Absalom Boston, Frederick Douglass and Me

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For almost two hundred years this simple meeting house on Nantucket has been a reminder of the African Americans who supported the island’s powerful whaling industry and of Absalom Boston, the black mariner and sea captain who was a leader of the community there.. And for the 44 years of my married life Nantucket has been, for me, a place of summer visits. I have passed this building many times and been intrigued by its history. And as I’ve learned more about the Rosenwald schools that came into being in response to segregation it has become even more meaningful to me.

After a visit to the meeting house this year I looked up Absalom Boston and learned that his parents were a Wampanoag woman with the lovely name Thankful Micah and a black man, Seneca Boston, descended from slaves owned by an island family and granted his freedom as the result of a suit filed by his brother in 1773. Slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1783 so when Absalom Boston was born on Nantucket in 1785 he was part of a free black community. He became a mariner and, later, the first African American captain to sail a whale ship. In1822 he took The Industry with an all-black crew on a six month voyage that returned with 70 barrels of sperm whale oil. This wasn’t a huge catch but the fact that the crew returned without having lost anyone was impressive. Absalom Boston retired from the sea. He went into business running a store and, later an inn, and in 1824 helped found the African Meeting house. It was a school, a place of worship, and a social hall.

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When Absalom Boston’s daughter, Phebe Ann, completed her elementary studies at the meeting house she wanted to go to high school. But the local public school said she could not — because she was black — so Absalom Boston threatened to sue the town of Nantucket. Faced with this prospect, and ongoing agitation from black Nantucketers, the town relented and Phebe and another young woman, named Eunice Ross, became the first African American students to attend public high school on the island. When he died in 1855 Absalom Boston was the wealthiest black man on Nantucket.

A name far better known than Absalom Boston is Frederick Douglass — and he, too, has a strong connection to Nantucket. Douglass was 23 years old and newly escaped from slavery in Maryland when he was noticed at anti-slavery meetings in New Bedford and was invited to attend a convention of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society meeting on Nantucket. It was there, on August 16, 1841, in a building no longer standing, the “Big Shop used for building harpooners’ boats, to bursting and guarded by Quaker members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, with overflow crowd looking in at the windows, that the young Douglass first spoke publicly about his experience. He discovered that his story and his ability to present it were powerful weapons in the struggle to end American slavery. It was a turning point in his life.

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So Nantucket is more for me than a place to go to the beach and eat seafood, though I love to do both those things. It’s a place where, each summer, I ponder again the journey that is taking us — Americans — from a place where slavery and injustice to native peoples were accepted as normal to a more welcoming and enlightened place. This struggle is hard. Two years ago the Nantucket African Meeting house was defaced with racial graffiti. By the time I arrived for my summer visit the offensive, repulsive words were gone but the episode was a reminder that this journey is not over. Sometimes the present feels so discouraging. I do find it helpful to remember that the effort to create a place of equality and opportunity has gone on for a long, long time and that among those who came before us were brave and principled people like Absalom Boston and Frederick Douglass speaking out about inequality and being heard. Each summer I hear them again.

I saw quite a few of these signs on the island. Settlers from the Cape Verdes islands off of Africa were important to the whaling industry in Nantucket and continue to be part of coastal, fishing communities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

I saw quite a few of these signs on the island. Settlers from the Cape Verdes islands off of Africa were important to the whaling industry in Nantucket and continue to be part of coastal, fishing communities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

I love this t-shirt — it was given to me by my friends at Second Union Rosenwald School in Goochland County, Virginia.

I love this t-shirt — it was given to me by my friends at Second Union Rosenwald School in Goochland County, Virginia.

Chehaw Rosenwald School

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This is one of my favorite Rosenwald school images. It shows the Chehaw school, about six miles from Tuskegee and newly completed in 1917, set amidst fields and woods. Looking through some files today, I came across mention of it in an essay by Clinton Calloway, an undersung hero of the Rosenwald school story.

Calloway was a in his junior year at Fisk when he heard a speech by Booker T. Washington that inspired him to want to be a teacher despite the fact that “it offered a very meager salary and no chance to do what I thought bigger things.” Washington’s message “gripped me so tenaciously,” he wrote, that “a short time after receiving my diploma I came to Tuskegee to ‘Let down my bucket.’ In his famous speech at the Atlanta and Cotton States Exhibition in 1895, Washington had told a story about a ship lost at sea that had run out of pure water to drink, reducing the crew to desperate thirst. When they encountered another ship its captain yelled out to the distressed ship to “Cast down your bucket where you are.” They had sailed into the mouth of the Amazon river and the water was pure and drinkable. Washington used the story to encourage people — both black and white — to look on each other, the people amongst whom they lived, as friends and allies.

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Washington assigned the young Calloway the responsibility for helping the small farming community of Kowaliga raise money to build a school, which he did, acquiring valuable experience in encouraging community fundraising. While also teaching in the agricultural extension program at Tuskegee, he would travel around to “help give ‘arousements’ as the country people called it,” meetings where men and women would be encouraged to help with the effort to build better schools. Country people around Tuskegee were poor and some felt that if the makeshift schools they had attended in barns and churches had been good enough for them, then they were fine for their children as well. But Calloway had taught every summer during college in small rural schools, spaces he had sometimes shared with chickens, pigs, snakes, and lizards. He had a vision of something better.

