Bridging the Racial Divide in the Spirit of Lafayette

December 16, 2020 Journal

The following is the text from a talk given on Saturday, December 12th by Richard Ingram hosted by Racial Trustbuilding, Inc. The recorded Facebook Live can be found here

     Good morning.  I have been looking forward to talking with you.  Thank you for taking time out of your Saturday.  Curtis Brown thank you for making this happen.

     This morning I would like to present ideas to you about new ways of bringing people together.  I admit to you I find these ideas compelling.  Here is my disclosure.  Isabel Wilkerson teaches me that I am the sum of my days.  My point of view is an extract:  Air Force family with headwaters in California, Texas, Alaska, back to Texas, Germany, Tennessee, on to Alabama, finally to Georgia.  I have been in school most of my life, one way or the other.  My coat of arms is the multiple choice question.  That’s how I see the world:  boil down the options, choose, move.  But it is not the only way of seeing the world.  I have read Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Alex Haley and Malcolm X, and more recently Richard Rothstein and Isabel Wilkerson.  Granted, reading about it is not the same as living it, but it is on the road of understanding.  You come closer and closer to the mark.  Understanding points of view is, it seems to me, about perseverance, patience, and paying attention.  I am mindful of Paul’s admonition to the Hebrews:  “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand.”  So, I value your thoughts on these ideas.  Here is my disclaimer:  in the end this may turn out mostly intellectual exercise, but I see a dream that could walk.  These ideas will need unpacking; it’ll take a little time.  We’ll talk ideals, theoretical framework, Lafayette, missions, and the task.  Throughout, I’ll take a moment for you to get your breath and comment.  [Any questions or comments thus far?]  Let’s launch.

     You and I are here this morning to talk about “Bridging the Racial Divide in the Spirit of Lafayette,” which is to say you and I are here this morning because we are pulling for America to achieve its ideals.  Bridging the Racial Divide in the Spirit of Lafayette is a work toward ideals.  It is that simple, that hard, and that bold.  Ideals in the Declaration of Independence.  The Preamble to the Constitution.  The Gettysburg Address.  1619.  Here is why 1619 is in that compendium of ideals and why I think that story deserves attention.  The first ever representative governing body in America, the General Assembly, met in the choir of the newly built church at Jamestown from July 30 to August 4, 1619, for the purpose of enacting “just laws.”  That same month the English privateer “White Lion” anchored off Point Comfort, Virginia, with as John Rolfe said, “20 and odd Negroes.”  This was an inflection point.  Here was “Contingency” bold.  A choice made.  People were so engaged in the assembly line of personal pursuits.  No one it seems took an “Undistracted Moment” to think through the irony of “just laws,” on the one hand, and human bondage on the other.  I think every American ought to have in their pocket a medallion, one side of which says “Contingency:  Own Up to It” and the other, “Undistracted Moment:  Reserved for Ideals.”  It needs to be a medallion smooth, with a sheen that makes you want to show it off.

     And just what are these ideals?  It is a package.

  1.  First Principles:  Liberty, Equality, and Justice, the three great ideas we act on.
  2. The two things required for Democracy to flourish:  Respect and Reciprocity.
  3. The two things on which Character thrives:  Courage from which according to Aristotle all the other virtues flow; Cicero disagrees and says it is Gratitude.  Who am I to argue.  I include both since Courage and Gratitude amount to Backbone with Humility.

     Ideals must have boots on the ground.  Those boots are in the mission of Bridging the Racial Divide.  How do we Bridge the Racial Divide right here, on our own doorstep?

     Here is the theoretical framework for this proposal.  

     In 1954 Harvard Professor Gordon Allport published “The Nature of Prejudice.”  He proposed the “Intergroup Contact Model.”  Over 515 studies have since over seventy years verified his findings.  The Intergroup Contact Model says, using terms of sociology, Trust builds between an in-group and an out-group when they work together.  But there are four conditions necessary to optimal trust building:  1.  In-group and Out-group must work together as equals, that is, at a round table, where every opinion counts.  2.  Work together as equals cooperatively.  3.  Work together as equals cooperatively on a common task.  4.  Work together as equals cooperatively on a common task in service to community; a common task which the community endorses.

