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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Charleston, South Carolina: Belated Remembrance of an African-American Cemetery

Charleston, South Carolina. Monument on site of the cemetery of the Brown Fellowship Society, now part of the College of Charleston. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Charleston, South Carolina: Belated Remembrance of an African-American Cemetery
by Samuel D. Gruber 

I recently wrote about an 18th-century  Jewish cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina, the second oldest Jewish cemetery in the United States and one that is still cared for today and is the focus of a continuing maintenance and restoration effort. 

Another old cemetery in Charleston did not fare so well.  

Today, the African-American cemetery founded by the Brown Fellowship Society in 1790 is remembered only by a monument erected in 2008 by the College of Charleston at Rivers Green, an open area adjacent to the College's Addlestone Library, which apparently occupies at least part of the cemetery site. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston bought the cemetery site, which was adjacent to the Bishop England High School, in 1956 and later sold the land to the College of Charleston in 2001. Soon after, when excavation began for the new library, human remains and carved gravestones were uncovered.
 Charleston, South Carolina. Monument on site of the cemetery of the Brown Fellowship Society, now part of the College of Charleston. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

According to Find a Grave,
although there are reports of promises made to move both headstones and human remains from Pitt Street to Cunnington Avenue [the Society's later cemetery] , only scant handful of headstones was moved. There is no evidence that any remains were removed, nor is the fate known of the rest of the many headstones and monuments, some of which were ornately and elaborately carved."
Today part of the site is a parking lot at 54 Pitt Street, whiles the area in front of the monument is a landscaped and paved open space for the College.

The College subsequently erected a monument commemorating the use of these grounds as a cemetery by the Brown Fellowship Society and other groups.  The two stone slabs are engraved with some of the the history of the site. The monument pays tribute to the Brown Fellowship Society and those buried in the cemetery but it offers no history of the shameful treatment of the site nor of the cemetery boundaries and how they related to the present topography. Still, the erection of the monument has helped revive interest in the Brown Fellowship society and other cultural and social aspects of Free Black Society in Charleston - one of the country's leading slave centers. The history of the cemeteries also is a poignant reminder of the history of American segregation - in death as in life - and by Christian churches until very recent times.

Building on cemeteries is not unusual in the United States. Most often human remains are removed beforehand - but not always. Historically African-American cemeteries have had fewer protections than cemeteries for dead white people, and they have received less attention and care when threatened.  This has changed in recent years - in large part due to the attention given to the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan excavated in the 1990s, but the case in Charleston shows that that kind of (government-funded) attention is the exception, not the rule. 


New York, NY. Bronze marker denoting location of African Burial Ground. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2005.

According to historian Dr. Rita Reynolds, of Wagner College, "The Brown Fellowship Society Burial Ground was established in 1790 by a group of wealthy free men of color in Charleston, S.C. In antebellum Charleston, cemeteries were racially segregated. Free blacks who did not wish to be buried with slaves established their own burial grounds to allow them a degree of dignity in death."



The Society consisted of free men of color in a time when most of the African-American population in Charleston was enslaved. It was the oldest and most prestigious free black organization that aimed to promote “charity and benevolence” among its members and also the community. These men joined together to form a fraternal organization and also a credit union for members. When a member of the Society passed away, the men supported the widow and family by conducting the burial in the cemetery on this site. The Humane Brotherhood was founded in 1843 and had many of the same functions. It was also composed of free black men who were successful working members of Charleston society.

The Brotherhood buried members in this location, and it is possible the cemetery was also used by two local churches, Plymouth Congregational and Bethel Methodist. The monument that stands today acknowledges the history, altruism and community involvement of the organizations who buried their members on this plot of land. The memorial honors those members who were buried, but also the organizations that contributed to the rich history of Charleston’s African-American community.
The Brotherhood buried members in this location, and it is possible the cemetery was also used by two local churches, Plymouth Congregational and Bethel Methodist. The monument that stands today acknowledges the history, altruism and community involvement of the organizations who buried their members on this plot of land. The memorial honors those members who were buried, but also the organizations that contributed to the rich history of Charleston’s African-American community.

Charleston, South Carolina. Monument on site of the cemetery of the Brown Fellowship Society, now part of the College of Charleston. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Records of the Fellowship Society are housed at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture of the College Library. Charleston may have been unique in the large number of African-American burial societies that existed in the past (and still survive). Curiously to me, the organization and function of these societies is very similar to Jewish burials societies - both groups also provided care to the sick and poor and helped widows and orphans as well as carried out the procedures for burial of the dead. According to the Avery Research Center, as reported by Adam Parker in the Post and Courier in 2010, nine African-American burial societies in Charleston have been identified and eight survive - though some just barely.


