The Measure of a Monument

Stand in thy place and testify

   To coming ages long, 

That truth is stronger than a lie,

   And righteousness than wrong. 

Those words close the seven-stanza poem that John G. Whittier wrote for the December 6, 1879, dedication ceremony of the “Bronze Group Commemorating Emancipation” that stands in Boston’s Park Square. It is now 141 years later and many do not see this monument as bearing witness to the strength of truth and righteousness. Indeed, it has had numerous critics since the beginning of “the coming ages long” of its existence. With the unanimous vote of the eight-member Boston Art Commission earlier this month, The Emancipation Group, as it is commonly called, is slated for removal.

The Emancipation Group is one of many monuments throughout the United States under scrutiny for their skewed conceptualizations of how we remember slavery, the Civil War, and our narration of the historical through line that informs American society today. A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies more than 1,700 Confederate monuments, place names, and other symbols across the United States in public spaces; thousands of other markers and tributes exist at battlefields and in museums, cemeteries, and other places history-related places. Most of the contested monuments continue to glorify the racism of the antebellum South and served as symbols to reinforce the terrorism whites devised to institute de facto slavery after the derailing of the Reconstruction era in 1877. The Emancipation Group, however, doesn’t fit into the genre of “the Lost Cause of the Confederacy” fiction advanced through public art. The sculptor’s intent was to honor the liberation of America’s enslaved black population and in particular, the man who granted it, President Abraham Lincoln. Yet, the well-intentioned tableau perpetuates a perverted mythology, depicting an ever-supplicant African American in the presence of a deified Lincoln. The Emancipation Group stands as a peculiar reminder of the institution that it hails abolishing.

The Park Square monument is a copy of the Freedmen’s Memorial to Abraham Lincoln (Emancipation Monument) unveiled in Washington, D.C., in 1876. The sculptor, Charlestown, Massachusetts-born Thomas Ball (1819-1911), was an expatriate living in Florence, Italy. A Lincoln admirer, he had created a similar though smaller tribute group shortly after the president was assassinated.

It was Moses Kimball (1809-1895) who donated The Emancipation Group to the city of Boston. Kimball was a well-known citizen, having established himself as a public figure as a newspaperman, public speaker, and businessman; a Whig politician who served as a state representative, state senator, and ran for mayor; and a philanthropist and temperance advocate. Kimball commissioned Ball to duplicate the Freedmen’s Memorial as a present from him to Boston.

Kimball bestowed his gift with the condition that the city “make provision for its care and protection, and place it where the people ‘most do congregate,’ that they may be constantly reminded of the great event it commemorates,” Mayor Frederick O. Prince told the crowd at the dedication ceremony, “for it is his desire, by this memorial bronze, not only to adorn the city and gratify our sense of the beautiful, but to elevate and instruct the popular mind by its solemn lessons of justice, philanthropy, and patriotism.”

Prince continued his dedicatory remarks by stating: “National monuments are epic lessons to future generations. They instruct, admonish, delight, and inspire. That which we dedicate to-day speaks of the most important act in our annals, and commemorates one of the great eras of the Republic, — the emancipation of four millions of slaves!” Despite condemning slavery as an indefensible system labor and extolling the North for having extended the tenets of the Declaration of Independence to black people long before the South—which it fully did not—Prince offered comparatively fewer words expressing interest in African Americans as people, and most of those he packaged in paternalism. He reminded the audience that the formerly enslaved, by law, possessed the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—just like white people. He noted that since their manumission, the formerly enslaved “have shown themselves generally disposed to be orderly and well behaved.” The South needed their labor in order to prosper, and there they should remain, since white workers could not adequately fill their places. They were “wards of the nation” who required training to be good citizens, especially when it came to exercising the right to vote. “Policy, then, as well as justice, demands the good treatment of the freedmen, the recognition of their rights, and the protection of their interests.”  The nation’s responsibility was to “treat them with a guardian’s care, and see to it that they are trained and educated like other human beings, and taught to be honest, truthful, virtuous, and God-fearing.”