     This begs the question:  “What task?”  Whatever it is it must involve a lot of people, in-group and out-group; it ought to challenge their moral imagination and their literary imagination; it must remind them of those soaring ideals; and it must elevate LaGrange and Troup County.

     I will tell you what the task is in a moment, but since the Spirit of Lafayette is at the heart of it, let’s talk about what the Spirit of Lafayette means.  [Take a moment.  Questions?  Comments?]  The Spirit of Lafayette is Liberty, Equality, and Justice.  It is Respect and Reciprocity.  It is Courage and Gratitude.  That image in downtown LaGrange is the visual for these soaring ideals.  I think we underestimate the value of Lafayette on Lafayette Square.  Let me tell you what I mean.

     Mr. Brown, can you show the flyer announcement.  Look at the statue.  See what Lafayette holds in his right hand.  This is the Liberty Cockade.  Lafayette designed it.  The people of Paris stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789.  It was an aging fortress used as a prison and it represented the tyranny of monarchy.  The next day King Louis XVI appointed his most popular general, the one who had the confidence of the people, as commander of the Paris National Guard.  That general would be the Marquis de Lafayette.  Lafayette coined the term “National Guard.”  He searched for a unifying symbol and came up with the idea of the Liberty Cockade, a red, white, and blue circular, pleated ribbon.  The white represented the monarchy, the red and blue the people of Paris.

     Lafayette believed people were capable of governing themselves.  He staked his fortune and his reputation on it.  Four days before the fall of the Bastille, on July 11, 1789, he introduced to the French National Assembly the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.  The first article reads, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”  This was adopted in August and was effectively the beginning of the end of monarchy in France.  This same year 1789 Thomas Clarkson, a well-known abolitionist from England, came to Paris to work with Lafayette to persuade the National Assembly to abolish the slave trade in the French West Indies, especially Saint-Domingue, present day Haiti.  Clarkson later wrote that Lafayette told him, “I would never have drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery,” which also said that he believed America would live up to its ideals.  On May 11, 1791, Lafayette spoke to the National Assembly arguing that free men of color in the colonies ought to have voting privileges and the right to be seated in colonial assemblies.  Colonists on Saint Domingue were infuriated and refused to honor the decree.  This touched off what is now known as the Haitian Rebellion.

     Lafayette tried to mediate between monarchists who wanted no part of a constitution, and Jacobins who wanted no part of monarchy.  He knew the value of Respect and Reciprocity.  At its height in the Reign of Terror, sixty people a day were guillotined.  Robespierre invited Lafayette to be guillotined in August, 1792.  Lafayette crossed the border into Austria, logically concluding he could do no good dead.  He was captured by the Austrians and held as a prisoner of state for five years, part of it in solitary confinement.  This amounted to his “Undistracted Moment,” time he spent thinking things through.  It was time he took to fill in the blank page.  For the rest of his life he would be the Apostle of Liberty.  That was the purpose to which he would dedicate himself.  And he read.  He was a reader.  That, to me, is a big deal.  “The Encyclopidie,” by Diderot, and “Clarissa,“ by Samuel Richardson, which at a million words is the twelfth longest novel ever written; “War and Peace,” by comparison, is 500,000 words, and the 32nd longest novel on the list of longest all time novels.  Three years into his confinement, a knock on his door and his wife Adrienne is there.  “My place is with you,” she said.  Adrienne was a force.  Her story has not been told.  Through all this, imprisoned, destitute, all his lands and fortune having been confiscated by the French government, Lafayette maintained his sense of gratitude and optimism.  And his sense of decency.  He was forever concerned about fellow prisoners and their well-being.

