Archive for the ‘Historic Figures’ Category

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Colonel Justice Marion Chambers

In 1990, the United States Congress designated March 25th of each year as National Medal of Honor Day, which is dedicated to all Medal of Honor recipients.  And during today’s lunchtime bike ride to Arlington National Cemetery (MAP), and in observance of today’s designation, I chose to stop and pay my respects at the grave of a Medal of Honor recipient named Justice M. Chambers.

Justice Marion “Jumping Joe” Chambers was born at Huntington, West Virginia, February 2, 1908.  He grew up and went to school there, completing three years at Marshall College before leaving Huntington for D.C.   He then attended George Washington University and National University, where he obtained his law degree.

In 1930, following the completion of two years enlistment in the Naval Reserve, Chambers joined the Marine Corps Reserve as a private.  He was commissioned two years later, and continued his studies toward promotion.  He was a major, attending summer camp, when Washington’s 5th Battalion was called up in 1940 to aid in the war effort.

He served with honor and distinction until a fateful day almost five years later when, on February 19, 1945, Chambers commanded the 3rd Assault Battalion Landing Team, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division, in the Iwo Jima landing.  His sector was beneath high ground from which heavy enemy fire raked the whole landing beach. Capture of the high ground was considered essential to the success of the operations. It is an established fact that had it not been done, it would have constituted a most serious threat to subsequent operations.

The 3rd Battalion lost more than half its officers and nearly one-half its enlisted strength on D-Day.  But, according to the citation that would accompany his medal, it was by “fearless disregard for his own life” and leading his depleted battalion “by example rather than command” that Chambers won the key heights and anchored the right flank of the Marines’ position.

On the fourth day, directing the Marines’ first rocket barrage and exposed to the enemy’s main line of resistance, Chambers and his men fell under enemy machine-gun fire.  Chambers was hit, and his wounds were so serious that he was medically retired.  And because he had been specially commended for performance of duty in combat, he was promoted to the rank of colonel.

Chambers had been recommended for the award on April 7, 1945, following his evacuation, seriously wounded, from Iwo Jima.  However, he initially received the Navy Cross for his actions.  But upon re-examination of the original recommendation with additional evidence, his award was upgraded to the Medal of Honor a few years later.  Presentation of the Medal of Honor was made at the White House by President Harry S. Truman on November 1, 1950.  (Later that same day, two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate Truman across the street at Blair House. )

Chambers retired from the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve January 1, 1946. After his retirement, he served as staff advisor for the Senate Armed Services Committee. Chambers was appointed in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy to the post of deputy director of the Office of Emergency Planning, where he served with distinction until his retirement. He died on July 29, 1982.

The citation accompanying Chambers’ Medal of Honor reads:

“For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the 3d Assault Battalion Landing Team, 25th Marines, 4th Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, Volcano Islands, from 19 to 22 February 1945. Under a furious barrage of enemy machinegun and small-arms fire from the commanding cliffs on the right, Colonedl Chambers (then Lt. Col.) landed immediately after the initial assault waves of his battalion on D-day to find the momentum of the assault threatened by heavy casualties from withering Japanese artillery, mortar rocket, machinegun, and rifle fire. Exposed to relentless hostile fire, he coolly reorganized his battle-weary men, inspiring them to heroic efforts by his own valor and leading them in an attack on the critical, impregnable high ground from which the enemy was pouring an increasing volume of fire directly onto troops ashore as well as amphibious craft in succeeding waves. Constantly in the front lines encouraging his men to push forward against the enemy’s savage resistance, Colonel Chambers led the 8-hour battle to carry the flanking ridge top and reduce the enemy’s fields of aimed fire, thus protecting the vital foothold gained. In constant defiance of hostile fire while reconnoitering the entire regimental combat team zone of action, he maintained contact with adjacent units and forwarded vital information to the regimental commander. His zealous fighting spirit undiminished despite terrific casualties and the loss of most of his key officers, he again reorganized his troops for renewed attack against the enemy’s main line of resistance and was directing the fire of the rocket platoon when he fell, critically wounded. Evacuated under heavy Japanese fire, Colonel Chambers, by forceful leadership, courage, and fortitude in the face of staggering odds, was directly instrumental in insuring the success of subsequent operations of the 5th Amphibious Corps on Iwo Jima, thereby sustaining and enhancing the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.”