When in 1912 Julius Rosenwald gave a grant of $25,000 to Tuskegee it inspired Calloway with an idea he passed on to Washington. Why not use part of that money, just $2,500, to encourage people to donate to schoolhouses. Washington proposed the idea to Rosenwald who liked it. The initial offer of a $300 matching grant was made to six communities close to Tuskegee.

“Every Sunday and three or four days in the week I would invite some friend to go with me into one of these communities to further arouse them from their lethargy so they could qualify for Mr. Rosenwald’s beneficent offer.” Six schoolhouses were built and the enthusiasm they created was such that Rosenwald and Washington decided to commit to building one hundred more. Chehaw, six miles from Tuskegee, was one of these. It was also one of the first of the schools to have, as Calloway put it, “the honor of entertaining Mr. Rosenwald.” During one of his visits to Tuskegee, Rosenwald was invited to stop at Chehaw.

“Mr. Rosenwald, a big-hearted lover of humanity, gladly consented and made the journey with me in the School’s Ford from Tuskegee to Chehaw. The people had cleared away all rubbish, their school house was clean and brilliantly lighted. the men, women and children gaily dressed and in a joyful mood. They had made huge bonfires to light our way to the school. We went up the walk with fire burning our pathway on each side and lusty yells of “Hurrah for Mr. Roosevelt.” (Some had confused Mr. Rosenwald with Col. Roosevelt.) They escorted us to the platform — Mr. Rosenwald with a beaming face and twinkling eyes as the people showed by group yells and songs their appreciation of the friendly interest manifested by Mr. Rosenwald. The chairman of the trustee board expressed in a very crude but straight forward way the gratitude of the community for interest in helping them to get away from the awful condition of a short while ago.”

What an image! Rosewald driven to the school over rutted country roads in a Ford and arriving to bonfires and cheers for the former president with the similar name, a man who like Rosenwald served on the board of Tuskegee.

And what a contribution Clinton Calloway made, understanding the importance of getting the public school systems to buy into the school-building program. He knew the country people served by the schools didn’t didn’t want to feel that building them “was just another movement of ‘White Folks’ to turn over the management of one more thing in their communities which the Negroes had been managing.” He prided himself on hiring excellent “young Negro men” as Rosenwald school agents..

“No longer is the Negro Youth willing to sit all day on backless benches,” Calloway wrote, “gazing at wooden shutters, looking down through the cracks at crawling reptiles. He demands better schools, efficient teachers and laughs at ‘What is good enough for us is good enough for our children.’”

A Wall

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“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down….” I was trying to remember those words of Robert Frost yesterday when I took a visit to this wall in Arlington County, Virginia. It’s not far from where I lived as a child and yet it’s worlds away from my experience. This wall was built in the 1930s to separate the African American neighborhood of Hall’s Hill from the adjacent developing white Woodlawn community.There’s a historical marker next to this chunk of wall that describes it as “a reminder of racial segregation” which it certainly is.

I’ve written before about redlining and my surprise at discovering how recently it was still in use in Washington, DC — the practice by credit agencies and banks of withholding investment in certain neighborhoods deemed undesirable, surrounding them with red lines on maps and, by restricting investment there, ensuring they would not prosper. This was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968 yet its effects linger on.

But a wall — a physical barrier to keep people away from each other — is just so tangible. I’ve seen walls — walked on the Great Wall of China, stood by Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England, touched the Berlin Wall. I even have on my desk a little souvenir piece of that memorial to the lost cause of Soviet imperialism. In Bethlehem I walked through the maze that precedes and then allows one through the separation wall between Israel and Palestine. And I get up every morning to news reports about a potential wall on our southern border designed to restrict illegal immigration and certain to communicate the message that walls send — keep out! MY neighborhood will be better if YOU aren’t here. Stay where you are! You are better off if you never venture away.

Segregation was an attempt to ensure that our country remain something that it had actually never been — uniformly white. One of the first Englishmen on our shores married a native American, Pocahontas, and they gave birth to a long line of descendants. Our third president had children with an enslaved woman. Yes, playing in the neighborhood and going to school together DO mean that our races will mix, as they always have, just the way the English and German, the Norwegian and Russian, the Jewish, the Armenian, the Scottish, the Chinese and Italian have done. It really doesn’t matter whether we like this or not. It WILL happen. And, of course, it’s one of our great sources of strength.

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I did enjoy this from the Hall’s Hill historical marker: “During the late 1950s, children from Hall’s Hill removed a small section of the wall to create a passage to a nearby creek. In 1966 Arlington County removed a larger section of the wall, allowing full access to and from Hall’s Hill.” About the time children were removing slats from the wooden portions of the separation wall, I was growing up a few miles away. One of my favorite things to do with my sisters and friends was to walk to a nearby creek. There was nothing special about the creek — it was way too shallow for swimming or even wading. But going there seemed like sort of an adventure and we loved it, as I’m sure my neighbors a few miles away did. They were probably boys and that would have seemed strange to me — I was from a family of girls — but otherwise, I bet we would have gotten along great. I like to think we could have been friends.



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.

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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.

For more information visit https://www.rosenwaldpark.org




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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Barracoon

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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Sharecrop

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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