Mixed Emotions

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The work on the film has occupied weeks. Here are some highlights and lowlights from the intense days of blog silence.

  • My emotional reactions were far more intense than I expected. Mostly it had to do with listening to people who had known those great ladies Bertha James Lane, Helen James Chisholm and Anna Louise James.
  • I didn’t have the same ferocity  when people talked about my mother, but I did have one “back in time” experience. We visited a house with a great many items from the store, from my grandparents’ house, from my parents’ house. I happened to look on a shelf in the kitchen. A note rang in my head. There was a bell about eight inches tall. I picked it up and let the clapper fall against the side. It was the sound of my childhood. My mother used that bell to call me for dinner. It has a good home.
  • Old Saybrook has two spectacular coffeehouses. I didn’t eat anything at either place, so here’s the comment on the basic commodity. Caffee Toscano offers an intimate setting and serves mostly takeout. With Lavatazza on the menu and the owner behind the counter, how could it go wrong? A plus is that it doesn’t offer those fruit- and vegetable- flavored drinks that claim to be coffee. Ashlawn Farm Coffee [typed “coffee farm” the first time] tries for hipster cool. The little attitudinous witch that pretended to be in charge did not inspire a return visit. But the actual beverage I tasted has good robust and smooth flavor. Plus, if one waiting at the train station because the Amtrak app has screwed up, one can park for two hours in spaces that used to welcome actual passengers.
  • One of the joys of living in New England is the ubiquity of lobster rolls. My deprived California cousins made up for lost time, and I got to eat at an O.S. institution for the first time. Johnny Ad’s opened summers only when I was a little kid as a tiny shack with a couple of tables. It has gone through at least three expansions that I could see, but I’d never been there until we had our first lobster rolls on October 22. A revisit is in the cards as it was among the best on the Shoreline.

And just so folks don’t think Ash, Kathryn, and I did nothing but eat and drink coffee, here’s the beginning of a brief summary what else we did:

  • October 18 [Saturday]: revise schedule
  • October 19: scout artifacts and ephemera from the pharmacy, grandparents’ house and parents’ house
  • October 21: scout artifacts at the Old Saybrook Historical Society archives. Carry lots and lots of film and audio equipment – mostly not me; drive to Clinton to purchase fabric for keeping glare off picture frames; revise film schedule
  • October 22: set up film equipment; pick up two scholars from the train station; entertain the scholars at dinner;  review their schedule

To be continued…

What I’m Reading Now


Another in an occasional series and another I’ve since finished. Leonard Todd’s Carolina Clay contains the best sort of history: at the same time global and personal, specific to a place and time, yet rife with themes that resonate today.

It was refreshing to read an account of the South that predated the era  of the Cotton Belt.

Carolina Clay tells of the life of a man named Dave, later David Drake. Members of several families residing in and around Edgefield County, South Carolina, enslaved him in the early and middle years of the nineteenth century. He became a renowned master potter. The clay in the western county on the Georgia border provided the medium for pots that ranged from a few inches to feet high. The glazes in those that survive have an unrivaled luster. Todd’s bio page includes two unrivaled examples.

Just this basic outline would make a fascinating monograph, but there are two factors that elevate the story and make it compelling and immediate. Todd is the perfect storyteller. He has a background in art and architecture and so places the clay and its beauty directly in our hands and laps. More importantly Todd is a descendant of the enslavers. Though he’s a bit too Johnny Reb in places, he mostly walks the tightrope well, even as he outs his terrorist relatives for their part in the killing and maiming and arson launched against African Americans after the Civil War.
The second and more important factor in making Carolina Clay a significant work is that Dave learned to read and write in the years before South Carolina outlawed literacy for captives. With a break of about six years, Dave inscribed his name, the names of his enslavers, and most importantly, verses on his artwork. Todd exploits Dave’s literacy to illuminate the people, places and ideas that shaped a growing nation. The verses and comments, along with the silence that followed the forced sales and moves of his family, tell the story from the perspective of one left behind.

A couple of quibbles: Because the written record about Dave is scant, Todd engages in far more conditional “would have” and “might have” than the narrative can carry. Was Dave married? More than once? What were the women’s names? We don’t know, but Todd’s speculations about the family of Dave stretch the boundaries.

I do have one speculation of my own based on Todd’s reporting. Dave probably did not tell the 1870 census taker that he couldn’t read and write. My perusal of census records leads me to think that  the census taker didn’t bother to visit the family  but just checked the boxes he thought to be true. Or, he perhaps he walked the country roads and talked to someone in the household who never thought about whether the old one-legged man was literate.

