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Posts Tagged ‘American history’

The more I learn about J. H. Lewis (1846-1918), the more of an enigma he becomes. He was one of the most successful merchant tailors of his time with stores located in downtown Boston and in Providence, RI. He was respected nationally by those in his trade and in the business world generally. He was socially active. Though it does not appear he often took center stage to speak, he “spoke” powerfully with his wallet which was substantial. Like Booker T. Washington he believed in investing in education. And like Booker T. Washington, he had come up from slavery. Unfortunately, unlike Washington, he did not write a memoir and tell the story of his life in his own words. So here are my few words …

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John H. Lewis

John Henry Lewis would have been eighteen or nineteen years old at the end of the Civil War. He left the Enfield, North Carolina plantation where he had formerly been a slave and traveled north with a Union regiment that was returning home to Concord, NH.  Lewis eventually made his way to Boston where he learned the tailoring trade. Well-made clothing was in great demand. Handsome, articulate, and with an entrepreneurial spirit, Lewis excelled as a merchant, targeting his clientele expertly. With a starting capital of less than $100, he quickly grew his business, investing strategically in location (downtown Boston not far from Jordan Marsh) and in advertising to reach his primary audience, the wealthy Boston Brahmins and their children.

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Boston Globe Ad

The size and placement of his ads are significant.  He selected publications that had select audiences like the Boston Globe. When you see his ads in the back pages of the Harvard Lampoon, along with those of Brooks Brothers, it becomes clear why some biographers state that his clients were sometime referred to as “the Harvard set.” His own son would one day attend Harvard.

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Of course, no matter how great the advertising Lewis had to back up his words with action. He needed to put the infrastructure into place and hire the right people to produce consistently great quality, stylish clothing. And he did so.

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By the late 1890’s Lewis was reportedly the second largest merchant tailor in Massachusetts and fourth largest in the U.S. He paid $10,000 a year in rent and employed over 50 men and women, both black and white. His business earned an estimated $150,000 to $175,000 per year. As a self-made man of means, he invested in property in Boston and also down south, including purchasing the plantation where he had been born a slave. Horse racing was especially popular in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Lewis maintained a stable of the finest race horses.

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On September 27, 1877, thirty-year old Lewis married twenty-year old Harriet Smith Peake. She was the only child of Mary Smith Peake, a free woman of color who was famed for teaching the first freed slaves, considered “contraband,” beneath a tree in Hampton, Virginia, a tree still standing today and known as Emancipation Oak.

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Mary S. Peake, mother of Harriet Peake Lewis

By 1880, John and Harriet had two children, John Henry Lewis Jr and Mary Peake Lewis. The Lewis family would become members of Boston’s black elite composed of successful businessmen and women, doctors, lawyers, and musicians. Not all of them were equally wealthy, but they had in common a certain class. They were very cultured and socially active and lived lives in parallel with their white wealthy counterparts. They would vacation in the same exclusive areas like Martha’s Vineyard and Newport. They attended the same opera houses, playhouses, and even the same churches … and sometimes at the same time. Segregation in Boston was not quite as prevalent as it would later become.

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Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and daughter Florida Ruffin Ridley

For instance, as reported in an 1894 edition of The Woman’s Era, a publication founded for women of color by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and her daughter Florida Ruffin Ridley:  “At the last confirmation at Trinity Church a new and beautiful feature introduced was the giving of flowers with the confirmation certificate to each candidate. The beautiful font was filled with long-stemmed Catherine Mermet roses which, after the services were over [Rector] Dr. Donald distributed to each of his new members. Mrs. J. H. Lewis, her young daughter, Mary, and her sister, Miss Melvin were members of the large class confirmed.” The Lewises would have been attending Trinity Church with other African American peers like Mrs. Ruffin, Lyde Benjamin and Dr. Samuel Courtney.