Because of inclement weather, city officials held The Emancipation Group dedication in Faneuil Hall instead of outside at Park Square.Faneuil Hall was a “fitting and appropriate” venue for the ceremony, the mayor told the crowd, because the “associations of this venerable and historic place accord with the solemn character of the occasion. The walls which heard those denunciations of tyranny that led to the immortal declaration— ‘All men are created free,’—should echo our thanksgiving that all men throughout our broad domain—of every race and color—are at last free, and witness the consecration of the sculpture which commemorates the event.”

Ironically, in 2017 a grassroots organization launched an effort to rename Faneuil Hall because its donor and namesake, Peter Faneuil, made a substantial portion of his wealth from the African slave trade and owned enslaved people. The New Democracy Coalition is challenging as well as the narrative of Faneuil Hall as the “Cradle of Liberty” where patriots aroused the fervor of colonists to declare independence from Britain. The coalition is pressing for the name change as well as historical accuracy in the interpretation of this popular tourist spot in an effort to eradicate its white supremacy and systemic racism symbolism. Not far from the vaunted meeting place, enslaved people were bought and sold.

Calls to remove The Emancipation Group are not new; they have been expressed for decades. The Boston Arts Commission’s 2018 study of the city’s commemorative landscape reported that municipal leaders had long been unwilling to acknowledge The Emancipation Group as a monument to racial inequity and refused to consider removing it. Instead, they defended the presence of the statue as a valuable reminder of history. Requests to add information to expand the interpretation and context were ignored. However, the commission recently added temporary interpretative signs.

group-sign1

Group sign2

The original monument erected in Washington was commissioned by the Western Sanitary Commission, a St. Louis, Missouri-based Civil War relief agency run by abolitionists of varying degrees. It was paid for by black donors, seeded in 1865 by the $5 contribution that Charlotte Scott had given to her former owner for the purpose of erecting a monument to Lincoln by African Americans. The commission spread the word about the project and African Americans gave money, but did not include the donors in the planning and design process.

The project was completed eleven years after Scott made her $5 donation and dedicated on April 14, 1876. Among the speakers invited to ceremony was Frederick Douglass. The rights activist and national abolitionist leader seized the opportunity to tell both sides of the emancipation back story, alternately praising Lincoln for ending slavery and censuring the president’s complicity in maintaining systemic racism. Lincoln was, Douglass said, “pre-eminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people, to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.” In closing his speech, Douglass remarked, “In doing honor to the memory of our friend and liberator we have been doing highest honor to ourselves and those who come after us.” Though he did not share this sentiment with the audience, Douglass was overheard at the ceremony saying of the sculptor’s depiction of the emancipated black man that “a more manly attitude would have been indicative of freedom.”

Some critics of removing The Emancipation Group cite the fact that the original monument was paid for by the newly emancipated thus it was, and should continue to be, acceptable and praiseworthy. Defenders of allowing them to stand in place argue that removing statues erases history. The argument is specious, however, given that so many of these objectionable monuments distort history when they don’t erase it. The Emancipation Group was one of a number of works that Freeman H. M. Murray studied for his 1916 monograph, Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation. The noted intellectual, journalist, and civil rights activist criticized the demeanor given to “the kneeling—or is it crouching?—figure” that in no way indicates that he has any knowledge of the dignity and power of his new position, of his own agency.

Murray may have anticipated future controversies surrounding statues and monuments that depict emancipation and African Americans when he advised how to assess them: “When we look at a work of art, especially when ‘we’ look at one in which Black Folk appear—or do not appear when they should, —we should ask: What does it mean? What does it suggest? What impression is it likely to make on those who view it? What will be the effect on present-day problems, of its obvious and also of its insidious teachings? In short, we should endeavor to ‘intrepret’ it; and try to interpret it from our own peculiar viewpoint.”

A Demonstration of “Emancipation”

Thomas Ball’s demonstration model of Emancipation Memorial at City Hall in Methuen, Massachusetts. EraserGirl

There are smaller installations of Thomas Ball’s Lincoln memorial sculpture, which he referred to in his autobiography as “a small group of Abraham Lincoln and a liberated slave.” The inscription on the bases of these models reads, “And upon this act—I invoke the considerate judgement [sic] of mankind and the gracious favour of Almighty God.” The locations of these are as follows:

  • Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Freedom’s Memorial, 1875, marble. Gift of Reverend Dr. William Greenleaf Eliot, founder of the university and a leader of the Western Sanitary Commission. Not on view.
  • Houghton Library, Harvard University, Abraham Lincoln with figure of liberty unshackled, c. 1876, bronze. Bequest of William Whiting Nolen, 1924. Part of the Boston’s Crusade Against Slavery (Addenda) exhibition.
  • City Hall, Methuen, Massachusetts. Date unknown, white Italian marble. Gift of Edward Francis Searles, 1904. An interior and architectural designer, Searles (1841-1920) was a major figure in Methuen and collaborated on building several grand structures in New England. In 1904, Searles built the town’s high school, which now serves as city hall. Searles purchased the demonstration model of the emancipation monument for the school from Thomas Ball, having earlier commissioned the sculptor to create a statue of George Washington. On view.


			

The Historic Act of Saving the Loring Greenough House

LG blog1It is difficult to imagine what the Loring Greenough House must have been like amid its original 60-acre rural landscape. It may be harder still to picture Jamaica Plain’s Monument Square without the big yellow Colonial-era mansion that sits at 12 South St. Fortunately, we don’t have to picture the neighborhood without it, thanks to the astute and historically forward-thinking members of the Jamaica Plain Tuesday Club (JPTC) of the 1920s.

Ninety-five years ago the JPTC took the bold step of acquiring the property, thus saving for eternity the last structure built during the Colonial period remaining in this part of the city. We recognize this anniversary and honor the legacy of community engagement that the JPTC left for today’s and future generations of members to carry on.

The property had already been sold when the club obtained the wherewithal to save it. Owner David Stoddard Greenough V, whose family had lived in the mansion for five generations, executed a deal in early 1924 with a group of developers headed by Thomas F. Ward. The group planned to tear down this piece of history and build triple-deckers and storefronts. Indeed, the property had seen  quite a lot of history. It was built in 1760 by Joshua Loring, who, although born in Dorchester, sympathized with the British Crown on the subject of independence for the colonies. Loring, a Commodore in the Royal Navy as well as a privateer, was a stalwart Tory. His loyalties to Britain got him and his family run out of Jamaica Plain: they were forced to abandon the estate in 1774. They expected to return, but didn’t. Loring and his wife, the former Mary Curtis, lived out the rest of their days in England.

After interim use by the Continental forces and a couple of short-term ownerships,the estate came under Greenough ownership in 1784. David Stoddard Greenough I, a Harvard-trained lawyer and gentleman farmer, delighted in its “convenient out-houses, gardens planted with fruit trees, together with about sixty-five acres of mowing land,” as described in 1878 by historian Francis S. Drake. That farm is long gone or drastically modified but the house is a no less impressive edifice than it was when Loring had it constructed it in 1760.  At that time, the residence was, reportedly, located at the end of a lane near the town’s old pump station. During the Greenough family residence, the once 60-acre property was whittled down by subdivisions that expanded Jamaica Plain’s growth into one of Boston’s “streetcar suburbs” and its rural character became an urban one. By 1924, the property consisted of the 2 acres seen today.LG blog4

When the JPTC learned of David Stoddard Greenough V’s business deal it sprang into action. Marguerite Souther interceded and persuaded Ward and his group of developers to allow the JPTC to purchase the property. Souther was the key figure in securing a mortgage for the estate on the club’s behalf (which was paid off in three years).  Ward conveyed the property to Souther on July 30, 1924. She and her mother, Maria L. Souther, were instrumental in raising the funds needed to buy and restore the mansion. The elder Souther was JPTC president from 1912-1915. The younger Souther, who went by Rita, was well known in the community as an independent, upstanding woman who operated a dance school. She instructed boys and girls in the art of formal dance, an important part of a child’s cultural education at the time.

The JPTC’s act of saving the Loring Greenough House, known by some back then as the “famous revolutionary property,” received much praise. William Sumner Appleton, founder and secretary of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now Historic New England), declared that the Georgian mansion was “a splendid civic asset.”  LG blog3With its very special brand of community engagement, Loring Greenough House continues to be a vital asset to the public. All are welcome to visit the grounds and explore the beautiful gardens, or go on a guided tour of the house interior to hear docents tell the stories of the Loring and Greenough families, as well as discuss the architecture and design of the house. A variety of events and programs are scheduled, from Thursdays on the Lawn to Sunday concerts to Tuesday in the Parlor lecture presentations. The mansion is also available for rentals, including weddings, showers and meetings.

When the JPTC filed incorporation papers with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, it stated as its purpose “to advance education, foster civic and community spirit, general philanthropy, and preserve for posterity the historic mansion known as the Loring-Greenough House” Members of the JPTC remain committed to executing this mission. Saving the Loring Greenough House was a historic act in 1924, an act that the JPTC is continuing today.

 

Reading Black History Between the Lines

Obscure stories of the past are often found between the lines of historical records. The document shown here came to light during research for Rooted: Cultivating Community in the Vermont Grange, the sixth film in Historic New England’s Everyone’s History documentary series.

grange program2

Courtesy of Henry Sheldon Museum, Middlebury, Vt.

It is the January-February, 1931, bimonthly Friday program agenda of the Grand View Grange in Addison, Vermont. It appears to be a simple listing of events, but between the lines it conveys much more information—evidence of the Grange’s recognition of black history in America.

Interpreting February 6

Although titled “Lincoln Program,” the agenda activities honor not only the nation’s sixteenth president, who was in office during the Civil War, but also laud some African American cultural contributions. It’s apparent from the date of the program that it was scheduled to coincide with Abraham Lincoln’s February 12 birthday. What isn’t obvious is that the program led into Negro History Week. Reading between the lines, we can see in the Grand View Grange’s 1931 program not only a reflection of Woodson’s achievement but also an affirmation of the contributions of African Americans to the shared history and culture of the United States.

Carter G. Woodson, a historian and one of the founders of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, launched Negro History Week in 1926, designating that it be observed during the second week of February. Woodson selected this period because it contained both Lincoln’s birthday and that of the formerly enslaved world-renowned abolitionist, author, and equal rights activist Frederick Douglass, February 14. Because blacks across the United States had traditionally celebrated the birth dates of both men, Woodson and some of his colleagues designed a weeklong program to promote black achievement and publicize black history.

woodson

Dr. Carter G. Woodson in his library. “Informal Poses” #61, February 1948 by Robert S. Scurlock (1917-1994). Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

Cultural appreciation

The Grange opened its program with a rendition of “Marching Through Georgia.” Written by Henry Clay Work at the end of the Civil War, the piece recounts the Union Army’s capture of Savannah, Georgia, in late 1864 by forces under the command of Major General William T. Sherman.

The session continued with a Grange member delivering a paper titled The Negro’s Contribution to our Literature and then the assembly sang “Golden Slippers.” The group most likely sang the original version, a Negro spiritual made famous in the post-Civil War era by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the choral group of historically black Fisk University, and not the slightly retitled parody “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.” The latter was written in 1879 by African American musician/songwriter James A. Bland and became a minstrel show staple. Next, a Grange member read from the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), one of the first influential black poets in American literature. Dunbar also wrote novels and plays.

Roll call featured Grange members reciting anecdotes ascribed to Lincoln. The program ended with a rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the patriotic anthem by Julia Ward Howe that speaks truth to power against slavery, the cause of the Civil War.

It probably would have been impolitic for the Grange to call this event its “Negro History Week Program,” given the tenor of the times. Nevertheless, this populist national organization—founded in 1867 and officially known as the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry—that united farmers and supported them politically, economically, and socially recognized the struggle to ensure that America’s founding ideals extended to all citizens. We don’t know how typical or long-lived this observance was among granges.

A New Era

In 1970, black educators and activist students at Kent State University in Ohio expanded and revised Negro History Week by observing Black History Month. In 1976, the year of the country’s bicentennial and the fiftieth anniversary of the celebration of black history in America, President Gerald Ford delivered a speech in which he formally urged the nation to join him in recognizing Black History Month “an the message of courage and perseverance it brings to all of us.”

The original version of this post appeared February 13, 2018, at historicnewengland.org/celebrating-black-history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Woman’s Imperative: Ona Judge’s Fight for Freedom

Ona Judge took only what was morally, ethically, and rightfully hers: freedom. Given the law of the land, however, being free was not something to which she was legally entitled. Judge was an African American woman enslaved by the most powerful man in the United States. But she did not let that stop her from executing her imperative to be free.
Never Caught Book Cover

Ona Judge had the audacity to run away from the Philadelphia household of President George Washington and his wife, Martha, on May 21, 1796, and made her way to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. To the Washingtons, Judge’s rebellion was the ultimate betrayal. But Erica Armstrong Dunbar, author ofNever Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, casts Judge as “a new American hero” whose remarkable act of defiance is “a different lens with which to see the nation.”

The story of Ona Judge puts a spotlight on the hypocrisy inherent in the ideals and tenets that America’s founders expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. That the antagonist of the plot is the first president of the new nation makes it all the more discomforting. Most of the signers of the U.S. Constitution were slave owners. While they did not try to hide that fact, it has gone largely unexamined in the annals of American history.

“I wanted to tell the story of the beginning of the nation through the eyes of a slave,” Dunbar said while discussing her work at a standing-room-only program on March 5, 2017, sponsored by the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail’s Elinor Williams Hooker Tea Talk. Dunbar said she discovered Judge’s story two decades ago while working on a project about African American women and their transition from enslavement to freedom in antebellum Philadelphia. In the course of that research, Dunbar came across an advertisement George Washington had placed in a Philadelphia newspaper offering a $10 reward for the capture of a fugitive girl slave.

Judge was twenty-two years old when she slipped away from the Washingtons’ Executive Mansion and left Philadelphia, making her way to Portsmouth, where the institution of slavery was waning and a community of free blacks existed. Judge had escaped by ship, a secret she finally revealed five decades later in interviews with two abolitionist newspapers. At the time of her escape, Judge had been made Martha Washington’s slave-in-waiting, selected expressly to attend to every detail of the first lady’s life, day in and day out. It was a thankless task she had been forced into at the age of ten.

The Washingtons did not see Judge’s escape coming. Not only was it an embarrassment; it might incite other slaves to rise up. The Washingtons were no doubt dumbfounded and irate that the favored Judge would commit such a crime. The president’s wife needed her “body servant” and the Washingtons were determined to get her back.

“It really was relentless,” Dunbar said of the president’s efforts to have Judge returned to his household and the individuals he tried to enlist in the cause. Among them was John Langdon, a signer of the U.S. Constitution and president pro tempore of the nation’s Senate (he later served as governor of New Hampshire). It was Langdon’s daughter, Elizabeth, who sounded the alert that the president’s fugitive slave was in Portsmouth. Elizabeth was familiar with Judge because of her trips to the Washingtons’ Executive Mansion to visit her friend, the president’s granddaughter Nelly.

Judge’s whereabouts became known in August 1796 after she and Elizabeth saw each other on a Portsmouth street. The senator, who seems to have displayed some minor antislavery sentiments though he was not an abolitionist, was, nevertheless, a law-abiding elected official. And it was Langdon’s duty to abide by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793—which, despite having signed it into law, the president took discreet steps to circumvent in order to re-enslave Judge. Langdon, however, also had a responsibility to his constituents, whose opposition to slavery was growing.

According to Dunbar, the senator may have sent word to Judge that Washington was preparing to take her by force if necessary; or perhaps a free black domestic worker at the Langdon home may have warned her. When Washington’s representative came for Judge, she was gone, having fled Portsmouth for nearby Greenland.

“No matter what he does, he is unable to reclaim this woman,” said Dunbar. Washington even had a nephew try to negotiate with Judge to get her to return. She adamantly refused the offer. “What kind of message does that send when you’re the president of the United States and you can’t control one woman?” Dunbar said.

Although she was never caught, Judge was never really free; because of her fugitive status she spent the next fifty years looking over her shoulder, said Dunbar. But in defying an unjust law, Judge—who became Ona Staines after marrying a free black seafarer named and had three children—was never returned to slavery.

This post originally appeared at historicnewengland.org/ona-judge/

 

The Transformative Power of History

old front

The farmhouse, April 2014

How history is made isn’t always the result of momentous events. Very often, it is the passing down of a legacy and the ongoing stewardship of that inheritance that determines historical import. A prime example of this history-making process is the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm. A part of Boston’s landscape since the late 18th century, this once obscure property has been transformed from a blight spot in its Mattapan neighborhood into a community institution with a bright future.

new house cropped.jpg

The farmhouse, March 2018

When I learned of the existence of the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm in 2013, I was surprised, for a few reasons. For one, there are few historic sites for which Mattapan is recognized, none that would draw tourists to that part of Boston. I had attended elementary school just a few blocks away and had no idea that this colonial-period farmhouse with its big red Victorian-era barn were nearby (although being in grade school, the uniqueness of the property probably would not have registered with me).

clark house.jpg

The farmhouse, October 2013

Later, as a teenager growing up in Mattapan, I don’t think I ever even saw the property; surely if I had, I would have remembered the sign over the front door that bore my last name. In truth, there was really no reason that the former farm’s history would be widely known because the quaint house and barn at 487 Norfolk St. was a private residence that had never been publicized as a historical site. That, no doubt, was how the Epsteins—Jorge and Ida—wanted it. For Jorge Epstein, who operated a part of his architectural salvage business from his yard, it was the history of the stuff that he stored on his property, not the history of the property itself, which he advertised.

 

fc barn2

The barn, April 2014

Upon visiting the property, I wondered why this out-of-place-looking site had never caught my eye, considering the number of times I had driven on Norfolk Street. It had been obscured, set back from the street and partially hidden by garden masonry and fencing that Jorge Epstein had fashioned as well as by trees and overgrown shrubbery, nestled among a variety of architectural styles: brawny, late-Victorian-era residences, early-20th-century three-deckers, nondescript midcentury brick apartment buildings and compact modern single-family houses. The Fowler Clark Epstein Farm was easy to miss. It took abandonment, dilapidation and near loss to a developer’s wrecking ball for this gem of a property to garner the type of recognition and attention that would save it and give a vibrant role in the community.

new barn.JPG

The barn, May 2018

I decided that the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm would be the perfect topic for my master’s degree capstone project at the Boston Architectural College. Initially, I thought of my idea as a novel little notion with a relatively straightforward outcome: the preservation of an endangered historic site that was once part of a large farm, devoting its substantially smaller landscape to urban agriculture. I perceived it simply as saving a part of the built environment that would recall the area’s long-passed agrarian tradition. I did have a slight sense that I was onto something potentially much bigger, in part because Boston had recently adopted a zoning provision that allowed for urban farming. As I delved into the research for my capstone project I began to see to see that my idea was relevant not only to historic preservation but that it might also address some contemporary social concerns, not only in Boston but also around the country.

Now Mattapan is home to a premier historic site, the steward of an important Boston legacy. This place of pride is the headquarters of the Urban Farming Institute of Boston, which, in addition to growing food at the property, will serve as an urban farming education and training center. Rehabilitation of the Fowler-Clark-Epstein Farm shows the past at work today for the future. It is a testament to how history is made.



This post originally appeared May 18, 2018, on the website of Historic Boston Inc. at historicboston.org/fowler-clark-epstein-transformation-makes-history/