Note:  In addition to the Medal of Honor, Silver Star Medal and Legion of Merit with Combat “V,” Col Chambers’ decorations and medals include the Purple Heart Medal with two gold stars, Presidential Unit Citation with three bronze stars, Organized Marine Corps Reserve Medal with two stars, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with one silver star (denoting five campaigns), and the World War II Victory Medal.

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The Oscar S. Straus Memorial

The Oscar S. Straus Memorial is located just two blocks south of The White House, in the Federal Triangle on 14th Street between Pennsylvania Avenue and Constitution Avenue, in front of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center (MAP), and was the destination of this lunchtime bike ride.

The memorial commemorates the accomplishments of the first Jew to be a member of the cabinet of a U.S. president, having served as Secretary of Commerce and Labor under President Theodore Roosevelt from 1906 to 1909.  He also served under Presidents William Howard Taft, William McKinley, and Grover Cleveland, and was offered a cabinet position by Theodore Roosevelt.

Oscar Solomon Straus was born on December 23, 1850, in Otterberg, Rhenish Bavaria, now in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate (now Germany).  At the age of two he immigrated with his mother and siblings to the United States, joining their father, Lazarus, who had emigrated in 1852.  The family settled in Talbotton, Georgia.  At the close of the Civil War in 1865, Straus’s family moved to New York City, where he graduated from Columbia College in 1871 and Columbia Law School in 1873.  In 1882, Strauss married Sarah Lavanburg, and they had three children: Mildred Straus Schafer (born the following year), Aline Straus Hockstader (born in 1889), and Roger Williams Straus (born in 1891).

Straus first served as United States Minister to the Ottoman Empire from 1887 to 1889, and then again from 1898 to 1899. In January of 1902, he was named a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague to fill the place left vacant by the death of ex-President Benjamin Harrison. Then in December of 1906, Straus became the United States Secretary of Commerce and Labor under President Roosevelt. This position also placed him in charge of the United States Bureau of Immigration.  Straus left the Commerce Department in 1909 when William Howard Taft became president and became U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire until 1910.  In 1912, he ran unsuccessfully for Governor of New York on the Progressive and Independence League tickets. And in 1915, he became chairman of the public service commission of New York State.

The memorial fountain was designed by Adolph Alexander Weinman, and funded with a public subscription beginning in 1929.  It was dedicated on October 26, 1947, by President Harry S. Truman. It was disassembled and placed in storage in 1991 during the construction of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. After the building was completed, the fountain was reinstalled with all original materials. It was rededicated on October 26, 1998.

In the center of the memorial is the massive fountain with the inscription “statesman, author, diplomat.”  To the sides are two statues.  The one to the left is one entitled Justice, which depicts a woman representing “Justice,” with her arm resting on the Ten Commandments.   It is intended to symbolize the religious freedom which allowed a Jew to serve in such a position of authority.  The inscription on this statue reads, “Our Liberty of Worship is not a Concession nor a Privilege but an Inherent Right.”   To the right of the fountain is the statue entitled Reason.  It depicts a partially draped male figure and a child holding a purse, key, and hammer, symbolizing the capital and labor efforts put forth by Straus throughout his career.

Straus died on September 3, 1910, and is buried at Beth El Cemetery in Ridgewood, New York.  For more on his life and career, you can read his memoirs, entitled  “Under Four Administrations,” which he wrote and published in 1922.  

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

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Montford Point Marines Memorial

On this lunchtime bike ride I found myself in Arlington National Cemetery.  And  because bike riding is prohibited in the cemetery, I decided to go for a walk.  It was during my walk that I happened upon a marker in the shade of a tree, in Section 23 of the cemetery, off Farragut Drive (MAP).  On the marker is an inscription that reads:

“The footprints of the Montford Point Marines were left on the beaches of Roi-Namur, Saipan, Guam, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. The tides and winds have, long ago, washed them out into the seas of history; but,
“The Chosen Few”
in field shoes and canvas leggings, also left their marks in the firm concrete of Marine Corps history. And as new generations of Marines learn to march in those footprints, their cadence assumes the proud stride of the men of Montford Point.”
Gen. Leonard F. Chapman, Jr.

