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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

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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a calm spot before a later storm

It always happens at this particular intersection in Somerville. It’s where I  cross the street to make the final leg of my journey home. It is a one way street with two lanes of traffic, a dedicated bike lane, and a complicated long walk signal. Great for me as a pedestrian. Tough on drivers. I have become used to impatient drivers inching into the crosswalk, hoping they can catch a gap in traffic, so they can make a quick right on red. With an exaggerated sigh, I usually walk behind those cars because at least I know the drivers behind them can see me. Hopefully I can cross the street before the light turns green and everybody hits their gas pedals. A familiar sequence of events. That’s almost what happened yesterday.

There were two cars to the left of me blocking the crosswalk. I stepped behind them. But something was odd. There was a gap in traffic. One of the drivers blocking my path could have taken a right on red. Except she was too busy yelling obscenities at the driver of the car next to her. Now, I’m used to the obscenities flung around by Boston area drivers but this woman’s words were different. They stopped me in the middle of the street.

Time slowed. I scanned the front of the screaming woman’s car. There was no body damage. If the person in the other car had tried to go around her to make a right on red (which happens in that intersection), a simple “F*** you!” would have sufficed, and often does at that intersection. But this woman, a brown woman, chose to shout into the other person’s car, and I’m editing just a bit, “You, wetback, go back to your own country!”

And she kept repeating it, with such vociferous pounding anger that was so out of context to whatever fender bender may have happened, that she had silenced the drivers around her. An unusual feat in Boston. Not a car behind her honked. It was just her voice ringing in the air. I could see the muscles of her jaw as she strained to shout these ugly words at a stranger over and over and over again. That African American was no different than the young white men in Charlottesville carrying the tiki torches. No different. Hate is hate.

Then I became angry.

Sad, too, but mostly angry, and I mean really angry.

I wanted to rush up to that woman and say, “What the hell are you doing? What are you, a black Trump? Do you realize if white supremacist leaders could see you now they’d just sit back with a big smile as you display your stupidity? How dare you give into racism. Don’t you know your own history? Have you no respect for yourself? Why put down another human being that you don’t even know?”

In the end, common sense won out. I remembered that I am not 6’5,” simply 5’3″ and I could tell that the woman was a bit bigger than me. And while I remember just enough of my karate training to probably take her down, to what end? Getting physical would not have ended her ignorance or increased her empathy. Both drivers remained in their cars. No children were in danger that I could see. I had to acknowledge that I was standing in the middle of a street, the light about to turn green, with two cars to the left of me and two cars to the right of me. It would not have deescalated the situation for me to move forward … though clearly my first reaction was not to deescalate anything. The only weapon the woman brandished were words, though she did have that car. She could have backed over me. She was that irrationally enraged.

Time resumed its normal course. The light turned green. The two cars sped off. I finished crossing the street, continued my walk home, my thoughts full of disparagement. Phone calls with family and friends calmed me down. They all brought up “ignorance.” Ignorance is no excuse for such behavior. Just as there is no excuse for racism by anyone toward anyone.

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I was walking through Copley Square recently, past the homeless folk, and I thought of Trump and his seemingly extra million dollars he has in-hand. And I wondered would that be enough money to create a transitional housing center with an edible garden … I could see the nasturtium trailing over walls … with maybe a greenhouse and lending library and clean bathrooms with showers and staff who could help people get on a path for finding employment, health care, insurance, etc. But I stopped daydreaming. I don’t have a million dollars. Nor do I need to. Each day I learn, re-learn, and hold tight to the knowledge that anyone can promote positive, immediate change. How?

Give. Learn. Act.

Give: How many times have I written of the importance of teachers in my life. They shaped who I am and what I do. They are often poorly paid and under-resourced and that’s why I love donorschoose.org. Through this site, you can help individual teachers as they are making change one classroom at a time. It does make a difference. The site is easy to navigate. You can select classrooms near you or you can select a classroom where you grew up or you can pick a region that you know is economically distressed, e.g. a Detroit, and select a classroom there. It is a well vetted program. A little bit of money goes a long way for some of these classrooms. It is not a solution to our national education problems but it is an avenue for change on the ground level.