     Napoleon himself negotiated Lafayette’s release, but feared his popularity.  Napoleon did not permit Lafayette to return to France for three years.  By that time Adrienne had retrieved her family’s estate, Chateau de LaGrange.  Lafayette became a farmer and a philosopher at LaGrange.  “I read.  I study.  I examine.  I listen.  I reflect, and out of all this I try to form an idea into which I put as much common sense as I can.”  Lafayette knew the value of “Undistracted Moments.”  They were preparation for “Contingency.”

     He supported independence movements, not only in North America, but Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece, and South America.  Simon Bolivar, responsible as The Liberator for six South American countries, called Lafayette the icon of Liberty.

     In 1830 Lafayette could have installed himself as dictator of France.  He refused, on grounds that it was not what Liberty, Equality, and Justice were all about; it was not in keeping with the ideas of Respect and Reciprocity; and it was not in the nature of Courage and Gratitude.

     When Lafayette was 67 years old, after Adrienne died (he never remarried), Congress and President James Monroe invited the last Founding Father to visit America as the Nation’s Guest.  Lafayette arrived on August 15, 1824.  It was a Sunday, the Sabbath.  Sensitive to this, he entered New York instead on Monday, August 16, 1824, to begin his Farewell Tour.  Recall the ticker tape parades down the Canyon of Heroes in Manhattan:  Lafayette was the first.  More people showed up to see Lafayette than showed up to see the Beatles in the 1960’s.  For thirteen months he visited all twenty-four states.  Crowds everywhere.  From March 19 through March 31, 1825, he visited Georgia.  Savannah, Augusta, Warrenton, Sparta, Milledgeville, Macon, then across the Chattahoochee at Fort Mitchell and into Alabama.  It was here that Colonel Julius Caesar Alford is said to have heard Lafayette comment that this land reminded him of LaGrange.  Perhaps apocryphal, but a good story, and the source of LaGrange, Georgia’s, name.

     On October 19, 1824, Lafayette visited Yorktown, Virginia, still on his Farewell Tour, to celebrate the Battle of Yorktown, the one that ended the American Revolutionary War.  From his carriage he recognized James Armistead in the crowd.  James had been a slave.  He volunteered to serve under Lafayette’s command at Yorktown more than forty years before.  He, James, penetrated British lines.  He found out that Lord Cornwallis planned to fortify the deep water port at Yorktown, which allowed Lafayette to deploy his meager forces judiciously, to surround Cornwallis until Washington and Rochambeau could arrive.  And in a twist worthy of theater, Cornwallis recruited James to spy on Lafayette.  James was a double agent.  But he saw something in Lafayette.  His loyalty was to Lafayette.  Visiting Lafayette’s tent after the surrender, Cornwallis saw James there and knew he had been had.  Lafayette wrote a testimonial for James which prompted the Virginia legislature to grant him freedom.  Thereafter, he called himself James Lafayette.  After forty years, James came to Yorktown just to see Lafayette.  Lafayette recognized him, decamped from his carriage and embraced an old friend.  Mr. Brown, please put that flyer back up.  The painting on the right is “Lafayette at Yorktown,” 1782 by Jean-Baptiste Le Paon.  The stylized man of African descent to Lafayette’s left is said to be James Lafayette, although there is no proof of this.  Thank you, we can take it down.

     Lafayette similarly greeted African-American veterans of the War of 1812 at New Orleans on his Farewell Tour.  In Philadelphia he made a point of visiting 101 year old Hannah Till, who had been his chef at Yorktown.  Told her rent was in arrears and she was at risk of being evicted, he paid it up.

     Lafayette told James Madison he had three passions.  To see the Franco-American alliance strong.  To see the United States strong.  And to see slaves freed.  He expressed this opinion to Washington, Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton, among many others.

