Louis XIV famously once said Fashion is the mirror of history but as we all know, sometimes mirrors show us things we don’t want to see. I was looking around for some inspiration for my Resistance Ball dress, when I discovered the work of an amazing Haitian-born, Brooklyn-based artist named FabiolaJean–Louis, a photographer, a stylist, a (paper)dressmaker, and a “maker” who seems to be able to embrace the past, present and future in her work, sometimes simultaneously. Her breakthrough exhibition, Rewriting History (2016), took my breath away. Look at this “mirror image”, in which the embroidery design on the back of the embellished dress of “Madame Beauvoir” mirrors the scars from the scourged back of the once-enslaved man named Gordon, displayed in a famous photograph by McPherson & Oliver that went viral during the Civil War.
Madame Beavoir’s Painting
The juxtaposition of the very beautiful (women, dresses, surroundings) with very ugly historical events is jarring in these compositions, but also remarkably effective: you can’t look away. According to Ms. Jean-Louis, it’s not just the medium and the message but also the material: the paper gown sculptures are transformed in a way that allows me to represent layers of time and the events of the past as they intrude upon the present. Through the materials, I suggest that although we cannot change the past, we can act to change the present, as we activate the memories, visions, and legacies of our ancestors. Rewriting History seeks to reconnect viewers to the past so that parallels with current events are amplified.
Madame Leroy and Rest in Peace; Revolutionary Dress Top (detail).
The beautiful Madame Leroy in her exquisite eighteenth-century gown with a stomacher (locket? window?) encasing a lynched man, an image which is repeated even more starkly in the model-less Revolutionary Dress. Less straightforward, at least for me, is Marie Antoinette is Dead, modeled on François Boucher’s portrait of a reclining Madame de Pompadour, but the updated subject seems to be a Voodoo Queen in a rococo dress. There are no fashion victims among Jean-Louis’s subjects: only powerful women, and heroines such as Mathilda Taylor Beasley: born into slavery in Georgia in 1832, she somehow escaped, and operated a secret school for African-American children in Savannah in the 1850s—a very dangerous act at that time and place. I cannot help but think of Charlotte Forten Grimké, a contemporary of Beasley’s and Salem’s first African-American educator, who ascended to that profession under far more advantageous circumstances in the North. Beasley is memorialized in Passing and Violin of the Dead, and now I know her name. I really can’t discern whether I am reacting to these works as a cultural consumer or an educator.
Marie Antoinette is Dead; Boucher’s Portrait of Madame de Pompadour (Neue Pinakothek, Munich);Passing and Violin of the Dead. All photographs by Fabiola Jean-Louis with more + commentary at her website: www.fabiolajeanlouis.com .
I’m wrapping up February, a month in which educators have focused on African-American history since at least 1970, with a summary of some of the research in which I’ve been engaged and some links to some other initiatives and events in the Salem area. I really learned a lot this month, about Salem’s African-American history, and about Salem’s history: essentially I learned that they are one and the same. I got drawn into the experiences of African-Americans in Salem in the eighteenth century by my efforts to learn digital mapping through a project on enslavement, while the Remonds of Hamilton Hall have always been my point-of-entry for the world of nineteenth-century free blacks in Salem. I’ve been supervising an internship for Hamilton Hall in which the intern has been digging deep into the activities of the extended Remond family, and I have benefitted from directing (and following!) her path. My map is in the very preliminary stages primarily because I haven’t really mastered the process yet, but also because I have yet to establish the full scale of enslavement in colonial Salem. Every discovery leads me down a path in which I struggle to establish context: the Honorable justices William Browne, Benjamin Lynde Sr., and Benjamin Lynde Jr., the Loyalist Captain Poynton of the “Pineapple House”: all slave owners.
Advertisements from the BostonEvening–Post; 1731 portrait of Benjamin Lynde Sr. by John Smibert; Diary entry and will excerpt from The Diaries of Benjamin Lynde and of Benjamin Lynde, Jr.(1880). I’m using the “Otis Map” or the “Map of Salem about 1780,” based on the Researches of Sidney Perley and the (contemporary) accounts of Col. Benjamin Pickman & Benjamin J.F. Browne with Additional Information Assembled by James Duncan Phillips and Henry Noyes Otis and drawn by Henry Noyes as my old-school working map and adding Xs as I uncover information from newspaper ads, censuses, and diaries–but there are still a lot of family papers to go through.
