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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 …

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John H. Lewis

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

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Boston Globe Ad

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

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

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

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

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Mary S. Peake, mother of Harriet Peake Lewis

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

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Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and daughter Florida Ruffin Ridley

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

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

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

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

The Boston Globe noted her death in the following article:

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

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The New York Age July 2, 1908

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

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

Sources & Additional Reading

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

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

Mary S. Peake, the Colored Teacher at Fort Monroe

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

African Americans in Boston: More Than 350 Years

Boston Globe Archives

Boston Post Archives

The New York Age Archives

National Negro Business League 1900 Proceedings

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

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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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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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photo by patricia cobb

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

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CSinstallation

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

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the completed trough

Nope, that is not the opening to one of my fairly gentle political posts. Just breathe. Those are the words I repeat to myself the night before I attempt to set up my first installation for the exhibit Peace: Cutting through Turmoil. My contribution to the show I guess I can say is a three dimensional representation of my artistic and emotional experiences after chancing upon 1930’s Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives in the public library, and then later reading more narratives online. It was a short paragraph that set me on this path, a recount of childhood memories of eating from a trough with a mussel shell. Shells pulled from the branches …

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What I am creating is ephemeral. Paper, prints, words produced to physically be on display for a little less than a month. A contribution that I think will be part of a powerful whole when viewed in the company of the works by the other participants who have esteemed careers in the arts. I feel a bit like the new kid on the block. A little scary but freeing too.

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It will be an assemblage of pieces and parts, words and images, some culled from nature, some acquired collaboratively with the aid of friends. The least ephemeral of the whole is the trough. While he did let me hold a chisel or two, it was Steve who carved the trough for me using a fallen tree, and a pivotal tool, both shared by friends.

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Shared by friends. No matter what happens with this project it has been a wonderful collaborative effort. I was even able to involve one of my littlest friends, aged 9 and going on 21, who agreed to hold a mussel shell for me.

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Hmmm. What else is there to say? Before this night is done, I have a few more shells to drill holes in and string, and I still need to discuss with Steve how to hang … oops, I can’t tell you what I intend to hang or from what. At least not yet. Meanwhile, I just breathe. 🙂

Peace: Cutting through Turmoil

Brick Bottom Artists Gallery, Somerville, MA

Opening Reception Thursday June 8, 6:00 – 8:00 pm

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I first met Lois Fiore as a fellow participant in an art show curated by the Riverside Arts Group. It was a pleasure meeting her and learning of this artist whose work has been shown in the Boston area for over 30 years. Not only was she engaging in talking about her artistic process, she expressed genuine interest in learning about me as a person. When I shared with her that, in addition to photography, I also write and on occasion combine words with images, she invited me to share my work. I shared a post about the unexpected impact of meandering through the Boston Public Library and randomly opening up a book.

It was a compilation of slave narratives from the 1930s. Excerpts had been placed in various categories one of which included childhood memories of food. After reading “mussel ’em, a work in progress,” Lois invited me to submit a proposal to be part of a new exhibit, an exhibit inspired by the recent Presidential election and the subsequent struggle by so many to perceive how they could possibly move forward through the ensuing chaos. The proposal was accepted for my first interactive installation.  I am truly looking forward to showing my work with the other artists in the exhibit PEACE: Cutting Through TURMOIL, on view June 8 – July 1 at the Brick Bottom Artist Building.

final_e_card

If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll be able to drop by the opening reception or visit the gallery at another time. Meanwhile, I continue to work on the installation. More updates in the near future!

 

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April 1 1737 Ad in Virginia Gazette

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

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

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

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

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July 8 1737 Ad in Virginia Gazette

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August 3 1739 Ad in Virginia Gazette

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August 17 1739 in Virginia Gazette

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

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May 25 1769 in Virginia Gazette

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

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September 15 1752 in Virginia Gazette

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

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

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

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

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Eventually, it would work this way — some places were safe and some places were not. If you could make it to the safe place, sometimes woods, sometimes city, then you were safe. But eventually laws were changed, compromises made, and so then even if you made it to the safe place, you could be forcibly brought back to the unsafe place. Sometimes people stood up for you. Sometimes those people were steadfast but there were times when even those pillars were pushed aside. That is what the children remember. How if they did not have the right papers, and especially if they had no papers at all, how the pattyrollers could pick them up, hit them, chase them with dogs. It did not matter if they had made it to sanctuary. Laws said that they were less than human. Only 3/5ths. Until a President put pen to paper.

The Forest Floor

It took me a while to understand the word drawn from the childhood experiences of the former slaves, their fears of the pattyrollers. These patrollers were charged with keeping track of slaves in the slave owning states and eventually given legal right to enter into free states and bring back those who had sought a free land.  Back into slavery the children would go … until a President put pen to paper.

That President was Abraham Lincoln. His pen upon paper produced the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order issued on January 1, 1863.

In his famous eulogy for the slain President, Reverend Phillips Brooks made note that Lincoln served a divided nation and describes how Lincoln was able to stand forth in the struggle between two American natures.

We are told he did not come to the Presidential chair pledged to the abolition of slavery. When will we learn that with all true men it is not what they intend to do, but it is what the qualities of their nature bind them to do, that determines their career! The President came to his power full of the blood, strong in the strength of Freedom. He came there free, and hating slavery. He came there, leaving on record words like these … “a house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other.””

Brooks goes on with great eloquence, an eloquence that cannot be conveyed in a blog post but these words stand out to me … “Do not say that [slavery] is dead. It is not, while its essential spirit lives. While another man counts another man his born inferior …” Brooks ends the sermon with Lincoln’s own words delivered at Gettysburg. “He stood there with their graves before him and these are the words he said” –

“We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men who struggled here have consecrated it far beyond our power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.””

Over 150 years after the American Civil War, I live in what is known as a sanctuary city and I work in a place of sanctuary. I read of students demanding that their campuses become places of sanctuary. I wear no blinders, at least on this subject. What has happened before can happen again. But it does not have to. It does not have to. All this said as a new President of a different character continues to put pen to paper.

 

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They could have stayed in the land where they had been born, a land that over time their ancestors had come to consider home. During the war the land had been bloodied but the war was over. A few cities and institutions had been destroyed but for the most part key systems and infrastructures had been preserved.  Yes, war had ended, and with war’s end some change had come.  Were they not free? A big change, for sure, but clearly not enough.

Word spread of a different place, a place with more opportunities, where one could make a fresh start.  It would be an all or nothing gamble. Not everyone was sure of such a gamble but some were.  Families mobilized.  All they need do to reach this promised land was to cross the river.  And they did.

Not everyone was happy.

This is how one group’s journey was described by an observer:

“… today there are sixty or seventy … of all ages and sexes on the river bank … singing and shouting … waiting for a government boat that will give them free transportation … These emigrants are the most lazy … too lazy to make a living in this warm and generous climate, where nature holds out to them her arms laden with rich and magnificent fruits that never fail. She points to her lakes … with unfailing yield of food from the waters, and can boast of a soil more productive than any other. Yet this lazy class of emigrants are compelled to go [elsewhere] to make a living or be fed by a magnanimous government.  The most important of these emigrants have abandoned comfortable homes, and many of them have no means to pay passage … and what money they had was expended … [They] have been deceived by designing rascals in our midst who have held out flattering hopes and promises for the future that can never be realized. …”

As for that elsewhere considered a promised land? It was Kansas. The river crossed was the Mississippi.  The emigrants were African Americans departing the south in what’s considered to be one of the first major migrations after the Civil War. The above excerpts were posted in the Boston Post on May 2, 1879 (just fourteen years after the end of the Civil War and two years after the end of Reconstruction) in a letter written by a resident of Vidalia, Louisiana to his client in Massachusetts. His client owned a Louisiana plantation.

While over six million people were freed by the end of the Civil War, many continued to work the fields where they had once been enslaved. Few other employment options existed.  By the late 1870s, white southern elites returned to power and quickly undid many of the advancements made with regard to voting rights and economic opportunities for blacks. As economic pathways disappeared and violence increased, people sought a promised land and that land was out west and especially Kansas, home of the mythic John Brown.

One concern sparked by the exodus of African Americans was, who would work the fields?  In his 1879 letter, the author includes a clipping from another southern voice reflecting upon this potential impact and proposed federal actions.

“The proposition of [President] Garfield to appropriate from the Treasury of the United States seventy-five thousand dollars for the relief of these emigrants … it is one the of most “cheeky”propositions, to use a cant expression, we have ever heard.  Here is a people, probably in combination with Garfield himself and other haters of the South, who leave their comfortable homes in the South, and under certain unexplained influences go voluntarily to the West to better their condition.  They there find only those who have persuaded them into such a wild goose chase … They find the conditions identical with what had been told them over and over again by intelligent men in the country they have left, they find the same difficulties and trials which every class of immigrants have to encounter when moving to a new country, and they are thrown on their own resources to no greater extent than the thousands of white immigrants who every year throng the Western Territories. Why does not Mr. Garfield ask the Congress of the United States to appropriate money for the temporary support of German and Irish and other European emigrants? They are as worthy …

“If this proposition to support this band of crazy wanderers should be adopted and money appropriated for keeping them in idleness, there would be created a drain on the public Treasury which hundreds of millions would not satisfy … and the time would not be long before our Western friends would have a surfeit of their colored brethren. … How long is this peculiar care for this class of our population to continue? … The colored people are as free as the whites … He has the same right as the white man has to emigrate but he has no further right than the white man for assistance …

“The place of those who go from the South will doubtless be soon supplied by the Chinamen, and what would Mr. Garfield say if the people of the South should apply to Congress for a year’s support for the almond-eyed Mongolians who may be brought here to develop our cotton lands?”

There are other letters from that time that echo the same sentiments about the roles of African Americans, the Chinese immigrants and more but I stop here. The history of that time — of emigration, migration and refugees arriving in a new land — is complex and is part of what makes America so darned unique.  Though no wall around Kansas or along the Mississippi was mentioned, as I read the words, I could not help but think of Trump. He is nothing new. Nor are the people who look up to someone like him, a man who puts down everyone, and who enables some peoples’ worse base instincts toward selfishness, fear of others and violence.

I do not find hope in these old letters but I am reminded that we as a nation have survived such people and attitudes before.  I have seen many stories of late debating whether or not Alex Haley’s Roots should have been remade. I don’t know but I do believe that there are always lessons to be learned from studying and remembering the past.

Sources

Boston Post, May 2, 1879, page 2, “The Negro Exodus”

National Archives Exodus to Kansas

 

 

 

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