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"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Monday, June 21, 2010

John Brown's Friend Honored
On the Street Where I Live: The Frederick Douglass Circle Story, A Scrapbook

From The New York Amsterdam News, June 10, 1950, p. 5.  Cutline reads: "IN HONOR OF ABOLITIONIST: The entire open street, shown above at Central Park West, Eighth Avenue and 110th Street and Cathedral Parkway has been named by the City Council as Frederick Douglass Circle in honor of the famed abolitionist and former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti.  The bill to name the circle was introduced into the Council by City Councilman Earl Brown. Previously the area had been unnamed, and the Bill passed the Council at its May 25th meeting."

From The Chicago Defender, July 1, 1950, p. 4.  Cutline reads: "OKs FREDERICK DOUGLASS CIRCLE--Mayor William O'Dwyer of New York City puts his deal of approval on bill to rename 110th Street Circle the Frederick Douglass Circle, as Councilman Earl Brown, who introduced the bill, looks on.  Left to right, Commissioner J. Raymond Jones, Thelma Boozer, John Henderson, Hawthorne Lee, Glester Hines.  Seated are Councilman Brown and Mayor O'Dwyer.

From The New York Amsterdam News, August 26, 1950, p. 8.  Dedication of Frederick Douglass Circle scheduled for Sunday, September 17, 1950.  Note that the Honorary Chairman for the dedication was Robert F. Wagner, Jr., who would be elected New York City mayor in 1953.  He served as Manhattan Borough President from 1950-53.  Also note the presence of George S. Schulyer, a leading black conservative in the mid-20th century, and Dan Burley, a prominent African American journalist.

From The Atlanta Daily World, September 29, 1950, p. 1.  Note this clipping includes an excerpt from Wagner's dedication speech.

From New York Amsterdam News, September 23, 1950, p. 1.  Cutline read: "A NAME IS CHANGED-Looking at the new street sign which reads "Douglass Circle" during dedication services Sunday are Frederick Weaver, great-grandson of Frederick Douglass, Councilman Earl Brown, Robert F. Wagner, Borough President, and Glester Hinds, president of the People's Civic and Welfare Association.  Douglass Circle is at 110th and Eighth Avenue.  (Story on page 2)

From New York Amsterdam News, September 23, 1950, pp. 2 and 4.

From The Chicago Defender, September 30, 1950, p. 3.  Cutline reads: "FREDERICK DOUGLASS CIRCLE--New York's famous Cathedral Circle is now the Frederick Douglass Circle, renamed to honor the memory of the distinguished abolitionist, orator, journalist, and statesman.  Borough President Robert F. Wagner Jr., son of the late Sen. Wagner, is shown unveiling the new street sign as Robert Weaver, left, great grandson of Douglass, and Glester Hines watch.  Before the unveiling more than 1,000 persons marched in an impressive parade down Seventh Avenue, from 135th Street to 110th Street and Eighth Avenue, where the ceremonies took place.  Defender photo by de Mille.

From The New York Amsterdam News, September 2, 1967.  Cutline reads: "HONOR THE PEOPLE--O.R.E. National History Committee recently held a program honoring prominent Afro-Americans at the Frederick Douglass Circle, Central Park West and 110th St., New York City.  Edward D. Orner is pictured with flowers presented during ceremonies to keep alive the memories of the greats, from Benjamin Banneker and Frederick Douglass, to Adam Clayton Powell and Martin Luther King as Orner named them (McAdams Photo)."

Transcribed excerpt from David W. Dunlap, "Transforming Central Park's Gateways," The New York Times, June 11, 1987, p. B.1.

Sweeping changes to the three great traffic circles on the corners of Central Park will be proposed tonight by the New York City Planning Department, in an effort to sort out tangled strands of vehicles and pedestrians and to make more monumental gateways out of jumbled, haphazard intersections.

