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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

Usually, in the morning, I let … I mean that I empower … Steve to roll out of bed, make coffee and cook me, I mean us, eggs over easy. Always one egg on one piece of toast and maybe some fruit on the side. Kind of spartan but it works. But in recent times I noticed the number of eggs in the fridge were diminishing at a faster rate. Now Steve’s tai chi instructor Jon makes occasional house visits because it can be a bit of a trek for Steve to make it to the dojo. Jon can come in the mornings usually after I’ve left for work. One day I called home to ask Steve if Jon had shown up. He said, “Yes. I cooked him breakfast.” I did a double take. “Aren’t we paying him to come over and give you a workout?” “Yes, but I asked if he was hungry and he said yes and so …”

Now what I remember from ages ago, after Steve’s surgeries and he could appear and was indeed pooped all of the time, is that for a visit with company customers he pulled together (without me being present as sous chef) an amazing fruit and cheese grazing platter BEFORE they all went out to dinner and THEN returned to our place for a nightcap that he orchestrated. He was in heaven. When I described this scene to his PCP she nodded sagely and said, “Some people are energized by being hospitable.”

And so this morning as I raced out of bed (alarms didn’t go off) and raced about to make coffee and check the egg situation … well, there were three eggs. I knew Jon was coming by for class. If Steve and I had one each that would leave just one for Jon. So I put the container back in the fridge and decided we were having smoked salmon and cream cheese on toast. Steve, without even knowing the egg situation, said that would be just fine.

When I returned home, I looked in the fridge. One egg in the case. I asked Steve, who was in another room, and already knowing the answer, “Did you fix Jon breakfast?” “Yes,” he shouted back. “He said thank you before we went outside to practice with the kendo sword.” 

I smiled and closed the refrigerator door. Gotta buy some more eggs this weekend.

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I have come to think a lot about what’s in a name or a label. What is conveyed? Should some names or labels be forgotten, erased from memory? But what might be lost along the way? What insights from human history, and how names and labels were used, might inform who we are today? Take the label “turpentine negro.”

The colonization of America resulted in the development of a naval stores industry. Naval stores are products — tar, pitch, turpentine and rosin – produced from pine and at first primarily used in early ship building. Tar was needed to seal wooden ships and ropes. Turpentine would become a vital ingredient in a range of manufacturing from paints and varnishes to paper production. Europe had relied upon Sweden for its tar but with the “discovery” of the New World and its expansive forests, new opportunities emerged for Britain to develop its own naval stores in the colonies. New England forests were tapped for awhile but it was the abundant long leaf pines of the southern colonies that would prove to be most lucrative, especially in the Carolinas and later in Georgia, Florida and Texas.

I first learned of this tree and the concept of naval stores while researching a colonial-era Bostonian. As a young man he joined a business venture where he sailed to the Carolinas, purchased tar and pitch, and then returned to sell the naval stores in New England. I wondered what was the source of tar and how was it produced. In learning about tar, I learned about turpentine production and that’s how I learned about the “turpentine negroes” and “turpentine niggers.” The words, this classification of human beings, can be found used hundreds of time in mostly southern newspapers from the 1880s to 1940s.

turpentine workers

I know there was turpentine in the house where I grew up. I just don’t remember how my father used it. This is when I really miss my brothers’ memories because when I think of turpentine, growing up in Virginia, it was something very much in the male realm. I don’t think my mother did anything with it except disparage it for its scent.

Disparage. To regard or represent as being of little worth.

Turns out, since before the Revolutionary War, southern Blacks were essential to the production of naval stores. The nature of the work meant they lived in the pine woods. There they formed a unique culture. The first Black workers were mostly enslaved, often hired out by their owners. Even after the Civil War, these workers, now technically free, continued to apply their skills in the turpentine orchards, traveling from pine woods to pine woods across state lines.