     Lafayette wrote  an eight page letter to Washington on February 5, 1783.  In the middle of it and without any warning, Lafayette proposed that he and Washington do something that “might become greatly beneficial to the Black Part of Mankind.”  He proposed that the two of them go in together, buy a plot of land, and on it pay slaves for their labor, educate them, outlaw corporal punishment, and when they had gotten their footing, free them.  With Washington’s prestige, Lafayette argued, this could become a template; and if so, he promised he would expand the project to the French West Indies.  Lafayette spent two weeks at Mt. Vernon in the fall of 1784.  Surely the two of them talked about the project, but there is no record of it.  On February 6, 1786, Lafayette wrote Washington that he had done it.  He purchased three plantations for 125,000 livres in Cayenne, French Guiana, South America.  La Gabrielle it was called.  Seventy slaves.  He put his plan in operation.  Pay them.  Educate them.  No corporal punishment.  Then free them.  When Lafayette was distracted by the French Revolution, Adrienne stepped up to manage La Gabrielle.  It all came crashing down when Lafayette was captured.  La Gabrielle, too, was confiscated.  He supported a strong willed woman, Fanny Wright, some thirty years later in her pursuit of a similar plan in 1825, near Memphis, called Nashoba.

     Lafayette did not come to his view of the world overnight.  He was born on September 6, 1757, at his family’s estate the Chateau de Chavaniac, in the Auvergne, south central France.  Mountainous, wooded, rural.  Lafayette as a boy had the run of it.  I think the land had much to do with how he saw the world; it imparted a sense of freedom.  No helicopter parents.  His father died when he was two at the Battle of Minden.  His mother died when he was twelve.  The inheritance made him wealthy, but he was never defined by his fortune.  He was raised by his paternal grandmother, who was kind and respected.  She told him the stories that made him want to do something in service to community.  He became a Latin scholar, reading Cicero’s “On Morals,” and Plutarch’s “Lives.”
     The pump was primed.  He wanted to stand for ideals.  He was captain in the French Army of the East stationed in Metz.  Tuesday, August 8, 1775, when he was seventeen.  Here he first heard about merchants and farmers in America fighting for independence.  That, he decided, would be his work, to fight with America for its independence.  The motto on his coat of arms he made “Cur Non!” or “Why Not!”  Against the wishes of his King and his father-in-law, he bought La Victoire and landed on North Island, South Carolina, June 13, 1777, when he was nineteen.  The first Americans he met were slaves.  He was commissioned Major General in the Continental Army.  He fought at Brandywine, where he was wounded in the left calf, Gloucester, Barren Hill, Monmouth, Rhode Island, and finally, Yorktown.  At Yorktown he commanded the American right wing, Alexander Hamilton under his command.

     Lafayette believed in the ideals of America and that she would live up to them.  This is the bar he set:  “The welfare of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she will become the respectable and safe asylum of virtue, integrity, tolerance, equality, and peaceful liberty.”

     That’s the story.  That is the Spirit of Lafayette.  [Take a moment.  Questions?  Comments?]

     That statue downtown is legacy.  It stands for story and the story stands for ideals.

     The Lafayette Alliance thinks it would be a good thing if visitors come to Lafayette Square and get reacquainted with our highest aspirations, in the Spirit of Lafayette.

     The mission of TrustBuilding, Inc. is to bridge the racial divide in Troup County through trust building, research, community collaboration and action, in order to remove barriers that prevent full access to opportunities for all.

     The mission of the Lafayette Alliance is to Inspire, to Illuminate, and to Unite, all in the Spirit of Lafayette.

     Here, then, is the proposal.  It sets forth a single task that answers both missions.  But it is a monumental task.  This is the task on which our missions converge.

     The Lafayette Alliance proposes that we work together to make LaGrange and Troup County a regional destination for visitors to come and Learn Lafayette.  Keep in mind Lafayette Inspires; he Illuminates; and he Unites; therefore, the Spirit of Lafayette connects to whatever and whomever inspires.  To 1619, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, and Martin Luther King.  There is room enough here for broadening our scope of moral imagination and literary imagination.  The image downtown gives us a palpable visual as an anchor, as a brand.

     This task will take people with cerebral dexterity and people with manual dexterity.  It will take people to be on steering committees, operational committees, subcommittees, and sub-subcommittees.  That is a lot of people.

