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    WELCOME TO THE BLACK RUSSIAN BLOG--DEDICATED TO TOPICS CONNECTED WITH, AND CIRCLING AROUND, MY BIOGRAPHY OF FREDERICK BRUCE THOMAS, THE SON OF MISSISSIPPI SLAVES WHO BECAME A MILLIONAIRE IMPRESARIO IN PRE-REVOLUTIONARY MOSCOW AND 'THE SULTAN OF JAZZ' IN CONSTANTINOPLE To subscribe to this blog's RSS feed, please click on the icon above

    Entries in Jim Crow (3)

    Frederick Has to Lie to American Diplomats in Constantinople

    The note in Orient News was a wonderful endorsement for Frederick’s new nightspot in Constantinople, and a “Winter Salon” did open in the Anglo-American Villa a month later with a program similar to what had proven successful during the summer.  But Frederick’s optimistic plan to travel to the capital of Romania to book new acts ran into a serious obstacle. 

    To leave Constantinople, he would need a passport, and to get one he had to apply to the American Consulate General.  This would be more complicated and risky than dealing with Jenkins, the American Consul in Odessa, had been.  Unlike him, the American diplomats in Constantinople were not facing a panicked evacuation and would not act without authorization from the State Department in Washington.

    Frederick took the plunge on October 24, 1919, and met with Charles E. Allen, the Consul in Charge.  Allen was a young southerner and a fairly low-ranked figure among the Americans at the Consulate General.  And as documents in the National Archives demonstrate, he resented the black man in front of him, who had arrived trailing stories of riches and fame in Moscow, and with a white wife and a clutch of mixed-race sons to boot.

     

    Charles Allen, the American diplomat with whom Frederick Thomas had to deal in 1919

     

    Without going into all the details that I discuss in my book, it is clear that Frederick tried to do whatever he could to protect himself and his family.  For the first time in many years, the long arm of American racism was reaching out to him across oceans and continents. 

    During his interview, Frederick told Allen a series of big and small tactical lies about his past, such as inventing a sister in Nashville who could supposedly vouch for him.   He was also very canny about his future intentions and said exactly what he thought Allen would want to hear.  This included that Frederick wanted the passport to go to Russia and France because he intended to “settle my property interests en route to the U. S. to put my children in school.”  Frederick also indicated that he planned to return to the United States within six months and to reside there permanently. 

    This was all a smokescreen and it is unlikely that Allen believed him.  Frederick had no financial interests in France (although he might have fantasized about moving there because Paris was becoming famous for its hospitality toward black Americans after the Great War).  And he could not possibly have wanted to return to Russia while the Bolsheviks were in power and a civil war was raging. 

    Frederick also undoubtedly understood that he and his family would not be able to lead normal lives in most of the United States, where Jim Crow was riding triumphant and where Frederick’s marriage to Elvira would be seen in many states not only as reprehensible, but illegal. 

    The situation of black people in the United States was well known in Constantinople, where English and French-language newspapers regularly ran lurid articles about American racial policies and lynchings. 

    (To be continued)

    The Horrors Frederick Left Behind in Bolshevik Odessa

    The brutality and abuse that Frederick and the other evacuees from Odessa suffered at the hands of the French in April 1919 might have made some of the Russians regret that they had decided to flee the Bolsheviks. 

    But those doubts disappeared when reports began to arrive from Russia about the reign of terror that the Bolsheviks, and especially the Cheka--their notorious political police, unleashed as soon as they occupied the city. 

     

    Victims of the "Red Terror" During the Russian Civil War

     

    The Bolsheviks began by levying a tribute of five hundred million rubles in cash on local residents whose names, and the specific sums demanded from them, were published in local newspapers.  Those who did not pay were thrown into prison or made to clean the city’s streets.

    Hundreds of people were also tortured and executed, including women and children.  The nine-year old heir of the famous Polish noble family the Radziwills was killed, purportedly to stop the family’s succession.  Small boats tried to escape from Odessa at night to reach Greek and French ships at sea. 

    Had he stayed in Odessa, Frederick would also very likely have been killed.  The Bolsheviks did not care that he had been an oppressed black man in the United States.  The only thing that mattered to them was that he had become a rich bourgeois in Russia—and thus a “class enemy” who had to be destroyed. 

    Frederick could no more have shed his class "stigma" in Bolshevik Russia than his skin color in the Jim Crow American South.

    “The Butler” and the “Black Russian,” or Success via the School of Hard Knocks

    I found Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” to be a powerful, moving, and well-crafted film, with wonderful performances by Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo, Cuba Gooding, Jr., and many others in the exceptional ensemble.  It’s also a necessary film at the present historical moment, when the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement are under widespread assault.

    Despite the obvious differences between the lives and times of “the butler”—Cecil Gaines, and the “black Russian”—Frederick Thomas, I was struck by some similarities they shared.  Most important, it seems to me, is how each man became a highly successful member of the “service profession” in response to the cruel pressures of Jim Crow, which of course also severely restricted what a black man could do for a living.