Over many generations these men and women produced the goods that helped keep the world’s greatest fleets afloat. They produced goods that enabled improvements in the manufacturing of a diverse range of products. Their labor was valued but they were disparaged as human beings, by whites and sometimes other people of color as well. Thus the distinction that was made by the label, turpentine negro.

Frederick Law Olmstead during his travels in the South wrote in 1855, “There are very large forests of this [long leaf pine] tree in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama; and the turpentine business is carried on, to some extent, in all these States. In North Carolina, however, much more largely than in the others; because, in it, cotton is rather less productive than in the others, in an average of years. Negroes are, therefore, in rather less demand; and their owners oftener see their profit in employing them in turpentine orchards than in the cotton-fields.

If we enter, in the winter, a part of a forest that is about to be converted into a “turpentine orchard,” we come upon negroes engaged in making boxes, in which the sap is to be collected the following spring. They continue at this work from November to March, or until, as the warm weather approaches, the sap flows freely, and they are needed to remove it from the boxes into barrels. These “boxes” are not made of boards, nailed together in a cubical form, as might be supposed; nor are they log-troughs, such as, at the North, maple-sap is collected in. They are cavities dug in the trunk of the tree itself. A long, narrow ax, made in Connecticut, especially for this purpose, is used for this wood-pecking operation; and some skill is required to use it properly.

A considerable amount of turpentine is shipped in barrels to Northern ports, where it is distilled; a larger amount is distilled in the State.

The orchards operated under a task system. Workers were assigned specific tasks. Olmstead is noted as describing, an overseer had “ten hands dipping + six hands getting timber, seven hands at the cooper shop, five hands at the still, one hand cutting wood, and three wagoning.”  After the Civil War, with slavery’s end, the system essentially remained the same.

As C. W. Wimster recalled in a 1939 Federal Writers Project interview:

My folks believed in education, an I was sent to school regular when I was a boy, but worked in the summers. When I was about ten years old we moved to a camp at Martin, seven miles from Ocala, an I was promoted to talley “man”—keeping tally on the number of trees boxed or streaked by each nigger. Niggers do all the labor in the woods, an most of the work around the still. The manager, foreman, commissary men and woods riders are all white men. At each camp there will be from 50 to 200 niggers, accordin to the number of “crops” worked. A crop is about 10,000 trees.

turpentine worker’s home, georgia

The white folks live in fairly good homes at one side of the camp, and the niggers in their quarters at the other side in two-or three-room cabins or board houses. We always aimed to have separate quarters for the single niggers to keep them from messin up with the married men’s wives. But this didn’t always work, and there was many a fight on account uv them mixin at night in the woods.

One of the jobs that Wimster later took was “as manager of eight camps owned by a New York concern at Opal, Okeechobee County. This was a big virgin woods in low, swampy country, and the outfit was a big one of 120 crops. There I had charge of 400 niggers and nine woodsmen (riders).

three turpentine pickers

When asked about the home life of the Black people in the Florida turpentine camps, Mr. Wimster replied: “Turpentine niggers are a class by themselves. They are different from town niggers, farm laborers or any other kind. Mostly they are born and raised in the camps, and don’t know much about anything else. They seldom go to town, and few of them ever saw the inside of a school house. In nearly every camp there is a jack-leg preacher who also works in the woods, and they usually have church services on Sunday at one or another of their houses.

And every camp has its ‘jook’, as they are now called, but the original name of this kind of a joint was a ‘tunk’. This is a house where the men and women gather on Saturday nights to dance, drink moonshine, gamble and fight. Between dances or drinks, young couples stroll off into the woods and make love. … The supreme authority in a camp is the foreman. To the niggers he is the law, the judge, jury and executioner. He even ranks ahead of God to these people.”