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Lyde W. Benjamin and Dr. Samuel E. Courtney, photos from National Negro League Proceedings

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In 1900, Booker T. Washington chose Boston to launch the National Negro Business League. John H. Lewis was one of the invited speakers. He had been a proponent for such a gathering of successful black business leaders since the early 1890s. His remarks were brief but inspiring concluding with:

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In 1902 his wife suddenly died. Her passing was noted in a North Carolina newspaper, The Roanoke News. “She lived to see her husband a prominent merchant of Boston, not only a substantial property owner of that city, but the owner also of the plantation upon which he was born and the founder of a school upon that plantation. In the death of his wife he has the sympathy of the white people of this community. The funeral services were conducted by the assistant rector of Trinity Church, at one time under the rectorship of the late lamented Bishop Phillips Brooks.

The Boston Globe noted her death in the following article:

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He would eventually remarry to a prominent Philadelphia educator named Dora Cole. She would become very active in the Boston community taking on leadership roles with regard to philanthropy, fundraising and entertaining. Along with great opportunities the early 20th century brought economic challenges for Lewis. People were increasingly able to shop for quality items in department stores versus needing tailor-made clothing. Lewis’s health may have begun to decline. He and his wife began to spend more time in North Carolina at the home he’d created there.

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The New York Age July 2, 1908

By this point he may have effectively retired and had turned over the running of the company to his son. The son may not have been as adept at weathering the challenges of a tailoring trade in a changing world. It appears that the company closed and its remaining merchandise and stock sold in 1916.

John H. Lewis died in the winter of 1918. He is buried in a family plot at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA.

Sources & Additional Reading

Evidence of Progress Among Colored People by G. F. Richings 

http://www.hamptonu.edu/about/emancipation_oak.cfm

Mary S. Peake, the Colored Teacher at Fort Monroe

The Woman’s Era, produced 1894-1897, by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and her daughter Florida Ridley

African Americans in Boston: More Than 350 Years

Boston Globe Archives

Boston Post Archives

The New York Age Archives

National Negro Business League 1900 Proceedings

The American tailor and cutter. v. 23 (July 1901-June 1902).

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ChristusConsolator1851Scheffer

Christus Consolator by Ary Scheffer, 1851

Following is the last stanza of a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier written in 1859 but with a relevance for this day as well:

O heart of mine, keep patience! Looking forth,

As from the Mount of Vision, I behold,

Pure, just, and free, the Church of Christ on earth;

The martyr’s dream, the golden age foretold!

And found, at last, the mystic Graal, I see,

Brimmed with His blessing, pass from lip to lip

In sacred pledge of human fellowship;

And over all the songs of angels hear;

Songs of the love that casteth out all fear;

Songs of the Gospel of Humanity!

Lo! in the midst, with the same look He wore,

Healing and blessing on Genesaret’s shore,

Folding together with the all tender might

Of His great love, the dark hands and the white,

Stands the Consoler, soothing every pain,

Making all burdens light, and breaking every chain.

Whittier wrote the poem in response to a publisher producing a book of prayer with a cover image of Ary Scheffer’s painting Christ Consolator … but with the image of the enslaved black man removed.

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In preface to the poem, Whittier wrote: “It is hardly to be credited, yet is true, that in the anxiety of the Northern merchant to conciliate his Southern customer, a publisher was found ready thus to mutilate Scheffer’s picture. He intended his edition for use in the Southern States undoubtedly, but copies fell into the hands of those who believed literally in a gospel which was to preach liberty to the captive.

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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) and broadsheet of his poem Our Countrymen in Chains

Described as a Quaker, poet and abolitionist, Whittier wielded words as a warrior poet to fight for the end of slavery. A literary giant and inspiration to many, it was his friendship with two people that enabled me to learn about his poetic response to someone’s efforts to rewrite history by altering a work of art.

