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The American Sphinx is located in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA. Commissioned and designed by Jacob Bigelow, founder of the cemetery, the sphinx was sculpted by Martin Milmore. It is composed of a single block of granite and was completed in July 1872 by Milmore and his brother, Joseph.

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It is a rather unique Civil War monument. Inscribed in Latin and English on its sides are the following words:

American Union Preserved

African Slavery Destroyed

By the Uprising of a Great People

By the Blood of Fallen Heroes

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In a rather poignant twist, Jacob Bigelow never actually saw the sculpture. By the time it was completed he was blind though as recounted on the Mount Auburn Cemetery website, friends remembered him visiting the statue and “fondly touching the contours of the massive form.” Learn more via the link below.

African American Heritage Trail – The Sphinx

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There’s one positive to the long winter/long early spring commutes in Boston when your primary form of transportation is the train and bus. Plenty of time to read. Two books have been in my bag of late that I’d like share in some fashion. Very different books, indeed, but there is a common thread of poetry and the poetic. First up, Army Life in a Black Regiment, first published in 1869.

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In November 1861, shortly after the start of the U.S. Civil War, the Union fleet took command of Port Royal, South Carolina and neighboring sea islands including St. Helena and Hilton Head. Plantation owners fled leaving behind 10,000 slaves, and a bumper crop of sea island cotton.

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A project was conceived known as the Port Royal Experiment. Its purpose? By working with this group of 10,000 freed slaves, in a relatively contained area, perhaps solutions could be found for the greater looming challenge of how to integrate into society millions of emancipated slaves.

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At least three different groups were involved in the experiment, including Northern missionaries who focused on education and training, entrepreneurs who wanted to show the profitability of free labor versus slave labor, and the U.S. government which, most immediately, needed more men on the battlefield. These groups sometimes worked together but were more often at odds. For an excellent scholarly analysis of the Port Royal Experiment, please read Willie Lee Rose’s Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment.

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port royal students

Teachers immediately went to work setting up schools. Entrepreneurs began implementing their free labor experiment offering to pay the former slaves to cultivate the cotton.  But as for volunteering to fight for the military?

 

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escaped slaves wearing old union uniforms

Since the beginning of the war, Union officers in the field saw the need for trained black troops. Early attempts to recruit  had met with poor results and had little initial support from Lincoln’s White House. But finally, with Port Royal, a new more coordinated effort was to be made.  In November 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson received a letter from Brigadier General Rufus Saxton. “I am organizing the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers, with every prospect of success. Your name has been spoken of, in connection with the command of this regiment, by some friends in whose judgement I have confidence. I take great pleasure in offering you the position of Colonel in it … I shall not fill the place until I hear from you …”

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Higginson was a poet, biographer and novelist as well as a Unitarian minister. From a prominent, wealthy New England family, he had long been a staunch abolitionist, social reformer and a major supporter of John Brown. Once the Civil War began, he joined the Union Army. Though he already served another regiment, he accepted Saxton’s invitation to visit Port Royal. He doubted he would accept the commission but, after meeting the people, he accepted his new role without hesitation.

During his time with the regiment he would record detailed entries in his diary about the people, the Sea Island landscape, and of course about the regiments military actions. After becoming ill, in 1864, he would return to New England, resign his commission, and resume researching and writing. Essays about his wartime experiences with the First Regiment appeared infrequently in the Atlantic. By 1869, he compiled the essays, diary excerpts and other work into the book, Army Life in a Black Regiment and Other Writings.

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First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry

In the introduction to his diary entries, Higginson tells the reader:

I am under pretty heavy bonds to tell the truth, and only the truth; for those who look back to the newspaper correspondence of that period will see that this particular regiment lived for months in the glare of publicity, such as tests any regiment severely, and certainly prevents all subsequent romancing in its historian. As the scene of the only effort on the Atlantic coast to arm the negro, our camp attracted a continuous stream of visitors, military and civil. A battalion of black soldiers, a spectacle since so common, seemed then the most daring of innovations, and the whole demeanor of the particular regiment was watched with microscopic scrutiny by friends and foes. I felt sometimes as if we were a plant trying to take root, but constantly pulled up to see if we were growing.”