In a 1903 New Orleans newspaper they were described as the worst character of criminal for the police to deal with when they came to town to spend their money. I suspect there were few things worse than to call a successful Black man a “turpentine nigger” nor was it uncommon for a person of color to say, “What do you think I am a turpentine nigger?”

turpentine worker

In 1942, author Lillian Cox Athey wrote of the long established industry that stretched from North Carolina to Texas. She noted that long leaf pine covered about 1000 miles, with more than 1200 turpentine camps to be found in the woods and over 45,000 workers. She presents a romanticized view of the camps and their management. And as for the workers:

Excerpt from Evening Star, Washington, DC, 1942

At a 1946 Southern Forestry Convention, one report noted that the times were changing and that the “old fashioned turpentine negro” was to become a shadowy creature of the past. In a post-war world, workers were going to towns, “wearing zoot suits and driving trucks and making money.”

The language is regional. Searching old newspapers the terminology is primarily expressed in deep southern publications. More recent use of the words appears in the historical novels of writers with southern roots. Studying the characterization of these workers from antebellum times to just after World War II suggests that this regional history is also a national if not indeed global history. Shining a spotlight on people, labeled turpentine negroes, illuminates once more the ties that link North and South in the American slave economy and offers the opportunity to think about who benefited from that economy, who suffered, and the enduring legacy long after slavery ended.

Sources of Images & Further Reading

Outland, Robert B. “Slavery, Work, and the Geography of the North Carolina Naval Stores Industry, 1835-1860.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 62, no. 1, Southern Historical Association, 1996, pp. 27–56, https://doi.org/10.2307/2211205.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Turpentine workers. Georgia. United States Georgia, 1937. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017770332/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Overseer in the turpentine woods. Georgia. United States Georgia, 1937. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017770378/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Untitled photo, possibly related to: Turpentine worker’s family near Cordele, Alabama. Father’s wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support. United States Alabama Cordele, 1936. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017768046/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Turpentine worker’s family near Cordele, Alabama. Father’s wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support. United States Alabama Cordele, 1936. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017763012/.

In the great pine forests of the South – gathering crude turpentine – North Carolina. , ca. 1903. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003663487/.

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Embark – to board a ship

Disembark – to remove or unload cargo or passengers from a ship

Detailed 1781 Map of West Point on the York River, in Virginia. Rochambeau Collection, Library of Congress.

Between 1724 and 1739 at least 18 vessels owned by Englishman William Gerrish engaged in the slave trade. His ships departed from London, sailed to Africa, and transported their human cargo to Antigua, St. Kitts, Montserrat, South Carolina and Virginia for disembarkment. The first ship, at least as identified in the Slave Voyages Database, was called the Negroes Nest. Others were named Flying Horse, Gaboone, Guinea Hen, Hester and Jane, London Spy, Sea Nymph, Speaker, Gally and Tryall. Over 2,933 men, women and children survived the various voyages though that is only a fraction of the original number embarked. 

In 1739, one of his ships, the Black Prince, docked at the York River to sell her cargo. An advertisement in the Virginia Gazette noted that the Black Prince had lately arrived from the Gold Coast of Africa with a choice parcel of slaves to be sold at York Town along the York River. The captain, John Sibson, and crew departed London in May 1738 and arrived at their destination in Africa by September. Trade and re-outfitting was completed by March 1739. In that month the Black Prince departed Africa with 137 men, women and children shackled in the hold or maybe chained on deck. The ship reached York Town in May with 112 enslaved people remaining alive. Selling immediately commenced. By October the Black Prince had returned to London.

Between 1732 and 1739, Sibson served as captain of three slave ships, the Black Prince, the Ann and Elizabeth, and the Sarah and Elizabeth. For each four trips he made with these ships he departed London, traveled to Africa and took his cargo to Jamaica, St. Kitts, the Americas, and the York River. On these four voyages he collected 888 men, women and children. 723 survived the journey to their ports of disembarkment.

Between 1698 and 1762, the York River was a point of disembarkment for at least 163 slave ships whose captains sold 31,056 men, women and children. Again, this number represents only a fraction of the people originally boarded in Africa. One can use the Slave Voyages Database to account for some number of those who died along the Middle Passage. When the ships were emptied of their human cargo, captains sought to fill their ships with tobacco. That goal was not so easily achieved as evidenced by an ad Captain Sibson of the Black Prince placed in the Virginia Gazette:

“I find it has been industriously reported for many Years, that Ships which come from Guinea here with Slaves, are never after in Condition to take in Tobacco; which is very absurd and ungenerous, and great Discouragement to bring Negroes here: But I cannot think any Man, who has any Notion of a Ship, can ever imagine any one will venture his Life and Fortune to Sea in a Vessel that is not Sea worthy. However, to clear up all Doubts of that kind, if any Gentleman has Mind to ship any Tobacco on board me, I will cause a Survey to be made of my Vessel by whom they shall desire. and her Condition shall be reported accordingly. I am the readers most obedient servant, John Sibson.” Records indicate he was successful in his endeavor and did indeed depart with a cargo of tobacco.

William Gerrish died in 1741, a respected West India merchant. There are a number of John Sibson’s to be found in various databases one of whom died in October 1739, the month and year that Sibson returned the Black Prince to London. As for the Africans dispersed throughout the West Indies and the Americas … different methods will be needed to tell their stories by the numbers or otherwise.

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My first thought was that in November, September and October ran away. But I dug a little deeper and discovered that the first ad for the return of September and October appeared in an October newspaper.

The year was 1736. Described as two new Gambia negroes, September and October were enslaved near Charleston, South Carolina. They wore brown breeches and jackets with brass or white metal buttons. No mention of shoes in this ad nor details about skin color, hair texture or their ability to speak English.

The man who wanted them returned was Thomas Monck. How long the property of Monck it is unclear. Probably not long. If long enough then he would have added to the description that they carried his brand upon their chests. That was Monck’s documented chosen way to mark property, whether horses or people.

Using the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, you can search by slave ship itinerary. I entered as place of purchase “Gambia.” In 1735 Captain John Coe departed London in the ship Princess Carolina, a vessel owned by David Godin. With a crew of just over a dozen men, he sailed to Gambia and there purchased 211 slaves. In 1736 he delivered the 180 men, women and children who had survived the voyage. Among them was likely September and October.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is south-carolina_gazette_1736-10-30_3.png
South Carolina Gazette October 1736

Sources & Further Reading

https://www.slavevoyages.org/

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Late evening zooms are wearing me down but I am going to try to watch tomorrow at 7pm, “Every Pecan Tree: Trees, Meaning and Memory in Enslaved People’s Live.” It is part of a lecture series produced by the Harvard Arnold Arboretum.

The title was provocative and made me think about trees in my life. I photograph a lot of trees and as the sun pours through the window now I know at some point, I hope at some point, I will bundle up and head out the door with my camera. The branches are all mostly bare of course but with several days in the 60s coming … I will try to get some before and after shots. Some things might accidentally bloom by week’s end. We’ll see …

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a pecan tree. I’ve got books that help me identify birds and herbs, butterflies and moths but none about trees. I think I take trees for granted. The only tree I think I ever learned to recognize by leaf and seed was the maple tree because it grew next door in my Aunt’s yard and my brother grew one from one of its helicopter seeds and my dad actually planted the resulting seedling in our backyard though he did so with a big sigh because he knew one day its shade would cover his garden but he did so for the smile on my brother’s face.

Our yard was small but for the most part you don’t need a lot of space to grow trees.

We had a green gage plum tree. It was on the fence line so that meant the neighbors could pick some plums if they wanted too. My dad made wine that was apparently very tasty. He never let me drink it though. I suspect it was rather high octane. There was an apricot tree that I think produced one apricot over the span of its long life. The next door neighbor had a huge black walnut tree but I don’t remember people eating the nuts back then.

