The Black Russian is the incredible true story of Frederick Bruce Thomas, born in 1872 to former slaves who became prosperous farmers in Mississippi. After his father was brutally murdered, Frederick left the South and worked as a waiter in Chicago and Brooklyn. Seeking greater freedom, he traveled to London, then crisscrossed Europe, andin a highly unusual choice for a black American at the timewent to Russia.
Because he found no color line there, Frederick settled in Moscow, becoming a rich and famous owner of variety theaters and restaurants. When the Bolshevik Revolution ruined him, he barely escaped to Constantinople, where he made another fortune by opening celebrated nightclubs as the "Sultan of Jazz." However, the long arm of American racism, the xenophobia of the new Turkish Republic, and Frederick’s own extravagance landed him in debtor’s prison. He died in Constantinople in 1928.
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About the Author
Vladimir Alexandrov received a Ph. D. in comparative literature from Princeton. He taught Russian literature and culture at Harvard before moving to Yale, where he is B.E. Bensinger Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures. He is the author of books on Bely, Nabokov, and Tolstoy, and has published numerous articles on various other Russian writers and topics.
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The Most Southern Place on Earth
Despite their remarkable success, Hannah and Lewis Thomas could never have imagined what the future had in store for their newborn son, who lay swaddled in their log cabin on November 4, 1872, and whom they decided to name, very grandly, Frederick Bruce. They had been slaves until the Civil War, but in 1869, four years after it ended, a sudden reversal of fortune gave them their own two-hundred-acre farm in Coahoma County, Mississippi, in the northwestern corner of the state known as the Delta.
As black landowners, the Thomases were in the smallest of minorities. Out of some 230 farms in Coahoma County in 1870, blacks owned only half a dozen, and the Thomases' was the second largest of these. Their achievement was all the rarer because in the years after the war, blacks in the Delta still outnumbered whites nearly four to one. Most of the land was owned by a handful of white families; many other whites, like most blacks, owned nothing.
Early in 1869, before the spring planting season had started, at a public auction in front of the courthouse door in Friars Point, a town on the Mississippi River that was then the Coahoma County seat, Lewis bid on a sizable piece of land consisting of fields, forests, swamps, and streams (called "bayous" in the Delta). It had belonged to a white farmer who had lived in another county and died without a will; as a result, the probate court had instructed the man's lawyer to sell the property for whatever he could get. Lewis probably knew the farm well. It was near the land in the Hopson Bayou neighborhood, about twenty-five miles southeast of Friars Point, that still belonged to his former masters, the Cheairs brothers. When the auction was over, Lewis had won with a top bid of ten cents an acre. He had three years to pay the total of $20 in annual installments of $6.66/each, with interest at 6 percent. Even with the severe economic depression in the Delta after the Civil War, this was an extremely low price.
The Thomases did not wait long and set to working their farm that same spring. Their first season was a stunning success. The value of all their crops was estimated at $5,100, equivalent to approximately $80,000 today. In less than a year, they had recouped their first installment many hundreds of times over and had become one of the most successful black families in the region.
Nature created the conditions in the Delta that allowed human ingenuity and effort to succeed. Despite its name, the Delta is the Mississippi River's inland flood plain, and is located some three hundred miles upstream from the Gulf. Coahoma County was still a semi-wilderness in the decades after the Civil War, and its character and appearance were largely products of the Mississippi's annual spring floods. The dark alluvial soil these deposited, combined with the long and hot summers, made the region extraordinarily fertile. Well into the beginning of the twentieth century, Coahoma County was a dense forest of giant cypress, tupelo, and sweet gum trees, as well as sycamore, poplar, pecan, maple, and numerous other species. Many of the trees were as thick as a man is tall and soared a hundred feet or more. Amid the trees were jungle-like growths of underbrush, vines, and cane, in many places fifteen to twenty feet high, which made passage extremely difficult. The interlacing network of swamps, lakes, and bayous created by the spring floods further impeded travel by land. Roads were hard to build and water was the primary means of transportation throughout the nineteenth century.
After the county was formed in 1836 from what had been Indian lands, word spread quickly that cotton grew there to an amazing six feet in height, nearly twice as tall as anywhere else in the South. Slave-owning whites were the dominant settlers from the start because intensive labor was necessary to clear the forests and drain the land for planting. They usually came by water, often on Mississippi riverboats, which were the simplest means of transporting large and heavy loads. After reaching the Delta, they transferred their families, cattle, slaves, and other possessions onto shallow-draft flatboats that they poled via sinuous paths, turning whichever way the interconnected bodies of water allowed, until they reached a likely bank on which to land.