    Cecil and Frederick both started out working for white people in the South and then later in the North.  As a result, each began his career by having to face the inevitable, a priori skepticism of Southern whites who didn’t expect a black youth to behave properly or to be able to carry out his duties well.  In Cecil’s case we see this in the way he’s scrutinized and admonished by the elderly white woman, played by Vanessa Redgrave, who decides to train him as a house servant (she is, in her own way, trying to be kind to him immediately after his mother is raped and father is murdered).  Later, Cecil faces a related attitude in the North, in the scene with the captious White House Chief of Staff who closely watches him working in a bar in Washington, which leads to Cecil’s being offered the job as White House butler.  One can readily imagine that if Cecil had slipped up even slightly in the bar (which would have been easy for him to do, considering the bigoted white man he was serving), he would have been finished.  But Cecil’s skill and intelligence (about which, more below), carry him through and he becomes a master of his profession, although the Chief of Staff’s attitude toward him remains decidedly unfriendly for decades.

    Frederick’s early training must have been similar to Cecil’s, given that his first urban job was as a delivery boy for a white, upscale food merchant in Memphis.  Frederick faced even more scrutiny and even higher hurdles when he became a waiter in a big, new hotel in Chicago, which of course catered only to white patrons.  In fact, there is evidence that Frederick never forgot what it took for him to succeed as he was starting his career in Jim Crow America.  Many years and adventures later, when he was the proprietor of a famous nightclub in Constantinople, he had a revealing encounter with a tourist, Mrs. C. C. Harper of Montgomery, Alabama.  She could hardly get over the fact that the nightclub’s owner was a black man from the South, and gushed in a letter that he was “a good polite negro . . . as hugely pleased at meeting a Southern woman from America as he could be . . . [and was] never presumptuous.”  Mrs. Harper was not only blinded by her own racist narcissism; she was also taken in by the role that Frederick had chosen to play when dealing with her.  Because he was the celebrated host of a popular establishment, it was natural for him to be charming and welcoming to every customer.  But the woman’s reaction shows that he must have spoken to her in a way that was calibrated to her specific biases—with the exaggerated courtesy that whites expected from blacks in the United States (a successful and profitable businesss was the best revenge).

    As such, this encounter also illustrates a larger issue that is central to “The Butler.”  The way Frederick addressed the woman is an example of the “veiled” way black people spoke, and sometimes still speak, to whites in comparison to the uncensored way they speak to each other.  Henry Louis Gates, Jr., praises the film especially for its accuracy in portraying this feature of black life and culture in his review article about the film, "'The Butler':  Lifting the Veil on Black Life."  In this light, it’s very interesting to note that even when he was living abroad, Frederick would at times drop his guard and speak frankly to a white American with whom he had become friends, using the kinds of “unpolished” expressions that he would not have used with a Mrs. Harper.

    In addition to the formative influence of working under the heavy gaze of quarrelsome or hostile white people, the most important training that Cecil gets in the film is from another black man, “Maynard.”  I believe that this too has a parallel in Frederick’s case.  When researching his life in Gilded Age Chicago, I came across a fascinating manual for black waiters written by a prominent black maître-d’hôtel, John B. Goines (I posted a series of entries about this earlier on my blog: here, here, and here). In the early 1890s, fully one third of Chicago’s small black population was employed in domestic and personal service, which included workers in restaurants and hotels, in private homes, and on trains as Pullman porters.  This was by far the largest niche that blacks filled.  And there is little doubt that Frederick was initially trained as a waiter by senior, experienced black men like Goines, who also occupied honored and privileged positions in their own communities.  Moreover, the training Frederick received stood him in such good stead that he was able to use it to excel as a waiter and valet in Europe, where he was at times put in charge of “native” waiters, and as a stepping stone to fame and fortune in Russia and Turkey. 

    Implied in everything I’ve mentioned is the importance for a successful black waiter to be an exceptional psychologist.  A white servant obviously also needs to be responsive to his client’s or employer’s desires.  But a black man who has to be constantly on alert against a white racist’s negative stereotypes and biases must be especially astute.  Frederick’s encounter with the Alabama matron is only one of many examples of how skillful he was at “reading” others and positioning himself to maximal advantage in relation to them.  Cecil shows his intelligence in this way as well. One example is how he diplomatically negotiates the loaded questions that the white politician asks him during the scene in the bar, when he’s being covertly watched by the White House Chief of Staff.  Another is how he overcomes the resentment of Freddie Fallows, the black maître d’hôtel at the White House, who is miffed that he wasn’t the one who initiated Cecil’s hiring.  There are many other such moments in Forest Whitaker’s masterful performance.  And what is striking about many of them is that Cecil never loses his sense of personal dignity when dealing with difficult or offensive white people.   The far-reaching importance of this kind of behavior is revealed in a scene in the film when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stresses the crucial role that a black servant’s dignity has in demonstrating to whites the value and humanity of black people in general.

    One final point.  There is unintended and painful irony in my juxtaposing Cecil and Frederick, because although both men were forged by similar circumstances, their fates turned out to be very different.  With his native intelligence and the skills that he mastered, Cecil reached honorable distinction in his profession, but he was always circumscribed by white bias.  However, Frederick, who was also highly intelligent, took the same set of skills that Cecil had and went abroad with them to countries where there was no bias against black people.  And there he was able to flourish in a way that would be unimaginable for black people in the United States for many decades to come.