Category Archives: Afro-Americans

GOOD BYE MY HONEY I’M GONE

Good Bye My Honey I'm Gone

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  “Good Bye My Honey I’m Gone”

Composer:  M.H. Rosenfeld

Lithographer:  C.H. Baker

Publisher:  W.A. Evans

Year & Place:  1885, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-490

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  b0490

Basic Description

This lithograph depicts a well-dressed African American woman, valise and African American boy in tow, boldly walking away from two men: one white, in a policeman’s uniform and holding a billy club to his mouth, and the other black, leaning on the officer and pointing in the woman’s direction.  To the immediate right of the woman three chickens fly away and, in the distance, a sailing ship exits right.  Behind the men are the traceries of two, cottage-like buildings. Gigantic shaving razors are noticeable in the dress and pants’ pockets of the woman and boy, respectively.

Personal Description

Despite the peripheral chaos (i.e., the scattering chickens and expressions of alarm or puzzlement on the men’s and boy’s faces) and the embedded threats of violence (i.e., the razors), there’s a strange calm pervading this image that’s largely located in the fleeing woman.  Is it her pleasant smile, her shapely figure and full bosom, or her Herculean arms and corporeal confidence that assuage what is clearly a scene of domestic dissolution? Her floral corsages, lightning-like ribbons and ruffles, and leather lace-ups sartorially empower her, so one wonders why the artist felt the additional need to fall back on the razor-toting Negro stereotype?

Reality Check

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Mary Eliza Mahoney (1845-1926)

Mary Eliza Mahoney, America’s first black graduate nurse, was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts on May 7, 1845.  The eldest of three siblings, Mahoney attended the Phillips Street School in Boston.

At the age of twenty, Mary Mahoney began working as a nurse.  Supplementing her low income as an untrained, practical nurse, Mahoney took on janitorial duties at the New England Hospital for Women and Children: a state-of-the-art medical facility run solely by female physicians.

In 1878, Mary Mahoney was accepted into the New England Hospital’s graduate nursing program.  During her training, Mahoney participated in mandatory sixteen-hour-per-day ward duty, where she oversaw the well-being of six patients at a time.  Days not requiring ward duty involved attending day-long lectures while simultaneously devoting time to her studies.  Completing the rigorous sixteen-month program, Mahoney was among the three graduates out of the forty students who began the program and the only African American awarded a diploma.

Mary Mahoney worked as a nurse for the next four decades.  During her forty-year career she attracted a number of private clients who were among to most prominent Boston families.   A deeply religious person, the diminutive five-foot tall, ninety-pound Mahoney devoted herself to private nursing due to the rampant discrimination against black women in public nursing at the time.

Mary Mahoney was widely recognized within her field as a pioneer who opened the door of opportunity for many black women interested in the nursing profession.  When the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN) was organized in New York in 1908, Mahoney was asked to give the welcoming address.  Following her speech at the 1909 NACGN Convention at Boston, Mahoney was made a lifetime member, exempted from dues, and elected chaplain.  Admitted to New England Hospital for care on December 7, 1925, Mahoney succumbed to breast cancer on January 4, 1926 at the age of eighty-one.

I’ll send you down a Letter from de Sky

I'll send you down a letter from de sky

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  “I’ll send you down a Letter from de Sky”

Composer:  M.H. Rosenfeld

Lithographer:  Endicott

Publisher:  Hitchcock’s Music Store

Year & Place:  1884, New York, NY

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-620

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  b0620

Basic Description

A razor-wielding man is, ostensibly, being thrust upward into the sky by a high-kicking mule in this lithograph.  Residual disarray from the “ass-kicking” is reflected in several chickens, helplessly fluttering in the clouds.  The sheet music’s highly decorative title is further embellished (in the word “I’ll”) by a diminutive, banjo-playing mule, dressed in an Elizabethan blouse and plumed head gear.

Personal Description

The operative sensibility is chaos, exemplified in the unbridled and out-of-control mule, the wild-eyed, razor-toting black man, and the fluttering chickens.  Still, the man’s uplifted razor is treated almost like a military standard or banner, as if signifying what the entire scene is really all about: base weaponry and sleazy trauma.

