Above: Rashid Johnson. The New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club (Thurgood), 2008. Lambda print, Ed. 2/5, 69 x 55 1/2 in. Courtesy of Rubell Family Collection. Courtesy of David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
Art school at Rutgers was just 45 minutes away from New York City by train, and it was the 1980s with a cast of artists showing at museums and galleries and populating art magazines that still consisted mostly of white men, with some white women artists, such as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, and Jenny Holzer, and a scant few men of color—graffiti artists like Fred Braithwaite (Fab Five Freddy), Futura 2000, and Dondi (Donald White) up out of the hip-hop scene to excite the landscape.
Of living, working artists of color beyond hip-hop at that time, I saw few, especially in the mainstream. Sure, there was my own wonderful life-drawing professor, Lloyd McNeill, a renaissance artist: painter, poet, jazz musician, photographer—his works were and are inspirational. And there was Jean-Michel Basquiat, the “radiant child” of Rene Ricard’s ArtForum article of the same title. That was it. No Howardena Pindell. No Elizabeth Catlett. No Romare Bearden. No Jacob Lawrence. No Betye Saar, just to name a few.
No Lorna Simpson, or Robert Colescott, or recent MacArthur fellow Carrie Mae Weems, all of whom along with 27 other artists are represented in a show called “30 Americans” that was recently at the Frist Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and will be traveling to the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans.
The title of the exhibit is wry and sweet, and the curators of the show decided not to include “African-American” in the description. “Nationality is a statement of fact,” say Don and Merrel Rubell of the Miami-based Rubell Family Collection, who sponsor the show. “While racial identity is a question each artist answers in his or her own way, or not at all.” They chose the number 30 as an acknowledgement that the show does not include everyone that could be in it.
The depth and breadth of how each artist expresses him- or herself through the more than 70 pieces—paintings, photographs, sculpture, and multi-media installations—is a lesson in understanding that black Americans are not and never were a monolith walking in lockstep.
“‘30 Americans’ contains a near-comprehensive repertoire of the tropes of black postmodernism . . .” writes the artist Michele Wallace in the catalog, “in which the negativities of slavery, Jim Crow, blackface minstrelsy, racism, sexism, and sexual slavery are constantly invoked and interrogated for the rich, dark spaces and designs that their still-warm undersides may reveal.”
Tough, uneasy critiques (the museum warns on its website that “some content in this exhibition many not be appropriate for all audiences. Visitor discretion is advised) of the African-American’s place in history, and a past and deliberate (a)void(ance) of black artists by the mainstream art world are are supplied by artists both established and emerging who, through their chosen mediums, turn mainstream culture on its head: Robert Colescott plays out on canvas the drama of Pygmalion, in which an upper class linguist transforms a poor gutter snipe into a lady, with a white man and black woman. Kehinde Wiley, who has been compared to the great early European portraitists makes no bones about referencing Diego Velasquez’s “Portrait of the Count Duke Olivares.” The pose is a classical equestrian portrait from “back then,” the person in the red Negro Leagues hoodie is here and now. The canvas is outsized, monumental; it says “this black person is important.” Iona Rozeal Brown, working in the style of Taisho Yoshitoshi’s traditional Japanese woodblock prints, recasts the central figure of a courtesan with thoroughly twenty-first century black woman.
“30 Americans” will open at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans February 10 and will run until June 13, 2014. For more information and a full list of artists visit the museum’s website. A 224-page catalog is available through the Rubell Foundation.—Audrey Peterson
On July 2, 1839, Sengbe Pieh, better known as Joseph Cinqué, and some 50 or more fellow Africans killed the captain and three of the crew of the Spanish schooner La Amistad. The plan was to turn the vessel around and go back to Africa, from where they had been kidnapped and enslaved. They entrusted the Spanish navigator, Don Pedro Montez, whose life they spared, with steering the ship. He steered it along the North American coast off Montauk Point on Long. The Africans—Mende from Sierre Leone—surrendered the ship to the U.S. Navy only after determining that the United States was a “free” country.
It took two years for United States v. The Amistad to land in front of the Supreme Court. During that time, abolitionists publicized the plight of the Africans in newspapers, sent one of the Mende, Kale, on a speaking tour, and even mounted a production about the mutiny called The Black Schooner, at Niblo’s Garden theater in lower Manhattan. The Spanish slave traders, in an attempt to retrieve their “property” claimed indemnity for the enslaved Africans “pirates who, by revolt, murder, and robbery, had deprived” them of what was rightfully theirs.
The Africans were transported to New Haven, Connecticut, to await trial, and New Haven resident William H. Townsend made sketches of the Amistad captives while they were there. Yale University acquired 22 of these drawings when they were donated by a distant descendant of Townsend in 1934. He was 18 when he made the sketches. What sets them apart is the natural quality of the drawings, with not even a hint of caricature. Along with the images here are detailed biographies taken from John Warner Barber’s “A History of the Amistad Captives” published in 1840. In these bios, how each person was enslaved and by whom varies, and although in two of the descriptions presented here, a tribal leader and a family member are complicit, they do not represent all of the Mende stories. The idea that the Mende were the property of any person or entity—whether it was their tribal leader of family members; as salvage of the naval officers who took custody of the ship; the Cuban slave traders to where the Africans were bound; or Queen Isabella II of Spain who claimed them for her country—was tested and found wanting. Two years after the mutiny, in 1841, former President John Quincy Adams argued that the Mende kidnapped from their homeland, had the right to defend themselves against, and if necessary kill, anyone who stood in the way of their freedom. The Africans won the case, and the next year, helped by abolitionist Lewis Tappan and the American Missionary Association, Cinque and his friends were back in their own country.