At first, cultivated fields were narrow strips along rivers and bayous. It took years of arduous work for the slaves to expand them inland by felling the trees, uprooting the stumps, and clearing the brush and cane. Despite a rapid increase in settlers in Coahoma County, which encompasses nearly six hundred square miles, the population by 1860 was only 6,606, of whom 5,085 were slaves. And throughout the Delta as a whole at this time just 10 percent of the land was under cultivation.
Nevertheless, Coahoma and several other nearby river counties quickly became among the wealthiest in the entire country. When the Civil War began, cotton constituted 57 percent of total American exports, and the state of Mississippi alone grew one-quarter of it. This made the biggest slave owners rich and allowed them to live luxuriously. Over time, they built large mansions, filled them with expensive furniture, collected art, and traveled to Europe. During the fall and winter social seasons, they indulged in dinners, parties, and lavish balls.
By contrast, the lives of slaves were more brutal in the Delta than in most other places in the South because of the difficult terrain and the prolonged annual agricultural cycle that the warm climate made possible. The large financial investment that many planters made in what was then a remote location, and their hunger for profits from spectacular crops, caused them to drive their slaves especially hard. Working conditions were aggravated by the clouds of mosquitoes that bred in the standing water every spring. From April to September, these insects made life so unbearable that whites who could afford it would leave for resorts in the North or escape to higher and cooler ground. The Delta was also a singularly unhealthy place to work. Epidemics, including yellow fever and malaria, as well as various waterborne diseases, killed thousands. Blacks suffered more than whites, and black children were the most vulnerable population of all.
Little is known about Lewis and Hannah before they bought their farm. Slaves wrote very few memoirs because owners tried to keep them illiterate. Planters rarely kept detailed records about their slaves that went beyond the kinds of inventories used for cattle.
However, it is possible to surmise that like almost all other freedmen in the Delta, Lewis and Hannah worked the land between the end of the Civil War in April 1865 and early 1869, when he bid on their farm. This is how they could have earned the money necessary for the first annual installment. That they immediately became very successful when they struck out on their own implies that they were not novices.
When the Civil War ended, many freedmen believed that the federal government would institute land reforms by confiscating large plantations, dividing them into parcels, and giving the parcels to individual black farmers. This did not happen. The compromise solution that developed throughout the South was various forms of tenancy, especially sharecropping. Under this system, which was already established in parts of the Delta by 1868 and would persist well into the twentieth century, a black family would lease a piece of land from a white owner in exchange for a percentage of the crops the family raised. The cost of whatever supplies and services the family received from the landowner, such as food, clothing, medical care, farming implements, and building materials, would be deducted from the family's share of the crop. However, because the tenant often had to pay the landowner as much as 50 percent of the crop, many freedmen remained impoverished. Those who did succeed in accumulating enough capital to be free of debt at the end of a harvest, and who thereby felt empowered to bargain with the landowners for better conditions during the next season, often tried to rent land. But landowners, as well as the Ku Klux Klan, tried to thwart black land rental, which they feared would deprive them of control over black labor and could lead to the widespread transfer of Delta lands from white hands to black. This may have been what Lewis faced prior to 1869. Nonetheless, his bid of $20, with one-third down (equivalent to perhaps $100 today), could have been within the financial reach of a family that worked either as hired hands or as sharecroppers.
Hannah and Lewis experienced the other hardships of black life in the Delta as well, including the region's notoriously high mortality rate. Frederick had three older brothers and one sister — Yancy, who was born a slave in 1861; William, who was born free in 1867; Kate, born around 1868; and John, born in 1870. Two died young — Kate around 1870, and William a few years later. Frederick left no recollections of any of these siblings, and nothing further is known about them.
Frederick's mother, Hannah, died when she was around thirty-five; she may have died giving birth to him in 1872. Lewis then married another woman, India, who was a few years younger than Hannah. She was born in Alabama in 1843, and was probably brought to the Delta before the Civil War by a white planter. Frederick would later identify India as his mother, and this confirms that she entered his life when he was very young and raised him.
It is possible that Lewis and India were drawn to each other in part because they both stood out in the local black community. He was by all accounts a friendly, hardworking, intelligent, and socially conscious man. By the time of Frederick's birth in 1872, he had also been well off for several years, and not only by black standards. Various evidence has survived indicating that India was a good match for him. Most notable is that she would join her husband in pursuing a number of legal actions in the Coahoma County courthouse; this was rare for black people in general, and even more so for a black woman. That she persisted with lawsuits on her own after being widowed made her rarer still. India was also literate, which was exceptional for a former slave (and suggests that she may have been a domestic before the Civil War). Her first name was unusual, too, for a black woman, and even the way she signed documents distinguished her from most freedwomen: she used a middle initial, "P." Although Lewis could neither read nor write, on occasion he also used a middle initial, "T," perhaps imitating India. These are small gestures, but under the circumstances, they imply a certain defiant pride in one's own identity, and a resistance, however subtle, to the kind of self-effacement that whites expected from blacks. The resemblance between Lewis's and India's strong character and Frederick's behavior in later years suggests that they had a very decisive influence on him.