Across the street a neighbor had a towering pear tree that bloomed so white in spring. When the wind blew it was like snow was falling. The smell was divine. The fruit was so so. Small, green, hard to eat fresh but my mother would make small jars of pear jam that we’d eat on hot biscuits. Down the street was a sprawling mulberry tree. I heard stories of people making mulberry wine but mostly people hated the mess the berries made as they fell to the ground and they squished beneath your shoes. I fixed my dad a plate of them once, using my new tea party set, and he ate them with a smile. Citrus trees that people mentioned were before my time. No apples in the neighborhood and today that seems strange.

During the lecture, Tiya Miles, Professor of History and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor, Harvard University, will explore “the importance of trees as protectors of bodies and spirits, as sites of violence, as memory keepers, and as historical witnesses in the Black experience of captivity and resistance. Ultimately, time spent with these examples will underscore the centrality of the natural world to Black, and indeed, human, survival.”

If you’re interested in the lecture, you can find out more information here: https://environment.harvard.edu/event/every-pecan-tree-trees-meaning-and-memory-enslaved-people%E2%80%99s-lives

Meanwhile, I think the air has warmed just enough for me to venture out into the world with my camera. We’ll see which trees speak to me.

Have a good day!

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When Jupiter ran away with Venus where did they go?

When they rested in a field did they look up into the night sky and try to find themselves amidst the stars?

When they sheltered beneath a tree, lips pressed tight in silence as the white man walked nearby, did Venus rest her head against Jupiter’s chest and find calm in the beat of his heart? Did he press his hand to her stomach and pray to old gods and new?

They found solace in each other but where were they to find sanctuary in New England in 1741?

Mr. Gerrish and Mr. Rawlins, of Dover, New Hampshire, wanted each of them back. They had paid for the runaway advertisement together. The child would belong to Gerrish because he owned Venus … Venus age 35 or 40 who wore rings on her fingers and gold rings in her ears and who combed her hair and usually tied it up high like an English woman.

Rawlins owned Jupiter, age 35 or so, and kept him well-dressed because as Rawlin’s property his being well-kempt was a good reflection on Rawlins.

How did they meet, Jupiter and Venus? Was one running an errand to the other’s household? Had one of them been rented into the other’s household? Maybe, just maybe, their eyes met across the market as they attended the needs of their masters’s families.

The genealogies of Gerrish and Rawlins are well-documented. As for Jupiter and Venus …their story, their lives, have been lost to time but they have not been forgotten.

Source: Boston Post Boy, June 8, 1741

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When Steve tapered the legs of the dining room table he made by hand this pandemic season … I gardened, he made furniture … these pieces of wood were left behind. Now he told me about these pieces before I actually saw them and said, “I can turn them into a fan for you to do something with. I just need to get the right bolt.” “You mean like a Japanese fan?” He shrugged. “Yeah, more or less.” And I exclaimed with glee, “Yes, make that and we’ll hang it on the wall.”

Given that I don’t work with wood yet and he can’t read my mind yet, we each merrily traveled down a mental path completely unaware that we were not on the same page. He made the fan, 9 pieces bolted together and because of the nature of the design they have to hang down and not up as I had imagined in my head. And while I thought it was a totally him piece … his creation … he seemed stuck on this idea of collaboration. Well, I do declare. “You can stain it like you did the table,” I said. He nodded slowly then said, “But I think a watercolor wash might be better. That’s just me.” And for an eternity … actually only a few moments … we went back and forth. Finally I threw up my hands in exasperation. “Okay, mister, I’ve got some watercolors somewhere. What’s your vision?” He shrugged. “I don’t have one. You’re the artist.” He walked away as I semi-glared.

And then I began to play …

… knowing that nothing would be perfect and that I was learning along the way.

There are nine leaves to the fan. I began to think of the leaves as nine opportunities to tell a story or vignette. I think that is how I will handle such an opportunity in the future.