Reality Check

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Frank Hart (aka “Black Dan”) (1858-1908)

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, endurance foot-racing gripped the United States and Great Britain.  The participants in these events were called pedestrians, and they were free to run or walk around an indoor track for as long as they could stay on their feet.  The top pedestrians survived on less than four hours of sleep a day and slept on cots inside the track’s oval.  Fans avidly followed these six-day contests and, frequently, placed bets on prospective winners.

In the early 1880s, an African American pedestrian stood atop this international craze.  His given name was Fred Hichborn but he changed it to Frank Hart when he turned professional.  Hart was born in Haiti in 1858, immigrated to the United States in the 1870s, and soon thereafter began working in a grocery store in Boston Massachusetts.  As the pedestrian craze swept the nation, he began competing in local events.  Hart competed in the international Astley Belt competitions, and set an American record when he won the Rose Belt in New York’s Madison Square Garden in December 1879.

Hart won the prestigious O’Leary Belt competition on April 10, 1880, smashing the world record after covering 565 miles in six days of racing.  He earned about $17,000 in prize money for that competition.  As the race ended, he waved an American flag to thousands of cheering fans who packed Madison Square Garden.   Another African American, William Pegram of Boston finished second with 540 miles.

Hart earned the nickname “Black Dan” from his association with Daniel O’Leary, an Irish immigrant and sports promoter who financed Hart during his professional career.  In later years, Hart played professional baseball in a Chicago Negro league. Hart died in Chicago in 1908.

GOOD ENOUGH!

GOOD ENOUGH!

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  “Good Enough!”

Composer:  Rollin Howard

Engraver: Clayton’s

Lithographer:  Chicago Lithographing

Publisher:  Lyon & Healy

Year & Place:  1871, Chicago, Illinois

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-498

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  b0498

Basic Description

A dancing, high-kicking couple are shown in an interior space.  Upon closer inspection it appears as if the woman is wearing a nineteenth-century styled slip and petticoats, which is further suggested by the hoop-skirt frame sitting on the table behind her, and in the shelving and racks in the room holding linen, socks, and possibly other forms of apparel.  Both the man and the woman wear big, black brogans and garishly striped stockings.

Personal Description

The abandonment which is expressed in this couple’s dance moves, along with her undressed state, his clown-like outfit, and their shared gnome-like, diabolical features, all conveyed a kind of idiocy and madness surrounding African Americans that, in the post-Reconstruction era, contributed towards the complete dismantling of what few legal rights and social courtesies black still had circa 1871.

Reality Check

ADarlingJohnMaryJones

John Jones (1816-1879) & Mary Richardson Jones (1819-1910)

John Jones – tailor, writer, and politician – was born in 1816 in Green City, North Carolina to a German father and an African American mother.  Born free, he taught himself to read and write, started his own tailoring business, and eventually became one of the wealthiest African Americans in the antebellum United States.

While working as a tailor in Memphis, Tennessee in 1841, John Jones met Mary Jane Richardson, the daughter of a free African American blacksmith.  Although the Richardson family shortly thereafter moved to Alton, Illinois, Jones remained in Memphis for three years to complete the requirements of his apprenticeship.  In 1844 Jones moved to Alton and married Mary Jane Richardson.  Although they were free, both John and Mary obtained certificates of freedom, posted a $1,000 bond in Madison County, and gained the privileges of traveling and living in the state.

After moving to Chicago in 1845, the highly skilled tailor soon had a thriving enterprise, catering to many of Chicago’s elites.  By 1860 Jones’s business was one of the city’s oldest and most financially solvent, having accumulated between $85,000 and $100,000.  The great Chicago fire of 1871 affected his wealth, yet he was left with enough money to be called one of the country’s wealthiest African Americans and Chicago’s undisputed black leader.

Jones used his house and his office, both located on Dearborn Street, as stops on the Underground Railroad through Chicago.  His home was known as a meeting place for local and national abolitionist leaders including Frederick Douglass and John Brown.  He also authored a number of influential anti-slavery pamphlets.  Mary Richardson Jones was also a suffragette, and leaders in the suffrage movement such as Susan B. Anthony stayed in the Jones’ home when visiting Chicago.

