ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes

   

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The gems of the collection, however, rest in the thirty-four boxes of the “Literary and Historical

Manuscripts.” Here, the researcher can read and evaluate the unpublished manuscript of “A Black

History of Louisiana,” along with numerous other manuscripts, either planned or executed, by Christian.

 

 

Books by Marcus Bruce Christian

Song of the Black Valiants: Marching Tempo / High Ground: A Collection of Poems  / Negro soldiers in the Battle of New Orleans

 I Am New Orleans: A Poem / Negro Ironworkers of Louisiana, 1718–1900 The Liberty Monument

*   *   *   *   *

Marcus Christian: The Man and His Collection

By Marilyn S. Hessler

I’ve lived my life—

I’ve lived it well—

And I’m glad to say

I’m not in Hell.

(Marcus B. Christian, 1970)1

Within the last decade, the library at the University of New Orleans has become  custodian of an untapped treasure of black history. This rich resource languishes in the Marcus Christian Collection, the legacy of a local black poet and historian who died a decade ago at Charity Hospital in New Orleans. “It was a death,” according to black scholar Tom Dent, “that went unnoticed to all but a few in the black community.”2 Just who was this man called by one colleague a “Renaissance Man,” by another a man of “remarkable persistence and ability,” and who enjoyed the patronage of a famous novelist of the 1930s?3 Just what makes his Collection unique?

Born in 1900, Marcus Bruce Christian spent his early years in rural Mechanicsville, Louisiana, now a part of Houma. The fourth of six children, he experienced tragedy at an early age, losing his mother when he was three years old and his twin sister when they were seven. Christian’s father taught in rural public schools of southern Louisiana for over thirty years and Ebel Christian, his grandfather and a former slave, acted as a director of the Lafourche Parish public schools during Reconstruction. As a consequence, learning occupied a special place in the household. His father’s nightly readings of poetry and other literature instilled into the young Christian a love for the written word. His education unfortunately ended for him at thirteen when another tragedy struck, the death of his father. Forced to work for a living, Christian moved with his brothers and sisters to New Orleans when he was nineteen. There, he worked during the day and attended school at night. Despite the difficulties, he managed by 1926 to save enough money from his position as a chauffeur to invest in a small dry-cleaning business, the Bluebird Cleaners.4

During his early years in the city, Christian began to write poetry and tried to publish his works. In 1922 he arranged with a friend to print his first book of poems, Ethopia Triumphant and Other Poems.5 Dissatisfied with the inexpert printing, he refused to accept the book and lost a considerable amount of money. Christian may not have known it, but he was part of what V. F. Calverton, editor of the Modern Quarterly, called a “new emancipation, but this time spiritual” of talented black writers who emerged during the 1920s.6 A strong sense of racial pride characterized the works of these writers.7 By the time of his death, Christian had authored some 2,000 poems and copious amounts of other types of writings, the majority of which reflect this theme.

New Orleans, as well as the rest of the country, experienced a serious growth of unemployment by the 1930s and many businesses, large and small, fell victim to the depression. Christian’s proved no different. Evidence of his financial problems begin to appear in a September 1931 letter from an attorney representing the Grand Rapids Furniture House. Christian was given until the end of the month to settle the company’s $2.00 claim or its counselor would be “forced to take legal steps to protect the interest of my client.”8

Although experiencing financial problems, Christian pursued his main interests, writing and his involvement in the black cultural community of the time. Submitting poetry to such national black journals as Opportunity and The Crisis, as well as the local Louisiana Weekly, a black-owned newspaper, he received encouragement from persons like Langston Hughes and W. E. B. DuBois.9 A 1933 handbill advertised “Mr. Marcus Christian, the noted local poet,” as appearing on a program consisting of “vocal and instrumental selections, Choruses and Readings in an entertainment given by Mr. Theophilus I. Panalle, Jr., at Wesley M. E. Church.” The admission was ten cent.10

Not only did Christian strive to gain recognition for himself, but also for other members of his race. Attempting to interest Radio Station WWL in showcasing “colored talent,” he offered rent-free studio space to them for this purpose. In a letter dated October 11, 1932, to a Captain Pritchard, he stated that there was no regular program aimed solely at fostering racial goodwill. Enticingly, he questioned, “Would not such a program, with its Dusky Troubadours, Sable Serenaders, and its King Cotton Minstrels, place your station in an enviable position?” An earlier letter from the station indicated the lack of space as a major barrier to such an undertaking.11

By 1935, with his cleaning business floundering, Christian first showed interest in the newly organized Federal Writers’ Project, a branch of the Works Progress Administration.12 Created under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935, the main purpose of the “WPA was to provide jobs for the unemployed in the areas of their skills or talents. At the WPA’s inception, the government dramatically announced that “real jobs . . . were to supersede debilitating relief.”13

The FWP began in August 1935 with the selection of the national director, Henry Alsberg. Director Alsberg’s earlier careers had been as varied as the people he now selected to act as his state directors. They included “sixteen newspaper men and women, seven novelists, nine college professors and instructors, three historians, a poet, a bookseller, a dramatist.” These individuals headed groups spread throughout the nation. The FWP had an office in every city with a population of 10,000 or more and “at least one writer or field worker in each of the U. S.’s 3,000 counties.”14 Special problems accompanied an undertaking which might appear frivolous in a time of economic austerity. Many people to criticize any apparent wastefulness.15

Novelist Lyle Saxon, the author of such works as Fabulous New Orleans (1928) and Lafitte, the Pirate (1930), headed the Louisiana FWP and it was he to whom Christian addressed his application. “Unlike some WPA administrators he [Saxon] answered all correspondence with personal letters. He offered more encouragement to the qualified than to the unqualified applicants.”16 At first Christian seemed destined to face a rebuff. A December 10, 1935, letter from Saxon expressed regret that a quota of workers had already been reached. The FWP leaders also thanked Christian for sending copies of his poems, adding that he hoped to read them sometime. Saxon did, and he liked what he read. Shortly thereafter, he extended an invitation to Christian to visit the project office and expressed the hope of getting more money for the project.17 This initial contact sparked a feeling of mutual respect and friendship that lasted until Saxon’s death. Christian had gained a valuable patron.

