Urban planning

Urbino is a thick exhibition of hills shared by walkers, Italian-talkers and residential Fiats. View from san BSurrounding the two grand piazzas is a hive of narrow cobblestone paths steeped in the shade of ancient buildings. This is my fourth four-week residence, and still I discover new nooks in this city no bigger than Lexington, Va. (inside Urbino’s high, ancient walls at least).

The layers of Time did crazy things to the design, as did the slopes of hills upon a hill.

But somewhere deep in its soul, Urbino had an idea, a pitch-perfect ideal based on mathematics and a hallucination of perfect civic design. There is a painting of this, a long, narrow work called “Città Ideale,” the ideal city. The painting (there are other versions in Berlin and Baltimore) is mounted in the museum of the duke’s palace. No one is sure who painted it. But we were told, in the Palazzo Ducale tour the class got last Thursday, that art critics are sure it’s an important depiction of the Renaissance idea of utopia, the perfect city.

LoggiaBut these were Humanists. Where are the people? Ah, we’re told, this is not Man but the Work of Man. But, wait. They were great observers of Nature. What about nature – why not a single geranium or shrub in all this marble? Nature is represented, they say, in that little plant puffed from a window ledge, and two hints of mountains in the background.

Loggio from frontBut what about politics, the new realism of power that made the cunning Caesare Borga (after he conquered Urbino for his father Pope Alexander VI) the model of Machiavelli’s Prince? Well, there’s no constitutional “balance of power.” But the painting is. . .in “dialogue.”

We’re supposed to talk back to it, the Enlightenment vs. the Renaissance. Now vs. then.

I don’t know. The older sights of Urbino leave me sort of speechless (especially in my Italian). The iPhone panorama I took inside the Palazzo courtyard looks like “Città Ideale,” without people, nature or the politics of Mitch McConnell. There’s no dialog with the present.Citta Reale

But there are clues to the past. Another painting in the museum is an obscure work of Pietro della Francesca that is like the “Città Ideale” in look, shape, and. . . obscurity.  It’s called “The Flagellation of Christ.” (Both might be by the same painter.) In an oddly serene moment in a Renaissance setting, an un-bloodied, un-bent Christ is being scourged in the background while three figures in the foreground could be discussing silk prices on the Rialto. Our guide says there are something like 46 official interpretations of what the painting means (and another 63 unofficial, he jokes).

I am told that a loggia near our classroom was the basis for the setting where Christ is being whipped. And I wonder if a column nearby is the model for the column Christ is tied to. The one in Urbino is topped by St. George slaying his dragon; in the painting, it looks like a Roman emperor. St George columnOne of the interpretations is that this is about the tension between Christian and pagan cultures. Another is that it is about Christendom threatened by the Islamic conquest of Byzantium in the East, which happened at the time of the painting. Another, that it is about the new geometry of perspective, with various implied circles intersecting at the crown of Christ’s head.

What I notice in the painting and in the ideal Città is that there are no ads. No cars, and no ads. That seems ideal enough to me right now, thinking of America from over here. Italy seems closer to these paintings than to any five minutes off I-75 outside Atlanta or a shopping mall in McLean, Va.

 

 

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Locanda Montelippo

Six of us drove the winding road out of Urbino toward the Adriatic, halfway to Pesaro, for a memorable dinner in the sun-splashed dusk. Locanda Montelippo is a country inn that features its locally sourced dishes and regional wines. A TV crew was there filming a feature when we arrived. The cannon boom every minute to scare birds from the cherry orchard was unfortunate. But otherwise, a perfect evening out.

If you want to find the place, you need to know where to turn off the highway onto a tiny road over a one-lane bridge. Apparently, enough people know this. There’s a healthy business going on here. On June 16, we’ll be back for a concert and buffet, L’agricoltura e musica. This is the sort of vision our son William has for the farm he and his fiancee are establishing on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Fancy Gap, Va.

Lippo driveLippo rosesLippo olive groveLippo table

Lippo dessertLippo at night

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Of Woods and Wolves

The American students in this four-week multimedia class are taught to look for their “story” within their assigned “leads.” Lurking underneath their reporting, there’s a compelling story to tell in words, in photos and in video. But how do they know what bits and pieces of their reporting, photography and video – the facts – will be useful in their final (creative) storytelling?

Students in CollegioMy little talk, squeezed between the more practical lessons by my colleagues on reporting, photojournalism and video, was about what makes a story. The basic elements to look for: People, people solving problems, a sense of place, action, a process. And then there’s eye candy: cute kids and cute animals. According to market research, children and pets are at the top of the list of reader appeal.

Luckily, the students I’m editing have stories with very young adorable Italian children and adorable Italian dogs and sheep. . .and even a Big Bad Wolf.

