Sunday, January 28, 2018

Excavating Buried Shadow

Saturday, 8:30 AM. January 20, 2018. 
Valencia College, West Campus. Orlando

A handful of academics and community activists from Valencia’s Peace and Justice Institute have come to campus this chilly morning. We are here to plan a series of public scholarship events designed to bring to consciousness the atrocities that occurred in the small town of Ocoee, some 10 miles northwest of this campus, in 1920 on Election Day. 

It is an endeavor to own a community’s Shadow long repressed. The ultimate goal is healing. 

This series of events is part of a much larger project which began with the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Montgomery, AL two years ago. EJI is an organization dedicated to commemorating the lives of those victims of lynching and massacres during the long dark years following the end of the Civil War and continuing through the early 20th CE. For an extended period in the early 20th CE, Florida had the most incidences of lynching and massacres in the nation. Our own Orange County led Florida counties in that deadly tally.

Many of us present carry stories – our own and those of family and friends - of dealings with Ku Klux Klan as well as the harm that the structural violence of Jim Crow laws caused to the lives of loved ones. All of us are here to see that those stories do not die with us. 

The event in Ocoee began with a denial of African-American men seeking to exercise their right to vote in the 1920 election. It was a right constitutionally guaranteed since the ratification of the 15th Amendment but rarely exercised after the departure of federal troops at the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. 

By nightfall, the conflict at the polling place would shift to a local African-American neighborhood where it escalated into a full-scale massacre. How many local residents joined area Klansmen in that fiery holocaust which would consume the entire neighborhood is not clear.

Ocoee’s black residents were beginning to be economically successful and now sought political equality. The threat to Jim Crow Florida and its racist white power structure was undeniable.

What is clear is that by the following day, the North Quarters neighborhood of Ocoee would lie in smoldering ruins. And within a year, its counterpart, the South Quarters, would be abandoned out of fear of a similar result. 

Stirring up Souls 

We began the morning with a Yoruba priest. He prayed to the Energy in which all that is finds its existence. He prayed for guidance from the Creator from whom all being comes.

That being includes the souls of human beings incinerated in their homes in Ocoee in 1920, punished for crimes they had not committed. And it includes the angry white men wreaking of cheap whiskey, men who ordinarily hid behind costumes when they came out in public. 

Except this night. 

This night they came with torches. And guns. And before the night was over, an untold number of innocent living souls would be lost. 

“Be careful about stirring up souls,” the priest told us. “Time alone does not heal all wounds.” 

And the wounds decidedly remain. 


      Wounds to the land, a once fertile landscape from which citrus trees and sugar cane once sprang, now an industrial zone swept free of any traces of a once burgeoning neighborhood. There African-Americans who tilled the land were beginning to experience the American dream, much to the chagrin of their working-class white fellow townspeople. Today, it is marked by landscaping materials yards and small appliance repair shops.

·         Fatal wounds of shotgun blasts delivered into the backs of those who fled the carnage, those not lucky enough to escape into nearby cane fields and woods.

·         Wounds from rounds of shots fired into a black body swinging from a tree. Their target was a black labor broker, wounded in the initial onslaught, transported to the county jail. He was taken from his jail cell in the middle of the night and drug through the streets of Orlando behind a car before meeting his end in that tree of death, a demonic parody of the tree of life his African heritage reveres.


     Smoldering wounds of those burned to death in their homes. Wounds marked by flickering cinders where Masonic halls and churches once served a vibrant community.

·         Psychic wounds of those lucky enough to escape, leaving behind their homes, their land, their memories, their hopes, and in some cases the bodies of loved ones, bearing trauma that would never completely go away.

There are many stories waiting here to be told. Those whose memories lie waiting to be excavated from the ashes and honored. Those whose ancestors’ deeds await repentance.

“Be careful about stirring up souls,” the Yoruba holy man said, “But know that these are souls waiting to be freed.”

A Calling to Atone 

I am drawn to the work to commemorate the Ocoee Election Day Massacre like a moth to flame. It is horrific work. It is painful to read, ghastly to imagine. The stories dominate my thoughts by day. Their dark images haunt my dreams by night.

But I am called to be here, now, to stand with others as we awaken these souls, as we excavate these memories from our collective Shadow. I am here to help in whatever small way I might to gain the freedom they seek all these many years later. 

I am called as a member of a community that has buried its past, seeking to avoid the memories that linger in a festering Shadow. I am here to emphasize that we cannot “just move on,” that time does not heal all wounds without confronting them. I am called as the holder of unearned privilege to recognize that my privilege as a white male has often come at the expense of many, many others with stories like those we seek to memorialize, stories whose time have finally come to be heard. 

Call it commemorative atonement, long overdue.

As we stand in the circle, holding the hands of fellow task force members, I pray that my voice, my words, my thoughts, my own dreams can serve as a medium for those whose time has come to be heard.  I pray that our community can atone for its past. I pray for healing for all the wounded and those who wounded them. And I pray for courage and strength for all of us who are called to this time of accounting, repentance and reconciliation.

It will prove a very fruitful morning. 

Sunday, 8 AM. January 21, 2018
St. Richard’s Episcopal parish, Winter Park.

I got up early to attend the 8 AM Eucharist at St. Richards. I always feel the need for both the spiritual grounding that this parish represents as well as the vibrant, loving community it provides. While I find much of the theology of the Rite I service to be as antiquated as the Elizabethan English in which it is cast, there is a simplicity and quiet about this spoken service that my soul needs this – and most – mornings these days. 

There is no music, no families with children. Sometimes there are families with disabled loved ones present and at 64 I am often among the youngest parishioners present. But I have come to love the odd assemblage that forms this community each week for this quiet, peaceful early morning rite. And this morning I very much need to be here.

As always, at the beginning of announcements our priest recites our mission statement: We are on a mission to discover G-d’s grace, to change our lives and to change the whole world.  And the parish takes that quite seriously, its parishioners involved in work from feeding the local hungry to periodically housing the homeless at the parish and travelling overseas to help create solar lighting for companion parishes in Africa. 

I believe it is essential to be grounded in spiritual community in order to engage in peace and justice work. The reality is, such efforts frequently are frustrated. The holders of power and privilege do not readily relinquish it even in the face of atrocity demanding redress. They often fight back in any way possible.

And yet the calling to transcend the default paradigms that mark a dominance and control culture and to work to create a better world does not end because any one given aspect of that paradigm proves resistant to transformation. If one is to persevere in this reality, grounding in a spiritual community is absolutely indispensable.

Sunday, 2 PM. January 21, 2018. 
Winter Park Library

It is Sunday afternoon. Holly Mandelkern is a friend who has published a beautiful though unsettling book of poems and biographies from the Holocaust including original illustrations by a local artist. She is presenting her work at the Winter Park library.

Holly was kind enough to give me a copy of Beneath White Stars, Holocaust Profiles in Poetry, for my own enrichment and for use in my classes. I was deeply moved by these  poems which allow the reader to enter into the lives of those in ghettos, prison camps and in hiding.

 The Holocaust is a deeply troubling subject. But like the events in Ocoee a century ago, those events remain in our collective Shadow awaiting their turn to be excavated, examined, owned and learned from. 

We are here today to dig some of them up. 

This day Holly spoke of young boys who wrote short stories and first-hand accounts of death camps, In each case, their writing formed their resistance to the darkness that had consumed the western world in the early 20th CE. 

She spoke of poets who could focus on the momentary beauty of a butterfly before it flitted away among the souls of so many innocent lives in a world gone mad. His words would eventually be excavated and spoken at the Nuremberg Trials of war criminals in the years after the camps were finally liberated. 

I have been a student of the Holocaust since my days in seminary over 25 years ago. I have studied at the US Holocaust Museum and twice visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. It is a grim subject to consider. But, like the events in Ocoee, I have long felt called to wrestle with the implications for humanity of this darkness,  to mourn its genocidal impact. There are many lessons to take back to my own Christian tradition which must account for its role in those dark times and the many dark times which preceded and gave rise to it. 

The last figure Holly discussed was Fr. Patrick Dubois, a French Catholic priest who works in the Ukraine. Prior to the German efficient death camps of the Third Reich, Nazi elimination policy impacting a wide range of designated “undesirables” including Jews was carried out by the death squads of the occupying German army called the Einsatgruppen. Thousands of victims were rounded up, taken to remote areas where they dug the pits in which they would be shot and buried in mass graves. 

Dubois has made his life work to excavate the memories of those swept away by the Nazi paramilitaries. “The sanctity of life was violated so deeply here. Human beings were shot in mass and thrown into pits. These acts are so immoral they demand a response.” 

A fellow priest, whose tradition had made a pact with Hitler to protect its priests and religious during the war, Dubois arranges memorial services with Jewish rabbis to honor the humanity of those killed. His efforts have helped local children of nations occupied by the Third Reich, who were pressed into service, to finally speak their painful truth.

Together they uncover this history, unbury its atrocities, own the dark Shadow and lay it to rest.. 

Digging Up Wounded Spirits 

What struck me as I listened to all these stories was the role that burial had played in insuring these atrocities would one day be addressed. The burial of these writings meant they would survive even as most of the writers would not. The villagers’ burial of their stories deep within their own souls insured that these many voices of atrocity would finally be heard.

“Even in the face of danger, the threat of death, spirit will not die,” Holly said. “Our life experience may not survive. So we bury these memories, waiting for the day when they can safely reemerge.” 

Like the souls of the Ocoee massacre victims, they have lain silent many years, waiting for their time to come out of the darkness back into the light. 

Now that time has come. 

Those of us who are called to once again bear witness to atrocity long after the immediate suffering has ended have the unenviable task of excavating the horror and the pain of events which have long gone unaddressed. We must dig up wounded spirits. They must have their say. 

Time has not healed these wounds. They have only festered in the darkness.

There is no way to simply “move on.” The past cannot just be the past. 

This history which lies within our collective Shadow must be faced before any healing can occur. Until then, the souls of those living lights extinguished by fear, cruelty and hatred cannot rest. 

And ultimately, neither can we. 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2018

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Harry-I must thank you for sharing the noble work you have again been called to do, bringing to light an atrocity I have never heard of, despite my deep Florida roots and minor in history from our great Florida university.