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Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

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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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Dorcas is one of a set of two windows purchased by William Amory (1808-1888) in memory of his parents Thomas Coffin Amory (1767-1812) and Hannah Rowe Linzee Amory (1775-1845).

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Located in the north transept of Trinity Church in Copley Square, the window was installed between 1877-1878. According to the literature, both the Amory and Linzee families had long been associated with the parish which was found in 1733. Designed and executed by Burlison & Grylls of London, the window depicts the biblical figure of Dorcas, a woman of wealth, who aided those who were in need. In this case the artist shows Dorcas throwing a garment over someone beseeching her for aid.

 

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It is a beautifully rendered window full of drama and rich colorful detail. See for yourself when you have the chance: http://trinitychurchboston.org/visit/tours

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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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Today I was browsing the online archives of the Library of Congress and chanced upon this 1930s drawing by Katherine Lamb Tait. Though it is not labeled as such, I realized it was an early rendition of her design for the unique stained glass windows at Tuskegee University known as The Singing Window.

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About two years ago, I wrote an article describing the story behind the windows. You can read it online here in Deep South Magazine and learn how Tait collaborated with Robert Moton, President of Tuskegee, to produce what would be a visual expression of eleven spirituals.

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Installed in 1933, the original windows would only be in place for about twenty years before a fire destroyed the chapel where they were located. But because Tait’s final design survived …

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… when a new chapel was built in the 1960’s, architects were able to recreate and include the new Singing Window as well.

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I hope to see it in person one day. This photo of the window can be found on the Library of Congress website courtesy of photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

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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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Yesterday I sat by the pond in Copley Square. It was just late enough and just chilly enough that few other people sat by the water that day. The light was low and golden. It bounced off the water to beautiful effect. Leaves drifted by in different colors and when they circled the concrete stretch they’d catch the light and glow.

Fallen leaves in swirling waters. I’ve photographed those a lot but that day I did not have my camera. Just food. I was kind of glad because then I could just eat and behold the beauty without trying to “capture” it on the screen. No camera also gave me freedom to look around me and so I noticed the woman across the pond, on the sidewalk side, next to Boylston Street.

She gazed in my direction but I do not think she saw me because she was quite focused on cleaning herself. She was deliberate and calm. You would have thought she stood in her own home staring into a mirror. First brushing her teeth and then flossing. A wet brush through her dark brown hair. Then a wash cloth to her face and other exposed bits of flesh. Just a quick wipe here and there. Like I said, it was cold that day. She did not fully take off her coat or the many layers beneath. All of the items she had pulled from a plastic ziploc bag which she tossed in the trash after cleaning herself. Then, after collecting several large trash bags, with great dignity she walked away.

Then my gaze fell upon the man who sat not too far from me.  He was well-dressed. I imagined he was taking a respite from his workspace in one of the neighboring office buildings. I yearned to borrow his thick wool blazer as the wind created eddies in the pond. In his hand was a notebook. On occasion he would pull from his knapsack a pouch full of fancy pencils. I recognized them from one of my favorite stationery stores. The pencils were all sharpened and the page of his book was blank. He would take out pencils and then put them back and I wondered what vision he was hoping to realize on the page. In between reaching for the pencils he would reach into his pocket. At first I thought maybe for an eraser but instead he pulled out a little bottle and downed it in one sip. He didn’t toss it on the ground like I’ve seen some of the guys on the benches do. No, he simply gently placed it back in his pocket and reached for a pencil again.

By the time I finished my lunch the man had emptied several small bottles, and as I rose I could see the large brown bag tucked next to the brown leather of his shoes.  Something to take home I guess. His head remained low the entire time. Only his hands moving really except for the quick tossing back of his head.

As I walked away, still, there was nothing on his page.

 

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