Author Lauret Savoy Explores Link Between Racial History And Place
America’s history is the history of its people, and according to author Lauret Savoy, the history of the people is connected directly to the land. Savoy is a teacher, earth scientist, writer, photographer, and pilot as well as a woman of mixed African American, Euro-American and Native American heritage.
Savoy moved across the country when she was young, leaving her beloved California for Washington D.C. It changed the way she thought about life and race relations. “It was a move away from joy to a move to difficulty because we moved at the time there were riots in Washington D.C.,” Savoy says. “And it was when [we] moved east that I learned about hatred and I learned that people hated but the land never hated. And the land proceeded hate.”
As she became an adult, she decided to explore her family history after realizing she knew little about her family’s past. Savoy’s latest book is Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape. It’s a mosaic of historical and personal inquiries and Savoy’s discoveries as she traveled across the continent, including a stop in Oklahoma.
“I went [to Boley, Oklahoma] because I thought there might be a personal connection. I had been told by an elder cousin of my mother's that ancestors were in Oklahoma,” Savoy says. “That they were either black Creek or black Cherokee.”
Savoy continues to explore her family’s past and the connection between everyday life and the physical space people occupy.
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On Returning To Fort Huachuca To Connect With Her Mother
I have photographs that were taken at the time when she was there. One of them in particular showing a young Vivian Savoy in full military dress sitting on a step in bright light looking present. And that shutter-click moment was the present. And I suspect I wanted to go back there just to find that present moment again even though more than half a century has passed. What I found were perhaps traces of her there, but more concretely at the national archives, traces written by military personnel, African American, claiming cases of discrimination multiple times. And letters written by a young army nurse contemplating suicide because she felt that this was such a racist environment. So it gave me a sense of where she was and being there gave me a clear sense of that place.
On How Technology Affects People’s Connection To The Land
The land or this continent perhaps is considered a stage on which we act and move about. And given technological improvements into the 20th century and today, including transportation, it gives the illusion of rootlessness. That we can just go anywhere we want, as quickly as we want. It may have taken months for people to cross the continent on the Oregon Trail, but we can do it in hours to days. And it also gives the illusion of rootlessness in the sense that you could ask a person, "Where does your food come from?" And they'll say, "The supermarket."
On Traveling As A Way To Explore Family History
I began to search for origins that went beyond just my parents to something deeper because I had grown up in a family that spoke very little of it's past, of its origins... I'm a person of mixed heritage. I'm African American and my mother was, she's also passed away, very dark-skinned, brown skin, dark eyes. My father essentially could, and I think it's ridiculous to say it this way, but he could pass for white. And I wanted to understand where they came from. And not only in address, but how their families over time crossed this land and how the history of this land touched them because in the end, that's how I came to be. And I needed to know that and a journey across the country was a way to begin it.
MERELYN BELL, HOST: I want to start by asking you a question about the very beginning of your book. It begins with you as a child, standing with your family on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Why were you there as a young girl? And why did you feel that that moment in time was the right place to start your book?
LAURET SAVOY: I was seven years old at that point and my parents were returning home to what for them was a very familiar and familial east. It was where their families lived and my home lay behind us on the Sunset Coast in California where I was born at what I like to call "the elastic limit" of my father's last attempt to craft a life far from Washington D.C., which is where his family is from generations and generations. And I had never been to a place like the Grand Canyon before. And because we were leaving California, which I had defined as home the way a small child does, to a place that I did not want to go to. I tried to hold on to every aspect of the west that I could on the way. And at that point, the place was called Point Sublime, a very remote point, at dawn, I really the saw the possibility in light, texture, home and I held on to it as long as possible. Because what I came to realize afterward was that history began for me. This was the move from the West Coast to the East Coast and it was a move away from joy to a move to difficulty because we moved at the time there were riots in Washington D.C. And it was when moved east that I learned about hatred and I learned that people hated but the land never hated. And the land proceeded hate. So, in many ways, the memory of that time there, and what we found, shaped me then and it's still shapes me. And it was in some ways the point that put me on the path to the journey to write this book and so it seemed to make sense to begin the book there.
BELL: So decades later you decided to cross the US again, this time on a solo trip. What were you hoping to gain by journeying across the country a second time?
SAVOY: Well, I've traveled across the country alone a few times, but the second time I was a young adult and at that point my father had been dead for a long time. He died when I was 16. And I still did not have a clear sense of what home was. And where I belonged in this United States. And because I had always held in my heart California and the west, I was trying to return there. But what I realized in part in the journey is that what I was trying to return to was not only the land but that time. And that time was passed. And so I began to search for origins that went beyond just my parents to something deeper because I had grown up in a family that spoke very little of it's past, of its origins. And what's important to recognize, and you noted this at the beginning, I'm a person of mixed heritage. I'm African American and my mother was, she's also passed away, very dark-skinned, brown skin, dark eyes. My father essentially could, and I think it's ridiculous to say it this way, but he could pass for white. And I wanted to understand where they came from. And not only in address but how their families over time crossed this land and how the history of this land touched them because in the end, that's how I came to be. And I needed to know that and a journey across the country was a way to begin it.