Of discipline there was great need … Some of the men had already been under fire but they were very ignorant of drill and camp duty. The officers, being appointed from a dozen different States … had all that diversity of methods which so confused our army in those early days. The first need, therefore, was an unbroken interval of training. During this period, which fortunately lasted nearly two months, I rarely left camp … Camp life was a wonderfully strange sensation to almost all volunteer officers, and mine lay among eight hundred men suddenly transformed from slaves into soldiers …

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Infantry Members

Each subsequent diary entry reveals Higginson’s poetic nature. “Yesterday afternoon we were steaming over a summer sea, the deck level as a parlor-floor, no land in sight, no sail, until at last appeared one light-house … The sun set, a great illuminated bubble, submerged in one vast bank of rosy suffusion; it grew dark; after tea all were on deck, the people sang hymns; then the moon set, a moon two days old, a curved pencil of light, reclining backwards on a radiant couch which seemed to rise from the waves to receive it…”(November 24, 1862)

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Dress Parade of the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry

“… One adapts one’s self so readily to new surroundings that already the full zest of the novelty seems passing away from my perceptions, and I write these lines in an eager effort to retain all I can. Already I am growing used to the experience, at first so novel, of living among five hundred men, and scarce a white face to be seen, — of seeing them go through all their daily processes, eating, frolicking, talking, just as if they were white. Each day at dress-parade I stand with the customary folding of the arms before a regimental line of countenances so black that I can hardly tell whether the men stand steadily or not; black is every hand which moves in ready cadence as I vociferate, “Battalion! Shoulder arms!” nor is it till the line of white officers move forward, as parade is dismissed, that I am reminded that my own face is not the color of coal.” (November 27, 1862)

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Infantry Member Henry Williams

Higginson paints a poetic picture of both people and place. “All the excitements of war are quadrupled by darkness; and as I rode along our outer lines at night, and watched the glimmering flames which at regular intervals starred the opposite river-shore, the longing was irresistible to cross the barrier of dusk, and see whether it were men or ghosts who hovered round those dying embers. I had yielded to these impulses in boat-adventures by night … and fascinating indeed it was to glide along, noiselessly paddling, with a dusky guide, the reed-birds, which wailed and fled away into the darkness, and penetrating several miles into the interior, between hostile fires, where discovery might be death.

The book is a time capsule chronicling an important period in American history. These soldiers predated the more famous Massachusetts 54th regiment led by Robert Gould Shaw. Higginson brings to life the courage, the ingenuity and discipline of these early troops.  He shows them to be as human as their white counterparts, their brothers in arms. And though the people of the Sea Islands, for the most part, had known nothing other than slavery, they were prepared with the right training to fight for and defend their freedom and that abstract thing known as “the Union” that their labor had sustained for generations.

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Higginson’s book reminded me of the unique nature of the Sea Islands, a uniqueness that Higginson remarks upon in a post-war essay about the Negro as a Soldier. “I had not allowed for the extreme remoteness and seclusion of their lives, especially among the Sea Island. Many of them had literally spend their whole existence on some lonely island or remote plantation, where the master never came, and the overseer only once or twice a week.”

Under these conditions the slaves developed a patois that is now known as Gullah, a blending of standard English and its Southern regionalisms with different West African languages. By the time the Civil War began, there were over 400,000 slaves in South Carolina alone. Such a large investment in labor was needed for the labor intensive yet highly profitable cultivation of cotton and especially rice.

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During one expedition along the Edisto River with his now-trained troops, Higginson confronts the enemy near some of these rice fields.

“The battery — whether fixed or movable we knew not — met us with a promptness that proved very short-lived. After three shots it was silent, but we could not tell why. The bluff was wooded, and we could see but little. The only course was to land, under cover of the guns. As the firing ceased and the smoke cleared away, I looked across the rice-fields which lay beneath the bluff. The first sunbeams glowed upon their emerald levels, and on the blossoming hedges along the rectangular dikes. What were those black dots which everywhere appeared? Those meadows had become alive with human heads, and along each narrow path came a straggling file of men and women, all on a run for the riverside. I went ashore with a boat-load of troops at once. The landing was difficult and marshy. The astonished negroes tugged us up the bank …They kept arriving by land much faster than we could come by water … What a scene it was! With the wild faces, eager figures, strange garments, it seemed, as one of the poor things reverently suggested, [like judgment day]. “

Bless you” and “Bless the Lord,” were the exclamations Higginson remembers hearing over and over again. “Women brought children on their shoulders; small black boys carried on their backs little brothers … Never had I seen human beings so clad, or rather so unclad … How weak is imagination, how cold is memory, that I ever cease, for a day of my life, to see before me the picture of that astounding scene!” That day they rescued approximately two hundred slaves.

