Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Black Friday: Unfinished Business

Fugitive Slaves (1867) by Theodor Kaufmann

I have posted on Black Friday before on River Vices.  Under the rubric of unfinished business, I am in this post again raising the issue of that infamous but unacknowledged day in Portsmouth history. What I am proposing is that Shawnee State University, as an institution of higher learning and of academic freedom, arrange to have Robert Dafford paint a mural depicting  Black Friday on some prominent building on campus. But it is very unlikely such a mural will ever be painted on the floodwall, not as long as the Lutes and the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce  have anything to say about it. Of course, the chances that a Black Friday mural will ever appear on the SSU campus are not much better since the university trustees are a notorious rubber stamp, but it is worth trying because a failed attempt now might pave the way for success tomorrow.

according to Evans, the illustration above accompanied
 notices in Portsmouth of runaway slaves

Kroger's engaged Dafford to paint a mural in which blacks, among others, are depicted on a prominent outside wall of that supermarket, on Chillicothe Street.  Can't the university follow Kroger's  example? Probably not. The shortsighted Floodwall Murals people reportedly objected to Dafford painting a mural on Kroger's, feeling it would detract from the Floodwall murals. Instead of detracting from the Floodwall Murals, the Kroger mural, which is a mural masterpiece,  should attract more visitors to the city and not just to Front Street, and that will be good for everybody, including the Floodwall Murals. I have looked carefully for Dafford's signature on the Kroger's mural. If it is there, I couldn't find it. The name Robert at the center top of the drygoods store may refer obliquely to him.

Black boys playing checkers from Dafford's Kroger mural

The politics of a Black Friday mural on an SSU building, is much more complicated than they are for the Kroger mural. I say, "Damn the complications, full speed ahead!" to rephrase a stirring quote from the Second World War. If Dafford's signature is not on the Kroger's, or even if it is there but cannot easily be seen, it constitutes yet another coverup where Portsmouth murals are concerned.
If SSU would permit a suppressed event in Portsmouth's history to be prominently displayed on campus, what a signal occasion that would be in the university's history. It might be one of the first thing visitors, especially black visitors, might want to see. But that will probably not happen, not in a hundred years, not  unless the students at SSU, and black students in particular, pressure the administration and trustees. A Black Friday mural would strike a blow for academic freedom and as a token redress  for the city's past racism.  Instead of looking over Dafford's shoulder and mandating a kind of Chamber of Commerce treatment of Portsmouth's past,  Kroger's apparently gave Dafford a free hand, and the result is a beautiful summer-day juxtaposition of age and youth, of primness and playfulness, of ground floor openness and upper floor mystery.
. . .

Taking as my model the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, I am writing a history of Portsmouth in the complex sonnet form he created for that work.  Two of the sonnets in my history in verse concern the Black Friday incident:

Their ancestors chained in bilboes,
shipped to the American South,
the situation of Negroes
was precarious in Portsmouth.
Ohio was not a slave state,
not officially at any rate,
but just across the river,
Kentucky was. Sweats and shivers,
Long hot summers and cold winters--
it didn’t make much difference
whether you were a "buck" or "wench,"
your hands were callouses and splinters.
By 1830, even if free,
you were too close to Kentucky.

In that year,  on January 1st,
a Proclamation insisted
that Portsmouth blacks should be dispersed,
driven out, those that resisted
being liable to arrest
as the sherif would attest,
including women and children,
and even worse for the black men.
Because of the day of the week
on which the Negroes were defamed,
on which their expulsion was proclaimed,
it became infamous, unique.
Commemorated in no way,
the little known day is Black Friday.

For a previous relevant River Vices post click here