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Posts Tagged ‘black history’

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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:

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.

ChristusConsolatorCropSlave

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.

MotonTait

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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DSCN6154

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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WashingtonandRoosevelt

Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt

… a black man sat down to dinner and it caused a national uproar. That man was Boooker T. Washington, President of Tuskegee, sitting down to dinner at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt.

StarGazetteOct1901

It was not as if, as one paper noted, it was the first time “a negro had been the guest of the White House. During former administrations … Frederick Douglas and B. K. Bruce registrar of the treasury had attended White House receptions.” [1]

BruceandDouglass

Blanche Kelso Bruce and Frederick Douglass

And “Queen Lilliuokalani, whose skin is as dark hued as a full-blooded negro, was once a dinner guest of President Cleveland.” [1] So what was the difference?

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Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee

In an NPR interview about her book on the subject, Guest of Honor (2013), Deborah Davis notes that from a Southern perspective inviting a man to dine with your family was acknowledging him as a social equal. Such a man, as your social equal, could even woo your daughter. If that’s true, Roosevelt’s action, as President of the United States, must have come across as a slap in the face to those southerners whom he had been courting politically.

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excerpts from Weekly Clarion-Ledge, Mississippi 1901

In 1901, the nation was grappling with what was referred to as the Negro Problem. Millions of black people in the South freed for a generation. Some had moved north and west but some stayed having finally acquired some political voice with the right to vote, a right being methodically stripped.

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excerpt from Atlanta Constitutution 1901

By 1901 blacks had become refugees within their own country as they moved across the land, often up north, seeking new opportunities. For many of those who stayed in the South, invisible if not literal walls were being built between the races. Each state took their own approach.

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Peoples’ fears and anxieties were heightened, and others’s sense of supremacy legitimized, by the fiery words of white supremacists like Ben Tillman of South Carolina and the Reverend Thomas F. Dixon.

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Benjamin Tillman and Thomas Dixon

Dixon had yet to publish the first book in his Ku Klux Klan trilogy that would inspire D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation fourteen years later, but as an extremely popular preacher of his day, Dixon was widely known, his lectures sold out and his words published in newspapers and journals nationwide.

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One month prior to the dinner, Vice President Roosevelt had been sworn in as President after McKinley’s death following an assassination attempt. Only thirty-six years since the end of the Civil War, Roosevelt sorely needed to keep a still-shaky Union together by remaining aware of, if not outright appeasing, a once again politically powerful South.

Booker_T._Washington and Family

Booker T. Washington and Family

Earlier in the year, Booker T. Washington had published his memoir Up From Slavery. For years he had traveled the world promoting the success and the ideal of Tuskegee, an educational institution that combined necessary academics with industrial training. In terms of the two sides of “the color line,” there were probably few other national figures as famous as Roosevelt and Washington.

Theodore_Roosevelt_and_Family_-_24_August_1907

Theodore Roosevelt and Family

So for these two men to dine in the White House in 1901 was of significance. Evidence suggests that Washington was well aware of this fact whereas Roosevelt, with his impulsive nature, was less so.

BrooklynDailyEagle1901

The uproar incited by the press, especially the Southern press, was unprecedented. For those who felt threatened by freed blacks, the dinner, its portrayal in the press, conversations on the street and from the pulpit, fanned flames of hatred and gave reign to violence. After news of the dinner, Tillman, then a Congressman from South Carolina, is quoted as saying: “we shall have to kill a thousand niggers to get them back in their places”. He also says later that same year,

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excerpt from Moberly Weekly 1901

As Davis shares in her NPR interview, the impact of that dinner would have ripple effects across the decades. For instance in 1901 a poem was published and appeared in newspapers called Niggers in the White House. Six Months Hence. Written by an anonymous figure, the poem describes in all the derogatory ways possible how blacks had taken over the White House, but then it ends with a solution alluding to the two men’s sons and daughters …

kentuckynewspoemexcerpt

In 1929, the poem was sent to First Lady Lou Hoover as censure when she invited a black congressman’s wife, Jessie DePriest, to tea in the White House. At a time when Northern politicians were trying to enforce existing laws against racial discrimination, the tea became an event around which southern politicians could rally efforts to continue the segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks.

DePriestandHoover

Jessie DePriest and Lou Hoover

Clearly both Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt survived the dinner’s aftermath. Roosevelt would even be elected for a second term as President. Roosevelt and Washington would meet again, several more times, but they never dined again in the White House.

Sources & Additional Reading

Guest of Honor by Deborah Davis (2013)

http://www.npr.org/books/titles/152665080/guest-of-honor-booker-t-washington-theodore-roosevelt-and-the-white-house-dinner

[1]Star-Gazette (Elmira, NY), October 19, 1901

[2] Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, GA) January 13, 1901

https://www.newspapers.com/

Blanche Kelso Bruce

Frederick Douglass

Queen Liliuokalani

Benjamin Tillman

Thomas F. Dixon

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

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

 

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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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