Archer Alexander

Who is Archer Alexander? If you live near where I do, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, you are probably familiar with his face. You see him every time you walk through Lincoln Park. We all recognize the face and form of Abraham Lincoln on the Emancipation Statue that greets dog walkers and kids coming home from school at the western entrance to the park. But, until now, I did not know the name of the man who was the model for the kneeling figure of the newly emancipated slave. It is Archer Alexander. Last week, thanks to a neighbor who lives right next door to the park, I learned Archer’s story.

Archer Alexander was an enslaved man in Missouri during the Civil War who decided to risk his life to help the Union army. Having learned via an overheard conversation that a band of rebels had sawed the timbers of a bridge where Union troops would soon be passing, he decided to warn the Union troops of the danger. On the run from slave catchers who suspected what he had done, Alexander made his way to the suburbs of St. Louis where, by remarkable good fortune, he came to the attention of William Greenleaf Eliot, a Unitarian minister and co-founder of Washington University. (His grandson would be the poet T.S. Eliot) The two men became friends — Alexander worked for the Eliot family for the rest of his life. Eliot immortalized Alexander in two ways — he wrote the story of his life and he had him photographed. He then sent the images to his friend Thomas Ball who was in Italy sculpting a monument to Lincoln and to Emancipation.

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The memorial was created through a fundraising effort begun by a newly emancipated Virginia woman, Charlotte Scott, who donated the first $5 she earned in freedom to a memorial. Others contributed as well. It was dedicated in 1876 with former president Ulysses S. Grant in attendance and a rousing speech by Frederick Douglass who lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood where the statue was located in a large park.

The figure of the newly emancipated slave in the statue is not well known like Lincoln. It is so good to know who it is — Archer Alexander. He never saw the memorial where he is a stand-in for all the men and women emancipated after the Civil War. Not everyone likes the statue which some find offensively paternalistic. For me, though, knowing something of Archer Alexander’s story makes it less so. He was a real person and as such helps me to think about the enormity of slavery and of its legacy.

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Rosenwald Park Campaign

Washington DC’s very elegant Cosmos Club was perhaps an odd venue for kicking off a campaign to create a National Park Service site celebrating the accomplishments of a son of Jewish immigrants who partnered with former slaves and sharecroppers to build schools for their children. But this is a city full of contradictions and so there it was — gold chaldeliers, tasty hors d’oeuvres, Rosenwald school alumni, National Trust for HIstoric Preservation staff, fundraisers, volunteers and a slide show about Julius Rosenwald’s life and accomplishments.

Two years ago I met Dorothy Canter. She had just seen Aviva Kempner’s documentary film, “Rosenwald” and had been blown away by it. She could not believe that she, a Jew, did not know the story of Julius Rosenwald’s life and philanthropy. As a longtime volunteer with the National Parks and Conservation Association, and a person knowledgeable in the ways of Washington, she set to work. I was one of her first recruits to the effort which now includes fundraisers, people with congressional connections, staff of NPCA, and several longtime employees of the National Park Service. One of these is the Honorable Robert Stanton who ended his forty year tenure at the NPS as its director.


Mr. Stanton’s remarks last night were passionate and moving — about the tragic turn of events at the end of the Civil War that took the country from passage of the 13th and 14th amendments assuring full rights and equal protection to all citizens to Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896 and the concept of “separate but equal.” It was not until 1954 and another Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, that it was determined that separate never could be equal in education (or, a few years later with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, in any other area).

But in the time between those two court decisions, the void in education for African American children in the South was at least partly filled by the partnership between local communities and the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Between 1913 and 1932 the Fund gave $4,364,869 to build over 5,000 schoolhouses, shop buildings and teachers’ homes in fifteen southern states. A lot of money — but not quite as much as the $4,725,891 given by the parents, grandparents and neighbors of the rural black children those schools were built to serve.

What a remarkable story. As Mr. Stanton and other speakers (including me) said last night, this legacy is extraordinarily worthy of national recognition.

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The Centennial of Artist Charles White

If artist Charles White were alive he would have turned 100 on April 2.  A major retrospective of his work spent the summer at the Art Institute in Chicago, where White grew up, and will reopen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on October 7.  In February it will move to Los Angeles.

I will certainly travel to Manhattan to see the show.  White is a significant figure in twentieth century American art, best known as a chronicler of African American experience. He called his 1967 book “Images of Dignity” which exactly captures the essence of what he worked to communicate. White consciously sought to use art to build confidence and pride in the community he loved.