BELL: So one of the first stops on this journey...or maybe it wasn't the first, but one of the stops along the journey I should say... One of the first stops you mention in the book is in Boley, Oklahoma. And I wondered if you could read a brief passage for us that gives a sense of the historical significance of that town.
SAVOY: "Although it appeared that I-40 had sucked the life from Highway 62 in rural east-central Oklahoma, the road sign was enough to draw me in. Welcome to Boley: Largest African American Town. Founded in 1903. Boley Rodeo Memorial Weekend. And the historical marker clinched it: Boley. Creek Nation. Indian Territory. Established as an All-Black Town on land of Creek Indian Freedwoman Abigail Barnette. The wide main street was empty of cars. The stone and brick buildings lining it more boarded up than not. I almost didn't stop. But at Boley's Community Center, I met Mrs. M. Joan Matthews, Mayor and her sister, Mrs. Henrietta Hicks. They gave me a tour of the town museum and from these generous women and other residents I learned that Boley began as a rural community of Creek freed people following the Civil War. Formally established as a town after the turn of the 20th Century, it quickly became a (going concern) with more than 4,000 residents." In Boley, I learned, became one of more than 30 All-Black towns in the state of Oklahoma, or what would become the state of Oklahoma. All of them trying to become autonomous farm-supported communities. And I went there because I thought there might be a personal connection. I had been told by an elder cousin of my mother's that ancestors were in Oklahoma. That they were either black Creek or black Cherokee, but beyond that I had nothing. I knew nothing. And the sign drew me in and I just thought, "Let me talk with these people. And maybe even if I don't know specifics about my family, it might give me a hint on how I could find out."
BELL: A few paragraphs later you mention the warm and welcoming feeling that you got from the people in Boley, but that there was also this, what you called, an "unbridgeable distance." Can you read us that paragraph about that unbridgeable distance?
SAVOY: "Everyone I met in Boley was warm and welcoming. Still I felt an unbridgeable distance. These people know. They were born here, they've lived here all their lives, they know their past. They know home. The names of the Creek freed people who founded the town didn't include names I knew."
BELL: It gave me the sense that your trip was fueled maybe in part by a sense of longing to trace your own family history, which you've already talked about a little bit. Was that a goal for you of this journey to take a lesson from people who seem to be so tied to the land and the place where they currently live?
SAVOY: It became a goal. And it became a search for such lessons. The journey really began driving from the east coast to the west coast so that I could go back to the landscapes that I had loved in my youth. And I realized that that wasn't enough. And because of my background in geology, I understand that the history of earth that we can read in the language of science is a history of piecing together fragments. And in this journey I realized that perhaps there were fragments of family or at least fragments of history, the history, the still unfolding history on this land that have touched and have touched family members back in time. And so, it moved from being a journey to landscapes a loved to a journey that was a search for fragments. And I decided to go to Oklahoma because of that one, one recollection that an elder cousin had told me. Because there was nothing else in the family. Nothing else that I knew of at that point. And so I thought let me learn. Let me take in. Let me gather what I could, and from those pieces perhaps begin to get a sense of origins.
BELL: So did you finally after that trip to Boley get any of those fragments you were searching for?
SAVOY: It's saddens me to say not yet from Oklahoma because at that point I only had surnames on my mother's side. Not first names. It could be that some people signed on to the Dawes Allotment Act but maybe not. It could be that they were in Oklahoma for a bit, but maybe not. I think that there is evidence there, but what I did find in continuing the journey was that there was more direct evidence of my father's side and that's what I devoted more time to. But I'm going to return to Oklahoma and continue the search.
BELL: Let's go down the road a little bit then to Arizona, San Pedro Valley. This is a location that we spend a lot of time in with you in the book. What I'd like for you to do is share a brief history, and maybe there's a passage that speaks to this history of the valley and the military base that's now located in this valley, named Fort Huachuca. Can you share a brief of history maybe through a passage about how it came to be and why?