Although a dedicated abolitionist, John Jones also actively campaigned against racial discrimination as expressed in the Black Laws of Illinois.  Jones dedicated a considerable amount of his wealth to overturn Illinois laws that denied voting rights to black men and banned them from testifying in court.  His efforts were successful in 1865 when the Illinois Legislature repealed the Black Laws restricting civil rights.  Five years later, in 1870, after ratification of the 15th Amendment, Jones and other Illinois black men also voted for the first time.  In 1871, in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire, Jones was elected to the Cook County Commission on the Union Fire Proof ticket, becoming the first African American officeholder in the state’s history.  While holding this post, he helped enact the law that abolished segregated schools.

Reelected to a full three-year term in 1872, Jones was defeated in his 1875 reelection bid.  John Jones died on May 31, 1879, and was buried at Graceland Cemetery in Cook County, Illinois.  Mary Richardson Jones died in 1910, and is also buried at Graceland Cemetery.

Shew Fly!

Shew Fly!

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  “Shew Fly!”

Composer:  George Thorne & Rollin Howard

Engraver:  J. Frank Giles

Publisher:  White, Smith & Perry

Year & Place:  1869, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-409

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  b0409

Basic Description

This engraving features a solitary male figure, physically gesturing in such a way as to suggest his effort to escape a large, wasp-like insect to the left.  A word balloon with the expression “SHOO FLY” issues from the man’s mouth.  His big-collared shirt, long-tailed jacket, and striped/patched trousers recall the clothing typically worn by nineteenth-century minstrels.

Personal Description

Although the artist for this cover is not as technically polished as several others in this blog, his attempt at a persuasive African American depiction is laudable.  However, like so many of the black figures typically represented on covers, this one also emphasizes the body-in-motion, with angled limbs and twisted torsos carrying their own subliminal messages and allusions.

Reality Check

Morris

Robert Morris (1823-1882)

Robert Morris became one of the first black lawyers in United States after being admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1847.  Morris was born in Salem, Massachusetts on June 8, 1823.   At an early age, Morris had some formal education at Master Dodge’s School in Salem.  With the agreement of his family, he became the student of Ellis Gray Loring, a well known abolitionist and lawyer.  By the early 1850s, Robert Morris was appointed a justice of the peace and was admitted to practice before U.S. district courts.  He occasionally served as a magistrate in courts in Boston and nearby Chelsea, Massachusetts.

Vehemently opposed to slavery, he worked with William Lloyd Garrison, Ellis Loring and Wendell Philips and others to oppose the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  In 1851 Morris, with the help of Lewis Hayden, managed to remove from the courthouse a newly arrested fugitive slave Shadrack and helped him to get to Canada and freedom.  Arrests were made but Morris and the others were acquitted of the charges.

With the onset of the Civil War, Morris welcomed President Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers but objected to the enlistment of African Americans unless they received fair and equal treatment and were offered positions as officers.  He helped in the recruitment of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first officially sanctioned African American unit in the U.S. Army but he continued to speak out against discrimination against them and other black soldiers.  Robert Morris died in Boston on December 12, 1882.

YOUNG EPH’S LAMENT

Young Eph's Lament

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  “Young Eph’s Lament”

Composer:  J.B. Murphy

Engraver:  W.E. Foote

Publisher:  Jacob Endres

Year & Place:  1862, St. Louis, Missouri

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music A-1032

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  a1032

Basic Description

Arguably, this gesturing, black-faced/white-lipped man shares the engraving’s focal point with assorted titles, lyrical excerpts, and artistic bylines. Dressed in patched, striped, and too-short-and-tight-for-decorum trousers, the man’s impoverished fashion sense is further underscored by his rag-tag coat, collapsed stove-top hat, and bundled belongings on a stick.

