J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Tom Feelings and Revolutionary Black History

I had the honor of meeting the artist Tom Feelings shortly before his death in 2003 when I drove him to a writers’ conference in New Hampshire.

Feelings was then speaking about his monumental book of drawings depicting the transatlantic slave trade, The Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo. He had earlier illustrated such award-winning children’s books as To Be a Slave by Julius Lester and Moja Means One by Muriel Feelings.

Feelings’s career as an illustrator spanned nearly half a century. On returning from service in the Air Force in 1958, he created a comic strip for the New York Age, a Harlem weekly. At a time when mainstream American culture ignored almost all of African and African-American history, Tommy Traveler: In the World of Negro History put those stories in front of young black readers.

In 1991 Black Butterfly Books collected several series of Feelings’s strip, had them colored and relettered, and published them in picture-book form. The new title was Tommy Traveler in the World of Black History. That volume is now out of print, but some libraries still have copies.

Tommy is a young black boy who’s read all of his local library’s books on black history. The librarian sends him across town to Doctor Gray, who has an extensive library. Tommy starts reading, and “with his active imagination he quickly slides into another world,” ending up alongside various historical figures. Two stories in the Tommy Traveler collection take place during the American Revolution.

The strip began by taking Tommy to New York in 1776 for an eight-page story set at the Fraunces Tavern. In the mid-1900s there was a widespread belief that its proprietor, Samuel Fraunces, was of African descent. That was evidently based on his nickname, “Black Sam”; his birth in the Caribbean; and his work as a caterer. But at a time when black men were labeled “Negro” in legal documents, there’s no corroboration that Fraunces was black, and his portrait shows a pale man.

The story starts with Tommy meeting the tavern-keeper’s daughter, Phoebe. Again, there’s no evidence Samuel Fraunces had a daughter of that name. She first appeared in a story in the January 1876 Scribner’s Monthly Magazine, inspired by a tale that Benson J. Lossing had told sixteen years earlier. Thus, in depicting Samuel and Phoebe Fraunces as part of African-American history, Feelings was retelling a myth, but one that many earlier authors had already presented as true.

In Feelings’s version, Tommy sees that Phoebe has fallen in love with a soldier named Tom Hickey, a deserter from the British Army to the Continentals. Gen. George Washington is also staying at Fraunces’s inn (as in Lossing, but not in historical sources). Hickey gives Phoebe a poisoned pear to feed to the general, but—warned by Tommy—she knocks it out of the general’s hand just before he eats it. (Lossing wrote that the poison was in a dish of peas.) Hickey goes to the gallows, as his real-life equivalent did in 1776.

Later in this collection, Tommy travels to 1770 for a fourteen-page story. Working on a ship called the Romney, he meets Crispus Attucks. This black man turns out to be a political leader on the streets of Boston, calling meetings and announcing such things as: “Otis is right. Stand up and fight for your rights!” The crowd roars back, “Lead us and we’ll follow!

Again, Feelings’s depiction reflects how the few African-American history books published at that time portrayed Attucks. They showed him as a leader of the crowd—which he was on the night of 5 Mar 1770, according to other men’s testimony, but which he probably wasn’t when it came to political organization. The comic strip doesn’t mention Attucks’s Native American heritage. Indeed, the character speaks of being “sold into slavery when I was just a young boy.”

Attucks’s protests against Crown taxes lead to a fight against mitred grenadiers. Captain Preston orders a soldier named Montgomery to capture “that tall, dark fellow” as the crowd’s leader. Instead, the soldiers fire their guns, killing Attucks and other men. Tommy identifies his friend by name to Lt. Gov. Hutchinson, adding, “His beliefs won’t ever die. Someday we will have our independence, someday…”

Other stories in this volume profile Aesop, Joe Louis, Frederick Douglass, and Emmet Till (killed only three or four years earlier). In the eighteenth-century tales, the clothing and hair styles (especially women’s) are a hodgepodge of past fashions rather than appropriate for the 1770s. The stories are dreadfully didactic. As for the art, Feelings was talented but not yet practiced. All in all, Tommy Traveller is interesting as a period piece—a snapshot from early in the modern civil-rights era of how African-Americans were making their rightful claim to have been part of western civilization all along.

About a decade after Tommy Traveler ran its course, Feelings returned to the story of Crispus Attucks in the comic book Golden Legacy. Bertram Fitzgerald developed that series, he stated, to “implant pride and self-esteem in Negro youth while dispelling myths in others.” The third issue is titled “Crispus Attucks and the Minutemen.” (Other issues cover Toussaint L’Ouverture, Benjamin Banneker, and figures from other historical eras.) Reprints are still available. I haven’t seen the Attucks issue, but I assume it reflects the same understanding of the Boston Massacre as in Tommy Traveler.

In depicting African-American history, Feelings’s masterpiece remains The Middle Passage.

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