So later, after I got back from my ride, I decided to do some research on the marker, and the Montford Point marines, to learn more about them.

The marker was placed in the cemetery and dedicated on November 13, 1996, by the Montford Point Marine Association, as a memorial to the legacy of the first African-Americans to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, which took place after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an Executive Order in June 1941, establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission and ordering the armed services, including the Marine Corps, to recruit and enlist African Americans.

These marines got their name because they trained at the then-segregated Camp Montford Point in Jacksonville, North Carolina, beginning on August 26, 1942.  Between 1942 and 1949, more than 20,000 men were trained at Montford Point.  In July 1948, despite strong opposition from Democrats of the segregated South, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which required the desegregation of the military.   The resulting changes caused the camp do be decommissioned in September of the following year, and new African-American recruits were then-after trained along with other marines at Parris Island and Camp Pendleton.

Some of the more notable Montford Point marines include: Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, one of the first African Americans to enlist and serve as a drill instructor in the Marine Corps; Frederick C. Branch, the first African-American officer of the United States Marine Corps; David Dinkins, former Mayor of New York City; Arthur Earley, Pennsylvania State Representative, and; Marion Meredith Beal, an original member and a recipient of Congressional Gold Medal as an appreciation for the first African-American to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps. However, we only know the names of about 1,200 of the approximately 20,000 Montford Point marines. Only approximately 300 of these marines are still alive, and we are losing them rapidly, which makes memorials like this one all the more important.

Note:  There is also an official memorial to the Montford Point Marines located within the LeJeune Memorial Gardens in Jacksonville, N.C., and a Montford Point Marine Museum, located on the grounds of Montford Point Camp in the East Wing of building M101, Marine Corps Base, Camp Gilbert H. Johnson, Jacksonville, N.C.

Bust of Alberto Santos-Dumont

During today’s lunchtime bike ride I happened upon a bronze bust mounted on a wall near the Embassy of Brazil, at the intersection of R and 22nd Streets (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Embassy Row neighborhood.  Upon closer examination I saw a plaque on the bust, which reads:

Alberto Santos-Dumont
First to Fly an Aircraft
Heavier Than Air by Its Own Means
of Propulsion
1906 – 2006
Brazilian Aeronautical Commission
Washington, D.C., Aug 2nd, 2006.

But this didn’t make an sense to me.  I thought everyone knows that the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, were the first to fly an aircraft.  So later I researched Alberto Santos-Dumont to find out more about him, as well as the claim made about him on this bust.

Alberto Santos-Dumont was born and died in Brazil where he is honored as the “Father of Aviation” and considered to be the inventor of the airplane. He designed, built, and flew the first practical dirigible balloons and thereby became the 1st to demonstrate that routine, controlled flight was possible. This made him one of the most famous people in the world during the early 20th century.

Santos-Dumont also made the first public European flight of an airplane in Paris on October 23, 1906. That aircraft, designated “Oiseau de proie”, which translates as “bird of prey”, and is considered to be the first to take off, fly, and land without the use of catapults, high winds, launch rails, or other external assistance.  The Wright Brothers’ early aircraft, first successfully flown on December 17, 1903, used a stiff headwind and launch rails.

Much of the controversy about Santos-Dumont and the Wrights arose from the difference in their approaches to publicity.  Santos-Dumont made his flights in public, often accompanied by the scientific elite of the time, then gathered in Paris. In contrast, the Wrights were very concerned about protecting their trade secrets for patentability and made their early flights in remote locations, without many international aviation officials present.  The defense of their flight was further complicated by the jealousies of other aviation enthusiasts and disputes over patents.

In January of 1906, a Frenchman named Ernest Archdeacon sent a taunting letter to the Wrights, demanding that they come to France and prove themselves, but the Wrights did not respond.  Thus, the aviation world, of which Paris was the center at the time, witnessed Santos-Dumont’s work first hand later that year.  As a result, many members, French and other Europeans, dismissed the Wrights as frauds and assigned Santos-Dumont the accolade of the “first to fly.”

After learning about Santos-Dumont, I think he was an inventive and innovative man.  But I still recognize the Wright Brothers as the first to fly.  The launch rail they used simply provided a long, smooth surface for the airplane’s take-off roll, similar to a runway.  So I think attempting to negate the Wright Brothers 1903 flight based on the use of a launch rail lacks substance and was simply an attempt to claim the title of “first.”

Edward A. Carter

Posted: June 28, 2019 in Historic Figures
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Edward A. Carter, Jr.

On this lunchtime bike ride I went to Arlington National Cemetery so that I could go for a long walk.  And as I was walking, I noticed a headstone that indicated that the person buried there, Sergeant First Class Edward A. Carter, Jr., was a recipient of the nation’s highest military decoration for valor, the Medal of Honor.  So naturally, wanting to know more him, I researched him when I got home.

In the early 1990s, it was determined that Black soldiers had been denied consideration for the Medal of Honor in World War II because of their race.  Based on this finding, and after an exhaustive review of files, the study recommended in 1996 that ten Black Americans who served in World War II be reconsidered.  In October of that year, Congress passed legislation that would allow President Clinton to award the Medal of Honor to these former soldiers.  Seven of the ten, including SFC Carter, were approved.  The seven recipients were each awarded the Medal of Honor on January 12, 1997.

Unfortunately, by that time only one of the recipients, First Lieutenant Vernon Joseph Baker, was still alive.  During a ceremony at the White House on January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton presented the Medal of Honor to Lieutenant Baker, and posthumously presented to SFC Carter and the other five recipients.  SFC Carter’s Medal of Honor was accepted on his behalf by his son.  The seven recipients are the first and only Black Americans to be awarded the Medal of Honor for World War II. 

The reasons for SFC Carter’s deservedness of the Medal of Honor are best described by the citation that accompanied it.  It read:

“The President of the United States in the name of The Congress takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor posthumously to

STAFF SERGEANT EDWARD A. CARTER JR.
UNITED STATES ARMY

Citation:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty: Staff Sergeant Edward A. Carter Jr. distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action on 23 March 1945. At approximately 0830 hours, 23 March 1945, near Speyer, Germany, the tank upon which Staff Sergeant Carter was riding received bazooka and small arms fire from the vicinity of a large warehouse to its left front. Staff Sergeant Carter and his squad took cover behind an intervening road bank. Staff Sergeant Carter volunteered to lead a three-man patrol to the warehouse where other unit members noticed the original bazooka fire. From here they to were ascertain the location and strength of the opposing position and advance approximately 150 yards across an open field. Enemy small arms fire covered this field. As the patrol left this covered position, they received intense enemy small arms fire killing one member of the patrol instantly. This caused Staff Sergeant Carter to order the other two members of the patrol to return to the covered position and cover him with rifle fire while he proceeded alone to carry out the mission. The enemy fire killed one of the two soldiers while they were returning to the covered position, and seriously wounded the remaining soldier before he reached the covered position. An enemy machine machine gun burst wounded Staff Sergeant Carter three times in the left arm as he continued the advance. He continued and received another wound in his left leg that knocked him from his feet. As Staff Sergeant Carter took wound tablets and drank from his canteen, the enemy shot it from his left hand, with the bullet going through his hand. Disregarding these wounds, Staff Sergeant Carter continued the advance by crawling until he was within thirty yards of his objective. The enemy fire became so heavy that Staff Sergeant Carter took cover behind a bank and remained there for approximately two hours. Eight enemy riflemen approached Staff Sergeant Carter, apparently to take him prisoner, Staff Sergeant Carter killed six of the enemy soldiers and captured the remaining two. These two enemy soldiers later gave valuable information concerning the number and disposition of enemy troops. Staff Sergeant Carter refused evacuation until he had given full information about what he had observed and learned from the captured enemy soldiers. This information greatly facilitated the advance on Speyer. Staff Sergeant Carter’s extraordinary heroism was an inspiration to the officers and men of the Seventh Army, Infantry Company Number 1 (Provisional) and exemplify the best traditions of the military.”