     Diversity and inclusion, people from in-group and out-group, will be a focal drive:  people of all walks, in contact, working on this common task.  Every committee, subcommittee, and sub-subcommittee will as matter of course recruit members to reflect community variety.  This is a civic enterprise and we are told most Americans today prefer bowling alone; therefore, a recruiting committee may be charged with the responsibility of finding and encouraging engagement in the common task.  This is at the heart of TrustBuilding.  This is civic renewal.  This thread also includes an emphasis on inviting visitors from minority communities often absent from such activity.  The hosts, those greeting visitors, likewise ought to reflect this thrust.

     This task will require a publicity arm and a social media arm.  Getting the word to Richmond, Tallahassee, and New Orleans, will take imagination, creativity, and innovation.

     The task will need a commercial arm, some means by which it pays its own way and is self-sustaining.

     Visitors come.  They see Lafayette on Lafayette Square.  Then what?  They must have things to do “In the Spirit of Lafayette.”  Under the umbrella of “Things to Do” are four categories.  First, Theater and performance; second, Theme Park, including games, rides, and contests; third, eats; and fourth, souvenirs and crafts.  Consider these examples, built from scratch by people working together.  Better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation, said Herman Melville, but either way works.  There are only five ways to tell a story:  speak it; sing it; stage it; craft it; or write it.  Here are examples of what might be done:

  1.  Theater:  Local playwrights encouraged and recruited to write historical drama; nonprofessional amateurs to edit and grow it; then produce it in conventional venues, but also on makeshift stages in neighborhoods, akin to regional theater.  Lafayette and James Armistead.  Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.  Liberty, Equality, and Justice.  Respect and Reciprocity.  Courage and Gratitude.
  2. Lafayette Block Festival:  On Bull Street and in neighborhoods.  For example, one station with speed chess where each player gets three minutes and their score multiplied depending on how many Jeopardy-like questions they answer correctly about Lafayette.  Twenty stations total, each with a different activity, each Lafayette connected:  ball and cup; ring toss; dodgeball; basketball around the world; bowling; hatchet throwing; laser geography challenge; and fencing, to name a few.  Each station must be attractively designed, with a host to interact and keep things going.
  3. Lafayette Dessert Tasting and Lafayette LaGrange Flambe Competition.
  4. Lafayette Bowtie Tutorial and Speed Tying Competition.
  5.  Lafayette Songwriting and Performance Competition.
  6. Lafayette Bicentennial Farewell Tour Celebration 2024-2025.
  7. One or two day seminars for the history-minded on Lafayette, the American Revolution, Jamestown, 1619, or the Great Migration.  LaGrange College could play an important role, but amateur history buffs locally, willing to take a tutorial on how to present interestingly, would be encouraged.
  8. Lafayette-related menus at restaurants with Storytelling Performers at the restaurants during a Lafayette Week.

     LaGrange College could direct us as to how to quantify TrustBuilding, perhaps by way of questionnaires for volunteers and visitors, and publish the results.

     If we get a pattern down, other cities and towns may want to emulate it, like a franchise.  In which case seminars and tutorials would answer, perhaps supporting the self-sustaining philosophy idea.

     Let us call the whole of this task The Cur Non! Project.

     There you have it.  The task on which both missions converge:  The Cur Non! Project.

     TrustBuilding to bridge the racial divide in Troup County by way of work to Inspire, to Illuminate, and to Unite, all in the spirit of Lafayette.

     I’m curious to know your thoughts.  As Lafayette said when he first arrived, “I’m here to learn.”  Professor Brown.

[Organizationally consider a steering committee from which the following flow:

  1.  Lafayette Theater and Performance
  2. Lafayette Block Festival
  3. Lafayette Farewell Tour Bicentennial
  4. Lafayette Eats
  5. Lafayette Souvenirs and Crafts
  6. Lafayette Publicity
  7. Lafayette Social Media
  8. Lafayette Development
  9. Lafayette Commercial Arm]