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
Publisher: Hitchcock’s Music Store
Year & Place: 1884, New York, NY
Collection/Call Number/Copies: Music B-620
Historic American Sheet Music Item #: b0620
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.
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.
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.