The names that appeared in the Thomas family also fit this pattern of exceptionalism. Although she was in her forties, which was an advanced age to bear children in the nineteenth century, India had a daughter at some point in the 1880s and named her Ophelia. Like Bruce, Frederick's middle name, Ophelia was an uncommon name among black Americans in the postbellum South.
Frederick was most likely named after Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a celebrated abolitionist, author, and statesman. Douglass was widely known throughout the United States starting in the 1850s, and his name would have appealed to black people like the Thomases. A possible source of Frederick's middle name, one that was quite near at hand, was Blanche K. Bruce. He was a former slave who became a rich landowner in Bolivar County, Mississippi, during the late 1860s, and a politician both there and in Tallahatchie County, before being elected in 1874 to the United States Senate, where he was the first black man to serve a full term. Because Coahoma County shares borders with both Bolivar and Tallahatchie counties — and the latter was very near the Thomas farm — it is possible that the Thomases knew Bruce personally. In later years, Frederick continued to pay considerable attention to the implications of personal names. He always used his middle initial when he signed his name, and often wrote out "Bruce" fully. In Moscow, when he was starting to put down roots, he adopted a typically Russian name and patronymic — Fyodor Fyodorovich. He also kept his first and middle names alive in his family by naming his youngest sons, who were born in Moscow, Frederick Jr. and Bruce.
"Ophelia" suggests evidence of her parents' unusually broad cultural awareness, or at least that of India, since she was the literate member of the couple. The nearest plausible source for the name was Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was published in 1852 and became the second biggest best seller in the United States in the nineteenth century, after the Bible. In the novel, Miss Ophelia St. Clare is an admirable secondary character who manages to overcome her northern prejudice against blacks. India might have known of the novel even without having read it because of its fame and notoriety in the South, where slave owners angrily attacked it.
Farming was a family affair out of necessity, and the work it entailed sheds light on how the Thomases lived after they bought their farm and on what Frederick's childhood was like. During the final third of the nineteenth century, the major cash crop in Coahoma County remained cotton, followed by corn. Clearing the land, plowing and seeding it, weeding the fields until the plants were tall enough to shade the ground, and then picking the cotton and ears of corn when they had ripened and dried sufficiently were chores not only for men and women but also for children, as soon as they were six or seven and big enough to manage a hoe or drag a sack. Everyone had to pitch in with the other tasks as well. Farm families grew their own vegetables, raised chickens and hogs, and kept a milk cow or two if they could afford it. They needed mules, horses, or oxen to pull the plows, to haul the crops, and for other heavy work like ginning the raw cotton and baling it; all the animals had to be fed and watered regularly.
Hunting and fishing were also a part of a farmer's life in the Delta, for whites and blacks alike, because these were the simplest and cheapest ways to provide meat for the table. At the end of the nineteenth century the woods were full of deer, bears, panthers, wolves, opossums, and many other small animals; there were turkeys, ducks, and other fowl. Catfish, buffalo fish, trout, bowfin, crayfish, alligators, water moccasins, and snapping turtles as big as washtubs filled the waterways. Even after the Civil War, alligators preyed on domestic pigs so regularly that children had to be warned constantly to be on guard lest they be seized too.
The daily, weekly, and seasonal rhythms of agricultural labor and life on the edge of a wilderness would have largely determined the world that Frederick knew from earliest childhood. Church and school would have been the most important exceptions, but these probably started later. Most of the year, chores filled the daylight hours, playmates were scarce in the sparsely populated countryside, and amusements would have been whatever one could devise.
A child growing up in the Delta would probably never forget its smells and sounds, because of the way these imprint themselves on one's consciousness. Smells such as the sweetness of sun-warmed tangles of honeysuckle; the heavy brown aroma of newly turned loam behind a plow in the fields; or the delectable, banana-like scent of the pawpaw tree that sometimes grows on riverbanks. A farm in the Delta was like an island in a vast green sea, and the sounds one heard came mostly from nature. At dawn, the dew-laden air was filled with the cries of mourning doves, the staccato rattle of yellow-headed woodpeckers, and the grating calls of crows that flapped by on heavy wings. During still, hot summer days, the fields would resound with the oscillating buzz of grasshoppers. At dusk, the big-bellied bullfrogs would mark the end of day with a bass chorus that would alternately swell, then fade, while the last mule team trudged back from the fields, and the final, flat, ringing blow of a hammer on a distant anvil dissolved in the growing darkness.