SAVOY: Fort Huachuca was the last of the network of army garrisons set up south of the Gila River in Arizona. And this was all occurring before Geronimo's surrender in 1886. And most of the others have been deactivated and abandoned and many of them in ruins. But Fort Huachuca is now home to US Army Intelligence Center and it also boasts the world's largest unmanned air craft systems training center. But what's important to think about is the post began in March of 1877. The same year that silver was found across the valley in Tombstone. And it became Fort Huachuca from Camp Huachuca early in 1882, just a few months after the shootout at the OK Corral. And the primary goal, as some military historians have put it, was to reduce, if not eliminate, and these are their quotes not mine... "Apache depredations along plunder trails into the Sonora." Because this land had been Apache land, it was Chiricahua land, it was land of the Western Apache, or the Dene. And it was a land that was being settled by Arizona prospectors who were finding not only silver but copper, etc. And of course there was a conflict. The land had to be protected for them. And Fort Huachuca was the last of the garrisons. Important thing to remember is that after the Civil War the US Army was a segregated army. And that African American soldiers were commanded by white officers. And one of the army's rules was to keep African American troops in remote areas because they couldn't fathom the possibility of having armed black men in the east or certainly not in the south. So many troops were station in remote posts in the West. For Huachuca was one of them. And that military sense of keeping black troops in remote posts would continue through the end of the 19th century, into the 20th century.
BELL: Fort Huachuca has a personal significance to you as well. Does it not?
SAVOY: It does. Very much so. My mother was stationed there in the last years of the Second World War as an Army nurse at the post. And this was when continuing that same line of segregated thinking, the US Army, or the Department of War, wanted to station black troops in a remote post. And so the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions were stationed there and trained there during the Second World War. My mother was one of the Army nurses stationed at the hospital, or I should say, the black hospital there. Because the post developed a completely second set of barracks, chapels, hospitals, for the black troops. It was all segregated in all ways possible.
BELL: I really appreciated this part of the book because my father, like your mother, was stationed at Fort Huachuca at one point during his military career. And in later years, he took a trip back to Fort Huachuca with my mother, which at the time I viewed as purely a nostalgic trip. They took many trips in the later years of his life in an effort for him to show my mother these places where he had been, where he had spent years of his life before they were together. But after reading the book, I wonder now if he, like you, went to seek answers from that place. And I wonder if you could talk to us about whether you've noticed over your work and through this personal journey whether that's a common inclination for people and whether perhaps he... I mean you can't answer for my father, I know that. But I wonder if that effort of looking back at places where we were born or where we've been for answers to how they've shaped our lives is a common thread that runs through the human experience.
SAVOY: I do think it's hard to speak for other people, but I have friends and colleagues for whom this does ring true. That in the absence of family story, in the absence of documented history, that traveling back or attempting to travel back to a past through a place that was known in the past by a family member is a way to perhaps find a trace of them as if their breathed experience still exists there. And I know that's the case for me. I needed to go back. Because if you think about the segregated military at the time, it was desegregated when your father arrived, but it was still segregated. The military did end segregation until after the Second World War in 1948. For my mother, she was part of a massive migration by military order to a place that was not receptive to them. And the racism that African American personnel experienced there was horrendous. And much of it is has not been published, but if you go to the National Archives the records are there. The records are there to be seen. So I have always wondered why my mother was silent about her past. Very silent. And I suspected that this experience to a woman who was just 19, 20, 21 may have had a huge impact. Because one of the things she said to me, and I recall her saying it many times, was that, "I am not a race. I am a human being." And I wondered if a point of origin for that could have occurred at Fort Huachuca, and she also served at one of the prisoner of war camps in Arizona during the end of the war at Florence. I wondered if a filament to that web of origins could have begun there. And so I wanted to go back because she wasn't saying anything and then she passed away, and I didn't know what else to look for. So yes, I went to the national archives and I got a lot of information that filled in gaps but then I had to go to the place itself and see it. To see if I could feel something there.
BELL: And did you feel something there?
SAVOY: Oh... I felt a lot of things. My searching for a sense of her past there, it wasn't a definite answer. I have photographs that were taken at the time when she was there. One of them in particular showing a young Vivian Savoy in full military dress sitting on a step in bright light looking present. And that shutter-click moment was the present. And I suspect I wanted to go back there just to find that present moment again even though more than half a century has passed. What I found were perhaps traces of her there, but more concretely at the national archives, traces written by military personnel, African American, claiming cases of discrimination multiple times. And letters written by a young army nurse contemplating suicide because she felt that this was such a racist environment. So it gave me a sense of where she was and being there gave me a clear sense of that place.
BELL: Lauret, can you talk a bit about the Mountain View Officers Club. What was it? And maybe share a passage about it. And then I'll ask a follow up question.
SAVOY: I'll be glad to. I visited the Officer's Club or the building that housed it before leaving Fort Huachuca. And I'll read just a short passage. "Before leaving the fort, I walked around the large wood framed structure standing alone on the western edge of the segregated containment area. Building 66050. Now boarded up, it opened for business on Labor Day in 1942 as the Mountain View or Colored Officers Club. African American soldiers boycotted the segregated club at first, refusing to step across the threshold. They wanted the Lakeside Officers Club, with its guest quarters and other amenities to admit all officers on the post. Not just the white officers. Some even called building 66050 'Uncle Tom’s Cabin' but most did come to use the Mountain View Club at last. The historic core of Fort Huachuca, the old post high on the mountain fan, became a National Historical Landmark in 1976. Building 66050 became eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. As the only existing military service club built specifically for American personnel, its eligibility is based on it's being, and I quote, 'Associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.' End quote. The question is to keep or dismantle what was once unwanted by so many. A segregated club that at first outraged many black officers has champions today in the NAACP, the Southwestern Association of Buffalo Soldiers and the Tucson Historical Preservation Foundation. Building 66050 found a place on the Arizona Register of Historic Places in 2012 even though the Army's Historic Preservation Officers argued for its ineligibility. It was meant to be a temporary structure, they say. There's no real historical merit, they say. And besides, they add, the elderly men of the Southwestern Association of Buffalo Soldiers were given access to the building and altered its integrity. The Army wants the building torn down. The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed it as one of America's eleven most endangered historic places in 2013. Fort Huachuca: Home of the Buffalo Soldier."
BELL: I wondered after reading that passage, what your feeling is on the controversy that now surrounds this place and so many other historic places. Do you feel that it's important for them to be preserved? Or do you believe, as some would argue, that erasing them from the landscape could promote an effort to heal the wounds that were created by such a place?
SAVOY: One thing I can say is that I would hope that multiple histories would be presented. That the service club would exist, that it would be maintained, with an understanding that at first, black officers did not want to be there because it was segregated club because they did not have access to the quote un-quote "white officer's club." Yet that facility did become important, and it's a facility that could be used to present the black history during the war and perhaps earlier at the post. And I think by tearing it down it would be another form of erasing their presence, especially if there is no other historical mention of their presence and the segregation that they experienced during the war.
BELL: And is that why you found at the fort, overall? That that presence has been sort of erased?
SAVOY: I would say yes and no. You can go to the museum in the old post, the original post that was established in the 1800s and there are exhibits on African American officers but they're just presenting the good things. There's no record there of the multiple, multiple charges of discrimination and worse that were presented. And so I think if you want to present a clearer history, one that is more honest and more full, there needs to be more. If that old post museum could do that, great. But I think having a space that may have been born in controversy, show what that controversy was honestly, then it's worth keeping.
BELL: What does it say about us as a people that we're so tied to the land? It sustains us. It provides a place for us to live. But we are at times also so disconnected from the land.
SAVOY: You're right. And I think there are many ways to think about that. One is that the history of human experience on this continent, in this country, really owes a great deal to the history of the land itself and to the land structure, its materials, its texture. And what we gain from the land, for example, the food we grow. And I really think that to have a true sense of place you need to understand that, but many people don't think about that. The land or this continent perhaps is considered a stage on which we act and move about. And given technological improvements into the 20th century and today, including transportation, it gives the illusion of rootlessness. That we can just go anywhere we want, as quickly as we want. It may have taken months for people to cross the continent on the Oregon Trail, but we can do it in hours to days. And it also gives the illusion of rootlessness in the sense that you could ask a person, "Where does your food come from?" And they'll say, "The supermarket." The disconnect comes from not recognizing the real lengths, the real senses of origin.
BELL: Doesn't that rootlessness that you are talking about also keep us from connecting in a more, not just in a physically sustaining way, but in an emotionally sustaining way?
SAVOY: Very much so. Very much so. And I think it also a sense of rootlessness also gives the illusion of rootlessness from each other as if we do not have connection. And if we consider how the history on this land is not the past, it's very much the present, and it lives in all of us today, we could recognize how we are connected in time and in space. But perhaps by doing that it would require self-reflection and I think many people might be afraid at what they might find.
BELL: I wonder if you might share with us one lesson you'd like for the readers of your book and listeners to this show to take away from the experience that you trace in your writing.
SAVOY: Trace began as a personal journey to find my sense of home, and I don't mean an address so much as situating myself in time and space over generations. And as a citizen not only in the United States but what the lands of the United States are. And I think the big lesson or one of the big points I'd like to suggest is that I may be a witness trying to remember and in that way piecing together the fragments left from history, from the land itself, from the silences, from the unspoken stories, but these journeys speak to common concerns. Anyone calling this country home might ask similar questions like, "Who are we?" And "What is my place as a citizen in this enterprise that we call America?" And "What is my place on this land?" And any honest answers really require acknowledging the place of race and how races touches every single one of us whether we're a recent immigrant or someone who's been on this continent for generations and longer.