Blackface replaces actual black lives with a grotesque white fantasy of blackness. But shoe polish is not necessary. It can be done with the invention of history and a profession of love.
In 1925, a streetcar struck and killed 70-year-old Robert Damell.
Mr. Damell, a black man, had been the sexton at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, popularly known as “the Church of the Confederacy,” featuring memorial windows to Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. (Sexton is the fancy Episcopalian word for janitor.)
Mr. Damell had been a member of Ebenezer Baptist Church, but the St. Paul’s vestry, overcome with their own grief, insisted on not only paying for his funeral, but also having that funeral at St. Paul’s.
In what was a remarkable act for 1925, the vestry allowed Robert Damell’s family and friends to occupy the pews on the ground floor of St. Paul’s, while the white people retreated to the gallery of the church—the place where Black men and women were usually segregated.
Oh, St. Paul’s was so proud of its benevolence… so pleased with its own cleverness.
So was the Richmond Times Dispatch, which couldn’t get enough of the irony of Black mourners sitting in the Confederate church.
The Times Dispatch forcefully described Robert Damell as an old colored man and a faithful old negro, who loved serving at St. Paul’s, and who St. Paul’s loved in return. Its editors revealed why the performance of St. Paul’s love for its departed sexton was important. In an editorial that didn’t even mention Mr. Damell’s name, it wrote,
The say the War Between the States was fought to preserve slavery; they say the South hates and is cruel to the negroes; they say that true freedom and true kindliness are to be found by the negro only outside the South. Without bitterness and without spleen, it is asked: Can there be hatred and cruelty and oppression here, when in the capital of the Confederacy, in the church which was its chief temple, an old negro man who has died in service draws together at his death the very flower of the South to join in sorrow and in hope to do him honor.
Elite white people regarded the Damell funeral as a refutation of the charges of racism and a true picture of race relations in the south.
If only it were.
Damell’s funeral came at the height of a national craze over the idea of faithful slaves and beloved mammies.
Lost Cause promoters loved talking about masters who were good to their slaves, and slaves who were grateful for benevolent treatment and content in the safety of their bondage; and as if chronology was interchangeable with imagination, Southerners in the 1920s loved talking about their beloved mammies and servants and how loyal those mammies and servants were to the families that employed them.
They had invented a useable past—gentility, hospitality, and harmonious race relations then (in the time of slavery) and now (in the time of Jim Crow) that cast white southerners in the best possible light, while projecting a shield against criticism for segregation and lynching.
They really did believe it, and they loved to memorialize this one particular story about race relations while they ignored all others.
In fact, the United Daughters of the Confederacy proposed a monument to mammies in Washington, DC in 1923. Ultimately, wasn’t built, but faithful slave and faithful servant monuments from that period are easy to find.
In Evergreen Cemetery is the headstone of Agnes Weeden, who served the Ross family in Richmond. George Ross served as a warden at St. Paul’s and Elizabeth Ross chaired the committee that raised money for the Jefferson Davis window in her church.
Robert Damell’s stone, paid for by St. Paul’s, reads,
Seventeen Years The Trusted Sexton of St. Paul’s Church
Well done, good and faithful servant, enter though into the joy of thy Lord.
I have no doubt that the white people at St. Paul’s felt genuine affection for Mr. Damell. He replaced a sexton who they had to fire for sleeping on the job, and Damell did his work well. Part of that work was to open the church doors to tourists who wished to see the Davis and Lee windows.
But in all the news coverage and all of the back-patting for St. Paul’s and its regard for black people, a few things were left out.
In St. Paul’s vestry book, in lists of church staff, we find Dr. Bowie, Miss Conrad, Mr. Rady,
Miss Deane, and Robert. Just Robert. When they did record his last name, they spelled it wrong as much as they spelled it right.
And while a few national newspaper notices mentioned it, Robert Damell’s headstone completely overlooks the fact that he was born enslaved in Northumberland County, Virginia; was a waterman and sailor after emancipation; and that he enlisted in the 9th and reenlisted in the 10th United States Cavalry and served in the Indian Wars in the 1870s and 1880s. His wife was named Fannie and his daughter named Charlotte. Though they couldn’t have known it in 1925, Charlotte later married a doctor.
Here, he is nothing more than a faithful servant.
The same people that inscribed Robert Damell’s headstone and told us what was important–to them–about his life, wrote the history of slavery and the Civil War for 20th Century Virginia. Their portrayal of Black men and women in history and their own time as faithful servants, and nothing more, justified three things:
- They affirmed their present day economic and social order that confined Black men and women to domestic and low-skill work… and as content in it
- The made self-determined and undeferential black doctors, educators, activists, and professionals invisible.
- They thereby created a history that simply did not see Black men and women as victims of slavery and segregation, as agents in their own freedom from it, and resilient in their recovery.
These invented tropes of kind masters/employers and grateful slaves/servants, in the hands of textbook writers and monument builders, crowded out Maggie Walker, Rosa Dixon Bowser, Giles Jackson, and John Mitchell, Jr. I see the consequences of this whenever I’m at a public conversation about slavery with a predominantly white audience and someone inevitably insists that, well, we were good to our servants… we loved them. These poor folks never had an opportunity to learn a different story.
All I can think of are how many other stories we never grew up with because of all the professed goodness and love, and that’s why I’m devoted to excavating a more accurate view of the past.
A few things:
- There will probably be a follow-up post on this with more on Robert Damell and his family.
- St. Paul’s surprises as much as it frustrates. At the same time as they were contributing to a national historical narrative that apologized slavery and justified segregation, its clergy and laypeople were sitting with Black community leaders (including Maggie Walker and Gordon Blaine Hancock) to find ways to oppose segregation ordnances and increase city services in Black residential neighborhoods.
- Erin Holloway Palmer has created the East End Cemetery website that chronicles the literal excavation of Richmond’s African American history. You can help; just go out there any Saturday morning and start digging!
- Langston Hughes’ Madam and Her Madam seems relevant.
- Kali Holloway’s article, “‘Loyal Slave’ Monuments Tell a Racist Lie About American History,” came out after this post, and is very good.