Kelsey and Eliza-Morgan have twice visited a pre-school where the children learn from being outdoors, in woods and fields. L’Albero Maestro, the school of nature, is on the ridge opposite Urbino going out toward Mt. Cesane.Albero sign

Liza and Alli are venturing further afield, to the vast high pasture lands of a shepherd named Emilio Spado, whose exquisite pecorino cheese is sold in Urbino’s specialty shops under the names of his parents’ families, Cau e Spada. His farm, about 30 km west of here into the Apennines, has some 2,500 sheep and 25 maremmani, a special breed of Sicilian sheep dog his family brought to the Marche from Sardinia in 1971. Maremane are bred to protect sheep from wolves, which are a growing presence in this part of Italy.

Before I’m their editor, I’m merely these students’ driver. Visiting these two places – so that they can produce four to six stories in various media – has been pure poetry for me. In fact, there is actual poetry connected to each place.

The name L’Albero Maestro is itself a play on words. It means “mast” in Italian – which makes me wonder if the English word is short of “master tree” – but can also mean “the teaching tree.” There’s an Italian translation from Walt Whitman on the little gate to the grassy field where the children hold their “sharing circle” and have lunch under a little pavilion. The original from Whitman is from “Song of the Open Road” (I discovered in the thin paperback of Whitman I brought here from home, for some reason): “Now I see the secret of making the best person: it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.” One of the co-directors identifies a loGinestravely yellow flower we see all over the hillside – Ginestra – and tells me there’s a famous poem about it by a 19th century Italian poet we learned about staying in his little hometown in this region – Giacomo Leopardi. His “ginestra” grows on the cinder-bleak side of Mt. Vesuvius, symbol of re-birth and the human spirit. Yet this flower, tanto meno inferma dell’uom (so much less weak than man), will be crushed again by the volcano, unable to believe, like the friars, in its bloodlines, fate and immortality. Or something like that. In English, the flower is simply “broom.”

I sent Kelsey and Eliza-Morgan a poem I think fits the school’s philosophy just right: Wordsworth’s “Ode to Intimations on Immortality.”

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended. . .

Happy manemareThen out to the green pastures of Cau and Spada, where Emilio Spada proudly serves us fresh, frothy sheep’s milk in wine goblets, still warm from the udder. With that taste commended to our tongue’s memory, he brought out five kinds of pecorino. Out of a rolled leather sleeve he drew several different kinds of knives, each one specially made for the cutting of each type of cheese, from softest to hardest. When I emailed retired professor Bob Youngblood, my Italian tutor back in Virginia, about this experience, he sent me . . . a poem. Something by Gabriele D’Annunzio. It seems to drip with sweet sadness, in golden-light September (Settembre, andiamo. È tempo di migrare.), seeing shepherds lead their flocks down from the mountains to the Adriatic.Milked sheep

Ah perché non son io cò miei pastori?

Ah, why am I not with my shepherds?

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Castle in the Clouds

We’ve all seen ruins that look ruined – the wobbly low lines of old stone that a Park Service guide or historical sign tells us are the original foundations of a 17th century church or fort. Picture broken low walls like that on about six levels of the steep crest of a mountain about 40 km from the Italian Adriatic. Us on mountainThe higher we climbed between these stone walls, along paths freshly weed-whacked (for us? – eight American journalism instructors who bring out several solicitous local dignitaries), the more ancient the history.

The top two levels are maybe 10th or 11th century – the Dark Ages. Darker still: a cave here behind a locked gate is said to have held evidence of Neandertal Man, bones and stone weapons. Of course. Life between the fall of Rome and about 1400 was Dangerous – like pre-historical life before Rome. And this rocky promontory, Monte Copiolo, was a rare Safety. Our guide calls it the Helm’s Deep of Lord of the Rings. Or at least it became Safe when a few strong military leaders in the Carpegna family (circa 10th-11th C.) and then the Montefeltro family (12th-14th C.) built this defensible Castello (“castle” in this Italian sense means walled city).

Cave on mountain

A cave near the top of Il Castello di Monte Copiolo nel Montefeltro where Neadertal remains were found.

It’s hard to imagine this as a “city.” But all the pieces are here. A church and hospital on the lowest level, for pilgrims sojourning to or from Spain’s Santiago or the Holy Land, or victims of the Black Plague. A huge cistern under Count Montefeltro’s control. A quarry (the whole mountaintop is a quarry turned into a castello). A Rocca (fort) with space for knights (Cavalieri) to assemble and drill before suffering the kind of sword-piercing we saw in skulls in the museum in the village of Montecopiolo.