Saxon displayed his judgment of Christian’s talent in correspondence of February 18, 1936, to Paul Brooks of the Houghton Mifflin Publishing Company. Seeking to gain a fellowship for Christian, he wrote “of all the writers I have been seen since I have taken this job, Marcus Christian is the most likely to prove successful,” and he “seems to have a very authentic talent.” A copy of this letter is in the Christian Collection, together with a cover letter from Saxon stating that if this approach failed, there remained one more route. This alternative proved to be necessary as Brooks informed Saxon that poets were not in demand. Scrawling a note on this letter, Director Saxon said: “going to play my last card—a direct appeal to Mr. Alsberg to let me put you on some ‘special’ creative basis with the Writers’ Project.” On April 6, 1936, Saxon told Christian that he was assigned to the Dillard University project at a rate of $82.50 per month.18

Christian remained a part of this project, becoming its final director, until its dissolution in early 1943. The Dillard project was unique in the Louisiana FWP. Saxon granted its directors a large measure of autonomy,19 so much so that Christian saw himself as acting as a “clearning house” for Saxon and credited him with being responsible for Christian’s wide contact with Negro writers and figures of the time.20 They included Arna Bontemps, Benjamin uarles, Horace Mann Bond, Rudolph Moses, Octave Lilly, and Elizabeth Catlett.

As a whole, the FWP in Louisiana was different from those in many other states in that it was not burdened with charges of communism nor did it suffer endlessly from state censorship.21 On the national level, the WPA-FWP published hundreds of books and pamphlets about American life, “notably elaborate descriptions of most of the state in the American Guide series.”22 Furthermore, through the efforts of the WPA-FWP, long-forgotten documents and records surfaced and were gathered into such comprehensive inventories as the Survey of Federal Archives and the Historical Records Survey, earning the gratitude of future historians.23

The Louisiana FWP produced two major works: The New Orleans City Guide (1938) and Louisiana: A Guide to the State (1941). In 1938 Time magazine viewed Saxon’s guide to New Orleans as being particularly “complicated by the difficulty of writing about the city’s famed red-light district, without giving names and addresses.”24 A third work, Gumbo Ya-Ya, released in 1945 and compiled by Saxon, Robert Tallant, and Edward Dreyer, drew heavily from research conducted by the FWP.25

The black project in Louisiana also differed from those of other states in another aspect. It collected few oral histories of former slaves; instead, it aimed as assembling black history in the hopes of constructing the history of the race in Louisiana.26 Segregation laws of the time did not make the task of compiling this information easy. Researchers faced physical rejection from the libraries or were shunned if allowed to remain, and in some instances Saxon was told not to send them at all.27 Much of the black folklore material in Gumbo Ya-Ya was credited to Christian and some also appeared in the Guides. The vast amount that did not appear, however, was being formed into a history of Louisiana blacks, the major project of the Dillard branch which was not yet complete when the FWP ended.

The outline of “The Negro in Louisiana” reported the work’s purpose:

The prevailing thought in writing this account of the Negro in Louisiana was to present an informative, entertaining, readable account of their activities since the founding of the first early settlements. In addition to this, facts have also been advanced that would disprove many of the common historical errors concerning the Negro’s long stay in our common country.

The main concern of the work was a “recital of facts as gleaned from available sources.” The outline revealed that only two or three chapters needed completion before the “comparatively easy task of editing and condensing will prepare the book for the publisher.”28

Christian’s introduction to the unpublished “A Black History of Louisiana” saw the work as being more the table of the New Orleans Negro, “which must of necessity contain much of the Negro life in the surrounding parishes with which the life of New Orleans was so closely connected.”29

In November 1942 Saxon received notification to close down the Writers’ Project by January 15, 1943, and that arrangements had been made to store the material of the project with the Louisiana Library Commission at Baton Rouge.30 Christian, however, swayed Saxon to move for a different disposition of the Dillard Unit records.

Dr. Albert W. Dent, then president of Dillard University, received this New Year’s Eve letter from Saxon:

I take this means of making official confirmation of the assurances made to you at the beginning of the week concerning the research material that I am to leave with Dillard University, with the understanding that every effort will be made to complete the work which we have been forced to discontinue.

 

As I stated to you at the time, we are leaving most of the work done on the writers’ project in the care of the Louisiana State Library Commission, the sponsor of the project. In the case of Dillard material, however, I have discussed with Marcus B. Christian the advisibility of leaving the Negro material where it is at present, and the possibility of work being continued on the book, The Negro in Louisiana, until it is completed. Being assured of his intentions in that direction and with the understanding that the university would give him all aid possible, it was largely due to his solicitations that I have concluded your institution is the logical place in which to allow it to remain.

