Back Stories

In print

Published in The Journal of the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society, Summer 2017.

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Uncovering black history

Evergreen is one of Richmond’s four traditionally African-American cemeteries. At least one of the Old South Quartette’s singers was buried there. It is also the final resting place of many notable black Richmonders including the iconic Maggie L. Walker, America’s first woman bank president of any race. Since most African-American burials in Richmond in those days were undertaken without allowing for perpetual care, Evergreen has become overrun with briars and privet. Whilst visiting the city I learned that Marvin Harris (crouching in the photo) was organizing a cleanup of this sadly neglected site.  I got in touch to ask if he could keep an eye out for my list of names, and mentioned in passing that I might have some free time to help with the cleanup. He said he could pick me up at 6.45 am next morning. And so began one of the most rewarding half days I can remember. When I asked Marvin if he had relatives buried here, he said no. Asking the obvious question, why do you do it, I was stunned by his beautifully simple response. “It’s just the right thing to do.” Look him up, you won’t regret it.

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The Polk Gene

If unbridled storytelling is an inherited trait, Randy Neal has got it, no doubt passed down from his great grandfather Polk Miller. When I finally met Randy at the rural Virginia home of mutual friends Dave and Cat S., this aspect of his personality came as something of a surprise. It had taken about a year to coax him out of his shell and agree to meet me because in his words, “I’ve got nothing to add to the conversation.” In fact, he arrived with a briefcase full of private unpublished family papers and photos. On one hand, he is a no-nonsense man of few words. However ask the right question and he’s off, not necessarily answering your question but treating you to a colorful meandering monolog which, like the lectures of his famous ancestor, have “no beginning and no end.” A second surprise was his uncanny resemblance to Polk Miller.203

Eureka moment

There it was, the name I was looking for: “Alphonso DeWitt”. Written in flowing pencil script in the First African Baptist Church records dated June 9, 1907. Five hours of research had paid off. One of the founding members of the Old South Quartette, DeWitt was reputedly the finest basso singer in Richmond. Sadly, he suffered a stroke resulting in facial paralysis and would never sing again. This page records him being baptized and received into the congregation just months after the stroke. Pictured below are Sandra Brownlee and Deborah Booker of First African Baptist who so kindly gave up their Saturday to help me navigate the archives.

016 Sandra Brownlee & Deborah Booker

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