As we stand on the breathtaking summit, Rusty Greene, the JMU professor with theatrical poise (he was originally a theater director and professor), holds forth with a theory. Is it possible, he asks, that the spark that lit the Renaissance began right here? Here on this patch of grass, Montefeltro could imagine the Piazza Ducale of Urbino? Here were Urbino’s walls against enemies and the houses of artisans, the Duomo and Palazzo, all in miniature. It seems a plausible theory, since our guide, University of Urbino archeology professor Daniele Sacco, had just told us that this mountaintop did serve as a prototype for Urbino, where the 15th century Frederico Montefeltro conjured up the Renaissance with painters Raphael and Piero di Francesco and philosophers and mathematicians extemporizing in the palace of Castiglione’s The Courtier.

Sacco and skull

Professor Daniele Sacco and the skull of a head-bashed knight.

But Professor Sacco, who looks like a young courtier in a Zeffirelli movie, says no. There was nothing on this mountain to prefigure the Renaissance (although plenty of lovely pottery shards in the museum below). It was all about power, he says. The Montefeltros were military overlords. What they developed at Montecopiolo was confidence in their power, their military might. So when they took over Urbino, 30 km to the southeast, they built it into a showcase for their power. The philosophers and mathematicians were summoned from Northern Europe. And the art grew from there.

I gaze at the mountains and the sea from this height. San Marino. San Leo. Gorgeous clouds and the green spring land “plotted and pierced—fold, fallow, and plow” (from Hopkins’ poem). Maybe the Renaissance, the re-birth of light out of Darkness, came from so much gazing at such beauty from such a height for two or three hundred years. In relative safety.Group on mountain

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Late night at the Urbino Jazz Club

Urbino Jazz Club, Urbino, Italy. May 28, 2019.

“Bravi! Bravi!” someone from the Japanese opera company added over the applause. The 11-piece improv ensemble had finished about 40 minutes of playing a mostly unstructured experiment in free jazz after quick rehearsal that afternoon. The ensemble had never played together before: Two percussionists (a trap set and a conga set), three guitars (one taking the bass line), two accordionists (of course; this is Italy), and four saxes (three altos and the soprano of my ieiMedia colleague Michael Gold, now playing jazz in San Francisco almost full time since retiring as a magazine consultant).

Michael at UJC

Michael Gold, at the Urbino Jazz Club

The conductor  was a famous jazz accordion player, ad-libber and showman, Simone Zanchini.

Zanchini is a triple maestro – a phenomenal technician of the accordion, a master of the classical repertoire with orchestras, and a wild showman who puts together a kind of performance art with jazz musicians of various skill levels. The performance I saw was of this sort. Zanchini didn’t play, but he kicked off the acoustical experiment – the opening section that was constructed of scratches and squeaks and rattles that each instrument could make outside its conventional musical design, each member intently listening to the others for cues that might be matched or countered. Before it began, the maestro spoke in Italian for about 10 minutes. The word I picked up on was ascoltare, or ascolti. . .to listen. They must listen to one another.

The Japanese opera company, scheduled to perform the next day in the courtyard below the Urbino Jazz Club, arrived in time to hear this introduction. About halfway through it, one of them, I think it was the wife of the Italian potter known to us, stood up confidently and began translating during a pause. Zanchini did not seem to appreciate or accommodate this. I think he told her to sit down, because that’s what she did, with calm Japanese aplomb.

After about 15 minutes of what I recognized as the kind of crazy nonsense we created under Bill Dixon at Bennington – what my mother would’ve laughed at and called “just noise” – Zanchini leaped up to the front and signaled a cue. Suddenly, in complete unison, the ensemble was blasting a half-familiar jazz tune. (I later learn: It’s Miles Davis’s “Jean Pierre,” which he based on a French lullaby.) That led to much more rhythmic improvisation, and to an original section of a couple of fast-paced ascending lines in 7/4 time, and I think 5/4. Zanchini would melt back into the dark, then rise again with wild directions, hand signals and arm-crossings, occasionally glancing down at one page of notation.

It ended with a splendid volcanic note that shook the 500-year-old wood beams overhead for at least a minute. Quite a show!

 

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Whiffs of Local History

There are other names for Lexington, Virginia, and environs, names fashioned in the minds of creative folk who lived here. A French exchange student who somehow landed at Washington and Lee University in the mid-1950s, Philippe Labro, called it Genoa, ShenandMcCormick statueoah Valley, in a nostalgic novel he wrote later, L’Étudiant étranger. Another writer, a native son who fled to New York, wrote a 2009 book of eleven short stories about “a Southern town” he called Concord, Virginia. And the textbook I assign in my news-writing class at W&L calls it Valleydale, in “Blue Ridge County,” a theater of incredible news events dreamed up by the former head of this department, where “professional education for journalism” first began in 1870 thanks to Robert E. Lee (according to the plaque just inside the door of Reid Hall).

