Saturday, February 7, 2015

Looking for hidden histories

Photo of the cook from page 30 of the book 'Saga of Baron Frederick de Bary & de Bary Hall, Florida'
"Aunt Lizzie" - no other name given- was a cook at
DeBary Hall. This photo is on page 104 of the book
 Saga of Baron Frederick de Bary & de Bary Hall

There is a hashtag going around in Twitter that says #BlackHistoryYouDidntLearnInSchool. I think there ought to be another one that says "black history you didn't learn enough about." To me, that includes recollections about daily and community life in pioneer black communities as told via personal journals, histories, letters, books, and interviews. I'm not talking about famous African-Americans and highly documented communities such as Zora Neale Hurston's Eatonville. I mean the everyday people who come and go through life, contributing much to the wider cultural fabric and then fading from history.

Much of what I've turned up about everyday 19th century African-Americans is filtered through the histories of the dominant culture. We may learn that such-and-such a person worked for so-and-so, but we don't know what that person did when they went home. 

For example, the 1968 Saga of Baron Frederick de Bary & de Bary Hall, Florida (Convention Press) includes photos of " 'Aunt Lizzie,' who cooked the 4:30 a.m. breakfasts" (104), Bryson - Baron DeBary's valet, and Anthony, "who used to walk four miles to and from de Bary Hall each day" (105). Couldn't someone at DeBary Hall have provided him with a mule and cart? What was Lizzie's last name? Did she also walk to work, likely in the middle of the night? Who cooked for her family? Were any of these employees residents of the nearby community of Garfield, settled by former slaves? How much did they earn? Silence echoes where there should be answers. These pioneers are deprived of even their full names.

I give author Edith G. Brooks credit for including photos of these early Florida residents and for at least sharing a glimpse of what life was like for them as employees. In a word: hard. During hunting season, Lizzie was always at her post when most people were asleep. She turned out breakfasts of grits, broiled game or birds such as quail, and griddle cakes, and had them ready by 4:30 in the morning for the hunters. In a side note, Edith writes that the children loved Lizzie, who would tell them "endless and fascinating stories" (30) while smoking her pipe. How I wish we knew some of those stories.
Historic photo of Joseph Branham from page 113 of ' Saga of Baron Frederick de Bary & de Bary Hall, Florida'
Joseph Branham, born in the 1870s, was interviewed when
 he was 92.  This photo is on page 113 of 'Saga.'
Anthony cleaned guns, polished boots, skinned game, and always arrived at work with a lantern. That's because he wouldn't go home "until all the family were in bed" (31). Yet he'd be back on the job in time to light the fires for those early-morning breakfasts. If he walked four miles daily, that means he lived about two miles from DeBary Hall. He must have been home just long enough to grab a few hours of sleep. 

We learn a tiny bit more about a worker named Joseph Branham, because Edith interviewed him in 1967 when he was 92. That means he was born about 1875. He talked of how much he enjoyed "tending the high-stepping horses owned by both Frederick and Adolphe" (65). Frederick was the "Baron" who built DeBary Hall, and Adolphe was his son. Joseph primarily drove Adolphe's mule cart. More interesting to me is that we find out what Joseph did after decades of work at DeBary Hall: He retired to a small farm, where he "grew fruits and vegetables and sold them at his roadside stand" (65).

Florida was segregated during all of Joseph's working years. His older predecessors worked at DeBary Hall during Reconstruction and the subsequent era of increasingly discriminatory regulations. Life wasn't easy for any Florida pioneer. For some, the burdens were even heavier.

DeBary Hall is a Historic Site that is open to visitors.

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