Dent’s reply, written the same day, conveyed his pleasure at the arrangements and his assurance that both Christian and the public would enjoy access to the material.31 In his final report to Clarice Rougeou, state director of the Service Division, Saxon wrote,

The Manuscript of The Negro in Louisiana, which is virtually complete, has been left with the co-sponsor Dillard University and it is my understanding that they will employ my last Negro worker, Marcus Christian, to complete the work. The University will also cooperate with the Rosenwald Foundation in Chicago in attempting to find a publisher. As in the case of the Folklore volume [later to become Gumbo Ya-Ya], the WPA responsibility for that volume is now the business of Dillard University. The other unpublished Negro material will remain at Dillard University and will be made accessible to the public. This was done with content of the official sponsor.32

In mid-December 1942, Saxon set the wheels in motion for a Rosenwald grant to help Christian complete the history. Writing to the president of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, Edwin R. Embree, Saxon gave Christian credit for writing “practically the entire book.”33 Christian applied for a Rosenwald grant in 1939 when he sought funds to work on “The Clothes Doctor,” a story of New Orleans pressing shop told in poetry.34 Arna Bontemps, a writer with the Illinois FWP, assured Christian that since the age restrictions on the Rosenwald grants had been relaxed, he [Christian] would get it this time. Bontemps’ assumption became fact when Christian received the grant in April 1943.35

On the same day that the FWP ended in Louisiana, Christian began his seven-year association with Dillard University. On January 12, 1943, President Dent hired him to “organize and supervise a War Information Center . . ., complete the manuscript covering the Dillard-WPA study of The Negro in Louisiana . . ., and compile a catalog of the material collected in connection with The Negro in Louisiana and place it in suitable filing condition. . . . ” The pressure of the job slowed progress on the manuscript somewhat, but both Christian and Dent viewed June 1, 1944, as the target date for the final form to be ready.36 Circumstances, however, would prove otherwise.

In 1942, Christian married a Dillard freshman, and in March 1944 she left him. Theirs remained an on-again, off-again relationship until the 1950s when they would be divorced. But other pursuits also interfered with the manuscript’s completion. Dent offered Christian a position as an assistant librarian at the university in 1944.37 From that time until his resignation in 1950, his interest in black history continued to grow. The collection at UNO contains copies of the special lectures he delivered on the subject at Dillard, as well as manuscript copy of “Negro Prose and Poetry of Louisiana,” which he compiled for the university. Internal dissension on the job was a factor leading to his resignation from the university staff in 1950.38

About the same time, Christian witnessed the end of the local period of black productivity in which he had played a major role for so many years. His patron Saxon died in 1946, and many of the most creative blacks moved on. As a consequence, Christian withdrew from social contact, and became “something of a recluse, retreated from writing, worked part-time as a printer, then as a delivery man for The Times-Picayune newspaper.”39 UNO professor Joseph Logsdon put it this way: “He sank into abymssal poverty and everyone lost sight of him.”40 Nevertheless, Christian surfaced long enough to participate in the Deep South Human Relations Seminar in 1963 at Xavier University in New Orleans, serving as a resource person for one of the workshops. He occasionally delivered speeches before local groups.41 Christian’s crowning indignity, according to Tom Dent, occurred in 1965 when Hurricane Betsy flooded his Lower Ninth Ward home. In an effort to save his valuable collection from ruin, he tried to return to his house “only to be arrested as a ‘looter.’ ”42

At an age when most people consider retirement, Christian re-entered the world he left almost two decade before. Logsdon, long interested in local black history, kept hearing the name of Christian as an authority on the subject. In the late 1960s, he located a post office box address for Christian and arranged for a meeting. Eventually, the University of New Orleans, largely through the efforts of Jerah Johnson, then chairman of the history department, did an unusual thing for a man with so little formal schooling; it created a special position for him. Christian spent the last six years of his life as special lecturer and writer-in-residence at the university.43 UNO Professor Raphael Cassimere likens the elderly Christian’s reaction to the university to that of “a kid in a candy store, so many things interested him.”44 This view agrees with a self-assessment Christian made at one time. He labeled himself multi-hobbied, with varied interests including bone-carving, wood-working, book-binding, printing, and reading good books was “moody and sometimes given over to melancholy. Nearly always bitter, but hate to wear bitterness as an outer garment.”45

Bitterness was nowhere evident as he enthusiastically threw himself into his classes in English and black history at UNO. Christian was to complete the long-delayed “The Negro in Louisiana” manuscript for publication, but he became so involved with his students that he only revised the first six chapters before his death.46 Cassimere notes that both Christian’s colleagues and his students benefitted from this involvement. He remembers Christian patiently advising him “to say it the way you want to say it” in his writings. He also thinks Christian was reliving his own life at the lakefront campus. This idea receives support from a story told by librarian Marie Wendell, who views Christian’s sponsorship of public reading programs of his students’ works as the realization that “they’d probably never be heard any other way.”47 During these last years, the elderly scholar spent the majority of his time at the campus. Nostalgically, Cassimere reminisces, “at night I’d come out here to work and he would be playing his album of classical music, peaceful and happy.” At seventy-six years of age, local black historian and poet Marcus Christian collapsed in his classroom and died a few weeks later. Coincidentally, his elder brother died at the same time. They were waked together.48

Christian died without ever finishing the major work he had begun almost forty years earlier. Why did a man so devoted to his race and its history never complete what would have been his tribute to that race? Definitely, Cassimere sees one of the reasons as the lack of money. Perhaps, he postulates, that another might have been that Christian “thought he was going to live forever.” He also views Christian as disciplined in a limited sense. “He would finish articles, but as far as the history goes—there were things he wanted to say in a certain way.” Logsdon views the unfinished manuscript as a psychological thing: if he completed it, he would be right back where he started. Whatever the reasons, there is hope that the manuscript will reach the public.49