But these are gossamer veils that barely hide the real Lexington and Rockbridge County. If you’re looking for the real thing around here, you might start by looking down.

In the sidewalks of Lexington (named in 1778; chartered as a city in 1966), you’ll find among the double-bullseye patterns of Lexington paving bricks nearly 60 granite pavers that note the “Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge.” Patsy Cline lived here, for instance. So did Admiral Byrd and General George Patton, as cadets, before they transferred out of Virginia Military Institute. But I try not to stop and read these snippets underfoot, these footnotes, as if I hadn’t heard all the stories after 16 years of living here. As if this were all reliable history.

I peer down in the ditch that construction crews are digging along East Washington Street, between the briefly controversial little cottage restaurant called The Red Hen and the Stonewall Jackson House.

I open an unlocked door, mount an unimproved stairway, and drop in on the last living 19th-century-style newspaper editor, Doug Harwood. His office is a beautiful mess, bunkered around with remaindered issues of his elegantly mischievous monthly, The Rockbridge Advocate. A scruffy, thin figure around town, he’s here at his computer, transcribing scans of handwritten Rockbridge chancery court records from the late 19th century.

Harwood is on the case again, another lode from that foggy realm of undiscovered history that he likes to publish in the back pages of his news magazine each month. “I wish I knew what I had here,” he says. It’s about a vineyard south of town in the Brushy Hills area, and to Harwood’s delight, the story involves three or four nasty lawsuits and a French winegrower, Gaspard, with a local mistress and a family back in France. Gaspard eventually acquired the vineyard from the wealthy local lawyer Elisha F. Paxton II, got tangled in the lawsuits, died and was buried in “St. Patrick’s” Catholic cemetery. That surprises Harwood because St. Pat’s, the only Catholic church in a county with about 85 Protestant churches, doesn’t have a cemetery. (There are no mosques or synagogues, and that itself is the presence of history.)

A few years ago, I researched old letters-to-the-editor in the musty back office of another local  newspaper for a book I put together with the help of student researchers, The Lexington Letters: 200 Years of Water Under the Bridge (published in Buena Vista). Another professor and I dedicated that book to Pam Simpson, then in the last weeks of her life, with cancer. Pam Simpson was a deeply knowledgeable art-history professor at W&L whose research exhumed the history of so many structures around Lexington. The W&L house of the Dean of the College, formerly called the Lee-Jackson House because both Jackson and Lee had lived there at different times, is now called the Simpson House, for Pam.

In time’s maze
over fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves.

So goes a Wendell Berry poem, “The Wild Geese.” Although he was writing about his farm in Kentucky, the poem ends with the best line for Rockbridge County: “What we need is here.”

This is from the cutting floor. It is material that Kurt Rheiheimer, editor-in-chief at Leisure Media 360, cut from a 1,500-word article I sent him. Cuts were entirely made to get the thing down to 900 words. That was the assignment.

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Me: An Introduction

George Pryde, a retired ad man who lives in Lexington, introduced my March 10 talk on Tom Wolfe to the local branch of the English Speaking Union. I told him to leave in the flattering error of saying Wolfe and I formed a lasting “friendship,” because correcting that was my lead anecdote. Actually, Wolfe gave me several clever run-arounds when I tried to get his permission to see his W&L transcripts (unlike Trump, he had nothing to hide about his academic record; he was on the dean’s list every year, turns out), and then he declined to write the intro to my book The Southern Press. Unabashed by “pryde,” I post George’s intro here. – DC

Our program topic today is the late Tom Wolfe and the “New Journalism” with which he is so closely associated.

No one is better qualified to speak about Tom Wolfe than Doug Cumming. In many ways their lives and careers have followed parallel and often intersecting paths.

Like his Richmond-born subject, Doug too is a Southern lad, a 6th generation Georgian, born in Augusta and raised in Atlanta.

Their educational backgrounds were similar – Wolfe’s undergraduate degree was in English, at Washington and Lee. Doug’s B.A. was in Literature, at Bennington College in Vermont.

George Pryde

George Pryde, in front of the R.E. Lee Hotel. (His Facebook page)

Both went on to advanced degrees in American Studies at Ivy League schools – Tom Wolfe at Yale, Doug at Brown. Doug also earned a Ph.D. In Mass Communication, at UNC-Chapel Hill.

After college both men spent several years as newspaper and magazine journalists.

Their lives intersected at W&L when Tom Wolfe made one of his frequent returns to his alma mater, where Doug had joined the Journalism Department in 2003. There the two men found they had shared interests and formed a friendship that lasted until Wolfe’s death last May.

