By Donna M. Lucey
The hushed upstairs offices at VFH seem scarcely a place of intrigue. But if you look and listen more closely you might be surprised. Serious investigative work takes place there by the scholars and writers chosen to be part of the Fellowship program. In the past two award cycles, three scholars—all of them historical detectives in a way—have turned the hallways of VFH into a kind of forensic laboratory. No bones anywhere (okay, so it’s not CSI: Charlottesville), but the scholars have been carefully reconstructing lives using bits of evidence from crumbling manuscripts and maps, bills of sale, and other ephemera from family plantation papers, dusty church records, obscure articles from now-defunct magazines and newspapers, thousands of photographs, past and present interviews, and declassified records from the FBI. And there’s even some jazz thrown in.
These three fellows—of the dozen typically in residence at VFH during an academic year—are each at work on a biography of a relatively unknown figure whose story illuminates an era. The characters span the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, but their stories all embody a central theme: What is the meaning of freedom? And what happens when it is subverted or taken away? How does an individual respond to that challenge? As Americans we pride ourselves on living in a land of freedom, but each of these stories offers a complicated and troubling view of what “freedom” has meant in the African American experience.
Former VFH Fellow Gregory O’Malley, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is mapping the life of David George (ca. 1743–1810), a slave born in Virginia who, in his search for freedom, spent much of his life literally on the run. At nineteen he escaped from the Sussex County plantation of his birth and started a new life, but had to run once more when the plantation owner discovered where he was. Fleeing one master, George fell into the hands of the Creek Indians, who captured and enslaved him in what is now Georgia. The Sussex County master, intent on re-appropriating his “property,” remained on the hunt for George, wrested him from the Creek, and sold him to a fur trader in South Carolina.
George’s first real taste of freedom came during the Revolutionary War, although his personal triumph did not mirror the traditional American narrative. Instead, it was the British Army, not the American, that offered freedom to the enslaved population. George fled to the British to secure his emancipation and was then evacuated to Nova Scotia at war’s end. Discrimination in Canada caused him eventually to relocate to the British colony of Sierra Leone. In his quest for freedom, George traveled thousands of miles, and in the process, left behind his mark as a founder of black Baptist churches.
A half-century later, Daniel Murray (1851–1925), a well-educated member of Washington, D.C.,’s black elite, achieved professional success as a scholar (his life’s work was the six-volume Historical and Biographical Encyclopedia of the Colored Race throughout the World), as an assistant librarian at the Library of Congress, and as a construction contractor. He lived in the rarified world of the black upper class, only to see his status come crashing down when the federal government abandoned the racial protections that had been put in place during Reconstruction. In the name of reconciliation with the South, the government turned a blind eye to a wave of lynchings and other, subtler forms of white supremacist violence that began late in the nineteenth century. All African Americans—well educated or not, wealthy or not—were lumped into “colored” status and forced into a new highly segregated world. In Murray’s own words, it was “the virus of race madness.” VFH Fellow Elizabeth Dowling Taylor has recently finished a biography of this fascinating figure, a man who was betrayed, along with the other members of his race, by the government. Taylor is an independent scholar, the former director of interpretation at Monticello and director of education at Montpelier, and a New York Times best-selling author who has appeared on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Her forthcoming book, The Original Black Elite: Daniel Murray and the Story of a Forgotten Era, is scheduled for release in March 2017 by Amistad Press at HarperCollins.
Yet a third VFH Fellow, Preston Lauterbach, is completing a biography of an African American whose life has all the elements of a spy novel, though all of it is true. Lauterbach is a music scholar who has already published two well-received books about rock and roll in black America and about the rise of Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. The subject of his new book, Ernest Withers, was one of the seminal photographers of the civil rights movement in the twentieth century. Working out of his studio on Beale Street, Withers traveled throughout the South during the 1950s and 1960s, documenting the violence against African Americans and subsequent civil unrest.
He documented the lynching of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi for supposedly flirting with a white woman, and the brutal events surrounding the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Segregationists beat him in Jackson, Mississippi, and destroyed his film. While placing himself in potentially dangerous situations, Withers took some of the iconic images of the civil rights protest era: among them, Martin Luther King Jr. sitting in the front seat of a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus; and the sanitation men in Memphis, then on strike, brandishing signs saying “I Am A Man.” Withers became a trusted ally of the civil rights leaders, grew particularly close to King, and was even allowed into strategy sessions. The photographer’s business cards read, “Pictures Tell the Story.”
But did they tell the whole story? Not quite. In fact, Withers served as a paid informant for the FBI from 1958 until 1976, helping the agency gather information on black civil rights leaders. And yet his eloquent photographs helped promote the same racial justice for which those leaders were fighting. Lauterbach is unearthing the story of this deeply complex man in his forthcoming book, Valley of the Kings, being published by W.W. Norton & Company. Its spring 2018 release will coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of King’s death.
The three scholars have found the Fellowship program a boon for their research and writing. O’Malley, who lives in California, was thrilled at the opportunity to write about David George in Virginia, on his home ground. And all of them marvel at the interaction, feedback, and collegiality among the Fellows and how it has helped inform and invigorate their work. Now if only they could get that TV-detective series started.