How much do any of us know of our history? Keeping up with the propulsion of the present is hard enough without carrying the baggage of the past. So we tend to leave it behind.
Black History month makes February a deliberate time for remembering. At Bay Weekly, we use it to try to learn stories that are farther out of history’s spotlight, as history didn’t used to be written in black as well as white. Over the years, the heroes of black history — Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, Harriet Tubman — have become pretty well known. Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they have celebratory days, books and movies, statues, parks, even U.S. currency named in their honor.
To find everyday life, you’ve got to dig deeper. But you don’t have to go farther.
In this week’s paper, St. John’s College art educator Lucinda Edinberg introduces us to Mitchell Gallery’s current exhibition, Ruth Starr Rose: Revelations of African American Life. In it, you’ll be see a culture as richly portrayed as Tahitians in Paul Gauguin’s paintings and American Indians in the paintings of George Catlin. You’ll see in full vitality what Eastern Shore African American life looked like a century ago.
Like Gauguin and Catlin, painter Ruth Starr Rose opened a window into a world that would otherwise have been lost. Like them, she stood outside the culture she portrayed. Ruth Starr Rose was white, a woman and an assimilated rather than native Marylander. Perhaps her difference gave her an unprejudiced view. Certainly it opened up a dialogue still elusive today — black to white, white to black.
I listened in on some of that dialogue at both Mitchell Gallery and across town at Banneker Douglass Museum, where another Ruth Starr Rose exhibit gives a second take on her work.
At Mitchell Gallery, art historian Barbara Paca told a full house of not-so-young arts supporters how the privileged, upper-class painter of black life in Maryland had fallen out of favor. After Ruth Starr Rose’s death in 1965, she was accused of racism, as if what she painted couldn’t be true or taken seriously. Paca has taken on the job of rehabilitating the artist, including organizing the exhibition you’ll see through this month at Mitchell Gallery.
I hope you will see it. The images lent to us for this story are shadows of the originals on display.
At Banneker Douglass Museum, I happened in as outreach coordinator LeRonn Herbert was introducing the artist and a roomful of her paintings, sketches and lithographs to a busload of African American high school students on a field trip. They saw a pair of self-portraits of the white woman artist, as colorfully painted as her black portraits. Perhaps just as strange was African American life of the last century, with trains, chariots and Jeeps leading processions into heaven. Or 20 smiling women picking crabs.
I’m glad to be able to see these sights. Ruth Starr Rose painted the life force as well as life scenes, putting you in touch with humanity across time and beyond race. Their recognition is timeless.
But we all know it’s a good thing to be recognized in your own time. For that, this week’s paper reports the story of the newest Admiral of the Chesapeake, Eastern Shore black waterman Eldridge Meredith. Captain Meredith is the 101st Marylander and fifth African American to be so honored.
“The predominant image of an African American working the Bay is oyster shucking and crab picking,” explains Vincent Leggett, director of Blacks of the Chesapeake Local Legacy Project and himself an Admiral of the Chesapeake. “To be recognized as an admiral, with its rich connotation, is something many people couldn’t wrap their head around.”
The more we see, the more we understand.
Learn to understand more of your own history in this issue as well, as Chris Haley, director of the Legacy of Slavery center at the Maryland Archives, gives a lesson in researching family roots.
Sandra Olivetti Martin
Editor and publisher
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