Sweeping changes to the three great traffic circles on the corners of Central Park will be proposed tonight by the New York City Planning Department, in an effort to sort out tangled strands of vehicles and pedestrians and to make more monumental gateways out of jumbled, haphazard intersections.

The proposal calls for reshaping Columbus, Frederick Douglass and Milbank Frawley Circles - actually making them more circular than they are today - with a rearrangement of traffic lanes and the creation of large and rather verdant new islands within the circles. There is also the possibility of limiting traffic access to the park. . . .

For Frederick Douglass Circle, at the northwest corner, goals include simplifying traffic movement, discouraging illegal turns, improving pedestrian conditions and, possibly, closing the automobile entrance to the park.  Douglass Circle is now divided by quadrants. Under the plan, they would be replaced by two islands that would straddle the avenue. The eastern island might be the site of a sculpture, most likely a statue of Frederick Douglas.

Abstract: Emily M. Bernstein, "Neighborhood Report: Harlem; Rounding Off a Central Park Edge." New York Times, January 9, 1994, p. A.5

The $5.9 million redesign, which will feature new granite sidewalks and curbs and hexagonal paving stones like the ones around Central Park's edges, will make Frawley Circle as impressive an entrance to the park as those at Columbus Circle and Grand Army Plaza, said Lisa Daglian, a spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the work. The city is also considering renovating Frederick Douglass Circle at the northwest corner, she said, but money has yet to be allocated for that project.

Transcript: Nina Siegal, "Forget 'Heritage Corridor,' Some Say."  New York Times, May 9, 1999, p. 14.6

A proposal to turn 110th Street, bordering Central Park, into a ''heritage corridor'' commemorating famous black Americans was so popular among neighborhood and local business groups a few months ago that the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone was hoping to expand the design to include Lenox Avenue. But now some preservationists are opposing elements of the proposal, saying it will not be in keeping with the historic character of the park.

The plan, proposed by the nonprofit Cityscape Institute, the Empire State Development Corporation and the city's Department of Transportation, calls for landscaping, repaving sidewalks with cobblestones and installing new street lamps from Fifth Avenue to Frederick Douglass Circle. Each lamp would be decorated with images of black artists, political leaders or pioneers in various fields. A $9 million Federal grant has already been awarded for the project.

But preservationists say that the design for the lampposts, in particular, is troubling. The president of the Society for the Architecture of the City, Ronald J. Kopnicki, said the lamps did not match the historic character of light fixtures in Central Park.

''As we understand, it it is not historic, it is not based on any historic model,'' he said. ''Honoring distinguished residents of an area is an admirable idea, but there are many other ways to do it other than trying to do an all-in-one thing with a lamppost.''

He also said he was worried that the slots in the lampposts that would be for pictures of historic figures might eventually be used for advertising.

Cityscape's director of government and community relations, John T. Reddick, said the lamps would not be used for commercial purposes. ''We never saw it as an advertising venue,'' he said. ''For us, it's about evoking place and history.''

Arlene Simon, the president of Landmark West, which focuses on the architectural heritage of the West Side from 59th to 110th Streets, said her group supported planting trees and replacing the sidewalk above Central Park but not memorial plaques on the lampposts.

''The proposal for a memorial promenade relegates the northern 30 feet of Central Park to little more than a fringe area that has more in common with the north side of 110th Street than with Central Park,'' the group said in a written testimony before the Landmarks Commission in late March.

And a neighborhood preservationist, Michael Henry Adams, said he opposed the idea of spending $9 million on the project. ''There are better things they can do with their money and more meaningful things,'' he said. ''For instance, they could get Central Park North made into an historic district, and that would be preserving something real and vital rather than putting up some little theme park kind of gesture.''

The president of Cityscape, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, said input from community and preservation groups would be considered. 