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Lucy Larcom (1824-1893) and Phillips Brooks (1835-1893)

Lucy Larcom was a respected teacher, poet and author. Based on her letters and biographies, throughout her life, she grappled with spirituality and religion. After hearing Phillips Brooks sermons at Trinity Church in Copley Square, they began a correspondence that developed into a deep friendship. He became a religious guide in her life. She was also close friends with Whittier. In one of her letters to Whittier, in 1892, she wrote:

“I have always thought of thee as a spiritual teacher. And then in late years to have had in addition the teachings and friendship of Phillips Brooks has been a great and true help. I thank God that you two men live and, “will always live,” as he says to you, and that I have known you both. When [Brooks] called at Mrs. Spaulding’s after seeing you, he told us about the Ary Scheffer poem and repeated it to us from the words “O heart of mine,” through to the end, as he went away, standing before the picture — Christus Consolator,” which hangs at her parlor door …”

All three of these literary figures died within a few months of each other. Lucy Larcom was the last and she writes … yes, poetically … about the loss of each of these men and her gratitude for their guidance in her life. It was but random chance finding her letters online that enabled me to revisit Whittier’s works and appreciate how, like Brooks in the pulpit, he used words to make a difference. An endless need across time …

Sources & Additional Reading

Lucy Larcom: Life, Letters, and Diary by Daniel D. Addison, 1894.

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

Full text of On a Prayer Book by John Greenleaf Whittier, 1859.

Our Countrymen in Chains by John Greenleaf Whittier, 1842

Christus Consolator

 

 

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LambTuskegeeConcept

Today I was browsing the online archives of the Library of Congress and chanced upon this 1930s drawing by Katherine Lamb Tait. Though it is not labeled as such, I realized it was an early rendition of her design for the unique stained glass windows at Tuskegee University known as The Singing Window.

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About two years ago, I wrote an article describing the story behind the windows. You can read it online here in Deep South Magazine and learn how Tait collaborated with Robert Moton, President of Tuskegee, to produce what would be a visual expression of eleven spirituals.

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Installed in 1933, the original windows would only be in place for about twenty years before a fire destroyed the chapel where they were located. But because Tait’s final design survived …

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… when a new chapel was built in the 1960’s, architects were able to recreate and include the new Singing Window as well.

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I hope to see it in person one day. This photo of the window can be found on the Library of Congress website courtesy of photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

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This past year I read quite a few slave narratives by African Americans who were interviewed in the late 1930s to document their childhood experiences and memories of slavery prior to the Civil War. These people, ranging in age from octogenarians to centenarians, were also asked about their feelings toward the people who had formerly owned them. The wide-range of responses highlight the complex relationships that developed between those who enslaved and those who were enslaved within an institutionalized system of slavery as it existed in the United States for well over two centuries.

The following words that I call Winter into Spring were inspired by one man’s memory of the tough times after the Civil War and his continuing close relationship with the family who had previously owned him. In broken English, he conveyed the depth of his feelings using visual metaphors. He spoke only of his personal experience, but I was moved by something that I felt was universal … how people experience grief whatever its source. And so I took this man’s words, tapped into my own personal experiences and observations of others to draft the following. It may be a work in progress …

 

Winter into Spring

I remember the day, both of their days,

the soil covering them like I no longer could.

What can I say except losing them was like being a tree in the winter wood. 

Understood?

Every cold wind, so sharp, blowed my leaves and tore them loose.

They fell to the ground, crumbling to dust, as if to follow those two,

my master and mistress, into their graves below.

I was in a world so dark I could not see.

Naked and alone. Stripped bare like a tree soon to fall.

Then one day I felt whole.

It was a strange day. What day, do you say?

That day it was like Spring, and it come bringing light!

I could see.

Well I guess you could say that little tree it was me.

You asked me how it felt and now I’ve told you.

When they passed I felt done, but the day did come,

though I still sometimes wonder why,

when I finally felt alive again.