Of course, these two men had their differences. Doug Cumming as far as I know has never appeared in white suits and spats. And Tom Wolfe, to the best of my knowledge, was not an accomplished saxophonist, equally comfortable with jazz and bluegrass traditions. By the way, you can hear Doug play most Wednesday mornings 8 to 10 am with the jam session at the undercroft of Grace Episcopal Church.

Dr. Cumming is Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communications at W&L. He currently teaches reporting, literary journalism and media history.

We are indeed fortunate to have Doug speak to us today, and to have his charming wife Libby join us.

So please welcome Doug Cumming!

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“Atlanta in search of its children”

I was working for the Providence Journal-Bulletin, stuck in a little bureau in Johnston, R.I., when I typed out a two-page proposal for why a maniacal editor named Joel Rawson should send me to Atlanta to do a story on the missing and murdered children. It was early 1981, and national newspapers, magazines and television networks were all covering what was emerging as a pattern of serial kidnappings and murders. Poor black children, mostly boys, seemed to be the victims, once police recognized a pattern. Atlanta was my hometown. It was also the hometown of a terrific staff photographer on the paper named Rachel Ritchie. I proposed that Joel send us down for a week. He did.

I finally was able to introduce myself to one of the mothers of the missing children. She had become enough of a celebrity to have a black club in Cambridge, Mass., pay for her round trip to a disco marathon to raise money for the search for the killer. But other than that pending trip, she was still mired in poverty and grief. In fact, her welfare check was reduced from $221 to $193 a month. One less mouth to feed. That’s the only note she got from her caseworker, instead of a sympathy card.

Wolfe at homeLooking back, I see Tom Wolfe’s influence all over this story. Instead of the beginning being a tight little anecdotal lead, it’s a cinemagraphic setup, much longer than usual for a newspaper story. I start with a bumpy verité lens on Mrs. Catherine Leach taking a MARTA bus from her raggedy home, Building 947, Apartment 497 in Bowen Homes to downtown for sales at Zayre’s or Sunshine department stores, or her hopeless search for menial work at the big hotels. My literary camera pans back to show Atlanta as a city for conventioneers, with a sugar-coat of Southern spring in the air.

This past week the city was alive with spring. Dogwoods and cherry trees bloom like puffs of musketry in the wooded neighborhoods. There is a softness in the air. The weather is perfect for the searches that go on every Saturday now, like the ones for Mrs. Leach’s son.

 Wolfe taught us, by the mere gossamer influence of his marvelous pieces, to set scenes and have dialog, even if it’s just remembered and we come to the over-heated foul-smelling site later.

The screen door slammed as she reached the edge of her tenement.

At that moment she heard a distant voice say, “Momma, help.” She whirled and headed back to see which one of the boys was complaining.

Opening the door, she yelled, “What do y’all want. I’m trying to find your brother.”

One of them answered, with words that froze Mrs. Leach’s insides, “Momma, we ain’t call you.”

Dear Jesus. It was a premonition she had heard. Her ears “were blazing like a ton of fire,” she recalled. It was then that she knew, even though she spent the next hour checking McDonald’s, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Thriftown, everywhere.

 I also see now the influence of Wolfe’s eye for radical chic and Mau-Mauing, the leveraging of white guilt and liberal status-preening  — although the Atlanta version was not like New York’s. I was struck by the sad comedy of a black elite that had lost touch with the vision of Martin Luther King and with Atlanta’s underclass. And I was captivated by Wolfe’s amusement with media mayhem.

Man in FullAt a press conference where I lurked behind TV crews who had no idea why they were there, a California woman in white cowboy boots and a velvet jacket took the stage to explain why “Another Mother for Peace” had come to help. She was on the verge of tears.

“I’ve been so emotional since I’ve been here,” she said apologetically. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s menopause.”

Mrs. Avedon, and an older woman with her, mentioned several causes they support: ending all wars, withdrawing support from El Salvador, letting children build a beautiful world, shifting federal dollars from MX missiles to hot lunches.

As for the missing and murdered children: “If everybody would just keep silent and just let the police think clearly,” Mrs. Avedon offered.

Later in the press conference, the black writer James Baldwin appeared. Heads turned. Reporters murmured.

“James Baldwin,” Mrs. Avedon called gleefully from her chair. “I saw you across a crowded room in a restaurant in the south of France and I said out loud, ‘That’s James Baldwin.’”

Baldwin smiled at her.

The writer of “The Fire Next Time” said he didn’t have anything specific to offer regarding the missing and murdered children. He had come to cover the event for Playboy. Still, he stood at the podium. “It has,” he said, “something to do with the end of the dream of white supremacy.”

