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    My Late Father and THE BLACK RUSSIAN

    My father, Eugene A. Alexandrov, died last week, on September 16, 2014, at the age of 98 and five days.  He was born on September 11, 1916, in the small city Cherkassy, which was then in the Kiev Governorate (Guberniia) of the Russian Empire.  His parents taught in local gymnasiums, which are types of schools in parts of Europe that provide advanced secondary educations, roughly comparable to American high schools and the beginnings of college.  My paternal grandfather taught history; my grandmother—French.

     

    One of my favorite photographs of my late father and my late mother, Natalia, at a ball in New York City in 1966.

     

    My father became a geologist and got his Ph. D. at Columbia in 1965.  He taught his special field, economic geology (as well as other subjects), in Queens College of CUNY for many years.  He loved field work and became famous for the summer excursions he organized for his students to visit working mines in the United States, Canada, and even Europe.  I have been touched by the number of his former students and colleagues who wrote to me about their fond recollections of these trips, how much they learned from him, and what a caring mentor he was.

     

    My late father with two students examining a specimen during a visit to a working mine in 1971.

     

    My late father with a group of students on a field trip in the early 1970s.

     

    But my father’s interests were much broader than geology, or even natural history (a love for which he instilled in me at an early age via numerous walks through forests and fields in the New York area, as well as elsewhere in the US and abroad).  He knew well six languages, had a smattering of many others, was interested in archeology, anthropology, ethnology, cosmology, history, literature, and many other aspects of culture. 

    He also helped me in two important ways when I was working on The Black Russian.

    When I did research on Frederick Thomas’s family in the Chancery Court of Coahoma County in Clarksdale, Mississippi, I found documents in which Frederick was listed as having a half-sister named Ophelia.  I researched this name in studies of black American naming patterns and discovered that it was very rare.  So why was she given it?  The first source that came to mind was of course Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but it didn’t make sense to have a girl child named after a tragic suicide.  Perhaps, I thought, the name was chosen simply because it was euphonius.  But then I thought of my subject’s first and middle names—Frederick and Bruce—and decided that there might be a more complicated reason. 

    “Frederick” was very likely inspired by Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a celebrated abolitionist, author, and statesman.  He was widely known throughout the United States starting in the 1850s, and his name carried impressive associations that would have appealed to black people like the Thomases, who had also transcended the legacy of their enslaved past.  A possible source for Frederick’s middle name—and one that was quite near at hand—was Blanche K. Bruce.  He was a former slave who became a rich landowner in Bolivar County, Mississippi, during the late 1860s, and a politician both there and in Tallahatchie County, before being elected to the United States Senate in 1874 (where he was the first black man to serve a full term).  Because Coahoma County shares borders with both Bolivar and Tallahatchie—and the latter was very near the Thomas farm—it is possible that the Thomases knew Bruce personally.  They could have been moved to give his surname to their son as a middle name.

    I told my father about my research, and asked him what he thought of Ophelia’s name.  It didn't take him very long to come up with what strikes me as a plausible explanation. He suggested that the source may have been Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which Miss Ophelia St. Clare is an admirable secondary character who overcomes her northern prejudice against blacks.  This could have made her into a suitable namesake for the child of ambitious black parents like the Thomases.  And because the novel had been published in 1852 and was the second biggest best-seller in the United States in the nineteenth century (after the Bible), where it was celebrated in the North and reviled by whites in the South, it is quite possible that Ophelia’s mother, who was literate, knew it.  I had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in high school and forgotten.  My father read the novel much longer ago and remembered.

    The second way in which my father helped me reflects his command of languages.  In the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, I found several letters that Frederick’s ex-wife, Valli, wrote in German to American diplomats in Constantinople in the early 1920s.  I can read modern German, and, with some difficulty, the old-style, printed Gothic German.  But Valli’s letters were in handwritten Gothic German that I had never seen before and could scarcely make out.  I feared that I was facing a long struggle to learn how to decipher this script.  And then I remembered that my father went to a German-language high school in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  I gave him copies I had made of the letters, and he was able to read and translate them for me without any special effort, commenting only that the woman’s handwriting wasn’t very clear.  This was many decades after he had had any significant exposure to handwritten Gothic German. 

    He read my book before he died, and was pleased that he could be helpful.

    My family and I miss him.

    Вечная Память.  Eternal Memory.

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