The other complaint is big. It’s a knock on W.W. Norton and its editors: Doesn’t anyone know how to spell judgment? Shame on you!

These complaints should not deter anyone from reading Carolina Clay.

What I’m Watching Now


Actually I watched this back in October as a way to decompress from speaking engagements and house cleaning and prep for the work on the documentary. I’m not sure why I selected Breakfast at Tiffany’s except that Truman Capote’s name surfaced in connection with Harper Lee and Go Set a Watchman. That. and I needed to watch something utterly fluffy.

Well, mostly fluffy. All I can say is that I must have been outrageously naïve when I watched the movie for the first time. It probably involved a trip to the theater with Mother because her adult friends could not or would not accompany her. Hey, it was better than Brothers Karamazov, which gave me nightmares for weeks and produced a fear of Dostoyevsky. At least I read In Cold Blood, which I suspect is probably way more violent than anything in the Russian’s oeuvre but arrived when I was better able to separate what I saw on a screen or read in a book and the reality in front of me.

Anyway, I’d forgotten the blatant kept man/kept woman theme. And I’d forgotten that Holly’s real sugar daddy was a sweet ol’ mobster.

The stars of the show radiate enduring style. They are Holly’s gorgeous Givenchy/Edith Head outfits. They suit all, every glamorous woman, the place, and the mood. If only … But then there’s the house to clean, etc.  Also the C?D? subplot involving “Cat” adds such endearment.

Otherwise the film is very much of its time: everyone is smoking and drinking to excess; Mickey Rooney gives a downright racist portrayal of the Japanese landlord complete with prosthetic teeth; NYC streets devoid of traffic homeless people and trash.

Even the Henry Mancini music feels trapped in an elevator, which is probably where most people heard it — about forty years ago if elevators played music then. Were I Holly, all that auditory treacle wouldn’t help me recover from the “blue meanies.” The wardrobe would.

Despite the drawbacks, Tiffany’s served its purpose of distracting me from the world that was bearing down.

Family Service IV



Here is our plan to move it into the future.

The film project has two goals at this point. One is to explore the impact of family and community on my mother’s writing. Among the questions we’ll be examining is the significance of the family’s Yankee heritage, about which she remained ambivalent. She said on the one hand she could not be African American and a true Yankee.

On the other hand she praised her relatives for their devotion to the New England values of thrift, hard work, and unswerving commitment to family and community. They came to thrive in a milieu that expected them to fail. The film will examine how the family presented in these letters affected Ann Petry’s development as a person and an artist.

Her writing offers many examples. While the breakthrough work The Street describes black life in Harlem, the novel Country Place, along with pieces in Miss Muriel and Other Stories, reflect her life in this area. “Doby’s Gone” is set in Wessex, Connecticut, which is obviously Essex. Together these works provide a clear picture of the risks and rewards of growing up in what was a tiny isolated community. Her last novel, The Narrows, offers a stunning and gruesome portrait of African American life in a small city, which I believe is a composite of New London and Hartford.

For Dear Mother’s Sake will help viewers understand the dynamics at play at the turn of the last century as Connecticut and the nation moved away from an isolationist past and healed the wounds of a brutal war that saw the black population freed from slavery under law but still oppressed in fact. As a result, audiences may come to a greater awareness and understanding of the state of relations among the races that exists today.

We will also explore the significance of African American life in Connecticut during the period. Of particular interest will be the social backdrop of New England in relationship to people of color. Was the area representative in its treatment of its black citizens, or did it stand apart?

Extend the Legacy

We will be in Old Saybrook for a conference. We will be talking to distinguished scholars and other experts who can link the history of the period between the Civil War and World War I to the personal experiences of the James family.

The funding from Connecticut Humanities is one of the first planning grants for a documentary. But it is just the very beginning. Besides the conference we have these activities on our agenda

  • photograph many of the letters, which I donated to the Beneicke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University
  • analyze and organize resource material
  • construct a sample of the proposed film
  • prepare and distribute a treatment and outline of the film to the scholars for comment
  • create an overview of the historical and cultural themes presented in the letters and other documents
  • explore what the letters and Ann Petry’s personal writings convey about the period

Join Our Team

To continue this work, we need your help. Here is how you may be able to contribute. Anyone who does will receive full acknowledgement in the completed film.

  • home movies and photographs of Saybrook and surroundings from the late nineteenth century through the 1950s
  • stories of Saybrook and environs during the same period
  • spread the word
  • additional funds, follow the link in the Community Foundation of Middlesex County website

I am pleased to announce that since I made the speech, we have received several generous donations and pledges for more.

We are on our way. Please join us!

Family Service III

So who were these children?

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One can already see the seeds of the people they would become in this photo. That’s Bertha on the right, straight-backed and proper. Bill is already showing his “don’t mess with me” side. Harriet, whom the family said was the most beautiful, looks fragile. She died of tuberculosis when she was twenty-three. Fritz echoed Bill, though without the violence. He settled down to run James’ Pharmacy in Old Lyme. Helen is serious and intense as she was in later life. Harry is the baby and Ashley’s grandfather. There’s one person missing, whom I’ll talk about in a bit. Mother figured out that this picture was taken in 1886, the year Baby Harry was born.

HelenJC copyHelen and her husband, Frank Chisholm, also settled in Saybrook and helped raise money to build Grace Episcopal Church. After graduating from Hampton Institute, Helen traveled to Hawaii to care for the children of lepers. She met the last queen and sent Bertha a wonderful description of the encounter.

Upon her return to the States, she taught at the Penn School on St. Helena. She attended Atlanta University where she studied with the intimidating W.E.B. Du Bois. She ran a successful correspondence school for many years.

By the way, I’m pretty sure that blouse was one of Bertha’s design and making. I wish we had preserved the clothes the way we preserved the letters!

aacx copyAnd here’s the person who was missing from that family photo because she hadn’t been born yet. This youngest daughter of Willis and Anna James became the first African American woman to receive a pharmacy license from the state of Connecticut. She took over the drugstore from Peter Lane. James’ Pharmacy became and remained a Shoreline institution for more than forty years.

I have to tell you when I posted a request for photos, home movies, and stories on the “You Might Be From Old Saybrook If…” Facebook page, I was floored by the number and variety and quality of the comments about Miss James. Many concerned her generosity. What came through most, though, was how much she adored children. I am sure she got that from her mother and from Bertha, who raised her after their mother’s death.

Now this is already an impressive legacy, but I have to add one more person.

CHudson copyWhile Willis the patriarch ran from slavery and the war, Anna’s brother Charles Hudson ran away from home and rode into battle with New York’s illustrious Lincoln Cavalry. Mother often repeated the story of how Uncle Charley changed his name from Houston to Hudson when he enlisted. What she didn’t say was that he also lied about his age – he was fourteen, not nineteen. And of course neither Mother nor Uncle Charley ever mentioned that he was a black kid riding with an all-white regiment.

People ask how he managed this feat. Here’s what I think. It was December 1864 when Charley walked into the recruiting station in Brooklyn. The Lincoln Cavalry had seen combat since the beginning of the war. It defended Washington in 1861. Just weeks before it had come off a punishing campaign in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. So when Charley showed up – maybe a little young, maybe a little dark, and barely tall enough, all they saw was a healthy, able-bodied guy who could ride a horse. He was wounded six days before Appomattox and received a disability discharge. Mother saved and treasured his enlistment and pension papers.

Family Service II

BerthaL copyThe person who preserved the legacy was Bertha James Lane, my grandmother.

She received letters from her brothers and sisters – and a few from her parents. The oldest of nine James siblings, Bertha read letters conveying miles traveled, exotic flora, isolation, and dangers on far-away shores, as well as closer to home.

She cherished the letters, even as she raised her daughters, ran her household, and managed three businesses. She had dropped out of school at age sixteen and went to work in a factory to help support the family. She became a beautician. She obtained a chiropodist’s license. She opened Beautiful Linens for Beautiful Homes, which made linen and lace.

While the book Can Anything Beat White? captures the lives of the correspondents, the images remain static – words on a page and the odd photo. The film For Dear Mother’s Sake will make history come alive as we seek answers to the questions my mother raised in an autobiographical essay: “How did my family manage to survive in this largely all-white community? How did my parents manage to transmit to their children a feeling of self-confidence, of self-worth? And how did I manage to become a writer?”

We will use the letters, historical photographs, and interviews with scholars and community members, and Ann Petry’s own words. The film will become a testament to the people, events, and ideas that helped shape her life. It will explore how Connecticut African Americans shared in the struggle of black people to obtain political and economic power following the Civil War. We will challenge the belief that they either toiled as illiterate sharecroppers in the South or as barely educated hired help in the North.

WillisJ copyThe patriarch, known just as “Sam” as a boy, escaped a Virginia plantation during the war. He eluded “patterollers” with the help of the underground network. His children grew up in Hartford and lived in Saybrook and Wethersfield. They taught him to read and write. Their story is at once emblematic of the pioneering, risk-taking spirit that has shaped America and singular in other ways. Beginning with him, the family produced letters that show a collective determination to struggle and survive against insurmountable odds, to overcome adversity, and to become part of a society that did not welcome them but came to accept their significant contributions.