Gi-la-ba-ru [Grab-eau] (have mercy on me,) was born in Fu- Lu, in the Mendi country, two moons’ journey into the interior. His name in the public prints is generally spelt Grabeau. He was the next after Cinqué in command of the Amistad. His parents are dead, one brother and one sister living. He is married, but no children’ he is a planter of rice. His king Baw-baw, lived at Fu-lu. He saw Cinqué at Fulu and Fadzhinna, in Bombali. He was caught on the road when going to Taurang, in the Bandi country, to buy clothes. His uncle had bought two slaves in Bandi, and gave them in payment for a debt; one of them ran away, and he (Grabeau) was taken for him. He was sold to a Vai-man, who sold him to Laigo, a Spaniard at Lomboko. Slaves in this place are put into a prison, two are chained together by the legs, and the Spaniards give them rice and fish to eat. In his country has seen people write—they wrote from right to left. They have cows, sheep, and goats, and wear cotton cloth. Smoking tobacco is a common practice. None but the rich eat salt, it costs so much. Has seen leopards and elephants, the latter of which, are hunted for ivory. Grabeau is four feet eleven inches in height; very active, especially in turnings somersets. Besides Mendi, he speaks Vai, Kon-no and Gissi. He aided John Ferry by his knowledge of Gissi, in the examination at Hartford.
Kimbo (cricket) is 5 ft. 6 in. in height, with mustaches and long beard; in middle life, and is intelligent. He was born at Maw-ko-ba, a town in the Mendi country; his father was a gentleman, and after his death, his king took him for his slave, and gave him to his son Ban-ga, residing in the Bullom country. He was sold to a Bullom man, who sold him to a Spaniard at Lomboko. He counts thus: 1, etå; 2, filî; 3, kiau-wá; 4, náeni; 5, lóelu; 6, wêta; 7, wafurá; 8 wayapá; 9, tá-u; 10, pu.—Never saw any books in his country. When people die in his country, they suppose the spirit lives, but where, they cannot tell.
Mar-gru (black snake) 4ft.3in. a young girl, with a large, high forehead; her parents were living; she had four sisters and two brothers; she was pawned by her father for a debt, which being unpaid, she was sold into slavery.
Sing-be [Cin-que] (generally spelt Cinquez) was born in Ma-ni, in Dzho-poa, i.e. in the open land, in the Men-di country. The distance from Mani to Lomboko, he says, is ten suns, or days. His mother is dead, and he lived with his father. He has a wife and three children, one son and two daughters. His son’s name is Ge-waw, (God.) His king, Ka-lum-bo, lived at Kaw- men-di, a large town in Mendi country. He is a planter of rice, and never owned or sold slaves. He was seized by four men, when traveling in the road, and his right hand tied to his neck. Ma- ya-gi-la-lo sold him to Ba-ma-dzha, son of Shaka, king of Gen- du-ma, in the Vai country. Bamadzha carried him to Lomboko and sold him to a Spaniard. He was with Mayagilalo three nights,with Bamadzha one month, and at Lomboko two months. He had heard of Pedro Blanco, who lived at Te-i-lu, near Lomboko.
Despite an all-out effort by President Roosevelt to convince Randolph to cancel the march, the activist refused to budge, and in June Roosevelt – with great reluctance—signed Executive Order 8802, which banned racial discrimination in hiring for defense industries as well as federal bureaus, and including civil service jobs. The order created the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) to receive complaints, investigate charges of discrimination and take action – though it possessed no enforcement powers – to resolve outstanding problems.The march, to be held July 1, promised to be quite a spectacle with 100,000 people predicted to descend on the nation’s capital—a nightmare for the Roosevelt Administration that feared racial violence and the embarrassment it would cause in front of the rest of the world. The president’s authority undermined by his own citizens was bad at any time, but a disaster with America’s allies at war.
Randolph had wanted to integrate the military, but conceded when military top brass refused to experiment with desegregation; it would have to wait until after World War II. Randolph called off the march, but he, along with a younger activist named Bayard Rustin would be at it again, successfully petitioning President Harry S Truman to sign, in 1948, an Executive Order 9981 desegregating the military.
With the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington just a week away, it’s a good time to think about the folks who dedicated and sometimes sacrificed their lives to the civil rights movement. Too often, though, we remember those individuals who have become icons, MLK, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, a few names come easily to mind. We dig deeper: A. Philip Randolph, Medgar Evers, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth—there are many more, of course, all key players, (almost all since passed on). Still, there are people—those who worked behind the scenes; those whose actions although effective, did not make national news; those without whose sacrifice and sustained dedication, the civil rights movement would not have succeeded.
