February/march 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 1
The career of the Mason was the subject of American Legacy ’s cover story, but I had personal as well as professional reasons to want to talk with these men: During the war my father had done the same work they had, aboard an identical ship.
Destroyer escorts had been invented to answer the grievous—indeed, near mortal—threat to the Allied war effort posed by Hitler’s U-boat campaign. DEs were sub chasers, far lighter and slower (and less expensive) than destroyers, an improvised war vessel—my father’s was powered by GM railroad diesels—but one that turned out to be well-suited to the job it had to do. That job was not an easy one. My father got all the war he wanted during his forays into the Atlantic and was deeply glad each time he came back home. But these men of the Mason …
“Well, yeah,” Mr. DuFau told me, “We’d be getting off the ship, going back out through the docks, and somebody would say, ‘Where you from?’ and we’d say the Mason , and they’d say, ‘Yah, the nigger ship.’ So,” he went on matter-of-factly, not sounding sore about it, “we’d have to fight them.”
The men of the Mason were fighting exactly twice as many wars as my father was.
So much of black history in this country has been defined by struggle that it is easy to see it all as war, all of it as taking place either on the slopes the Negro troops of the 54th Massachusetts stormed at Fort Wagner, or at the more recent barricades of the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s. American Legacy reports on that long war, of course; but it also tells an equally large story, one that is warmer and not as well known—the story of African-Americans simply getting on with their lives.
For instance, the same issue that featured the saga of the Mason contained something fascinating that was wholly new to me. You may recall that during the 1960s there was a nervous flurry across suburbia as well-meaning homeowners sheepishly painted white the black faces of the cast-iron jockeys that flanked their driveways. But as it turns out, far from righting an old wrong, they were further obliterating an old truth. Those black jockeys weren’t another trope in the endlessly dispiriting idiom of turn-of-the-century ethnic raillery; they were simple reporting. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, African-Americans absolutely dominated the sport of Thoroughbred racing. You can look it up—in American Legacy , where you’ll also find equally intriguing stories on subjects ranging from black resorts, to first-rate African-American photographers and painters, to the Hollywood architect Paul Revere Williams, whose clients included Frank Sinatra and the Beverly Hills Hotel, to the tradition of family quilts that tell tales whose iconography goes back to slavery days and which are still a vital part of black American life (when we were casting around for a writer for this, Atiya Butler, Legacy ’s associate editor, said, “I’ve got a lot of these in my own family,” thus solving the difficulty in the most agreeable way).
The magazine was the inspiration of its publisher, a young Cleveland entrepreneur named Rodney J. Reynolds, who saw in American Heritage the sort of historical journalism he wanted for American Legacy . So he brought his idea to the Forbes organization, and now, under the editorship of our own Carla Davidson, American Legacy is moving into its second year.
Editors, of course, are famously lazy creatures, and we rarely demonstrate much gratitude when we’re offered more work to do. But I don’t think I’m being smarmy when I say that all of us feel it has been a privilege to work on American Legacy . I’m proud of it—and I’m pretty certain you’d like it too. So much so, in fact, that if you’ll write me a note saying you’d like to see a copy, I’ll be more than happy to send you one.
American blacks have a history that is as noble as it is harrowing, but I think that American Legacy reflects a truth equally applicable to all humankind, for every page reminds us of how closely in our shared past the mundane stands by the heroic—and how you need to understand both to make sense of what you are.