Author Ward brings tales to island

A decade ago, he chronicled life on Bainbridge for listeners of NPR.

Former islander Andrew Ward was researching a novel about slavery in Tennessee, when he more or less backed into the African American history that would shape much of his nonfiction writing.

“The first day (of research) I looked at interviews with former slaves in the 1920s, and one claimed to have been a cousin of Abraham Lincoln,” said Ward, who has been a contributing editor for Atlantic Monthly, a commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered and a columnist for the Washington Post “I became interested in his story.”

The claim was verifiable, Ward found; the slave’s father, also his master, was indeed cousin to Lincoln.

“I got more and more fascinated with that (history) he said. “I realized that my understanding of African American history was primitive.”

Ward dropped the novel altogether to write a nonfiction book about Lincoln’s black cousin – and about writing about him, what Ward dubs a “process book.” He began researching Kentucky county records with help from African American genealogists.

“I found myself in a world of history without which American history makes no sense,” he said.

While the study was never published, Ward says, his sleuthing led him into the world of African American history. That study and Ward’s response to it are the subject of his lecture, “Backing into the Past: An Essayist’s Journey into African American History,” on Oct. 16 hosted by the writers’ community Field’s End.

Ward’s journey may have had roots in his upbringing in India, where his father was an educational consultant for the Ford Foundation. There, Ward observed whites, a distinct minority, were not in power.

“I got used to a world in which everyone, except a few, were brown and black and in charge,” he said.

That perspective made white American resistance to the 1960s civil rights movement “doubly idiotic” to Ward when he later encountered it. His response to racism was visceral at the time; it would be three and a half decades before he was moved to gain historical perspective on what had informed bigotry in this country.

“I hadn’t explored what was behind the racism,” he said. “It’s been an amazing journey.”

Although he doesn’t have a historian’s academic credentials, Ward does have an abiding interest in relating story.

He found compelling subject matter in the history of the Jubilee singers, former slaves who left Nashville in 1871 to raise money to save their school, today’s Fisk University; in 2000, he published their story in “Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America” (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux).

The nine vocalists used what they knew to raise funds; they performed spirituals like “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and “This Little Light of Mine,” then unfamiliar to most Americans.

They came to New York, following the old underground railroad route.

There the earnest troupe of singers, who regarded themselves as missionaries, were embraced by famed preacher Henry Ward Beecher and became an overnight sensation, front-page news, Ward learned.

They toured Britain and Europe, even singing for Queen Victoria.

“It was a wonderfully rich story I had bumped into in the night,” Ward said.

The dust bin

For Ward, retrieving others’ stories from “the dust bin of history” balances the narrower mandate of the commentator, columnist and essayist to milk his own point of view.

“I got to the point where you start losing interest in yourself,” he said. “I just found myself running into myself at every turn.”

A soon-to-be-published nonfiction work is a history of the Civil War as seen through the eyes and told in the voices of slaves.

“River Run Red,” slated to be published next year by Penguin, chronicles the massacre of black Union troops at Fort Pillow in April of 1864 by Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who later founded the Ku Klux Klan.

Forrest was determined, Ward says, to demonstrate to the Union that it was a mistake to put guns in the hands of black soldiers.

Instead, “Remember Fort Pillow” became a rallying cry for black troops.

Ward has had moments of doubt about how African Americans might view his accounts of the Fort Pillow soliders “warts and all.”

“Some (Fort Pillow soldiers) were brave,” he said, “and some were cowards.

“Some lied and some told the truth..but I’m pretty confident that, at this stage of the game, African Americans are eager to be portrayed as rounded human beings.”

When Ward began work on “River Run Red,” he knew he wanted the story of the Civil War told in the words of the soldiers who had survived, conveying the history through slaves’ firsthand accounts. However, the author found himself temporarily stymied by what seemed a dearth of firsthand accounts left by the often-illiterate troops.

Then his research uncovered the soldiers’ pension records in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

The men had dictated their stories to attorneys, leaving precisely the reportage Ward needed.

“I was able to flesh these people out,” he said. “I was able to tell the history of the Civil War through their eyes and words.”

* * * * *

Ward meeting

Award-winning author and historian Andrew Ward speaks on “Backing into the Past: An Essayist’s Journey into African American History” at 5 p.m. Oct. 16 at Island Center Hall for writers’ community Field’s End. Ward wrote “Out Here: A Newcomer’s Notes from the Great Northwest” while living on Bainbridge Island. Now in Seattle, Ward is a former contributing editor for the Atlantic Monthly, commentator for NPR and columnist for the Washington Post.

Tickets are $10/adults, $7 for seniors and students. Purchase by Oct. 8 for tickets to a 7 p.m. buffet dinner at The Price House at the Country Club on Restoration Point are $75. Call 842-4162 for more information.

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