I couldn’t stop staring at this photo. Four elderly black women, “all older than 100, at a convention in the District in 1916,” said the caption in last Friday’s Washington Post.
Hoping to learn more about them, I logged on to the Root DC’s page of the Post’s website. Instead I found only an image of Abraham Lincoln in the Emancipation Day article about the April 1862 legislation that freed 3,128 of the District’s enslaved citizens.
Within a few minutes of online research, though, I discovered two more photos taken on the same day in 1916 by Harris & Ewing at an Emancipation reunion. As the official White House photographers of the early 1900s and then the nation’s largest photo news service, they rarely snapped shots of African Americans.
But on that sunny fall afternoon, they posed a group of black mostly octogenarians and nonagenarians in front of Cosmopolitan Baptist Temple at Tenth and N Streets, NW.
Now propped on canes and dressed in their finest clothes, these men and women had spent the first four to five decades of their lives in slavery. That the four women in the initial photo all were centenarians—and strong enough and determined enough to stand—made the image all the more remarkable.
I immediately knew I wanted to share the images with my “Helping Ourselves” Facebook page, a history and culture group I created last summer. I was sure the relatively small circle of 650 followers would appreciate the information. Within a few hours, though, the photo had gone viral like nothing else I’d ever posted. By Sunday at noon there were nearly 300 comments, nearly 400 shares and more than 1,000 “likes.” Our 650 followers has increased to 1,079 within a couple of days. [UPDATE on April 3, 2014: "Helping Ourselves" now has more than 3,300 followers, small by the standards of many Facebook pages, but we love each and everyone! Although the post no longer gets updates on new likes and shares, the last count was 2,127 likes, 497 comments and 3,092 shares.]
In the comments section, several people described being moved to tears by the women’s dignity and resilience. Others saw a resemblance to their own grandmothers. Some talked of trying to live lives worthy of that antebellum generation’s sacrifices. One man imagined “the storms they have weathered and the joy, pain, sorrow, whispers and screams [they have] heard.” Barbara Summers, a New York writer and teacher, wrote, “I wish I could read their minds. Reading their faces makes me straighten my spine.”
Understandably a few people have been skeptical about the women’s ages. In my original post, I simply re-typed the information that had accompanied the Library of Congress photo: “Anna Parrum, age 104; Anna Angales, age 105; Elizabeth Berkeley, 125; Sadie Thompson, 110.” Was Ms. Berkeley really 125? Was Ms. Thompson 110? We may never know the truth. My subsequent attempts to verify their ages on Ancestry.com and through a database of historical newspapers have turned up no additional information. Not knowing their hometowns complicates the search. At this point, I’m still looking. I hope others are, too.
I have, however, found out more about the reunion. The Washington Post ran at least six articles between September 23 and November 6, 1916 about the activities at Cosmopolitan Baptist Temple. “Colored people of the District are cooperating in efforts to make the affair a success,” the Post reported. “Arrangements have been made to have vehicles of all kinds ready to carry the aged folk about the city.” Another article announced that “five thousand free dinner tickets will be distributed among the colored churches of Washington to be turned over to those who attend the fifty-fourth convention of former slaves and former owners.”
“There’ll doubtless be a happy time when ex-slaves meet in Washington,” the Post predicted a week before the convention opened, “but it is feared that George Washington’s last living bodyguard may be too feeble to attend.” (Intriguing as such an appearance might have been, the math doesn’t quite compute since Washington had been dead for 117 years.)
The Philadelphia Tribune, a black weekly, called the two week convention “one of the most remarkable gatherings in the history of the country” with visitors expected from more than 42 states. The Tribune continued: “Many of the ex-slaves have passed the century mark. Uncle Nelson Keith, who is 106 years old, will be one of the speakers. Robert Lee, once a slave of General Robert E. Lee, will preach a sermon, as will John Jackson, who was once the property of General Stonewall Jackson. Old plantation melodies will feature the sessions.”
“Railroads have granted excursion rates and steamboat companies will assist in bringing the old colored men and women at reduced rates. Former slave owners have made generous contributions to insure the success of the unique affair. John Wilkinson of Danville, Va., whose father owned 2,000 slaves, was the first to assist.”
Even with the Tribune’s article, it still seemed curious to me that the Post was more attentive to the event than the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender and the Baltimore Afro American. All of them regularly covered significant news in Washington, DC, so why the silence now? Just three years earlier they all had followed the pageants, parades and concerts of the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Why not one single article from those major newspapers about this event? For now, I’m still researching the matter, but I can’t help but wonder if the endorsement and involvement of the former slave owners may have cooled the enthusiasm of those nationally distributed black weeklies.
I’m also trying to learn more about Reverend Simon P. W. Drew, the 45 year old pastor of Cosmopolitan, who hosted the reunion and who appears in one of Harris & Ewing’s photographs. A 1921 history of African Americans notes that he “knew personally presidents McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft and Harding” and says his grandfather, Rev. Simon Peter Hargroves, had been an abolitionist. In 1912, the Afro had praised him for his “ability to bring things to pass” and for being “a man of great ambition and persistence [who] generally succeeds in whatever he sets out to accomplish.”
Several years later, though, Rev. Drew’s fortunes had changed. In May 1930, the Afro reported that he had been indicted for fraud for soliciting funds on behalf of a Virginia school that had been closed for a decade. He maintained that he was trying to help re-open the institution. His earlier ambition apparently had turned to more quixotic pursuits, including running for vice president of the United States on the Interracial Independent Political Party slate in 1928, and earlier for mayor of New York City.
Still he had managed to create the moment that had brought these four women together. His vision 94 years ago now allows Ms. Parrum, Ms. Angales, Ms. Berkeley and Ms. Thompson to speak with power and pride to yet another generation in yet another century.
In these days of high-def 3-D movies and color-saturated CGI video, the strength of these elders explodes from a simple, black and white still photograph. Its riveting message is why I—and apparently thousands of others—can not stop staring.
UPDATE on April 3, 2014: It was wonderful to see these photos taking on new life because Kim Foster, founder and creator of the wildly popular and influential For Harriet website, posted the photos on For Harriet’s Facebook page. As of noon on April 3, the photo had been shared more than 22,500 times and liked by more than 13,500 people.
A’Lelia Bundles, a former network television news executive, is the author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker. She also is chair of the board of the Foundation for the National Archives, which will help host a viewing of the original Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 2013 at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
The original Harris & Ewing photographs can be ordered from the Library of Congress’s Prints & Photographs Division. Click here for the link to the photo of Elizbeth Berkeley and Sadie Thompson. Click here for the other three photos.