Solomon Carter Fuller: Where My Caravan Has Rested
© 2005 by Mary Kaplan. University Press of America. Used by permission of the author and publisher. May not be presented in any form elsewhere without permission from copyright holders.
Fuller’s Arrival in Germany
Can a people … live and develop over three hundred years by reacting? Are American Negroes simply the creation of white men, or have they at least helped to create themselves out of what they have found around them? - Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act
As the slender young man stepped off the train in Munich, he was about to begin what was to become an important journey in his pursuit of knowledge that would significantly influence his medical research and practice in the years to come. A new psychiatric clinic was opening at the University of Munich under the direction of Dr. Emil Kraeplin, noted for his revolutionary ideas in the classification of mental illness and the treatment of psychiatric patients. Dr. Simon Carter Fuller had traveled to Germany to study under Kraeplin and to take courses in pathology for the purpose of improving his skills in analyzing brain tissue as it related to mental illness.
Fuller was one of the estimated 15,000 Americans who traveled to Europe between 1870 and 1914 for the purpose of advanced medical education and training. Much of the medical knowledge that American physicians would bring back to the United States was based on experimental science and would eventually lead to a change in American medical practice from that of lay people and unqualified healers to professional physicians. This freedom of movement allowing students to travel from university to university and from one country to another in pursuit of an education would come to a halt in 1914 as Europe began to mobilize for an impending war.
“In many instances whether or not much of anything was learned, they seemed to feel that it gave a badge of distinction and most of all, enhanced their learning capacity. Of course, I lay myself open to the same change, but I think another motive prompted, something in the nature of a challenge and while my judgment might not have been of the best, there was absolutely nothing the matter with my courage.”
While it was not unusual for Americans to leave the United States for a foreign land to take advantage of learning opportunities during this time, it took a great deal of courage and perseverance for Solomon Fuller, an African American, to achieve this goal. As he walked from the Munich train station to his hotel that cold winter night, Fuller could not help but think of another man who had left the United States fifty-three years earlier for a better life in Liberia – his grandfather, John Lewis Fuller, a slave who had bought his freedom and whose courage inspired Solomon throughout his life.
Over forty-five years later, Solomon Fuller was encouraged by his son, Solomon, Jr., to tell the story of his life:
“You can tell a story which except for a very few people has been unobserved and untold. Our country was built by courageous pioneers who for the most part have remained individually obscure, but who nevertheless have been typified in American drama, art and literature. However, until recently overlooked and neglected, some of our pioneers are now being pictured in the light of oppression and the depravity of a minority people. I need not say this is the story of the American Negro. I believe that even though popular attention is being given him, the American Negro is losing much of the current and recent past story of his development. A very important part of this development can be told by you as you have lived it and seen it. A story of modest and quiet achievement, a story that is perhaps more commonplace than anybody would believe until it is first told. I suppose there are many who could tell it but I believe none with more genuine simplicity than you – a story of success and unadvertised life fulfillment among our people … I believe that you can see the value of such a literary work. One that needs to be told now lest it should be lost in the struggle for advancement and integration in American culture … Even if you decide not to do this, undoubtedly you will want to make a contribution to the story by revealing information about yourselves and the people you have known”
At first, Fuller was not receptive to his son’s request to tell the story of his achievements. “My wife has been the achiever. I don’t attach much importance to what I personally have done. A person who writes an autobiography, I often wonder if they are telling the truth about themselves.”
Sol Jr. persisted in urging his father to tell his story. To facilitate the storytelling process, he purchased a tape recorder so that Fuller, who by this time had lost most of his sight, could dictate his memoirs and thoughts. His wife could then type his accounts and the tapes could be reused – a feature that appealed to Fuller’s frugal nature. He finally agreed to create a record of his life for the benefit of his family:
“Well I suppose what you say has its merits and advantages and things of that sort, but there are so many people whose lives have been far more interesting. Now I have had in mind for a long time, and Sol has more or less encouraged it, was to write a little account of how it came about, and while I don’t believe so much in ancestry worship I do think it has some value. At least ought to have some value for one’s progeny.”
Although Solomon Carter Fuller never published the story of his life, he did manage to record some of his family history and some of his significant life events and accomplishments. These papers, which included both typed and handwritten notes, were found in the basement of his son’s Cape Cod home and passed on to his grandson, John L. Fuller. Solomon Fuller titled his story “Where My Caravan Has Rested.” He selected this title to represent the story of one man’s journey along the road of life.
"… a caravan suggests a company of travelers – no man goes through life alone. But it is in general accompanied by fellows from the time of his birth to the end of his life. And there are many things which influence a man’s life – those things we call the necessities of life – shelter, food and we might add as an essential, the reproduction of the species … we think of a caravan traveling a dusty desert of sand, with here and there an oasis – well these oases in general are the bright spots in a man’s life. There is seldom a being to whom life is just one big oasis – it has its various ups and downs.”
Fifty years have passed since Solomon Carter Fuller’s “caravan” came to the end of its journey. Like many heroes of color, African American scientists were systematically ignored by the writers of history. The story of Fuller’s life provides a glimpse of a man whose achievements in medicine and science were many, despite the racial oppression that existed in the United States in the early 20th century. Here was a man who made important contributions to Alzheimer’s disease research and to the development of American psychiatry. Yet few people know anything about Solomon Fuller today.
The material for Dr. Fuller’s biography has been collected from his personal notes and interviews with family members and members of the medical and scientific communities who are familiar with his work. In addition, the author has traveled to the University of Munich in Germany – the site of Fuller’s introduction to the neuropathy of dementia, and has spent many hours in archives on slavery and the colonization of Liberia. In the search for records of Fuller’s family members who lived in Virginia during the time of slavery, it soon became apparent that they had lived in a period of our country’s history when being black meant being invisible and where the written account of the world of the average black citizen was generally silent. The traditional sources of historical information such as records, manuscripts and documents are seldom available prior to the turn of the century for black people. Only small fragments of their individual histories survive. It was also difficult to obtain additional information about Fuller’s life in Liberia. The recent conflict in that area of Africa has led to destruction of government buildings and records, and has resulted in the disruption of the mail service.
Fuller’s life story and the sweeping changes that occurred in the past two centuries are intertwined. This connection between the personal and the historical provides a window onto this era of change.
The Beginning: John Lewis Fuller
They lived in back alleys, cellars, factory lofts and abandoned industrial sites located near the docks off Water Street. Referred to as free Negroes, they had come to Norfolk, Virginia with hopes and dreams of starting a new life and putting behind them the memories and scars of slavery.
Born in 1794, John Lewis Fuller had spent most of his life in slavery, working as a skilled boot and shoemaker for his master in nearby Petersburg…
Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.