Vine Street Connection 2014

Vine Street Connection 07-26-2014The second Vine Street Connection reunion was held July 25-27. I was late getting into Cape on Friday, so I missed the fish fry at Capaha Park, but I did manage to attend the dinner and dance Saturday night and the picnic at North County Park on Sunday.

I recognized quite a few folks from the first reunion two years ago and had interviewed others for the Smelterville: Community of Love book and video I’m working on. I’m usually pretty detached when I’m covering something, but there were at least three instances that really moved me this weekend.

The first came when Brenda Newbern called forward all those in the audience who had served in the military or who were presently serving. While they were coming up, she delivered this speech:

I don’t know about you, but when I was young and watched the movies about the war and how the “colored” soldiers were treated I wondered why would you go fight and risk your life for a country that doesn’t want to count you as a human. Doesn’t want to give you a proper uniform or shoes and doesn’t think you are intelligent enough to be an officer or fly an airplane and don’t even think you are going to get equal pay. Oh my word, not you!!

I asked my dad why he went to fight and he never really gave me an answer. Because I believe it was a deep-rooted conviction that those men had to show the world just who and what they were made of. And to say this is my country too!! But as I grew older and watched the same movies and saw how God would set things up to prove all of the ASSUMPTIONS WRONG!! I began to ask the question:

What if there was no 54th Massachusetts Infantry that produced the likes of Col. Robert Gould Shaw and took the battle to the assault on Fort Wagner.

What if they had not served in World War I & II? 179,000 Black Men served in the Civil War (10% of the Union Army). 19,000 served in the Navy. 40,000 Black soldiers died over the course of the war.

Buffalo Soldiers

What if there were no Buffalo Soldiers building forts and maintaining order on the frontier?

Vine Street Connection picnic 07-27-2014What if there were no Tuskegee Airmen and Capt. Benjamin Davis, Jr. who would become the first African American Air Force General

What if there was no Major Martin Robison Delany, the first Field Officer in the US Army; or First Lt. Vernon J Baker, who was awarded the Medal of Honor in the battles in Italy, or General Daniel “Cappie” James, Jr. who became the full general commander of the North American Air Defense Command!

AND, WHAT IF there were NONE OF YOU!!!!

Each of you served your country and left your families, placed your life on the line and did it with dignity and honor. We as a black people may be proud and know that you did this to represent each and every one of us and for that I say “Thank you!” When I salute the flag and say the pledge it will be to remember all of you and those that have served before you that I may be free. May God Bless You and May God continue to Bless America.

We Shall Overcome

Vine Street Connection 07-26-2014The second came when the group stood and sang We Shall Overcome. I’ve heard Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul & Mary sing it live, and I’ve been a dozens of marches and protests where it was sung, but hearing the Vine Street folks sing it, and knowing some of the things they had to overcome in Cape Girardeau suddenly made the song meaningful to me. It will never be “just a folk song” again.

[Editor’s note: they aren’t singing We Shall Overcome in this photo. They didn’t need a song sheet for THAT anthem.]

“The Walkers bought them”

Vine Street Connection picnic 07-27-2014While waiting for the bulk of folks to show up for the picnic, I was talking with some men. The inevitable question of “Where are you from?” came up. One of them said, “My ancestors arrived in New York. That’s where the Walkers bought them.” He started to talk about where they went from there.

I put up my hand and said, “You just sent a shiver down my spine. It’s one thing to think about slavery in the abstract, but when I’m standing next to a man who says of his family, ‘and that’s where the Walkers bought them,’ it suddenly becomes real.”

Plenty of books left over

Rough draft of Smelterville book by Ken Steinhoff 07-17-2014

There are plenty of copies of Smelterville: Community of Love left over. I’ll be dropping some of them off at Annie Laurie’s Antique Shop at the corner of Broadway and Frederick. They are $20 each. They will also be available by mail, but I’m going to have to work out how much the postage is after the recent increase.

Vine Street Connection Portraits

Most of these photos were taken at the picnic on Sunday. Lighting conditions at the dinner and dance were horrible, so I didn’t shoot many pictures there. Click on any photo to make it larger, then use your arrow keys to move through the images. Because there are so many images, it make take longer to load than usual.

Smelterville’s Billy and Margaret

In the spring of 1967, I had a Missourian assignment to shoot a cleanup in Smelterville – called South Cape or South Cape Suburb in Missourian style. I mentioned in an earlier blog post that I used that as an excuse to wander around the community taking pictures of kids, adults, homes and piles of trash.

When I unearthed the photos a couple of years ago and started showing them around, I realized I had half a treasure: I needed to track the subjects down to see what had happened to them. I kept following promising lead after promising lead until this weekend when I struck pay dirt.

Family reunions

I was lucky enough to be in town for the First Annual Vine Street Connection and a reunion of the pioneer families of Smelterville: the Turners, Phifers, Wrens, Beals, Robinsons, Underwoods, etc.

My biggest break was sitting down with Fay Beal Powders, who is related to almost everybody I had photographed in the ’60s and knew most of the rest. One of my subjects was her mother. It was the only photograph of her she had ever seen. “I had the picture in my car and I had to pull off the road twice because I was so overcome by emotion,” she said.

On Saturday, she tracked down the adult versions of the two kids with the cat.

Here is her brother Billy (it’s Bill now, he says pointedly) Beal and his first cousin Margaret Turner. The cat, I was told, had exhausted all nine of its lives long ago and wasn’t available

Title is going to change

I’m going to turn the project into a book. The couple dozen prototypes with me were snatched up as quickly as I could hand them out. Even if it doesn’t make it into general circulation, there are a lot of folks who like to remember the caring, tight-knit community they grew up in. I wish I had spent more time documenting it.

My working title – Smelterville: The Shame of Cape – is going to change. Everyone I talked with was confused. “We weren’t ashamed,” they pointed out.

I had to explain that the shame was that Cape Girardeau would neglect a part of town in a way that would never have been acceptable north of Tollgate Hill.

I’ve heard some wonderful and moving stories in the past week and I have a list of more folks I have to interview. You’ll be hearing a lot about Smelterville as  work my way through it.