Five years ago American Legacy featured a story about Norman and Velma Hill, longtime activists who in 1960 began their career fighting for civil and workers’ rights on a beach on the south shore of Chicago’s Lake Michigan. It ended in a vicious attack that had serious consequences for the Hills. Velma lost a baby as a direct result of her head injury, and was tragically never able to have a child.
But this did not stop her or Norman from steaming ahead full force into lives of activism. For years they worked closely with civil rights and labor leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin on campaigns such as the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The last part of the march’s name was deliberate—“for us, along with Randolph and Bayard, the economic component was essential in obtaining freedom and equality for black people,” says Norman Hill in a forthcoming memoir about his and Velma’s life together as activists.
The march, held on the centenary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to the consciousness of millions of people worldwide. It helped to galvanize support behind what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the peaceful march of thousands was not an idea that sprang fully realized from King, the culmination of all of the sit-ins, protests, boycotts, and marches that had come before it. Randolph, the Hills knew, had threatened Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt more than two decades earlier, in 1941.
“By the winter of 1962, Randolph, again with Bayard at his side, was considering another march on Washington. But this time it was to pressure and call attention to America’s still unkept promises to its black citizens, now 100
years out of chattel bondage,” says Norman Hill, “yet still burdened with glaring economic, political and social inequalities. It was early the follow year and in this atmosphere that Velma and I were summoned to Randolph’s
office in Harlem. . . .
“When Randolph called, you came, and you came willingly.”
The Hills, who at the time were both working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE)—Norman as national program director and Velma as a field worker, were tasked with helping to figure out how to bring together all the major civil rights groups, or what the consequences would be if they could not galvanize what Randolph called the Big Six: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); the National Urban League, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE); the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Randolph’s newly created Negro American Labor Council.
“What Randolph wanted was the entire movement on board, the left and the right, and the labor movement as well,” says Velma Hill.
He wanted a coalition. And he got it. His decades of experience and the respect the leadership of each organization had for him paid off. The Hills believe that no one could have brought everyone together like Randolph. Says Velma, “When he started talking, people got still.”
While Velma worked out of CORE’s New York headquarters, Norman traveled to oversee the organizers in cities strategic to the march in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the upper Southern states. By April of 1963 the date for the march—August 28—had been set. Norman worked with the local branches and chapters of the Big Six, later the Big Ten, including the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice, the American Jewish Congress, the National Council of Churches, and the United Automobile Workers.
“Wherever I went, I could feel the enthusiasm for the march. So it wasn’t difficult for me to convey that this was something big, something important, and that all who could be a part of it, must,” says Norman Hill. “I depended on the local people to contact and encourage broader support, including religious groups and whites.”
“Norman and I knew it was special, but it really didn’t dawn on us until it happened just how special that day really was. It was a Wednesday that felt like a Sunday. . . . There was this air of real excitement. People were saying hello to people that they didn’t know. People were shaking hands and people were looking for people they knew. It was just wonderful.
“I wasn’t with Norman at the march. I saw him and said hello to him, but I wasn’t with him.”
People were told to arrive at the Washington Monument by 10 a.m., where they could pick up signs to carry. The New York Times headlines read the next morning: “200,000 March for Civil Rights in Orderly Washington Rally; President Sees Gain for Negro.”
“I could see that Velma had positioned herself near the front of the platform that was set up on the base of the Lincoln Memorial,” says Norman. “I was on that platform, at the back of the stage near Bayard, who was a chain-smoking, perpetual motion machine that day.
“On the platform, I was so close that I did not need the public address system to hear what was being said, and sang, at the podium. It was a tremendously good feeling standing there, being enveloped in a special atmosphere, looking out on all those people swept up in a massive celebration. It was like Velma said, unique, a unique spirit, a unique, great, huge outpouring of humanity.”–Audrey Peterson
Above from left: “American Gothic, Washington, D.C.,” 1942; “A Choice of Weapons,” 1965; Ethel Shariff in Chicago, 1963.
The late, great Gordon Parks—who died in March 2006 was, among other things, a social activist artist. Setting aside his films—The Learning Tree and Shaft—his poetry, and musical compositions, Parks was a prolific recorder of history. He was pragmatic enough to know, early on, that if he wanted to keep taking photos he had to earn a living at it—and so he got his first chance at learning to “shoot fashions” as he was given to say, by strolling into a white-owned Minneapolis dress shop in 1938, and asking the husband-and-wife owners, the Murphys, if he could have a job photographing the gowns there. Mr. Murphy gave him short shrift, but Mrs. Murphy gave him a job.
That job eventually took him to the Farm Security Administration, where in 1942 he shot American Gothic, Washington, D.C., which he named after Grant Wood’s famous 1930 painting. You have probably seen it. A black cleaning woman stands with a broom in her right hand, and a mop propped against the desk next to her. Behind her hangs the American flag. It’s not an homage to the plain living American, as in Wood’s painting; it was an indictment of segregation and racism in our capital city, something some of the white southern members of the FSA, who didn’t want Parks there in the first place, would have used against him.