Personal Description

Despite the downtrodden demeanor and the adjacent “lament” transcribed in an illiterate “darky” dialect, the man’s obvious burnt-cork-and-kaolin makeup, as well as his classic contraposto pose and indicatory gesture, suggest a masquerade or, perhaps, a tongue-in-cheek dramatis personae of pro-slavery mimicry, knowingly performed and proselytized here by Murphy and Purdy.

Reality Check

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James Milton Turner (1840-1915)

James Milton Turner was a prominent politician, education advocate, and diplomat in the years after the Civil War.  Turner was born a slave in St. Louis, Missouri in 1840.  His father, John Turner (also known as John Colburn), was a well-known “horse doctor” in St. Louis who had earlier purchased his freedom.  In 1843 John Turner was able to buy freedom for his wife, Hannah, and his son James.  When he was fourteen James attended Oberlin College in Ohio for one term until his father’s death in 1855 forced him to return to St. Louis to help support his mother and family.

During the Civil War Turner enlisted in the Union Army and served as the body servant for Col. Madison Miller.  After the war, Governor Thomas Fletcher (Miller’s brother-in-law), appointed Turner Assistant Superintendent of Schools responsible for establishing freedmen schools in Missouri.  Turner was also behind the effort to establish Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, Missouri, the first school to offer higher education for blacks in Missouri.  Turner was also active in organizing African Americans as a political force in Missouri.

President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Turner Ambassador to Liberia in 1871, making him the first African American to serve in the U.S. diplomatic corps.  He held the post until 1878.  Following his return to the U.S. he worked for relief and aid for Exoduster immigrants to Kansas.  In 1881 he and Hannibal Carter organized the Freedmen’s Oklahoma Immigration Association to promote black homesteading in Oklahoma.  In the last two decades of his life Turner lobbied strenuously for the rights of Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw freedmen in the Indian Territory.  Turner died in 1915 in Ardmore, Oklahoma.

WHEN SOUSA COMES TO COON-TOWN

When Sousa Comes to Coon-Town

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  “When Sousa comes to coon-town”

Composer:  Jim Vaughn & Lemonier

Lyricist:  Alex Rogers

Publisher:  Shapiro, Bernstein and Company

Year & Place:  1902, New York, NY

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-184

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  b0184

Basic Description

The scene in this two-color (red and blue) lithograph is an outdoor parade, dominated by the banner “WHEN SOUSA COMES TO COON-TOWN.”  Underneath the banner is an orchestra of regimented white men, marching in unison in blue uniforms and led by a baton-wielding man with a beard and spectacles.  Surrounding the band are an enthralled audience of caricatured, white-lipped, beady-eyed, black people.  Most prominent among the caricatured throngs are: a top hat-wearing elderly man (on the far right); a bandanna- and apron-wearing rotund woman (parallel to the bandleader); and, just underneath the bandleader, six grotesque children who seem to be imitating him.

Personal Description

The inset box in the sheet music’s lower left corner, featuring formal photographs of African American performers Bert Williams and George Walker (along with titles and accolades), creates a fascinating counterpoint to the sheet music’s comical and stereotypical illustration.  Although the photographs convey a conceptual truth about these specific African Americans, the illustration does not operate without its own “truths” (i.e., the drawn “portrait” of the legendary bandleader John Phillip Sousa).  So the dilemma this sets up for viewers is: do these real portrayals in any way counter the adjacent images of absurd and degenerative African Americans?

Reality Check

jamesreeseeurope

The Clef Club Orchestra (with James Reese Europe), circa 1910

The Clef Club was a part fraternal organization, part union for African American entertainers at the beginning of the twentieth-century. The building it purchased on West 53rd Street served both as the club’s headquarters and as an office for theatrical bookings.  Legendary bandleader and musician James Reese Europe was the Clef Club’s first elected president as well as the conductor of its symphony orchestra.

The Clef Club Orchestra appeared at Carnegie Hall for the first time on May 2, 1912.  They were so well received that they returned in 1913 and 1914.  The Carnegie Hall concerts gave the Clef Club Orchestra greater respectability among white society and, as a result, they regularly performed at elite functions in New York, London, and Paris.  The club functioned as a clearing-house not only for musicians, but for all types of entertainers and, under Europe’s leadership, it was actively involved in improving the working conditions for African American entertainers.  When an act was booked through the Clef Club, the musicians were considered professionals and received a good salary, transportation expenses, room, and board.  The club proved exceptionally successful, generating over $100,000 a year in bookings at the height of its popularity.

One Clef Club Orchestra performance boasted 150 musicians, although not everyone who was on stage in some shows could actually play an instrument. Some were purely window-dressing, taught just enough to get them through performances, while others simply pretended to play their instruments.  In 1914, after disputes arose between Clef Club members, Europe resigned as its leader and Ford Dabney took over his spot as bandleader.

WHISTLING RUFUS

WHISTLING RUFUS

Location:  Historic American Sheet Music Collection, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Title of Song:  “Whistling Rufus”

Composer:  Kerry Mills

Publisher:  F.A. Mills

Year & Place:  1899, New York, NY

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music #571 no. 5

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  no571.5

Basic Description

A black man, wearing a top hat, a formal jacket with tails, and gaily-patterned trousers,  is shown seated behind palm plants in a chair on a stage, strumming a guitar, tapping his feet and, ostensibly, whistling through large, white, pursed lips.  In the far distance five, similarly white-lipped couples, hand in hand, form a dancing line in this dance hall-like setting.  The two color (black and yellow-orange) lithograph breaks up the monotony of this otherwise stark, graphic rendering.

Personal Description

After seeing stereotypic image after stereotypic image, one gets pretty inured to the pictorial put-downs and racial aspersions after a while.  The visual jokes that are supposedly contained in representations of big lips, over-attenuated musical and rhythmic acumen, and in minstrel absurdities are somehow emptied of their poison after multiple viewings, eventually becoming empty symbols of racism and derogation.  The fault line that the stereotype frequently tumbles over is a reiteration that, without reinforced confirmations from the culturally illiterate or knowingly racist, implode upon themselves and, thus, communicate nothing but foul air.

Reality Check

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Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949)

Harry Thacker Burleigh played a significant role in the development of American art song, having composed over two hundred works.  He was the first African-American composer acclaimed for his concert songs as well as for his adaptations of African-American spirituals.  In addition, Burleigh was an accomplished baritone, a meticulous editor, and a charter member of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP).

Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, Burleigh received his first music training from his mother.  After discovering Burleigh’s musical talent, his mother’s employer gave Burleigh a job as a doorman at the musicales she hosted in her home.  This afforded Burleigh the opportunity to hear guest performers such as Teresa Carreño and Italo Campanini.  In 1892, Burleigh received a scholarship to the National Conservatory of Music in New York.

The years Burleigh spent at the Conservatory greatly influenced his career, mostly due to his association and friendship with Antonín Dvorák, the Conservatory’s director.  After spending countless hours recalling and performing the African-American spirituals and plantation songs he had learned from his maternal grandfather for Dvorák, Burleigh was encouraged by the elder composer to preserve these melodies in his own compositions.  In turn, Dvorák’s use of the spirituals “Goin’ Home” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” in his Symphony no. 9 in E minor (“From the New World”).  In addition, Burleigh served as copyist for Dvorák, a task that prepared him for his future responsibilities as a music editor.

In 1894, Burleigh auditioned for the post of soloist at St. George’s Episcopal Church of New York.  To the consternation of the congregation, which objected because Burleigh was black, he was given the position.  However, through his talent and dedication (he held the appointment for over fifty years, missing only one performance during his tenure), Burleigh won the hearts and the respect of the entire church community.

In 1898, he married poet Louise Alston; a son, Alston, was born the following year. That same year, G. Schirmer published his first three songs.  In 1900, Burleigh was the first African-American chosen as soloist at Temple Emanu-El, a New York synagogue, and by 1911 he was working as an editor for music publisher G. Ricordi.  His success was enhanced through the publication of several of his compositions, including “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” (1915), a collection entitled Jubilee Songs of the USA (1916), and his arrangement of “Deep River” (1917), for which he is best remembered.  Burleigh died in New York City in 1949.