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escaped slaves 1862

 

Higginson, with his Boston Brahmin background, was an outsider looking into another culture. There is condescension on occasion but while he may refer to the former slaves as docile, he makes clear he knew they were not mentally deficient as so many others would report in northern publications. “I cannot conceive what people at the North mean by speaking of the negroes as a bestial or brutal race. … I learned to think that we abolitionists had underrated the suffering produced by slavery among the negroes, but had overrated the demoralization.”

Higginson viewed his troops as human beings who had been denied basic human privileges, privileges he had literally fought for long before the Civil War. Throughout the book he presents the former slaves as active participants in shaping their own destiny.”One half of military duty lies in obedience, the other half in self-respect,” Higginson writes. “A soldier without self-respect is useless.” Recognizing what he describes as the bequest of slavery, Higginson worked with his officers to “impress upon [the troops] they did not obey their officers because they were white, but because they were their officers, just as the Captain must obey me, and I the general; that we were all subject to military law, and protected by it in turn.”

Over time, more black regiments were formed. In 1864 the First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry’s name was changed to the Thirty-Third United States Colored Troops. The men served until February 1866 when the troop was finally mustered out. “It is not my province to write their story, not to vindicate them … Yet this, at least, may be said. The operation on the South Atlantic coast, which long seemed a merely subordinate and incidental part of the great contest, proved to be one of the final pivots on which it turned. All now admit that the fate of the Confederacy was decided by Sherman’s march to the sea. Port Royal was the objective point to which he marched, and he found the Department of the South, when he reached it, held almost exclusively by colored troops. Next to the merit of those who made the march was that of those who held open the door. That service will always remain among the laurels of the black regiments.”

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson

“… we who served with the black troops,” Higgins writes, “have this peculiar satisfaction, that, whatever dignity or sacredness the memories of the war may have to others, they have more to us. … We had touched upon the pivot of the war. Whether this vast and dusky mass should prove the weakness of the nation or its strength, must depend in great measure, we knew, upon our efforts. Till the blacks were armed, there was no guaranty of their freedom. It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.”

 

Sources and Additional Reading

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1st_South_Carolina_Volunteers

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

Army Life of a Black Regiment

Army Life in a Black Regiment (Amazon)

http://www.bostonathenaeum.org/library/book-recommendations/athenaeum-authors/colonel-thomas-wentworth-higginson

https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/thomas_wentworth_higginson

https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/06/rehearsal-for-reconstruction/

https://www.lowcountryafricana.com/project/history-of-the-33rd-united-states-colored-troops-usct/

http://www.drbronsontours.com/bronsonportroyalexperiment.html

https://www.sciway.net/afam/slavery/population.html

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1862).Bombardment of Port Royal, S.C. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-f9a8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. (1861 – 1865).Two views. Dress parade of the First South Carolina Regiment (Colored), near Beaufort, S.C. Retrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-c8e9-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Please note that the Library of Congress has an extensive collection of photographs available online from this period in U.S. history.

 

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Dudley A. Tyng, 1855

In 1856 Reverend Dudley A. Tyng delivered the sermon, Our Country’s Troubles,  before the congregation of the Church of the Epiphany in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Times were indeed quite troubled in the country. As he began he acknowledged the general disdain of discussing politics in the pulpit: “It is undoubtedly a great evil when the teachers of religion forsake their appropriate themes to mingle in all the heated controversies of the day.” But then he goes on to say, “But may there not be also an opposite extreme? May there not be silence when great principles are at stake? … May not the dread of offence be carried so far as to put the pulpit in bondage? Society can suffer in no member without a true-hearted Christian’s ministry suffering with it. … At such times the Christian ministry may be criminal if it does not speak out boldly in behalf of right … It seems to me that we have now reached such a time.”

