?Many older monuments are being challenged these days for for their distorted representation of history. What challenges confronted this effort to create a new monument to an an important but forgotten story?
Well, the Department of General Services told us to do that you are going to have to get the vote of the House, the vote of the Senate, the endorsement of the governor, and you're going to have to raise the money yourself. The only word in the dictionary that I really love is no, because when you say no to me, that's like a green light. So, you know, I said, “cool beans” you know. I know how to do that, you know. So, we got a unanimous decision from the House, a vote of acclamation by the Senate, the governor's endorsement, and we raised the money to place this monument sometime this summer.
?How can monument building become a community organizing strategy?
I will be sad to see the monument go in the ground, because what it has caused is a coming together a purpose, and an advocacy, and a civic dialogue, about the value of the vote and the engagement of individuals, not the leaders. The leaders all step back, said it's on you people to do this. So, this is a way that people project and the process has been monumental. It's the process that I'm hoping will continue engagement, and that many coalition efforts will come out of bringing these people together.
?What is the relevance of a monument building initiative like this in the time of COVID?
And so now I'm, I'm saying, well, perhaps the dedication of a monument will be an equation and a prescription for gathering again, you know, the name of the monument was with a gathering at the at the crossroads takes on new meaning, when we look at how long will it take for people to feel comfortable about gathering, again.
?How does does this story inform this current moment in history?
The story of the of the demise of the old Eighth Ward is the story of redlining today, I mean, you know, the practices of changing your polling place, redrawing neighborhoods, the suppression of black women candidates. I mean, all of the history, which we thought of in a sepia tone way that we were going to recall, we are actually reliving you know, right down to the pandemic that they suffered.
?What lessons can cultural organizers starting out take from a project like this?
So, listening, humility, knowing that things come through you not from you. And you try to contain your ego that insists it was your idea. My chosen culture is New Orleans. You know, the notion of gumbo is you got two crabs, I got okra, somebody else has the roux, you know, we go make up something really good here. So be humble enough to know that you are but an equation, in any idea.
The Crossroads Project official website. https://digitalharrisburg.com/commonwealth/
Digital Harrisburg: Exploring the history, society, and culture of Pennsylvania’s capital city: //digitalharrisburg.com
A short documentary on the Crossroads project https://youtu.be/5bzRWI6PKYI
Leni Sloan My current project, which is about African Americans, suffragists, 1918 to 1920, who were trying to not only support the vote for women, but to find a place for themselves and that. They were doing that against the landscape of the 1918 flu. They were doing it in a pandemic year too. They were doing it with their man coming back from World War One having fought segregation in their communities. They were doing it on the eve of a national election of 1920, and they were doing it on the eve of the 1920 Census.
And I felt that we needed to do something, Bill that was not about ribbon cutting or confetti, but that we needed to do something bold and audacious.
Bill Cleveland From the Center for the Study of art and community, this is Change the Story Change the World, a chronicle of art and transformation. I'm BC.
In our last episode, we began our conversation with activist performer impresario and historian Linwood O Sloan, who among other things, refers to himself as a gun runner for the arts. In it he described how his love of dance, theater and history merged into a life path of creative change making across the globe that has been filled with opportunities, obstacles and a lot of learning. As a case in point he introduced us to A Gathering at the Crossroads, a work in progress currently taking place in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This initiative explores the history of Pennsylvania's black suffragists, the struggles bringing the franchise to African Americans and women through the US constitutions 15th The 19th amendments, Harrisburg role in the Underground Railroad and much, much more.
Now we rejoin our conversation with Leni, which took place in the spring of 2020 in the midst of the COVID pandemic.
So, Leni… As you began to understand the profound importance of the history you were exploring in Harrisburg, you came to the conclusion that telling the story properly would require something bold and audacious. So, tell me, how will bold and audacious make its presence felt in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 2020?
LS So, I discovered that of the close to 300 iconic objects on the Pennsylvania State Capitol, 77 of which are statues, there was not a single statue or a monument to an African American, or a woman on the state capital of Pennsylvania, you know… So, I said, okay, you know, we got to fix that first, you know, and the power of public art to create public dialogue, public engagement, the power of placemaking, and cultural and heritage tourism. I was like let's find a place on this campus, which as in 2016, in 2020 will be a deciding factor in the national election, and let us make our moment that's make our place.
We discovered that a number of orators between 1866 and 1870, when the 15th amendment was passed, came to the Capitol from all over the Mid-Atlantic states to speak on behalf of the franchise, and through a public process we collected the names of 100 important people who had been influential between 1870 (when the 15th amendment was passed) and 1920 (when the 19th amendment was passed) in the progression of Equity and parity in the value of the vote.