Although “The Negro in Louisiana” still awaits publication, Christian was the published author of both historical and poetical works. While at UNO he completed Negro Ironworkers of Louisiana, 1718–1900 (1972). In an introduction to this work Jerah Johnson praised Christian saying that to take the tangled fragments of oral history and to relate them to “hard data found in the more traditional sources requires the critical mind of a historian and the soul of a poet.” Johnson continued, “Marcus Christian combines, as few others do, the necessary knowledge, talent, and sensitivity needed to make history out of the varied assortment of folklore, fable, oral tradition, and documentary evidence that constitutes our early sources for the subject.”50

Christian’s other published works include The Battle of New Orleans: Negro Soldiers in the Battle of New Orleans; In Memoriam—Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Common People’s Manifesto of World War II; and High Ground. Having taught himself the art of printing, he produced many of his works on his private press. So adept was he that he even gained permission from his bank to print his own checks.51 From the Deep South, a poetry booklet dedicated to Lyle Saxon in 1937, contained selections from the Louisiana Weekly poetry contest in that year. Mimeographed and bound in wallpaper, the work included a preface in which Christian noted that

the complete collection is the efforts of immature poets, and is to be viewed as such—in spite of the fact that is the only such collection of poetry written by Louisiana Negroes since the Civil War.52

Other works, literary, historical, and poetical, appeared in the Afro-American, the Pittsburg Courier, Opportunity, Crisis, the New Orleans States-Item, the New York Herald Tribune, Phylon, and the Louisiana Weekly, where he also acted as poetry and contributing editor.

A collector of the life around him as well as that of the past, Christian gathered and hoarded information in the same way that a miser hoards gold. Unlike the miser, however, he intended to share his precious cache with others; unfortunately, he did not have enough time. That is why the Christian Collection at the UNO library is so valuable. Donated by the Christian family to the Archives and Manuscripts Department, the Collection has been available to the public since 1977.

Consisting of approximately 245 linear feet of archival material, the collection contains an abundance of historical and literary items scattered throughout the twenty-five sections. The UNO archives staff has indexed the material.

Section 3 includes the books and serials collected by Christian, a bibliophile, over the years. Among the catalogued materials are such recent publications as Bourbon Street Black: The New Orleans Black Jazzman (1973) and such antiquities as two works by Frances Caldburn Adam: Our World: Or, the Slaveholder’s Daughter (1855) and Manuel Pereira: Or, the Sovereign Rule of South Carolina (1853). Several foreign language editions can be found, one of the oldest being a 1788 copy of Voyages intéresans dans différentes colonies françaises, espagnoles, anglaises, &c.; contenant des observations important relatives à contrées; le tout redigé & mis au jour, d’après un grand nombre des manuscripts; par M. N., by Nicolas Bourgeois. Included in the many books not catalogued is a rare copy of the 1913 Wood Directory, Being a Colored Business Professional & Trades Directory of New Orleans, Louisiana. Periodicals held in the collection date from both modern and earlier years, such as the American Colonization Society’s publications of The African Repository (1825–1892), known as The African Repository and Colonial Journal from 1825 to 1849.

The one box of “Broadsides and Handbills” (n.d., 1854, 1919–1976) gives the researcher some insight into life in New Orleans during these periods. For example, Christian amassed fliers and other material advertising the faith healer and psychics who operated quite extensively in and around the city during the 1930s and into the 1960s. Advertisements show that Madame Sue conducted business from “9–9 daily and Sunday” offering “reading FREE with each book [character reading books] purchased” and at Sister Star’s, both white and colored were welcome. Christian jotted down some thoughts on some of the fliers, e.g., Sister Hill’s was found in a white neighborhood in mid-1961 and he pondered over how it got there.

He further noted that the “claims are typical” with the “cross introduced for religious believers.” One of the large folders in this division contains an announcement of an auction which took place in January 1854 at Covington, St. Tammany Parish. The auction consisted of land “lying & being situate on the Bogue Falia, about Eight miles north of Covington near the road leading to Holmesville. . . . Known as the Chubby Hall Plantation.” Being sold also were eight slaves ranging in age from four months to fifty years, “all warranted sound and freed of diseases of vices Viz.” Also housed in this section is political and protest information, primarily from the 1960s. Fliers circulated by both integrationists and segregationists illustrate some of the tactics used.

Thirty-three boxes of articles comprise the “Clippings” section. Although some are not dated, they cover the years from 1816 through 1976. Mainly, Louisiana and English sources furnish information for the nineteenth-century articles about sugar and cotton manufacturing, the slave trade, New Orleans architecture, disease of Negroes, etc. Those of the twentieth century, gleaned from local and national sources, comment on Negro athletes, NAACP suits, desegregation, education, health care, and early operatic and symphonic performances. Christian penned his comments on many of these articles.

In an Edinburgh Review article (1827–423) entitled “Major Moody Reports Social and Industrial Capacities of Negroes,” the reviewer subjects the major to sharp criticism as he finds him “fit to be a collector of facts, a purveyor of details … but he is no more qualified to speculate on political science, than a bricklayer is to rival Palladio. …” Christian appended a note to the Edinburgh Journal article “History of a Negro Plot (1845).53 He wanted to compare it with the Benjamin Lay article in the Journal of Negro History. Other articles and publication include “How Negroes Were Estimated by Our Ancestors,” The Penny Magazine (1836); “Thoughts on Slavery” by A. Southron, Southern Literary Messenger (1836); “Slavery at the South,” DeBow’s Commercial Magazine (May, 1847); “The Friends of the African,” Quarterly Review (1848); Saturday Magazine (1832); Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter (May, 1832); and the U. S. Magazine and Democratic Review (October, 1846).