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1856 map showing the slave states (gray), free states (pink), U.S. territories (green), and Kansas in center (white)

Kansas was bleeding. Two years earlier, Congress had passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act which allowed people in these two territories to decide for themselves, at the polls, whether or not they would allow slavery within their borders. The Act nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which had prohibited slavery north of latitude 36 30′. Corruption and coercion were widespread as people tried to control the polls and the spread of slavery. Conflict erupted between anti-slavery and pro-slavery interests. Thousands poured into the state to sway the voting through rhetoric and violent intimidation.

 

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Abolitionist John Brown, 1856

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Pro-slavery Border Ruffians

Violence would erupt within the walls of Congress as well. In May 1856, anti-slavery Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner delivered an address titled The Crime Against Kansas. He’d written and memorized 112 pages of text. It took him five hours over two days to share it. He focused his carefully crafted ire at two pro-slavery Democratic senators, Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina, authors of the Act.

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Stephen A. Douglas and Andrew Butler

Butler was not present in Congress during the address but his cousin House member Preston Brooks of South Carolina was in attendance. Two days after Sumner spoke, Brooks entered the Senate chamber and severely beat him with a heavy cane. It is considered one of the precipitating events of the Civil War. And it certainly must have inspired Tyng to write his sermon, Our Country’s Troubles, one month later.

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Charles Sumner and Preston Brooks

I claim a patient hearing…,” Tyng beseeched the congregation as he brought the issues of the day into the pulpit. “For the first time in this country it is the scene of civil war. Armed men, in battle array, are marching on its soil and carrying with them all the horrors of a hostile invasion. Towns are sacked, houses pillaged … Society is in confusion, public security at an end … Families are driven out from lands which they have tilled, and houses which they have built, and warned to leave the country or be hung. … Hardly a day passes without bringing telegraphic news of some new outrage, so dreadful that we can scarce realize its possibility, or arouse ourselves to feel as the occasion demands.”  As for the author of these outrages, our “own countrymen, citizens of our own free and happy land, imbuing their hands in brother’s blood! And what is the crime … Merely difference of opinion. Merely assertion of their right to think, speak, write and act according to their own conscience and interests …”

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Tyng  outlined the strategic construction of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and how ultimately its purpose, and the ensuing violence in Kansas, was to give slave-holding interests control of Congress. He describes voter fraud involved with election of a Territorial legislature, a legislature that would go on to pass laws that not only enabled slavery but penalized those who were anti-slavery including preventing them from sitting as jurors, and “That writing, printing or circulating anything against slavery should be punished with five years’ imprisonment at hard labor.”

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With regard to the attack on Sumner he asks, “Without the right of freedom of speech, neither our liberties or our religion are secure. If the bludgeon is to be the ruling power in our country, where will be our boasted freedom and national Christianity? If the flag of our country and the symbols of her liberty cannot protect the members of her government within the walls of her Capitol … what is to become of our republic? … The act itself itself is not so ominous of evil as its endorsement. To hear it defended and eulogized [throughout the Southern states] by public assemblies giving votes of thanks to [Brooks’s] iniquities, by the press almost unanimously holding it up as worthy of imitation, and by fellow representatives who screen the offender from punishment, may well make one feel sadly apprehensive for our country.” …

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…why are Southern men so madly resolved that Kansas shall be thrown open to slavery? Is it because they desire to be residents of the country? Very few of them have any such idea. But it will give them first an increase in political power. It will wheel another state into the phalanx, and give them two more Senatorial votes for the control of the government which the far swifter progress of the free states has taken from them in the House of Representatives. Few among us have reflected on the political power given by slavery to the few.

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“Three-fifths of all the slaves are counted in with the whites as the basis of representation, largely increasing the political importance of the white person at the South over the white person at the North. … [Southern] Political honors and influence are confined to a few.  … these are the persons who control the policies of [the sixteen slave holding states] and by their influence at home and at the North have controlled the policy and monopolized the honors of General Government. …” 

“Doubtless one sin for which we are suffering is the base spirit of truckling and pandering to sectional interests … Vainly do we look for patriotism in the wire-working of our political parties. The whole government is administered upon the principle of the division of the spoils. There has been no prejudice so opposed to the spirit of our institutions, no sectional interest so degrading, that political leaders, low and high were not willing to sell themselves to it for votes.”