Kelly Crow, “Trying to Make Douglass Circle A Gateway, Not a Roadblock.” New York Times (Late Edition) April 20, 2003, p. 14.6

For 15 years, Mila Mendez has heard talk of creating a gateway to Harlem by renovating Frederick Douglass Circle and installing a namesake memorial nearby. But, while civic groups have come and gone with their redesign ideas, the traffic circle still sits outside Ms. Mendez's condominium like a pie, with streets slicing between green patches at the northwest corner of Central Park.
A view of Frederick Douglass Circle looking east along Cathedral Parkway (West 110th Street)
in April 2008, prior to completion of construction.  Just beyond the circle is the northwestern 
corner of Central Park.  Photo by 
Louis A. DeCaro Jr.

Two months ago, however, the city made plans final to spend $15.5 million to transform the intersection into a three-lane rotary, funneling traffic from 110th Street and Central Park West into a ring around a new plaza. And there is a preliminary design for the plaza, which includes a statue of Douglass, a granite wall with cascading water and inlaid with constellations, and a patchwork flooring honoring the Underground Railroad.

Still, the skies are not yet clear for the long-promised project. Ms. Mendez is elated about the memorial, but not the rotary. She and other residents fear the three lanes will turn the gateway plaza into a roadblock, pushing traffic closer to their buildings while isolating the memorial from passers-by.

''For years, we've heard ideas and plans to make everything better,'' she said. ''But now, the traffic will be even more atrocious and no one will go out into the middle of the plaza to see Douglass. It's disappointing.''

On Feb. 12, Community Board 10 asked the Transportation Department to ban trucks from the rotary and preserve the width of the perimeter sidewalks as a buffer to the traffic. The board of managers of Towers on the Park, the pair of 20-story buildings that overlook the circle, has asked the city to narrow the rotary to two lanes and keep the loading lane that now lines the front of its buildings. A neighborhood group has also lobbied the city to preserve nearby bus stops and parking spots.

Tom Cocola, a department spokesman, said the city was working its way down the list, amending the project where feasible before construction begins next spring. He said the rotary would stay three lanes and would allow trucks, but sidewalks would not be narrowed. Loading lanes and bus stops will also be relocated nearby, he said.

''This is a great project,'' he said, ''and we're willing to work on it.''

Lee Caron, a manager of Towers on the Park, says she hopes so.

''We're really excited that finally, the circle is going to happen,'' Ms. Caron said. ''But the devil is in the details, and we need to be sure it's the best plan we can get. People have waited too long to get anything less.''

Transcription: Francis X. Clines, “Editorial: Summoning Frederick Douglass.” New York Times, November 3, 2006,  p. A26

For all his exultation in fleeing slavery to New York on the Underground Railroad, Frederick Douglass recalled how formidable the city soon seemed. ''The loneliness overcame me,'' he wrote of his first perch upon liberty in 1838, before he blazed into history as the articulator of African-Americans' determination to shuck slavery. ''There I was in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger,'' Douglass recorded of his early glimpse of New Yorkers. ''I dared not to unfold to any of them my sad condition.''

That such a powerful individual could be so daunted by the city, like so many ordinary newcomers, makes it all the sweeter that Douglass will be properly welcomed next summer at Harlem's gateway. His statue likeness, noble and powerful as the man, will peer forth at the skyline. The setting includes a 60-foot-long, laser-lit fountain, flowing with the waters of freedom, and an array of the quilted code symbols that were one of the ingenious secrets of the slaves' escape north.

Strategic quilts, harmlessly hung out to air along the routes toward liberty, offered instructions and maps to knowledgeable slaves on the run. Their innocent symbols -- wagon wheel, crossed wrenches, bear's paw, log cabin, child's shoofly -- were guides and cautions, just as patterns of knots marked mileage. These symbols are being rendered in multi-hued granite squares by Algernon Miller, a New York artist, as part of his Douglass tribute, under construction in a European-styled traffic circle and park bordering the northwest corner of Central Park. Mr. Miller's boyhood was spent at play on the circle's surrounding streets; an earlier work celebrated the Seneca Village community of African-American landholders displaced in the making of Central Park. ''Things just came together,'' he said of the muse he found in the quilted subtext of the Underground Railroad.