###

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Crisis1927NewArtist

I’ve been researching the year 1927 for a project and came across an issue of  The Crisis Magazine for that year. In this issue, several new artists were featured. Even though they were not the focus of my research, I became curious about who these people were and who they became. I knew of Countee Cullen but the others … I began by looking up Blanche Taylor Dickinson. The article in The Crisis notes that she “received honorable mention for her poem, “That Hill,” in The Crisis contest of 1926. Four of her poems have recently been accepted to appear in “Present Day Poets.” She was featured alongside Cullen, Loren R. Miller, Anita Scott Coleman and Eulalie Spence.

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Three years earlier, Dickinson had written W. E. B. Du Bois, co-founder and editor of The Crisis. “I am a teacher and a reader of The Crisis but am just becoming a suscriber. You edit a fine magazine and it is a great factor in helping to bring us more and more into the recognition of the opposite race.” Enclosed with the letter were poems but no envelope with return postage because, as Dickinson wrote, if the poems were unacceptable to Du Bois, “you have a waste basket handy I am sure.”

Du Bois read her poems and then sent a reply, despite her lack of return postage. “You have some poetic feelings but are not good enough to publish. You must read more poetry. Buy Rittenhouse’s Little Book of Modern British Verse.”

Dickinson does indeed read Rittenhouse and other compilations. In 1925 she wrote Du Bois once more.

Once before I was ‘nervy’ enough to write you a personal letter and you were kind enough to advise. So pardon this second intrusion and say, ‘She is determined to hold out to the end.’ I have read or you might say studied the book you mentioned … and feel that I have profited thereby. I have made a study of several others, too. Now if I could see a few expressions of mine in our own magazine, CRISIS, I imagine I should feel as I imagine one feels in your own sphere. I am not working for money now but for RECOGNITION. It is unwomanly of me to beg favor of your staff but I do ask please read these lines from the angle of the writer and others less favored and see what you can find in them that deserves criticism or comment.”

Du Bois’s reply? “I do not think that the poems which are enclosed are quite good enough for publication but I do think that the course of study upon which you are embarked is worth while and I hope you will keep it up.”

Dickinson, who’d been writing since childhood, would continue to work at her craft and her poetry would be published in a number of publications during the late 1920s. A little but not a lot is written about her life. Born in 1896 to a prosperous Kentucky farmer, she did well in school (including having her writing published), attended university, became a school teacher and worked as a journalist. She married a truck driver and moved around a bit. In 1929 she interviewed Amelia Earhart for the newspaper, Baltimore Afro-American. In 1930 Dickinson would deliver a speech about “The Cultural Values of Negro Poetry,” but little writing can be found after this time.

Her poetry is quite moving and suggestive of how she (or perhaps women around her) may have felt about life as a woman in the 1920s in general and as an educated African American woman specifically.

“Ah, I know what happiness is …

It is a timid little fawn

Creeping softly up to me

For one caress, then gone

Before I’m through with it …

Away, like dark from dawn!”

— excerpt from poem, A Sonnet and a Rondeau, 1927

Her words can be raw as in this excerpt from, The Good Wife, appearing in a 1932 newspaper, where her words reference the to-this-day divisive issues of class, color and even education level within the African American experience.

All day long

I been sipping suds.

Money making’s mine- 

Money spending’s Bud’s.

Folks keep asking,

How could I

Let a man black as Bud

Take my eye.

I keep rubbing

‘Till my po’ head swim.

‘T ain’t worthwhile to answer

‘Cause Bud ain’t courted them!

BlancheTaylorDickinson

Her work can be found online and in print anthologies from and about the period known as the Harlem Renaissance. Blanche Taylor Dickinson died in 1972.

Sources & Additional Reading

http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b168-i213

http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b169-i545

http://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b169-i546

Shadowed Dreams: Women of the Harlem Renaissance by Maureen Honey

Kentucky African American Encyclopedia edited by Smith, McDaniel and Hardin, p. 142

New Negro Artists, The Crisis, February 1927, p. 206

The Good Wife, The Greeley Daily Tribune, October 10, 1932, p. 3.

Revelation, https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/revelation-16

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photo by patricia cobb

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

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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 – perhaps loved or respected by those who owned them – but 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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