women Writers has published the first issue of a new online journal featuring new work from some of the many published women authors who have been Participating Writers at Hobart Festival of Women Writers. I’m excited to have been one of the editors of this issue. I was joined as editor by Cheryl Clarke and Esther Cohen. Read excerpts of my fiction and non-fiction here:

His Teeth

Bazemore Plantation

Bazemore, Maryland

1781

His gleaming, ivory-colored teeth could have stood in his mouth for another lifetime, but each fell beneath the knife. They bound him to a plank. They dosed him with alcohol to quiet his howling as the horse surgeon pillaged his incisors, his molars, and his bicuspids. They took his teeth because he was a persistent escapee, had run away seven times and bore marks of whipping and brining.

There were no rotted teeth in his mouth, no broken ones, none were misshapen, and not a single one was missing. Very great was the resistance of the teeth to being pulled out. They were moved not at all by the horse surgeon’s pliers. He reconsidered and took up a knife and an awl and cut away the gums until the teeth could hold no longer. Several times the man nearly drowned on the massive amounts of blood in his mouth. Yanked upright, turned over a bucket to spit, salted water flushed into his mouth, more whiskey poured down his throat, the work continued until each tooth was dug out undamaged. Each was cleaned, admired, and carefully placed in a wired device fitted for the master’s mouth.

read more:https://www.hfwwnow.com/blog/95h3zk8uu650o7agjgc6qaiaedropg

Aunt Jemima, Eleanor Bumpers, Sandra Bland, and Breonna Taylor: Writing Against The Current  

I never thought I’d be updating the dramatic work, “Re/Membering Aunt Jemima: A Menstrual Show” or even seriously reconsidering it. Written more than twenty-five years ago, the play contains topical references that I thought would seem stale in the 21st century. Glenda Dickerson and I had, in writing “Aunt Jemima: A Menstrual Show,” flung ourselves at notions of racial propriety. We didn’t want to write a domestic drama full of polite insistence that black people are worthy of Western civilization. We wanted to confront the popular culture of negative images of Black Women in messy confrontational language.


read my entire essay at https://www.hfwwnow.com/blog/g89bnakx17u4jne2r8wlib0u6r9d2a

NOW, an online journalhttp://hfwwnow.com features also the work of Alexis DeVeaux, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Arisa White, Lisa Wujnovich, Esther Cohen, Elena Schwolsky, Cheryl Boyce Taylor, Marina Cramer, Julie Enszer, Aine Greaney, Ellen Meeropol, Bertha Rogers, Linda Lowen, Diane Gilliam, Dahlma Llanos Figueroa, Denise B. Dailey, Cheryl Clarke and Stephanie Nikolopoulos

http://www.BreenaClarke.com

Save the Postal Service

It seems counterintuitive that, in a time of the global pandemic, there are few things on which we all can agree. Open the economy or keep it closed? Wear a mask or refused to. However, there is one galvanizing issue for people in the United States’ rural communities, urban, suburban, exurban, coastal, middle American towns, territories, islands, and isthmuses. We all need the United States Postal Service. And the USPS is under attack by the Trump administration for fear that we may finally be able to have full participation at the voting booth via mail in ballots.

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The USPS traces its roots to 1775 during the Second Continental Congress when Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general. National postal service with universal delivery was Franklin’s brainchild. So, since 1775, somebody has been delivering mail throughout all of our states.

6888th-central-postal-directory-battalion_national-archive_43-0193a

In the European theater in World War II, General Patton bemoaned his troops’ low morale and pressed to have the distribution of soldiers’ mail prioritized as a boost to them. Contact through letters and packages was seen as vital as munitions to keeping the soldiers ready and able for combat. Under the leadership of Oveta Culp Hobby and at the urging of Black leaders, such as Mary Macleod Bethune, African American women who had enlisted in The Women’s Army Corps, were assigned to the 6888th Postal Directory Battalion. The WAC, though segregated as the rest of the armed services, allowed African American women to enlist. The recruits quickly and efficiently relieved the logjam in warehouses in Birmingham, England, and created a smooth system for the distribution of mail to the European Theater’s troops. General George Patton credited the Postal Battalion for providing this vital boost to troop morale.

