New York, 1952
The smell of books lingered in the air as card catalog drawers clinked closed and creaked open. Dena Epstein walked through the golden light bouncing off the stone walls. She might have felt at home in any library, even if she had never been there before. On this day in 1952, she found herself in the New York Public Library, a monument to curiosity and learning in the heart of Manhattan. Dena had studied music and library science, and had worked as a music librarian. At thirty-six years old, her career as a librarian was temporarily on hold as her husband worked a government job and she took care of their children.
Not working in a library didn’t seem to suit Dena, though. She wanted to engage her mind, she wanted to have interesting things to think about. Unanswered research questions nagged her. One of those questions made her come to the library from her home in New Jersey.
“‘Getting Up Cows,’ that’s what it’s called, ‘Getting Up Cows,” William Adams said. “An old fella played that. He was a cracker-jack old fiddler, though, I don’t believe he could beat me….”
Mike Seeger hadn’t come to the neighborhood to record Adams initially, but now he wanted to hear any tune the Black fiddler could remember, even if he forgot it halfway through or couldn’t remember the name.
“I forget how that goes, though, I haven’t played that since a long time ago,” the 72 year-old Adams continued before he put the bow on the fiddle’s strings and hesitantly pulled the tune from deep in his memory. In the end, it sounded like he might have just last played it a week or a year ago, not some 20-odd years earlier.
This field recording wasn’t taken in some rural hamlet or deep holler, it was less than five miles from Seeger’s home in the well-to-do suburb of Chevy Chase outside Washington, D.C. And yet in 1953, when Seeger stepped into Adams’s neighborhood of KenGar, segregation left this community so separate from the white towns and neighborhoods surrounding it, a white person might drive by without even knowing it was there.
I've been asked to be on a panel at SXSW - but we need community votes to make it to the event!
I've been asked to be on The Banjo Project: A Digital Museum's panel at South by Southwest (SXSW), along with curator Marc Fields and the amazing musicians Dom Flemons and Tony Trishka. However, we need community votes to make it to the next round of selection!
Click here to learn more about the project, register, and vote.
Although it didn't end up helping me with that research, Tucker's opinions about the abolition of slavery struck me. Here was a man, standing up in front of the Virginia legislature, calling out Thomas Jefferson specifically and calling the United States more or less a bunch of hypocrites.
I spent February at the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis on a William Reese Company Fellowship, looking at the papers of Captain John Gabriel Stedman and investigating the banjo's early history in Suriname and the Caribbean.
Inspiring women, innovative approaches to living and learning, and pioneering social justice work: sound like something from the #metoo or #TimesUp movements? Maybe, but it was also how women at the Hull-House in Chicago lived and worked over 100 years ago.
While I was in Chicago in February, I had a chance to visit the Hull-House and be totally amazed by these women, who I already knew a little bit about. Here is a tour and brief history of the settlement house.
Think hockey is a white sport? The fast-paced action and some signature moves are thanks to a pioneering Black Hockey League that changed the game forever.
The Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes was truly innovative in so many ways, and I'm glad that George and Darril Fosty researched the story in their book Black Ice: The Lost History of the Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes, 1895–1925. I can't remember where I first heard about the anecdote that led me to the Fostys' book, and I didn't know much about the history of Black Canadians in Nova Scotia or the Maritimes, but I've found some cool research of which I hope to share more.
You never know what you'll find in a box.
Belair Aug 25th 1864
Today, Maryland is thought of as the Mid-Atlantic, with barely any relationship to the south. But the fact is that the state is south of the Mason-Dixon line, and before Washington, D.C. brought transplants from all over the United States, I've seen references to suburbs like Kensington and Silver Spring as being "sleepy southern towns." More importantly in the context of today, Maryland Emancipation Day, this was a slave-holding state, a fact that many people seem to forget when talking about Frederick Douglass, a fierce abolitionist who was enslaved and worked in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore City, or Harriet Tubman, a heroic Underground Railroad worker born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. During the Civil War, the state also had
many southern sympathizers, including the man who shot Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth (like Annie Davis, a resident of Bel Air, Maryland).
"Slave Statistics," a record of the enslaved people in Maryland and their owners at the time of emancipation exists for some counties in Maryland, but not for Harford. I haven't been able to find anything else about Annie Davis in a brief search. I want to thank Mr. C.R. Gibbs and the Reginald F. Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture for the Maryland Emancipation Day Lecture, where Mr. Gibbs shared this powerful letter.
Come in, the stacks are open.
Away from prying eyes, damaging light, and pilfering hands, the most special collections are kept in closed stacks. You need an appointment to view the objects, letters, and books that open a door to the past.