Tyng held everyone culpable, from Northern politicians courting slaveholder votes to the people sitting in the pews before him.

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As Mark Twain is thought to have said, history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes. How prescient are Tyng’s words for this day in these United States about people and politics?

Well, in his day, Tyng did not completely leave his audience in despair with his sermon. He left them with what I describe as not so much a call to action as a list of action steps including the following:

“Ours is a government of opinion. To public opinion every party and coalition is compelled to bow. It is mightier than bayonets.  … There is freer circulation of news in this country than in any other, and yet there is surprising ignorance and unconcern in what is taking place in the country.  … Very few of the political journals have reported a faithful report of facts. They have been advocates not witnesses, catching up events for special pleading for party effect, instead of relating the whole truth before the tribunal of the people. … Now let every person seek to inform himself and his neighbors of events as they are. Put the facts before the people. … Let them be taught to view the facts and principles of the present crisis, irrespective of party affinities. … Our first duty, therefore, is to enlighten the public mind. …”

Now, I’m not sure if it was this sermon or if this was simply one of a series of sermons that would so disgruntle the congregation of Church of the Epiphany but it was in the same year as this sermon, 1856, that Tyng would resign and take his followers to form Church of the Convenant in Philadephia. He would die in a tragic farming accident just two years later.

Now the only reason I learned of Tyng and his horribly timeless yet wonderfully timely sermon is through a reference made by Phillips Brooks.

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Phillips Brooks in Philadelphia

While more well-known for his later work as Rector of Trinity Church in the City of Boston, prior to that placement Brooks served as rector at two Philadelphia churches including Church of the Holy Trinity. On Thanksgiving Day in 1863, just three years after it had become an official holiday, Brooks delivered a renowned sermon, Our Mercies of Re-Occupation. Preaching during the midst of the Civil War, like Tyng, Brooks chose to bring the issues of the day into the pulpit. He spoke during a time when people questioned the economics of ending slavery, whether or not slavery was in the bible and so on.

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For Brooks there was but one answer:

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Brooks known for his whirlwind sermons that carried listeners away would touch upon many subjects in his sermon and always remind people, no matter their position, that they could do better. For instance, he states, “If the negro is a man, and we have freed him in virtue of his manhood, what consistency or honor is it which still objects to his riding down the street in the same car with us if he is tired, or sitting in the same pew with us if he wants to worship God.”

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While Tyng’s sermon(s) forced him to leave his church and start anew, Brooks “only” lost a few parishioners and there were many ready to join his church. Self-deprecating, in a letter home, he simply says, “I am glad you liked my sermon. … I have just been reading over Dudley Tyng’s famous sermon from seven years ago. What a brave thing it was to do! Thank God anybody can do it now.”

Who in the world was Tyng, I wondered, to have touched Brooks so.

I subtracted 7 from 1863 and did a little search for Dudley Tyng 1856 sermon. And that was how I learned of a young man who wrote some timeless yet still timely words. By the way if you do a search for just Dudley Tyng (and not his sermons), you’ll most often find references to him being the inspiration for the hymn, Stand Up! Stand Up for Jesus!

Sources & Additional Reading

Dudley A. Tyng’s Our Country’s Troubles (1856) – http://deila.dickinson.edu/cdm/ref/collection/slaverya/id/64330

Charles Sumner’s The Crime Against Kansas (1856) – https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/CrimeAgainstKSSpeech.pdf

Bleeding Kansas – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bleeding_Kansas

http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Bleeding_Kansas

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Southern chivalry – argument versus club’s.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1856. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/6232540d-9d12-b4e8-e040-e00a18061bf0

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “”The same chain that passes around the slave’s neck is fastened to the white man’s heel.” Par. XXVII.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1856. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47da-75da-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. “Young boys.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-4926-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Commissioner’s sale in 1863.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1940. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-9f9a-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

[Two unidentified Border Ruffians with swords / Blackall, photographer, Clinton, Iowa]. [Clinton, iowa: blackall, between 1854 and 1860] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <https://www.loc.gov/item/2016646192/>.

