Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Archive for January 2015

A talk on the past, touches the present

with 2 comments

When the pieces of a puzzle suddenly fit in place, it’s inevitably a wonderful feeling. But when the piece fits into a puzzle of family history, it can be the ‘ah-ha’ for resonating emotion and pride.

Stanford in Washington’s winter session had its Orientation this week, and it included a trip to the National Portrait Gallery, and the opportunity for a talk on the history of DC – the city, apart from the government.

I started the talk on the 2nd floor of the museum at the exhibition of Mr. Lincoln’s Washington: A Civil War Portfolio, which is a photographic presentation of DC, and the President, in the latter part of the Civil War.

It shows a city rummaged up from dust into white stone and masonry; carriages and top hats; Union uniforms, rifles; thoroughfares of tamped dirt and ranks of pedestrians; parasols, horses and buggies; prestigious edifices, such as the Patent Office, forts, hospitals, and the Navy Yard; images grabbed in action, set in panoramic still life; sunlight of the 1860’s: on sweat; brightness bleeds earnest and palpable emotions out of death numbed survival; some glances are filled with apprehension, others are looks full of expectation.

My talk initiated in speaking about Congress’ 1790 Residence Act, appropriating land from Virginia and Maryland to establish a residence for the nation’s government – imbuing this District, from the outset, with specific purpose of opportunity.

By 1865 this area, the District of Columbia, war weary, ravaged and burnt, still gleamed as the embodiment of freedom, being the place from which slavery had been abolished by Proclamation, and further enshrined in government.

Touching the very soil of this city could be supposed a religious experience, and worth pilgrimage to former slaves, suddenly vested as a “population” of this country, wishing to be established as true citizens.

In 1860 the national census identified 3,953,760 slaves in this country, and 488,070 Freed Blacks. In 1870 it identified 0 slaves in this country, and 4,880,009 Freed Blacks..

With the knowledge of those numbers, and sight of Mr. Lincoln’s Washington before us, my talk moved into the mandate for education that became the paean of further enfranchisement, exhorted by such black men of stature as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Carter Woodson, who comprehended the vast challenge ahead of establishing an African American existence after slavery that would faithfully support a new legacy of permanent application and advancement in American society.

The opportunity, to define African American beyond property or domestic, demanded a context for an emerging culture; it required apparatus for educating a sudden population of over four million souls.

We moved into the exhibition of The Struggle For Justice, where my talk broadened into the establishment of the initial network of black colleges, such as Fisk University, established in 1866, Morehouse College, established in 1867, Hampton College, established in 1868, and Tuskegee University, established in 1881 – each of which were to determine the quality of opportunity a new society of educated people of color could have.

Standing in front of the images of George Washington Carver, and W.E.B. Du Bois, I spoke of the reach of higher education, and brought into sequence the through line of the impact on Washington City, and, in its Jim Crow laws of segregation, the paradox of it inculcating within its environs a territory of black endeavor and merchant success, codified as the ‘city within a city’, and the place of one of the most important institutions of education, Howard University, established in 1867, which became the hotbed for philosophical debate in giving definition to a “New Negro”, as well as approbation in creating the art, music, and essence of literature upon which to stand this prototype.

The dynamism of this city within a city, drew talent, and thought, and enterprise, advancement, entrepreneurship, commerce, banking, and society, all –of color. It became an unspoken template of a way of enriching culture, while under the very stone of inequity which the nation at large had set to cap and contain such endeavor..

And the footpath to come up within this environ were the high schools, for color, one of which, Armstrong Manual Training High School, had its very corner stone laid by the hands of Booker T. Washington.

The philosophy of this school looked to make its students self sufficient; able to make their own bricks, build their own homes, grow their own grain, farm their own livestock, master their own accounts, and invent to their own science.

The direct line, out of slavery, and through such as Booker T. Washington, into higher education, established schools as another place of sanctity and benefit. It also meant that they held a position in black culture where “opportunity” encompassed everything to be found in any relevant society.

In this, commitment to the Arts was profound, and a place for nascent artists of color to be identified, sustained, embraced, applauded, supported and presented for all to see.

My intention was to speak to two specific portraits housed in the collection of the NPG; as it turned out, I was only able to speak in front of one of them, and reference the other.