 It only took a little patience to hang out with Mrs. Leach enough to feel more a part of her life than with the mad carnival that had formed around the idea of sympathy for the missing and murdered children. No one had thought to arrange to get her to the airport for the disco fundraising trip, so Rachel and I took her to meet someone at the airport. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be with her at the airport. It was like Tom Wolfe had written the scene. This was obviously the end of my story.

When she walked into Atlanta’s Hartfield International Airport, the long space lined with ticket counters and baggage check-in scales spread before her. She shook her head. “Hoo-wee. This floor must take about two days to mop.”

Mrs. Leach was scared – she’d never been on an airplane before – so she had loaded herself up with tranquilizers. Through a mix-up, she and a volunteer traveling companion could not get on the 3:20 p.m. flight as planned and had to wait for a 5 p.m. flight.

Sitting on a chrome and leather bench, leaning against a Plexiglas wall, Mrs. Leach folder her arms and fell asleep. Her breathing was deep and steady.

Businessmen and mothers with baby carriages and security guards and stewardesses – some wearing the symbolic green ribbons – passed by. A black man with a familiar boyish face swept by in a tailored suit, his ticket in hand. It was Julian Bond, the former Georgia state senator who made his name as a draft resister and a symbolic nominee for vice president in 1968.

No one passing by glanced at the tired black woman sitting on the bench with her head nodding downward.

 The story ran on the front page of the Sunday paper, March 29, 1981, under the headline, “Atlanta in search of its children: A tragedy, feeding on itself, becomes a media event and tragicome.”

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A Free Market Isn’t Pain Free

More than two years of Trump’s presidency have passed since I wrote this op-ed that ran in the Roanoke Times (Feb. 5, 2017). The only thing that is surprising about the last two years is that there are few surprises about Trump. The personality that Michael Cohen sketched out to Congress — an enigma, a larger-than-life mix of bad and good but underneath, a con man and a cheat — was always there for all to see.

(To update references to our three children at the end of this: Our oldest has helped build Austin Coding Academy into a profitable business; our second son is now teaching welding at the community college where he studied it; and our daughter skipped Columbia J school to deal with health issues that have put her on a more creative path of songwriting, journaling and observing the miracle of this life in our world.)

I tell people I have a great future behind me.

I learned news reporting the old-fashioned way: on-the-job training in high-energy newsrooms. I was lucky to cover a number of beats in Raleigh, Providence and Atlanta during 25 of the best years ever for American newspapers.

So why was I studying for the Graduate Record Exam, and on one cold dark morning, driving off to take this entrance exam at some obscure little strip mall? Why was I leaving Atlanta, uprooting myself, my wife and our three children, a good job and good salary, to get a Ph.D. in mass communication at UNC in Chapel Hill?

This is the way things are with free-market capitalism. The news business was changing — in many ways, for the better, but it was definitely disruptive. And I wasn’t getting any younger. So I took the leap, the cut in pay, the pain of change. A few years later, old-style newsroom refugees like me who had scaled the ivory tower were joking about newspapers as “buggy whips,” an industrial product that had been overtaken by technological and economic progress. It was interesting to study this, and welcome it, from the classroom.

All this talk now about “bringing back” good jobs in manufacturing, coal and oil production has made me wonder if some people just don’t understand the bargain we make with a healthy capitalist system. It’s a beautiful system that brings creative ideas, improved technology, competitive prices, cultural innovation, choices and economic freedom. But it can be painfully disruptive, forcing unwanted change. “Who doesn’t get this?” as Garrison Keillor put it, writing in the Washington Post about President Trump’s inaugural address.

Free-market capitalism is our winning horse. Looked at historically, there has always been something wild and dangerous about it. It has always been global, from the Industrial Revolution onward. It has always needed to be put in harness to do us good, to help the nations and to pull us in the direction we want to go. (We don’t even need the buggy whips).

Adam Smith explained the beauty of the free market’s “invisible hand,” which is the paradox of the common good being served by individuals with “moral sentiment” pursuing selfish interests. His “Wealth of Nations,” a good companion to our Declaration of Independence with both from 1776, saw the necessity of regulations — from fire codes to workers’ protections — and the need to adapt this progressive force to national interests.

Regulation has been the way we have harnessed the wild stallion of capitalism. The traces were created by 200 years of trial and error: trust-busting reforms, government inspection of meat, a check on patent medicine advertising, clean air standards, worker safety and so on. Now, the Trump administration wants to flip that around. Regulation is no longer seen as the bridle and harness on capitalism, but a stranglehold. He says we can cut 75 percent of regulations. No doubt, that will goad the powerful beast in some ways that our forebears witnessed already.