Charleston, South Carolina. Monument on site of the cemetery of the Brown Fellowship Society, now part of the College of Charleston. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Hiker by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson at Syracuse's Billings Park by Samuel D. Gruber

Syracuse, NY. The Hiker by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson at  Billings Park. photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2011
 
CNY Public Art: The Hiker by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson at Syracuse's Billings Park 
(cross posted from My Central New York)
by Samuel D. Gruber  

Among its many public monuments and art, Syracuse boasts a substantial collection of art by women sculptors.  These include the Hamilton White Memorial at Fayette Park and the Kirkpatrick Monument (LeMoyne Fountain) by Gail Sherman Corbett, the Elemental Man by Malvina Hoffman and the bronze Saltine Warrior statue by Luise Kaish at Syracuse University, and the high relief sculpture of the Jerry Rescue Monument at Clinton Square by Sharon BuMann.  There is also an abstract work by Penny Kaplan outside the Everson Museum, and women ceramicists have created murals in the Westcott area.

Perhaps the most famous work by a woman sculptor in Syracuse,The Hiker, located at the south side of Billings Park, goes little mentioned. I venture that today most people who even know the name of the sculptor are not even aware that T. A. Kitson, was a woman. Yet Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson (1871-1932), was a leading artist of her time, and possibly the foremost American woman sculptor of her generation. She made many public monuments throughout the country and at least fifty casts of The Hiker, her best known work, are installed as memorials across the country. 

In 1895, Ruggles Kitson was the first woman to be admitted to the National Sculpture Society. In 1888, at age 17, she won honorable mention at the Salon des Artistes Francais (the youngest woman ever to receive the honor). She was celebrated when she returned to the United States and as a (minor) celebrity asked to comment on everything from art to fashions.  When the Kitsons separated in 1909 (her husband had been her teacher and partner), Alice moved to Farmington, where she maintained a studio until her 1932 death in Boston, Massachusetts.



Syracuse, NY. The Hiker by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson at  Billings Park. photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2011

Syracuse, NY. The Hiker dedication plaque at Billings Park. photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2011
  
The Syracuse Hiker at the south end of Syracuse's Billings Park in front of the former Central High School. It represents a Spanish American War soldier and commemorates those who died in that war, the Philippine-American War and the Boxer Rebellion. The statue reminds us of time, much like today, when American forces seemed to be engaged in an unending series of conflicts far from home. Though these were the first wars of American empire, The Hiker represents free-spirited and even carefree individualism rather than the increasingly professionalized militarism of the era. A handsome young soldier - ready for a jungle trek - steps confidently forward.  Ruggles Kitson was appreciated as a woman sculptor who could make manly men.

The first version was installed at the university of Minnesota in 1906.  The bronze cast in Syracuse was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1924.  In stanllatuion postdates the inauguration at the north end of the park of a stone monument dedicated July 15, 1920, known as the Rock of the Marne Monument, engraved with names of some of the local dead of World War I, atop of which stands the figure of an infantryman by sculptor Ronald Hinden Perry. .

The Syracuse Hiker was one of the first placements of the iconic statue, which proliferated around the country after 1921 when the Gorham Manufacturing Company, located in Providence, Rhode Island, bought the rights to the statue, and over the next 44 years cast at least 50 Hiker statues.

The earliest installations of The Hiker were mostly in the northeastern United States, often complementing Civil War Memorials.  Post-World War II statues were installed mostly in the South and West.  The Syracuse statue was recently restored and cleaned. Interestingly, because of the wide distribution of the statues, they have been used to study air pollution over the last century since their original state is known, and in case so is the date of their installation.  Thus conservators and meteorologists can compare deterioration and analysis the effect of acid rain and other pollutants in specific places and over measurable time.


 Syracuse, NY. The Hiker by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson at  Billings Park. photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2011

 
Providence, RI. The Hiker. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2005


Syracuse, NY. The Hiker by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson at Billings Park. photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2011 
 
 Syracuse, NY. The Hiker by Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson at  Billings Park. photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2011
 
Billings Park is a small open space at South Salina, South Warren and East Adams Streets; about a third of acre in size. It was once a more prominent space in the city, when central High School was open and when the downtown was more knit to the south of the city along South Salina Street. Today, there is little residential use of the area and there are more parking lots and garages than active commercials centers. The space was formerly Warren Park, named like Warren Street in honor of American Revolutionary War General Joseph Warren. Roger Billings had his carriage factory on the north side of Adams Street across from the park from 1841 to 1859;(where the recently constructed bus terminal is now) and he helped improve the park  with help from fellow citizens Richard W. Jones, George Ostrander and George Herman. The provided new landscaping, walkways and a central fountain, and the park was dedicated by Mayor William Stewart, August 24, 1867. 

For more on Theo Alice Ruggles Kitson see:
 

Charlotte Streifer Rubinstein, 1990. American Women Sculptors: A History of Women Working in Three Dimensions (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1990), pp 102-105.