“Stryker said you’ve got the right idea, but you’re going to get us all fired,” Mr. Parks said in a telephone interview in Fall 2005. “He put it at the bottom of the pile, but he told me that I should stay with her. He said you had to write cold and hard about black life in America and not allow whites to address the words with the consolation of a few tears.” Parks took it to heart, but wrote his words with images.
Parks stuck with Ella Watson, took photos of her in her apartment with her family, and attending church. She was a person beyond the ironic emblem of African-American as second class citizen. Roy Stryker’s words stuck with Parks, who continued, throughout his life, to capture his fellow blacks in all kinds of situations, from all walks of life.
His work for Life magazine—a chronicle of poverty in Brazil; an exposé of gang violence in Harlem; a chronicle of racial segregation in the deep South; photographic essay on Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam—are moving, stunning, brilliant, memorable, the expert work of a gifted lensman dedicated to exposing and fighting racism, poverty, and injustice.
Gordon Parks: Photographs at His Centennial at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MOAD) in San Francisco celebrates the life of this great American artist with selections from his vast collection that speak of the black experience: An army of Black Muslim women; a portrait of the Fontanelle family from Harlem at the Poverty Board (Welfare Office) in Harlem; Parks wielding his camera in a self-portrait titled “A Choice of Weapons.”
And Ella Watson.
Gordon Parks: Photographs at His Centennial is showing until September 29, 2013. Also showing is J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere: Sartorial Moments and the Nearness of Yesterday. Like Parks in America, Ojeikere described, with his camera, rapid political, social, and cultural change of his native Nigeria. The 50 photographs included in this exhibition, dating from 1955 to 2008, capture traditional Nigerian dress and hairstyles alongside popular Western-style interpretations. Hair styles can immediately evoke time and place, fixing the viewer in a country, a town, a society or community, and in an era or year. Ojeikere used hair as an important signifier as he documented the changing body politic of his young nation.
Above Image: Pepper Pot, A Scene in the Philadelphia Market, by John Lewis Krimmel, 1811.
From the time the Isabella, carrying 150 Africans, arrived from Bristol, England, until 1780, when Pennsylvania passed the first emancipation law in the United States, the city had watched enslaved Africans disembark onto its docks in chains, to be sold on the corner of Front and Market Streets in front of the London Coffee House. Today on that corner you’ll see only a shuttered brick building; this is often the way—we must see beyond the long-gone structures and tangible survivals to revive this other history.
As in many Northern towns and cities, whites who could afford to own slaves did so—even the city’s Quakers until they decided to own slaves was hypocrisy and banned it from its members in 1776. Often, even in the best households, here were no more than two or three. In the 1760s one in six white families in the city had slaves. Enslaved blacks in Philadelphia had a relatively easier time of it than their plantation-bound brothers and sisters. They lived, as did indentured servants, in the family home, were better fed and clothed, and had more freedom to move about the city—at least in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—as their tasks often required them to be out and about. This freedom to move around likely aided individuals like Hercules, by all accounts a highly skilled cook enslaved at George Washington’s presidential home—located on Sixth and Market Streets in the shadow of Independence Hall—in his successful escape from Washington and his wife Martha. The mansion is not there, but the National Park Service has built open-air footprint of the house that includes the “servant’s” quarters.
Free blacks in Philadelphia, as elsewhere, had to make a living on their own and it was often difficult to obtain work beyond the more menial jobs was available if one was unskilled, and many were. Free African-American women worked as domestics in the homes of middle and upper-class whites; others took in laundry and mending, or became milliners and seamstresses, working at home so they could care for their children. Some women were street vendors, plying foods such as Caribbean pepper pot and other snacks and treats. A smaller group of women became teachers or managed boarding houses.
Many black men worked alongside whites and picked up trades and skills, some of them becoming artisans in their own right. A number of African-Americans—after the 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act there were few Africans in the city—learned carpentry, tailoring baking, and the like. Many did the hard work of domestics, porters, stevedores and longshoremen on the docks; others mastered the maritime trades, putting up with the hardships of a life at sea for decent pay—a highly skilled seamen was paid a larger percentage than one who was less so, and skin color mattered little. And there was the chance to see the world.
Despite the signs of black enterprise, many remained enslaved—the manumission act had called for gradual emancipation, meaning all children born to enslaved women after 1780 gained their freedom as adults, 25 for women, 28 for men. All enslaved people born before 1780 had their status change from slave to indentured servant, often in name, but not in practice.
By 1790 the first official U.S. census showed some 2,000 free blacks living in the city, and under the state’s constitution, African-Americans could vote until that right was rescinded in 1838. Still, by that year a healthy black middle class had been established. A listing of black tradespeople in the city and surrounding areas counted 656 individuals engaged in 57 vocations.
Tailors, shoemakers, builders, furniture makers, undertakers, outstanding among women entrepreneurs was Hetty Burr, a highly skilled and successful dressmaker who was married to a well-known community leader, John Burr. Mrs. Burr also spent a good deal of her time with other affluent women of color who worked with white social reformers Lucretia Mott and Sarah and Angelina Grimké to plan an abolitionists convention in 1838 in the City of Brotherly Love. Among the African-American women who had jointed Mott’s Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society were Amy Cassey, Charlotte Forten, and Forten’s three daughters.