Articles on black draftees of World War II and their patriotism, as well as black crime involvement, are found in Box 7 (1941–1949). One very unusual story tells of a Baton Rouge Negro who plowed his garden with two alligators he had raised (Times-Picayune, 1941). Another, from the Pittsburg Courier, reports the suit filed by Mark Hatfield III for admission to LSU (October 19, 1946).

Christian annotated heavily on social columns, obituaries, and regular news stories from 1966 (Box 27). Underlining names found in the wedding announcements and death notices, he wrote the word “miscegenation” next to them with the message to “write stories and novels across the color line.” Many of the clippings also include instructions on where and what to check. Several political figures of the time also received special attention. For instance, he saw Gerald Gallinghouse as “wily, shrewd” and “a galling man” (Times-Picayune, July 7, 1966)

Christian’s correspondence between 1913 and 1976 fills twenty boxes. Many authors and students requested information on, or verification of, some aspect of black history. There are also warm personal letters from such friends as Joseph Logsdon, John Blassingame of Yale University, Lyle Saxon, Arna Bontemps, Benjamin Quarles, and W. C. Handy. A 1932 letter from Langston Hughes encourages Christian to seek publication of his poems. There is more recent correspondence with members of his family, students, and colleagues. There are also requests for him to submit some of his work for anthologies.

The “Diary and Notes” division contains a variety of ideas. Christian gave an almost philosophical treatment to his autobiographical “Dark Record-Incidents in My Life.” This section, undated, includes many ideas for scenarios, thoughts on various subjects, persons, and events. In it, he invented some of his own platitudes. For example, “whom the gods would make miserable, they first make ambitious” and “a man with squeaking shoes must never eavesdrop” (Box 1). That Christian thoughts in poetry is revealed in the following which came to him in 1970 when a tape recording caused him to remember the death of Paul Robeson:

The Gods reach out

and set the trap

And the man went tumbling

down the hill!                                 (Box 2)

The researcher can encounter difficulties with those portions of the section which are handwritten. Too, Christian’s entries are often undated, and there are frequent time gaps between entries. Hurricane Betsy compounded these difficulties by almost obliterating some pages.

Containing valuable references is the “Historical Source Materials” section. This group of sixteen boxes and one portfolio consists of business records, government documents, photographs, prints, bibliographical information on the Negro, and a copy of the private signal code of a slave ship. Several documents, although fragmented, can nevertheless be of value to researchers. Some are undated: those with dates span the period from 1724 to 1967, with many of the documents written in French. Box 2 includes bills of sale for slaves not only in such Louisiana parishes as Assumption and Terrebonne, but also in other states. Christian affixed a note to one which particularly interested him. The undated sale of a young Negro boy named Squire Hiet by William Quarles of Virginia to David Miller of Louisiana caused him to wonder if Squire was a kidnapped free man of color like Solomon Northup. The note directs Christian to compare this document with Sally Miller vs. Belmonti and Bras Coupé material.54 This box also holds tax receipts from Orleans Parish, depositions taken by New Orleans mayor James Mather in 1912, actions taken by the city council in the early 1800s, bills of lading (1830s), and a compilation of Louisiana election returns from the first registration under the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 to the general election of November 7, 1876.55

The few former slave interviews undertaken by the Louisiana FWP are in Box 4 of these source materials. Octave Lilly talked with these slaves between 1936 and 1938. Although there is apparently no record of the questions, many of the answers are self-explanatory. Those interviewed, all female, ranged in age from 84 to 116 years old. Lilly  assessed the character of the subjects and the validity of their testimony after the sessions and included this evaluation with the transcripts.

Christian collected large amounts of data on such topics as “approaches and rebuffs employed by white businesses of New Orleans for Negro consumers,” the marital relationships between whites and blacks in antebellum Louisiana, and neighborhood integration patterns. Box 14 holds these, as well a notecards listing bibliographical information on free people of color.

The gems of the collection, however, rest in the thirty-four boxes of the “Literary and Historical Manuscripts.” Here, the researcher can read and evaluate the unpublished manuscript of “A Black History of Louisiana,” along with numerous other manuscripts, either planned or executed, by Christian. Boxes 2 through 11 concern the history in preliminary and completed forms with bibliography, footnotes, and research notes. Some of the chapter concern “Creole Dialect,” “Voodooism and Mumbo-Jumbo,” “Negro Education,” “The Mechanics Hall Riot of 1866,” and “Housing, 1900–1942”. Box 11 contains preliminary drafts of chapters ultimately excluded from the work. They offer much information to one seeking material on such subjects as Negro workers in the shipbuilding industry between 1720 and 1820, on the slave dealers and slave markets of New Orleans, on laws which restricted blacks and legal steps taken to deal with these laws, on slave artisans, and on the development of organized labor for blacks through 1907. A chapter entitled “Sold by Drumbeat and Candlelight” gives an interesting insight to doctors and their diagnoses of slave illnesses.

Although the “Black History” was the major work of Christian’s life, he conducted extensive research into many aspects of the black experience. The researcher needing data on Crispus Attucks, for example, will find extensive material assembled by Christian (Box 1), consists of notes, articles about Attucks, and Christian’s first draft of his own article.