The two people, who for me are linked in the circumstances of opportunity specifically offered in the history of the District, and specifically connected with Armstrong Manual Training High School, are Marian Anderson, and Duke Ellington.

The portrait of Marian Anderson is part of the exhibition of The Struggle For Justice. Though she is usually identified with DC in reference to the concert in the Mall, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which occurred in 1939, my talk went to the roots Ms. Anderson had earlier established in the District, and, specifically, in the city within a city.

Ms Anderson’s presence in the District formalized through her engagement by Howard University, in 1933, through their Lyceum Concert Series, which offered opportunity as a recital and song series held in the Andrew Rankin Chapel, on campus.

Though Ms Anderson was already establishing herself in opportunities abroad, she would remain faithful to being available for the Series, and always make her way back to DC to participate.

By 1934 her notoriety was such that the crowds who came to hear her were too great to be held within the intimate space of the Chapel, and Howard University moved the series to the auditorium of Armstrong.

In 1935, after a sensational European tour, culminating in her debut onstage at the Paris Opera, Ms. Anderson returned to an America of Jim Crow limitations and a culture reticent to embrace an artist of color.

After a Town Hall recital, in New York, Ms. Anderson received an invitation to sing at the White House, extended by the First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

The White House visit coincided with Ms Anderson’s presence in the 1935 concert series, and there was an expectation that the crowd would be too large for any auditorium.

It was at this point that Ms. Anderson’s manager, Sol Hurok, first reached out to see if he could book Constitution Hall.

But the Hall’s policy of denying its stage to anyone of color could not be challenged at this point in time, and so Mr. Hurok and Howard University continued to utilize Armstrong’s auditorium, and, in subsequent years, utilized opportunity of the auditorium at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.

…but by 1939 Ms Anderson’s fame was such that the size of the expected crowd pre-condition that the Concert Series had to be held in a larger environment.

It was at this time that Mr. Hurok made the determination to petition for use of Constitution Hall once again, which was denied, after which, history clasped the reins –the denial became the lit fuse to a series of unprecedented acts of civil remonstration, furthered by the resignation by Eleanor Roosevelt of her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), the officiating body who held ownership of Constitution Hall.

Ultimately Ms. Anderson presented herself in consummate artistry to a crowd of over 5,000 people in the Mall, at the steps to the Lincoln Memorial.

…at this point in my talk I’d intended to lead a tour to the 3rd floor, and into the Bravo showcase, where the portrait of Duke Ellington is situated –but time had grown slim, and, swiftly concluding my lecture, I mentioned Duke, and the fact that he had gone to Armstrong as a high school student – a school which, to this day, still serves its community; a school whose linage contained the lit embers of endeavor, laid in its cornerstone by Booker T. Washington, and at one point in the nineteen-teens was held in stewardship of culture overseen by Carter Woodson, the 2nd man of color to receive his PhD from Harvard University, who would go on to be Dean of Philosophy at Howard University.

All of this history is a powerful legacy that is resident in the U Street corridor, in the city within a city and remains pertinent. A fact that made itself explicitly clear at a post lecture lunch..

At my table, intermittently during the meal, a guest to the day’s orientation was holding a discrete exchange on her mobile. Just as lunch was being served, she looked up at the group of us round the table beaming and said, “I was meant to be at that talk today.”

-she continued: When I was growing up my grandmother would tell me about the time she gave up her membership with the DAR. It was something very important to her, the position she took, but, to be honest, it didn’t have context for me ..it was just something my grandmother had done, which had made her proud. Listening to the talk about Marian Anderson, I wondered if this was the situation that had made her choose to give up her membership. So I txt’d her-“

And she read from the response.

Her grandmother, now in her eighties, and reaching through an immediacy of technology, fully shared the story and identified that it was, indeed, connected to Marian Anderson.

..though it was an amazing moment be in the weave at this coming together of a living context for conversation, review, and definition, to further continue the connection of personal journey in this family’s oral history –I have to admit to enjoying the laugh at the end of the exchange, as the grandmother concluded her txt by saying –“If you want to know more about Marian Anderson, use the internet.”

..and in that spoke to a life, not only of keeping her personal context with history alive, but also being fully engaged with her present and the advance of technology and social media ..all to encourage and share with her granddaughter, a personal sense of pride and Witness.

..affirming that the past is always present.