Charlotte’s husband James Forten, was counted among the 19 black sail makers in the city. He became one of the wealthiest Americans of his day, and one time employed 40 people, white people as well as black. Born free in 1766, he went to sea at age 14 on a privateer, was captured by the British and was eventually released. He apprenticed to a master sailmaker named Robert Bridges, and when Bridges retired, Forten took over the business. His fortune by the early 1830s was estimated to be $100,000 (the equivalent of some few million dollars today). Forten championed the cause of immediate, rather than gradual, abolition and fought to change the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed bounty hunters to seize blacks without a warrant.
Two trades that were almost the exclusive territory of African-American men were that of barber and caterer, both of which could be very lucrative professions. Barber, wigmaker, and perfumer Joseph Cassey (married to Amy Cassey) built his fortune dressing the hair of the white upper class, investing his earnings in real estate. For more than 80 years, starting in 1845, the Cassey House at 243 Delancey Street held three generations of the family. The house still stands but is now privately owned. Robert Bogle was one of several successful caterers working in Philadelphia in the early 1800s. An ex-slave who who started out as a waiter, he opened a business providing meals for various occasions, frequently catering a funeral on an afternoon and a party that same evening. Bogle’s establishment, located on South Eighth Street off Sansom Street, where a pub named Coco’s now stand, mostly served Philadelphia’s white elite. Nicholas Biddle, director of the United States Bank, so appreciated Bogle’s service that he wrote an eight-verse “Ode to Bogle.”
For more on the lives of African-Americans in early Philadelphia, visit the Library Company of Philadelphia. Founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin, the library has extensive archives on the city’s black founders, including images and other ephemera, as well as a Program in African American History (PAAH). You can also visit the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University. Named for the noted black studies scholar and author, who donated the majority of his personal archive, the collection contains more than 500,000 items on the black experience.
Elsewhere in Philadelphia . . .
May 4, 2013 – 2016
The first thing people say when they learn about this exhibit is usually, “Slave ships came to Philadelphia?”. This exhibit, curated by the host of History Detectives Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, tells the lesser-known story of Philadelphia’s connection to The Middle Passage. The exhibit features original artifacts such as slave shackles and a business ledger documenting 90 slave sales between 1763-1764. This is thought to be one of few books left that depict how Africans were converted from individuals to property.
The African-American Heritage Tour Project: 7th Ward
Ongoing self-guided walking tour W. E. B. DuBois was commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a study on the American Negro. The neighborhood of interest, also known as the 7th Ward, became the subject matter for his famous book The Philadelphia Negro. Stops on the tour include DuBois’s Philadelphia residence; Mother Bethel A.M.E., the oldest piece of land continuously owned by African-Americans; and the Benjamin Banneker Institute.
Also curated by Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, Black Bodies is a unique collection of 33 war posters from all over the world displaying the hauntingly beautiful images of Africans and American-American people in war recruitment posters. The posters are part of Dr. Zuberi’s personal collection and this is the first time they have ever been on display.
For most of us the name Sleepy Hollow brings forth images from Washington Irving’s 1819 legend of the hapless schoolteacher Ichabod Crane, who is chased one night by a terrifying headless horseman and mysteriously disappears, never to be heard from again. But there is another picture of the Dutch enclave Irving lovingly paints, one of a bucolic place where life moves slowly and tradition holds sway: “I mention this peaceful spot with all possible laud,” writes Irving early in the story, “for it is in such little retired Dutch valleys, found here and there embosomed in the great State of New-York, that population, manners, and customs, remain fixed; while the great torrent of migration and improvement, which is making such incessant changes in other parts of this restless country, sweeps by them unobserved.” Situated on the east bank of the Hudson River about 25 miles north of New York City, today’s Sleepy Hollow has preserved, in the tradition of Irving’s embosomed hamlets, what might be the oldest African-American holiday, a festival called Pinkster. Popular in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, the holiday disappeared around 1850. It was revived in 1978, and every May since the Historic Hudson Valley Association has hosted a day-long celebration at Phillipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, recreating the fun and games of the original holiday, brought here by the Dutch more than three centuries ago.
When the Dutch West India Company established New Amsterdam in the American colonies in 1624, it also brought with it slaves. As the settlers spread north throughout the Hudson River Valley, expanding the boundaries of the colony of New Netherland, the demand for labor to work the large bouweries, or farms, sparked the over two-hundred year history of slavery in what would become New York.
Slavery in the Hudson River Valley operated on a more modest scale than in the South. Most landowners had only one to five slaves (although a few had as many as 40). As a result, there were no large communities of Africans; blacks were mostly integrated into the white households, living in their master’s basements, attics, and rooms off the kitchens. Although their lives were not subject to the daily terrors of the Southern plantation system, Africans in the North still found life, for the most part, oppressive and grim. They were enslaved, recreation was rare, and except for the few other blacks in the household they rarely met with other Africans—that sort of thing could be punished. Ever vigilant of problems among the slaves, whites passed laws to discourage them from gathering. For instance, in Ulster County, meetings of three or more blacks at “unseasonable hours” could result in whippings for them, and fines of a Spanish doubloon for theirs masters, according to a 1695 law.
But there was one exception. Celebrated seven weeks after Easter during May or early June, Pinksteren, Dutch for Pentecost, or Pinkster, as it eventually was called, was brought over by the Dutch in the early seventeenth century and was popular in the Netherlandish strongholds of the Hudson Valley, Long Island, and Northern New Jersey. The Christian holiday marking the descent of the Holy Spirit on Christ’s disciples (and still celebrated by the Dutch in the Netherlands today), took place in the spring, during a time associated with renewal. It was also a time for slaves, who were given a week’s break, to gather and relieve the isolation of country life. While the Dutch observed the holiday by attending church services, visiting neighbors, and egg-dyeing, Africans traveled, sometimes miles away, to visit loved ones and family members, and connect with their community. Trips to New York City (by 1664 the English had peacefully taken New Amsterdam and renamed it) were not uncommon, and some slaves took the opportunity to run away. The chance to celebrate with friends and family was a powerful attraction. In 1827, the newly free Sojourner Truth, who would later become a leading abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, actually thought about returning to the Ulster County farm where she had been a slave (and putting herself in danger of being recaptured), just to attend the festivities there.
By the late-eighteenth century Pinkster in the Hudson River Valley and elsewhere had become more African than Dutch. Cornelius Littlepage, a character in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1845 novel Satanstoe, observes the festival in a passage likely drawn from Cooper’s own observations of the festival:
“The features that distinguish a Pinkster frolic from the usual scenes at fairs, and other merry-makings, however, were of African origin. It is true, there are not now, nor were there then, many blacks among us of African birth; but the traditions and usages of their original country were so far preserved as to produce a marked difference between this festival, and one of European origin. Among other things, some were making music, by beating on skins drawn over the ends of hollow logs, while others were dancing to it, in a manner to show that they felt infinite delight. This, in particular, was said to be a usage of their African progenitors.”
According to Albert James Williams-Myers, a professor of black studies at the State University of New York in New Paltz, and the author of Long Hammering: Essays on the Forging of an African American Presence in the Hudson River Valley to the Twentieth Century, “For the Africans adapting the Pinkster holiday was a way of preserving their own traditions, the song, the dance, the dress, the drums. Those newly from Africa became the teachers of those blacks born here.”
There were booths and food stands. Vendors dressed their stalls in greenery and “pinkster bloomies,” or azaleas, the official festival flower. Blacks sang, drummed, recited verse, told stories, and improvised dances, combining steps from their homeland with those from Europe. “It was New York’s contribution to the Carnival seasons, very much like the West Indian and Brazilian festivals at Christmas and Lent, only celebrated in the spring,” said Williams-Myers in an interview for American Legacy. And, surprisingly, blacks and whites mingled. “Hundreds of whites were walking through the fields, amused spectators,” Cooper continues in Satanstoe. “Among these last were a great many children of the better class, who had come to look at the enjoyment of those who attended them, in their own ordinary amusements. Many a sable nurse did I see that day, chaperoning her young master, a young mistress, or both together, through the various groups; demanding of all, and receiving from all, the respect that one of these classes was accustomed to pay to the other.”
“You had a diversity of people,” said Williams-Myers. “Europeans, including the Dutch, French, English, Irish, Germans. Africans and Native Americans. It was very inclusive. It was common ground.” It was also a time for blacks to slyly mock whites by aping European fashions and behavior (much like West Indian slaves of the time, who, during their New Year’s holiday called Junkanoo, gleefully ridiculed their owners), and recite speeches and
stories filled with double meaning. A pamphlet printed in 1803 titled “The Pinkster Ode” yields a poem centered on a character named King Charles that has decidedly abolitionist undertones:
“On wing’d Pegasus, laureat Pye
May raise king George above the sky’
And Gallic poets strain their art,
To swell the fame of Bonaparte;
These bards of gas can never raise
A song that’s fit for Charley’s praise.
To’ for a scepter he was born,
Tho’ from his father’s kingdom torn,
And doom’d to be a slave; still he
Retains his native majesty.
O could I loud as thunder sing,
Thy fame should sound, great Charles, the king,
From Hudson’s stream to Niger’s wave,
And rouse the friend of every slave.
The highlight of the festival was the crowning of the Pinkster King, a chance to give
honor to respected members of the black community. The “Pinkster Ode” though itself fanciful, did praise a real-life man named Charles, who from 1790 to 1810 presided over the festival in Albany, New York, where, it is said, it was celebrated the best. “He was alleged to have been born in the Congo and be of royal blood,” said Williams-Myers. “King Charles presided over the Pinkster Carnival most likely because of his African royalty. He was also a master drummer. He could make the drum talk. Not everybody had that skill.”
By 1811 the city of Albany passed laws designed to eventually eliminate the festival. The town father’s cited the rowdiness of the blacks. Other towns followed until the holiday dwindled into obsolescence sometime around 1850. Williams-Myers maintains that New York officials actually feared uprisings. “People did drink and celebrate, but the literature maintains they were not rowdy. But at the turn of the nineteenth century, many whites feared uprisings. There had been the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina in 1739; the Haitian Revolution in 1791, the Gabriel Prosser revolt of 1800 in Virginia. Much closer to home, there had been a slave conspiracy in Kingston, New York, in 1775, that was overheard and stopped. White people even became frightened of the crowds at Pinkster.”
In 1978 the Hudson River Valley Association revived the holiday at Phillipsburg Manor, and in 1985, Radire Sumner, then the preservation group’s director of programs, spearheaded, with the help of Professor Williams-Myers, the introduction of African-American traditions that were such a vital part of the early Pinkster celebrations. Past festivals have included storytelling, a drumming workshop and performance, and African influenced contra-dancing. “It’s actually a dance where the blacks made fun of the white dances, the stiff minuets,“ said Larry Earl, an associate director of the Historic Hudson Valley Association in an article for The New York Times. “It has hip movement and jumping, but was developed to put on their masters.”
“We always hear that Africans were stripped of everything when they came here, and in many ways they were. For the most part, they really only brought their skin color and their dispositions, but they also brought what they could carry in their heads, their traditions,” said Williams-Meyers. When we look for African survivals, the focus is often the South, but the North is important. “The Pinkster holiday turned out to be a real revelation.”
Phillipsburg Manor, located in Sleepy Hollow, New York, continues the Pinkster tradition today. Owned by the Philips family, wealthy Dutch merchants, the 300-year old estate originally covered 50,000 acres, and was managed by 23 slaves year-round. A one-day event, the Pinkster Festival at Phillipsburg is a recreation of the original, combining traditional Dutch children’s games like ninepins, stilt walking, egg-dyeing, and European style country dancing with African storytelling, drumming, dance, a grand parade, and the election of a Pinkster King. This year’s Pinkster Festival will be held on May 19. For more information call 914-631-8200 or visit hudsonvalley.org.
In 2008 I stood in what was the nursery in a house called Travellers Rest in Nashville, Tennessee. I say “house,” although its former owner John Overton, a judge, banker, planter, the founder of the city of Memphis, and a slave owner—might have objected what he might have considered a puny term. It was a sizable home, built in 1799 and added on to and renovated over the next 120 or so years. Still, as part of a tour of the city, I had already seen Belle Meade, a Greek Revival mansion on what was once a 5,400-acre plantation, and I’d been to the Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson, where I literally had to jog to get a look at the slave cabins, time being so short and the grounds being so expansive. So to my mind, in comparison with those others, Overton’s home seemed almost quaint.
In the room was a small wooden coffin. Resting on top, protected in plastic, was the original last will and testament of Rose Condon, written in 1860. It was a part of an exhibit, at the time, about death in the nineteenth century and the practices and customs surrounding it.
Condon was an unmarried free woman of color who lived in Nashville prior to the Civil War, according to Rob DeHart, the former curator at Travellers Rest. Although she never worked or resided on the property, DeHart explained, Condon is a worthy example of how free blacks lived. Her status “gave her the right to earn wages and own property. By 1860, when she died, she had raised at least five children, possibly without the benefit of a husband,” said DeHart.
“Free black women like Rose, along with many lower-class white women, were in some respects the first ‘working mothers.’ They were responsible for home and family while also earning wages. By the time of her death Rose had managed to acquire an estate large enough to pay for her funeral and bequeath property to her children.”
At Belle Meade, blacks played a prominent role both during and after slavery. The business of the plantation, begun in 1807 on a 250-acre tract by a man named John Harding, rested not on agriculture but on skilled labor. Slavery was slavery, and there’s no putting a positive spin on it, but many of the African-Americans there were employed in jobs beyond field hand: They worked at the gristmill, the sawmill, the dairy and creamery. They were wheelwrights, stonemasons, and because the plantation was also a horse farm—horse groomers and trainers (the bloodlines of traced to Belle Meade).
One was Bob Green, a head hostler who came to Belle Meade a slave but stayed on after the Civil War. Only a few of the formerly enslaved remained as paid staff, but that staff grew. Green became one of the highest paid employees on the plantation, with a staff of 26 under him. Wealthy horse owners from all over consulted with Green, who was considered a master of his profession.
Inside the mansion, hung high above a bookcase is a painting of Bob Green with a horse. The existence of more than one such portrait testifies to his position. He died in 1906, having survived slavery and the Civil War.
Another photo shows Susannah Carter, the head domestic at Belle Meade and, after the war, its head housekeeper. Literate when it was against the law for anyone to teach blacks to read and write, Carter was also held in high regard. In the nursery, a photograph stands on the fireplace mantelpiece: A handsome black woman, dressed in a white blouse, sits in a chair, looking relaxed by nineteenth-century standards. She, our tour group is told, was a nurse to the family at one time. Her name was Savannah. Savannah and Susannah Carter most likely lived in servant quarters inside the house.
Outside, the grounds are beautiful. From the back porch I see a smokehouse, handsome stables, and gorgeous Southern magnolia trees. There are tulip poplars (the state tree), catalpas, and black walnut trees, to name but a few. Fresh-cut grass and the scent of cedar combine with the crisp, air to signal the end of summer in Nashville. A little way past the house stands a stone dairy, and beyond that what Belle Meade calls an “enslaved African American dwelling.” The terminology should be noted, the acknowledgement that happenstance, not ideology, was what made a person a slave.