Genealogical research gathered into an unpublished works about free people of color called “The Creoles of Louisiana: White Men and Negro Women” can be found in Boxes 13 and 14. Also included are footnotes, an appendix listing free men of color who owned five or more slaves in 1830, and one listing their locations in 1860. Other folders hold various studies of Louisiana families having a mixture of Negro, Indian, and white blood, information on “The Creoles of Louisiana during Reconstruction,” and “Mixed Blood in Local and State Politics.” Among the genealogical notes, Christian left a two-page story about the daughter of Bienville, with a death notice of Henrietta Heicks pinned to it (January 28, 1937).

Box 17 contains articles written by Christian for the Louisiana Weekly from 1932 to 1957. The author arranged some of these into booklets by the subject of the series. For example, one booklet devotes space to “bus, street car, carrier” desegregation of Louisiana. Another features articles on famous blacks in battle during the War of 1812 and the Civil War. They appeared in print between July 27, 1957, and January 4, 1958. Other materials in the box include unpublished drafts and fragments of ideas for articles or series. The subject matter consists of the ancestry of Southern gentlemen, the relationships between General Andrew Jackson, Governor W. C. C. Claiborne, and the free men of color; information about P. B. S. Pinchback; the battle of New Orleans; the contributions of free men of color to civil rights; and James Lewis, a Mississippi free man of color who became a captain in the Louisiana Native Guards. Of interest to one compiling incidents of local transportation segregation are the stories related by Christian. These incidents happened to others or to Christian himself. The historian’s assessment of one incident which he personally observed was jotted down on several small slips of paper and ends with this conclusion: “any white man could without protest assign seats to any of the passengers on street vehicular transportation with impunity.”

The over 2,000 poems by Christian, arranged in alphabetical order, are in Boxes 26 through 32 of the manuscripts. Those in Boxes 29–30 are his major poetic works and the anthologies in which they appeared. The Common Peoples’ Manifesto of World War II (Box 30) was named one of the outstanding Negro books of 1948. Written in 1943, Christian published it on his own press.56

A major portion of the activities of the black division of the Louisiana WPA-FWP involved researching newspapers for information about blacks. Fifty-five boxes house the results of this effort. WPA progress reports (Box 52) list the news articles checked. Under the direction of librarian Beatrice Owsley the articles have been grouped by subject and are being indexed; however, the original cards are available if needed. The index gives the subject heading, inclusive dates, the name of the newspaper, and the page and column numbers if possible. For example,

ACCIDENTS AND MORTALITY, 1845–1880: Daily Delta, June 12, 1855, p. 4, col. 1; Republican, September 15, 1876.

CRIME AGAINST FREE COLORED, 1850–1862: Bee, January 7, 1854, p. 1, col. 3; Picayune, June 28, 1862, p. 2, col. 4.

HARBORING SLAVES, 1840–1862: Daily Delta, October 26, 1858, p. 4, col. 3.

The entire list extends to the final subject heading of “Writings Concerning the Negro, 1838–1941.” Articles were culled chiefly from New Orleans newspaper dated 1729 [sic]–1941.

Basically, these sections constitute the most important aspects of the Christian Collection. The majority of the other divisions are of a more personal nature, covering such areas as financial and business records, scrapbooks, sheet music, art, tapes, etc. The wealth of material deposited here stands as a memorial to a self-made man who devoted the major part of his life pursing a dream which has not fully materialized. The scope of this dream will be evident “when the full extent of his wide-ranging explorative unpublished material is made-known.”58

Perhaps, a fitting tribute for Christian would be in his own words:

Let these words

be said of me:

“He struck a blow

for liberty;

Not for breed

Nor of one mind,

But for the earth’s seed,

and all mankind.”

Let these words

be said of me,

Or let my epitaph

go free

(“Epitaph,” June 27, 1953)59

 

Notes

1Diary, 1970, Box 6. Marcus Christian, University of New Orleans Library; hereafter cited as MCCol-UNOL.

2Tom Dent, “Marcus Christian: An Appreciation,” Perspectives on Ethnicity in New Orleans (New Orleans, 1980), p. 2.; hereafter cited as “An Appreciation. 

3Joseph Logsdon (University of New Orleans professor), interview with author, New Orleans, October 16, 1985; Raphael Cassimere (University of New Orleans professor), interview with author, New Orleans, October 2, 1985.

4Biographical, Box 2, MCCol-UNOL.

5Ibid.

6V. F. Calverton, “The Negro’s New Belligerent Attitude,” Current History, XXX (1929), 1086–88.

7Harvey Wish, Contemporary America: The National Scene Since 1900 (New York, 1966), p. 296.

8Correspondence, to Christian, September 1931, Box 4, MCCol-UNOL.

9Ibid., Hughes to Christian, February 2, 1932; DuBois to Christian, February 10, 1932, MCCol-UNOL.

10Broadsides and Handbills, Folder 3, MCCol-UNOL.

11Correspodence, Christian to WWL, October 10, 1932; WWL to Christian, October 8, 1932, Box, MCCol-UNOL.

12Ibid., John P. Davis to Christian, December 3, 1935, MCCol-UNOL.

13Broadus Mitchell, The Economic History of the United States, Vol. IX, Depression Decade: From New Era Through New Deal, 1929–1941 (1947; reprint ed., New York, 1966), 320.

14Mirror to America,” Time magazine, January 3, 1938, 55.

15Mitchell, The Economic History of the United States, IX, 327.

16Ronnie Wayne Clayton, “A History of the Federal Writers’ Project in Louisiana” (Ph. D. dissertation, Louisiana State University, 1974), p. 72.

17Correspondence, Saxon to Christian, December 10, 1935; December 19, 1935, Box 4, MCCol-UNOL.

18Ibid., Saxon to Brooks, February 18, 1936; Memo to Christian, February 19, 1936; Brooks to Saxon, February 26, 1936; Saxon to Christian, February 29, 1836, April 6, 1936, MCCol-UNOL.

19Clayton, “Federal Writers’ Project,” p. 308.

20Diary, 1970, Box, MCCol-UNOL.

21Clayton, “Federal Writers’ Project,” p. 177.

22Mitchell, The Economic History of the United States, IX, 328.

23Wish, Contemporary America, p. 532.

24Time magazine, January 3, 1938, 55.

25Clayton, “Federal Writers’ Project,” p. 177.

26Jerah Johnson, “Marcus B. Christian and the WPA History of Black People in Louisiana,” Louisiana History, XX (1979), 113.

27Clayton, “Federal Writers’ Project,” p. 179.

28WPA Writers’ Program Notes, Outline of “Negro in Louisiana,” 10–11, Box 13, Folder 6, Lyle Saxon Collection, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University; hereafter cited as LSCol-TUL.

29Literary and Historical MS, “A Black History of Louisiana,” MS, Introduction, MCCol-UNOL.

30Correspondence, Field to Crutcher, November 25, 1942, Box 6, Folder 4, LSCOL-TUL.

31Ibid., Saxon to Dent, December 31, 1942; Dent to Saxon, December 31, 1942, Box 6, Folder 6.

32Ibid., Saxon to Rogeau, January 26, 1943, Box 6, Folder 7.

33Correspondence, Saxon to Embree, December 20, 1942, Box 6, MCCol-UNOL.

34Ibid., Julius Rosenwald Fund.

35Ibid., Correspondence, Bontemps to Christian, February 29, 1943; Haygood to Christian, April 21, 1943, Box 6. 

36Ibid., Dent to Christian, January 12, 1943, July 7, 1943. This box contains a series of communiqués between Dent and Christian with regard to the status of the manuscript.

37Ibid., Dent to Christian, June 29, 1944.

38Ibid., Dillard University. A typed memo in this section shown that a Mr. Smith felt that a library degree would make Christian more acceptable.

39Dent, “An Appreciation,” 3.

40Literary and Historical MSS, Box 29, MCCol-UNOL.

42Dent, “An Appreciation,” 3.

43Logsdon interview, October 16, 1985. A look through the correspondence section of the 1970s shows the close relationship which developed between the two men. Christian even dedicated to the Logsdon family a poem based on an old legend which said that once you drink the Mississippi waters, you are destined to return.

44Cassimere interview, October 23, 1985.

45Biographical, MCCol-UNOL.

46Cassimere and Logsdon interviews, October 1985.

47Marie Wendell, conversations with the author, September-October 1985.

48Cassimere interview, October 23, 1985.

49Ibid. Cassimere plans to apply for a grant, take some time off, and to edit and complete the manuscript. The manuscript itself is repetitious, dated, and too long, needing to be cut at least in half from its original 1,200 pages.

50Marcus Christian, Negro Ironworkers of Louisiana, 1718–1900  (Gretna, La., 1972), p. vi.

51Cassimere interview, October 23, 1985.

52Literary and Historical MSS, Box 28, MCCol-UNOL; Correspondence, Box 3, Folder 17, LSCol-TUL.

53This article tells of a Spanish ship taken as a prize in 1741 with free men of color on board who are sold into slavery. Blamed for fires, a phony plot grows which results in the arrest of over 150 and the executions of four whites and eleven Negroes.

54There is another slave sale to a David Miller in 1836 which seems to be the same man.

55The election returns were compiled from official records in 1939 by the FWP Dillard Unit. Alphabetized by parish, some are very fragile.

56Some of the major works included are High Ground … (New Orleans, 1958), written to commemorate the 1954 Supreme Court decision abolishing segregation in the public schools; I Am New Orleans (New Orleans, 1968) celebrating the city’s 250th anniversary; In Memoriam, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Thirty-Third President of the United States of America (New Orleans, 1945) of which a limited edition of fifty was published on V-E Day, “a one man tribute – erected in memory of a great fellow-American.”

57While at Dillard, Christian had made notes of the FWP material and duplicated the original note cards for his personal use. Upon his resignation, he took these, along with his manuscript, with him. Jerah Johnson, “Marcus B. Christian and the WPA History,” 113.

58Dent, “An Appreciation,” 3.

59Literary and Historical MSS, Box 26, MCCol-UNOL.

Source: Louisiana History 1987 • Vol. 28 (1) • 37–55

posted 7 February 2011

*   *   *   *   *

Marcus Bruce Christian

Selected Diary Notes / Selected Poems  / Selected Letters

*   *   *   *   *

Profiles on Marcus Bruce Christian and the Federal Writers Project

Bryan, Violet Harrington. The Myth of New Orleans in Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1993.

Clayton, Ronnie W. “The Federal Writers Project for Blacks in Louisiana.” Louisiana History 19(1978): 327-335.

Dent, Tom. “Marcus B. Christian: A Reminiscence and an Appreciation.Black American Literature Forum, 1984, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp. 22-26.

Hessler, Marilyn S. “Marcus Christian: The Man and His Collection.” Louisiana History 1 (1987):37-55.