In contrast, the eight-foot statue catching Douglass in the classical pose of his daguerreotypes was done by Gabriel Koren, a Hungarian-born sculptor so fascinated as a child by far-off African-American human rights leaders that she came to specialize in them. ''They are so interesting, so magnetic.'' Her Malcolm X glares forth handsomely in Harlem, and her Marcus Garvey reigns lately in her city studio. ''I fought against doing Douglass 20 or 30 feet high, totally removed from ordinary people,'' said Ms. Koren, seeing to a proper welcome for the singular fugitive who landed here on his way into history.

Transcription: Noam Cohen, "In Douglass Tribute, Slave Folklore and Fact Collide." New York Times, January 23, 2007

At the northwest corner of Central Park, construction is under way on Frederick Douglass Circle, a $15.5 million project honoring the escaped slave who became a world-renowned orator and abolitionist.

Beneath an eight-foot-tall sculpture of Douglass, the plans call for a huge quilt in granite, an array of squares, a symbol in each, supposedly part of a secret code sewn into family quilts and used along the Underground Railroad to aid slaves. Two plaques would explain this.

The only problem: According to many prominent historians, the secret code — the subject of a popular book that has been featured on no less a cultural touchstone than “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — never existed. And now the city is reconsidering the inclusion of the plaques, so as not to “publicize spurious history,” Kate D. Levin, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs, said yesterday.

The plaques may go, but they have spawned an energetic debate about folklore versus fact, and who decides what becomes the lasting historical record.

The memorial’s link between Douglass, who escaped slavery from Baltimore at age 20, and the coded designs has puzzled historians. But what particularly raised the historians’ ire were the two plaques, one naming the code’s symbols and the other explaining that they were used “to indicate the location of safe houses, escape routes and to convey other information vital to a slave’s escape and survival.”
It’s “a myth, bordering on a hoax,” said David Blight, a Yale University historian who has written a book about Douglass and edited his autobiography. “To permanently associate Douglass’s life with this story instead of great, real stories is unfortunate at best.”

The quilt theory was first published in the 1999 book “Hidden in Plain View,” by Jacqueline Tobin, a journalist and college English instructor from Denver, and Raymond Dobard, a quilting and African textiles expert. It was based on the recollections of Ozella McDaniel Williams, a teacher in Los Angeles who became a quiltmaker in Charleston, S.C. “Ozella’s code,” the book says, was handed down from slave times from mother to daughter. Ms. Williams died in 1998.

According to “Hidden in Plain View,” slaves created quilts with codes to advise those fleeing captivity. What looked to the slave master like an abstract panel on a quilt being “aired out” on a porch in fact represented a reminder, say, to be sure to follow a zigzag path to avoid being tracked when escaping. In Ms. Williams’s account, there was a sequence of 10 panels to guide an escaping slave, beginning with a “monkey wrench” pattern meaning to gather up tools and supplies and concluding with a star, a reminder to head north.

The authors say that people have tried to make too much of the book, which they intended to be one family’s story. “I would say there has been a great deal of misunderstanding about the code,” Dr. Dobard said. “In the book Jackie and I set out to say it was a set of directives. It was a beginning, not an end-all, to stir people to think and share those stories.”

Even before the book was published, the codes in “Hidden in Plain View” got a boost from “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which had Dr. Dobard, a quilter himself, as a guest in November 1998. The show was rebroadcast on Martin Luther King’s Birthday in 1999, the day before the book was published, according to Janet Hill, who edited it and is now a vice president of Doubleday. That same day, Ms. Hill wrote in an e-mail message, the book was featured in USA Today. “The book seemed to take off from there,” she wrote.

There are currently 207,000 copies in print, she said. The codes are frequently taught in elementary schools (teachers have been eager to take up the quilting-codes theory because of its useful pedagogic elements — a secret code, artwork and a story of triumph), and the patterns represent a small industry within quiltmaking.

Algernon Miller, who designed the memorial site, said he “was inspired by this story line,” which he discovered in the library. His was a re-interpretation, he said, noting that he was “taking a soft material, a quilt, and converting it into granite.”

“Traditionally what African-Americans do is take something and reinterpret into another form,” he said.
The team of Mr. Miller and a sculptor, Gabriel Koren, were selected in January 2003, from six proposals in a competition organized by the Studio Museum in Harlem. While the project, which involves rebuilding roadways, will cost more than $15 million in city, state and federal money, the 15,000-square-foot plaza and sculpture were commissioned for $750,000. It’s unclear how much it would cost to redesign it now. The memorial, at 110th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, is expected to be completed in fall 2008.

Professor Blight raised his concerns shortly after reading an editorial column in The New York Times in November praising the project and treating the quilting codes as fact. He posted a message at an online discussion group for historians of slavery. “Unfortunately, this UGRR quilt code mythology has also managed to make its way onto the very permanent and very important Frederick Douglass Memorial,” he wrote, using initials to refer to the Underground Railroad. “Douglass never saw a quilt used to free any slaves in his day. Why do we need to pin this nonsense on him now?”

Dozens of postings later, one commentator this month posted a note cautioning that the discussion was threatening to “degenerate into an episode of ‘Historians Gone Wild.’ ”

“We are watching in real time an unfolding of belief in a story,” said Marsha MacDowell, a quilting expert and an art professor at Michigan State University. “It will take years to undo. It’s like Washington chopping down the cherry tree. It has finally been written out of the history books.”

Giles R. Wright, director of the Afro-American History Program at the New Jersey Historical Commission, rattled off the historians’ problems in a telephone interview: There is no surviving example of an encoded quilt from the period. The code was never mentioned in any of the interviews of ex-slaves carried out in the 1930’s by the Works Progress Administration. There is no mention of quilting codes in any diaries or memoirs from the period.

Mr. Miller responded to critics: “No matter what anyone has to say, they weren’t there in that particular moment, especially something that was in secret.”

John Reddick, who works for the Central Park Conservancy and helped shepherd the project through its financing and community board approval, noted that in less than a decade “Hidden in Plain View” had become “a touchstone to creative people” and compared the quilt code to the coded language in Negro spirituals. “Take ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ ” he said, “the slave master thinks you are talking about dying, and the slaves are talking about getting away.” He also noted the paradox of historians demanding written evidence when slaves were barred from learning to read and write.
On Ms. Winfrey’s show, Dr. Dobard appeared with the black descendants of Thomas Jefferson. That relationship was preserved in oral history across the centuries, even as historians of the past generally dismissed the claim. DNA tests published in 1998 are considered to have confirmed Jefferson’s paternity.

A spokeswoman for Harpo Productions, which produces the show, had no comment on the controversy.

A historian, Christopher Moore, who is research coordinator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, was consulted on the printed material in the memorial, which includes many quotations from Douglass.

In an interview, Mr. Moore said that as an unpaid consultant reviewing the project, he focused on the Douglass material, and gave cursory attention to the quilts.

When told of the historians’ objections, Mr. Moore said “it was a mistake” to include the text explaining the codes. He said he has since been asked to write a historically accurate text for the memorial.
Ms. Levin said she thought the memorial’s larger quilting theme was appropriate. “Something can inspire an artist that is not be based in fact,” she said. “This isn’t a work of history, it’s a work of art.”

"The Underground Railroad is one of the deepest American historical myths," says David Blight, a professor of American history at Yale. "It is a story of escape; it is a story from slavery to freedom. The problem has been: How do we carve through the enormous folklore and mythology of this story to get to the real stories of real fugitive slaves?"

Blight, who has written books on the Underground Railroad and Frederick Douglass, believes that children can appreciate this story through a mythic window. But he says that there is no mention of quilt codes in the oral histories of former slaves recorded during the Great Depression.

As for Douglass, he was literate, forged his own escape papers, dressed in sailor's clothing and escaped by land and by sea.

"Douglass was, politically, one of America's most ferocious political critics of the middle-19th century," Blight says. "To represent him through this apocryphal tale of quilt codes is a disservice."

GABRIEL KOREN: About the sculptor of the Frederick Douglass statue now standing on Frederick Douglass Circle

Source: New York City Culture website

The focus of Gabriel Koren's career has been to sculpt the leaders, artists, thinkers, and other members of the African diaspora whose lives and work have impacted contemporary life on national and international levels. Gabriel Koren was commissioned to create the first public sculpture of Malcolm X in New York City. The artist has created a life-sized, bronze sculpture of Malcolm X positioned to look as if he is speaking to the people visiting the ballroom.

About the Artist...
Born in Hungary, Gabriel Koren received her M.F.A. at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest. She has been included in solo and group exhibitions at Richard Anderson Gallery, the Hungarian Consulate General, Hudson Guild Art Gallery, Alan Stone Gallery, and the Queens Borough Public Library. She taught sculpture at the National Academy of Design, and was awarded grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1997.

Artist Quote...
This commission was the greatest honor and the greatest responsibility I have received in all of my life. My goal was to create a sculpture of Malcolm X which would be recognized by Malcolm's community as a true representation of him. I felt I was an instrument bringing Malcolm's message forward again through the sculpture. I felt the responsibility to bring him back to the Audubon Ballroom, as if he never left. I am not religious, but I prayed before I started the work, and I prayed when I finished the work. -- Koren, 1997

Source: Queens (NY) Library

Sculptures of Hungarian thinkers, writers and historical figures fill the parks and streets in the capital city of Budapest, where sculptor Gabriel Koren was born and raised. As a child she grew up climbing and playing on the sculptures, while asking her grandmother who these people were. A child of artistic parents living in a socialist country, Koren had a multicultural education that piqued her interest in African civilizations and African American art, history and culture. In the '70s she studied with master sculptors at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, earning her Master of Fine Arts diploma in 1977. After a year of study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, she moved to New York City and established a studio in Brooklyn. One thing that struck Koren about New York City was its lack of sculptures of famous African Americans, such as Marcus Garvey, Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson and John Coltrane. It became her life's work to create monuments that would serve as a tribute to their lives and accomplishments. She gained inspiration for her works by attending history lectures in an African American church in Brooklyn, learning from respected historians in the community. A figurative sculptor, Koren sculpts in clay and plaster, later casting her pieces in bronze. Her works depict both everyday people and great leaders, artists and thinkers of the African diaspora whose lives and work have impacted contemporary life at national and international levels. Koren's goal is to place her sculptures of these legendary leaders permanently in the Harlem and Brooklyn communities. Earning a living by teaching at the National Academy of Design and working as a commercial sculptor for the fashion, display, film and theater industries, Koren began to realize her dream in 1994. After winning a nationwide competition, Koren was commissioned to create the first public sculpture of Malcolm X. The memorial was permanently placed at the site of his assassination, the former Audubon Ballroom (168th Street and Broadway in Manhattan), now the Malcolm X Museum. Koren's sculptures have appeared in 21 group exhibitions in cities including Budapest, New York City and Washington, D.C., and in a solo exhibition at the Richard Anderson Gallery in New York City. In 1996, Koren received the New York City Art Commission's Award for Excellence in Design for her sculpture of Malcolm X.

Koren's Malcolm X

Koren's Marcus Garvey

Koren's Prudence Crandall (19th century
abolitionist and educator, Connecticut)

My photos of Koren's Frederick Douglass. . .

Sunrise over Manhattan's Frederick Douglass Circle during construction, ca. 2006

Moon rising over Manhattan's Frederick Douglass Circle before construction began, ca. 2004
See more and better photographs of the Frederick Douglass circle & statue at the HarlemCondoLife blog

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