Category Archives: African American History

Sculptor Edmonia Lewis: From Albany to Rome, Italy


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sculptor edmonia lewis from albany to romeWhen American writer Henry James labeled the group of American women sculpting in Rome the “white marmorean flock,” he also made another note. “One of the sisterhood was a negress, whose color, picturesquely contrasting with that of her plastic material [white marble], was the pleading agent of her fame.” Like many of his contemporaries, James attributed the success of Edmonia Lewis to her skin color while also disregarding her mixed-race heritage.

In the early nineteenth century, it was difficult to be an American sculptor. There were no professional art schools, no specialized carvers, few quality materials, and only a few practicing sculptors in America. The pilgrimage to Rome was a necessity for those who aspired to be sculptors. If a woman wished to pursue sculpting, she confronted additional obstacles. Continue reading

African American Stage Performer Ella Madison


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African American Actress and Singer, Ella Madison Ella Madison was born in 1854 in Saratoga Springs, New York. Her parents were John and Caroline Robinson. Her sister, Caroline Victoria (usually called Victoria) was married to Solomon Northup‘s son, Alonzo. (Alonzo and his family later moved to Weedsport in Cayuga County). It was reported that Ella, while a teenager, had relocated to New York City, and marched in a parade in 1869 that commemorated the passage of the 14th Amendment, which guaranteed citizenship rights to former slaves. Her mother died that year, while visiting her daughter, Caroline, in Washington County, New York. Continue reading

NY Black History Fail: The Amistad Commission


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Black History FailureIn 2005, during Governor George Pataki’s administration, the New York State Legislature created the Amistad Commission to review the state’s curriculum about the slave trade.

“All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the period of the African slave trade and slavery in America and consider the vestiges of slavery in this country,” the Amistad Commission website says. “It is vital to educate our citizens on these events, the legacy of slavery, the sad history of racism in this country, and on the principles of human rights and dignity in a civilized society.”

Unfortunately, the Amistad Commission’s effort to update the state’s slavery curriculum has been a failure. Continue reading

Harlem: Life in Pictures


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Malcolm X- Rally for Birmingham, 1963. by Larry Fink. All images courtesy of Ilon Art Gallery

Malcolm X- Rally for Birmingham, 1963. by Larry Fink. Images Courtesy of Ilon Art Gallery

“If new thought can enter the mind, even for a moment, then change has a chance,” writes JT Liss. His photographs search for those figures and visions that allow us to see new ways and think new thoughts.

Ilon Gallery’s show Harlem: Life in Pictures on view in a classic 1890s brownstone, demonstrates how historic images of figures that have become iconic can acquire new resonance when displayed along fresh takes on a neighborhood that has been a cradle of creativity for well over 100 years. Continue reading

Lincoln Weekend Celebrates Great Emancipator


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Abe-Lincoln WeekendIn commemoration of the end of the Civil War, the death of Lincoln, and the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum (NAHOF) has suspended its 2015 induction ceremonies to address the matter of President Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator.” Several programs will provide opportunity for the public to study Lincoln as an abolitionist.

The Thirteenth Amendment (“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude,… shall exist with within the United States..”) was proposed by the U.S. Senate on April 8, 1864. The movie Lincoln features the historical drama of securing the votes needed in the House of Representative to pass the resolution. The Thirteenth Amendment was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865 and ratified by the states on December 6, 1865. Continue reading

Chenango County African American Civil War Veterans


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Hannibal Molson“Thursday was a gala day for the colored people of [Norwich] and surrounding towns,” the Chenango Semi-Weekly Telegram reported on September 27, 1879. “The occasion being the reunion of the colored soldiers of the late war, under the auspices of the Rescue Hook and Ladder Company of this village.”

The African American fire company had been organized earlier that year and elected Civil War veteran Hannibal C. Molson its Foreman. The day’s program called for a dinner, a parade, and speeches in recognition of their honoree’s service followed in the evening by a meal at the Spaulding House, musical selections, and a ball at Concert Hall. Continue reading

The Birth of ‘The Nation’: A New York Story


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Nation Founding ProspectusJust across Union Square from The Nation’s headquarters on Irving Place there stands a hole-in-the-wall falafel joint that some of the magazine’s employees— including, rumor has it, the author of this blog post — are known to frequent. Habitually. Like, every day. Sometimes twice. Like salmon swimming home.

Until recently, this behavior had long puzzled scholars — defying, it seems, all we think we know about the instinct to self-preservation. But actually it makes eminent good sense: the falafel joint’s address — 26 East 17th Street — once belonged to the first headquarters of the Union League Club, and it was there, one fateful night in the early summer of 1863, just days before the Battle of Gettysburg, at a clap of divine lightning, at the end of an eternal drum-roll, for good or for ill, depending on whom you ask, the magazine now known the world over as America’s oldest weekly was summoned from the ether and was born. Continue reading

Voodoo Opera from Harlem Renaissance


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Barry Robinson as Fojo, the voodoo priest and Janinah Burnett as Lolo, a thwarted lover who resorts to voodoo rites.Magic rites in the jungle seal the fate of a love triangle in the long-forgotten opera of H. Lawrence Freeman restaged on Friday and Saturday at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre. Voodoo was composed in 1914 and had its last performance in 1928. The music and libretto come from a composer who was a friend of Scott Joplin. author of more than 20 operas, and founder of the Harlem Renaissance’s Negro Grand Opera Company. The revival features Gregory Hopkins of Harlem Opera Theatre conducting in a production that drew on collaboration with the Harlem Chamber Players and the Morningside Opera. Continue reading

Spectacle: The Life of Ota Benga


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Ota BengaIn Pamela Newkirk’s Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga (Amistad / Harper Collins, 2015) the award-winning journalist reveals a little-known and shameful episode in American history, when an African man was used as a zoo exhibit — a shocking story of racial prejudice, science, and tragedy in the early years of the twentieth century.