We selected four of them, three men and one woman, to create as full life-sized bronze statues standing on a corner in Harrisburg, Pa with the 15th amendment in their hand. Yeah, in deepened dialogue bronze monument made up of the four statues standing around an orders pedestal. We also place the names of the other 96 on the body of the pedestal. Our goal was to take K. Leroy Irvis, who is passed now, Speaker of the House of Pennsylvania, who was the first black Speaker of the House since reconstruction. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives building is named after him, but the lawn on the Irvice building is the only unmanicured, un-landscaped [lawn]. It's a no place. Okay, let's use his lawn. This is an act of reparation. Let's place this monument to the vote on the K. Leroy Irvice lawn, and let's rename it to K. Leroy Irvice equality circle.
BC So, the proposal was to turn this neglected corner of the state capitol grounds into what constitutes a new state park. I'm assuming there are a few hoops and hurdles involved in an endeavor like that.
LS Well, the Department of General Services told us to do that you are going to have to get the vote of the House, the vote of the Senate, the endorsement of the governor, and you're going to have to raise the money yourself. The only word in the dictionary that I really love is no, because when you say no to me, that's like a green light. So, you know, I said, “cool beans” you know. I know how to do that, you know. So, we got a unanimous decision from the House, a vote of acclamation by the Senate, the governor's endorsement, and we raised the money to place this monument sometime this summer. We were going to do a week of celebrations from Monday, June 15th, to Friday, June 19th, using the 15th and the 19th as our emblematic dates, and also June 19, ending in the annual revisit of Juneteenth. Of course, as a gun runner for the arts, I was saying, Why Juneteenth?, because those folks in Texas didn't know the war was over, and these people in Pennsylvania don't know the war is over, and we are still on the battlefield. Yeah, so we will we take this place on the Capitol lawn, and we will make this this piece of history.
I have to say, the monument, the physical bronze paints, the monument is only the thing that people can lay their hands-on Bill. It's the preparation for the monument that has brought over 45 organizations across the state, and more than 200 individual artists, humanists, and scholars together. It’s the preparation for the progress. So in a way, my colleagues would hate it if I said this, I will be sad to see the monument go in the ground, because what it has caused is a coming together a purpose, and an advocacy, and a civic dialogue, about the value of the vote and the engagement of individuals, not the leaders. The leaders all step back, said it's on you people to do this. So, this is a way that people project and the process has been monumental. It's the process that I'm hoping will continue engagement, and that many coalition efforts will come out of bringing these people together.
BC So, Sloan speaking of processes and coalitions, you mentioned four people who figure prominently in this franchise, this neglected democracy story. I know, one of them was a guy named Jacob Compton who worked for Lincoln's Secretary of War, Simon Cameron. Who were these people and how do they personify the Crossroads?
LS Jacob Compton is an every man. Jacob Compton is like, the guys who are on the Iwo Jima monument, you know. He was Simon Cameron's coachman.
BC Simon Cameron was Lincolns First secretary of war, and a Pennsylvania native’s son.
LS In 1861, when Abraham Lincoln came to Harrisburg on his way to his first inauguration, he was on a whistle stop tour, and when he got to Harrisburg, his guard Pinkerton, the same one that Pinkerton guards are named after, came to him and told him about the first assassination plot. This is an assassination plot on Lincoln before he is even inaugurated in 1861. Can you imagine that? Lincoln was speaking at the state capitol. Pinkerton came, and he was supposed to go to a place called the Jones Hotel. There were 1000 people waiting for him in the street and they took him through the lobby of the hotel out through the kitchen, and there a carriage was waiting and Jacob Compton, the carriage driver, who had been an agent on the Underground Railroad, knew a secret way out of Harrisburg, and spared Abraham Lincoln out of Harrisburg, and to a coach where Pinkerton took him to Washington, and to his inauguration and into history. And I asked Republicans, if Jacob Compton didn't know the way out of dodge, would there have even been a party of Lincoln?
So, this obscure man who has not written anywhere in the history, he went on to become dig in, in the AME church, a great speaker in the 1866 Negro Convention in Pittsburgh, and a passionate advocate of the 15th amendment, and use the AME church pulpits across Pennsylvania to promote
William Howard Day intersects with Jacob Compton's life in that William Howard Day was an orator, and an educator. He was trained at Oberlin College. John Brown was his teacher, and John Brown laid the base coat for William Howard Day’s social advocacy. When Jacob Compton joined the United States Colored Troops 180,000 black men fought in the Civil War on the Union side as the United States Colored Troops. At the end of war there was something called the Grand Review of Soldiers, of all the Union soldiers marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House where they were mustered out and officially ended their service, except for the 180,000 black soldiers. They were not invited to march in the Grand Review. Since Simon Cameron had been the secretary for Lincoln, and he lived in Harrisburg, they staged a grand review in Harrisburg. William Howard Day was the keynote speaker of that grand review. So, he helped Jacob Compton to finish his public service. He then stayed in Harrisburg and became the first black superintendent of schools in the state of Pennsylvania and also the one of the founding members of the library society that started the Pennsylvania Public Library System.
