Category Archives: elderly

My Home in Alabam’

My Home in Alabam'

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

Title of Song:  My Home in Alabam’

Composer: Putnam, James S.

Publisher: John F. Perry

Year & Date:  1881, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music#  B-666
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0666

Basic Description
A man sits on a wooden chair in a sparse garret bedroom with a banjo on his lap and his head in his hand. He stares at the viewer with a distant, troubled look, in a pose like Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker.” The town-like setting in the window contrasts with the plantation scene above— a dream space corralled by a dense frame of cloud-like circles.  The cracks and exposed bricks in the wall, along with the jagged hemlines of the man’s pant legs set depressing tone.  Rather than being integrated with the picture, the title text is set in the white space around the image. Two title options, “My Dear Savannah Home,” and “My Home in Alabam” are listed in sober typeface.

Personal Description
Each title option can lead to a different and contradictory interpretation of the image. Interestingly, this pamphlet includes two song sheet covers for other “plantation melodies” printed by the same publisher. This imagery makes light of the plantation experience, showing caricatured African Americans dancing or filling pails with berries. Like the song illustrated on the main cover, these songs also have two titles each that contrast oddly with each other. “De Huckleberry Picnic”  implies a recreational activity at one’s own free will but “Since I Saw de Cotton Grow” suggests the forced labor of slavery or the exploitation of sharecropping.  “My Dear Savannah Home” implies that the seated man is nostalgic for plantation life. But “My Home in Alabam” is vague, allowing the plantation memory invading the scene to be interpreted not as a cherished dream but rather an oppressive nightmare.

Reality Check

Edward Alexander Bouchet
Edward Alexander Bouchet was an educator and scientist who was born in New Haven Connecticut. His family was a member of the Temple Street Congregational Church, a stopping point for fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad.

In 1868, Bouchet was accepted into Hopkins Grammar School, a private institution that prepared young men for the classical and scientific departments at Yale College. He graduated first in his class at Hopkins and graduated from Yale in 1874, ranking sixth in his class. In 1876, he completed a dissertation on geometrical optics,  becoming the first African American to earn a PhD from an American University and the sixth American of any race to earn a PhD in Physics.

Bouchet moved to Philadelphia in 1876 to teach at the Institute for Colored Youth, the city’s only high school for African American students.  Bouchet gave public lectures to his community in Philadelphia on scientific topics and was a member of the Franklin Institute, a foundation for the promotion of the mechanic arts, chartered in 1824.

In 1908, he became principal of Lincoln High School in Gallipolis, Ohio, where he remained until 1913, when an attack of arteriosclerosis compelled him to resign and return to New Haven. He died in his boyhood home in 1916.

(Source: African American Lives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Oxford University Press, 2004.


I’se Gwine to Leave Old Dixie; Companion to (I’se Gwine Back to Dixie)

I'se Gwine Back To Leave Old Dixie

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

Title of Song:  I’se Gwine to Leave Old Dixie; Companion to (I’se Gwine Back to Dixie)

Composer: White, Charles Albert

Lyricist: Cooper, George

Lithographer: F.M. Haskell  & Co.

Publisher: White, Smith & Company

Year & Date:  1879, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music# B-745

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0745

Basic Description
This lithograph consists of a framed illustration with embellished lettering above and below. The illustration shows an old man and woman sitting on top of a horse and buggy. The vehicle is stuffed with their personal belongings— mostly the tools of manual labor— a hoe, a broom, a saw— some chairs, and some wooden barrels.  The man has a white beard and what appears to be a cane behind his shoulder. He is hunched over, tired-looking and frail. The woman holds a clock in her hands. The horse’s eyes are covered by blinders and two children, a boy and a girl, stare at it. A scrawny dog with its ribs showing trots next to them. The outlines of two people working in the field are faintly visible.

Personal Description
The clock stands out from the farm-related belongings and seems to symbolize the pressures facing the couple; the scene could be read in the context of the failure of Reconstruction.  But is this couple sad to leave home or simply worn out, weary, and hungry? In other song sheet covers on this blog, “Dixie,” as an imagined place, is invested with emotional power. A pull toward self-improvement and prosperity in the North is sometimes undermined by disillusionment and a mental Southward slide toward familiarity and so-called comfort. “I’se Gwine to Leave Old Dixie” is a song about leaving the South out of financial need, but wanting to stay. The lithograph could be seen as representing the transition from an idealized way of life to a world of  urgent financial pressures. Rather than representing the hope of a new generation, the children almost seem to be witnessing their own fate in the troubles of the older couple.