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Of course, we’ve all got a “postal clerk from hell” story. But it was a clerk in the legendary Radio City Station, the New York post office through which legions of small businesses ship their goods, who wished me luck when I told her I was mailing out my debut novel. I’ve always thought it improved the manuscript’s chances.

There are no elves in our service industries. There are people with hands, eyes – even in automated industries. Notably, this is true in the USPS. There are letter carriers and clerks, recognizable individuals we see nearly every day. In most communities, they are the people next door or just down the road; by and large, they are local folks. Working for the post office has been a traditional entry into the working middle class for women, vets, and racial and ethnic minorities. Now that you’re at home, perhaps you’ve seen more of your letter carrier. An essential worker, she has been wearing gloves and a mask while making her rounds. The letter carrier on my street has been wearing gloves since the start of the flu season. She looks like a woman who has kids at home. Thanks to her, I’m still receiving flower catalogs, junk circulars, notes, bills, magazines, books, pet supplies, prescriptions, and anything else I’ve ordered, including my voter registration and census forms.

What does the letter carrier look like in your community? I’ll bet it’s someone you’d trust to come roaring up to your front door and bang on it to alert you to the smoke coming out the side of your house. Decades ago, a letter carrier in the neighborhood I grew up in, the kind of community that African American letter carriers and government workers lived in, still a time of residential segregation, broke a window and rushed into a burning house to save two children while on his morning rounds. My mother wrote to his supervisor at the Post Office and to The Washington Post to commend his courage. They gave him a citation, my mother received a letter of thanks from the USPS, and The Washington Post published her letter.

In a lot of rural or suburban towns, the center is reckoned by where the post office is located. I’m willing to bet that, if there were no longer a post office, no longer daily mail delivery, many a town would shrink and fade away. Demanding that Congress and the Executive Branch of our government rescue the United States Postal Service could be THE galvanizing issue of our modern democracy. Demanding the right to cast our votes by mail in the upcoming election could be a banner we can all raise. Are we going to let our neighbors down? East Coast or West, North or South and in our territories, are we going to let partisan politics destroy the one common denominator of communications that we have – a system that will take a letter from Schenectady to Miami for less than half a dollar, a reliable network for the distribution of everything. At a time when taxpayers are bailing out airlines and banks (again), and hotels, is there no groundswell of support for the USPS?

General George Patton realized that he needed reliable postal distribution to keep his troops ready and able for combat. Simply put, our country needs a secure delivery of mail, a service that cuts across class and racial lines. We need to maintain this agency in its vital work as a linchpin of our nation’s communications. Postal workers are foot soldiers in this pandemic. They are essential to keeping us connected to services. Whether your grandma lives in Hackensack, Jersey City, Paterson, Newark, Toms River, The Bronx, Bensonhurst, Poughkeepsie, Stamford, Canton, Albany or Los Angeles – whether rural, urban, suburban or whatever, you need the United States Postal Service. And the United States Postal Service needs to be funded in this time of crisis. Now more than ever, let’s unite on this issue. Let’s all say, “The USPS is not a joke!” Urge your representatives to support the postal service.

Don’t let Donald Trump’s fear of voting by mail and his basic vindictiveness take away this vital lifeline.

Explore Breena Clarke’s books at Breena Clarke.com

 

Imagining Tulsa

How must they have felt I ask. I write historical fiction primarily from an urge to re-tell the past, to rehabilitate the skimpy, fractured, fragmented and often hostile narratives of the people of The Americas, the so-called New World. I believe that much of the national narrative of The United States is based on limited facts, racially motivated lies and the visceral belief that all people are NOT created equally. Sometimes it feels like I have a score to settle, an injury to repair. I think I must be a caretaker of imagination so that our race of people are not unimagined and thus disappear from the earth. I feel I need to be like Scheherazade. I think I survive daily because I’m able to continue to tell stories of myself, of ourselves. 

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Hundreds of bodies are thought to have been shoved into mass graves, dumped in the Arkansas River or loaded onto trains, victims of The Tulsa Race Massacre of May – June, 1921. 

As recently as February, 2020, The city of Tulsa announced plans to conduct a limited excavation of the site of a possible mass grave containing bodies of African Americans.

Pearl Miller, my maternal grandmother always spoke of Tulsa, Oklahoma with delight, in glowing terms. She’d been there as a child, part of a migration of African Americans leaving the south. Throughout her life she kept a child’s awe and admiration for it. She didn’t mention the massacre of 1921 which for most of the twentieth century has been referred to as the Tulsa Race Riot. 

