Location: Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina
Title of Song: Ole Virginy Breakdown
Composer: Sweeny, J.W.
Illustrator: Thayer, B.W.
Publisher: Henry Prentiss
Year & Place: 1847, Boston, Massachusetts
Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music B. 5, no. 20
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: hasmsm004
This lithograph depicts a group of men dancing in a wooded clearing. The most prominent figure is not dancing but seated on a wooden barrel to the far right of the composition. Under a tree, a patch of grass beneath him, this man holds a banjo and sings. To his right, the dancing men— at least dozen of them— perform jig-like moves in a clearing. Two of the men dance in a pair while others dance alone, striking poses in keeping with the jigs of traditional Irish and Scottish folk music. These jigs may have been an influence on the composer of this tune, a successful Irish-American minstrel singer by the name of Joel Walker Sweeny.
The singing man with the banjo is not intended to resemble an African American but rather a white minstrel performing as one. Due to his size (relative to the dancing men), he seems to be in a different time and place; he is singing about the men rather than providing their musical accompaniment. The facial characteristics of the dancing men suggest that, like him, they are not African American men but white minstrels. The artifice of the scene is revealed, yet the image is loaded with cultural stereotypes about the facial characteristics of African Americans The singing man tries to affirm those stereotypes in his song, even if he and his performing men are clearly fakes.
Lewis Temple was a blacksmith, abolitionist, and inventor who was born in Richmond, Virginia. Nothing is known about his parents or formal education. During the 1820s, Temple migrated to the whaling town of New Bedford, Massachusetts. It is uncertain whether he escaped Virginia as a slave or as a free man. According to New Bedford town records, by 1836 Temple had established a whalecraft shop on one of the wharves that serviced ships.
An active participant in town affairs, Temple was elected vice president of an antislavery organization, the New Bedford-Union Society. In 1847, Temple was arrested and charged with “rioting” after he and three other black men were accused of disrupting a pro-slavery lecture. New Bedford was home to a large African community and as a prominent member of the town, Temple almost certainly aided a number of runaway slaves, including Frederick Douglass.
Known as the “Temple Toggle” or the “Temple Iron,” Temple fashioned a harpoon with a pivoting head that locked into the whale’s flesh, thereby preventing the harpoon from being dislodged by the thrashing movements of the whale. Despite initial unwillingness to use the harpoon among whalers, it soon proved to be more effective than the standard barbed head harpoon. Temple’s Iron became the universal harpoon and it is still used today in some parts of the Caribbean.
Unfortunately, Lewis Temple never patented his invention and subsequent refinements and mass production by his competitors obscured the significance of his invention and innovation. However, he was still successful enough that he needed to build a larger shop. During a visit to the construction site, he fell into a hole left open by a negligent city worker and never fully recovered from his injuries. Temple sued the city and was awarded $2,000 by the court.
A few weeks later Temple died, unacknowledged and destitute. Today, he is presented as one of New Bedford’s most ingenious citizens. In 1987, a life-size statue of Lewis Temple was erected on the lawn of the New Bedford Free Public Library and, recently, artist Robert Weiss created a scrimshaw portrait of Lewis Temple.
Sources: BlackHistoryPages.net and African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Oxford University Press, 2004.