Reality Check

Ellen Craft (1826-1891) and William Craft (1824-1900)
Ellen Craft was a light-skinned African American slave woman who helped her husband escape from slavery by passing as white. Her husband William wrote an autobiographical slave narrative that described their dramatic escape.

They traveled by public transportation from their home in Georgia to freedom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, staying in hotels along the way.

Ellen Craft was born in Clinton Georgia to a biracial slave woman and her master. She was so light-skinned that she was often mistaken for a member of her father’s white family. At age 11, she was given as a wedding gift to daughter who lived in Macon. There she met William and married him in 1846. Together they devised their escape plan— to pose as a white slaveholder with his slave.

Because a white woman would not have traveled alone with a male slave, Ellen had to pretend to be not only white but a man. She cut her hair, changed her walk, and wrapped her jaw in bandages to disguise her lack of a beard. To hide her illiteracy, she wrapped her right arm in a sling to have a ready excuse for being unable to sign papers. She explained the bandages by claiming to be an invalid traveling north to receive medical care. They traveled this way from Georgia to Pennsylvania by train, steamer, and ferry without being discovered, arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day in 1848.

In Philadelphia they befriended William Lloyd Garrison and then moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where they traveled as anti-slavery lecturers. They fled to England in 1850, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. In 1868, following the Civil War, they returned to the United States and settled near Savannah, Georgia. They farmed a cotton and rice plantation and attempted to start a school. But financial debts from the plantation and hostility from white neighbors forced them to close it. Ellen Craft died in 1891. William moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where he died in 1900.

(Source: Africa Online,


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


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.

Poor Charlie; Or old slave who ran away & was carried back to his master


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

Title of Song:  Poor Charlie; Old slave who ran away & was carried back to his master

Composer:  Dell, Daisy

Engraver:  Gockeritz, F.

Publisher:  G.P. Reed

Year & Place:  1855, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music # 928

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: n0928

Basic Description
An African American man sits on a chair outside a wooden slave cabin.  His surroundings are rustic. The lettering of the song title and composer’s name are in keeping with a countrified or “frontier” aesthetic, evocative of western expansionism. His head is in his hand and he is looking down. The song title suggests the the man is unhappy and dejected — he is slumped in his chair because he was carried back to his master. But the image itself is ambiguous. Charlie sits in a way that suggests he could either be depressed or just sleeping. Read in conjunction with the title, the cabin behind Charlie seems monolithic, taking up the entire background and blocking out the horizon line or any other sign of a world beyond it. Maybe the craggy piece of wood directly above his head emphasizes the hopeless melodrama of the scene, or maybe it’s just an attempt to make the cabin seem more authentic.

Personal Description
The song title implies that the central theme of this image is Charlie’s despondence after trying to flee slavery. This image appeared three years after the 1952 publication of Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and maybe it shares the novel’s overtones of  patronizing sympathy. But there is also something about Charlie’s figure that is resistant to sympathy. Nothing is overly pathetic about him or his posture. With his arm hanging over the back of the chair and leg kicked out, he looks slightly nonchalant. The ambiguity of his face and posture gets in the way of an overly sympathetic reading of his circumstances, in spite of the song title. This ambiguity doesn’t detract from the dangerousness of this image. The image may not be overtly patronizing or employ as many stereotypes about the physical characteristics of African Americans as others. But Charlie’s ambiguity is one of the things that enables the conversion of an objectively brutal theme from real life (thwarted slave escapes) to popular entertainment.

Reality Check

Samuel Harrison (1818-1900)

Samuel Harrison, a minister, political activist, and former slave, became one of Berkshire County, Massachusetts’s most ardent abolitionists. Harrison was born enslaved in Philadelphia in 1818 but he and his mother were freed in 1821.  Shortly afterward the widowed mother and her son moved to New York City. When Harrison was nine years old, he returned to Philadelphia to live with an uncle.

Throughout his childhood, Harrison worked as an apprentice to his uncle in a shoemaking shop, learning a trade that would support him for years. He also attended church services with his mother regularly, and it was during his adolescence that Harrison decided to become a Presbyterian minister.

