THIS WEEK’S FEATURED BOOKS, “A GREATER MONSTER,” BY DAVID DAVID KATZMAN, “TWIN OAKS,” BY MELISSA PALMER AND “WAKE ME UP,” BY JUSTIN BOG, CAN BE FOUND BY SCROLLING DOWN BELOW THIS POST, OR BY CLICKING THE AUTHOR’S NAME ON OUR AUTHOR PAGE.
Allow me to indulge myself just a little.
Since the purpose of this blog is to promote and publicize other peoples’ work, it makes me a bit uncomfortable to put something I’ve done front and center. But this is also Black History Month, and I wanted to find a book in our “collection” to highlight that. For better or worse, the only option seemed to be one of my own, titled: “Inspiration Street: Two City Blocks That Helped Change America.”
Meanwhile, I thought Adele Elliott’s “Witch Ball” — compared by one reviewer to “To Kill a Mockingbird” — was also a good choice for the beginning of this month, because one of its threads deals with race relations in a small southern town (Columbus, MS). More about that book below.
So why would a white guy from Upstate New York become interested in southern black history? Because of the people in this book. I learned of them during my time as a newspaper columnist in Lynchburg, VA, and they have apparently chosen me as one of their mediums. Therefore, I take no credit for writing “Inspiration Street” — I just listened, then wrote the stories down.
I’m not telling you this just to sell books. Honest. I’d simply be happy if reading this post makes you want to find out more about Anne Spencer, Chauncey Spencer, Walter Johnson, Frank Trigg, Amaza Meredith, C.W. Seay and the others who lived and thrived in the 1300 and 1400 blocks of Pierce Street in Lynchburg, VA during the time of segregation.
The popular perception seems to be that black history began with the Underground Railroad and ended with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., but the people in this book tell us otherwise. Each one represents a triumph over personal and societal obstacles, and we need such inspiration very badly these days.
Anne Spencer was brought up by a single mother in a small West Virginia town and had no schooling of any kind until age 11. Yet she became the only African-American woman included in the prestigious Norton Anthology of American Poetry, and the home she and husband Edward shared at 1313 Pierce evolved into a magnet for most of the black literary figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Rev. King made a special trip there to meet her.
Her son Chauncey wasn’t allowed to learn to fly in segregated Lynchburg, so he moved to Chicago. In 1939, he and fellow black aviator Dale White flew a rickety two-seater plane from Chicago to Washington, surviving a crash-landing en route, to advocate for the integration of the armed services — especially the Army Air Corps. Their cause was taken up by then-Sen. Harry Truman, and Spencer is credited with being one of the organizers of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
Walter Johnson, wild and undisciplined as a young man, became a college football star, then a family physician in Lynchburg who made house calls to the city’s poorest residents. On the side, he taught tennis to young people on his small backyard clay court during summers, and two of those students — Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson — became the first black Wimbledon and U.S. Open champions.
Amaza Meredith was denied admission to any school of architecture in Virginia because of her gender and race, so she essentially taught herself. Eventually, she designed an almost futuristic building on the Virginia State University campus and an entire subdivision on Long Island.
Over 30 years as principal all-black Dunbar High School, C.W. Seay turned it into one of the top secondary schools in the country, on either side of the color line. During the summer, while Dr. Johnson taught tennis down the street, Seay drove up and down the East Coast looking for the best black teachers he could find.
Frank Trigg, born a slave, lost an arm in an plantation farm accident as a child. Despite that unpromising beginning, he he grew up to become the president of three colleges.
Two blocks of an inner city street in an out-of-the way southern town. There are lessons here both for those who buy into negative stereotypes about black Americans and for young people growing up in America’s inner cities who have already given up. Or for those who think only our metropolitan centers produce important people.
UPCOMING ON SNOWFLAKES IN A BLIZZARD, FEB. 6-12.
“WITCH BALL,” BY ADELE ELLIOTT.
A kooky transvestite aunt, a shocking murder, and three generations of family secrets collide to make a high school girl’s summer anything but boring.
Gertrude (Truly) Moore is at loose ends during a sweltering summer in Columbus, Mississippi. Her crush on a college boy, Eric, meets surprising resistance from her parents, Kay and Tommy, and her Grandfather Hyrum. Their motives for objecting to Eric are as bewildering as the two-headed snake that Hyrum once owned.
“Witch Ball” exposes the prejudices and long standing emotional wounds of a small southern town. Complex relationships are intertwined in this mystery of a witch hunt, leading to psychic healing. This novel is true “Southern Gothic,” touched with magic. It is Flannery O’Connor meets Fannie Flagg — humorous, tragic, and a bit absurd.
“INSPIRATION STREET,” BY DARRELL LAURANT.
FIRST TUESDAY REPLAY
This month, we will revisit “The Festival of Earthly Delights,” by Matt Dojny, “The Truth and the Life,” by Elizabeth Moore, “Behold the Beauty,” by Monica Sharman, “Strays,” by Jennifer Caloyeras, “Faithfully Yours,” by Peggy Frezon and “Floyd the Dog,” by Donald Ford.