Welcome to my archived blog about The Black Russian
Why "archived"? Because I started it in 2012, a year before the book was published, in part to save some of the material I had to leave on the "cutting room floor" as I trimmed the 750-page manuscript to produce the final version, which was less than half that length. I decided to archive the posts here, on my new website, because I think they contain useful (and I hope!) interesting information.
When I was researching the book, I tried to find out about, and to describe in detail, all kinds of things related to Frederick Bruce Thomas's life and times ("FT" became my shorthand reference to him after a while, especially for the benefit of my wife, son, and daughter--who patiently listened to my stories over the course of several years). Because I could not keep a lot of this really interesting material in the book, I am pleased to be able to share it here. Much of my information about Coahoma County in Mississippi, where Frederick was born and lived in his youth, comes from two valuable books: James C. Cobb's The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (Oxford, 1992); and Linton Weeks's Clarksdale and Coahoma County (Clarksdale, MS, 1982).
1. Geography Can Be Fate
Slavery and its legacy inevitably loomed over Frederick Thomas’s origins.
But there was another factor that was implicated—geography.
FT was born in 1872 near Clarksdale in Coahoma County, Mississippi, in the northwestern corner of the state known as the Delta. Despite the region’s name, it’s not the Mississippi river’s mouth, but its inland floodplain, and lies some three hundred miles upstream from the Gulf of Mexico. Nonetheless, the Mississippi made the Delta what it was and affected everything that happened there, including how slavery developed.
Together with its tributaries, the Mississippi, which is the fourth longest river in the world, drains much of the eastern two-thirds of the United States, from northern Minnesota to New Orleans. For millions of years, as the winter snows melted upstream in the Mississippi’s vast watershed, the river regularly overflowed its banks. These floods carried huge quantities of silt that was washed down from the areas drained by the river system, and as the floodwaters receded, the silt, together with abundant organic matter, was deposited over the floodplain. (Or at least it used to be, before engineers started to build massive earthen levees along the river’s great length to try to keep it in its channel—a process that began before the Civil War. As we know all too well, these levees fail at times and devastating floods still spread over hundreds of square miles on either side.) This regular replenishing of the soil is what made the Mississippi’s floodplain one of the most fertile regions on earth, and why it has been called the “Nile” of North America.
The weather in the Delta is the final ingredient in the area’s unique geographic mix. Relatively mild winters, short springs and autumns, and long, hot summers allowed a rich variety of vegetable and animal life to flourish. Cotton grew twice as tall in the Delta as in other areas of the South. By the beginning of the Civil War, cotton constituted over half of total American exports and Mississippi alone produced one quarter of it. English fabric mills got most of their cotton from the American South (a factor that would play into English support for the South during the Civil War—about which, more later). By 1860, Coahoma and several other river counties nearby had become among the wealthiest in the entire United States.
But the topography and climate of the area also made the land extraordinarily difficult to work. And all of the labor was carried out by enslaved black people.
2. Geography and Human Settlement in the Delta, or How Human beings Can Reshape the Land
The Mississippi floodplain’s geography also determined how humans could settle in the Delta. When, at the end of the spring floods, the river retreated into its channel, the water did not simply drop its load of nutrient-rich soil and disappear. It lingered in countless interconnected swamps, lakes, and slow-moving streams—called “bayous” in the Delta--that segmented the generally low-lying region into patches of dry land interlaced with bodies of water.
If one drives through Coahoma County today, it's hard to imagine what it looked like even a century ago, to say nothing of the years right after the Civil War. All one sees outside the towns are vast expanses of nearly flat, cultivated fields that are interrupted occasionally by small growths of trees, by streams, and the rare, carefully circumscribed, lake or swamp. However, in the 1860s and until the beginning of the twentieth century, Coahoma County was densely forested, with many trees soaring a hundred feet or more. (As a result, locally harvested lumber would become the primary building material in the area as well as a major supplement to income from farming.) Amidst the trees were jungle-like growths of underbrush and cane, which made passage extremely difficult. The swamps, lakes, and bayous further impeded travel by land, as a result of which water became the primary means of transportation throughout the nineteenth century. Roads appeared slowly in the region, and the few that were built were often impassible because of flooding. As late as 1908, a black postman traveling across Coahoma County had to ride through thick woods most of the way. A trip of twenty miles could take as long as three days if the weather was bad and the road muddy. He would sometimes have to cut a path for himself through fields and brush, and the effort could be so exhausting that he would need a fresh horse for the return trip.
The New York Times ran an article on its front page yesterday (July 3, 2012) about the Daughters of the American Revolution, a patriotic organization that used to be notoriously racist, but that now accepts African-American women as members. The article mentions that some 5,000 blacks fought on the colonists’ side during the Revolution, out of 400,000 whites. Not all blacks did so willingly, although some did; and not all those who fought to win their freedom from slavery actually received it. Nevertheless, today’s descendants of these men are justifiably proud of their ancestors. But the article does not mention that far more black people chose the British side during the Revolution. Why would they have done so? Simon Schama in his Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution (2006) describes how tens of thousands of black people voted “with their feet for Britain and King George” during the Revolution because the last royal governor of Virginia had announced that any slave owned by a rebellious colonist who escaped and served the king would be freed. Tens of thousands did so, fleeing to Nova Scotia, and unleashing one of the great exoduses in American history. However, in the end, many were betrayed by the British and had to flee farther, to Sierra Leone on the coast of West Africa.
Coahoma was one of several new counties formed in the state of Mississippi in 1836 from what had been Indian lands (the county name means "red panther" in Choctaw), but despite a rapid increase in settlers, its population was still sparse on the eve of the Civil War--a little over 6,000 people, of whom more than three-quarters were slaves.
Even in the later part of the nineteenth century, the Delta still looked like a wilderness and teemed with wildlife to an extent that is now difficult to conceive. This made hunting and fishing the simplest way to provide meat for the table, for white and black people alike. Colonel Robert Eager Bobo, a planter near Clarksdale, the Coahoma County seat, who claimed the distinction of being the first white to actually be born in the County, became nationally famous for his exploits as a bear hunter. In 1869, the year Frederick’s parents started out as farmers in Coahoma County, he killed 304 bears, including one that weighed 711 pounds after being gutted.
However, not all forms of the abundant life in the Delta were prey for humans—the opposite was true as well. The large areas of standing water and the hot climate created perfect breeding conditions for clouds of mosquitoes that appeared every spring, making whites who could afford it eager to leave the region for higher and cooler ground. One planter’s wife complained that during the warmest months her baby son “rolls on the floor, scratches and screams every evening as if he would go crazy—he is as badly marked as one just recovering from the small-pox.” Mosquitoes also brought malaria and yellow fever; water borne illnesses ravaged the Delta’s inhabitants as well. Epidemics killed thousands in the nineteenth century, and the black population suffered most of all.
This longer post (split into two parts so as not try the reader's patience too much--as well as to keep her/him reading!) illustrates some of the issues I encountered in my genealogical/historical research. Assembling the information and correlating it was a fascinating task. However, the resulting analysis was much too long and intricate to include in the final version of the book.
Information about Frederick Thomas’s birth date and parents has to be assembled from a variety of sources. An important document is an oral autobiographical statement by Frederick that was written down in 1924 by an American consular official in Constantinople. In it Frederick gives his birthday as November 4, 1869, says that his father’s and mother’s names were Lewis and India, and claims that she died when he was four or five years old, or in the 1870s. However, U. S. Census data suggest that he was mistaken about the year of his birth and that it was closer to 1872. Moreover, a number of documents preserved in the Coahoma County Courthouse in Clarksdale, Mississippi, dating from 1879 to 1890, prove that India was very much alive and still married to Lewis during this period. Additional documents filed after Lewis’s death in 1890 refer to India as his widow, and several of these name Frederick as her son. How can these discrepancies be explained? One possibility is that the consular official in Constantinople made mistakes in what he wrote down; another is that Frederick misremembered when he was recollecting events from fifty years earlier. However, this is more likely with regard to his birth date than to his mother’s name. A third possibility is that Frederick misrepresented his relations with India for psychological reasons, possibly due to a dreadful event that occurred in the family’s life in 1890 (about which, more later).
The census enumerators who went through rural America to count heads in 1870 tried to be accurate but they made mistakes nevertheless. In the case of Frederick Thomas’s family, the most striking error is that enumerators counted the family twice, on July 30 and September 5, and gave two different locations for their farm—Coahoma County and neighboring Tallahatchie County, both in northwestern Mississippi. As multiple documents in the Coahoma County Courthouse prove, the Thomases in fact lived in the southeastern corner of Coahoma County. However, because their farm was only half a mile or so from the border with Tallahatchie County, and because orienting oneself and traveling in that region was very difficult in 1870 and later (see my earlier posts about the heavily-forested, wet terrain, and the scarcity of roads), it appears that a census taker strayed over the county line in September and counted the family a second time. Comparing the two 1870 records also shows how inaccurate the census process could be, as well as how casual people were about their ages at a time when paper records were scarce. “Lewis” in the first record is spelled “Louis” in the second. The parents’ ages differ by a few years—“Lewis” is “36” while “Louis” is “33,” his wife is “34” and “32.” A child, nine-year old “Darby” in the first is “Yancy” in the second; John is “8 months” old on July 30 and “6 months” on September 5; Kate is “5” years old in the first but does not appear at all in the second (in this instance it is also possible that she died between the two enumerators’ visits). By contrast, “William” in Coahoma is likely “Wilmer” (the handwriting is unclear) in Tallahatchie, but is consistently “3” in both. The Coahoma enumerator splits the family in two and gives them two houses, but the Tallahatchie enumerator does not. These differences might also have been the consequence of the regulation in 1870 that allowed federal enumerators to ask anyone who was over twenty years old at a given property for information about everyone else who lived there. This information could have come as readily from a hired hand as from a family member.
However, the redundancy of the two 1870 records is also very useful because it makes possible the verification of two important bits of information. The first is that neither of the 1870 records mentions Frederick, who claimed that he was born in 1869 and should therefore have been listed. This is strong evidence for his actually having been born after September 1870. Confirming this conclusion is the baby in the family. If John was between 6 and 8 months around August of 1870, then he must have been born between December of 1869 and February of 1870. This means that his mother could not have given birth to Frederick in November of 1869 as well. Furthermore, Frederick was still referred to as a “minor” in a court document dated 4 June 1891, which means that he was younger than twenty-one on that date and therefore born after 4 June 1870. The second important fact is that both 1870 records list a woman in the family named Hannah, not India. (to be continued)
The 1880 U. S. Census suggests a way to resolve the discrepancies involving the year Frederick was actually born and what his mother's name was (see previous post) .
On June 5 of that year, an enumerator visited the Thomas farm in Coahoma County and noted that Lewis Thomas was the head of the household; but now he was married to a woman whose name reads either “Juda” or “Inda” (the census-taker’s handwriting is unclear). They have three sons, one of whom is “Fredrick,” eight years old (thus indicating a birthday in 1872), while the others are “Yancy” and “John”; there is no “Kate” or “William.” Given what Frederick said in 1924, “Juda/Inda” is clearly the census taker’s mistake for “India,” much like the other mistakes in names that appeared in the 1870 records. Thus, a plausible conclusion is that Hannah was Lewis’s first wife and that after she died at some point between 1870 and 1880, he married India. As I mentioned before, this region of Mississippi was in fact notorious for its recurring epidemics of yellow fever that killed tens of thousands of people throughout the nineteenth century (especially virulent ones swept through in 1873, 1878, and 1879), so it is hardly surprising to find major changes in families between the two censuses. Frederick’s remarks in 1924 about his mother’s death were thus probably about Hannah. This supposition is confirmed by additional census data, which indicates that Hannah was Frederick’s birth mother and India his stepmother. This follows from the notation that Frederick’s mother was apparently born in Maryland (once again, the handwriting is unclear), which matches Hannah’s birth state as indicated in the 1870 census, but not India’s Alabama, as noted in the 1880 census. In fact, the mother’s birthplace for all of the children in both censuses is given as Maryland. (Lewis’s birthplace is consistently Virginia.) If Frederick’s age was indeed “8” on June 5, 1880, then his mother, Hannah, must have died at some time after June of 1872, which puts a possible early limit on when Lewis might have married India. However, because “8” was probably the enumerator’s, or little Frederick’s, or someone else’s best guess at his age rather than a precise determination, Hannah might have passed out of Lewis’s life closer to 1870 or a bit later than 1872. None of this correlates with Frederick’s recollection in 1924 that his mother died when he was four or five, which would mean 1876 or 1877, if one accepts the census data. However, he may simply have misremembered the timing of events that had occurred decades earlier.
The difference in children’s names between the 1870 and 1880 censuses also needs to be explained. Assuming that the second enumerator in 1870, who visited the Thomas farm in September, did not simply omit Kate, it would appear that she died young. William was three years old in 1870 and does not appear in 1880, which means that he also probably died. John was eight months old in 1870 and is ten years old in 1880, which correlates well. As for “Darby/Yancy” who was “9” in both 1870 records, he reappears as eighteen-year-old “Yancy” in 1880, which suggests that this was his actual name and is reasonably consistent in terms of age.
Determining the actual date of Frederick Thomas’s birth is complicated by other documents. In his eight applications for American passports between 1896 and 1921 when he was in Europe, Frederick (as he always spelled his first name when he wrote it himself) gave dates in the 1860s, albeit differing ones—15 November 1863, 4 November 1868, 15 November 1868, 4 November 1869 (some of these are likely transcription errors made by consular clerks when they copied details from an old passport to issue a new one, such as an “8” being misread as a “3” and leading to the eccentric birth year of “1863”). I chose November 4th as Frederick’s birthday because it is the day and month he gives in what are probably the three most reliable documents extant: his first application for a passport, which he made in Paris in 1896, when he was younger and presumably remembered his past more accurately; his passport application in Constantinople in 1921, when it was crucial for him to receive American recognition; and his autobiographical statement from 1924, on which his future livelihood, safety, and family’s well-being depended. “1872” is dictated by the age given in the 1880 census and by John’s birth, which makes it impossible for Hannah to have given birth to Frederick in 1869.
This means that November 4, 2012, will be the 140th anniversary of Frederick Bruce Thomas's birth. I should organize a party!
Unraveling details like this in his life is part of what made working on his biography absolutely fascinating and very addictive: the more I learned, the more little strands of information I found and connected, the more I wanted to search.
Throughout most of the Delta and the South, the institution of slavery started to collapse right after the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and while the Civil War was still being fought. Despite the brutal efforts of whites to maintain control over their slaves, many blacks rebelled against overseers and masters, refused efforts to evacuate them, seized livestock and other property, and escaped to areas occupied by Union troops. It is easy to imagine that when news of their emancipation reached Frederick Thomas’s parents, Lewis and Hannah, they, like most blacks, erupted with joy. An observer in one Delta community recalled that the former slaves “got together and laughed and sang and danced all night rejoicing”; another wrote, “they jumped and hollered and carried on something terrible. The boys in blue came by to excite them even more.” One old black woman who had been punished by her white owner for refusing to work by being forced to sit on an ant-infested log jumped off and began to run around “shouting and hollering” when she learned that slaves had been freed.
The New York Times had yet another article yesterday, July 23, 2012, about the hideous racism to which black troops were subjected during the Second World War--this time while building the crucial highway from the lower 48 to Alaska. This was a very rushed effort because of US fears of a Japanese invasion of Alaska following Pearl Harbor (which of course was paralleled by the wartime internment of Japanese Americans).
The Huffington Post published an article on August 2, 2012, about a cache of letters that the Kentucky Historical Society acquired that were written by slaves before the Civil War, as well as some letters written by former slaves after the war. As I commented on The Huffington Post, this is an amazing discovery because, as is well known, writings of any kind by American slaves are very rare: whites systematically tried to keep slaves illiterate to make them easier to control.
I'd love to read these letters--perhaps they'll be transcribed and posted on the internet some day. That some of the letters written after the war apparently originated in southern Mississippi makes them even more interesting for me. Frederick Thomas's parents became very prominent in Coahoma County, for multiple reasons, and even though this is in the northwestern corner of the state, who knows how far their fame spread.
Nice article in The Root today (August 3, 2012) entitled "Rolling Down the Blues Highway: Enjoy Mississippi's musical history by visiting spots like the Delta Blues Museum and Po' Monkey's juke joint." As I commented in a post following the article, there's another well-known place in the area to hear blues now--the Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the seat of Coahoma County, which is in the middle of the Delta blues country. It's next door to the Delta Blues Museum, has scheduled performances, and even has rooms to stay above it. One of the owners is the famous actor Morgan Freeman (he was also part owner of a very good, upscale restaurant in Clarksdale called Madidi, which unfortunately closed recently). The musical traditions of Coahoma County of course predate the appearance of the blues. And one of Coahoma's most famous sons was my subject, the remarkable Frederick Bruce Thomas, who was born near Clarksdale in 1872, and who went on to run variety shows with lots of music in Moscow, and was the first to import jazz to Constantinople. There is evidence that his commitment to different kinds of music began during his childhood in the Delta.
AP published a good article today (August 17, 2012) about the troubled legacy of the Civil War in Mississippi. A visible sign of this legacy is the Mississippi state flag, which incorporates the Confederate battle flag, and which voters in a referendum a decade ago decided to keep. Even the preferred Southern designation--"War Between the States"--is an echo of the divide that persists in how that war is viewed, especially in terms of why it was fought. The well-known historian David Blight has written about this and the kinds of revisions to which the events of 1861-1865 were subjected in the later part of the 19th century, which generally elided the issue of slavery and ennobled the image of the South. We live with the consequences of the Civil War to this day, and these do not seem to be fading; on the contrary.