After 1869, the Thomases emerged from the anonymity that typified the lives of most black people in the Delta. As landowners they had to interact with the white power structure of Coahoma County and began to leave traces in governmental records. The consequences of this would be far-reaching for them as well as for several prominent local planters.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Black Russian"
Copyright © 2013 Vladimir Alexandrov.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue: Life or Death xi
Chapter 1 The Most Southern Place on Earth 1
Chapter 2 Travel and Transformation 30
Chapter 3 Nothing Above Moscow 54
Chapter 4 Early Fortune 79
Chapter 5 Becoming Russian 109
Chapter 6 Loss and Escape 136
Chapter 7 Reinvention in Constantinople 161
Chapter 8 The Struggle for Recognition 190
Chapter 9 Sultan of Jazz 215
Epilogue: Death and Life 239
What People are Saying About This
"Magnetizing and unforgettable . . . In his assiduously researched, prodigiously descriptive, fluently analytical, and altogether astonishing work of resurrection, Alexandrov provides uniquely focused accounts of racial struggles in America and decadence and bloodshed in Europe and Russia while insightfully and dynamically portraying a singular man." Booklist
"A wild life of intrigue, deception and beating the odds . . . [Frederick] Thomas’ story is certainly interesting, particularly since he was able to thrive in Europe in a way most African-American men of his generation couldn’t dream of. . . . [The Black Russian is] a good choice for those who enjoy reading about life’s underdogs." Kirkus Reviews
"This well-written book is about one of the most fascinating black men of modern times. Like Jack Johnson, Frederick Thomas was a brilliant, proud and ambitious black man who experienced the heights of success and the depths of failurein a foreign land. Don't miss this masterful work!" Cornel West, author of Race Matters
"In The Black Russian, Vladimir Alexandrov provides a powerful counter-narrative to the conventional Great Migration story of southern blacks migrating North en masse in the decades after the Civil War. He tells instead the tale of Frederick Bruce Thomas, son of a slave, who left the United States to hopscotch through Europe, proceeding from London south to the Riviera and then east to Moscow, before ending his days in Constantinople. Armed with a single but formidable skillthat of southern hospitalityThomas progressed from waiting tables to serving as maitre d'hotel in fancy restaurants, to opening his own glitzy night clubs. In assembling the facts of Thomas's story, Alexandrov relates in vivid detail the political, financial, and emotional highs and lows of this man's incredible life." Carla L. Peterson, author of Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City
"As a reader, I found myself fascinated by this well-written story. As a writer, I found myself envious of Vladimir Alexandrov for having discovered such a remarkable man whose life, both triumphant and tragic, spans continents, wars and a revolutionand whom no one seems to have noticed before. An extraordinary and gripping book." Adam Hochschild, author of To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918
"A spirited tale of bucking the tides of history, every bit as colorful as it seems improbable." Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra: A Life, a New York Times Book Review Top 10 Books of the Year
"A fascinating tale of culture clash and historical change, researched with energy and written with verve." Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the international best-seller, Gulag: A History
"In The Black Russian, Vladimir Alexandrov tells the keenly researched and vividly written story of one of the more extraordinary characters in African-American history. Alexandrov deftly brings to life the succession of complex milieus in the United States, France, Russia, and Turkey in which Frederick Bruce Thomas achieved both his improbable successes and his haunting defeats. This is a tale to remember." Arnold Rampersad, author of Ralph Ellison: A Biography
"As the granddaughter of a family that escaped from Russia because of the Bolshevik Revolution, I read The Black Russian in one sitting. Vladimir Alexandrov has done more than tell the story of a forgotten man, he has woven a fascinating tapestry of Moscow life before the October Revolution. The reader is offered a unique front-row seat to Moscow's Pre-Revolutionary beau monde and a hair-raising escape days before the Bolshevik takeover. Frederick Thomas’s unlikely ascent from Mississippi farmboy to Moscow impresario is a surprising tale with those most American of themes: tenacity and self-invention." Olga Andreyev Carlisle, author of Solzhenitsyn and the Secret Circle
"That truth is ever stranger than fiction is underscored by the story of Frederick Bruce Thomas. The highs and lows of Thomas's unlikely life journey are skillfully unfurled by Vladimir Alexandrov." Elizabeth Dowling Taylor, author of A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons
"Hang on for the ride of a lifetime. With the verve of a novelist, historian Alexandrov takes one on an adventure through pre-war Mississippi, London, Paris, Tsarist Russia and the Bolshevik Revolution, ending up in decadent Constantinople." John Bailey, author of The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans