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Posts Tagged ‘American history’

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photo by patricia cobb

I feel I honored the memories of the children like Willis Cofer. ūüôā

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CSinstallation

I have received many encouraging words about the installation. For me it was a truly collaborative process where people around me helped bring to life the picture in my head. I am thankful. We’ll see what the future holds in terms of future installations. Meanwhile, I do hope if you’re in the area you have a chance to walk beneath these branches.

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April 1 1737 Ad in Virginia Gazette

Imagine the infrastructure that had to have been in place in 18th century colonial America before the American Revolution.  Take just one ship arriving in one port city in Virginia, like York or Bermuda Hundred, both on the James River, with a cargo of nearly 500 African slaves.

People would have been herded off the ship and placed into a holding pen of sorts to wait for up to two weeks or more as they are advertised like stock, which in fact they are considered, in newsprint and by word of mouth.  Before they were led out onto an auction block to be sold individually or in small groups they would have been examined intimately, as they had been on the ship, to confirm their health. A few behind the scene deals would be made, of course. Not every slave would need to stand on the block before being transported to his or her place of servitude.

That’s one ship, one port and one delivery of slaves. But there were many ports in colonial America and many ships¬†delivering their human cargo before loading their holes with¬†colonial-made goods, like tobacco and molasses.

So imagine the growth in and the scale of operations over time – not one ship at one port with hundreds of slaves on board but multiple ships dropping off thousands of chained people who had homes and identities that were¬†stripped away. Who had cultures millenia old that were¬†dismissed in this new land. Who had languages, arts and religions that were deemed insignificant. Who had skin in wondrous shades of brown which made them seem so “other” that perhaps that otherness made it especially easy for people to dismiss their humanity.

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July 8 1737 Ad in Virginia Gazette

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August 3 1739 Ad in Virginia Gazette

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August 17 1739 in Virginia Gazette

Imagine how a concept of indentured servitude referred to in the early days of colonial life — you could eventually buy your way to freedom — evolved into something much more insidious and institutionalized as black African slavery became¬†the engine for a growing economy. An economic growth that would help fuel the idea of creating an independent United States versus remaining colonies¬†subject to British rule.

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May 25 1769 in Virginia Gazette

Not all were in agreement with slavery and eventually the slave trade from Africa would officially end around 1810 (though it would continue illegally long after).  As future generations of slaves were born, not in Africa but in the colonial and then United States, it became de rigeur not to allow them to learn to read or write. To prevent their gathering for worship except under very proscribed conditions. To prevent their free movement by chain, by brand and by paper pass. They were property Рperhaps loved or respected by those who owned them Рbut they were property nonetheless.

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September 15 1752 in Virginia Gazette

Tens of thousands and eventually millions of people would be born into a system that had evolved to maintain a “free” labor force through intimidation, denigration and willful ignorance of horrors against humanity. I say willful ignorance because even people who were kind to their slaves had to be aware of what would happen if their slaves ran afoul of patrols without their papers and so on. ¬†The identity of the slaves, their sense of self and of their worth in this world,¬†would be shaped by a cruel system as would be the identities of the people who maintained that system with both wealth and whip. Slavery as an institution, on that scale and by that design, exist no more in this country … but human nature remains the same … the good, the bad, the ugly and all that lies in between.

When I compare 18th century newspaper clippings about slave auctions, slaves being sold as part of estate sales, advertisements for the return of runaway slaves, and so on to slave narratives from the 1930s, nearly two centuries later, it is extremely sad and insightful to see how slavery in this country was nearly successful in keeping a people down and it is only because of visionary and courageous people, of all races, working hard across all of those centuries that I am able to sit here pounding away on my computer. Without fear.

Why revisit this past? In this age of 140-character messages, history is becoming increasingly sanitized. And I guess because I am reading too much in this 21st Century about people looking back with¬†nostalgia about those former times. ¬†The patrollers of those centuries, from the 17th into the late 19th centuries, riding through the countryside in various states rounding up brown people without papers were not civil servants – they were a fear mongering horde whose jobs enabled their most base behavior. I don’t care the color of the shirt, red, or the hood, white, all who wore them in those times did so to generate fear. And people are wearing those colors today.

There are far too many people who are fearful today. And that is wrong. That’s my random musing this Sunday. Back to nature photography next week. Maybe.

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advertisement in The Crisis Magazine, 1922

I didn’t know, not until I was combing through the Military Intelligence Division – Negro Subversion files. Documents in these files were collected by the U.S. government¬†from 1917 – 1941. In these pages, I learned about Emmett J. Scott, the previous subject of my “do you know …” series, and his role as Special Assistant to the Secretary of War. Information collected¬†focused on three areas – (1) radical black organizations and their activities, (2) discrimination against blacks and (3) performance by blacks in the military.

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Secretary of War Baker

The files include press accounts, FBI investigative reports, commentary on the mood in black communities and correspondence from soldiers. ¬†Any letter by a soldier of color¬†about mistreatment eventually found its way to Scott’s desk, as did the following letter that caught my attention with its eloquence.

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I am writing you this letter to protest my compulsory induction into the Military Service of the United States. I received my order of induction on July 30th, and when this letter reaches you I will be part of the Army and subject to its laws and discipline. 

“In a letter recently to my local board, I truthfully stated, under oath, what I know to be the cause of my improper classification in the draft but as this was wholly a personal matter is it not the basis of my protest.”

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“Since the United States entered the war, scores of Negro men, women and children have been lynched, burned and mutilated … Since the war began I have on five or six different occasions applied for enlistment in the Army or Navy, and each time I have met the sting of race prejudice and discrimination. ¬†And the same serpent lies in the path of hundreds of others who apply for enlistment daily. ¬†If, as is often argued, that certain provisions of the Constitution of the United States are not upheld because of states’ rights, surely, the Government can prevent discrimination and segregation in the Army and Navy, the Commander-in-Chief of which is the President of the United States.

Therefore, it is with a thousand and one grievances against my country and an ever burning sympathy for the many injustices heaped upon Negroes, even today, in this the supposed land of freedom, champion of democracy and defender of the helpless peoples that I go forth to battle; not as a patriotic soldier eager to defend a flag that defends me and mine but as a prisoner of war, shackled to a gun that shall spit fire in defense of a humanity which does not include me and to uphold the neutrality of the only other country that has outdone my own in the oppression of the black races of the earth. These are the bases of my protest.

If the expression of what one holds to be true, right and just is a crime, I respectfully submit myself to you as a representative of my Government or to your agents to be used or abused in defense of them, as you see fit.”

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My curiosity was sparked!

Who was this William M. Kelley who had dared to write¬†such a letter to the Secretary of War? ¬†He was a writer, that’s for sure. With a bit of online research I learned that he had also been editor, publisher and social activist.

Born in the 1890s in Chattanooga, TN, he would eventually make his way north to Chicago. There he was employed as a social worker by the Chicago League on Urban Conditions Among Negroes (a branch of the organization now known as the Urban League). By the time he signed his draft papers he was living in New York.

As for what happened during the war, especially after he wrote that letter, that I don’t know. He did attain the rank of Sergeant First Class. ¬†By 1920, he was back at work publishing and promoting black writers and artists.

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ad in The Crisis Magazine, 1920

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By¬†1922 he was hired as editor of the New York Amsterdam News, an important paper in the black community. Prior to that he’d worked as journalist and editor for other publications¬†including the Champion Magazine in Chicago.¬†In New York, he started his own magazine called Kelley’s Magazine.¬†In its pages he published poets including¬†Countee Cullen and Claude McKay as well as his own writing.

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ad in The Crisis Magazine

Based on newspaper articles from the 1920s and 1930s, he was a vocal¬†advocate of building strong black business and encouraged support of those businesses by the local community. “Give your own enterprises the chances the same chance you allow to others. Hasten the time when we shall take our places among the commercial races of the world. Whenever possible walk a block to the nearest colored store and spend your money. It will do you and your children good.

As managing editor of a major black publication based in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, he clearly knew the movers and shakers of the time.

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greeting card to W. E. B. Du Bois, 1928

He was politically active, as evidenced by his decision in 1929 to manage the campaign of Hubert T. Delaney.¬†In an interview, Kelley said, “It’s about time for the Negro voter to demonstrate to the Republican party that they are serious in their desire to see a Negro elected to Congress from New York.”¬†

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Hubert T. Delany

When outlining his campaign plan, Kelley used the analogy of a military formation. Delany won the primary but lost the general election.

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Upon Kelley’s departure from the New York Amsterdam in 1933, he co-founded and edited the Daily Citizen. It operated for less than a year.¬†A 1940 census indicates he was employed by¬†the Works Progress Administration. Then¬†by the early 1940s, he was working as an editor with The Peoples’ Voice, a publication founded by Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Eventually that paper folded as well.

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Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

On a family website, it’s noted that Kelley in his later years spent less time on writing and trying to launch newspapers. He worked a series of civil service jobs that provided more stable income to support his family. He died in October 1958. His son, an award-winning novelist and essayist, William Melvin Kelley Jr, passed away earlier this month.

To see actual pictures of William M. Kelley, view his descendants’ tribute here: https://kelleysmagazine.com/2016/02/29/a-portrait-of-pop/

 

Sources & Additional Reading

Interview with William M. Kelley Jr

http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b044-i126

Hubert Thomas Delaney –¬†https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubert_Thomas_Delany

The Pittsburgh Courier, November 17, 1923, page 15.

New York Age, August 8, 1925, page 7.

New York Age, August 31, 1929, page 3 – Wm. E. Kelley to be Campaign Manager for Delany for Congress

Adam Clayton Powell Jr –¬†https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Clayton_Powell_Jr.

http://chum338.blogs.wesleyan.edu/a-new-kind-of-newspaper-adam-clayton-powell-jr-and-the-peoples-voice/

http://www.academia.edu/827791/Ready_to_Shoot_and_Do_Shoot_Black_Working-Class_Self – Defense_and_Community_Politics_in_Harlem_New_York_during_the_1920s by Shannon King

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I tend to think of Emmett Jay Scott as one of those individuals upon whose shoulders giants stand. Though today he is largely unknown, during his lifetime he was a noted¬†author, educator, activist and entrepreneur. For eighteen years he served as personal secretary to Booker T. Washington. He was Washington’s closest adviser, publicist and his friend. I knew of Emmett J. Scott because of previous research into Washington’s life and visually Scott was almost always at his side. Like Frederick Douglass, Washington was a figure well-photographed in his day. I accepted his presence but it wasn’t until ¬†I chanced upon the book, Scott’s Official History of the American Negro in the World War (1919), that I decided to learn more.

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The title page states¬†that it is a complete and authentic narration, from official sources, of the participation of American soldiers of the Negro race in the World War for democracy, profusely illustrated with official photographs. I was captured by the words “profusely illustrated.” As I perused the book online I was astounded by both the words and imagery in a publication that has been somewhat lost to time as has its author.

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Booker T. Washington

Born in February 1873 in Houston, Texas, Emmett J. Scott was the child of ex-slaves. He¬†attended Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, then worked a series of jobs before employment¬†at¬†a small Houston newspaper. He¬†would eventually co-found the first African American newspaper in Houston, The Texas Freeman, and he would work with political activists like Norris Wright Cuney. ¬†Impressed by Scott’s skills, Booker T. Washington, principal of Tuskegee Institute, hired him in 1897.

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Biographers note that “He became widely recognized as the leader of what was to later be known as the ‚ÄúTuskegee Machine,‚ÄĚ the group of people close to Booker T. Washington who wielded influence over the Black press, churches, and schools in order to promote Washington‚Äôs views.“[1] Like Washington, Scott believed that uplift for blacks would come through business development, the creation of strong financial institutions and nurturing economic self-sufficiency within African American communities. He ran the National Negro Business League founded by Washington in 1900. At Washington’s side, Scott¬†was also active in U.S. politics at home and abroad. In 1909, Scott¬†joined the American Commission to Liberia appointed by President Taft.¬†After Washington died in 1915, Scott co-wrote a biography about his friend and mentor with Lyman Beecher Stowe, the grandson of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

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Scott in 1909 as part of the Liberian Commission

Following Washington’s death, Scott remained at Tuskegee and continued to promote Washington’s philosophy through endeavors like the National Negro Business League. As Scott and other black leaders like a young W. E. B. DuBois sought to identify future opportunities for advancement while celebrating¬†current achievements, a storm brewed across the nation. ¬†The early 1900s was a tumultuous period. Race riots proliferated and not just in the South as highlighted in this 1900 dispatch from Columbia, South Carolina regarding a New York riot.

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A 1908 Springfield, IL¬†riot and lynching prompted ministers, both black and white, to speak directly to the incident. From a New York pulpit, the Rev. Dr. Madison C. Peter’s would remark:

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Seven years before Thomas Dixon’s book would be brought to the big screen by D. W. Griffith as Birth of a Nation, Peters¬†¬†would go on to add, “We are reaping what we have allowed to be sown. Dixon’s novels and Tillman’s speeches have been a menace to the best interests of our republic … keeping alive the race antagonism North and South, which is setting men at one another’s throats when their hands should be clasped in brotherly love.

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Thomas Dixon Jr.

In 1910 when black fighter Jack Johnson beat white fighter James Jeffries in Reno, Nevada in a fight dubbed “the fight of the century” riots broke out across the nation.

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Jack Johnson

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Meanwhile, by 1914, war raged in Europe. The U.S. would eventually join. On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany in order to make the world safe for democracy.  The Selective Service Act of 1917 temporarily authorized the government to raise an army through the compulsory enlistment of Americans. The resulting American Expeditionary Force would be sent to Europe under the command of General John J. Pershing.

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Pershing

When the U.S entered the war, it was unclear what the role of black soldiers was to be, assuming there was to be any role at all. After much discussion and vociferous debate it was decided all American men were needed in this Great War, and Emmett Jay Scott was to play a pivotal role in their involvement. As one biographer notes:

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Robert R. Moton, President of Tuskegee and President Woodrow Wilson

…there was considerable uneasiness as to what would be the status of the Negro in the war and quite naturally Tuskegee Institute was one of the centers which helped in adjusting these conditions. Dr. Moton, Principal, and Mr. Scott, made frequent visits to New York and Washington, and were constantly in consultation with the authorities at Washington. Out of these discussions and together with the activities of other agencies working towards the same end, the Officer’s Training Camp for Negro Officers was established at Des Moines, Iowa, and later, following a conversation between Dr. Moton and Mr. Scott, Dr. Moton interviewed President Wilson and suggested that a colored man be designated as an Assistant or Advisor in the War Department to pass upon various matters affecting the Negro soldiers who were then being inducted into the service and as the result, Mr. Scott went to Washington on October 1st, 1917, and from then until July 1st, 1919, served as Special Assistant to the Secretary of War.” [2]

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draftees

Over a million African Americans responded to their draft calls and nearly¬†three-quarters of a million served. Even as hundreds of thousands stepped forward to answer Wilson’s call, “race antagonism” continued unbridled. On July 2, 1917, a riot broke out in East St. Louis between black and white workers that left over a hundred blacks dead. In a July 4th address, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt preceded his war address to remark, “There has just occurred in a northern city a most lamentable tragedy. We who live elsewhere would do well not to be self-righteous about it, for it was produced by causes which might at any time produce just such results in any of the communities in which we individually dwell.

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Even as over one hundred indictments were being made in the St. Louis incident, an altercation took place in Houston, TX between black soldiers stationed at Camp Logan and white¬†residents. In the end, according to one source, “Three military court-martial proceedings convicted 110 soldiers. Sixty-three received life sentences and thirteen were hung without due process. The army buried their bodies in unmarked graves.” [3]

Emerging out of the resulting nationwide protests was the question¬†– if we are to make the world safe for democracy shouldn’t we make America safe for democracy?

 

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soldiers from chicago arriving in france

Despite outright discrimination, verbal and physical abuses, and segragation among troops, African Americans served with distinction at every level (as they had in previous engagements like the Spanish-American War).

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troop 367th known as the buffaloes

Today I know of many people, of diverse backgrounds, who have no idea of the significant role of African Americans in World War I. Why is that? In part, it is because the visuals were not produced or those that were produced — the illustrations, the paintings, the photography — were not widely distributed. They were not reproduced in the consumer publications of the period. The heroics of individuals, with rare exception, or of whole troops, with rare exception like the Harlem Hellfighters, were not retold, and certainly not in the classroom, as part of the narrative of America’s victory in the Great War.

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two officers who received the croix de guerre

What was Emmett J. Scott thinking when he decided to produce his book? He tells us in the preface: “The Negro, in the great World War for Freedom and Democracy, has proved to be a notable and inspiring figure. The record and achievements of this racial group, as brave soldiers and loyal citizens, furnish one of the brightest chapters in American history. The ready response of Negro draftees to the Selective Service calls together with the numerous patriotic activities of Negroes generally, gave ample evidence of their whole-souled support and their 100 per cent Americanism. …

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troop from philadelphia

It is difficult to indicate which rendered the greater service to their Country—the 400,000 or more of them who entered active military service (many of whom fearlessly and victoriously fought upon the battlefields of France) or the millions of other loyal members of this race whose useful industry in fields, factories, forests, mines, together with many other indispensable civilian activities, so vitally helped the Federal authorities in carrying the war to a successful conclusion. …¬†

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corporal fred mcintyre of the 369th

It is because of the immensely valuable contribution made by Negro soldiers, sailors, and civilians toward the winning of the great World War that this volume has been prepared—in order that there may be an authentic record, not only of the military exploits of this particular racial group of Americans, but of the diversified and valuable contributions made by them as patriotic civilians.

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369th returning home “bringing back the unique record of never having had a man captured, never losing a foot of ground or a trench, and of being nearest to the Rhine of any allied unit where the armistice was signed, and the first detachment of allied troops to reach the Rhine after the armistice.”

In The American Negro in the World War Scott produces a comprehensive account of the involvement of black Americans in World War I, those in the field and those on the home front. I believe it is an important archival record.

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red cross canteen war workers in chicago

After the war Scott’s efforts with the military were both applauded and criticized. Some, like W. E. B. Du Bois, felt he should have been more vocal about the systemic racism and segregation among the troops stationed in Europe. But in wartime correspondence, just declassified in the 1980s, its clear that Scott worked hard to be a voice for the soldiers and to address¬†injustices committed.

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dr. emmet jay scott and his faithful office corps who co-operated in the performance of his duties as special assistant to the secretary of war

After the war, Scott would move on to Howard University. Outside of his university duties as Secretary Treasurer, he would continue to promote and invest in business development opportunities nationwide. He died December 12, 1957 at the age of 84.

Sources & Additional Reading

The American Negro in the World War – https://archive.org/details/scottsofficialhi00scot_0

or http://net.lib.byu.edu/~rdh7/wwi/comment/Scott/ScottTC.htm

[1] Emmett Scott, Administrator of a Dream

http://www.blackpast.org/aah/scott-emmett-j-1873-1957

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Booker_T._Washington

[2] http://afrotexan.com/AfroPress/Editors/scott_emmett.htm,  a Sketch from the National Cyclopedia of the Colored Race (1919)

They Came to Fight: African Americans and the Great War

 

[3] http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-world-war-i.html

http://www.npr.org/2015/10/25/451717690/birth-of-a-race-the-obscure-demise-of-a-would-be-rebuttal-to-racism

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Recently I “challenged” viewers to watch a video that was less than four minutes long featuring the dancer known as L’il Buck. This week I challenge you to view this video. On November 29, 1962 a benefit concert took place¬†called The American Pageant of the Arts. In attendance was President¬†and Mrs. Kennedy, Marion Anderson, Robert Frost, Van Cliburn, and many other stars of stage and screen. Leonard Bernstein was Master of Ceremonies. In this particular concert excerpt he introduces to America a 7-year old cellist named Yo-Yo Ma and his sister Yeou-Cheng Ma.

The benefit performance was to raise funds toward the creation of a National Cultural Center.

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Today the National Cultural Center is known as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Sources & Additional Reading

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pablo_Casals

https://leonardbernstein.com/

Hope for America/Government Support for the Arts –¬†https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/hope-for-america/government-support-for-the-arts.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_F._Kennedy_Center_for_the_Performing_Arts

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Editorial note: This post was written in part in response to the current Presidential administration’s recent remarks this Black History Month, and its seeming lack of knowledge regarding black history in this country. It is also¬†written to share in brief the life and work of an artist whose work I have always¬†admired.

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Henry Ossawa Tanner 1859-1937

Henry Ossawa Tanner was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1859 and grew up in Philadelphia. Tanner’s father, who happened to be a friend of Frederick Douglass, was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal church. Tanner’s¬†mother, who had escaped slavery in Virginia via the Underground Railroad, taught private school in the home. Both staunch believers in education, they made sure their son, the eldest in a large family,¬†was well-educated and prepared for a successful career in a conventional job.

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The Tanner Family

Tanner had a slightly alternative idea. He¬†too wanted to be successful and he wanted to be a painter. He’d¬†known¬†since the age of 13¬†after¬†watching¬†an artist at work in a Philadelphia park. ¬†Eventually, his father relented and he was allowed to pursue his artistic calling. In 1879 he was admitted into the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the first African American student to attend full-time.

Biographers refer to the fact that Tanner would write little about his time at the academy, mostly focusing on what he learned from Thomas Eakins with whom he studied. Regardless, it was an important period in Tanner’s life, not only for what he learned about art but also about human nature.

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Already in attendance at the academy prior to Tanner’s arrival was student Joseph Pennell who would one day be recognized as a great American illustrator. In his 1925 memoir Pennell makes note of Tanner’s arrival at the school in a chapter titled, The Coming of the Nigger.

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Ship in a Storm, 1879

“There was no dissenting voice in the academy against Tanner’s presence. He came, he was young, an octoroon, very well dressed, far better than most of us. His wool, if he had any, was cropped so short you could not see it, and he had a nice mustache. … he drew very well. He was quiet and modest, and he “painted too” it seemed “among his other accomplishments.” We were interested at first but he soon passed almost unnoticed … Little by little however we were conscious of a change. I can hardly explain, but he seemed to want things; we seemed in the way, and the feeling grew.”

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Seascape – Jetty, 1876-1879

One night while¬†out on the town with Pennell and other students, Tanner was mocked by other African Americans for being with the white students. Pennell recalls, “Then he began to assert himself and, to cut a long story short, one night his easel was carried out into the middle of Broad Street, and though not painfully crucified, he was firmly tied to it and left there. And that is my only experience of my colored brothers in a white school. Curiously there has never been a great Negro or great Jew artist in the history of the world. …”¬†

Tanner studied¬†at the academy¬†through 1885. By 1889 he moved to Atlanta. He was unsuccessful in a photography business venture. During this period he made the acquaintance of Bishop Joseph Hartzell of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Hartzel and his wife became¬†patrons, helping Tanner secure a teaching position at Clark College, encouraging him to exhibit his work and eventually funding a¬†trip for him to Europe.¬†In Europe, Tanner discovered an environment¬†where he was not a “negro painter,” he¬†was simply an American painter. In 1891, he emigrated to Paris where he would study at the Academie Julian.

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The Banjo Lesson. 1893

After contracting typhoid fever, he returned briefly to the U.S. to recuperate. During this period he delivered¬†a speech at The Chicago Congress on Africa at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition about negro artists and sculptors. In 1893 he¬†would also complete¬†one of his most iconic¬†works, The Banjo Lesson. Tanner had originally sketched this scene in the late 1880s while traveling in the Blue Ridge Mountains¬†of North Carolina.

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The Thankful Poor, 1894

In two paintings, Tanner portrays the beauty and dignity of African Americans, and does so in  a way that is purposefully counter to the increasingly derogatory depictions of African Americans in art, newspapers and other consumer publications. Numerous prints of these paintings were made and hung in the homes of African Americans as a source of pride and inspiration.  Tanner would produce few, if any other, such paintings of African Americans. Regardless, wherever Tanner traveled in the world, he captured the vibrancy of the people he saw around him.

 

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The Young Sabot Maker

With his religious paintings, he especially played with color and light.

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Resurrection of Lazarus

After being moved by Tanner’s Resurrection of Lazarus, department store magnate and art critic Rodman Wanamaker offered to sponsor a trip to Palestine. Tanner¬†traveled throughout North Africa and the Near East. The journey further informed Tanner’s work with religious narrative.

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Mosque in Cairo

Aside from The Banjo Lesson, Tanner is now most often remembered for the breadth and beauty of his religious themed works.

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

The Anunciation, 1897

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Jesus Visiting Nicodemus, 1899

 

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The Disciples See Christ Walking on the Water, 1907

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Daniel in the Lion’s Den

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Flight into Egypt, 1923

In 1899, Tanner married Swedish-American opera singer Jessie Olsson. They had one child, Jesse. Tanner¬†continued to paint, exhibiting internationally. He expanded his list of patrons. ¬†In 1902, over the course of four months, four of his paintings – Sarah, Hagar, Rachel and Mary – were reproduced in the Ladies’ Home Journal. He became renowned though he would always struggle financially.

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As World War I broke out in Europe, Tanner became depressed. He was unable to paint. Or what he painted while respected was not being purchased.  He wanted to serve in some way but he was too old to enlist. He shared an idea with the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom Walter Hines Page. His idea: turn the unused fields around the base hospital in Vittel, France into a vegetable garden and organize the convalescing soldiers as a work force. Provide food. Build morale. Page reached out to his counterpart in France and soon after Tanner was attached to the American Red Cross as a Lieutenant in the Farm Services Bureau. In 1919, for his efforts, Tanner received a Foreign Service certificate signed by Woodrow Wilson.

Postwar, Tanner would resume painting and once more receive accolades for his work. In 1923 Tanner was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour for his work as an artist. In 1927 he became the first African American to be granted full membership in the National Academy of Design in New York.

Tanner lived during one of the most contentious periods in U.S. race relations.  While he chose to emigrate to France, he always considered himself an American. He was a mentor and adviser to artists of all races studying in Europe. He was vocal in print and in person in support of equal opportunity for artists of all backgrounds. On May 27, 1937, he died at his home in Paris.

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), American painter;

Today, Tanner is most often referenced as one of the great African American painters. I suspect he would simply like to be known as a great American artist. His painting, Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City was the first work of art by an African-American artist to be added to the White House Permanent Collection. It was acquired in 1996 from Dr. Rae Alexander-Minter, grandniece of the artist.

sand-dunes-at-sunset

Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City, 1886

 

Sources & Additional Reading

Treasures of the White House: Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City

Henry Ossawa Tanner Wikipedia Page

A Missing Question Mark: The Unknown Henry Ossawa Tanner by Will Smith

http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artist/?id=4742

Khan Academy Course on Tanner’s Banjo Lesson

The Adventures of an Illustrator by Joseph Pennell

Photograph of the Extended Tanner Family, 1890

Henry Ossawa Tanner| Realist/Symbolist painter

Henry Ossawa Tanner: Race, Religion and Visual Mysticism by Kelly J. Baker

Henry Ossawa Tanner: American Artist  by Marcia M. Mathews

White House Announcement of Acquisition of Tanner Painting

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One thing people might not know about me is that as an adult I learned how to play the harmonica. I’d never played an instrument before. The class was in part an opportunity to do something different and also an homage to my father who played the harmonica when I was a child. I have a very nice harmonica tucked away somewhere. I haven’t played or thought about playing for years until I came across a 1975 recording of Babylon is Falling Down sung by Deacon Dan Smith with Nick Hallman & the Georgia Sea Island Singers. The music is on the disc, Shall We Gather at the River, highlighting Florida’s African American religious music. This song and 14 additional tracks can be accessed online via the following link:¬†https://www.floridamemory.com/audio/cd3.php¬† Well worth a visit to that page and the larger Florida Memory site to learn about the diverse history of the peoples that¬†have shaped a place that is an important part of the American puzzle.

 

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