Johnson, Jerah. “Marcus B. Christian and the WPA History of Black People in Louisiana.” Louisiana History 20.1 (1979): 113-115.

Larson, Susan. “Poems in the Key of Life.” Times-Picayune (Book Section), July 4, 1999.

Lewis, Rudolph. “Introduction.” I Am New Orleans and Other Poems by Marcus Bruce Christian. Edited by Rudolph Lewis and Amin Sharif. New Orleans: Xavier Review Press, 1999. Reprinted in revised form in Dillard Today 2.3 (2000): 21-24.

Lewis, Rudolph. “Magpies, Goddesses, & Black Male Identity in the Romantic Poetry of Marcus Bruce Christian.” Paper presented at College Language Association, April 2000, Baltimore, MD.

Lewis, Rudolph. “Marcus Bruce Christian and a Theory of a Black Aesthetic.” Paper presented at the Zora Neale Hurston Society Conference held June 1999 at University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Published in ZNHS FORUM (Spring 2000).

Peterson, Betsy. “Marcus Christian: Portrait of a Poet.” Dixie 18 (January 1970).

Redding, Joan. “The Dillard Project: The Black Unit of the Louisiana Writers’ Project.” Louisiana History 32.1 (1991): 47-62

Source: Wikipedia

*   *   *   *   *

Southern Journey

A Return to the Civil Rights Movement

By Tom Dent

A black youth reared in segregated New Orleans, Dent went to Mississippi for the civil rights movement, and that experience stuck with him. So in 1991, he decided to work his way south from Greensboro, N.C., to Mississippi, skirting both large cities and important officials, to talk to (mostly) black folk and to assess the movement's legacy. At times, Dent's meandering approach lacks depth and is unwieldy, but his personal connection to his inquiry informs his story with commitment. In Greensboro, the unresolved gap between blacks and whites, exemplified in an anniversary celebration of the city's historic sit-ins, remind Dent "of the strained interracial meetings of the 1950s."

In Orangeburg, S.C., a black academic tells him ruefully that many social-work students go into "criminal justice" lacking the broader awareness of the politics behind the new programs. In Albany, Ga., Dent discerns signs of material progress but deep divisions not only between the races but also within the black community. In Mississippi, where he sees black political victories as having had a relatively small payoff, he becomes convinced that a new black organization is needed to supplant the NAACP to address national political issues of special concern to blacks (education, unemployment) and to monitor cases of police and official abuse and discrimination. Though not quite a complete plan, it's a constructive response to Dent's conclusion that the civil rights movement opened up doors, but "once inside, well, there was hardly anything there."—Publishers Weekly

*   *   *   *   *

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*   *   *   *   *

Allah, Liberty, and Love

The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom

By Irshad Manji

In Allah, Liberty and Love, Irshad Manji paves a path for Muslims and non-Muslims to transcend the fears that stop so many of us from living with honest-to-God integrity: the fear of offending others in a multicultural world as well as the fear of questioning our own communities. Since publishing her international bestseller, The Trouble with Islam Today, Manji has moved from anger to aspiration. She shows how any of us can reconcile faith with freedom and thus discover the Allah of liberty and love—the universal God that loves us enough to give us choices and the capacity to make them. Among the most visible Muslim reformers of our era, Manji draws on her experience in the trenches to share stories that are deeply poignant, frequently funny and always revealing about these morally confused times. What prevents young Muslims, even in the West, from expressing their need for religious reinterpretation? What scares non-Muslims about openly supporting liberal voices within Islam?

*   *   *   *   *

Predator Nation

Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America

By Charles H. Ferguson

If you’re smart and a hard worker, but your parents aren’t rich, you’re now better off being born in Munich, Germany or in Singapore than in Cleveland, Ohio or New York. This radical shift did not happen by accident.  Ferguson shows how, since the Reagan administration in the 1980s, both major political parties have become captives of the moneyed elite.  It was the Clinton administration that dismantled the regulatory controls that protected the average citizen from avaricious financiers.  It was the Bush team that destroyed the federal revenue base with its grotesquely skewed tax cuts for the rich. And it is the Obama White House that has allowed financial criminals to continue to operate unchecked, even after supposed “reforms” installed after the collapse of 2008. Predator Nation reveals how once-revered figures like Alan Greenspan and Larry Summers became mere courtiers to the elite.

 

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Weep Not, Child

By Ngugi wa Thiong'o

This is a powerful, moving story that details the effects of the infamous Mau Mau war, the African nationalist revolt against colonial oppression in Kenya, on the lives of ordinary men and women, and on one family in particular. Two brothers, Njoroge and Kamau, stand on a rubbish heap and look into their futures. Njoroge is excited; his family has decided that he will attend school, while Kamau will train to be a carpenter. Together they will serve their countrythe teacher and the craftsman. But this is Kenya and the times are against them. In the forests, the Mau Mau is waging war against the white government, and the two brothers and their family need to decide where their loyalties lie. For the practical Kamau the choice is simple, but for Njoroge the scholar, the dream of progress through learning is a hard one to give up.—Penguin 

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

*   *   *   *   *

Ancient African Nations

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Home    Literary New Orleans  Marcus Bruce Christian   I Am New Orleans Table  Selected Diary Notes   Selected Letters

Related files:  A Black Aesthetic   Magpies & Godesses   Intro to I Am New Orleans   Tom Dent on Marcus B. Christian   Marcus B. Christian and the WPA (Johnson)

 Marcus Christian: Portrait of a Poet   Marcus Christian: The Man and His Collection  The Federal Writers' Project For Blacks in Louisiana