Samuel Harrison tried hard to educate himself. In 1836, he enrolled in a manual school run by the abolitionist Gerrit Smith in Peterboro, New York. After only a few months, he transferred to the Western Reserve College in Hudson, Ohio (now Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Ohio), an institution known for its abolitionist sympathies.   Financial difficulties, however, forced him to return to Philadelphia in 1839.

Soon after returning to Philadelphia, Harrison married Ellen Rhodes who he had known since the two were children. Over the next twenty years, Ellen gave birth to thirteen children, seven of whom died in early childhood.

In 1850, Harrison moved to Pittsfield, Massachusetts where he was ordained as a preacher by the Berkshire Association of Congregational Ministers and became the first minister of the Second Congregational Church of Pittsfield, the first black church founded in the county.

Harrison settled into his position and became well known in the area for his fiery sermons and outspoken criticism of slavery. He was invited to speak at numerous churches in the region on contemporary political issues, such as blacks serving in the United States Army, war in Eastern Europe, and the history of the city of Pittsfield. In 1862 he lectured a Williamstown, Massachusetts congregation on The Cause and Cure for the War, a fiery oration in which he trumpeted support for enlistment of black troops.

Harrison retired from his Pittsfield pulpit in 1862 and began working with the National Freedmen’s Relief Association to solicit aid for former slaves on the South Carolina Sea Islands. In October 1863 Harrison was appointed chaplain of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment by Governor John A. Andrew.  Almost immediately he was drawn into the dispute over discriminatory pay to the black soldiers.  Harrison’s demand that he receive the same pay as white chaplains led Governor Andrew and United States Attorney General Edward Bates to write letters to President Abraham Lincoln to end the discriminatory practice.  Lincoln did so in July 1864.  Taken ill in March 1864, Harrison was honorably discharged from the army.

After the Civil War, Harrison ministered to African American congregations in Newport, Rhode Island (1865), Springfield, Massachusetts (1866-1870), and Portland, Maine (1870-1872), before returning to pastor the Second Congregational Church in Pittsfield. Harrison also published a variety of tracts on racial equality, enfranchisement, reconstruction, and “historical perspectives,” including Pittsfield Twenty-five Years Ago (1874), A Centennial Sermon (1876), An Appeal of a Colored Man to His Fellow-Citizens of a Fairer Hue in the United States (1877), Pittsfield Then and Now (1886), and Rev. Samuel Harrison: His Life Story (1899).  Samuel Harrison died in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1900.




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

Title of Song:  “Which road is you gwine to take”

Composer:  Frank Dumont

Publisher:  White, Smith & Co.

Year & Place:  1880, Boston, Massachusetts

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music B-201

Historic American Sheet Music Item #:  b0201

Basic Description

This crudely drawn outdoor scene depicts two men approaching a crossroad on a country lane, whose dual signage “TO BRIMSTONE LAKE” and “TO PROMISED LAND” is matched with a shadowy background and a well-lit path, respectively.  The men are coarsely rendered with hardly any naturalism or anatomical correctness.

Personal Description

The dual signpost, with its morality-imbued dialectic of sinfulness or righteousness, is perhaps unintentionally countered by the double meaning here of “TO [the] PROMISED LAND,” which not only refers to a Judeo-Christian Heaven but, in the context of the 1870s and 1880s, to African American life in the post-Emancipation and post-Reconstruction era.

Reality Check


Edward Garrison Walker (ca. 1831-1901)

Edward Garrison Walker – leatherworker, lawyer, and politician – was born in Boston, Massachusetts around 1831.  His exact date of birth is unknown.  According to several sources his mother, Eliza, was a fugitive slave.  His father, David Walker, was infamous for authoring David Walker’s Appeal (1839): a controversial abolitionist text.

Walker was educated in Boston’s public schools and, as a youth, apprenticed with a local leatherworker.  He eventually owned his own shop and employed fifteen people.  With the heightened public awareness in New England concerning abolitionism, Walker (along with Boston abolitionists Lewis Hayden and Robert Morris) became well known in 1851 for helping to obtain the release of Shadrach, a fugitive slave.