Ota Benga, a young Congolese man, was featured as an exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Two years later, in 1906, the Bronx Zoo displayed him in its Monkey House, caging the slight 103-pound, four-foot eleven-inch man with an orangutan. The attraction became an international sensation, drawing thousands of New Yorkers and commanding headlines from across the nation and Europe. Continue reading

New Basquiat Exhibit In Brooklyn


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HollywoodAfricans.Basquiat.1983.WhitneyThe tragically short career of Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) has created a penumbra of martyred glory around his work. This must give him a chuckle wherever his spirit looks down on the shuffling hordes trekking to view his work reverently installed at the Brooklyn Museum.

Basquiat was born as a spray-can wielding street artist who liked mess, disorder and chaos. How different was he, when beatified by art gallery recognition and patron purchases? In his art world heyday he got his fine new designer clothes just as stained as his thrift shop threads from his early days. Continue reading

Freedom Journey: Westchester Co Black Civil War Soldiers


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Freedoms Journey Black Civil War SoldiersAlmost 200,000 black men served in the Army during the Civil War, but only 34,000 were from the North. An underrepresented segment in Civil War studies, the stories of some of these Northern soldiers are told in Edythe Ann Quinn’s Freedom Journey: Black Civil War Soldiers and the Hills Community, Westchester County, New York (SUNY Press, 2015).

Freedom Journey presents in-depth, personal histories of thirty-six free black men from New York State who fought in the war. The book is both an African-American community history and a Civil War history of three regiments of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Continue reading

Black Civil War Veteran James Lucas of Albany


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coloredtroops recruitment“Albany’s Only Negro Civil War Veteran” was the title of an article in The New York Age in May, 1933. The paper reported an interview with the city’s last surviving black veteran from the War Between the States, Sergeant James N. Lucas.

After serving with Company E of the 38th U.S. Colored Volunteers from early 1865 until 1867, he lived in Troy before moving to Albany in 1869. Continue reading

Exhibit: 1800s Photos of Troy, Whitehall African-Americans


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IMG_0363The Rensselaer County Historical Society (RCHS) has opened a new exhibit titled “John Henry & the Baltimores of Troy.” The exhibit is  free and open to the public.

“John Henry & the Baltimores of Troy” features over a dozen 19th century photographs of the Henry family who lived in Whitehall, New York. The photographs were re-discovered a few years ago at the Whitehall Library when Clifford Oliver, a photographer who lives in Greenwich, NY, was alerted to their existence. The photos tell the story of the Henry family who were related by marriage to the prominent abolitionist Baltimore family of Troy, NY. Some of the individuals are identified and others are awaiting further research to connect names to their faces. Continue reading

John Brown Day Being Celebrated May 9th


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John Brown DayA biographer who has written extensively about John Brown, a civil rights activist who marched in Selma and a memorial honoring a youth leader who introduced countless city youth to the Adirondacks will highlight John Brown Day 2015.

The annual event will be held Saturday, May 9, from 2 to 4 pm at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid. It is free and open to the public. Continue reading

From Brooklyn Two Men Fought Against Slavery


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Motto_henry_highland_garnet_originalOne hundred fifty years ago this week, in an elaborate ceremony, the American flag was raised over Fort Sumter in South Carolina marking a milestone in the Union victory in the Civil War. Two months earlier the U.S. Congress had adopted the 13th Amendment forever abolishing slavery.

Two longtime Brooklyn clergymen – Henry Ward Beecher and Henry Highland Garnet – were central to the ceremonies marking these events. Beecher (1813-1887) is described as the most famous man in America at the time of the Civil War, while Garnet (1815-1882) was well-known in the free blacks, but prior to the Civil War, was known to relatively few outside that community. Continue reading

Underground RR Historian Don Papson On ‘The Historians’


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The Historians LogoThis week “The Historians” podcast features Don Papson of Plattsburgh, one of the founders of the North Star Underground Railroad Museum. Papson and Tom Colarco are co-authors of Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City: Sydney Howard Gay, Louis Napoleon and the Record of Fugitives(McFarland, 2015). Listen at “The Historians” online archive at http://www.bobcudmore.com/thehistorians/
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John C. Fremont: Rockland County’s Forgotten Hero


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John_Charles_FrémontIn a cemetery overlooking the Hudson River just south of the Tappan Zee Bridge, lies John C. Fremont, who’s contribution to the end of slavery and the Union victory in the Civil War was tremendous, though he is little-remembered today.

Most generally associate Fremont with the State of California. He is the namesake of Fremont, California, and in 1846 was court-martialed for leading a revolt of American settlers there against the Mexican government. He lived most of the latter part of his life in New York State however, in New York City, and Westchester and Rockland counties. He also played a critical role in shifting the focus of Abraham Lincoln’s efforts in the Civil War from a sectional constitutional conflict to a crusade to abolish slavery. Continue reading