And what will be the new check on the pain that capitalism tends to cause in its creative wake? Trump wants the very thing that Adam Smith warned against, what used to be called mercantilism: isolation, tariffs and government bullying of business.

It may sound strange to call our new businessman president an enemy of free market capitalism. But that’s the way it looks, with his promise to bring back dying industries and court a trade war.

Making America great “again” is a backward longing. It’s not facing the dislocations and generative energy of the market. I know the forward look is hard and risky. But I’m proud to see that our three children, the ones I uprooted to go for my Ph.D., are facing the reality of today’s economy with courage and imagination.

One son is helping build a business in Austin teaching computer coding on a night schedule that allows older students to learn these skills without having to quit their day jobs. Another son is studying welding at a community college on the GI bill, with the goal of welding at the brave heights of cell phone towers.

And our daughter, our youngest, has been accepted at Columbia University’s School of Journalism for a master’s degree. It turns out, this is an exciting time to become a new-media journalist.

 

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Cedar Hill Church: An Oral History

Louise Mikell is an 89-year-old black woman living in Lexington, Virginia. She graduated from Morgan State University in Baltimore and received her master’s in education from George Washington University. She is considered the “unofficial historian” of both the black community of the Rockbridge area as well as Cedar Hill Church, a historic black Baptist Cedar Hill Churchchurch regularly active from 1874-1927.  Her father was a member of this church and Ms. Mikell, along with her associates, revitalized it, helping the church onto the National Register of Historic Places. Once closing down in 1927, the church had no use until 1965 when leadership, including Louise Mikell, established an annual meeting held in August to celebrate the history of this black community, which went on for fifty years.

On November 28, 2018, Ms. Mikell met with Washington and Lee freshman Nick Mosher in her home in Lexington to discuss Cedar Hill Church and her involvement with its preservation.

NM: I know you were born two years after Cedar Hill Church closed down but what caused you to become the sort of, unofficial historian of the church?

LM: Well, in 1965 the persons who were the children of the members of Cedar Hill decided to get together and open Cedar Hill and clean it up so we could have a summer place to go. And so the young people could all get there and have a chance to know something about Cedar Hill and their grandparents and great grandparents. The first group of persons who opened the church were the Ezans, Edna Johnson, John Johnson, Ophelia McCutchen, Hansford McCutchen, Alice Moore, and Sarah Cheek. They got together out there and decided they were going to clean up and fix up the church and have it as a place for the third Sunday in August for the young people to come and enjoy and have a picnic and have a service and just be together as family members. Basically, at that time the families that really participated were the Morrisons and the Johnsons and McCutchens, the Beals . . . [These] basically were the people who participated in opening the church again. And that was in 1965, so we opened the church and had activities and things for fifty years. And then during that particular period of time Ophelia McCutchen was most instrumental in putting a program together. Then after Ophelia I think it was Alice Moore who took over putting a program together for the summer program. And the date established was the third Sunday in August and that was in 1965 and then through the years Alice became the main leadership in putting the program together. And then I became the leadership in putting the program together after Alice passed . . . in 1998. But during the course of those years when I was the person pushing the program we had a lot of things that took place. The church became part of the historic preservation for the state and the National preservation. BibleWe had a lot of different persons who came to speak and we had children’s programs and persons in the family who were ministers and persons who were capable of bringing a good specialty of something they wanted to say to the group. And it was a delightful situation, we had so many people all through the county who came. It was just crowded really, and that went on for fifty years. And I guess it still could be going on but I just stopped it! [Laughs] I said I was tired of this and no one decided to pick it up! My daughter tried to pick it up . . . She did the last summer that we participated and got together. She had her husband to speak at First Baptist (the historically black church in Lexington) . . . We had the food downstairs at First Baptist because when [Cedar Hill] closed, the people all came to First Baptist because it was a Baptist church out there so they brought their membership to First Baptist.

NM: So you said the church closed in 1927 correct?

LM: Yes, in 1927.

NM: So what caused this once really popular church to close down?

 LM: Well, the black people died number one. And number two, they didn’t have a school out there for their children to go to school. And then number three, they didn’t own anything . . . and they couldn’t, they weren’t given the opportunity. So those were basic reason why the people left out there. They were working on the farms and that kind of thing. And they were making a good livelihood, but they weren’t able to own a house or anything of that nature so it was well that they made an effort to move so my father came here and bought this house and it has been in my family ever since 1915, and that happened to many families and by that time there weren’t many families left out there really.

NM: Where did a lot of them go?

LM: They came to Lexington and they joined First Baptist Church down there.

NM: What were some of the reasons for moving to Lexington?

