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Posts Tagged ‘black history’

This is a list of Black officers employed by English traders in West Africa. This record is just one page from the extensive archives of the Royal African Company.

The Royal African Company (RAC) was formed in 1660 by the royal Stuart family and City of London merchants. Trade focused on the west coast of Africa with a primary interest in trade for gold. That focus would shift to human trade. The RAC shipped more African slaves to the Americas than any other company in the history of the Atlantic slave trade. By 1752 its assets were transferred to the newly formed African Company of Merchants that would operate until 1821. The page I’ve shared has to be from a company ledger produced after 1765.

Many company records have been digitized and are accessible via a genealogical database. It is interesting to peruse these records and see the number of Black men employed by the company. These men listed may have been stationed at the trading post, Cape Coast Castle.

Cape Coast Castle (as rebuilt by the British in 18th century), Ghana

The first man, Cudjoe, was a cabboceer and linguist. Cabboceers were African men appointed by their leaders to supply European traders with trade goods including slaves. The third man Frederick Adoy was a writer, as are several other men on the list. Adoy was the son of a cabboceer and had been educated in England. Writers were the equivalent of clerks for the company. Adoy had the advantage of speaking the native languages. The last man Philip Quaque was born on the Cape Coast but taken to England as a child in 1754 by a missionary from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. There, he went to school, was baptized and may have studied theology at Oxford. In 1765 he became the first African ordained in the Church of England. In that same year he received his commission to serve as chaplain and spread the gospel back in Africa.

In October he and his English wife Catherine Blunt boarded the ship The King of Prussia, captained by Shepherd. If you switch over to the slavevoyages.org database, you can search for a vessell named King of Prussia.

Entry from Slave Voyages Database

The entry notes in October 1765 Captain John Shepherd and crew departed London for West Africa. After safe delivery of any goods and departure of passengers, like Quaque, Shepherd and company factors began trading activities. When the ship departs, 216 enslaved people are in the hold of the ship. At least 189 survived the voyage, with 107 sold in Grenada and 82 sold in Nevis. Shepherd than returned to London by the fall of 1766.

Quaque never returned to England, except for a short visit in 1784-1785. His wife Catherine died a year after arrival at the Cape Coast. Over time he would eventually marry two African women who bore him sons. He focused his missionary efforts on starting a school primarily for Afro-European (i.e. mulatto) children of the elites. He wrote frequently to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel back in London. You can read his own words.

He describes in great detail his successes and challenges, challenges that included the fact he was no longer fluent in the local language. His family ties remained within the community but his cultural connection had been distorted by a childhood and devout Anglican upbringing in England. Local and global politics, as well as wars, hampered his mission at every level yet he persevered. For extra money he even worked as a writer/clerk like Frederick Adoy.

Sometimes Quaque had no students and sometimes he had over a dozen. He taught them reading, writing and arithmetic, and of course religion. He had dreams of expansion and wrote of wanting to hire Adoy and fellow Black writer John Acqua (also educated in England) as his teaching assistants. The school never thrived though it did survive. Quaque’s sons, educated in England, even assisted him for a time. Quaque died in 1816 after fifty years of service.

Cape Coast Castle Dungeon

What must he have thought of the slave trade? In the place where he taught brown and black children in a school room, down below brown and black children were chained in the holding cells awaiting transport to the New World. As a writer he would have chronicled the trade that took place. He had been chaplain to the English traders and missionary among his African people. While he vilified slavery, especially later in life, his actions suggest he believed religious conversion would save his people. Still, his criticism would be an important part of the growing abolitionist movement. And while, as indicated in his letters, he may not have felt successful, his legacy endures as does his school.

Sources and Additional Reading

Bartels, F. L. “PHILIP QUAQUE, 1741—1816.” Transactions of the Gold Coast & Togoland Historical Society, vol. 1, no. 5, Historical Society of Ghana, 1955, pp. 153–77, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41406590.

slavevoyages.org

Royal African Company Records 1694 to 1743

“One of their Own Color and Kindred” Philip Quaque and the SPG Mission to Africa, by Travis Glasson, DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199773961.003.0007

The Life and Letters of Philip Quaque the First African Anglican Missionary

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I have come to think a lot about what’s in a name or a label. What is conveyed? Should some names or labels be forgotten, erased from memory? But what might be lost along the way? What insights from human history, and how names and labels were used, might inform who we are today? Take the label “turpentine negro.”

The colonization of America resulted in the development of a naval stores industry. Naval stores are products — tar, pitch, turpentine and rosin – produced from pine and at first primarily used in early ship building. Tar was needed to seal wooden ships and ropes. Turpentine would become a vital ingredient in a range of manufacturing from paints and varnishes to paper production. Europe had relied upon Sweden for its tar but with the “discovery” of the New World and its expansive forests, new opportunities emerged for Britain to develop its own naval stores in the colonies. New England forests were tapped for awhile but it was the abundant long leaf pines of the southern colonies that would prove to be most lucrative, especially in the Carolinas and later in Georgia, Florida and Texas.

I first learned of this tree and the concept of naval stores while researching a colonial-era Bostonian. As a young man he joined a business venture where he sailed to the Carolinas, purchased tar and pitch, and then returned to sell the naval stores in New England. I wondered what was the source of tar and how was it produced. In learning about tar, I learned about turpentine production and that’s how I learned about the “turpentine negroes” and “turpentine niggers.” The words, this classification of human beings, can be found used hundreds of time in mostly southern newspapers from the 1880s to 1940s.

turpentine workers

I know there was turpentine in the house where I grew up. I just don’t remember how my father used it. This is when I really miss my brothers’ memories because when I think of turpentine, growing up in Virginia, it was something very much in the male realm. I don’t think my mother did anything with it except disparage it for its scent.

Disparage. To regard or represent as being of little worth.

Turns out, since before the Revolutionary War, southern Blacks were essential to the production of naval stores. The nature of the work meant they lived in the pine woods. There they formed a unique culture. The first Black workers were mostly enslaved, often hired out by their owners. Even after the Civil War, these workers, now technically free, continued to apply their skills in the turpentine orchards, traveling from pine woods to pine woods across state lines.

Over many generations these men and women produced the goods that helped keep the world’s greatest fleets afloat. They produced goods that enabled improvements in the manufacturing of a diverse range of products. Their labor was valued but they were disparaged as human beings, by whites and sometimes other people of color as well. Thus the distinction that was made by the label, turpentine negro.

Frederick Law Olmstead during his travels in the South wrote in 1855, “There are very large forests of this [long leaf pine] tree in North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama; and the turpentine business is carried on, to some extent, in all these States. In North Carolina, however, much more largely than in the others; because, in it, cotton is rather less productive than in the others, in an average of years. Negroes are, therefore, in rather less demand; and their owners oftener see their profit in employing them in turpentine orchards than in the cotton-fields.

If we enter, in the winter, a part of a forest that is about to be converted into a “turpentine orchard,” we come upon negroes engaged in making boxes, in which the sap is to be collected the following spring. They continue at this work from November to March, or until, as the warm weather approaches, the sap flows freely, and they are needed to remove it from the boxes into barrels. These “boxes” are not made of boards, nailed together in a cubical form, as might be supposed; nor are they log-troughs, such as, at the North, maple-sap is collected in. They are cavities dug in the trunk of the tree itself. A long, narrow ax, made in Connecticut, especially for this purpose, is used for this wood-pecking operation; and some skill is required to use it properly.

A considerable amount of turpentine is shipped in barrels to Northern ports, where it is distilled; a larger amount is distilled in the State.

The orchards operated under a task system. Workers were assigned specific tasks. Olmstead is noted as describing, an overseer had “ten hands dipping + six hands getting timber, seven hands at the cooper shop, five hands at the still, one hand cutting wood, and three wagoning.”  After the Civil War, with slavery’s end, the system essentially remained the same.

As C. W. Wimster recalled in a 1939 Federal Writers Project interview:

My folks believed in education, an I was sent to school regular when I was a boy, but worked in the summers. When I was about ten years old we moved to a camp at Martin, seven miles from Ocala, an I was promoted to talley “man”—keeping tally on the number of trees boxed or streaked by each nigger. Niggers do all the labor in the woods, an most of the work around the still. The manager, foreman, commissary men and woods riders are all white men. At each camp there will be from 50 to 200 niggers, accordin to the number of “crops” worked. A crop is about 10,000 trees.

turpentine worker’s home, georgia

The white folks live in fairly good homes at one side of the camp, and the niggers in their quarters at the other side in two-or three-room cabins or board houses. We always aimed to have separate quarters for the single niggers to keep them from messin up with the married men’s wives. But this didn’t always work, and there was many a fight on account uv them mixin at night in the woods.

One of the jobs that Wimster later took was “as manager of eight camps owned by a New York concern at Opal, Okeechobee County. This was a big virgin woods in low, swampy country, and the outfit was a big one of 120 crops. There I had charge of 400 niggers and nine woodsmen (riders).

three turpentine pickers

When asked about the home life of the Black people in the Florida turpentine camps, Mr. Wimster replied: “Turpentine niggers are a class by themselves. They are different from town niggers, farm laborers or any other kind. Mostly they are born and raised in the camps, and don’t know much about anything else. They seldom go to town, and few of them ever saw the inside of a school house. In nearly every camp there is a jack-leg preacher who also works in the woods, and they usually have church services on Sunday at one or another of their houses.

And every camp has its ‘jook’, as they are now called, but the original name of this kind of a joint was a ‘tunk’. This is a house where the men and women gather on Saturday nights to dance, drink moonshine, gamble and fight. Between dances or drinks, young couples stroll off into the woods and make love. … The supreme authority in a camp is the foreman. To the niggers he is the law, the judge, jury and executioner. He even ranks ahead of God to these people.”

In a 1903 New Orleans newspaper they were described as the worst character of criminal for the police to deal with when they came to town to spend their money. I suspect there were few things worse than to call a successful Black man a “turpentine nigger” nor was it uncommon for a person of color to say, “What do you think I am a turpentine nigger?”

turpentine worker

In 1942, author Lillian Cox Athey wrote of the long established industry that stretched from North Carolina to Texas. She noted that long leaf pine covered about 1000 miles, with more than 1200 turpentine camps to be found in the woods and over 45,000 workers. She presents a romanticized view of the camps and their management. And as for the workers:

Excerpt from Evening Star, Washington, DC, 1942

At a 1946 Southern Forestry Convention, one report noted that the times were changing and that the “old fashioned turpentine negro” was to become a shadowy creature of the past. In a post-war world, workers were going to towns, “wearing zoot suits and driving trucks and making money.”

The language is regional. Searching old newspapers the terminology is primarily expressed in deep southern publications. More recent use of the words appears in the historical novels of writers with southern roots. Studying the characterization of these workers from antebellum times to just after World War II suggests that this regional history is also a national if not indeed global history. Shining a spotlight on people, labeled turpentine negroes, illuminates once more the ties that link North and South in the American slave economy and offers the opportunity to think about who benefited from that economy, who suffered, and the enduring legacy long after slavery ended.

Sources of Images & Further Reading

Outland, Robert B. “Slavery, Work, and the Geography of the North Carolina Naval Stores Industry, 1835-1860.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 62, no. 1, Southern Historical Association, 1996, pp. 27–56, https://doi.org/10.2307/2211205.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Turpentine workers. Georgia. United States Georgia, 1937. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017770332/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Overseer in the turpentine woods. Georgia. United States Georgia, 1937. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017770378/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Untitled photo, possibly related to: Turpentine worker’s family near Cordele, Alabama. Father’s wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support. United States Alabama Cordele, 1936. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017768046/.

Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Turpentine worker’s family near Cordele, Alabama. Father’s wages one dollar a day. This is the standard of living the turpentine trees support. United States Alabama Cordele, 1936. July. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017763012/.

In the great pine forests of the South – gathering crude turpentine – North Carolina. , ca. 1903. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2003663487/.

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Embark – to board a ship

Disembark – to remove or unload cargo or passengers from a ship

Detailed 1781 Map of West Point on the York River, in Virginia. Rochambeau Collection, Library of Congress.

Between 1724 and 1739 at least 18 vessels owned by Englishman William Gerrish engaged in the slave trade. His ships departed from London, sailed to Africa, and transported their human cargo to Antigua, St. Kitts, Montserrat, South Carolina and Virginia for disembarkment. The first ship, at least as identified in the Slave Voyages Database, was called the Negroes Nest. Others were named Flying Horse, Gaboone, Guinea Hen, Hester and Jane, London Spy, Sea Nymph, Speaker, Gally and Tryall. Over 2,933 men, women and children survived the various voyages though that is only a fraction of the original number embarked. 

In 1739, one of his ships, the Black Prince, docked at the York River to sell her cargo. An advertisement in the Virginia Gazette noted that the Black Prince had lately arrived from the Gold Coast of Africa with a choice parcel of slaves to be sold at York Town along the York River. The captain, John Sibson, and crew departed London in May 1738 and arrived at their destination in Africa by September. Trade and re-outfitting was completed by March 1739. In that month the Black Prince departed Africa with 137 men, women and children shackled in the hold or maybe chained on deck. The ship reached York Town in May with 112 enslaved people remaining alive. Selling immediately commenced. By October the Black Prince had returned to London.

Between 1732 and 1739, Sibson served as captain of three slave ships, the Black Prince, the Ann and Elizabeth, and the Sarah and Elizabeth. For each four trips he made with these ships he departed London, traveled to Africa and took his cargo to Jamaica, St. Kitts, the Americas, and the York River. On these four voyages he collected 888 men, women and children. 723 survived the journey to their ports of disembarkment.

Between 1698 and 1762, the York River was a point of disembarkment for at least 163 slave ships whose captains sold 31,056 men, women and children. Again, this number represents only a fraction of the people originally boarded in Africa. One can use the Slave Voyages Database to account for some number of those who died along the Middle Passage. When the ships were emptied of their human cargo, captains sought to fill their ships with tobacco. That goal was not so easily achieved as evidenced by an ad Captain Sibson of the Black Prince placed in the Virginia Gazette:

“I find it has been industriously reported for many Years, that Ships which come from Guinea here with Slaves, are never after in Condition to take in Tobacco; which is very absurd and ungenerous, and great Discouragement to bring Negroes here: But I cannot think any Man, who has any Notion of a Ship, can ever imagine any one will venture his Life and Fortune to Sea in a Vessel that is not Sea worthy. However, to clear up all Doubts of that kind, if any Gentleman has Mind to ship any Tobacco on board me, I will cause a Survey to be made of my Vessel by whom they shall desire. and her Condition shall be reported accordingly. I am the readers most obedient servant, John Sibson.” Records indicate he was successful in his endeavor and did indeed depart with a cargo of tobacco.

William Gerrish died in 1741, a respected West India merchant. There are a number of John Sibson’s to be found in various databases one of whom died in October 1739, the month and year that Sibson returned the Black Prince to London. As for the Africans dispersed throughout the West Indies and the Americas … different methods will be needed to tell their stories by the numbers or otherwise.

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My first thought was that in November, September and October ran away. But I dug a little deeper and discovered that the first ad for the return of September and October appeared in an October newspaper.

The year was 1736. Described as two new Gambia negroes, September and October were enslaved near Charleston, South Carolina. They wore brown breeches and jackets with brass or white metal buttons. No mention of shoes in this ad nor details about skin color, hair texture or their ability to speak English.

The man who wanted them returned was Thomas Monck. How long the property of Monck it is unclear. Probably not long. If long enough then he would have added to the description that they carried his brand upon their chests. That was Monck’s documented chosen way to mark property, whether horses or people.

Using the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, you can search by slave ship itinerary. I entered as place of purchase “Gambia.” In 1735 Captain John Coe departed London in the ship Princess Carolina, a vessel owned by David Godin. With a crew of just over a dozen men, he sailed to Gambia and there purchased 211 slaves. In 1736 he delivered the 180 men, women and children who had survived the voyage. Among them was likely September and October.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is south-carolina_gazette_1736-10-30_3.png
South Carolina Gazette October 1736

Sources & Further Reading

https://www.slavevoyages.org/

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When Jupiter ran away with Venus where did they go?

When they rested in a field did they look up into the night sky and try to find themselves amidst the stars?

When they sheltered beneath a tree, lips pressed tight in silence as the white man walked nearby, did Venus rest her head against Jupiter’s chest and find calm in the beat of his heart? Did he press his hand to her stomach and pray to old gods and new?

They found solace in each other but where were they to find sanctuary in New England in 1741?

Mr. Gerrish and Mr. Rawlins, of Dover, New Hampshire, wanted each of them back. They had paid for the runaway advertisement together. The child would belong to Gerrish because he owned Venus … Venus age 35 or 40 who wore rings on her fingers and gold rings in her ears and who combed her hair and usually tied it up high like an English woman.

Rawlins owned Jupiter, age 35 or so, and kept him well-dressed because as Rawlin’s property his being well-kempt was a good reflection on Rawlins.

How did they meet, Jupiter and Venus? Was one running an errand to the other’s household? Had one of them been rented into the other’s household? Maybe, just maybe, their eyes met across the market as they attended the needs of their masters’s families.

The genealogies of Gerrish and Rawlins are well-documented. As for Jupiter and Venus …their story, their lives, have been lost to time but they have not been forgotten.

Source: Boston Post Boy, June 8, 1741

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“I have always wanted to paint from nature, but it is too late when my work is finished for the day, so I am confined mostly to copying. On Sundays and holidays I go out to the country and paint, but holidays are few and far between and the weather doesn’t always permit. I’ve done a few farms, and last spring I did a picture of an old New England farm which I sold to C. A. Coffin of Lynn.”

The Boston Globe, Sunday, April 30, 1911

In the spring of 1911, the Boston Globe shared the story of artist John P. Rollins. Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, in 1852, he trained as a house and sign painter. While in Philadelphia practicing his trade, he began exploring painting as an art. His efforts caught the attention of African American artist David Bustill Bowser.

Bowser mentored the young artist and even encourage him to set aside his trade and focus on fine art. But Rollins was aware, despite Bowser’s success, how hard it was to make a living as an artist especially for a Black man. Curious about the world, a world he might paint one day, he took a job as a sleeping car porter on trains traveling cross country. He finally settled in Boston and worked at Young’s Hotel located in the Financial District. He worked there for 20 years, painting during his off-hours. He managed to find time to take vocal lessons at the New England Conservatory. He sang in Baptist choirs across the city and eventually served as choirmaster for several churches including Boston’s Twelfth Street Church.

After leaving Young’s Hotel, Rollins was a messenger for a large banking house. A personable man, Rollins made connections with a mercantile and social elite who began to purchase his artwork. He was able to copy the works of great masters from a simple postcard. Both his reproductions and original art caught the attention of Boston artist and teacher Walter Gilman Page.

Page allowed Rollins access to his studio. As the two men developed a relationship, Rollins introduced Page to others in the black community who were artists as well. Like Rollins they pursued their dreams of painting while working whatever jobs they could find to make a living. They worked as elevator operators, waiters and janitors. With Page’s support, in 1907, the men formed the Boston Negro Art Club. Soon thereafter they had their first exhibit showcasing many works of art. Rollins served as Vice-President of the group.

“There’s nothing like seeing other men doing good work to make one want to keep up to the standard,” said Rollins. “But the fact of being able to sell your pictures is probably the greatest help. I have always been particularly interested in painting Venice. It has been the wish of my life to go there; from the time I was a little shaver down in Virginia … Venice has been to me like a stick of candy, way up high on a Christmas tree …”

“State Street, 1801” by James Brown Marston located at the Massachusetts Historical Society

“One of the best copies I have ever made is of ‘State Street, Boston – 1801,’ the original of which is at the rooms of the Massachusetts Historical Society. There are a number of people who take an interest in my work and when some of my friends go away and travel either in this country or in Europe they send me all the postcards they can of the scenery, and it gives me great pleasure to copy and enlarge them.”

After its debut in 1907 the Negro Art Club had a few more exhibitions. By the time Rollins was interviewed by the Boston Globe in 1911 the group had likely disbanded. A 1920 Census shows that Rollins was still working as a porter at the bank and one can hope that he was still painting. Whether any of his paintings survive is unknown.

Sources and Additional Reading

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

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branches

I’ve only done one art installation. It revolved around the childhood food memories of former slaves living in the deep south. It was an installation that was visual and tactile with hanging branches and shells. Thankfully, people found it thought provoking. A new installation comes to mind based on the experiences of children enslaved in New England. The concept is based on the content of advertisements in newspapers from the 18th century. With regard to slavery, you can divide the ads into at least two categories: “to be sold” and “runaway.” And then there were a few ads I came across that one might almost categorize as “giveaway.” These ads most often involve young children.

“A negro infant girl about six weeks old to be given for the bringing up. Inquire of John Campbell Post-Master to know further …” (1706)

Imagine walking into a room lit by flickering lamplight. Against the wall there would be a simple desk and chair and on the desk accessories strewn about appropriate to the times including a ledger book. Nearby stands a period printing press. In the air are sounds one might hear to give a sense of place, perhaps the scratch of a quill pen on stationery, the shuffling of papers, the machinations of the printing press, and maybe someone whistling or playing a bone flute with some ditty of the day. And in the background, steadily becoming louder, is the sound of a child crying. And that building sound might draw the viewer’s attention to a different part of the room where there is a big wooden block, not unlike an auction block, and upon the block is a straw basket. The cries emanate from it. Hanging, or projected onto the wall, is that ad: “A negro infant girl about six weeks old to be given for the bringing up.”

Then one might enter a different room, a small room, dimly lit. Scattered about would be household items appropriate to the times including clothing for young children. The sound in the air this time? Perhaps the babble of young children, the gurgle of a baby and then a mother’s voice, frantic yet calm, as she tries to rush them, to shush them, and get them moving out a door. That door slams shut, “Wham!” and then the ad is projected on the wall:

“Ran away from their Master … a Negro woman with four small children, three of them mulattos, the youngest a Negro that sucks or is lately weaned …”

In a later newspaper advertisement I would find that that same woman would runaway from that same man this time with just her now two year old Negro child. What was this woman’s story? What was her name? What happened to the other children? What choices had to be made?

The following ad particularly struck me because it helps bring to life in a different way the economic linkages between north and south long before this land was ever one nation.

“Any person with a Negro man slave or slaves to sell or to be transported to Virginia for a market may repair to John Cambpell Post-Master of Boston … transport will be free …”

For this ad the viewer would be directed to walk into a room that is a carpenter’s shop or a blacksmith’s shop or even a distillery. You’d hear the sounds of men at work, orders being placed. Then as the din dies down you hear a man with a British accent call out a list of names to come to him … Cato, Scipio, Jupiter, Prince. Maybe he’ll say, “Gentlemen, you’ve done fine work but I have need to send you away.”

Why revisit the past?

So that the past will not be repeated. But also so that we better understand what actually happened. Just these few ads paint a different picture of colonial New England for me. The historic landscape is deeper, richer and darker. It gives further credence to how the contagion of slavery is part of the very foundations of this country. We cannot move past something if we do not understand what it is that we are trying to move past.

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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 …

JohnHLewisMerchant

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.

The_Boston_Globe_Sun__May_6__1883_

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.

HarvardLampoon1894

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.

The_Boston_Globe_Fri__Sep_2__1881_

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.

The_Boston_Globe_Tue__Dec_10__1889_

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.

Mary_Smith_Peake

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.

RuffinandRidley

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.

BenjaminandCourtney

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

NNBL1900

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:

LewisQuote1900

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:

The_Boston_Globe_Thu__Mar_13__1902_

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 …

TaitDesign

… 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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