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The Prophet Daniel

The prophet Daniel is the hero of the Book of Daniel in the canon of sacred Jewish writings and the Christian Bible, who was a celebrated Jewish scholar, a master interpreter of dreams, and who received apocalyptic visions.  He is one of four Major Prophets in Hebrew Scripture, along with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.   And he is famous for successfully interpreting the proverbial “writing on the wall” and for miraculously surviving being thrown into the lions’ den.

During this lunchtime bike ride I discovered a statue of the prophet Daniel.  But it was not located at a synagogue or church, as you might expect.  The statue is displayed on the grounds of The Organization of American States, located at  200 17th Street (MAP) in Downtown D.C.  The 8-foot tall statue is made from concrete, and is based on an original 1805 soapstone sculpture by Antonio Francisco Lisboa,  better known as “Aleijadinho,” a sculptor and architect of Colonial Brazil.  It was a gift to the Organization of American States from the government of Brazil, and dedicated in 1962.

I decided to learn a little more about Daniel later when I got home.  But there is so much known about him from his writings and from history that I will only include a few of the more interesting highlights here.

  • Daniel was a good-looking man.  We know this because King Nebuchadnezzar’s criteria for serving in his court included physical appearance, and Daniel makes the grade.
  • Daniel was renowned for his wisdom and intelligence.
  • Daniel was descendant of the royal family of David.
  • Perhaps most appropriate for D.C., Daniel was a government official.  He served in Babylon under four kings: Nebuchadnezzar; Belshazzar; Darius the Mede, and; Cyrus the Persian.
  • And finally, and absolutely shocking for government official in this city, Daniel was scandal free.  In fact, when his political opponents tried to get dirt on him, their only option was to make it illegal to obey God.

 

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

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The Carousel on the National Mall

On August 28, 1963, during “the March on Washington,” Rev. Martin Luther’s King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  On that same day, just 45 miles away, the practice of segregation was discontinued at the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park just outside of Baltimore.  And an eleven-month-old baby named Sharon Langley was the first African American child to go on a ride there when, along with two white children, she rode on the park’s classic, old-time carousel.

The next day, “amid all the news stories about the March on Washington, there were also stories on Sharon Langley’s merry-go-round ride. Three kids – one black and two white – riding together provided an example of the harmony King spoke about at the march, when he hoped that one day black children and white children would regard each other as “sisters and brothers.”

On today’s lunchtime bike ride I went see that carousel.  But I didn’t have to ride all the way to Baltimore to do so.  Today that very same carousel is here in D.C., on the National Mall (MAP) in front of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, where young children enjoy themselves while their parents watch them ride the seemingly benign carousel, unaware that it has a rich history which is much more interesting than its appearance would suggest.

On April 12, 1967, the Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley opened the carousel on the National Mall.  The original carousel was built in 1922 by the Allan Herschell Company, and was accompanied by a 153 Wurlitzer Band Organ.  At that time, rides cost 25 cents.  However, not everyone was happy to see a carousel placed on “America’s front yard.”  Some were concerned that that the carousel, along with the  popcorn wagons and some outdoor puppet and musical performances that were already there at the time, would lead to the Smithsonian developing into what the New York Times termed “an ivy-covered Disneyland.”   But that never happened, and the carousel remains to this day.

Today’s carousel is not the original, though.  Due to wear and tear the original carousel was replaced in 1981 with the carousel from the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, which was forced to close in 1973 after suffering severe damage from flooding when Hurricane Agnes.  The Gwynn Oak carousel is 10 feet larger in diameter and has 60 brightly-painted horses, as opposed to the former which had 33.  It also has a few non-moving seats, and one sea dragon.  And riding on the carousel is not limited to children.  All are welcome, including adults, as long as you’re willing to pay the current ticket price of $3.50.