It is a two-room cabin with a central chimney. Each room housed either a family or unmarried workers, up to eight at a time. It might have even been cozy under the right circumstances.
“The right circumstances” meant freedom, and free people of color in antebellum Tennessee often thrived despite the decision to codify slavery into state law in the 1830s and disenfranchise free blacks from serving in the state military, among other restrictions. By 1860 there were nearly 40 free black women in the state who owned a little under $250,000 in real property. One, Sarah Estell, owned a bustling ice cream parlor in Nashville before the war. There were black men who were barbers and ran hack services.
Being free, black, and of decent means did not make Rose Condon, whose will was displayed at Travellers Rest, an anomaly. Condon did not live to see the Civil War, or to hear of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, or to learn about the U.S. Colored Troops fighting alongside white Union soldiers in the Battle of Nashville. Federal forces occupied the city in February of 1862, a little less than a year after Tennessee seceded from the United States.
The Cumberland River snakes through the center of Nashville, so capturing the city meant controlling river transportation in and out of the capital city. In December 1864 Travellers Rest served as Confederate headquarters for Gen. John Bell Hood, commanding the Army of Tennessee. At Peach Orchard (or Overton) Hill, located on the Overton plantation, several regiments of U.S. Colored Troops fought the Confederate soldiers, who were holding a line that stretched from Peach Orchard Hill to the Confederate left flank on Shy’s Hill. Depending on the source, either the black soldiers were repulsed by the Confederates or they repelled the Confederate charge. What is certain is that the African-American troops helped to put a strain on the Confederates’ already outnumbered army, making it easier for their Union compatriots to mount a successful attack at Shy’s Hill, sending the Rebels into retreat.—Audrey Peterson
You can find additional information about the black presence in Nashville in the African American Guide to Nashville, which includes places to stay, restaurants, and other helpful information. To obtain a free copy, you can order it through its publisher, Kinnard and Associates or 888-292-0660.
The African American Cultural Alliance is an organization dedicated to preserving, celebrating, and sharing the city’s and state’s black history and culture in as many ways as possible. To find out about annual events such as the Jefferson Street Blues and Jazz Festival, the Civil War Colored Tribute to U.S. Colored Troops, and the African Street Festival, held every year on the campus of Tennessee State University, and sponsored by the Alliance, write to P.O. Box 22173, Nashville, TN, 37202, or telephone 615-251-0007. Or visit www.aacanashville.org
In a previous issue of American Legacy we published an excerpt from Carolyn Quick Tillery’s cookbook The African-American Heritage Cookbook: Traditional Recipes and Fond Remembrances from Alabama’s Renowned Tuskegee Institute (1996). Tillery’s cookbook was a loving tribute to the foods and people of Tuskegee, Alabama and Tuskegee Institute. In it she mixed biographical sketches, historical photographs, reminiscences, even poetry, with the dishes she celebrated.
Tillery herself a graduate of Tuskegee Institute also included in the book the story of the colleges founding by former slave Booker T. Washington, who himself was educated at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Hampton, Virginia. The cookbook demonstrated her belief that “the recipes and traditions of Tuskegee are a joyful celebration of hope and triumphant.”
The collection is filled with Southern favorites – from smothered pork chops and chitterlings to butter milk biscuits and pecan pie. Some dishes go back over a century and some are from more recent times.
Below are a few recipes for you to try in your kitchen. We hope you enjoy!
Wild Onions and Garlic With
Bacon and Eggs
Wild garlic (Allium canadense)
Wild onion (Allium mutabile)
Wild onion (Allium vineale)
All the above have been relished and
found appetizing in early spring when the
tops are tender, prepared as follow:
Take a few pieces of fat bacon, cut in
small pieces, fry until nearly done, and
while the grease is very hot stir in the
finely cut onion tops [and garlic tops],
and let cook until done. Have ready two
or three eggs that have been salted and
peppered to taste; stir these quickly into
the bacon and onions, being careful not
to let the eggs get too hard, and serve at
once. Some like cheese grated over the
eggs before frying.
[One or two servings]
Sweet Potato Puffers
Whip 2 eggs until quite light; [take] two
cups of cold mashed [sweet] potatoes
[and] one cup of flour into which one
teaspoon of baking powder has been
sifted. The potatoes and eggs should be
worked together. Then the flour and
baking powder [added]; roll lightly; cut
quickly and fry into deep fat like dough-
nuts. Some think a little spice improves
The young, tender leaves and stems are
especially good when mixed with other
greens, and especially piquant and appe-
tizing made into a salad, thus: Wash and
prepare the alfalfa similar to . . . lettuce,
garnish the whole with shredded onion,
radishes, pickled beets, carrots, etc.
Serve with mayonnaise or French dressing.
This salad lends itself to an almost endless
variety of artistic combinations in the way
of ribbons, spots, layers, jellied etc. The
nutritional value of alfalfa is too well known
to need further discussion here.
Other books by Carolyn Quick Tillery include: Southern Homecoming Traditions: Recipes & Remembrances (2010)
A Taste of Freedom: A Cookbook with Recipes and Remembrances From Hampton Institute (2002)
The Military Wives’ Cookbook: 200 Years of Traditions, Recipes and Remembrances (2008)