We do not know exactly what Frederick Thomas's parents and family experienced during the Civil War, which brought great destruction to Coahoma County. However, as Cobb (reference in first post below) and other historians have described, Union armies blew up levees, which allowed the Mississippi to flood some areas that had been farmland; burned and looted plantation mansions and slave cabins alike; drove away horses and other livestock; and confiscated cotton and other crops. When some slave owners heard that Union troops were approaching, they tried to preserve their property as best they could by forcing their slaves into the forests and swamps and hiding them. Even when the war ended, some planters were still so wedded to slavery that they tried to conceal from the blacks on their estates that they had been freed. One ex-slave from a Coahoma County plantation who was interviewed in the 1930s recalled that he and his fellow slaves did not know that they had been freed for four years after the end of the war. Another from neighboring Bolivar County said it took three years for ex-slaves to discover that they were free. In all these cases, the ex-slaves had been forced to work by their former masters as if emancipation had not been proclaimed and the South had not been defeated.
13. The Slaves' Backbreaking Labor in the Delta, or What Frederick's Parents Did Before 1869 (Part 1)
Hardly anything is known about the lives of Frederick Thomas’s parents, Lewis and Hannah, before 1869, except for what they had in common with other enslaved blacks in the Delta. The life of a slave in this region was harder than in many other places in the South. The amount of labor the land required to prepare it for planting, the longer annual agricultural cycle in the warm climate, the great financial investment that many planters made in land and slaves in the remote location, and the eagerness of the planters for quick profits from spectacular crops—all caused them to drive their slaves especially hard. On new plantations in the Delta on the eve of the Civil War, slaves spent the winters splitting rails for fences, building cabins, clearing new ground and digging ditches. Bad weather did not stop them. When spring came, slaves first had to plow the land and then plant the cotton and corn, notwithstanding any delays caused by floods. If there was spare time from this labor or from hoeing the rows, they spent it continuing to cut cane and clear the land. Cotton picking would begin in summer and could continue as late as January, thus completing a yearly cycle of backbreaking work. Summer heat would bring attacks of fevers that could strike down many field hands, but those who could stand would have to fill in to gather the harvest. Field work was done by both sexes and all ages, except for the very youngest and the oldest and most decrepit. Additional chores would include slaves working on their masters’ and their own food supplies, such as preparing salt pork. On one occasion, slaves of a prominent planter were recorded as slaughtering thirty-seven hogs by eight in the morning, and finishing butchering and salting all the meat by midday. If slaves displeased the white overseers, they could be whipped.
14. The Slaves' Backbreaking Labor in the Delta, or What Frederick's Parents Did Before 1869 (Part 2)
Frederick was raised by his stepmother, India, who may have been a domestic slave because she was literate. (She was also a remarkably determined and independent woman, as her later life showed.) But domestic slaves did not necessarily have it any easier than field hands. As Cobb mentions in his book (reference below in first post) a rich planter’s wife recorded in her diary the daily schedule that her slave Mary had to follow. Before her own breakfast Mary had to milk fourteen cows, prepare breakfast for the masters and some of the other servants, clean the house, make the beds, wash the dishes, and nurse her own infant. Then she had to clean the kitchen, prepare a big midday meal for the household, wash up, clean the dining room, launder and hang a large pile of clothes, tend to her child, and clean the kitchen, after which she was finally able to go to bed.
When I first came across a reference to a “Russian” black man named “Tomas” [“Томас” in Cyrillic] who owned a nightclub in Constantinople (about which more later), this was such a surprise and seemed so unlikely that I immediately wanted to know more. Like anyone who needs a quick answer to a new question, I started by Googling. But what little popped up mostly repeated what my original source had said. Then, a keyword search of library collections turned up Allison Blakely’s pioneering book, Russia and the Negro, which had two paragraphs on “Thomas,” as I discovered his surname was spelled in English, and cited several other sources that eventually, after various twists and turns, proved invaluable. From these I learned that Thomas may actually have been an American, and that his first name was “George” (which was incorrect, as I discovered only later). But by this point, I was hooked; I had become obsessed with discovering the truth about a man long dead and largely forgotten.
No detail was too small to pursue because I never knew where a particular strand might lead. This is how I found one of Frederick Thomas’s grandchildren in Paris. I never expected anything like this, and my discovery showed me that without chance and luck even the most diligent researcher could fail to get very far. When I look back on the chain of unlikely coincidences that led to my meeting Frederick’s grandson, I still feel surprised and incredulous. (To be continued, of course!)
One of Blakely’s sources (see The Detective, Part 1, above) was an article in a Russian émigré newspaper published in New York in the 1960s that contained some vivid reminiscences about Thomas by two Russians who had worked for him in Constantinople more than forty years earlier. Both also mentioned that Thomas had a son, “Mikhail,” who had been born in Moscow, and who was “now” living and singing “Negro folk songs” and Russian gypsy romances in nightclubs in Paris. In the article, “now” meant 1965, whereas I read this in 2006, and it was unlikely that Mikhail would still be alive forty years later. I searched published sources and the internet, but failed to find anything about him. I then tried running an ad in a Russian émigré newspaper that is still published in Paris in which I asked anyone who might have known Mikhail or anything about him to contact me. Nothing came of this either. I had run out of ideas and was about to give up when I decided to email an acquaintance in Paris, "L.," an American who has lived there for years and knows a lot about movies and, as it also happens, about the Russian émigrés who lived in the city between the World Wars. L. replied that he had never heard of Mikhail Thomas or his father, and I decided that I had reached the end of this particular thread. Then, a couple of days later, I got another email from L. By “the sheerest chance,” as he put it, “I have found a lead in your Fyodor Tomas mystery.” A Russian friend of L.’s had just given him a book by a man named Konstantin Kazansky entitled Cabaret russe (“Russian Cabaret”) and “my” Thomas, as I had begun to think of him, “figures prominently” in it.
The book had been published in Paris in 1978 and was out of print, but the internet made it easy to order a used copy from a French book dealer. Cabaret russe did indeed contain a series of revealing and intriguing references to Thomas, although the author did not know either Thomas’ real first name or his actual origins. I was especially excited to discover that at the end of his book, Kazansky thanked “Michel (Mike) Thomass,” as he spelled the name. This meant that Kazansky had known Frederick’s son personally and gotten information directly from him. The book also revealed that Kazansky was a Bulgarian musician who had arrived in Paris in 1971, when he was a young man. He could certainly still be alive thirty-five years later and I resolved to try to find him. An online telephone and address directory for Paris gave not one but two listings for him. (To be continued, of course!)
In my last “Detective” post--in which I began to describe the unlikely chain of coincidences that led to my finding Frederick Thomas’s grandson--I ended with my decision to contact Konstantin Kazansky in Paris, a man who had known Frederick’s son, Mikhail, and who had written about Frederick in a book about Russian cabarets.
Here I paused. I did not want to risk calling Kazansky without warning because I had no idea what kind of person he was or how he would respond to my inquiry. And since I had failed to find an email address for him, I decided to write to him in the old-fashioned way, on paper. To be safe, I sent letters to both addresses that I found in an online French telephone directory and wrote them in Russian because I assumed that since he had described Russian émigré milieus in his book, he could at least read the language; it was also easier for me to write in Russian than in French. I explained who I was and asked if he had any additional information about Mikhail, Michel, or Mike Thomas (he used all these forms of his name), or about his father, Frederick, beyond what he had mentioned in his informative book. I also said that I was going to be in Paris in another month and a half and would be very grateful if he would agree to meet with me.
Several weeks passed without reply. I was getting increasingly apprehensive about losing the only lead to Mikhail that I had found, so I decided to call Kazansky. Cold calling a stranger in the United States can be unpleasant enough; doing so long distance to France is even more unnerving. I was running through what I was going to say when on the third ring a cultivated woman’s voice answered in French; I gave my name and asked if I might speak with Monsieur Kazansky. When he came to the phone, I began to explain that I had written to him several weeks ago and that I hoped that he did not mind my calling. To my relief, he proved to be a friendly and easy-going man who apologized and explained that he had not yet had a chance to reply but was happy to speak with me even though he had little to say about the Thomases beyond what he had written about them. At that point, we switched to Russian, which he spoke fluently (my French is functional but not fluent). We agreed that I would call him when I got to Paris so that we could arrange a meeting.
And then he mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that Mikhail Thomas, who had died in the 1980s, had a son in Paris who had been married to the famous French lingerie designer Chantal Thomass.
This casual remark was the link to all that followed. (To be continued!)
In my last post, I described how in 2006 I found a lead to Frederick Thomas's descendants, who appeared to be living in France. The key detail I had learned from my informant in Paris was that Frederick had a grandson who had been married to a woman named Chantal Thomass, a designer of women's clothing.
I again began to scour the internet. Chantal Thomass proved to be very prominent, and famous especially for her pricey line of playful women’s lingerie--a kind of upscale Victoria’s Secret. She has a flagship store on Rue Saint-Honoré, one of the most famous shopping streets in Paris, as well as boutiques in many other fashionable locations and cities around the world. The signature look for which she is famous is called “dessous dessus” in French, which is the reverse of the usual expression for “upside down” and means something like “what is beneath is on top.” It refers to wearing what might look like undergarments as (provocative) outer clothing.
There were several biographical sketches of Madame Thomass on the internet from which I learned that after her divorce she kept the surname of her ex-husband, Bruce. This, I realized, must have been the man my Paris informant had in mind: I had actually found Frederick Thomas's grandson! I also realized that Bruce spelled his surname with two letters “s” because of French pronunciation rules: with only one “s” the name would be pronounced “Thoma.” The Thomas family surname had thus made an elaborate journey from the American Deep South, to Russia, and then to Turkey before finally settling in France. I imagined that this would have pleased Frederick himself very much.
At this point, my own confusion over dealing with foreign online sources almost ruined the rest of my search. I misunderstood the address I found for a Bruce Thomass in the Paris directory because I thought that it was for a drugstore, which seemed a very improbable occupation for the man I was trying to find (it proved to be for a minor business sideline of his). I concluded that I found the wrong man and so again reverted to paper and the mails. I wrote in French to Mme Thomass at the two addresses that I had found for her—one was her business office in Paris and the other the flagship store—as well as to a grown daughter, who lived in the French countryside and whom I also found in the online directory. By this point, my trip to Paris was only two weeks away and I asked both women, if they would be so kind, to pass on my request for a meeting to Bruce, assuming that he was the right man and that they were in touch with him.
I had not gotten a response from either of the women when I left for the airport, and was prepared for the worst. I could easily imagine that my letters might have seemed too eccentric to warrant a response, especially from a prominent businesswoman who probably got lots of crank mail. I also had no backup plan except to go to what I thought was the drugstore in Paris and that might have some sort of connection to the man I was looking for. But luck intervened once again. As soon as my plane landed and I was able to check my email and voicemails in the United States, I found several messages from Bruce Thomass himself expressing his eagerness to meet me. All my letters had been passed on to him. I imagine that he must have been as curious about me and my unlikely quest for information about his grandfather, as I was about him.
(To be continued!)
In my last “Detective” post I described how I succeeded in contacting Frederick Thomas’s grandson in Paris, and how I received messages from him expressing his interest in meeting me. He gave me his telephone number and I called him to set up a meeting.
Monsieur Thomass lives in one of the best districts of Paris, in an elegant, high-ceilinged apartment decorated with elaborate white molding. When he opened the door, I saw a casually dressed, good-looking man with a charming manner who was about the same age as I am. I would have found it difficult to say where he was from—Southern France, Italy, somewhere else on the Mediterranean? He spoke only French. Over the course of the next several hours and a lunch in a nearby restaurant, he told me the story of his grandfather, as it had been handed down orally in his family. He kindly allowed me to use a voice recorder and generously gave me photocopies of several documents pertaining to his grandfather that happened to survive the great upheavals the family had endured during the past eighty years.
And the story he told me was absolutely incredible: he said that the man I was pursuing actually came from New Mexico; that he was a member of the native American “Tomac” tribe, and also had African-American and white ancestry; that he had gone to sea in Vera Cruz, Mexico; become a commercial seaman in Rotterdam, then a smuggler in the South China Sea; and that he got to Russia after he saved the life of a rich Russian in a bar in Shanghai!
This is the story--and there were other episodes and details that were equally fantastic--that Bruce had heard repeatedly as a child from his father, Frederick’s son, Mikhail, when he was growing up in Paris.
It was a bright and unseasonably warm day in early November 2006 when I left Mr. Thomass’s apartment. The low angle of the afternoon sun seemed to make the misty air glow above the Paris rooftops and softened the lines of distant vistas. I had so much new information to digest that I felt rather dazed as I walked down the sidewalk, past a series of elegant shop windows with expensively garbed mannequins. It had also been a strain to speak nothing but French for hours. A café appeared before me and I took refuge in it so that I could savor what I had just learned. “My” Thomas was beginning to take on flesh, and his life to emerge out of nonbeing.
But about which Thomas had I heard? At that time in Paris, I did not know what "my" Thomas's first and middle names actually were. And the fascinating story that Mr. Thomass had told me about his grandfather’s early life pointed in entirely different directions from what I was beginning to discover and subsequently was able to confirm.
(To be continued!)
In my last post, I described how I met Frederick Thomas’s grandson in Paris, and how the family history he told me diverged from what I had begun to discover during the early stages of my research.
Indeed, it emerged from what Bruce Thomass said that he did not know his grandfather’s real first name, or that his own first name had been his grandfather’s middle name, or that it was also the name of a half uncle whom he had never met and about whom he knew next to nothing.
I would discover all this myself only months later, when I began to search for information about Frederick Thomas in the National Archives in Washington, D. C., and especially in the National Archives and Records Administration facility (NARA II) in College Park, Maryland. The numerous documents that I eventually found in these and several other archives and libraries in the United States and abroad portray a man whose life differed markedly from that preserved in the Thomass family’s oral tradition, especially with regard to the first thirty years of Frederick’s life. Nevertheless, because this family tradition did not emerge out of thin air, but reflects how someone in that family—most likely Mikhail, Frederick’s son—wanted its history to be remembered, the oral history remains important, telling, and psychologically revealing.
By this early point in my research, I also began to realize that my yearning to learn as much as I could about Frederick Thomas reflected on me and who I was. At first glance, there is little that I have in common with him. But as a near-émigré living in the United States (I was three when I arrived on these shores) who feels a mixture of nostalgia for, and alienation from, the irretrievably lost and troubled past of my parents’ Russian homeland, I feel sympathy for Frederick—a black American in Russia looking over his shoulder across the years that separate him from his long lost and racially troubled birthplace. Frederick Thomas felt at home in Russia, as I do in the United States. But could he have felt that he fit completely? Do I?
What I would not give to be able to talk with him for just one hour.
After my description of some of the unlikely twists and turns that I experienced when researching The Black Russian, I return to the life of Frederick's parents before he was born.
They were highly unusual people in Coahoma County in terms of what they were able to achieve. What did they face, and how did they overcome the obstacles that confronted newly freed blacks in Mississippi?
One example of the general attitude of whites toward blacks scarcely eight months after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox was the notorious “Black Code” passed by the Mississippi legislature in November of 1865, which restricted blacks almost as much as the state’s old slave code had done. It proclaimed that all former laws regarding “crimes and misdemeanors committed by slaves, free negroes or mulattoes” were again “in full force and effect.” Freedmen were also severely limited in their ability to lease land, carry weapons, participate in legal proceedings, drink and sell alcohol, or engage in religious preaching.
Under pressure from the federal government, the worst provisions of this Code were repealed two years later. Nevertheless, it remains a vivid early example of white efforts to restore control over the black population and an ominous harbinger of measures that would succeed in future decades.
In fact, whites would prove very inventive in devising ways to control freed black people.
(To be continued.)
An article in yesterday's New York Times (September 14, 2012) describes the fascinating discovery of an unknown novel by Claude McKay, a major writer of the Harlem Renaissance who was born in Jamaica but moved to the United States in 1912. McKay was important for me in my work on The Black Russian because he visited the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, or just a few years after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Like other black American writers, intellectuals, artists, and technical specialists who would go to the Soviet Union later, he wanted to examine the great "social experiment" that the new state was conducting, and especially to experience its colorblindness. He published two articles in The Crisis (December 1923 and January 1924) about his trip that illuminated how Russians viewed black people. First of all, McKay was struck by “the distinctive polyglot population of Moscow” (a reflection of the fact that Russia had been a multi-ethnic empire). He was also charmed to discover that “to the Russian, I was merely another type, but stranger, with which they were not yet familiar. They were curious with me, all and sundry, young and old, in a friendly, refreshing manner.” Because McKay spent most of his leisure time “in non-partisan and anti-bolshevist circles,” as he characterized them, he concluded that this attitude was inherent in the Russian pre-Revolutionary cultural mentality and not the “effect of Bolshevist pressure and propaganda.” One of McKay’s young acquaintances was actually perplexed that anyone would pay special attention to him: “But where is the difference? Some of the Indians are as dark as you.” This is what Frederick Thomas also encountered in pre-Revolutionary Russia when he arrived in 1899 and what allowed him to achieve spectacular success in Moscow.
Here is a video of me talking about my book that was very kindly made by Yelena Demikovsky, a documentary and narrative filmmaker in New York and founder of Red Pallette Pictures, who is working on a film about black Americans who went to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. Yelena interviewed me for her film and used some of that footage to make the video about The Black Russian.
I posted a note two weeks ago about how the Civil War is not entirely over in Mississippi. A recent article in the New York Times (August 24, 2012) shows that it's also not over in Alabama. There's a controversy flaring in Selma, a city in which a famous march by Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. played a central role in the Civil Rights Movement and culminated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The controversy has to do with a bust of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a noted military commander during the Civil War who was also accused of war crimes for letting his troops massacre black Union soldiers who had surrendered. After the war, Forrest became the first "grand wizard" of the K. K. K. What is the controversy about? A monument honoring Forrest was put up in a Selma park in 2000. It was immediately attacked by people opposed to honoring Forrest; then it was moved; and recently the bust vanished. A group has offered a sizeable reward for its return and has vowed to replace it. A defender of this plan is quoted as saying "There's a monument to Martin Luther King in town. We don't deface that monument. We don't harass people. So let us enjoy the same treatment." Sounds to me like an echo of current "states' rights" arguments, and thus of other battles going back 47, 147, and even more years.
Alan Lomax was one of the most important collectors of American folk music in the twentieth century. Among his greatest achievements are large numbers of field recordings of black music, which he made in the 1930s and 1940s in the South, including spirituals, work songs, ballads, and, of course, the blues. He describes some of his experiences as a collector in his classic memoir The Land Where the Blues Began, which is about the Mississippi Delta (and which is where Frederick Thomas was born and raised).
Here is an example of a black work song that Lomax collected, "No More, My Lord." Although recorded on the eve of the Second World War, it's a musical reminiscence of much earlier times, and is the kind of singing that Frederick probably heard in his youth.
A reader of my previous post suggested that it would be good to have some examples of the kind of music that Frederick Thomas heard as a child. I agree, and here is a link to a wonderful recording from 1914--The Tuskegee Institute Singers performing the spiritual "Good News." They are a sophisticated and polished ensemble, but the age of their recording suggests a living connection to the more distant past and the singing practiced in rural black churches at the end of the nineteenth century. The Tuskegee Institute in Alabama was founded in 1881, and is the ancestor of today's Tuskegee University. It's amazing to think that Frederick Thomas could have heard this same recording in Moscow, where he lived until the summer of 1918.
There was feature of black church services that appears to have affected Frederick early on, that stayed with him for the rest of his life, and that likely had a profound impact on his career. This was music--specifically, the glorious, soaring spirituals that were an inherent part of every black service, and the numerous offshoots that grew out of this tradition.
The Delta in general and Coahoma County, MS, in particular, with Clarksdale at its epicenter, had an enormous influence on American twentieth-century music and, via the popularity of American culture, on music around the world. The old, slave-era spirituals, which survived into the 1900s, morphed into gospel music, which in turn gave rise to “soul” after the Second World War. “Blues,” the famous guitar-accompanied laments about life, love, and loss, originated in the area too, growing out of slave-era field songs, “hollers,” and “work calls.” They became one of the primary roots of jazz when the great migration of blacks to the North, and especially to Chicago, took place after the Great War. Delta musicians who had played a style of music in the early twentieth century that they called “slow drag” and “barrelhouse,” recognized it later when it came back to them as “jazz” and “swing.” After World War II, blues and gospel also fed into rock and roll, and thus into countless other types of popular music around the world.
Visitors still come to Clarksdale from everywhere in the United States and abroad to travel the “blues trail”—a network of sites associated with famous early twentieth-century practitioners and performers of the blues. When I was there several years ago to do research in the Coahoma County Courthouse, there were some young people from Holland staying next door to me in the motel. The “Crossroads”—the intersection of Highways 49 and 61 on what is now the ragged southern edge of Clarksdale is where the legendary blues man Robert Johnson is reputed to have sold his soul to the devil in order to be able to play guitar as he wished.
Despite the enormous changes Frederick experienced after he left the South, music was a constant in his life. He claimed that it was what originally sent him to Europe. His cultivation of musical variety acts and new trends in popular music helped to make him rich in Russia. He is still remembered by aficionados in Istanbul for introducing jazz to a wildly enthusiastic public after the Great War. And two of his sons continued his tradition by becoming performers themselves—one was a jazz singer in Turkey and the other sang gospel and Russian cabaret in Paris.
Few black churches could afford to pay a full-time pastor, especially in a rural setting like Coahoma County, MS. Many ministers combined their preaching with farming or other kind of work to make a living. Because population was sparse and churches were far apart in the Delta, some ministers traveled, or “rode circuits,” across wide areas, visiting local congregations on a schedule that might be only once or twice a month.
African Methodist Episcopalian services were intense emotional experiences, whether they were Sunday services held in local churches, or large regional “meetings” to which black people traveled from widely scattered parishes and that could last for weeks. Members of the congregation would not simply listen passively to the sermons or sing hymns at the appointed moments, but would respond emphatically and loudly to the preacher’s words. When they sang, they did so at the tops of their voices, swayed their bodies to the music, and clapped out the rhythm with unrestrained energy. Entire congregations would achieve something like a collective ecstasy, especially if a service was one of a series held every night during a meeting. Individuals would stamp, jump, weep, and shout in a frenzy that could last for hours, until exhaustion set in. Women would fall down to the floor, exclaiming and crying, men would drop to their knees, the entire space of the church ringing with their shouts of “Lord, take me,” “Jesus save me,” “Glory, glory, hallelujah,” and “Jesus died for me.”
However, many years later in Europe, Frederick would choose to identify himself with an entirely different religious tradition, and with the "highest" of the Old World churches.
A series of dramatic events ensued in the Thomas family’s life after they established themselves as prominent farmers in Coahoma County, MS.
On the positive side (there would, unfortunately, be tragedies ahead as well)--Frederick’s parents showed their leading position in the local black community by establishing one of the earliest African Methodist Episcopal churches in Coahoma County, possibly only the second or third after the “mother” A. M. E. Church in Friars Point, which was then the county seat.
Before and during the Civil War, it was common throughout the South for enslaved blacks to attend their masters’ churches. Blacks might have had to use a different church entrance from the whites, and they would have had to sit apart from the white congregation in the back of the building or in the balcony, but the preaching and hymns they heard were the same. Social control of blacks was the primary reason for this arrangement. If blacks were always under white eyes, they would be unable to organize any sort of resistance or rebellion. Having blacks attend white churches would also allow white ministers to try to reinforce the docility of the slaves by choosing apt texts for their sermons, such as Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans (13:1-7), which urged obedience to masters. After the war, whites refused to let the newly emancipated blacks participate fully in the life of their churches and the freedmen either left their old congregations on their own or were expelled from them. In Coahoma County, a Methodist church had been established in Friars Point around 1852 with a sizeable congregation that included 192 whites and 38 blacks. When the war ended in 1865, blacks left this church and founded their own on a site only a few yards away (which is now covered by the town’s much-expanded levee). They affiliated themselves with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, appointed a black pastor, J. C. Holbrook, and named their church “Bethel.”
The A. M. E. Church had a long tradition of serving blacks and had been founded in the north in 1815 by a splinter group of black members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Together with the Baptist Church, the different denominations of Methodists dominated black religious life in the South after the Civil War and do so to this day. The ablest missionary of the A. M. E. Church, T. W. Stringer, arrived in Mississippi in 1865 and after establishing himself in a Vicksburg began to spread his denomination rapidly throughout the state. By 1870, the A. M. E. Church had nearly 5,000 members, thirty-five churches, and thirty Sunday schools. By 1877, the A. M. E. Church had gotten big enough to establish a separate North Mississippi Conference with sixty-two churches and over 5,000 members. This is the religious wave that must have swept up the Thomases as well.
The purchase of a two-hundred acre farm by Frederick Thomas’s parents in 1869 was a very rare event in Coahoma County, MS, and signaled a small-scale, but revolutionary change in the social, economic, and political structure of the Delta. Why? Because the Thomases had succeeded not only in comparison to the vast majority of other black people, but in comparison to many whites as well.
Before the Civil War, at least half of the biggest plantations in the Delta were owned by absentee proprietors who lived elsewhere in Mississippi or the South and who hired overseers to supervise their estates. The lives the overseers led, and their attitude toward the property and slaves they managed, usually differed markedly from those of the absent planters.
Most of the land in the Delta was owned by a small number of rich white families. Overseers, like the majority of other whites in the region, owned little or no land; and they were kept at arm’s length by the rich landowners whose social pretensions would not allow them to mix with what they considered lower white classes. Because the overseers were salaried employees, their future depended on how well they did their jobs, which meant primarily how much cotton they got the slaves to produce and the income this generated. As a result, their interests did not always run parallel to those of their employers.
Landowners with large estates were inevitably concerned with the health of their slaves, who were an expensive investment. The landowners were also eager for more slave children because this increased the valuable labor pool at very little extra cost. Indeed, this was one of the factors in the sexual exploitation of slave women by whites because their mixed-race children would remain slaves; and it was illegal in Mississippi to emancipate anyone born to a woman slave, even if the father was the planter himself. However, whatever humane or economic considerations might prompt a landowner to urge his overseer to foster the well-being of his slaves would often run up against the bottom line. Because an overseer was judged by the amount of money that he made for his employer, it was in the overseer’s interest to drive the slaves as hard as he could.
This was some of the background against which the Thomases’ success after the Civil War has to be seen. They had begun to stand out in a way that would inevitably breed white resentment.
Within a year after the Thomases bought their two-hundred acre farm in Mississippi, the 1870 Federal Census estimated it was worth over $5,000, or several hundred times their initial payment of six dollars and sixty-six and two-thirds cents. This was an extraordinary success.
It was also one that the vast majority of black people in the Delta would never know because they would never be able to escape the dependency of sharecropping. Here is an example of how other black people had to live. On January 1, 1867, a white farmer, Reuben Davis, signed a year-long contract with the Ishmael Gooch family of freedmen to work his farm in Tallahatchie County (which borders on Coahoma). Davis agreed to furnish the family of eight, two of whom were small children, with land, farming utensils, a team of mules or horses, and half of the feed for the team. He would also pay the Gooches one half of the annual crops of corn and fodder, one third of the cotton raised, and let them use land for a personal vegetable garden. The black family agreed to “faithfully perform said year’s service” by planting, raising, and harvesting the crops, to “feed themselves,” and to furnish the other half of the fodder for the team. They also agreed to pay for any damage to the animals and tools, and for “all lost time.”
The last point was potentially perilous because the contract stipulated that “failure to perform good and faithful work” would be considered “lost time” as well. Riding one of the horses or mules without the owner’s permission would incur a severe $25 fine. Davis also reserved the right to divide the family’s shares of the crops among individual members “according to the amount of labor performed and the expense incurred by each one.”
Freedmen were regularly cheated and exploited because of loopholes in contracts and the dishonesty of many whites. In 1868, one black couple in the Delta earned only $39.30 for the year, or approximately half of what was due them, because their white employer penalized them for the eleven weeks of work that the wife missed during the course of twelve months.
Thanks to his parents’ skill and good fortune, Frederick escaped such experiences during his childhood. But there can be no doubt that he knew of them.
Hannah and Lewis Thomas, Frederick's parents, had spent most of their lives in bondage, and, according to the norms of the nineteenth-century, would have been considered middle aged by the late 1860s: he was around thirty-five and she was a couple of years younger. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that they were able to find the will and the means to escape the morass of limitations that surrounded them. The way they did it also foreshadowed a dominant feature of Frederick’s future character and life.
Early in 1869, at a public auction at the courthouse door in Friars Point, a town on the Mississippi River that was then the seat of Coahoma County, Lewis bid on a sizeable piece of land consisting of two hundred acres of fields, forests, swamps, and streams. It had belonged to a white farmer who lived in another county and who had died intestate, as a result of which the probate court instructed the man’s lawyer to sell the property for whatever he could get. Lewis is likely to have known the property because it was near the land that belonged to his former masters, the Cheairs brothers. Announcements of the coming auction were duly posted at the courthouse several weeks in advance, and when the sale was over Lewis had won with a top bid of ten cents an acre. Even with the depressed land prices in the Delta after the Civil War, this was a bargain. What made his purchase even more of a bargain was that he had three years to pay the total price of twenty dollars in annual installments of six dollars and sixty-six and two-thirds cents each, with interest at six percent.
This event transformed the Thomases' life and immediately made them one of the most prominent black families in Coahoma County.
(To be continued!)
Landowners in the Delta consistently tried to thwart attempts by blacks to rent land. Why? Because they feared that they would lose control over the labor they needed and that rental would lead to the widespread transfer of Delta lands from white hands to black.
When it was a question of suppressing black initiative, violence was never far below the surface. Moreover, it could be directed at anyone. James Lusk Alcorn was one of the richest planters in the region both before and after the Civil War, with extensive holdings in Coahoma County, where the Thomas family lived. He was also a prominent politician with a liberal stance toward freedmen, and would go on to become the governor of Mississippi and a United States Senator. However, when word got out that he was going to rent land to a black family, he was perceived as a traitor to his race and his two-story farm home at Yazoo Pass was burned to the ground by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan also torched several buildings on a plantation near Frairs Point in Coahoma County because a local planter had rented land to blacks.
This was the poisonous atmosphere in which Frederick Thomas's parents had to find a way to succeed.
(To be continued!)
One method landowners tried to employ in order to restore a labor force on their property shortly after the Civil War was to hire squads of blacks who were required to work under the close supervision of white overseers or foremen. However, this system was widely rejected by the freedmen who saw it as a new form of bondage.
The compromise solution that developed throughout the South was various forms of tenancy, especially sharecropping. According to this system, which was already well established in parts of the Delta by 1868 and would persist well into the twentieth century, a black family would rent a piece of land from a white owner in exchange for a percentage of the crops they raised. The cost of whatever supplies and services the family received from the landowner, such as food, clothing, medical care, farming implements, and building materials would be deducted from the family’s share of the crop.
For freedmen this system seemed to be a welcome step toward independence, while landowners believed that it encouraged tenants to work harder in order to increase their own profits. However, because the share of the crop that the tenant often had to pay the landowner was as high as fifty percent (although it could be as low as twenty-five under certain conditions), and because additional charges against the crop would reduce the share even more, many freedmen remained impoverished. Those who did succeed in accumulating enough capital to be debt free at the end of a harvest, and who thereby felt empowered to bargain with the landowners for better conditions during the next season, often tried to rent land because they believed that this would give them a better chance to earn enough to buy it.
It is quite possible that this is the path that Frederick Thomas's parents followed before they were able to change their lives dramatically in 1869.
(To be continued!)
In earlier posts, I described how Frederick Thomas’s parents rose to prominence both economically and socially in Coahoma County, Mississippi, during the 1870s, when they became prosperous farmers and founded an African Methodist Episcopal Church on their land.
But Coahoma County is part of the Delta—a region that its detractors and defenders alike have called the most Southern place on earth. By the late 1870s, Reconstruction was over and white authority throughout the South firmly reestablished. This is why the Thomas family’s double prominence also became the cause of their ruin.
The first blow was an attempt by a rich white planter who resented their success to steal their land. Although shaken by his ploy at first, the Thomases rallied soon after, and, in a move that was not at all characteristic for black people at that time and place, fought back in court. Even more remarkable is that they won the first round in what turned out to be a long process full of dramatic twists and turns. But when the planter escalated by appealing to the state supreme court, the Thomases decided to get out of harm’s way and moved to Memphis.
Frederick’s first exposure to urban life would prove to be decisive because after Memphis he would never again return to the countryside or to farming. He also got his first “service”-related job in Memphis, and he briefly attended a more advanced school than the one in Coahoma County.
But Memphis was also where the second blow struck the Thomas family: Frederick’s father, Lewis, was brutally murdered by another black man. Contemporary newspaper accounts played up the shocking details, which allowed me to reconstruct exactly how it happened.
After this, the Thomas family disintegrated. In the fall of 1890, aged eighteen, Frederick began his years of travel, a period that would last nearly a decade. And for a young Southern black man of his era, every step he took was a highly unusual rejection of his past, as he first moved North, then to Western Europe, and eventually to the almost unimaginably distant Russian Empire.
After Frederick’s family disintegrated in Memphis in 1890, he did something very unusual for a young Southern black man at that time: he went North—specifically, to Chicago, a city that had captured the world’s imagination as the embodiment of the “American miracle.” No place could have been more different from the farm in Mississippi where he had been born and raised.
In just two generations, a frontier settlement established in 1833 on the swampy shore of an inland fresh-water sea had grown into the second largest city in the United States with a population of 1,100,000; it was overshadowed only by New York’s 1,500,000, and was the fifth largest city in the world. Rather than being stunted by a devastating fire in 1871 that left its business district and a third of its total area in ruins, Chicago’s growth accelerated in the last third of the nineteenth century as it rebuilt itself into a modern metropolis and became a center of industry, commerce, and transportation. This city with the world’s first skyscrapers became an icon not only of American technological prowess and economic might, but of modern industrialized civilization in general.
Frederick may have moved five hundred miles north of Memphis and a world away from the South, but at the end of the nineteenth century blacks in Chicago were still hardly free to do or to become anything they wanted. After working for a prominent florist for the better part of a year, Frederick launched into a profession that would be his mainstay for the next twenty years as well as his springboard to wealth in Russia: he became a waiter. By setting out on this career path, Frederick assumed one of the few roles that was available to him because of the racist labor patterns in the city.
There were so few blacks in Chicago in the early 1890s (a little more than 1% of the population) that they would not have been very noticeable in the general ebb and flow of humanity on the city’s streets. However, there were certain occupations and places in the city where their numbers were concentrated. Fully one third of the entire black population was employed in domestic and personal service, which included workers in Chicago’s myriad restaurants and hotels, in private homes, and on trains as Pullman porters. This was by far the largest niche that blacks filled. When Frederick entered the profession around 1892 there were some 1,500 black men working as waiters everywhere in the city, from chains of inexpensive restaurants to elegant hotels such as the Palmer House or the Auditorium Hotel.
Especially in the upscale dining rooms, the waiter’s job was more complex and competitive than many of us probably realize today. And Frederick soon became a master of this surprisingly demanding craft.
In the 1890s, black waiters in American cities were part of a well-developed hierarchy that could consist of as many as ten distinct ranks. Headwaiters stood on the pinnacle, with various assistants and lieutenants beneath them, followed by lower grade waiters of different categories. Salaries reflected ranks and a skilled headwaiter could earn $100 a month in comparison to a water boy who would make $15, with $40 being a decent wage. (It’s very difficult to estimate accurately what money was worth in the past, but $40 in 1892 is somewhere between $2,000 to $4,000 today.) The lower end of the pay scale was no better than “starvation level” in Chicago in the early 1890s and underscores the perilous nature of the profession for the youngest and least skilled black men.
Additional perils that waiters faced included irregular employment: owners routinely reduced the number of waiters when business was slow and did so with little or no warning, as a result of which many waiters worked on a day-to-day basis. Owners would also often charge waiters for the cost of any dishes that they might break and could either fine them for being late or force them to work as long as six or eight hours extra without pay for a single instance of tardiness.
Such discrepancies and inequities inevitably radicalized many of the waiters. In the years immediately preceding Frederick Thomas’s arrival in Chicago in 1890, black waiters organized two of their own unions with the assistance of the national Knights of Labor, the “William Lloyd Garrison Colored Waiters Local Assembly,” which had four hundred members, and the “Charles Sumner Waiters’ Union,” a later splinter group. With some few exceptions, Chicago’s organized white labor movement was generally racist and rejected blacks. But these two black unions were able briefly to coordinate plans with the “Culinary Alliance” of German emigrant waiters and to carry out successful strikes during the spring and early summer of 1890. As a result, many restaurant owners agreed to the strikers’ demands, which included wages of $30 a month, 12-hour workdays and regulation of breakage and other charges. Similar initiatives were organized in 1892 and 1893, the years when Frederick was working as a waiter, with increased numbers of black strikers participating.
It is striking that many years later, Frederick would be remembered by his employees in Moscow and Constantinople as a generous and humane employer. It is likely that this is due in part to what he had experienced in the United States while still a young man.
In the 1890s, a waiter’s job in Chicago’s upscale dining rooms was complex, demanding, and competitive, especially for a black man like Frederick. By reacting immediately and cheerfully to the client’s wishes—and all the clients in the expensive restaurants were white—the black waiter could be seen as simulating the enforced obsequiousness and racial subordination that had been, and still was, the norm for all blacks in the South. An efficient waiter who strived to be likeable also got bigger tips.
However, black waiters were not just gifted or cynical actors in a ritualized transaction designed to maximize their income: they also took pride in their profession, which required tact, charm, deportment, and mental and physical agility. We can get a sense of this pride, and of the training and experience that underlay it, from The American Colored Waiter, a handbook published in Chicago in 1902 by John B. Goins, a black headwaiter with eighteen years of experience who ran a school for black waiters. Goins is precisely the sort of man who could have mentored beginners like Frederick in their complicated craft. Moreover, judging by Goins’s photograph in the book, which shows a handsome man with his head tilted upwards slightly by a tall white collar and an expression of serene dignity on his face—the instruction he provided to a waiter would have extended to the entire man. Frederick’s future career trajectory in Europe shows that he was a very apt pupil.
The first things that Goins discusses are the waiter’s dress and appearance. He provides a dauntingly detailed list of articles of clothing that “every first class waiter should own,” including “One black serge jacket, One black low cut vest, Two white jackets, Two or three pairs doe or cheviot black pants, One full dress coat and vest, One Tuxedo coat, One low cut white vest, Two pairs white gloves.” He then continues with ties, shoes, shirts, cuffs and collars, before concluding that “Every waiter should own a corkscrew; also a lead pencil.”
Goins also provides detailed advice about cleanliness and hygiene: “Shirts should be changed as often as twice a week; collars four times. In winter, underwear should be changed twice a week, and in summer daily. The reason for this is evident, as from the nature of the waiter’s work it is impossible not to perspire; and an undergarment saturated with perspiration is unfit to wear another time in the dining room.” He instructs beginners how to apply for work: “in neat black clothes, pants creased, white shirt, shoes polished, cuffs, black tie, teeth and finger nails clean, your face clean shaven. If you wear a mustache keep your hands off of it when talking, which is an indication that you will do so in dining room.” The best time to apply is between 9 and 10 am, and, Goins explains, you should never present yourself at the dining room door but should seek out a special waiting room. (To be continued).
Goins’s handbook is only ninety-four pages long. But it covers not only every conceivable duty that a waiter will encounter—how to handle the bill of fare, how to take an order, how to avoid trouble with dissatisfied guests, how duties are divided among dining room staff—but also scores of specific tasks that would probably never occur to most of us as being part of a contemporary waiter’s job: how to clean silver, copper, brass; how to serve Japanese persimmons with a plate, spoon, and finger bowl; how to make tea “for English or French persons”; how to set a table for a banquet for eight, including five different forks, three knives, and two spoons per guest; or how to set up a “stag buffet luncheon” for fifty and a “collation” for four hundred.
Goins also discusses the subtleties of human psychology as they realte to the job; for example, in connection with tipping: “A waiter should never make any demonstration of gratitude when receiving a tip, beyond a polite acknowledgment; for if the attention of other guests is attracted to the circumstance of his receiving it they will feel that they are not likely to receive as good treatment at his hands as the giver of the tip, and will consequently be on the lookout for something to find fault with.”
Any waiter who took all of Goins’s instructions to heart would emerge a transformed man. The intricate waltz of glass, porcelain, and silverware that he would have to perform while serving in a good restaurant during Chicago’s Gilded Age was just a part of the physical, mental, and emotional training that would extend beyond the dining room. And all phases of Frederick’s future career testify that he mastered such lessons quickly and well. (To be continued).
It appears that Frederick left Chicago in the summer of 1893, which was a momentous period in the city’s history for two contradictory reasons. On the one hand, the World’s Columbian Exposition, as the Chicago World’s Fair was officially called, opened on May 1 and continued until October 30, 1893. On the other, May 9, 1893, marked the first big shock of the economic depression that became known as the Panic of 1893.
Planned as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World and of the emergence of the United States onto the world stage as a technological, economic, and political power, the Exposition was the prize that Chicago won over New York, Washington, D. C., and St. Louis. Built on a 600-acre site on the shore of Lake Michigan to the south of the city center, the fair consisted of over 200 mostly neo-Classical buildings that displayed various technologies, industries, entertainments, including exhibitions from numerous foreign countries and cultures. Over 27 million people attended the Exposition during the six months that it was open, which was equivalent to nearly half of the entire population of the United States. The scale of the Exposition brought thousands of workers eager for employment, both during construction and later. Black people were not excluded entirely from the work force, although they were relegated to lower positions; the organizers also grudgingly designated a “Colored American Day” on August 25. But the fair’s nickname as the “White City” was well deserved, and not just because many of the buildings were painted to look like marble.
The shock that hit Chicago a week after the Exposition opened was the failure of a major financial institution—the Chemical National Bank; this was followed by the collapse of other banks throughout Illinois. The panic that began in May spread quickly over the entire country and the stock market crashed that month; a second, more severe crash came in July. Chicago was hit more severely than anywhere else. This was aggravated by the various forms of business speculation that had sprouted up around the World’s Fair. By summer’s end, the country was in the grip of the most serious economic depression that it had yet seen, with hundreds of thousands of unemployed.
Among the victims were waiters at the Auditorium’s restaurant, where Frederick had worked. Prior to July 10, they received $60 a month, which was a good salary that reflected their elite status as well as the celebrity of the hotel. On July 10, however, the management announced that it would have to reduce the waiters’ wages to $40 and $45 a month because of a drop in business. The waiters accepted the cut and stayed on even when several of them were laid off for a week without pay. Then, on August 1, the management announced that waiters’ salaries would have to be reduced further—to $30 a month. Two committees of waiters tried to find the hotel’s owner to discuss their objections, but could not find him. They then turned to the headwaiter, but as a newspaper reported, he “coolly informed them that they could work for the salary offered or quit.” All forty-nine did so.
This is probably the threat that Frederick faced. He decided that he could do better during the worsening economic crisis by heading east, to New York City. From all accounts, the situation there was not as bad as in Chicago.
New York also had more of everything that had originally made Chicago attractive—more people, bustle, excitement, power, towering buildings, and hotels and restaurants where one could find work. New York was the one city in the country that ambitious Chicagoans envied. And the only siren call that ambitious New Yorkers heard came from the great cities of Europe.
41. “Django Unchained,” Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy,” and Frederick Thomas’s Shocking Appearance
A number of commentators have noticed that the outfit Django chooses in a clothing store to which Schultz takes him early in the film—blue satin jacket, knee britches, and white ruffled jabot—resembles the clothing worn by the young man in Thomas Gainsborough’s famous 1770 painting “The Blue Boy.” One commentator points out that this is Tarantino’s nod to the history of cinematography—specifically, the influential German director, F. W. Murnau, and his silent film “Der Knabe in Blau” (The Boy in Blue).
But there’s another aspect of this outfit that’s also worth noting—the venerable practice in the history of art of “ennobling” representatives of so-called “primitive” peoples by posing and garbing them in a way that evokes “genuine” noblemen in the dominant culture. Here is an example of a native American portrayed in the manner of an English lord (there are myriad similar others).
In this light, Django’s “Blue Boy” outfit marks him as one of nature’s and society’s true elite.
But, of course, his outfit also looks ridiculous in the antebellum South, which is what an enslaved black woman suggests to him in the film. As a result, he undergoes his most significant sartorial transformation: he dons the slim pants, torso-hugging jacket, cowboy hat, and revolver that are the trappings of a genuine hero of the American popular cinematic imagination—a gunslinger. Moreover, as a crowning touch, he puts on the ultimate sign of cool—dark glasses (whose specific provenance in Tarantino’s highly allusive film have also been traced). "Cool" may very well be today's equivalent for "nobility."
I was struck by the inevitable similarity between how clothing “elevates” Tarantino’s character and how Frederick Thomas was seen by American tourists in Moscow and Constantinople when he was rich and famous, and dressed the part (how he gets there, I’ll describe in my blog later). Americans were not used to seeing a suave and self-assured black man in elegant evening clothes, with a sparkling diamond stick pin and ring, presiding over a fancy and popular nightspot that he owned. Several Chicagoans who visited his Aquarium entertainment garden in Moscow in 1912--which they characterized as one of the city's most renowned "institutions"--were so "astonished" by his "prosperous" and "diamond bedecked" appearance that they felt compelled to report their discovery to a local newspaper once they got home. Django's "incongruous" appearance also elicits shocked responses from whites, albeit very crude, racist ones.
As for the movie itself--I found it interesting as an artifact, up to a point; and also as a cultural phenomenon because of the amount and kind of attention it garnered in different circles.
The RIA news agency published an article two days ago about a fascinating new documentary that is being made by New-York based filmmaker Yelena Demikovsky, who has teamed up with Sam Pollard, a longtime collaborator of Spike Lee, as producer. It is about black Americans--some well known, some less so--who went to the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s to escape racism and to forge new lives for themselves.
These black Americans were accepted in the Soviet Union in a way that resembled how Frederick Thomas was received when he arrived in imperial Russia decades earlier. There was, however, one major difference: the Soviet Union welcomed black Americans for propagandistic reasons, whereas Russians under the old regime simply ignored Frederick’s skin color, letting him thrive according to his abilities.
I had the pleasure of contributing some remarks in Yelena’s film, the current trailer for which is available on Youtube. And more information about the project is on the website for Yelena's production company Red Palette Pictures.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., published an illuminating article today in the online magazine THE ROOT about the origins of the idea that freed blacks would be given "40 acres and a mule" to enable them to start new lives as independent farmers after the Civil War. He stresses how radical the plan was to take land confiscated from whites and to give it to blacks as a form of reparation, and how, if the plan had been implemented, it would have transformed the lives of black people in the South and effectively changed American history.
Gates's article also puts into perspective the remarkable achievement of the Thomas family in acquiring their farm in Coahoma County, MS, in 1869 (as I described in earlier posts). And the fact that Frederick's father began with 200 acres, and increased his property to 600 acres over time--all on his own--makes his achievement nothing less than amazing.
Here is Paul Robeson (1898-1976), the famous black American actor, singer, and political activist--a list that does not begin to do justice to the breadth and variety of his achievements and interests--performing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." This historic black spiritual dates to the early 1860s and was recorded for the first time in 1909, which means that Frederick Thomas likely knew it. Robeson first visited the Soviet Union in 1934 during his remarkable career, and performed there to great acclaim. Even though Frederick had left the country in 1919, it's possible that some of the people who saw and knew Robeson in Moscow had also known Frederick.
Frederick Thomas probably arrived in New York by train from Chicago at the old Grand Central Station on 42 Street and Fourth Avenue after a nearly twenty-four hour trip. In 1893, a number of large railroad companies competed for passengers traveling between New York and the Columbian Exposition by advertising luxurious, super-fast trains: the “Exposition Flyer” of the New York Central line, for example, cut the trip to twenty hours and billed itself as “the fastest thousand mile train on the globe.” Other railroads targeted mass travelers and offered excursion rate tickets costing about $10 one way. Even with his experience of the great Midwestern metropolis, Frederick would probably have shared another young black man’s first impressions when he first explored the city: “What a big, busy place I found New York to be! What high buildings, what throngs on Broadway, what a crush at Brooklyn Bridge, where everybody seemed to get up and rush for the entrance at the same time.”
Frederick settled in Brooklyn, which in 1893 was not yet officially part of New York City but an independent municipality with a population of nearly one million, or almost Chicago’s equal all by itself. Separated from Manhattan by the East River, but joined to it since 1883 by the celebrated “New York and Brooklyn Bridge,” as John Roebling’s iconic contribution to the New York skyline was originally called, as well as by numerous ferries, Brooklyn existed as a separate entity more in name than in practical consequence to most people on either shore. Together with the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, Brooklyn would be annexed by Manhattan and designated a “borough” of the vastly enlarged city only on January 1, 1898. On this date, the new New York became the second biggest city in the world, yielding only to London and followed by Paris and Berlin.
Like Chicago, the New York metropolitan region was still overwhelmingly white in 1893. It was also filled with immigrants from all over Europe and their first-generation children. The abject poverty of many of them, together with their foreign babble and alien customs, made longtime Yankees fear for the future of their city. To acculturate and redeem these motley newcomers, white New Yorkers initiated a variety of reform efforts at the end of the nineteenth century, but they typically ignored the less numerous native-born blacks who were arriving simultaneously. Blacks were also made to feel unwelcome in Manhattan and many chose to live in the outlying areas. Brooklyn became especially popular with blacks after the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863 when white mobs attacked them throughout Manhattan in an attempt to destroy the city’s black working class. But even in Brooklyn the black population in 1893 was very small and amounted to only 1.4%, or some 13,000 people out of a population of 950,000.
New York and Brooklyn also resembled Chicago by limiting what blacks could do for a living, what they could do for pleasure, and what services they could receive. On the one hand, the courts usually struck down overt racial segregation, public schools were officially color blind, and a small black elite thrived in the city. But on the other, hospitals kept blacks separate from whites, expensive restaurants would not serve blacks, and theaters seated patrons by race. Housing was another perennial problem for many blacks in New York and by the end of the nineteenth century became known as the “lodging evil” among reforming circles. White tenement owners in the city rented to blacks only reluctantly and overcharged them when they did. The high cost of housing forced numerous black families to take boarders into their apartments to help pay the rent. Because of the low wages they earned, single male lodgers frequently had to share a room in an arrangement that was known as “batching it” and that carried with it the awkward right to bring a woman home for the night.
The job that Frederick got after he arrived in Brooklyn was predictable, both in personal and broader social terms. New York was like Chicago in restricting most blacks to lower paying occupations and those that made them subservient to whites. Within this narrow range of possibilities, however, Frederick was able to carve out a relatively superior niche for himself, one that represented an advance over his work as a waiter in Chicago.
The Clarendon Hotel in Brooklyn where he became “head bell boy” was a new, large, prominent, and strategically located establishment in its day. Opened during the summer of 1890 two blocks north of City Hall and opposite the Central Post Office, on the corner of Johnson and Washington Streets, it was also just a few steps away from Fulton Street with its elevated railroad that ran to the Brooklyn Bridge a dozen blocks away. A cable car service took passengers across the bridge to lower Manhattan and dropped them off within easy reach of New York’s City Hall, thus putting the Clarendon at one end of a transportation system that linked the two municipalities’ administrative centers. Six stories tall, built in a heavy style that a local newspaper called “Romanesque,” richly decorated, with 160 rooms and an octagonal turret atop prominent corner bay windows, the Clarendon was the site of many meetings and banquets organized by locally important organizations and individuals. The building no longer exists and the entire neighborhood has been reconfigured by new construction and roads leading to Brooklyn Bridge.
To service the number of guests that a hotel of this class and size could accommodate would have required a dozen or more bellboys, or “bellhops” in today’s parlance, on duty at any given time. Summoned by a bell at the front desk and expected to “hop to it,” their job would have entailed carrying luggage, showing guests to their rooms, and making sure that everything in the room was working properly. Bellboys would typically be on their feet all day and because they were always on public view their physical appearance, from uniform to grooming to deportment, would reflect directly on the establishment they served. They would also provide information to guests about the hotel’s services and local attractions and were on call to deliver packages, run errands and bring food and drink to guests’ rooms. Each of these interactions was the occasion for receiving a tip, so a bellboy would be nothing if not accommodating, no matter how difficult a guest might be. A bellboy would also often be the eyes and ears of the management, as when on a Sunday morning in April, 1893, one of them reported the sound of a gunshot on the Clarendon’s top floor, which proved to be the suicide of a troubled guest. A bellboy might also be the first discreet source of information about anything illicit that a guest would not wish to ask about at the front desk; for this, a more generous tip could be expected, and so it would have paid bellboys to know where and how urban vices could be procured.
Frederick was twenty-one at this time and as the “head” of a crew of bellboys had a responsible position that reflected his experience and his skill in both serving and managing people. It was his job to give individual bellboys their assignments, to keep track of their hours for payroll, to train beginners, and to resolve complaints made against them. Frederick would have had to balance being a figure of authority toward his fellow coworkers—and since he was black, they could have been nothing else—with being an employee and a servant of whites. It would have been Frederick’s prerogative to go out of his way to provide an exceptional service to an important client himself. Like a headwaiter’s, a head bellboy’s salary and tips would reflect his rank in the service hierarchy.
I spent a week promoting The Black Russian in Mississippi last week, with seven appearances in different venues, including the Live@9 TV program in Memphis (I posted a link to the video clip on my FB profile a few days ago), as well as book signings, and the great Festival for the Book in Oxford (all of the appearances are on my web page under "Events"). All of the talks and presentations were very enjoyable, and it was very gratifying to see how many different people took to the story of Frederick Thomas.
Here's a link to the video of the talk I gave last Friday about The Black Russian in Clarksdale, Mississippi, near which Frederick Thomas was born in 1872. The venue was the beautifully restored "Cutrer Mansion," built by the successful and flamboyant lawyer, John "Jack" Cutrer, who defended the Thomas family interests in a trial in the local chancery court (and who, with his wife, Blanche, was a model for some of the characters in Tennessee Williams' plays).
Frederick’s subsequent career in Brooklyn suggests that he impressed guests at the Clarendon Hotel. After working there for some months as head bellboy, he left to become a personal valet to a leading local businessman, Percy G. Williams, who had taken up temporary residence in the hotel in the early summer of 1894 and was on the verge of making his mark on the history of American popular entertainment.
Williams was a typical American “self-made man,” and parts of his life would surely have served as one of a series of models for young Frederick. When Williams first came to Brooklyn a decade or so earlier, he ran a medicine show that featured battery-charged “liver bags” as a cure for rheumatism and his own song-and-dance numbers in blackface. But Williams did not continue in this questionable vein and shortly before Frederick met him tried his hand at real estate. In 1893, with the financial backing of a partner who had made his money manufacturing “Tutti Frutti” chewing gum, Williams bought a 300-acre tract of marshland called Bergen Beach on Jamaica Bay, which defines the eastern edge of Brooklyn. The original plan to develop the tract as a residential community failed, however, and the partners decided to transform it into a summer entertainment complex, which came to hugely successful fruition several years later. In the meantime, Williams pursued another form of “theatrical business,” as Frederick would refer to it later. He became a stockholder in a new theater being built in Brooklyn in 1894, and then, when this succeeded, began to buy theaters on his own. In less than a decade, he owned seven and had become the biggest entrepreneur in vaudeville in the New York area. In 1912, he sold his chain of theaters to Benjamin Franklin Keith, “the father” of American vaudeville, and the owner of a network of theaters spreading from Chicago to the Atlantic seaboard; the fabulous sum was between five and six million dollars, or the equivalent of more than one hundred million in today’s money.
In many ways, Williams did not resemble what one might imagine a prominent showman during the Gilded Age to be. He was modest, soft-spoken, and gentle, eschewed the flashy diamond pinky ring, and was honest in his business dealings and fair to his employees. Striving to provide the best possible entertainment, he personally chose acts for his theaters during recruiting trips to major vaudeville venues in Europe. Two stars still remembered today, Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Laurel (of Laurel and Hardy fame), would get their American start in one of Williams’ theaters. When Williams died in 1923, he left half of his entire estate, which included his grand house on thirty acres at East Islip, Long Island, to establish the “Percy Williams Home” for “the care and maintenance of old and infirm players of the dramatic and vaudeville stage.” In his will, he wrote, “I made my money from the actors; I herewith return it to them.” In a striking gesture of kindness, Williams also bequeathed “one month’s wages for each year of continuous employment” to each of his household servants.
Frederick was long gone from the United States by this time, but it seems reasonable to infer that he too had been treated well in his day. It is also possible that by working for Williams, Frederick was able to observe and to learn from an estimable and successful businessman. At the very least, a valet was in a position to overhear some of his employer’s comments to others; a humane employer like Williams could also easily have engaged his valet in conversation. Given the resemblance between the kinds of light theatrical entertainments that Williams ran in Brooklyn and that Frederick would come to operate in Moscow, the attention to every detail of the business that each showed, the undemonstrative way in which Frederick would hold himself, and the decency with which he would treat his employees, one wonders if Frederick ever fantasized about following in Percy Williams’ footsteps when he was laying out his employer’s evening clothes or bending down to light his cigar?
There is no doubt that Frederick Thomas’s ambitions far surpassed the lowly roles that American society allowed him play in the early 1890s and at which he had clearly begun to excel. With a good letter of recommendation from a well-known, rich, and respected man like Percy Williams, for whom he had worked as a valet, Frederick could have continued to do similar work in New York for many years. The city’s newspapers were filled with help-wanted announcements for skilled and experienced servants and there were plenty of restaurants and hotels that could have employed him as well. But in addition to his vocation, Frederick also had an artistic passion—singing. Because of the "color line" in American conservatories, he could not pursue a musical career at home. But his dedication was strong enough for him to take the extraordinary step of leaving the United States decades before black Americans began to move to places like Paris in search of personal and artistic freedom.
Passenger ship traffic between New York City and London was frequent, quick, popular, and affordable in the 1890s. Approximately half a dozen ships left every week during the fall of 1894, with several English ports as the final or intermediate destination, and transported thousands of passengers with the most varied backgrounds and incomes. The vast majority went in “steerage,” which was the cheapest way to travel, and which accommodated surprising numbers of laborers, workers, and others on the lower rungs of the economic and social ladders. International travel was also much simpler in those days than it is today: you bought a ticket and went. There was no special “security screening,” and Americans going abroad did not even need a passport to leave the country, although they could get one in advance if they wanted. England kept detailed lists of all passengers arriving in its ports, as did the United States, but did not require visitors to have passports on entry. In Continental Europe the rules varied, but Americans who decided that they would like to travel between countries and had not gotten passports at home could apply for them easily and quickly for a small fee from any American consulate or embassy.
Frederick left New York in the fall of 1894, probably on October 9 aboard the S. S. Lahn of the North German Lloyd shipping line. Her ultimate destination was Bremen in northern Germany, but on the way she was scheduled to call at Southampton, a major port on the south coast of England that was a popular entry point for Americans and had a direct rail connection to London. The S. S. Lahn was a new ship, commissioned in 1887, and capable of carrying one thousand passengers, including seven hundred in third class, or steerage. This is how Frederick went, which is confirmed by the financial plight he would soon face in London. If the most expensive fare for this trip at that time started at $60 to $70 and could go considerably higher in a first-class cabin, and $45 to $50 in second class, steerage was a relative bargain at $10 to $15 one way, or perhaps several hundred dollars today.
In the 1890s, transatlantic travel by people of average or even humble means had become such a widespread novelty that it aroused public curiosity. In response, an enterprising reporter, Frederick R. Burton, decided to investigate what it was like by travelling to England and back in steerage and describing his impressions in detail for the readers of the Boston Daily Globe. What he saw on board was likely a fair approximation of what Frederick experienced as well. (to be continued).
50. In Steerage from New York to London in 1894, or It Really Wasn’t That Bad
Frederick Burton was the reporter for The Boston Globe who described what it was like in steerage during an Atlantic crossing at the same time that Frederick Thomas made the trip in 1894.
Because it was late summer, most of Burton’s fellow passengers on the outbound voyage were tourists from the United States. For many it was their first trip to Europe, but the majority were returning to visit their birthplaces in the United Kingdom and elsewhere on the Continent. Some of the passengers were returning home after touring the United States for a few weeks. Others had sad family business to attend to, and one bent-over old man was going home after many years “for the privilege of dying in the old sod,” as he put it.
Passengers in this class were regimented in accordance with the patriarchal norms of the time, and their accommodations were Spartan in comparison to the upper decks. But overall the conditions were quite humane and dictated by practical considerations. In fact, they resemble something like an ocean-going, modern-day hostel for young backpackers or retirees traveling on a shoestring who are willing to eschew certain comforts to feed their wanderlust and save money. One wonders if there would be a market for cheap ocean “cruises” like this today.
Because there were no private cabins in steerage, passengers in this class were segregated by three categories—single men, single women, and married couples. All could mingle freely on deck, but were kept apart below. The single men’s quarters where Burton stayed were two flights down, in the warm and stuffy belly of the ship, and consisted of a series of communal rooms off a central passageway, each with bunk beds for sixteen or more. An innovation that Burton noted was that each bunk came furnished with bedding and table utensils; in the recent past, every passenger in steerage had to equip himself with such things for the duration of the voyage. The furnishings provided were simplicity itself—a straw mattress and a blanket, a deep ceramic plate and a tin cup that could hold a pint, a silver-plated spoon, and an iron knife and fork.
When called to meals, the passengers gathered in the central passageway and lowered a series of plain wooden tables and benches that were folded up against the ceiling while not in use. Burton and a friend whom he happened to meet on board approached their first meal “honestly dreading the experience,” as he confessed, and “fearful of being overcome by the close atmosphere.” Because they did not know the ropes and there were not enough seats at the tables for them and several other novices, they wound up putting their plates on shelves attached to the walls for this purpose and eating standing up. Service was nothing if not casual: stewards appeared carrying huge pails of soup, which they ladled generously into the passengers’ large tin cups. But to Burton’s surprise and relief, the soup “tasted good in the gloomy, hot steerage”; indeed, he hastened to add, “it would have tasted good if we had been sitting at a white-covered table in a first-rate hotel.” Following this came boiled beef and potatoes, and “Again the supply was bountiful; again the quality was good.”
However, when the meal was over, Burton and his friend were shocked that they had to scrape and then wash their own dishes as best they could in tubs of plain water that quickly became greasy; but together with others who were squeamish or inept at first, they got into the routine. What helped them adjust to the various shocks of traveling on the cheap was the good nature of the stewards, who went about their business with brisk informality and in plain shirtsleeves.
At the other meals, the passengers were also fed simply but amply. Burton was especially impressed by the tasty small loaves of bread that they were served, and by the fact that 3,500 of them were baked every day in the ship’s galleys. He also liked the hearty breakfasts, which consisted of Irish stew or oatmeal porridge with molasses on alternating days, together with bread, butter, and coffee. The only problem with the food, which included desserts on occasion, was that it became tiresomely repetitive during the weeklong crossing. It was obviously in the shipping companies’ interests to feed and treat steerage passengers as well as possible since word of mouth would affect future business. (To be continued).
51. Steerage to England in 1894, or What Frederick Thomas Probably Saw
Frederick Burton, the newspaper reporter who wanted to find out what it was like to travel from New York to England in steerage aboard a passenger ship, initially had trepidations about the communal bedrooms in which single male passengers had to sleep. But he was relieved to find that he slept well despite the thin mattress and poor air in the ship’s dimly lit hold. He was also relieved that the bedbugs he feared did not materialize. In general, the stewards kept the steerage quarters scrupulously clean. They shepherded all the passengers onto the deck from 8 to 10 a.m. to get them out of the way, and also to force them to get fresh air as a remedy for seasickness, which afflicted half of the passengers during the first two days even though the weather was calm and the ship neither pitched nor rolled. But rules were not overly severe in this regard, and if passengers were really feeling too ill to move, they were left alone. A ship’s doctor whose services were free was kept busy tending to any steerage passenger who wanted his attention.
Burton was struck by the number of different nationalities among the nearly 900 passengers in steerage aboard his ship and by the generally free, friendly, and helpful relations among these largely simple folk. Left without organized entertainments, they improvised for themselves as best they could. Most spent the better part of the day on deck, strolling, playing cards, reading, passing books back and forth. Mothers played with their children, old men dozed, young people watched each other with shy interest. One afternoon, not long after the voyage began, harmonicas and accordions began to appear, enough to make up a veritable orchestra, and a fiddler brought his instrument up on deck. At first, a solitary man began to dance a jig or a fling; soon several couples joined him. Some of the bolder young women began to draw the initially reluctant young men into the dancing; later in the voyage this was no longer necessary, because, as Burton noted, “the young men didn’t wait to be asked.” The forward part of the steerage deck was spacious enough for the growing impromptu revel, and a crowd of several hundred gathered to watch, including those in the most expensive cabins—the “saloon passengers” as they were termed, who looked down from their promenade deck with what Burton guessed, or hoped, was a degree of envy. As the ship continued its steady crossing, couples that had first paired off on the dance floor began to reappear in various out-of-the-way nooks on deck. Sometimes they achieved a modicum of privacy by concealing themselves behind a big shawl that was stretched over something, with only two pairs of shoes peeping out. When night fell, the number of such couples increased greatly, at least until 9 p.m., at which hour women travelling in steerage were required to go below for the night. A master-at-arms would begin his rounds with a bull’s-eye lantern and a corps of assistants, playing a kind of good-natured game of cat and mouse with the young women, who, with much banter and laughing, tried to hide behind ventilators, dodge into doorways, disappear in the middle of a crowd of young men, or run quickly to the other side of the ship. (to be continued).
52. A Black American in London in 1894, or Frederick Thomas Discovers a New World
Anyone who goes abroad for the first time is likely to find aspects of the experience overwhelming, at least initially—from realizing how many miles one is from home, to being struck by the strangeness of peoples’ dress and speech, to the different appearance of everyday things like houses, food stuffs, and streetlights. However, in Frederick’s case, much of the novelty of arriving in London was probably mitigated by the changes he had already experienced in the United States. The contrast between the Hopson Bayou neighborhood in Mississippi where he grew up and Chicago was in many ways far greater than that between the two greatest English-speaking cities in the world—New York and London.
But in another and more important way, the change between the United States and England was like climbing out of a ship’s dark cargo hold onto the top deck bathed in brilliant sunshine. “Negro,” “colored,” and “black” did not mean in England what they did in the United States. In London, for the first time in his life, Frederick experienced what most of his fellows back home would never know—being viewed by whites with curiosity, interest, even affection, rather than with toleration, superciliousness, or contempt.
It was not that Victorian England was a color-blind sanctuary. For generations, the British Empire had subjugated and exploited entire civilizations in South Asia, Africa, and many other places around the world. In the United Kingdom itself, unabashed racism was directed toward the Irish, the Jews, and others. But because there were very few people of African descent in England at this time, and even fewer blacks from the United States, the attitude towards people like Frederick was surprisingly accepting—“surprisingly” especially from the point of view of Americans who happened to be visiting the British Isles.
The seeming contradictions of British snobbery dismayed one American visitor in the 1890s. He noted that in the great university towns of England, one could see “negroes” at college balls waltzing with aristocratic young women and ladies of high position, all of whom would have considered it grossly inappropriate even to acknowledge a familiar tradesman in the street. Another American who brought his prejudices with him was shocked by the sight of “two coal-black negroes and two white women” in a fashionable London restaurant. “My first impulse was to instantly depart,” the American admitted, “for such a sight in the United States would surely not have been possible.” But in the end there was little he could do except acknowledge ruefully that “In London a negro can go into the finest restaurants and be served just like a white man.” (to be continued)
53. Ida Wells, and the Acceptance of Black Americans in England in 1894
During the summer of 1894, shortly before Frederick Thomas arrived in London, Ida Wells, the famous black newspaper publisher and civil rights activist from Memphis, toured the British Isles in connection with her campaign against lynching in the American South. She gave dozens of speeches and interviews, all of which were well received. On one occasion, when asked by a white American if she had encountered race prejudice anywhere in Great Britain, Wells replied: “No, it was like being born again in a new condition. Everywhere I was received on a perfect equality with the ladies who did so much for me and my cause. In fact, my color gave me some agreeable prominence which I might not otherwise have had. . . . I forgot while [in London] that I had ever lived where I was subjected to the indignity of being obliged to accept inferior hotel and railroad accommodation because I was colored.” It is hardly surprising that when asked if she was going to return to Memphis, she answered, “Well, not just at present.”
Wells may have had more in mind than just the appeal of being treated like an attractive human being. Routine news from the United States at this time would certainly have poisoned a black person’s possible nostalgia for home. In October of 1894, American newspapers reported that “race war” was brewing in Kentucky and New Orleans and that “whites and blacks were arming.” The same month, a newspaper in London published an article about lynching in the United States. News like this surely contributed to Frederick’s decision to stay in Europe.
54. The Russians Are Not Really White, or An Anecdote About American Racism Abroad
When white Americans traveled abroad, they frequently brought their racism with them and were not ashamed to reveal it to foreigners. A well-known Russian writer, Korney Chukovsky, tells the story of how he had been sent to London as a newspaper correspondent around the turn of the twentieth century. He settled into an inexpensive boarding house that had also been chosen by a family of white Americans. A few weeks later, a black American preacher arrived in the boarding house and began to use the dining and sitting rooms like any other guest. This upset the white American family so much that they protested the black preacher’s presence, especially in the public rooms. The English landlady was in a quandary because she could not afford to turn away either the preacher or the family. Finally, she devised a compromise of sorts, according to which the black lodger would be told that he could stay in the boarding house but could not use the public rooms. Chukovsky was delegated to deliver the awkward news to the preacher. After he had done so and had offered his personal condolences for the insult, he was surprised by the black man’s response:
“The white guests have the right to object to me,” he explained . . . “they belong to a superior race.”
“But,” said Chukovsky, “I do not object to you. I don’t feel any difference; we don’t understand color prejudice in Russia.”
“Well,” philosophized the preacher, “you are very kind, but taking the scriptures as authority, I don’t consider the Russians to be white people.”
Chukovsky did not report his reaction to this remark or what scriptural authority the preacher may have had in mind. But presumably it was the Biblical story in Genesis 10 about how Noah’s sons established the new nations of mankind after the Flood, with Ham being the progenitor of the African peoples and others, including those in Eurasia. Nevertheless, what Chukovsky said to the black preacher is very telling because it foreshadows Frederick Thomas’s acceptance in Russia. Since people of African descent in the Russian Empire were even rarer than in Western Europe, the Russian attitude toward them was even more accepting than that of the English. And no matter what the basis for the black preacher’s remark may have been, there is another fascinating dimension to it—a reflection of the widespread Western bias that, when considered in their totality (and perhaps excepting certain writers, composers, and noblemen), the Russians themselves are not quite Europeans and have a strong Asiatic streak in them.
After staying in London for less than a year, where he worked as a waiter after failing to gain admission to a musical conservatory and to start his own business, Frederick traveled to Paris around the beginning of July, 1895. To live and work in France, or anywhere else on the Continent, Frederick would have to learn French (which was the second language throughout the world at the time, much as English is today). His need was especially urgent because his first job was as a valet, which would require him to communicate quickly and easily with his employers, or, if these were English-speaking, with people outside the household, such as shopkeepers and tradesmen. Judging by the addresses Frederick gave in several documents, which are all for elegant buildings that have survived to this day and are located in fashionable districts of Paris, his employers were well off.
It was very important for me to know his specific addresses when I was researching his life in Paris because one of them led to information that shed a valuable, if oblique, light on the kind of world in which he lived and worked. This, in turn, partially filled a gap in the documentary record I was compiling from archival sources. In 1896, Frederick gave his address as 23 Avenue Niel, which is a short walk north on one of the grand and broad boulevards radiating like spokes from the Arch of Triumph. It is a large and imposing seven-story apartment building with decorative ironwork on the façade, and has preserved its upscale appearance to this day.
As I found out from contemporary newspaper articles, a very rich young American woman, Della Rogers, lived at 23 Avenue Niel with her mother at about the same time as Frederick. She was an opera singer, heir to her Denver grandfather’s millions, and had come to Europe in 1894 to begin what proved to be a highly successful career, including a debut at the world-famous La Scala opera house in Milan and performances in Paris and St. Petersburg. Her wealth and talent were enhanced by her beauty, which made her a favorite in Parisian society and even attracted a marriage proposal from an impoverished Rumanian nobleman of ancient lineage, a certain Prince Ghika, who, as a newspaper wryly put it, “was fascinated by Miss Rogers’ brilliancy or her wealth.” Miss Rogers was not interested, however, and rejected the prince “in the most emphatic way.”
The coincidence that Frederick and Della Rogers and her mother had the same nationality and address is of course not enough to suggest that there was any additional connection between them. But the fact that a woman of her wealth and standing would have chosen to live at the same address where Frederick worked clearly implies that his employers belonged to her social class and also had money. In turn, this leads to the conclusion that Frederick had successfully transplanted himself to yet another European city and culture, that he continued to work in the upper reaches of his profession, and that, therefore, he was very good at it. There is abundant additional evidence supporting this conclusion, as well as the fact that he quickly became fluent in French.
France, like England, was vastly more accepting of black people than the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. In fact, the attitude toward blacks in Paris at this time was even more liberal than in London. An American reporter compared the two countries and had difficulty containing himself because of how shocking he found French tolerance:
"This extraordinary spectacle of the negro in society one sees also in France and throughout the continent, but it does not appear so strange as in England, the most socially conservative country on the face of the earth. In Paris, for example, one may frequently drive through the Bois de Boulogne behind African women handsomely gowned, lounging back gracefully in their elegant carriages. It is no uncommon sight to see a colored child carried in the arms of a white nurse. White women have married black men and forfeited no social standing in Paris, as, for instance, the white wife of the negro artist, Tanner [Henry Ossawa Tanner of Pennsylvania who moved to France in 1894].
She is received not only in bohemian Paris, but in social Paris as well. But most extraordinary of all, she has an entree, as the wife of her husband, which she would not have without him. Tanner is feted and sought for just like any other genius: one hears remarks now and then that he is a negro, but much the same as if the speaker had designated him as an Italian or a Russian."
This attitude of a white American had its natural complement in the exhilarating feeling of liberation that American blacks experienced when they arrived in the country. As James Weldon Johnson, a black American composer and intellectual who first arrived in Paris in 1905, put it, he felt “suddenly free . . . free to be merely a man.”
Frederick Thomas would also have found working in Paris more congenial than in London because the French were far less conscious of class differences than their staid English neighbors. In the streets and in shops in Paris, servants were greeted politely as “Mademoiselle” or “Monsieur” even by strangers who knew their actual status.
And finally, for a handsome young man like Frederick (see his photograph below), Paris would also have been a wide-open field for romantic adventures. A white American who knew the city well, commented--with a hint of envy--that “Frenchmen do not connect the negro as we do, with plantation days. Fair women look upon him with love and admiration, as Desdemona looked upon Othello”; even more specifically relevant to Frederick was that “everywhere you find the same thing. Colored valets traveling with Americans are raved over by pretty French maids.”
Frederick Bruce Thomas, Paris, c. 1896
Paris in the 1890s was widely seen as the world capital of modern urban civilization—a place where everyone with any claim to sophistication or social standing longed to be. Frederick Thomas’s life there in the mid-1890s was the last stage of his education in the ways of the world, one that began in Chicago and continued in New York and London. After Paris, with its museums and theaters, monuments and grand boulevards, cafes and fashionable shops, its temples to haute cuisine, raucous vaudevilles, and natives amiably convinced that they lived at the center of the universe, there was little any other city in Europe could offer Frederick that he had not already seen.
In light of his future career, however, it is worth noting a singular event that occurred in October of 1896—the state visit to Paris by Nicholas II, the new Emperor of Russia, and Alexandra, his Empress. Even if Frederick had not witnessed the visit himself, he could not have failed to hear about it. And no one could have predicted at the time how intimately Frederick’s life would be entwined with the fate of the man who would prove to be the last in his line.
Nicholas II had been crowned in Moscow only four months earlier, on May 26, 1896. His reason for coming to Paris, which he did as part of a grand European tour that included a visit to Queen Victoria of England, who was his wife’s grandmother, was to affirm the military alliance between the Russian Empire and the French Republic that had been signed in 1894. The two countries may have seemed unlikely allies because Russia was an absolute monarchy where even playing the French revolutionary national anthem, The Marseillaise, was a criminal offense. But because of continuing French fears of Germany following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, which ended disastrously for France with the surrender of Paris, the loss of territory on its eastern border, and a huge indemnity, French republican sentiment acquiesced to political expediency and the security that Russia’s vast armies seemed to promise.
When Nicholas II and Alexandra arrived in Paris on October 6, French excitement and Russophilia reached the point of national hysteria. An American reporter wrote excitedly that “the memory of man has nothing with which to compare the welcome which France has given to-day to her ally, the Emperor of Russia. . . . I have no hesitation in saying that as a spectacle it eclipsed anything the world has seen . . . For its frenzy of human excitement and emotion there is no standard of measurement.” (to be continued)
In Paris on October 6, 1896, between four and five million people, including many from the provinces, started gathering at daybreak to see the new Russian emperor, Nicholas II, and Empress Alexandra. Russian and French flags festooned the city, bare tree branches were decorated with artificial leaves and flowers, and countless lanterns swayed and sparkled everywhere. Busts of Nicholas II outsold all others, even Napoleon’s. A series of ceremonies lasted several days and included dinners, meetings, speeches, theater performances, a 101 gun “imperial salute” by an artillery battery, and the Tsar’s review of 70,000 troops.
Nicholas and Alexandra also laid the cornerstone of a new bridge across the Seine while forty maidens chanted in a flower-decorated boat nearby. Named after Nicholas’ father, Alexander III, this is probably the most photographed bridge in Paris today, if one judges by the number of fashion shoots that use it as a backdrop (and by the number of tourist photos—as in my case several days ago when I was in Paris: please see below).
Despite the elation of the crowds and the efforts of the French officials to keep the ceremonies at a dignified fever pitch, dark shadows also crept in. People in the crowds could not forget the bitterness of the French loss to the Germans twenty-five years ago and the renewed threat of war that the alliance with Russia implied. Nicholas and Alexandra often seemed to be ill at ease or frightened. The couple was guarded very closely, which reminded observers that revolutionaries had not only killed the tsar’s grandfather, but were actively hunting him, members of his family, and other Russian notables.
Other memories of tragic bloodshed were also fresh because Nicholas’ reign began just four months earlier with what many contemporaries saw as an ominous sign. Several days after his coronation, a mass celebration for the common folk of Moscow that had been planned on Khodynka Field on the city’s outskirts turned into a tragedy (some years later, Frederick would wind up living virtually across the street from the field). Rumors that there would not be enough food, drink, and gifts, such as commemorative enameled cups with the royal couple’s initials, caused the enormous mass of people to rush the stands, resulting in more than 1,300 being trampled to death and many others injured. That evening, Nicholas heeded bad advice, as he would often do later as well in far more perilous times, and did not cancel a diplomatic ball, thus earning a reputation for being distant, uncaring, and inept.
With Russia so much in the news, it would have been difficult for anyone in Paris during early October 1896 to think of Russia in the way they had before, or not to think of Russia at all. Frederick would tie his fate to Russia’s only a few years later.
Views of the Alexander III Bridge, Paris, June 2013
Frederick Thomas applied for his first passport in Paris on March 17, 1896. The one-page application, which is preserved in the National Archives in Washington, D. C., required that three dozen blanks be filled in to identify the applicant; and these brief entries by a secretary, like quick brush strokes by an artist in a hurry, sketch the first glimpse of Frederick that we have as he begins to emerge from the mists and generalizations of the historical past.
The man who walks off the page is somewhat taller than average at 5 feet, 9 inches, has a complexion described as “colored,” a high forehead, a large nose, and black eyes and hair. His face and chin are “square,” and his mouth is “large.” All of this suggests a manly face, but the terse notations are too abstract to capture the handsome black man we can see in an early photograph, which can be dated from around the same time (see also photograph in blog post 56 above).
Photograph of Frederick Bruce Thomas, c. 1896 (courtesy of Bruce Thomass)
Among other matters, the form inquires how soon the applicant will return to the United States “with the purpose of residing and performing the duties of citizenship therein.” Frederick’s response is “two years,” but it is not at all certain if he really meant this or if he simply said whatever he thought would help him keep his options open. It would not have been in his interest to make the embassy staff suspect that he might have left the United States for good. Having a valid American passport was advantageous because it would provide him with protection in case he got into any kind of trouble, and it could be renewed abroad repeatedly with minimal explanations.
Moreover, the second secretary of the legation who filled out the application for Frederick and who personally confirmed his identity was Newton B. Eustis, the Ambassador’s son. This may have affected what Frederick chose to say. On the one hand, the secretary was merely a government employee fulfilling his duties vis-à-vis an American citizen and collecting the mandated $1.00 fee for the passport and 50 cents for administering the oath of allegiance that the document required. But on the other, this official encounter was not likely to be color blind, given that the second secretary was his father’s son.
Ambassador Eustis was a “Southern gentleman” of the old school. He came from New Orleans, had been a staff officer in the Confederate Army, fought with distinction at the Battle of Galveston, and served as a Louisiana senator for fourteen years before being appointed to his diplomatic post. The Democratic Party of which he was a member had been a major force in American political life after the Civil War and did much to dismantle Reconstruction and to install repressive Jim Crow laws throughout the South. One wonders, as result, how Frederick would have reacted to the encounter with this man’s son, whom he would have been able to size up quickly and accurately. Americans from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line traveled widely in Europe in those years and Frederick could have met them often in both London and Paris. In turn, one also wonders how the young official’s Southern white background would have made him view a black man who, judging by his accent, had escaped from his natural and proper American setting to the racially permissive French capital.
Frederick Thomas spent five years traveling around Western Europe, working as a waiter and a valet, before going to Russia in 1899. He wasn’t entirely consistent later when he recalled his reason for going to the land of the tsars. But one entertaining variant was that a Russian “grand duke” who had come to gamble in Monte Carlo befriended him.
“Grand duke” is the Western European translation of the title given to the sons and grandsons of Russian emperors (a more accurate translation of «великий князь» “velikiy kniaz’” is “great prince”). But whatever they were called, at the turn of the twentieth century some members of this large and glittering clan had become notorious for high living in various European hot spots. It is entirely possible, therefore, that Frederick met a grand duke in the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo, where he worked for a while (and where he had a memorable encounter with an American reporter that I describe in my book). It is also quite possible that Frederick ingratiated himself in the process, and that the matter of gambling came up between them.
One wonders, however, if the rest of the story is true. According to an American tourist who heard this story from Frederick many years later, the grand duke, whose name Frederick chose not to reveal, was a very superstitious gambler and came to rely on Frederick to help him foretell his chances at the gaming tables via any means possible—from studying the stars, to reading coffee grounds, to interpreting the rising bubbles in a flute of champagne (an especially charming idea).
It is possible of course that a rich nobleman could take a fancy to a charismatic, exotically dark-skinned valet (most Russians would have seen few if any blacks in their lives) and would ask his advice about the dominant local entertainment, which Frederick understood very well. But the version that the American tourist claims to have heard from Frederick sounds too fanciful to be entirely plausible.
Indeed, after this point in the American’s memoir, the story of Frederick and the grand duke begins to float off into increasingly improbable heights on billows of ever-warmer air. Thus, it does not seem very likely that the grand duke became so dependent on Frederick’s skills of divination that he obediently followed Frederick’s advice about gambling or not gambling on any given day. And although it is possible that the grand duke, like any other client, tipped Frederick when he won, it is unlikely that he gave him one tenth of his winnings and then raised the cut to one fourth. It is also improbable that the grand duke beat the Monte Carlo Casino’s house odds often enough to upset the management and that they began to plot how to keep him away from the tables. Finally, the claim that the grand duke “begged” Frederick to go to Moscow with him and to start his own gambling parlors there sounds like Frederick’s retroactive fantasy or the American’s invention. In fact, there is documentary evidence that Frederick did not go directly to Russia after Monte Carlo but spent more than a year traveling to other cities in Europe. Moreover, another decade would pass before he opened his first establishment in Moscow; and this was not and could not have been a gambling parlor because these were illegal in Russia. Thus, although it is possible that Frederick formed the idea of going to Russia while he was still in Monte Carlo, and that he did so under the influence of someone he met there, even a Russian nobleman, the story he told the American sounds like another instance of his biographical embroidery (there were others).
What is it that makes people say a story is “cinematic,” or that a book should be made into a movie? Is it something specific about the characters, settings, or plot? Is it primarily a form of praise? Or is it that our culture has become so visual that the translation of words onto the screen is necessary for a given work to exist fully?
Before following my hero, Frederick Thomas, to Russia, which is the next chronological step in my blog, I’d like to pause briefly on The Black Russian and a movie version. This has been on my mind, on and off, for a half dozen years, ever since I began the research that led to the book.
It all began in Memphis, Tennessee, at the “Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange,” of all places. I’d gone to Memphis to do research in the city’s main public library (where I found a cache of newspapers from 1890 that allowed me to reconstruct the grisly murder of Frederick’s father), and in Coahoma County—Frederick’s birthplace—which was only a couple of hours away by car. During my one day off, I visited the main sights in Memphis, including the National Civil Rights Museum, Graceland, Beale Street, and the duck procession at the Peabody Hotel; I also went for a short paddle-boat steamer cruise on the Mississippi (actually, a diesel engine, with fake paddle wheel and smokestacks). Then, still having an hour to fill, I stopped by the Cotton Museum, which is in the center of town. And I’m glad I went because of what I learned about the buying and selling of the crop that was the “king” of the local economy in the nineteenth century.
The day that I went, the Museum wasn’t very popular with visitors. In fact, I was the only one there, and the bored ticket seller/curator on duty, who seemed eager for some human contact, struck up a conversation with me.
“Where are you from?” she asked. When I answered “Connecticut,” her surprised response was—“What are you doing here!?” So, I told her as much as I could about my subject, which was relatively little at the time because I was at an early stage of my research.
Nevertheless, her response was: “I have only one question for you: who is going to play Frederick Thomas in the movie!?”
Where this came from, I have no idea; and I don’t recall what I answered (probably “Denzel”). At the time, I was still trying to learn what I could about Frederick, and I wasn’t even sure that I would find enough to write a book.
But as time went on, I kept getting the same kind of response from people from the most varied backgrounds and countries—Russia, Japan, Turkey, China, France, Argentina, England, etc., etc.
When the book was published, some reviewers also began to refer to a movie version: “[The Black Russian] cries out to be a Russian Moulin Rouge; it will only be a matter of time before we see Thomas on the big screen. His life was certainly large enough to fill one"; “Thomas's life is one of cinematic proportions”; “Not many people have heard of Frederick Thomas yet, but his story is surely destined for the big screen.” There were similar comments from quite a few readers.
So, why do people say a book should be made into a movie?
My impression is that all three reasons I mentioned above have been at play with regard to The Black Russian. And any way you cut the comments—or any way I turn them—they are all very flattering, appealing, and tantalizing. The remarkable changes in Frederick’s fortunes, the exotic settings in which he lived and worked, and, of course, his exceptional personality—all seem to demand visualization on a big screen.
This is not to say that any book’s path to a movie is simple. Anyone who knows anything about the process also knows how low the chances are: very few books are “optioned”; and of the few that are, fewer still make it to production. In the end, the odds are a small fraction of one percent.
So who knows what will happen.
I have gotten a nibble or two. But I’ve also done enough real fishing to know that it would be foolish to think that all one has to do is pull up the rod and try to set the hook as soon as the float does a small bob in the water.
On the other hand, the climate may be especially congenial now for a film about The Black Russian. On June 2, 2013, when I was at JFK waiting for a flight to London (where I went in part for the publication of the UK edition of my book), I read a front-page article in the New York Times entitled “Coming Soon: A Breakout Year for Black Films.” It described how an “extraordinary cluster” of at least ten films about black Americans was about to be released during the second half of 2013, something that has never been seen before.
In 1899, after crisscrossing the Continent for five years, Frederick Thomas signed on to accompany a nobleman to Russia, a country where black people were virtually unknown. In Moscow before the Revolution there were probably no more than a dozen permanent black residents out of a population of over a million.
However, crossing the Russian frontier was not routine in those days, and this is where Frederick first encountered the Russian equivalent of the American “color line.” The six European countries in which he had already traveled did not require foreigners to have passports, but the authoritarian Russian Empire did. And because the imperial government wanted to keep certain classes of people out, and to monitor the movements of others who were allowed in, an additional restriction was that no foreigner could enter the country without also having his passport visaed by a Russian official abroad. Hapless travelers who arrived at the Russian border without the proper paperwork were sent back on the same train that brought them. Thomas began the process of securing the necessary documents in Vienna and Budapest in the spring of 1899.
The treatment he received from Russian and American diplomats could not have been more different. Unlike American consular officials in Europe, who never failed to note his race in their documents, the Russian consular staff did not care that he had dark skin. If anything, his appearance probably piqued their curiosity. But although they were color blind, the Russians had a preoccupation that Thomas had not seen manifested anywhere else in Europe in such an extreme form—anti-Semitism.
The official Russian government handbook for consular officers, by one Baron Alphonse Heyking, was explicit about what a consul’s first obligation was when dealing with an applicant for a visa: ascertain if the person is Jewish or not. As the handbook stipulated, there were two ways of doing this. The first resembles what we would now call “racial profiling”: the applicant’s “simple declaration” regarding his religious identity would be sufficient, provided “the Consular Officer is in a position to ascertain its correctness.” But if there was any question, the applicant would have to provide documentary evidence that he was not Jewish. (to be continued)
The purpose of the policy that Russian consular officials had to carry out when granting visas to foreigners (please see previous post) was to restrict the entry of Jews into Russia and to limit their freedom of movement if they were admitted. The imperial government was especially concerned with keeping out Russian Jews who had emigrated, who had become citizens elsewhere, and who wanted to return for a visit. Most foreigners who were granted visas were allowed to go almost anywhere they wanted in Russia for a period of six months. But in the case of Jewish applicants, only verifiable members of business firms were allowed into the country and their stay was restricted to three months. And a Jew with personal reasons for wanting to enter Russia was required to make a special application to the Department of the Police of the Russian Ministry of the Interior, and to provide specific details about the reason for the visit, and about where and for how long he wanted to go. Only if special permission was granted in advance would the person receive a visa at a consulate abroad.
Frederick Thomas could not have been ignorant of anti-Semitism in Western Europe during the years he spent there, especially in France, where the notorious “Dreyfus Affair” raged from 1894 to 1899. But there is a difference between an outburst of hatred that received some popular support and that contravened the laws of the land—which was the situation in France, and a system of official laws and widespread public sentiment that recalled the racism of Jim Crow America—which was the situation in Russia.
To be sure, there were differences as well as resemblances between the racism of the American republic and the Russian monarchy. The Jewish population of Russia had never been enslaved; the Russians had enserfed their own Christian peasants instead. (The liberation of the serfs took place via imperial decree in 1861, or two years before the Emancipation Proclamation, and without the horrific bloodshed of the Civil War.) And in principle, Russian Jews could convert to Christianity and thereby lose their stigma; but there was nothing that American blacks could do to change their status.
Nevertheless, by applying for a Russian visa, Thomas was for the first time seeking to enter a country where his sense of belonging would be very different from anything he had experienced thus far. In contrast to the other European countries where he had been accepted more or less like anyone else (there was no discrimination against blacks in England or France at the end of the nineteenth century), in Russia he would explicitly not be a member of a despised and oppressed minority. As a black American, he is likely to have felt this distinction more poignantly than anyone else; and his subsequent behavior suggests that he did not forget it.
Because I describe Frederick’s rise to fame and fortune in Russia in my book, I don’t want to repeat all of that here. Instead, I’d like to share some additional vignettes and details that give a sense of what his life in Russia was like.
By the time Frederick arrived in Russia in 1899, he was master of two related and highly portable professions—he was an excellent valet and waiter. As a result, within just a few years of settling in Moscow he had risen to the prominent position of maître d’hôtel at the Aquarium Garden (a place that he would take over in a half-dozen years). This is notable because it means that Frederick was put in charge of native Russian waiters and other employees.
Establishments like Aquarium no longer exist today (except, perhaps, for Tivoli in Copenhagen--think Disneyworld for adults), but they were very much in vogue throughout Russia and Europe at the turn of the previous century. Occupying a park-like territory of several acres on the edge of Moscow’s center, Aquarium was a major focal point of the city’s lively nightlife, especially during the warmer months from late spring to early fall. It was filled with all sorts of entertainments—theaters, band shells, restaurants, rides, kiosks with games. Earlier, in 1893, the park had actually been named “Chicago” in an attempt to capitalize on the worldwide fame of the Columbian Exposition. One wonders if this past association amused Frederick when he heard of it.
Frederick was hired by Aquarium’s owner, a Frenchman named Charles Aumont, and it is clear that Frederick learned a great deal from him—both by imitating many of his practices and by shunning others. Aumont was a very successful, talented, and ruthless businessman, although he usually tried to conceal his real nature under a suave and gallant facade. His origins are obscure and how he came to Russia is uncertain: one source says that he came to France from Algeria, another that he had been the maître d’hôtel of a good restaurant in Paris, a third that he had been a servant in the home of an official at the Russian embassy in Constantinople.
However, there is no doubt about Aumont’s mark on popular entertainment in Russia. Before he took over the Aquarium, he organized one of the very first screenings of a moving picture in Russia, which took place during the summer of 1896 at the great commercial fair held every year in the provincial city of Nizhny Novgorod. The excited audiences were treated to the “cinématographe” that the Lumière brothers in Paris had invented the year before. This was described as a “living, moving photograph” and heralded as one of the technological “miracles” of the nineteenth century. People had never seen anything so lifelike before: they panicked at the sight of a train barreling toward them on the screen, and wanted to comfort a crying baby that appeared in a close-up; scenes of people bathing amidst ocean waves and spray made them marvel and gasp. Frederick would also be much concerned with novel entertainments when he went into business for himself.
In 1897, Aumont took over the Aquarium Garden, which had fallen on hard times, and in a few years transformed it into a glittering success. To spend evenings there became chic. To appear on its stages could make a career and became the dream of any performer specializing in light genres such as operettas, farces, and vaudeville. The Aquarium’s success was due entirely to Aumont’s tireless involvement in all aspects of its operation: he personally hired new talent, made regular trips to Paris to recruit performers, oversaw the restaurant’s kitchen, and handled the finances. All of these later became hallmarks of Frederick’s business practices as well. But Aumont was also not above making cynical arrangements with female performers whom clients invited to their private dining rooms after they had finished their “turns” on stage. The performers were served dishes made with spoiled foodstuffs that Aumont’s cooks needed to throw out. The actresses and chorus girls would poke at their plates and not eat anything, but their admirers would still be charged the cost of the expensive and inedible meal. This Frederick would not do when he went into business for himself. (to be continued)
A young Russian actress, Natalia Trukhanova, who worked for Charles Aumont at the same time that Frederick Thomas did, left a vivid memoir of her experience with both men.
Trukhanova had originally dreamt of becoming a serious actress at the celebrated Moscow Art Theater, which was famous for its staging of Chekhov’s plays. She was not accepted there, however, and decided to apply for a job at the Aquarium garden. This required a personal interview with its owner.
Aumont was very polite and removed his hat when he invited her to sit down at a table in the garden. But then he began to scrutinize her in a way that made her nervous. Good looking, in his forties, and with a clever smile on his face, he tried to camouflage his penetrating gaze by feigning absent-mindedness. Aumont cheapened his appearance via his flashy dress—loud checked suit, red tie with a pearl stickpin, white spats, diamond rings flashing on his fingers, and a red carnation in his lapel. He dyed his moustache black and curled its ends into little rings. He preferred to speak French despite having lived in Russia for a decade, and the Russian he knew was either badly flawed or consisted of elaborate strings of swear words. (Complex and multileveled cursing happens to be one of the great riches of the Russian language and it is a peculiarity of Aumont’s character that this is what he chose to master.) Because Trukhanova was very pretty, Aumont hired her on the spot to perform in light comedies and offered her a monthly salary that exceeded her wildest dreams. He also urged her to sign a contract right then and there, glossing over some of the fine print, and rushed to seal the deal with glasses of champagne.
Trukhanova’s debut on the Aquarium stage went reasonably well: she had been uncomfortable with the silly role of a young provincial wife she had to play, but she felt that she had managed to pull it off. It was only after she got to her dressing room that she discovered what else her contract obligated her to do. She had finished removing her makeup and was preparing to go home when her co-star ran into her dressing room and began to upbraid her in a harsh and loud tone for planning to leave:
What are you doing? Have you lost your wits? They’re going to start asking for you in the private rooms any second! And you want to relax? You want to earn your bread without working? No, missy! That won’t work here! Please be so kind as to sit and wait in your dressing room until you’re called. One of the maîtres d’hôtel will fetch you. You’ll sit with one or two groups of guests and will entertain the people. There’s nothing special about it. Precisely at 4 A.M., you’ll hear a bell and then you’ll be free.
A few minutes later, one of the maîtres d’hôtel did appear—it was Frederick, or “the negro Thomas” as Trukhanova referred to him. He announced very politely that a party was asking for her in private room 18 and that everyone there was entirely decent and sober. She obediently followed Frederick to the door, and thus began what she called her yearlong “path of sorrow.” Every night after the show, from midnight to four, like a “real geisha,” as she put it, she went from one private room to another, from one group of revelers to the next. The contract she had rashly signed would force her to pay a heavy fine if she tried to break it for any reason before its term was up. It was a great shock for her to discover that her value to Aumont was less as a star on his stage than as a star in his private rooms. (to be continued!)
Natalia Trukhanova’s fate could have been far worse. Although she had feared for her virtue when she found out that she would have to entertain restaurant patrons in their private dining rooms at Aquarium, it turned out that all she needed to do was be pleasant and charming, and perhaps perform a song or two, much as a genuine geisha would. The fact that she continued to work at Aquarium for a year, before deciding to change artistic direction by going to Paris early in 1905, means that she was both successful and could endure the humiliation of being at the clients’ beck and call. For this she lays credit squarely at the feet of the Aquarium’s four maîtres d’hôtel, all of whom she remembered with genuine affection for their kindness toward her. One was a Frenchman, two were Russians, and the third was Frederick Thomas—all of whom she remembered as “very good fellows” who looked out for her like “tender nursemaids.”
This is a striking characterization because it does not distinguish in any way between Thomas and the others and because it implies strong personal ties among all four. Trukhanova goes on to describe how, whenever she was entertaining customers in a private room, one of the maîtres d’hôtel would take care to place a bottle of her “personal” champagne in front of her. This was actually a rather foul-tasting mixture of Russian Narzan mineral water colored with a bit of tea, a ruse that had been suggested by her co-star; but it looked like the real thing and allowed her to avoid drinking anything alcoholic. And if a client happened to pour some wine or liquor into her glass, the maître d’hôtel who was keeping an eye on the room would immediately swoop in and remove it.
Trukhanova reciprocated and won the affection of the Aquarium’s restaurant staff. She did so not only by evoking their sympathy for her youth—she was only nineteen and still lived with her mother—or by winning their admiration for her spunky resolve to protect her virtue, but also because of her generosity. The Aquarium restaurant’s policy was that the cost of whatever her clients ordered for her—food, drink, flowers—would accrue to her personal account (her presence in the private room encouraged clients to keep ordering for themselves as well, and most of this of course went to the management, with a commission to her). But rather than keep the money for herself, which she saw as tainted by the demeaning way she had to earn it, she chose to donate it to the general pool for tips. This supplemented what the usually impoverished waiters got and they were of course very grateful to her.
Trukhanova’s distaste for her work was so strong that she would also not keep anything that her clients bought for her and saw “every flower, every piece of fruit” as “defiled.” Frederick noticed this about her and remembered it in a way that touched her deeply. On New Year’s Day, January 1, 1904, he presented her with an enormous bouquet from the grateful restaurant staff and began his speech by announcing: “Not a single one of these flowers comes from the restaurant, and the ribbon is . . . straight from Paris!”
Alexander Vertinsky was an original singer who became wildly famous in Russia during the Great War, and then in Europe and other parts of the world after he fled the Bolsheviks in 1920. I posted a brief characterization, and a photograph of him in a costume that he wore in the earlier stages of his career, on my website under "Images." Vertinsky knew Frederick Thomas in Moscow (and would later perform for Frederick in Constantinople), and this acquaintanceship may have influenced Vertinsky’s repertoire.
One of Vertinsky’s most famous songs features an American black man in an implied romantic relationship with a white woman, and it is tempting to speculate that Vertinsky may have had a real-life prototype in mind. (Frederick became prominent in Moscow theatrical circles starting in 1911, after he had taken over the Aquarium entertainment garden, and it was hardly a secret in the city that he had been married to a white woman. Moreover, a few years later, after his first wife died, he married another white woman; nearly simultaneously, he acquired a white mistress.) The song is called “Lilovy negr” (Лиловый негр) in Russian, which means literally—although this sounds hopelessly clumsy in English— “The Purple Negro” (“Lilac Negro” sounds a bit better, even if the color is wrong). The idea behind Vertinsky’s outlandish title appears to be that a rich dark skin color can at times seem to have an exotically purplish tint.
Vertinsky’s brief song, which he wrote and set to his own music in 1916, manages to evoke the story of an entire love affair (here is a literal translation):
Where are you now? Who is kissing your fingers?
Where has your Chinese boy, Lee, gone? . . .
It seems you later loved a Portuguese,
Or perhaps you left with a Malayan.
You were so close when I last saw you,
An automobile sped you down a side street,
And I dreamt that now in the dives of San Francisco
A purple negro is handing you your cloak.
In Vertinsky’s own inimitable performance, as in this old recording, the song is an exquisite fusion of a melancholy melody and the story of loss. It was inspired by Vera Kholodnaya, Russia’s first female movie star, to whom he dedicated his song. A talented and lovely actress with luminous sad eyes, she captivated Russian audiences in 1915 when she appeared in her first films (there is a picture of her on my website). During the Great War, she also performed in many charitable events around the country, including Frederick’s Aquarium theater in 1916, where, reflecting her earlier training as a ballerina, she danced on stage for the benefit of front-line troops. Her fame was such that Frederick would certainly have wanted to see her; perhaps they even met.
Vertinsky knew Kholodnaya well (he later took credit for urging her to try her hand at movies) and performed with her during the war. On one especially memorable occasion, they went to a Moscow hospital to put on a show and danced a tango that enthralled the wounded officers. But there is no proof that Vertinsky’s lyrics reflect real events in her life, or any of her actual lovers (to which status, like countless others, he had aspired himself). In the end, such exoticisms in the lyrics as “Chinese boy,” “Portugal,” “Malaya,” “San Francisco”—to say nothing of the “purple negro” himself—are merely colorful blossoms in a musical bouquet to a captivating beauty.
Nevertheless, because Frederick’s and Kholodnaya’s circles in Moscow overlapped, and given the rarity of black men in Moscow, the fact that the song includes a “negro” in an American city, one who has a connection to louche establishments, who assists the heroine the way a host might, and who may be doing so because he is her latest companion, allows us to see Frederick as a possible inspiration, if not the actual model.
In last week’s post, I described Alexander Vertinsky’s song, “Lilovy negr” ("The Purple Negro"), composed in 1916, in which an American black man appears to be linked romantically to a white woman.
But there was another song on a related theme that was extremely popular in Moscow at the same time.
Had this coincidence occurred five or ten years later, and in a Western European city like Paris, it would have been easy to explain via the growing influence of black American jazz culture, or by European fascination with the “primitive” and “exotic” African. But Moscow in 1916 was a bit too early and too distant for such an explanation to be entirely satisfactory.
Moreover, the second song’s title is “Cherny Tom” [Черный Том], or “Black Tom,” which, under the circumstances, is quite suggestive (even though it also inevitably evokes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s widely known Uncle Tom’s Cabin).