And they did triumph. Sam James became coachman to Connecticut Governor Marshall Jewell, who wrote this letter of recommendation in 1873.

“To whom it may concern, The brave Sam James has worked for me for six years and is as good a man as I ever saw. Honest, reliable, faithfull [sic], a first rate driver and groom. Always on hand when wanted & what I value about as human as any thing always good natured. Marshall Jewell.”

Sam spent the 1870s reinventing himself. He became Willis Samuel James.

AnnaJ copyAnnie Houston, who was his second wife, transformed herself into Anna Estelle Houston James. She came to Connecticut as a child in the 1850s from Alabama, where she had been a slave also. She worked for a Congregational minister who was forced out of his church in Cheshire because of his abolitionist views. Willis and Anna were among the first African Americans to buy property in Hartford’s North End in the mid-1870s.

Though she left only five letters, Anna’s influence is reflected through the generations. She remained concerned for her family’s health and welfare as she tried to recover her own health at her brother’s home in New Jersey. She died of tuberculosis when her youngest child was just eight, but her legacy endured in the nurturing that her daughters passed along to their children and to the community at large.

Family Service

The Community Foundation of Middlesex County has geared up to help raise funds for the film project. Here’s part one of an abbreviated version of the talk I gave to the Rotary Club of Essex, which is a lively and enthusiastic group.

ALPI am here because of my amazing family. Like all of you, many of them devoted their lives to serving others. Tonight I will tell you some of their story and discuss what I am doing to preserve their memories. I’ll begin by talking about the incredible trove of letters that launched a book and is launching a documentary film. I will explain how you can help in the process and then I’ll be happy to answer your questions.

The person who overshadows all else, and the main reason I’m standing here, is because of my mother, Ann Petry. She was born in Saybrook above Lane’s Pharmacy, her father’s drugstore. She also trained as a pharmacist but then changed careers and became an author, most notably of The Street. That devastating narrative of a black woman trying to raise a child by herself in Harlem will celebrate its seventieth birthday in print next year. It made Mother the first African American woman to sell more than one million copies of a book. Her other novels, along with essays, short stories, and works for children, poignantly describe the struggles and triumphs of black people in America.

But there is so much more to the story, which has been little explored.

WillisJr copyPart of it came to light with a letter that my great-uncle, Willis H. James, sent to his older sister, Ann’s mother and my grandmother, Bertha James Lane. And here I read from the 1905 letter in which Uncle Bill, aka L.J. St. Clair, asked her “for dear Mother’s sake” to send $35 (now $900) to bribe a Georgia sheriff to avoid a lynching.

I found that letter in an old tin. When I read it I was standing by a window because the handwriting had faded. I sat down – hard – on a chair and read it again. At that point I knew I had to write a book.

It was one of some four hundred letters that spanned the period from after the Civil War to 1910, an era that is almost never covered in history books except for a glancing mention of Reconstruction. I began to realize there was a goldmine of untapped material there. It took some years and much digging, but the story took shape. The University Press of Mississippi published Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters in 2005..

More time passed, and my cousin Ashley James, who is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, called and said – let’s turn the family’s story into a film. We should explore how the family shaped Ann’s life. I said – OK, though it’s not something I’ve ever done and know nothing about. With his wife, Kathryn Golden, who has also won awards for her films, we began the process.

Just about a year ago we approached Connecticut Humanities, the Community Foundation, and the Old Saybrook Historical Society with the idea. Everyone was enthusiastic.

We are grateful to all three organizations. Connecticut Humanities awarded us a grant of more than $23,000 to begin planning the film. The Community Foundation is serving as the fiscal agent and has set up a fund that will enable us to raise additional moneys. And the Old Saybrook Historical Society is our community partner and host for our meetings.

The film bears the working title For Dear Mother’s Sake: The James Family Letters That Shaped Ann Petry. It will be a Ken Burns-style, hour-long documentary intended for broadcast on public television. The “logline” – the pitch line that appears on film promotions – is “How an African American family rose from slavery, triumphed over racism, and produced a number of ‘firsts.’ ”

Next up: the keeper of the legacy.



Blog is back despite efforts by life and technology to shut it down. Photo is from last year since my treasured Japanese maple didn’t put on a show this year.

Over the next days I’ll review the doings:

  • speeches
  • film progress including the weird effects of dehydration
  • books I’ve been reading
  • films I’ve been watching
  • tech hell with the phone (for a change) and with the web hosting service
  • veterans’ workshop doings
  • much, much more.