It’s so odd to think of Benjamin Lynde Sr. (1666-1749) and Benjamin Lynde Jr. (1700-1781), Salem natives, residents, and chief justices of the Massachusetts Superior Court of Judicature, conducting their legal responsibilities while simultaneously managing their private estates, which included the purchase of new slaves, and the recovery of those who had run away. The elder Lynde mentions purchasing sheep and a young boy named Scipio in the same breath. Benjamin Lynde Jr. presided over the trial of the British soldiers indicted for the Boston Massacre of 1770, and freed one of his slaves in his will six years later. And then everything changes: just one of many remarkable things I’ve learned about Charles Lenox Remond (1810-1873), also a Salem native and son of a free black emigre, is his intense advocacy for the erection of a memorial to Crispus Attucks, the African-American martyr of the Boston Massacre. He would not see that statue erected in his lifetime, but he would be the first African-American to testify before the Massachusetts legislature in 1842: on the timely topic of the the desegregation of the relatively-new railways. Just this past week, an excerpt of the new book Separate: the Story of Plessy v. Ferguson, and America’s Journey From Slavery to Segregation by Steve Luxenberg was published in the WashingtonPostMagazine as ” The Jim Crow Car”: who knew that that phrase had northern origins? Mr. Luxenberg tweeted me a quote from his book referencing Remond’s testimony on February 10, 1842 when the chamber was filled with curious spectators as “Word had gotten out: a man of color would be testifying.”
Before this month, I had a healthy respect for Charles and his equally famous sister Sarah Parker Remond, both very public abolitionist advocates and speakers, but I was a bit more interested in their parents, John and Nancy, a very entrepreneurial couple who kept the home fires burning while supporting their efforts back in Salem. I remain impressed with the entire Remond family, but I got to know Charles a bit more and I really think he was a man ahead of his time. He was not just advocating for abolition, he was going for complete equality: of race and gender. I read in his letters to his fellow abolitionist Ellen Sands in the Phillips Library in Rowley very carefully, and his earnest identification of his enemies as “his majesty Mr. Slavery and her majesty Mistress Prejudice” rings true in all his advocacy work: for desegregation of travel and education, for women’s suffrage, for the end of the Massachusetts anti-miscegenation laws, for the end of slavery and equal opportunities for African-Americans. All of the Remonds petitioned their local and state authorities on a range of social justice issues in the 1840s and 1850s, calling for the the abolition of capital punishment, the desegregation of the Boston schools (having been successful in Salem), and the refutation of the Fugitive Slave Act.
Just one petition with Remond signatures from Harvard University’s Anti-Slavery Petitions of Massachusetts Dataverse.
Because of the presence of the Remonds (and perhaps other African-American families whom I haven’t learned about yet), Salem served as a refuge of sorts for free blacks from eastern cities in search of educational opportunity, particularly young women: two very prominent educators, Charlotte Forten (1837-1914) and Maritcha Remond Lyons (1848-1929), left Philadelphia and New York for Salem in the 1850s and 1860s, and Forten graduated from Salem Normal School (now Salem State University) and became the first African-American teacher in the Salem public schools in 1856. Salem was definitely formative in Forten’s intellectual and personal development, and Salem State is justly proud of its graduate: a permanent exhibition space was opened up on campus last year, and a special tribute to her pioneering roles will be held next week.
Charlotte Forten and Maritcha Remond Lyons, who was named after her mother’s best friend, Maritcha Remond. You can register for Race, Gender and Education: a Dialogue Linking Past andPresent, a complimentary event, here.
The city of Salem is fortunate that institutions such as Salem State, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and Hamilton Hall are engaging in the interpretation of African-American history, but I think this topic—along with many others—deserves the coordination and amplification that a historical society/museum/center could bring to its presentation. A few tweets from the city’s tourism organization about the existence of an audio guide to African-American sites in Salem does not suffice. Despite the residency and advocacy of the Remonds, of Charlotte Forten, of Robert Morris and Jacob Stroyer, and the fact that the Salem Ship Desire deliveredthefirstdocumentedcargoofenslavedAfricanstoMassachusettsin1638, Salem has only two sites on the map of the comprehensive African-American Trail project at Tufts University: Stroyer’s grave and Remond Park. While it’s lovely that Salem has paid tribute to the Remond family with a seaside park, this gesture should not suffice either–especially when the information conveyed in its signage is wrong: a large population of nineteenth-century African-Americans did not live on Bridge Street Neck, remote from the center of the city. And their presence and stories—like those of their predecessors and successors—should not be confined to the margins of Salem’s history.