Learn: I’m human. I know I am  fully capable of stereotyping and judging people and places as well as anybody else. So that’s why I appreciate, as someone living on the East Coast in a major metropolitan city, chancing upon Daily Yonder, a multi-media news source about rural America. I think one of things that became clear during this past presidential election is that the U.S. is a big country. While I would love to pull a Charles Kuralt and travel around this nation, visit all of its states and territories, to learn firsthand about the people and cultures that make up America, that’s not going to happen. So a publication like Daily Yonder is essential reading to simply glimpse people and places I know little about, to learn both of their struggles and what they celebrate, as part of the American fabric.

Act: Don’t wait for someone to make change. Be the change. That’s the philosophy that came across to me when I first learned of The Philanthropy Connection. Its mission is to inspire, teach, and enable women of all generations to engage in collective philanthropy. Through extremely engaged philanthropy, members provide grants to charitable organizations that improve the quality of life for low-resource individuals and families living in Massachusetts. It’s Boston-based but similar models can be found in other communities. Or created.

And act some more: Well if you weren’t sure of my liberal biases before you will be now … buy Penzey’s Spices. Give a little Love, nurture somebody’s Soul, show a bit of Kindness at the table even if you sit with someone you disagree with. In fact what better way to get to know people then through a shared meal. And if you sign up for the Penzey’s newsletter you’ll get a sense of how founder Bill Penzey is putting his money where his mouth is, putting his business on the line by vehemently and vigorously calling out this administration and all who are trying to sow seeds of hate in this nation.

This is my short list of the moment. Good stuff is happening. We just have to seek it out. Do our parts as it makes sense. If you have a million to give, wonderful. If you have one-hour to volunteer, wonderful. It all makes a difference.

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It was very heartening for me to learn of the creation of the SNCC Digital Gateway (snccdigital.org), a multimedia website and repository created jointly by the SNCC Legacy Project, Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, and the Duke University Libraries. The site shares the stories of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a student-led, southern-based, civil rights group founded in 1960 at Shaw University. They provided strategic leadership on the ground mobilizing people of all ages and races in the face of violence and threat of death. One of the SNCC staff members profiled is Fannie Lou Hamer. Please do read her full profile (link below) but I will share this excerpt which moved me deeply.

“Whether calming people with her singing or speaking truth to power, Mrs. Hamer’s voice could not be ignored. … Mrs. Hamer did not shy away from the dangers of challenging segregation and the denial of voting rights in Mississippi. “I’m gonna be standing up, I’m gonna be moving forward, and if they shoot me, I’m not going to fall back, I’m going to fall 5 feet 4 inches forward.”

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Fannie Lou Hamer 1917-1977

P.S. If you’re looking for further inspiration about the power of resistance in the face of tyranny, please revisit the excellent documentary, Freedom Riders, which aired on PBS in 2011.

Source

https://snccdigital.org/

http://dukemagazine.duke.edu/article/a-gateway-to-the-wisdom-of-civil-rights-activists

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

https://snccdigital.org/people/fannie-lou-hamer/

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In elementary school, I learned how to plant flower seeds in a cup, something I do all the time now. I learned a few other things too. When I was maybe four or five years old, maybe six though no older, a girl who I thought was my friend did something not nice to me and so I hit her. She may have hit me first but that didn’t matter, did it? In the principal’s office, the principal looked at me and said, “Cynthia, you knew better.” When I was in middle school, maybe 8th grade (I hope it wasn’t high school), in homeroom there was this girl who was bigger than the rest of us, wealthier than the rest of us, and she bullied people. In fact, she didn’t bully me very much at all in ways that I could notice. But some of my other friends were bullied and bothered by her behavior and one day, because of an accidental arrangement of desks and chairs, they were able to inflict silent revenge by leaving her sitting unto an island by herself. I sat with her for a while, because I didn’t understand what my friends were doing. Why had they gotten up and moved to the other side of the room? I began to understand when they beckoned.  I hesitated but I did join them.  I hope I always remember the sad look on the other girl’s face as she stared at us. It did not feel good to have helped cause someone to look like that. To feel like that.

The homeroom teacher saw what had happened. She made everyone rearrange their chairs and desks to form more of a community, and she pulled me aside at the end of the day to say, “Cynthia, you knew better.” When I look back I know that I had some awfully good teachers and that they reinforced what I was learning at home: how to be a good human being, how to be kind to those around me or at least not treat them with disdain, how if I had nothing nice to say, then say nothing. I learned, and continue to learn to this day, how to hold myself accountable for my actions. Ignorance is no excuse. That is what I thought today as I read about a man in Alabama who disrupted a peaceful protest parroting that idiot who made the “womp, womp” sound. He held up one of those signs that have become too familiar once more in this country. If the article was accurate than the man had spent time as a high school teacher and I could not help but wonder how had this man grown up, how did he live each day, and what had he taught those children in his care.

Did you notice what I did above?

I referred to Corey Lewandowski as an idiot. This, after having mentioned, that I grew up learning that if you have nothing nice to say, then say nothing. But the other thing I’ve learned as an adult, and continue to learn,  is that sometimes you do have to say something. You call the jackass a jackass. But do so with purpose. The unholy brilliance of a Trump and his minions like a Lewandowski, or channels like Fox News and Breitbart, is that they spout complete and utter garbage, manipulating the human psyche with words and altered images, seeding and cultivating fears, and fostering once more a white nationalist agenda (and I say white regardless of how many brown people on occasion are sent out to repeat their vitriol). And they stir up in those who disagree a malignancy as well. I don’t like to curse. I don’t like to think harmful thoughts about other people. It infuriates me that these men and women threaten to make me less than what I am by devolving to their level of speech and action. I hold myself accountable for my actions but who is holding them accountable?

We hold them accountable with our votes and with our pocketbooks. You don’t have to be a billionaire to make a difference with your dollar. Every effort makes a difference, at every level. Involvement is key. Tiring though. But who said democracy was going to be easy?  There is no endpoint to the struggle. The same issues of today I find in newspapers from the late 1880s and early 1900s …labor, immigration, emigration, exclusion, economics, wealth inequality … perturbations in the system causing people to experience fear and to isolate themselves with the greatest benefit to those wealthy enough to live in a bubble anyway. An endless struggle to find the “right” balance.

July 4th is on the horizon. I already see the shenanigans starting, stories about who’s patriotic and who’s not, the flag and what does it mean today, the anthem, bending the knee and so on and so forth. My father and forefathers, once they were no longer slaves, fought for this country in the various wars and the idea of what America stood for and the potential for what it could still achieve. They fought for the idea of democracy and a United States, ever changing, where their children would have the opportunity to become their fullest self. They fought for the idea that others, as brown as them or far whiter than them, would be able to come here and do that as well. I despise this administration but I do not despise this country. I still see the potential. That is what I fight for.

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Like his big brother Phillips Brooks in Boston, the Reverend Frederick Brooks was making a name for himself inside and outside of the pulpit doing good works in Cleveland, Ohio.  In 1874 he returned to the Boston area to find a teacher for a school that he had founded. In the course of his travels, on a stormy night on September 15, he left a disabled train in East Cambridge and decided to walk along the bridge. As his father recounted, “The night being dark, he fell through the draw and was drowned. He was thirty-two years of age. The body was not found until the 20th in the Charles River. Funeral services were held September 24 …” In Cleveland, Frederick Brooks had served as rector of St. Paul’s, a prominent church.  And that may be why Trinity Church vestryman Charles J. Morrill. if he had a hand in the selection of theme, chose to honor the memory of Frederick Brooks by funding a memorial window depicting Three Scenes in St. Paul’s Life. The window is located on the northern wall of the nave, designed by Henry Holiday of London, 1878.

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The story begins with a young Saul sitting with his teacher Gamaliel.

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The center picture represents Saul’s conversion to Christianity.

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The final image is of Saul, now Saint Paul, preaching to the people of Athens. As a whole the window is almost overwhelming … which makes sense given that it tries to capture one of the most complicated life stories in “just” three scenes. What is it I always say? See for yourself when you have the opportunity.

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https://trinitychurchboston.org/visit/tours

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“What is it? What is it? What is it?” The little girl’s song almost overshadowed that of the bird’s. Her mother, a bit exasperated perhaps, snapped, “It’s a bird!” The little girl’s tune changed. “Where is it? Where is it? Where is it?” As the mother took a deep breath, I stepped forward and knelt down. “Do you want to see it?” She nodded and so I showed her the bird on my camera. I zoomed in too, and she said, “Ooooh! It’s furry!” “Nope, just little feathers,” I corrected. She squinted at me. “But where is it in the tree?!” I stood up and said, “Follow my finger.” And she did, and she was just barely able to make out the bird in the branches that had continued to sing heartily the whole time we were staring down at the camera.

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