 LM: Basically, because of the fact they couldn’t own a piece of property out there and for school, for their children and those were the basic reasons, for moving – living conditions and housing. They were looking for better situations, jobs, that kind of thing. And they joined First Baptist down there.

NM: When you revitalized the Church, was it used as a church or more of a community center?

LM: Well, we just went there one day in the year. And we would go to First Baptist and have a worship service and then have dinner in the yard and meet family and friends. It was just a great day, and it would be dark before we left. [laughs]

 NM: Would you say this celebration was a gathering of friends and family or a time to worship or would you say it was celebrating, sort of, the black community of Rockbridge County?

 LM: Well, no black people lived out there by this time.

NM: Right, sort of the history then I guess.

 LM: Yes, so we were just there to celebrate our ancestors. Because our ancestors had been living there in that community since 1840. And so we were there to sort of remember them, and meet family and friends and just have a nice day being together. And it was, it was a good day to be together. And people came from everywhere, folks came from California [laughing].

you just can’t imagine how it was, it was just wonderful really. Most of them lived away, they didn’t live here. But friends here in Lexington came too because it became a very popular day that everyone looked forward to over the summer and before.

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LM: I have books where they have written down every penny that people gave years ago, in 1830 they gave one penny! Two pennies! Whatever they had, it was just wonderful really. So that history goes on for all of those years and I don’t know what’s going to happen to Cedar Hill, it rather disturbs me really . . . I really think it ought to be a meeting house in fact it was dedicated as a meeting house and a place of worship, that’s what the idea was. And no longer black people live out there, there was once a time when a group of people wanted to rent it for a church but Edlo and I talked, oh well, it didn’t go anywhere and we didn’t get that done so now it’s just sitting there I don’t know what’s going to happen to it ‘cause I’ll be gone. [laughing]

 NM: What caused you and the rest of the leadership to choose Cedar Hill Church, I guess my question is why Cedar Hill? What was the historical significance that made it your rallying point for those who wanted to celebrate their history?

LM: Well, it was because of the fact that that’s where our people came from. That’s where they went to church. And before that church was established they had church in their homes out there, along the creek banks, along the tree line in the mountain. In fact, before they had Cedar Hill they had church on top of a high hill where the big oak tree was and they had just sat around on logs and had service. In fact, I understand there is someone buried up there, and that’s on the Harris farm and that farm belonged to John Riplogle, and he gave the land because it was right attached to his farm.

NM: Taking it back a little bit, can you tell me the origins of Cedar Hill, sort of how it came to be?

 LM: I don’t know other than John Riplogle gave that land for a church. They were having service on the mountain, under the great big oak tree. And evidence was still there some years ago. I don’t know if the evidence is still there. And the houses were all along the base of the mountain. Years ago when my father and mother used to drive out there after I got to be seven, eight, ten years old – they would point out to the mountain, the side of the mountain and their used to be old houses there where those people lived . . . They used to point out some of the names of people who lived out there. Well it was just their home! And they just tried to stay close to their homes, really.

NM: What do you hope happens to Cedar Hill?

LM: What do I think?

NM: What do you hope – or what do you think is going to happen, if those are two different answers.

LM: I don’t know what’s going to happen, I don’t know. It has been my thought that Cedar Hill Church – I tried to give Cedar Hill Church to First Baptist Church, down on Main Street. I tried to give that church to them. But of course First Baptist didn’t want it because of the fact that well, they were able to keep First Baptist. If they were able to pay the bills on First Baptist then they were lucky! So, I wasn’t able to get that done, I just always said well, First Baptist could use it as a retreat place and that kind of thing for their church and for the young people, et cetera. But now, the only thing I can see, if anyone wants to buy it, they need to sell it. Because nobody is going back out there to have service, they need to sell it to any congregation who wants it. Because of the fact that churches are churches and they are meeting places for friends in the neighborhood and the community . . . I hope it will be sold, really because the cemetery is there, and the cemetery could use the funds it got out of the church to keep it up . . . and do little things around there to make it a nicer looking place. [laughing] I don’t know what’s going to happen to it!

NM: What were the reasons behind the Church becoming a registered historic place?

AwardLM: The reasons were that it had been the religious place of worship for the group of black people who had lived in that community all of their life and it was used as a school at one time. . . . Those were the reasons that we put in the application to get a historic trust and the length of time that building has been sitting there. And that building was dedicated in 1874 but those people had been worshiping wherever they could before that building. See, that building was given to them by John Riplogle. And the first building burnt down, and they built the building that is there now because the first building was just a log cabin, in fact, it didn’t even have a floor in it I’m told, and so they built the second building and the church is in good shape!

LM: I hope this has been a help to you.

NM: It really has, thank you so much.

 

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