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

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Georgia Douglas Johnson Residence

You never know what history you’re going to find when you’re riding a bike around this city.  During this ride, as I was riding in the Cardoza neighborhood near U Street in northwest D.C., I happened upon a historical marker on a cast iron fence that surrounded a grey townhouse at the end of the block at the corner of S and 15th Streets.  In turned out to have been placed there to mark the house, located at 1461 S Street (MAP), where Georgia Douglas Johnson once lived.  So naturally, I later researched her to find about the woman who once lived at that house, and was important enough to be recognized.

Georgia Douglas Johnson was an African American poet and playwright.  She is best known for her collections of poetry: “The Heart of a Woman” (1918) (see below), “Bronze” (1922), “An Autumn Love Cycle” (1928) and later, “Share My World” (1962).  In addition to poetry, Georgia also wrote over two dozen plays, and authored a newspaper column for over a decade.  Throughout her life she wrote 200 poems, 28 plays and 31 short stories. For her works, she was considered an important member of the “New Negro Movement,”  an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, New York, spanning the 1920s.  The New Nego Movement would later become known as the “Harlem Renaissance.”

Born in Atlanta, Georgia on September 10, 1877, Georgia Blanche Douglas Camp was born to Laura Douglas and George Camp.  Her mother was of African and Native American descent, and her father was of African-American and English heritage.  She grew up and received her education in Georgia, graduating from Atlanta University’s Normal School in 1896.  She then went on to become a teacher, but resigned to pursue her love of music, attending Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.  After studying at Oberlin, she returned to Georgia and returned to the educational field.

She married Henry Lincoln Johnson, an Atlanta lawyer and prominent Republican Party member, on September 28, 1903.  Henry’s law career brought them to D.C. in 1910, when Henry received an appointment as the Recorder of Deeds from President William Howard Taft.   It was his career that kept them here as well.  So although she was considered an important member of the Harlem Renaissance, she was never a New York City resident, neither when the movement was in full swing in the 1920s or after.  Instead, she and her family continued to live here in D.C.

Georgia and her husband had two sons, Henry Lincoln Johnson, Jr., and Peter Douglas Johnson.  But by the time they became teenagers, her husband passed away, leaving her alone to raise their boys.  This began a difficult period in her life, as she struggled to raise two boys and provide for her family financially.  As a gesture of appreciation for her late husband’s loyalty and service, President Calvin Coolidge, a devoted member of the Republican Party, appointed Georgia the Commissioner of Conciliation, a position within the Department of Labor.  So throughout the last 50 years of her life, Georgia raised and supported her family alone, while continuing and expanding her writings.

Also after her husband’s death, Johnson began to host weekly “Saturday Salons” for friends and authors, including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Anne Spencer, Richard Bruce Nugent, Alain Locke, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Angelina Weld Grimké and Eulalie Spence, and many of the other noted women writers of what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance. The S Street House, which became known at that time as the “S Street Salon,” became a satellite of sorts for others who were part of the Harlem Renaissance to meet, socialize, discuss their work, and exchange ideas while they were visiting the nation’s segregated capital. Gloria called her home the “Half Way House” for friends traveling, and where those with no money and no place to stay would be welcome.

Gloria died in 1969 at the age of 85.  And as she lay in her deathbed, one of her sister playwrights and a former participant of the S Street Salon, sat by her bedside “stroking her hand and repeating the words, ‘Poet Georgia Douglas Johnson’.”


[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

The Heart of a Woman

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.

Note:  The house has undergone numerous renovations over the years, during which previous owners divided it into flats, and later turned it into a group home.  It was recently renovated and restored.  And last year, the six-bedroom, six-bathroom, 4,100-square-foot property was on the market for $2.875 million.

The Cenotaphs at Historic Congressional Cemetery

I have found that cemeteries are often bastions of history, especially here in D.C.  The graves of the many historic figures, politicians and famous people buried here provide a portal to the history that they lived.  But Historic Congressional Cemetery, located at 1801 E Street in southeast D.C.’s Capitol Hill neighborhood (MAP), and which happens to be one of my favorite cemeteries in the city, also has a number of cenotaphs that also point to a wealth of history.  And it was the cemetery’s 165 cenotaphs that were the destination and purpose of my lunchtime bike ride today.

Traditionally, the word “cenotaph” is defined as A cenotaph is an “empty tomb” or a monument erected in honor of a person or group of people whose remains are elsewhere. It can also be the initial tomb for a person who has since been interred elsewhere.  As used at the Congressional Cemetery, the term cenotaph includes not only those that fall under the traditional definition, but also to monuments that mark the actual graves of representatives and senators who died in office during the first several decades of the nation’s history. Some congressmen are buried under a cenotaph, some are buried with a headstone instead of a cenotaph in a different area of the cemetery, and for some the marker is a true cenotaph. And one individual, a Revolutionary War soldier and Congressman from North Carolina named James Gillespie, who was reinterred in 1892, has a separate grave and cenotaph.

Designed by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was then working on the new south wing of the U.S. Capitol Building, the cenotaphs are constructed of Aquia sandstone, as are The White House and the Capitol Building, and were likewise painted white, forming a visual connection with these nearby symbols of Federal government, and a contrast to the cemetery’s surrounding gravestones. They are grouped in rows in the older part of the cemetery near the main entrance, where they dominate the landscape.

A cenotaph was erected at Congressional Cemetery for each congressman who died in office from 1833 to 1876. The first was for Congressman James Lent from New York, who was initially interred in the cemetery. But after Congress appropriated funds and his monument was ordered, his family had his body brought back and reinterred in New York. Congress erected the monument in 1839 anyway, establishing the tradition of erecting cenotaphs.

After the Civil War very few congressmen were buried in the cemetery, as their bodies were commonly shipped to their home states or buried in the new United States National Cemetery System, in cemeteries such as Arlington National Cemetery. And cenotaphs were discontinued for the most part in 1876, after Massachusetts Senator George Frisbie Hoar stated that “the thought of being buried beneath one of those atrocities brought new terror to death.”

Since that time, only two new cenotaphs have been erected at the cemetery. After a 1972 plane crash in which their bodies were unable to be recovered, Thomas Hale Boggs Sr., the majority leader in the House at the time, and Nick Begich, a Congressman from Alaska, share a cenotaph. And the last one to date is for former Speaker of the House Thomas P “Tip” O’Neill, Jr., who was honored with a cenotaph in 1994, although it is not in the style of the Latrobe cenotaphs.

The Paul Robeson Mural

As I was riding along the U Street corridor during this bike ride, I looked down an alley next to the Hung Tao Choy Mei Leadership Institute, located at 1351 U Street (MAP), and caught a glimpse of a mural that necessitated turning around and going back to get a closer look.  The mural is entitled “Living Time Line: Paul Robeson,” and is the work of lead muralists Cory L. Stowers and Andrew Katz, their artist conclave known as ART BLOC (comprised of Eric B. Ricks, Maria Miller, Serena Z, Ernesto Zelaya, Jaa), and made possible with the permission of the building owner, and funding from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

The mural depicts the life of Paul Robeson, who became famous as an American bass baritone concert artist and a stage and film actor known for productions like “The Emperor Jones” and “Othello.”  But in addition to his cultural accomplishments, he was also equally famous for his political activism.  An example of a 20th-century Renaissance man, his talents made him revered during his time, but his radical political beliefs and activism all but erased him from popular history.

Paul Leroy Robeson was born on April 9, 1898, in Princeton, New Jersey, the youngest of five children born to Maria Louisa Bustill, who came from an abolitionist Quaker family, and William Drew Robeson, an escaped slave who became a Presbyterian minister.  After his mother, who was nearly blind, died in a fire when he was only six years old, his father moved the family, eventually landing in Somerville, New Jersey, where he grew up.  After high school, Robeson won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University, where he won 15 varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball, and track, before graduating as the valedictorian of the class of 1919.  He then went on to from Columbia University School of Law.  While attending law school he sang and acted in off-campus productions, and also played football for the National Football League.  It was also while at Columbia Law School that he met and married his wife, Eslanda Cordoza Goode.  He graduated from Columbia with an LL.B. in 1923.