While fighting for the release of Shadrach, Walker acquired a copy of Blackstone’s Commentaries, which piqued his interest in law.  While still a leatherworker Walker read this and numerous other law texts and studied law in the offices of John Q. A. Griffin and Charles A. Tweed in Georgetown, Massachusetts.  After passing his law examination in May 1861, Walker became the third African American admitted to the Massachusetts bar.

Walker soon transitioned from law into politics.  In 1866, Walker (along with Charles L. Mitchell, another African American politician) was elected to the Massachusetts State Legislature.  While in office Walker opposed many Republican ideas and consequently the party refused to re-nominate him in 1867.  Undeterred, Walker became a Democrat, commandeering a number of black Bostonians to desert the GOP for the Democratic Party.

Walker continued to prosper as a lawyer.  Along with Robert Morris, Walker became well known for representing Irish clients seeking a redress of grievances from mostly British defendants.  Displaying inspirational photographs of Irish resistance leaders on his office walls, Walker considered the Irish fight for freedom as important as the recently concluded struggle to liberate African American slaves.

Walker forged alliances with many well known Boston politicians including Democratic Governor Benjamin F. Butler, who was elected to that office in 1883.  Butler, in turn, nominated Walker as a judge.  However, the Republicans in the legislature refused to ratify the nomination and, instead, gave the judgeship to a “loyal” Republican, the African American George L. Ruffin.  Walker was nominated again for three judgeships but was rejected each time by the Republican-dominated Massachusetts Legislature.

Partly in response to his difficulties as a rare black Democrat, Walker and other estranged black leaders initiated in the Negro Political Independence Movement in 1885.  Five years later, Walker was elected president of the Colored National League.  In 1896, Walker received the nomination for the U.S. Presidency by the Negro Party, a short-lived third party movement.  Edward Garrison Walker died on January 13, 1901 in Boston, Massachusetts.

Wake Nicodemus


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

Title of Song:  Wake Nicodemus

Composer:  Work, Henry Clay

Publisher:  Root & Cady

Year & Place:  1864, Chicago, Illinois

Collection/Call Number/Copies:  Music A-62; 1-2

Historic American Sheet Music Item #: hasm.a0062

Basic Description

Peering out of a hole of a tree trunk and framed by tree branches overhead and to the right of the hole is a balding, grinning, elderly black man.  The linear renderings of floral and human forms in the engraving are naturalistic, accurately capturing foliage, bark, tree roots, and the facial features of the man.

Personal Description

Because of the placement of the tree trunk to the far left and the predominance of branches and roots in the overall design of the illustration, the grinning black man is a kind of visual surprise and functions as a comical aside.

Reality Check


John Robert Clifford (1848-1933), along with W.E.B. DuBois (seated), Monroe Trotter, & Freeman Henry Morris Murray

John Robert Clifford was born in Williamsport, West Virginia.  At the age of 10, Clifford was sent to Chicago and, five years later, he enlisted in the Union Army to fight in the Civil War.  He served in Company F, the 13th United States Heavy Artillery, attaining the rank of Corporal.  Clifford saw service in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia under General Ulysses S. Grant.

After the war Clifford attended Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia and, after graduating from Storer in 1875, enrolled at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he received the A.M. degree.  After graduating from Shaw, he taught in several primary schools in West Virginia, and became a principal at the Sumner School in Martinsburg, West Virginia.  In Martinsburg he also founded and published the Pioneer Press: the first African-American newspaper in West Virginia, and the oldest in the country at the time of its discontinuance.

Clifford “read law” in a local attorney’s office and, in 1887, he was admitted to practice before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, becoming West Virginia’s first African American lawyer.  In 1892, Clifford became the attorney for Mrs. Carrie Williams, an African American schoolteacher, in a landmark civil rights case (Williams v. Board of Education, 1898).  The Williams case established the right of the children of African American workers in West Virginia coalmines and coke ovens to school terms of equal length as those enjoyed by white children.  The Williams case also established the right of African American schoolteachers in West Virginia to equal pay.

John Robert Clifford was a key figure in the early 20th century civil rights movement, helping to establish the American Negro Academy in 1897 and, between 1911 and 1913, serving as President of the National Independent Political League.  Most notably Clifford was a leading organizer and participant (along with W.E.B. Du Bois) in the 2nd Annual Meeting of the Niagara Movement at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in August 1906.  Clifford continued to be an active leader in African American efforts for justice until his death in 1933.  In 1954 he was re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery.