Thursday, May 17, 2007
queen esther the photographer?
i've got two photos that i took of harriet tubman's property last year that are going to be in a children's book about her, to be published by sterling publishing (this fall, i think). this one is her house.
i remember showing this photo to some black someone that i was doing theater with at the time and he gagged and blurted, you mean she didn't live in some lean-to shotgun shack somewhere out back or something?
no. she didn't.
at a time when it was illegal for black people to own property, william h. seward, the former governor of new york and a very close friend of hers, stepped in to make sure that she'd be able to purchase a plot of land in auburn -- a few miles on the same road as his place, actually. in their ongoing excavations/renovations of the property, they found the remains of a kiln that was located some distance from the house while i was there late last spring. as it turns out, her husband built a beautiful two story brick house there, from scratch. what was appalling is that her family lost the house right after she died because they didn't pay taxes on it. (!!!) one other family occupied the house until the mid to late 1980s. someone had the bright idea to turn her property into an historical site, amongst other things. it's still in the works. i hope it happens. as of yet, we don't have a national museum devoted to the black holocaust or our history as african americans.
her husband building that house from scratch wasn't that deep to me because i watched my grandfather do it in charleston, south carolina when i was a little girl. he used brick that had been discarded from a nearby construction site and made the beautiful four bedroom/two bathroom house that filled much of my childhood memories.
this one is the home for the aged that she built to help the old and the sick.
i'm relieved that they're going to use the photos because they're really beautiful (it was a picture-perfect blue sky day when i took them) but also because they singlehandedly deconstruct a lot of myths about who she really was and how she lived her life in her last years. it's hard to get to know an icon but when it's someone that casts such a long shadow throughout our recent american history, you have to try.
seward was no slouch, by the way. not only was he was a lawyer, a new york senator, a globe-trotting diplomat and a secretary of state under lincoln (and andrew jackson) -- his mansion was a pit-stop on the underground railroad. there's an infamous letter that he writes to his wife (who was a quaker, interestingly enough) where he's positively giddy about everyone thinking he's this fine upstanding citizen and all and there's half a dozen runaway slaves hidden in his basement. i couldn't wait to wander around in this place. as luck would have it, i had my own personal tour guide who was absolutely delighted to answer all of my bumbling idiotic picayune annoying questions about architecture and family portraits and credenzas and such (stuff like, "where did sewell die?" "was it this fainting couch or that one?" "who found him?" "is this place haunted or what?" oh, and here's a real winner: "i know i can't sit in that inaugural carriage that seward and lincoln rode in - but can i touch it?") i figured they didn't bounce me out of there because i was featured in the hit musical in their town that summer and everyone was talking about it.
of course, they wouldn't let me take any pictures inside, but they did let me stand for a few minutes in that very room where those slaves hid. leaning against those walls had a strange effect on me. i could feel them resonating into my bones.
i thought that it was kind of fantastic that his house was a part of the underground railroad but from what i was told by my tour guide, there are lots of houses in auburn and in other towns upstate that were pit-stops, too: they were filled with hidden doorways, cabinets and bookshelves that moved to reveal some other room or that led to some other part of the house, unused cellars and attics. what an all-american treasure all of that is. i suppose there would be a movement to show those hidden rooms and such in those homes but people still live in them. someone should take pictures of them, at least. document them, somehow.
bizarrely, his mansion was also party central for a host of dignitaries and the like. i remember walking around thinking, how could you throw parties all the time and hide runaway slaves and never get caught? so yeah, i went a little nuts over the china, the furniture, the sitting rooms, those exquisite pocket doors and all of the beautiful decor from asia. (and there was a lot of it.) but i never forgot that hidden room. i love it when history stops wallowing in books and becomes real, even if it's in the form of some handmade bloody bedsheets that seward lay on while recieving medical care after that attack. all i could think was, this really happened! but more on that some other time.
so yeah, those photos. i'm not surprised that harriett tubman decided to settle in auburn. it's so close to canada and it's a really beautiful place. it's much more rural than i thought it would be -- lush and green and pretty -- but my friend kept calling it the suburbs anyway. with seward so nearby, she could own land and help others. and she did -- she opened a home for the aged. ironically, in her old age, she actually moved into it.
hm. i'll bet her husband built that house, too.