After completing his education Robeson took a job with a law firm.  But he resigned when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him.  It was at this pivotal time that he left the practice of law, and decided to use his artistic talents in theater and music to promote African and African-American history and culture.  This decision would define the rest of his life.

After leaving the practice of law, Robeson began his career as an actor and a singer.  It was a career that would take him around the world during the 1930’s.  In London, he earned international acclaim for his lead acting role in “Othello,” for which he won the Donaldson Award for Best Acting Performance, and performed in Eugene O’Neill’s plays, “Emperor Jones” and “All God’s Chillun Got Wings.”  And he used his deep baritone voice to sing black spirituals, to share the cultures of other countries, and to benefit the labor and social movements of his time.  He sang for peace and justice in 25 languages throughout the United States, Europe, the Soviet Union, and Africa, and became known as a citizen of the world, equally comfortable with the people of Moscow, Nairobi, Helsinki and Harlem.

But it was during these travels that he learned racism was not as virulent in Europe as it was back in the United States.  Back at home, it was difficult to find restaurants that would serve him, theaters in New York would only seat blacks in the upper balconies, and his performances were often surrounded with threats or outright harassment.  It was a lesson that profoundly affected him and never left him.

During the 1940’s, Robeson continued to perform and to speak out against racism.  He was a champion of working people and organized labor. He spoke and performed at strikes and rallies, conferences, and labor festivals worldwide.  And as a passionate believer in international cooperation, Robeson protested the growing Cold War and worked tirelessly for friendship and respect between the United States and the Soviet Union.  It was during this time, when dissent was scarcely tolerated in the U.S., that Robeson openly questioned why African Americans should fight in the army of a government that tolerated racism.  Because of his outspokenness in supporting civil rights causes and pro-Soviet policies, he was investigated by the FBI, and later accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of being a communist.  The accusation caused his income to plummet and nearly ended his career.  The attempt to silence him, however, did not succeed.

In 1950, the U.S. revoked Robeson’s passport when he would not recant his public activism and advocacy, leading to an eight-year battle to have it reinstated so he could travel again.  His passport was eventually restored as a result of the 1958 United States Supreme Court decision, Kent v. Dulles.  During those intervening years, Robeson moved to Harlem and published a periodical entitled “Freedom,” which was critical of United States policies.  He also studied Chinese, met with Albert Einstein to discuss the prospects for world peace, published his autobiography entitled “Here I Stand,” and sang at Carnegie Hall.  Robeson made his last concert tour to New Zealand and Australia in 1960.  In ill health, he retired from public life in 1963.  Robeson died on January 23, 1976, at age 77, in Philadelphia.

The Robeson mural concept stems from the Hung Tao Choy Mei Leadership Institute’s efforts to introduce Paul Robeson to the current generation and re-introduce him to previous generations through the Paul Robeson “Here I Stand” Award galas at the nearby Lincoln Theatre.  The two-story mural features two large portraits of Robeson at opposite ends of the building’s dark grey wall, which bookend smaller depictions of him at different stages of his life.  One of many quotes attributed to Robeson, “I make no distinction between my work as an artist and my life as a human being,” is also prominently featured in the mural.

Much like the mural, this blog post is just a short introduction to the fascinating career, activism and life of Paul Robeson.  I suggest you go down and see the mural it for yourself, if you haven’t already.  And then for a more thorough understanding of the vastness of his thoughts and experiences, read Robeson’s autobiography, entitled “Here I Stand.”

 

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Other Paul Robeson quotes:

  • “We must join with the tens of millions all over the world who see in peace our most sacred responsibility.”
  • “As an artist I come to sing, but as a citizen, I will always speak for peace, and no one can silence me in this.”
  • “I do not hesitate one second to state clearly and unmistakably: I belong to the American resistance movement which fights against American imperialism, just as the resistance movement fought against Hitler.”
  • “Yes, peace can and must be won, to save the world from the terrible destruction of World War III.”
  • “Four hundred million in India, and millions everywhere, have told you, precisely, that the colored people are not going to die for anybody: they are going to die for their independence.”
  • “In Russia I felt for the first time like a full human being. No color prejudice like in Mississippi, no color prejudice like in Washington. It was the first time I felt like a human being.”