Watercolor on wood. You can’t get much more ephemeral so who knows I may use these same thin pieces again one day. But this fan can stay as it is for a bit because a certain someone is beginning to work on a new table. A much smaller table. We’ll see what falls by the wayside this time for our next collaboration. Be well,everyone. 🙂

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If you only listen to the first 6 minutes, it’s illuminating. And if you pour yourself some tea and make a plate of snacks, listen to the full hour.

https://www.loc.gov/item/2015669138/

It is the Pete Seeger oral history interview conducted by Joseph Mosnier in Beacon, New York, 2011 July 22. I also highly recommend: https://www.loc.gov/collections/civil-rights-history-project/articles-and-essays/music-in-the-civil-rights-movement/

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While puttering around the kitchen this morning I suddenly yearned for a particular cup of tea. I could see it clearly, could almost smell it. But instead of Lipton tea with sugar and a long pour of Pet’s evaporated milk, I made myself some chai. I smiled at the memory though. Lipton’s was my mother’s tea. Really, the family’s tea. She never added anything except a bit of sugar but my brothers would empty the can of milk and the sugar bowl. Awhile back I noted my oldest brother’s grandson doing the same. I happened to be sitting by my brother at the time. I looked at him and with a raised eyebrow asked, “Well, I wonder where he learned that from?”

Yellow onions were a fixture in our home too. I’ve not cooked with them probably in 15 plus years having made a gustatory switch to red onions. But while walking through the grocery store earlier this month the yellow onions caught my attention. I was compelled to pick up one. Slicing through that first yellow onion brought tears to my eyes with its wonderfully pungent scent. A forgotten scent remembered. As I washed my hands before I accidentally rubbed my eyes I remembered how my father used to cry as he cut these same onions. It was a task that my mom often had him do. Now I know why. But I can’t help myself. Every time I cut one I now raise the half to my nose and inhale deep. I don’t feel compelled to eat them raw, as I must have as a child, and as I remember my father doing all the time. There is something simply serene in slow cooking with the onion, sauteing it in butter, or slicing it up for roasting vegetables. There is an upwelling of familiarity and home even in a different time and place and home.

There are other foods, flavors, scents from childhood that are “upwelling” this month. They come unbidden and they are welcome and so far they have always brought a smile.

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Pinto beans simmering in a pot with a ham hock and bay leaf. To my young mind, those beans seemed to cook all day. Then we ate it served over white rice. My father and I had sweet tooths. We spooned sugar on top of our beans and rice. It is the only dry bean I remember my mother cooking. I heard about red beans but she only cooked pinto (except, I forgot, for the black eyed peas you have to cook to ring in the New Year). I don’t remember if there was a particular day of the week for cooking beans and rice. For instance, pot roast, baked chicken, baked rice pudding, for example, they were Sunday foods, something special. I suspect beans were a weekday food because she could put the pot on the stove on a low flame and do all those other household tasks. Kale or collard greens might be served on the side. Probably mustard greens, too, but I didn’t like her mustard greens (another dish where my father would sprinkle some sugar). I remember the taste of kale seasoned with pork and spooning the potlikker that was left in the bottom of the pan. Once my younger brother was banished from the table for doing something rude and so I had the potlikker all to myself. That little hellion came up behind me and tossed in a handful of food scraps meant for Fuzzy, our dog. I was furious but I stilled loved him afterwards. That was in Virginia. Forty years later living in New England I’ve learned to play with my beans, making bean salads, mixing the colors and textures, sometimes getting so caught up in “painting” with the colors — red, white, black, green — that I lose sight of taste. But I have not done a thing with pinto beans. Until now. Why now? Because the Whole Foods shopper substituted a can of pinto beans for my requested can of white beans. The can is sitting on the kitchen counter. It makes me smile when I look at it. Soon I’ll open it. Served on the side will likely be kale cooked with olive oil and garlic. Brown rice most likely. No sugar anymore. Just good food and good memories to share.

https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/04/potlikker-from-slave-plantations-to-today/7129/

https://www.thespruceeats.com/your-black-eyed-pea-questions-answered-1640029

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