Thomas Morris Chester’s family lived about four blocks away from that, and Thomas Morris Chester had grown up in Harrisburg, was schooled in Pittsburgh under Martin Delaney. Martin Delaney, St. Thomas Chester to Africa before the Civil War. They believe that a black man was not going to get a chance in in America, and so they were going to take all freeborn blacks who were landowners, combined together, they were going to buy land in Africa and they were going to get out of here. They were going to book you're going to use the vernacular. Chester was an Exoduster. Chester had organized an incredible group of men together from all over the Mid-Atlantic states to respond to Abraham Lincoln on the Emancipation Proclamation. They were not convinced about the Emancipation Proclamation at all. And in fact, they elected 70 men to go to Washington DC and present their rebuttal to the Emancipation Proclamation. They don't teach that as in any history book, you know, there's no history people can tell you that three men of color had a rebuttal to the Emancipation Proclamation.
BC So am I right that Lincoln was actually on board he was partial to this notion of getting on boats going back across the ocean?
LS He was like “I'm with you. Pack up your guys. We'll get you your freedom if you get out of dodge”. That's not a Lincoln story either. Chester continued to work and he became first black journalists of a major American newspaper. Philadelphia and bear he met a woman by the name of Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, who had been a suffragist. She had been at Seneca with Elizabeth Caddy and Lucretia Mott. They had put it to her to use the vernacular. They were the white suffragists, were very concerned that black men would get the right to vote before white women, and they told Francis Harper that either she had to be a abolitionists or suffragist. You know, she couldn't be on both teams And she made a very famous speech, which asked the question, am I a black woman or a black woman, and she was also the first black woman to have a major newspaper in Pennsylvania.
BC So, how are these incredible stories going to show up in the development and design of the monument that we'll be playing placed on the State Capitol grounds?
LS And so, these four people Jacob Compton, Thomas Morris Chester, William Howard Day, and Francis Harper are standing around this orator’s pedestal. One last piece about that, Francis has the 15th amendment in her hand and the statues animation is that she's handing it back to William Howard Day saying, “I don't see myself in this thing anywhere”, you know. “Boys, this is not good enough”. That's my own little like, secret caption, you know, through the artist, three of the brilliant sculptors, you get it, that she's like, she's not convinced. Also, that all between 1870 and 1920 is Jim Crow. It’s the end of reconstruction, it’s lynching you know, is it well you know, so it's just not those two dates on the calendar. It's the 50 years of struggle between the two that monument speaks to.
BC So one of the things that Leni mentioned when we first started to talk about this project is the juxtaposition of history, human creativity, and the power of story. Whose story gets told, or erased, or whose stories are embellished, whose or distorted? Throughout the years, one of the constants of Leni's work has been his reverence for an investment in those discarded and distorted stories. I know the statue being installed as an important symbol, but my sense was that for this project, it is more a means than an end. That Leni's primary interest here is in the living, breathing, engagement of the social sphere of provoking civic conversation and changing consciousness. As is often the case when I asked Leni to respond on to this, he not only answered with an apt metaphor, he revealed yet another layer of inquiry and organizing.
LS Yes, the bronze is a GPS marker for the dialogue. It's a point of reference for the social engagement and for the dialogue. I have no idea, as you well know, what I am doing. I just get up and do it. So, when we chose the place for the monument, the K. Leroy Irvis lawn, we didn't know at the time that the site that we chose have been a dynamic free black community that had grown up since 1850, after the Fugitive Slave Act. We didn't know that it was an authentic side of the Underground Railroad, that it was a community called the Eighth Ward, that the majority of the people of the Eighth Ward had been freemen and freedmen. We didn't know that it took 70, 80 years for that black community to build the community around the Capitol, and it took exactly 26 months for it to be all torn down through eminent domain to build the Capitol Park.
So suddenly, I was on another mission, and that was defined the children of the old Eighth Ward. A block away from the main street of the old eighth Ward was the Federal Fugitive Slave Office. And the bounty hunters used to come into the black neighborhood every morning and tack up wanted signs, and what kind of intimidation must that have been for people to continue to function as agents on the Underground Railroad in a safe house?
BC So, Leni, I