“Painting is the only weapon I have with which to fight what I resent,” he told an interviewer in 1940. “If I could write, I would write about it. If I could talk, I would talk about it. Since I paint, I must paint about it.” In 1943 and 1943 he was able to pursue that goal with the assistance of two Rosenwald fellowships.

There are so many interesting things about White and his career I hardly know where to begin. As a rebellious teenager growing up in Chicago with a busy, overburdened mother and an alcoholic step-father, White spent a lot of time in public libraries, in particular the George Cleveland Hall library where a dynamic librarian was eager to share the emerging work of the Harlem Renaissance There White discovered and was fascinated by Alain Locke’s “The New Negro,” a collection of writings by and about African Americans with illustrations by Aaron Douglas. The book was a revelation to him — despite the impression he had gotten from his largely white high school that blacks were not a significant part of American history or cultural life, here was evidence to the contrary. When a scholarship allowed him to study at the Art Institute of Chicago he not only got training in drawing but was drawn into a stimulating world of left-wing politics, artistic experimentation and interracial cooperation. Soon he was painting “Five Great American Negroes,” a mural featuring Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Sojourner Truth, Marian Anderson and George Washington Carver. Working on another mural for the 1940 American Negro Exposition he met fellow artist Elizabeth Catlett who became his first wife (and who later became, like White, a Rosenwald fellow.)

White’s career took him from Bronzeville in Chicago to Hampton, Virginia, to New York City and then to California where he moved with his second wife and enjoyed sustained success. Serving in the army during World War II White had contracted chronic lung disease which he never entirely overcame and which led to his death at the age of 61. But he lived long enough to be one of the ten black artists honored at the White House by President Jimmy Carter in April 1980. Among them were several friends from his days in Chicago and three other Rosenwald fellows — Richmond Barthe, Jacob Lawrence and Hale Woodruff.

I look forward to deepening my acquaintance with White’s work next time I’m in New York.

Charles White photographed by Rosenwald fellow Gordon Parks.

Charles White photographed by Rosenwald fellow Gordon Parks.

Zora and the Sears Catalog

Julius Rosenwald's philanthropy was made possible by his astute management of Sears, Roebuck, the country's largest mail order company at the turn of the 19th century.  The Sears catalog made Rosenwald rich and meant he could invest in people by by assisting Southern  African Americans in building schools and by awarding fellowships to over 700 promising individuals -- most of them black.

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Zora Neale Hurston

It is hard to imagine a more fascinating figure than Zora Neale Hurston.  She's best known today as the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God, a novel on many high school reading lists beloved by readers for, among other things, its lively, lusty and independent protagonist, Janie, a woman not unlike Hurston herself.She was born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891, but when she was a small child her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, an all-black town where her father became mayor and minister of the large Macedonia Missionary Baptist church. After her mother's death, her father and stepmother sent Zora  to a boarding school in nearby Jacksonville but they soon stopped paying her tuition. So, in her mid- teens, Zora began a life of moving around, seeking opportunity, and fending for herself.

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In the fall of 1913 Booker T. Washington did something he didn't get to do very often -- he took a real vacation.  With a group of friends he spent two weeks in a small Alabama town called Coden on Mobile Bay.  He wrote home enthusiastically about getting up at five in the morning and catching fifty fish using an old fashioned pole and line with a hook at the end.  "The new fangled fishing apparatus I have never had any use for or success with," he wrote home to his wife, Margaret.

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Neely School

Two weeks ago I cleaned my desk off and was rewarded by being reminded of something I had lost sight of -- the Neely School which, in October of 2017, became a historic landmark in Rowan County, North Carolina.  This is NOT a Rosenwald School.  It's something more unusual -- a school built by an African American individual, on his own land, with the intention of educating his family and others in the rural area where he lived.  The year was 1908.

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Jacob Lawrence’s Ladder

“Jacob’s Ladder in Genesis was a symbol of Grace, a connection between man and God. On a full-rigged ship, it is a way to the very highest portions of the masts.  In both cases, climbing the ladder is a way of approaching the summit.”  The church I sometimes attend on Nantucket island is beginning a search for a new rector and included this lovely sentence in a recent e-mail about the how the process is going.  Which got me thinking…..