Part of the African–AmericanTrailProjectat Tufts including an evening last fall in which projections of the University’s first African-American students were photographed: here is Claude Randolph Taylor from 1924. Photograph by Erik Jacobs, Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University. I’m sure that the Remond Park sign will be corrected soon, but why was this sweeping and incorrect assertion included in the first place?
On the occasion of the Martin Luther King holiday here in Salem and across the country, I thought I would highlight some sources for African-American history in the major repository for local history in our region, which is of course the PEM’s Phillips Library. I am aware of several scholars interested in various aspects of Salem’s rich African-American history: in the community, at Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and at Salem State University: my colleague Bethany Jay’s book, Understanding and Teaching American Slavery, is serving as a resource for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance initiative on slavery, and two of our graduate students received SPLC research fellowships last year. Bethany’s work is national in scope, but I don’t know how anyone interested in Salem’s African-American history could possibly engage in research, given the present closure of the library, the restriction of hours and staff before that, and the decade-long disinterest in digitization. That said, the digitized catalog reveals some amazing sources, including the papers of the Waters family (MSS 92), members of which were actively engaged in both the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation ownership, as well as records of Salem’s various abolitionist societies, the records of the Salem Freedmen’s Aid Society, various diaries, lists and logbooks, the Remond family papers, and two letters from the author, poet, educator and activist Charlotte Forten Grimké to John Greenleaf Whittier (which I’m not sure are available anywhere else, certainly not in this 1911 collection of Whittier’s correspondence, published in Salem). Unfortunately the finding aid for the Whittier letters refers to Forten incorrectly as a former slave: she was in fact a “free woman of color” sent by her relatively affluent and connected Philadelphia family to Salem to receive an integrated education in the Salem public schools (while living with the Remond family) after which she enrolled in the Salem Normal School (the precursor of SSU), as its first African-American student, in 1855. Just before her graduation a year later, she was summoned to the Principal’s office to hear the happy news that she was to be offered a teaching position at the Epes School on Aborn Street Court. The entry in her wonderful journal cannot contain her excitement: in the conservative, aristocratic old city of Salem!!! Wonderful indeed it is!…..Can it be true?
The records of the country’s first female abolitionist society, the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society (of which Forten was a member), are in the Phillips Library, as are those of the Salem Lyceum, which hosted the Society’s lecture series, as well as those of many other Salem organizations. A cabinet photo of Charlotte Forten [Grimké], c. 1878, New York Public Library, and a story on Forten in The Liberator, shortly after her appointment in 1856.
In the broad sweep of Salem’s African-American history, as in its general history, there are moments of achievement and pride and moments of disgrace and regret. Locally, we are accustomed to hearing about Salem’s glorious China trade but not its more abhorrent exchanges. But we appear to be in the midst of a Renaissance in the study of American slavery, with the impact of slavery and the slave trade in the North subject to particular revision and reexamination. PEM curator Gordon Wilkins’ reexamination of two prized colonial portraits that have been in the Museum’s collection since 1878 views Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Fitch, the former a very active slave trader, in a new light, reflected by this revisionist history.
Portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Timothy Fitch in Peabody Essex Museum’s American art galleries (photo courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum).
Wilkins asserts that PEM is committed to examining overlooked histories embodied in the objects that comprise our vastcollections, and one hopes that this commitment will one day extend to the papers in the vast collections of the Phillips. Because there is a lot more to learn, and a lot less to overlook. I’m going to close with the comments of one of our graduate students at SSU, Thomas Landers (because I find that engaged graduate students are always very good at telling us what they–and us–need), in reference to the Waters-owned ship Abeona, which engaged in the slave trade between Senegal and Cuba in the 1790s. There’s a court case that sheds some light on the Abeona’s trade but its owner’s papers “sit locked away among the documents from other Salem families which traded in human flesh–names such as Fairfield, Smith, Ropes, Crowninshield, Grafton–in the Phillips Library collections, threatened to be removed from the city to which we owe their creation and preservation”.
The intertwined histories of Salem’s African-American community and Abolitionist movement in the mid-nineteenth century are often referenced and represented by the work of two strong women, Charlotte Forten Grimké (1837-1914) and Sarah Parker Remond (1824-1894), both born into families that were free, prosperous, and ardent advocates of abolition. Charlotte was a Philadelphia girl who came north to receive an integrated education in Salem: she graduated from the Higginson and Salem Normal Schools and became the first African-American to be hired to teach white students in a Salem public school when she accepted an appointment at the Epes School on Aborn Street. While in Salem she lived with the Remonds and became an active member of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society, and thereafter her continued advocacy for abolition was expressed primarily through her writing and her teaching, especially during her experience as a teacher of formerly enslaved children on the Union-occupied Sea Islands of South Carolina during the Civil War. Sarah Remond was a Salem native who followed in her parents’ and brother Charles’ footsteps in her dedication to the cause of abolition: she gave her first public speech for the cause when she was a teenager and was appointed a traveling lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society when she was twenty. In late 1858 she sailed for Britain to expose the horrors of slavery to a country which had close economic ties to the South, and delivered 45 lectures in the next few years, all of which attracted considerable crowds and press coverage–both abroad in the United States. Sarah never returned to Salem: after her citizenship status was questioned by the United States government upon her departure for Paris, she decided, in effect, to renounce it: she remained in Britain for several years, lecturing and taking classes at the Bedford College for Women, and then left for Italy after the Civil War.There she remained for the rest of her life, completing her medical degree, marrying, and entertaining family and friends from home.
There’s a lot more to say, and a lot more has been said, about both Charlette Forten Grimké and Sarah Parker Remond, but I’m interested in another African-American woman from Salem today: older, much lesser-known, but also an educator and an abolitionist: Clarissa Lawrence, also known as Chloe Minns, or “Mrs. Minns”. Her origins are obscure: we hear of her only in the Reverend William Bentley’s chatty diary when she is hired to run Salem’s first black public school in 1807. A “mulattoe” woman who could read but not write at the time of her appointment, Bentley is increasingly impressed with her as time goes by: every time he visits the “African School” on “Roast Meat Hill” he notes its “good order”. After he and Salem’s treasurer conducted a tour of all of Salem’s public schools in 1809 he observed that “In south Salem we found 40 children not provided with the best instruction. The African School by Mrs. Minns, 30 blacks, was better kept & several blacks repeated their hymns with great ease and propriety.” After the Reverend officiated at Mrs. Minns’ marriage to Schuyler Lawrence (her third, his second) in 1817 he commented that she “has acquitted herself with great honour, as to her manners & as to her instructions” and opined that the Lawrences were “the first grade of Africans in all our New England towns”. They settled on High Street, 8 High Street to be precise, where his seemingly-successful chimney-sweeping business was also located. She continued to teach (until 1823) and also held leadership positions in both the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Colored Female Religious and Moral Society of Salem. She cast off “Chloe Minns” (a name given to her in slavery?) and became Clarissa Lawrence, or Mrs. Lawrence. Like Charlotte Forten, she combined the causes of free education for blacks and abolition into an engaging appeal, and (two years after Forten was born in Philadelphia) traveled to that city to address the third national convention of the Women’s Anti-Slavery Society, asking her mostly white audience to “place yourselves, dear friends, in our stead”, and observing that “We meet the monster prejudice everywhere….We cannot elevate ourselves….We want light; we ask it, and it is denied us, Why are we thus treated? Prejudice is the cause.”
And that’s all I know about Clarissa Lawrence, which is just not enough. Compared to the well-charted lives of Forten and Remond, hers is relatively marker-less, especially her early life. The divergent circumstances of birth, wealth, and family created different paths for these three women, but the existence of slavery led them to a common place. I am writing about Clarissa today because I unexpectedly came upon a fruit of her labors yesterday, a beautiful sampler produced by one of her students in the collection of Colonial Williamsburg. Sarrah Ann Pollard’s sampler, produced at the “Clarrisa Lawrence School” in 1818, bears the inscription: virtue the [the] chief beauty of the ornament mind the nob/lest virtue of the female kind beauty without virtu[e] is [no value]. And now I’m wondering if I’ve even spelled “Clarissa” Lawrence’s name correctly, the way she would have wanted it.
Framed Sampler by Sarrah [Sarah] Ann Pollard, 1818, Salem, Massachusetts. Collections of Colonial Williamsburg. 8 High Street, Salem: the former home of Mr. and Mrs. Schuyler Lawrence.