A massacre is defined as an indiscriminate and brutal slaughter of people. A riot is a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd.

I believe the events of June, 1921 would best be defined as a massacre. 

May 31, 1921

“During the night and day of the riot, deputized whites killed more than 300 African Americans. They looted and burned to the ground 40 square blocks of 1,265 African American homes, including hospitals, schools, and churches, and destroyed 150 businesses. White deputies and members of the National Guard arrested and detained 6,000 black Tulsans who were released only upon being vouched for by a white employer or other white citizen. Nine thousand African Americans were left homeless and lived in tents well into the winter of 1921.”

From “Burning Tulsa: The Legacy of Black Dispossession,” Linda Christensen

More on The Legacy of Black Dispossession

 Voices of those who survived

I could see planes circling in mid-air. They grew in number and hummed, darted and dipped low. I could hear something like hail falling upon the top of my office building. Down East Archer, I saw the old Mid-Way hotel on fire, burning from its top, and then another and another and another building began to burn from their top,” wrote Buck Colbert Franklin (1879-1960). 

The Oklahoma lawyer, father of famed African-American historian John Hope Franklin(1915-2009), described the attack by hundreds of whites on the thriving black neighborhood known as Greenwood in the booming oil town. “Lurid flames roared and belched and licked their forked tongues into the air. Smoke ascended the sky in thick, black volumes and amid it all, the planes—now a dozen or more in number—still hummed and darted here and there with the agility of natural birds of the air.”

Franklin writes that he left his law office, locked the door, and descended to the foot of the steps. continue at Smithsonian Magazine May 2016

Pearl Miller Higgins

Pearl Miller Higgins

My grandmother didn’t share any specific stories. She just spoke of the town admiringly. I reach back and scratch around in my memory and I have no recollection that she spoke of the massacre or of any trouble. But we always had the sense that there had been, that there could be, that there was racial trouble.

Even if nothing dire or transformational happens in a place, it changes over time. I learned this the first time I’d gone away from my hometown, Washington, D.C., and returned to find it not the same – block after block was not the same. At first I took it personally. The town had refused to remain like the photo in my brain, the snapshot I’d carried away vowing always to remember it just so. One aspect of the imaginative work I like to do is archival. I preserve a snapshot of words about the days based on first-hand reports if I can find them and pictures I build from interior interrogation. What must they have been thinking, smelling, feeling?  So  for the story surrounding the events following the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, I weave the known experience of my grandmother with what my text needs. The two are never the same. I don’t write auto fiction or family memoir. 

Over the years, I’ve maintained an interest in the events of this little-known racial genocide. As we approach the one hundredth anniversary of the massacre, I’m imagining those events and juxtaposing fictional accounts with the so-called official historical record. How do I plumb my own feelings of connection to the events to mine them for my story and my characters?

And now, Trump has callously decided to launch his reelection campaign in Tulsa on Juneteenth. He is making his hostility to the lives and feelings of Black People very plain.

I’ve reflected on the imaginary Tulsa, Oklahoma of my debut novel,  River, Cross My Heart. I realize that I wanted to invest my depiction of the town in the same ways that my grandmother did. It was a place of pride, of childlike wonder. I wanted to attach to that feeling of magic and security in a place that had a large, successful African-American population. This is the image that stayed in my grandmother’s mind and is the depiction that has passed to me. I developed the character of Pearl – which is my maternal grandmother’s name – as a vessel to explore the feelings my grandmother must have experienced in the Black incorporated towns in Oklahoma. 

Breena Clarke reads an excerpt of River, Cross My Heart that describes Tulsa

Experience the new audiobook version with narration by Karen Chilton, produced by Recorded Books.

Explore Breena Clarke’s books at http://www.BreenaClarke.com

Some source books on Tulsa massacre of 1921:

Oklahoma Commission to study the Tulsa Race Riot Report

Black History in Oklahoma-a resource book, published by Oklahoma City Public Schools

Black Wall Street by Hannibal Johnson

Death in a Promised Land:The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, by Scott Ellsworth

The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the TulsaRace Riot of 1921 by Tim Madigan,

Reconstructing the Dreamland by Alfred Brophy, Oxford University Press