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Blois Hundley

You probably don't know the name Blois Hundley but you might recognize T. C. Williams, especially if you're from Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from where I live. You might know that T.C. Williams is a high school named after a longtime superintendent of Alexandria public schools.  You might even know that the school gained national prominence via the film "Remember the Titans, " a somewhat romanticized version of what happened in 1971 when an African American head coach led a newly integrated football team to a spectacularly successful season despite racial tensions on and off the field. At the end of 1971 the Titans were the second highest-ranked high school team in the nation. Especially in the film version, with the coach, Herman Boone, played by Denzel Washington, it's a feel good story.

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Dr. Charles Drew

It's Black History Month and this morning the Pre-Kindergarten classes at Miner Elementary School in Washington, D.C. celebrated with a presentation.  Of course I was there!  I arrived early so had a chance to chat with another grandma, a woman whose children had attended Miner.  Her granddaughter is in my grandson Leo's class. Then the children filed in, most wearing their school uniforms -- navy pants or dresses, white t-shrits -- but a few were in costumes. One girl was in a glamorous dress and there were a policeman, a fireman and a mail carrier. Leo looked like a doctor or a dentist with a light attached to his forehead, hospital scrubs and clear plastic gloves. He was very solemn. A teacher led them in some clapping exercises and everyone sang "The Eensy Weensy Spider." Then it was time for the show.

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Reflections — on Segregation and Desegregation

Two new books have landed on my desk and they are on the same fascinating subject -- how school desegregation played out in different places.  Shade in the Sunshine State, Reflections on Segregation in Florida is by Elizabeth Huntoon Coursen.  Trails and Trailblazers, Public Education and School Desegregation in Lunenburg County, Virginia 1870 - 1970 is by Shirley Robertson Lee, who graduated in that county's first integrated high school class.  Each one has a wealth historical background and extensive quotes from oral histories of people who participated in school desegregation.

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Claudia Stack says she came to her interest in sharecropping via the Rosenwald schools she had come to know near her home in southeastern North Carolina. "I knew that African American sharecroppers had contributed greatly to school building, and that these schools played a central role in their communities," she writes in the study guide that accompanies her new documentary film, Sharecrop.  As in her previous films, Under the Kudzu, about Rosenwald schools, and Carrie Mae: An American Life, about a woman educated in a Rosenwald school who went on to forty years of teaching, Claudia lets the story unfold in the words of the people who lived it.

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Frederick Douglass

He really IS doing good work!  Every time I visit schools, as I will tomorrow with 4th and 6th graders at Capitol Hill Day School, I tell the story Douglass writes in the Narrative of his life about the wife of his master who, when he was an enslaved boy of about 8, taught him to read. When he found out what she had done, her husband berated her saying, “If you teach this boy to read, he will not be fit to be a slave!”  He then added that the child would become “unmanageable.” Overhearing this, Douglass dedicated himself to becoming unfit for the degradation of slavery.  He learned to read.

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Steamboat School

When I talk about Booker T. Washington I often mention that under slavery, in most places, it was illegal to teach a slave to read and write. The majority of enslaved people lived in enforced ignorance, a fact that helps explain the extraordinary hunger for education that animated Washington himself and the men and women who contributed so much to build Rosenwald schools so their children would have more opportunities than they had had. A new children’s book evokes this terrible history with a story based on the life of someone who, before Washington was even born, was finding a way around the law.

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Kelly Miller

History lives on, I wrote in my last post, not just in museum and books but in stories our neighbors tell and in the names of parks and schools. Well, case in point — an article in this morning’s Washington Post talks about the new longer academic year being instituted at ten DC public schools including Kelly Miller Middle School.  How many people reading the piece know who Kelly Miller was? I wonder.

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History Matters!

A favorite among the t-shirts I cycle through at this muggy time of year is a bright turquoise blue one.  I like its refreshing color but I also appreciate what it says —  on the front ROSENWALD (it promotes the documentary film of that name); on the back HISTORY MATTERS.  I’ve thought of this epigram often in the last few weeks as I absorb the news about shootings in our cities and experience sorrow, disbelief, anger, frustration. I ask myself all the questions many are asking — what can we do as a country, as states, as cities and towns, neighborhoods and individuals, to reduce racial hostility, affirm support for black lives, make people feel safe, honor men and women in law enforcement yet hold them to the highest standards of impartiality? So much feels broken.  How can we make it better?

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