It was written and performed by Isa Kremer, a singer who emerged at the same time as Vertinsky, and who also achieved fame in pre-Revolutionary Russia and then abroad after emigrating. Kremer was a small, spunky woman, with a wide mouth, a big voice, and a charming manner on stage, who had trained for the opera before switching to an international repertoire of lighter songs—Neapolitan, French, Gypsy, Russian, Yiddish, as well as her own compositions. Frederick Thomas would have known of her in Moscow because of her celebrity, even though there is no indication that she performed for him there. However, like Vertinsky, she did sing in Frederick’s first night club in Constantinople some years later.
The “Tom” in Kremer’s song is a black youth who originally came from Algeria and who works as an errand boy in a teashop in England. He dreams of owning a big house when he grows up and living in it with a “white wife.” Despite his “funny” outfit and face, a beautiful white “lady” with whom he is smitten condescends to take him on a “groom.” But the lady is in love with a “lord,” and when she leaves to marry him, Tom is prostrate with despair. The song ends with Tom’s intention to prove to her with a knife that even though his skin is black, everyone’s blood is equally “hot and red.” The song’s refrain is that Tom was born in Algeria, where death is not feared and where “love is stronger than anything in the world.” (Here is a recording. It's the third track on the album.)
This lurid song was such a success that, following a common Russian practice of the time, it was made into a film with the same title. Unfortunately, the film has not survived, so it is impossible to evaluate its central and bizarre conceit of Isa Kremer herself playing the role of Tom in blackface.
Is it possible that the widespread references to this “Black Tom” in Russian popular culture would not have resonated with Frederick Thomas for the numerous Muscovites who knew him and his white wife and white mistress?
The differences between Frederick’s life and the story in the song were obvious (and this song is not nearly as original, interesting, or effective as Vertinsky's). Nevertheless, the racial and class divide at its heart could not have failed to make an impression on anyone who knew a mixed-race couple, especially when these were exceedingly rare, as in Moscow before the Revolution of 1917.
The contrast between black and white that figures in descriptions of interracial romance, as portrayed in the songs by Vertinsky and Kremer (see my two previous posts), also appeared in Russian illustrative art of the time.
As if echoing the concluding lines of Vertinsky’s “The Purple Negro,” Israel Meskin, who was well known before the 1917 Russian Revolution for his caricatures and sketches published in theatrical magazines, created a graphic, black and white image in his “Night Café” of an elegantly dressed black man admiring a white woman in a low cut dress. The woman’s dress, which suggests that she may be an entertainer who has just stepped off the stage, the agitated background with dancing figures, and the black man’s broad smile, which was one of Frederick’s professional trademarks, could easily have been captured at his Aquarium Garden or Maxim Theater. There is no evidence they actually were, but it seems unlikely that a contemporary Muscovite familiar with the city’s nightlife might also not have wondered about the possibility. The scene is a festive one, and there is no hint of disapproval.
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. 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.
On the eve of the Great War, a new dance craze emerged from Argentina, leapt to Paris, and swept around the world—the tango. Its popularity in Moscow was so immediate and so great that Frederick, who was always very alert to novelty, decided to capitalize on it by refurbishing large spaces in his Aquarium (see in Images) and Maxim and naming them after the dance.
The tango’s origins lay in the rough neighborhoods and brothels of Buenos Aires, and although its moves had been sanitized by the time it caught on with the upper classes in the world’s great cities, it never lost its seductive aura or allure. It is an emotional dance in which the man often embraces the woman closely and her body clings to his; their steps to the pulsing music can be slow or quick, depending on what the man feels and communicates to his partner as he leads her; when he pauses, she can improvise as her mood suggests. It is a dance of passion and surrender.
This possibility of engaging in a public display of elegant, stylized eroticism is what enthralled dancers from New York to Shanghai. But this understated sexuality was also what alarmed moral watchdogs and prudes around the world who were shocked that couples on brightly-lit dance floors would express feelings that belonged in a darkened bedroom. Just before the war began, French bishops condemned the dance; the German Kaiser Wilhelm II forbad it at his court; and the English King George V expressed his disapproval. The Imperial Ministry of Education prohibited any mention of the tango in Russian schools. In the town of Yalta in the south of Russia a tango dancer was accused of indecent behavior in 1914 and further performances were stopped; the same happened in distant Milwaukee. The great ballerina Anna Pavlova said that the tango was an erotic dance and would repulse anyone with a genuine sense of beauty. The commander of an elite guards’ regiment in Petrograd stopped short of forbidding the dance, but suggested that it would be unseemly for his officers to perform it; his counterparts in the Austro-Hungarian army felt the same and announced that “officers in uniform are not allowed to dance the tango.” (The tango was thus reliving the common fate of most new dances: even the waltz had been roundly attacked for indecency when it first appeared in Europe around the turnof the nineteenth century.)
The countless aficionados of the tango were hardly deterred of course; if anything, accusations that the dance was immoral added to its appeal. By Christmas of 1913, or soon after the tango first reached Russia, a journalist proclaimed that Frederick’s Maxim theater had become Moscow’s “kingdom of the tango”; it has “gone to everyone’s heads,” he continued, and expressed amazement at the variety of styles that had sprung up—Brazilian, Mexican, Spanish, even German and Russian (but oddly enough, not Argentinean). This connection became fixed in the public’s imagination so rapidly that a popular film from 1914 referred to Maxim as the place to tango in the city. (To be continued)
The tango became so popular in Russia on the eve of the Great War that professional dancers who specialized in the dance were imported from abroad and became fixtures on the city’s stages.
To expand the possibilities for indulging the new craze, and to extend the hours when his theater and nightspot Maxim could be open to the public, Frederick Thomas introduced “tango teas” at 5 P. M. The first one early in 1914 was a great success—couples filled the dance floor and vied with each other and with the professionals that Frederick had hired and mixed into the crowd. In fact, the demand for instruction skyrocketed and stage performers from Maxim and other variety theaters began to charge the daughters of Moscow’s plutocrats as much as 25 rubles a lesson, or several hundred of today’s dollars. To attract even more female patrons Frederick introduced special sessions of “Ladies’ Tango.”
Dressmakers in Russia and abroad also cashed in on the craze with designs for evening gowns that facilitated movement or could be transformed into the “most Tango-ish by a flip of the hand,” which also allowed ladies to enjoy the piquant thrill of showing a bit of silk-clad leg and frilly pantaloon:
“The gown transformed for the dance—tucked under the arm and now adapted to any step.” (“A New Dance Gown,” The Washington Post, January 3, 1915, p. M5.)
The tango’s popularity continued during the war on stage and off, with professional dancers and singers adding macabre overtones at times. One couple became famous for their “Tango of Death” (see an image and description on my website under "Images"). A similar dance act in Paris a few years earlier by Frederick’s old acquaintance, Natalya Trukhanova, was called “The Vampire” (see my earlier blog posts about her).
Passion and violence had been associated with the tango from its origins in Latin America, but the staged version at places like Maxim was an easy way to make the sleek and well-fed audiences feel titillated without having to risk anything themselves. A popular song version on the same theme in 1916 (later made into a movie) was “The Last Tango” by the emerging star Isa Kremer, in which a jilted lover stabs the woman to death. Kremer knew Frederick and would perform for him in Constantinople (see my earlier blog post about her).
Cover for the sheet music for “The Last Tango” linking passion and death, which Isa Kremer adapted from the French and made popular in Russia in 1916.
A big step up for Frederick Thomas in Moscow was when, around 1909, he became senior assistant to Aleksey Sudakov, the owner of Yar Restaurant on the city’s northern outskirts. This was one of the most famous restaurants in the Russian Empire, and many of its patrons believed that it was one of the best in all of Europe. Celebrated for its cuisine, entertainment, and luxurious atmosphere, it was the place of choice for grand dukes from St. Petersburg, Moscow’s millionaires, and foreign dignitaries. It was also the place where the notorious religious mountebank Gregory Rasputin—imperial Russia’s incredible evil genius—would come to carouse when he was in the city. Here are photographs of Yar's exterior, interior, and garden:
As someone who was in charge not only of waiters but also of other maîtres d’hôtel, Frederick’s skills and tact were often challenged and pushed to the limit at Yar. There were two reasons for this. One was Moscow’s cultural norms, especially among some members of its rich merchant class, who valued the ability to demonstrate bravado or unbridled passion in a way that would make people notice and remember. The other was the reputation Yar acquired as a favorite destination for extravagant sprees. The result was some truly memorable escapades that became part of Moscow city lore.
One evening a merchant sitting by himself and drinking the most expensive French champagne decided that he would like to take a bottle and toss it at one of the giant beveled mirrors lining the walls, just for the hell of it. Even before the approaching maître d’hôtel could confront him about the cascade of glass and the screams of the other patrons, the merchant had pulled out his wallet: “How much?” he inquired coolly.
On another occasion, a very rich young man, “Nikolasha” Ryabushinsky, who seemed to be trying to burn through his inheritance as quickly as possible, discovered during dinner at Yar that his companion of the moment, a French actress, had broken her fan. Despite the fact that it was late at night, he commanded one of his hangers-on to take his red Daimler motor car, which all of Moscow knew because of the break-neck speed at which it raced around the city, to go and wake up the manager of the most fashionable shop on the most fashionable shopping street, Karetny Ryad, and to bring him back to Yar together with a whole box of fans made in Paris. The French actress was thus able to choose a replacement, while members of the gypsy and Russian choirs that “Nikolasha” had hired for the night got the rest.
An American writer who visited Yar around 1911 reported that Frederick told him that there are “probably an average of fifty bills a month, paid for one evening’s entertainment, that will average seven thousand five hundred rubles each” (which translates into six figures in today’s dollars).
Would anyone in Coahoma County, Mississippi, have believed that Frederick had become a member of a world such as this?
Stories about excesses such as the ones I described in my previous post were the fodder of newspapers around the world and even penetrated into the distant American Midwest. A newspaper in Iowa City marveled in 1911 how one of Moscow’s “rich young bloods” took over a fashionable cafe chantant where a group of ballerinas were performing, had the entire floor covered with buckets of black sturgeon caviar, and then hired the young women to roll around on the floor from one side of the room to the other until they and their pretty costumes were covered with the black paste from head to toe.
In the end, Yar Restaurant and other fashionable places like it were ruled by money, and there was little at Yar, or anywhere else in pre-Revolutionary Moscow for that matter, that money could not buy (Chicago, Berlin, and Shanghai were hardly different, of course). A constant refrain in reminiscences about restaurants that had private dining rooms was that these were also used for more or less discreet assignations (although it is worth noting that police regulations officially forbad locks on the doors of private rooms, which somewhat limited their utility for illicit pastimes, or raised their cost because of bribes). The combination of men with money and attractive young women who performed for money made transactions inevitable; and it was not just the Aquarium’s policy to require female performers to continue to entertain guests off stage (as I described in a previous post). Given all this, and by virtue of being skilled and diplomatic administrators, maîtres d’hôtel at times assumed the role of mediators between the women and the men; some inevitably became procurers. In the case of Yar, I have not seen any evidence that Sudakov, the restaurant’s owner, or his closest associates, had anything personally to do with the exchange of sex for money (and in Frederick’s case, evidence from a later time clearly suggests the opposite). In fact, Sudakov once quizzed a famous singer about the dress in which she was going to perform because he feared it might be too low cut. He explained that his patrons included staid Moscow merchants who brought their wives, and “God forbid there should be any indecency.” However, the atmosphere of innuendo that surrounded all such places suggests that there was also fire where there was so much smoke.
Yar’s most notorious patron with a well-deserved reputation for debauchery was Gregory Rasputin, imperial Russia’s extraordinary evil genius. A semi-literate, cunning, and libidinous peasant, he combined avarice with primitive mysticism, and a well-developed intuition about people’s baser motivations with a beguiling manner that attracted sycophants and hypnotized the gullible, including, most notably, Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. Some of his extravagant carousals took place in Yar. On one occasion, he arrived with an entourage and took a private room. He called in chorus girls and made them made perform “cynical dances,” as the police report subsequently put it, performed Russian folk dances himself, and dragged some of the women onto his lap. Sudakov fell into a panic when he heard what was going on and tried to persuade other patrons that it was not actually Rasputin carousing upstairs but an imposter passing himself off as the notorious “friend” of the imperial family. When Rasputin got wind of this he was so incensed that he began to prove his authenticity in the most outrageous ways, including hinting crudely about his relations with the Empress, bragging that she had personally made the caftan he was wearing, and, finally, dropping his trousers and exposing himself to the young women. There are some more details about him in my book, and he remains a figure of perennial fascination for biographers.
As I’ve mentioned before, Frederick Thomas encountered no “color line” in Moscow when he arrived in 1899, which is why he settled and thrived there. But even though there were very few black people in Russia before the Revolution, Frederick’s case was not entirely unique.
One unusual black visitor who also received a warm—and in this case, surprising—welcome in Russia was a man who styled himself “Sir Robert Joseph Morgan,” and who said he was an Anglican bishop originally from Jamaica but living in Nashville, Tennessee. He traveled to St. Petersburg, the imperial capital, in 1904. My primary source of information about him is a contemporary account in a Russian magazine (although it’s interesting to note that some American sources suggest Morgan was not entitled to his grand titles). Be that as it may, what’s important from my perspective is not who he actually was, but how he was received in Russia.
Morgan explained that his purpose was to learn for himself the truth about the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian people because many fables were being spread about them in the United States.
The caption reads:
"Negro bishop of the Anglican Church Sir Robert Joseph Morgan, who arrived in Petersburg from America to familiarize himself with Orthodoxy. Based on the photograph by K. Bull for 'Niva'."
["Niva" was a popular illustrated magazine, 1904, No. 44, p. 880]
Now, it needs to be underscored that the Russian Orthodox Church at this time was a very conservative institution that often strayed into reaction and xenophobia, and one would not have expected its hierarchs to be receptive to unfamiliar-looking leaders of other confessions. Nevertheless, Bishop Morgan was welcomed warmly by no less a personage than Metropolitan Antony, the head of the Church in the imperial capital, who offered him lodgings in his own residence in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and willingly accompanied him on a tour of the capital’s two major cathedrals—Saint Isaac’s and Kazansky. The visitor was deeply impressed by the grandeur of both buildings and by the soaring choral music that he heard.
Bishop Morgan was also very pleasantly surprised that he was allowed to enter the altar sanctuaries of the cathedrals wearing his full ecclesiastical garb, something Catholics would not have permitted, as he did not fail to point out. Metropolitan Antony also presented Bishop Morgan with a gold cross as a token of spiritual kinship.
As I describe in my book, Frederick Thomas decided to apply for Russian citizenship in 1914, shortly after the Great War began. This was a remarkable event, and he may have been the first black American ever to do this. There is much to say about the significance and consequences to his action, but here I’d like to focus on one of his several inventions that were recorded on the official form that had to be filled out on his behalf.
Among the biographical data that the form collected is whether or not the petitioner for citizenship had fulfilled his military obligations while in his native land. Imperial Russia had an elaborate system of conscription and took the matter of military service very seriously, especially now when the country was at war. Perhaps for these reasons Frederick decided to answer that he had served “in the Navy of the United States for a year and a half in 1889-1890.” This is intriguing but completely implausible. So why would he have said this? My inference is that although he was forty-two in 1914 and thus too old to be drafted into the Tsar’s military, his claim of naval service abroad at least made him seem more in step with his adopted country’s rapidly escalating mobilization. The remark does constitute a faint echo of the Thomass family’s oral tradition about “Tomac” having been in the merchant marine and a smuggler in the China Sea (please see my earlier posts about this). However, when Frederick was trying to save himself by telling his real life story to an American consular official in Constantinople in 1924, he did not mention service in the American Navy, which could have made all the difference in his fate if it had been true.
Moscow city view, ca. 1900, as Frederick Thomas would have seen it when he arrived. The Kremlin and Saint Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square are at the top center.
Tverskaya Street, ca. 1900, one of the main thoroughfares and shopping streets in Moscow, facing north, toward Triumphal Square, near which Frederick Thomas lived and worked for many years.
Triumphal Square and Arch, ca. 1900, near which Frederick Thomas lived and worked for many years in Moscow.
Pillared entrance to Aquarium Garden, in which Frederick worked and which he later owned, near Triumphal Square, c. 1900
Contemporary entrance to Aquarium Park and Mossovet Theater, 16 Bolshaya Sadovaya Street, Moscow.
Promenading crowd in the Aquarium garden, c. 1890s (before Frederick worked there).
Yar Restaurant, after its reconstruction in 1910, where Frederick became an assistant to the owner, a position that provided him with enough income to go into business for himself. Yar was one of the most famous restaurants in Russia at the time.
The grand front entrance to Yar. In late imperial Russia, as elsewhere in Europe and the United States of the time, restaurants and theaters that catered to the rich were designed to look grandiose, so that customers felt that they had come somewhere important (actually, it's still true today).
The interior of Yar's main dining salon with a stage at the far end where various performers appeared. One of Yar's most popular attractions was its famous gypsy ensembles of singers, musicians and dancers.
Yar's main dining salon showing the private rooms with balconies at the upper left. These could be booked by patrons who wanted to enjoy the shows on stage, but not to be seen by other customers.
A private dining room at Yar.
Yar's main kitchen and staff.
Yar's kitchen staff in the garden. This is a photograph of a photograph that hangs in the resurrected Yar in Moscow on Leningradsky Prospect. Is the figure in the background on the left Frederick Thomas? It's possible, but I can't be sure.
Frederick Thomas is virtually forgotten in Russia today (except that information from my book about him has been popping up in the Russian press and on Russian websites, some of which have copied all my images). It’s therefore especially interesting that for some six years, from 2006 to 2011 or so, there was a restaurant named after him