Our Mercies of Re-Occupation by Phillips Brooks. https://ia802305.us.archive.org/33/items/ourmerciesofreoc00broo/ourmerciesofreoc00broo.pdf

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 …

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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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God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

four

Robert C. Winthrop. Charles Sumner. Phillips Brooks. Martin Luther King Jr. The lives of these four men span over 150 years. What’s the connection? For me, it’s in their words and actions, or lack thereof, on the subjects that humanity has struggled with since the beginning.  Most often these subjects involve issues of race, class and gender, issues that have always, it seems, inevitably produced tensions within defined societies that then threaten to tear those societies apart. As then as chaos looms or even reigns, individuals within those societies, like these men, must decide what to do, if anything at all.

Robert_Charles_Winthrop

Robert C. Winthrop, 1850

It has been two years since I last wrote about Robert C. Winthrop in the context of Hope, the stained glass window that he purchased for Trinity Church in Boston. Winthrop, a one-time Speaker for the U.S. House of Representatives, was a complicated man.  He was a major philanthropist especially to educational institutions in the north and south believing that education was vital to blacks and whites. A contemporary of Frederick Douglass, he too gave anti-slavery speeches. He did not want slavery to spread but as far as ending slavery where it already existed, he differed with Douglass and other activists, like Charles Sumner.

Charles_Sumner_by_Southworth_&amp;_Hawes_c1850

Charles Sumner, 1850

Sumner was a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts who became the leader of the anti-slavery movement in Massachusetts and a leader of the Radical Republicans. He was an incendiary speaker against slavery, one speech of which led to a physical attack on the Senate floor. When Sumner died in 1874 after a long career in domestic and international politics, people immediately remarked upon his anti-slavery leadership. One of those people who praised Sumner’s legacy was Phillips Brooks, Rector of Trinity Church, himself noted for his powerful oratory.

Phillips_Brooks

Phillips Brooks, Rector of Trinity Church

The words were spoken on a Sunday morning at the end of his sermon.  Exactly what Brooks said in entirety, I do not know. What I do know I learned from Winthrop’s memoir. The diary entry he wrote in response to Brooks are thought provoking.

“I sometimes question whether the cause of religion is advanced when clergymen, from a pulpit on a Sunday, single out for especial admiration statesmen in no way identified with religious observances; and I have been led into this train of thought by the fact that my own rector, in the course of a fine sermon this morning, took occasion to make a brief but glowing tribute to Sumner, who, according to Henry Wilson, had not been inside of a church for twelve years past, unless to attend a wedding or a funeral. He spoke of him, moreover, as one who was ‘a friend to freedom when others were its enemies,’ and as  ‘hating slavery when others loved it.’

Precisely what was meant by this allusion to ‘others’ is not quite clear but it was interpreted by some in the congregation as referring to the party with which Sumner was originally associated. If so, I do not think it fair. The great Whig party loved freedom and hated slavery as much as he, though they could not adopt his mode of showing love and hate. It is a perversion of historical truth to stigmatize that party as having been, in any sense, a proslavery party.  …

We did what we could to keep the peace between North and South, hoping that a day would one day be opened, in the good providence of God, for gradual emancipation on some basis which would be safe for both blacks and whites. Emancipation came as a necessity of the Civil War which we had sought to avert. Perhaps it could have come in no other way, but we had always looked to the ultimate disappearance of slavery under the influence of civilization and Christianity, without endangering the Union or sacrificing half a million lives. …”

His words irritated me.

Upon reflection I realized why and then I found myself re-reading Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written nearly 100 years after Winthrop put pen to paper.

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr, 1964

The 1963 letter opens “My Dear Clergymen, While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely. … I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”

King goes on to affirm that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” …

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection. … 

“Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

Well, fifty years later, you have only to read the headlines of a reputable news source. Indeed, now is the time, yet again, to lift our national policy from the quicksand of injustice of any kind for anyone.

An addendum: I recently saw a news story about a small town in coal country in a southern state. The mass majority of people left in the town are white, economically adrift with few job prospects and with little access to health care and food. Drug use is rampant, and there is great love of Trump because somehow there is a perception that he is just like them. After surviving in this strange new world through July 2017, I now realize I don’t need those people to ever like me, someone who is so different from them, and I don’t need them to vilify Trump and his cronies. At least not yet. First I need to see their living conditions improved … because what they are dealing with, whatever their beliefs, is indeed an injustice. And, as we have seen with this recent Presidential election, its that kind of injustice, as well as injustice regarding race and gender, that can too easily become a threat to justice everywhere.

 

Sources & Additional Reading

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Sumner

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

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

 

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As I read Maitland Armstrong’s words, I heard David McCullough’s voice as he narrated Ken Burn’s The Civil War.  Maitland Armstrong (1836-1918) did many things during his long life but I was particularly interested in his journey as painter and stained glass designer.  I’d first learned about him as part of my research into the artists involved with decorating Trinity Church.  Maitland’s name had surfaced as a friend and contemporary of John LaFarge.

I chanced upon his memoir, Day Before Yesterday: Reminiscences of a Varied Life, published posthumously in 1920.  It opens, “I was born on the 15th of April, 1836, at Danskammer on the Hudson, near Newburgh.” In it he writes with great affection for his family and especially his mother.  He describes her southern roots, how she would sometimes leave New York to winter in Charleston, South Carolina, and how she nurtured his interest in painting before her death in 1853.

I had planned to skim Armstrong’s memoir focusing on his friendships with people like John La Farge and Augustus St. Gaudens.  In the table of contents, there is a chapter, St. Gaudens and Others.  But there was also a chapter, The South Before the War.  What did this artist have to say about such a time and place?

Well, what he does is describe in great detail, by painting with words, life in the south on a small network of plantations and the neighboring environs.  Even with his blood ties to a number of the families, he reports with a northern perspective.  He enjoys the hunting and accepts the slavery.  He learns a new language about the poor whites known as crackers and the slave assigned to him, his little darky.

It was in 1853, perhaps after the death of his mother, that Armstrong and his brothers traveled to Charleston.  There, while he is staying with relatives, the Wilkins family, they drive to their plantation Kelvin Grove, where Armstrong describes there was “a nice little village of comfortable white cabins for the negroes. But there always was in evidence a driver, as he was called, who was a superior negro and carried a whip.

He visited several family relations while in the South, from the Wilkins to his cousins, the Screvens.

The detachment with which Armstrong is able to describe the scenes that took place around him in the south (and in a later chapter his description of turmoil in New York) make clear his compassion for others but also his upper class background that separated him from those others.

At the end of the chapter Armstrong describes how that period in the south was one of the most delightful times in his life.  No cares, no worries. He would receive a letter decades letter from a family member describing the loss of the plantations and the slaves, the occupation by Union troops, and the auctioning off of property to pay debts.

Armstrong would return to New York, attend the very best schools, and travel the world.  His life was truly varied serving as student and teacher in several different fields.  As a stained glass artist he would collaborate on masterpieces with his daughter, Helen Maitland Armstrong.  He would serve as a Consul General in Rome.  And near the end of his days, he decided to chronicle that life.

For anyone researching artists of a particular generation who ran in the same circles – La Farge, St. Gaudens, McKim, White, etc – this book could be an interesting resource. Armstrong describes personal vignettes of how these people interacted socially and appreciated each others work.  You could even completely ignore that chapter about the south.  But I think that chapter is important because, from a different source, it shines a light on life in the past … and it is that past that is the shaky foundation upon which we continue to try to build a brighter future in this country.

Nativity: Design for the Stickney Memorial Window, Faith Chapel, Jekyll Island, Georgia, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nativity: Design for the Stickney Memorial Window, Faith Chapel, Jekyll Island, Georgia, Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Sources/Additional Readings

Day Before Yesterday: Reminiscences of a Varied Life, 1920

Old Glass New Windows by Will H. Low, Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 4, 1888

Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Collection Online

Wikipedia — Maitland Armstrong

Year Books of the Architectural League of New York (late 1800s, early 1900s)

 

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