By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette —
Life can be so short, yet so full, I thought as I stood reading the headstone, “Genius of the South, 1901 – 1960, Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist” atop Zora Neal Hurston’s grave in Fort Pierce, Florida where she died poor and penniless in the County Home on Thursday January 28, 1960.
Hurston, author of at least ten books, novels, dozens of short stories and plays including the best seller “Their Eyes Were Watching God” grew up in tiny segregated, all black Eatonville, in Orange County, Florida (http://www.townofeatonville.com/) not far from Sanford where, seventeen year old Travon Martin died, not far from Jacksonville, Florida where the seventeen year old was slain.
Historic Eatonville, “The Town That Freedom Built, the oldest incorporated African American municipality in America, Established in 1887”, brags the sign that greets travelers as they approach, “One of the 25 Cultural Tourism success stories in the United States.”
I had that same feeling nearly a decade ago while I stood at the foot of R. Nathaniel Dett’s (“Listen to the Lambs”) grave just a few miles from where he lived much of his early life in Niagara Falls, not far from the crossings where Tubman and others traversed in search of some modicum of relief from slavery’s heavy chains in Canada.
Hurston and Dett have a lot in common; they traveled in the same literary circles during the Harlem Renaissance, a particularly active period, named after a1925 anthology by Alain Locke though Hurston frequently challenged Dett to write and perform more “spiritual music” rooted more in the tradition of the people than the “neo spirituals” which she considered to be the outgrowth of “glee clubs.”
Though their styles varied, Hurston and Dett wrote about the struggles of being black in America during extraordinarily hard times; both were folklorists, one in music and song, the other in prose, both master story-tellers, writing the very stuff that history is made of.
Martin and Davis have a lot in common too; both young black men, both dead at seventeen; I wonder how Hurston and Dett would tell their stories.
My vivid memory took me all the way back to the year 2004; I was at the Kingston College Auditorium on Epworth Circle in Niagara Falls, Ontario, with Ms. Wilma Morrison, then curator of the Nathaniel Dett Chapel.
She and several other dignitaries there to welcome the full house of standing-room-only guests had come to listen to the original music of Niagara’s own Nathaniel Dett, born and raised in Niagara Falls, living at various times on either side of the river, though he lies buried there in Fairview Cemetery, where earlier in the afternoon the chorale performed graveside.
In commemoration of that city’s centennial year, Canada’s Brainerd Blyden-Taylor conducted the Toronto Nathaniel Dett Chorale’s evening’s performance accompanied by the Joe Sealy Trio.
The powerful production included excerpts from both groups’ recordings of music written by Dett, as well as a number of selections written by Sealy with lyrics by Dan Hill.
One touching piece drew deep personal memories from my own experiences growing up in Niagara Falls, New York in a neighborhood that has all but completely disappeared, people, buildings, memories erased, buried with the dying generations.
Sealy’s performance evoked the painful reality of what had happened to tiny, segregated Africville, like the community I grew up in, part of Niagara Falls, New York, but also segregated, now laid waste by the ravages of time and wrong choices.
In his work, Sealy recalls Africville, an actual place that once existed outside of Halifax between 1848 and 1970. His ancestors John, Tom and William Brown settled on the shores of Bedford Basin in the city of Halifax, forming Canada’s oldest black community as free men and escaped African slaves made it across the border.
Once President Millard Fillmore signed the infamous Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, it was no longer safe for runaway slaves to escape to the Northern states. In order to evade the paid bounty hunters, many of whom hung around these very streets in search of prey; they had to get across the border to Canada to be free. Not everyone who tried made it; many who did, had to fight to survive against some rather formidable odds.
Among the more twisted events in local history that nourished the fertile creative folklore artists like Hurston and Dett is the strange tale of the Jerry Rescue which took place just up the road in Syracuse on Oct. 1, 1851, while the anti-slavery Liberty Party happened to be holding their New York State Convention.
As the story goes, Underground Railroad stationmaster Jermain Loguen and his supporters had announced their intentions to openly disobey the Fugitive Slave Act, much to the consternation of then-secretary of state Daniel Webster (Yup, Mr. Dictionary himself), who proclaimed the law “will be executed in all the great cities — here in Syracuse — in the midst of the next Anti-Slavery Convention, if the occasion shall arise.”
The occasion arose!
Around noon on that day, federal marshals from Canandaigua, Syracuse, Auburn and Rochester, along with local police, arrested a barrel-maker at his workplace on a phony theft charge. Once he was manacled, the charge became a violation of the Fugitive Slave Act. His name was William Henry, but he was also known as Jerry.
Well, in spite of the lack of electronic social media, it didn’t take long for word to reach the convention. With a battering ram and a large crowd estimated as large as “2,500 angry men,” the prisoner was surrendered.
History is not clear on whether Jerry ever made it to Canada, but the event itself is memorialized with a monument in Clinton Square in downtown Syracuse.
Hopefully, someday soon, Niagara Falls will, one day in the not too distant future, also build honorary monuments in the state park and near the falls, where some of the millions of visitors who come through here every year might gain some insight and recognition of the fact that formerly enslaved people, all fellow Americans, were forced to escape into Canada via the Underground Railroad, and they did so with the help and assistance of thousands of willing abolitionists, many of whom may still have family roots here in Niagara Falls and around the country.
No doubt the Fugitive Slave Act helped to spur the development of Africville, Nova Scotia which ultimately grew into a flourishing all-black community of more than 800 people before it met its demise (www.africville.ca).
Sealy says in the liner notes of his album, “Africville”:
“As the roots of Africville grew deeper, the city of Halifax simply grew. In time, new development brought such neighbours as a bone meal fertilizer plant, a slaughterhouse, factories, and eventually, the city dump.
Perhaps the most telling symbol of indifference arrived with the railway lines built right through the center of the community dividing it forever, physically, and perhaps even spiritually. Without basic services ... Africville fell victim to neglect. In 1962 the City Council adopted a proposal to offer Africville residents housing in unsegregated, subsidized rental housing ... the bulldozers were not far behind.
The tragedies that took the lives of Martin and Davis, like the tragedies that take the lives of so many young; war, crime, poverty, sickness could be avoided all together if people could find ways to get to know each other better.
They say, “Familiarity breeds contempt”. The more we know about each other only as stereotypes of one another, the easier it is to dislike each other.
Actually, I think unfamiliarity breeds contempt; familiarity breeds familiarity.
Perhaps we should familiarize ourselves with the artists; maybe they, like the Olympians, can teach us that we have much more in common than not, eh?