Monday, February 28, 2011

Wallace A. Rayfield, black architect (1874?-1941)

 This day, February 28, marks the 70th anniversary (1941) of the death of Wallace Augustus Rayfield, an Alabama architect of local reknown, although now mostly forgotten. He is the first black architect in Alabama to practice professionally, and the second black architect in the United States to practice professionally.

Not much is known of Rayfield, but more is being discovered as researchers trace his records. Most resources (but not all) list his birth year as 1874. All sites agree that he was born on May 10th in Bibb County near Macon, Georgia.  His father worked as a porter for the railroads. Some accounts have it that his mother had attended Atlanta University; others claim she was a maid.

His mother died when Rayfield was twelve, and he went to Washington, DC, to live with an aunt. He graduated with a B.S. from Howard University in 1896. He worked for A. B. Mullett & Company, an architectural firm in Washington, for two years before moving to Brooklyn, NY, where he attended Pratt Institute for formal architectural training. After graduating from Pratt in 1898, he went on to Columbia University, where he received a Bachelor of Architecture degree the next year.

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
It was during this year at Columbia that Rayfield met Booker T. Washington, who offered him a position at the Tuskegee Institute. Rayfield spent the next eight years there, teaching mechanical and architectural drawing. From there, he went to Birmingham, Alabama, where he established his professional office, the first black-owned architectural firm in Alabama. He soon began collaborating with a black contractor, Thomas C. Windham, and these two men produced many buildings in Birmingham for a growing black clientele. Besides residences, banks, offices, private clubs, schools, institutional buildings, and hotels, Rayfield designed many local churches, including the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, tragically launched into the national spotlight when the bombs placed by white supremacists during the Civil Rights movement killed four girls in Sunday school on September 15, 1963.

He designed more than 400 buildings across 20 states, 130 of them in Birmingham. Besides architecture, Rayfield was noted in his day for his talent in the printing industry, which supplemented and broadened his architecture practice. He designed newsletters, brochures, plan books, and advertisements.  He even developed his plan books for the designs of different buildings to appeal to different clientele - color, religious denomination, field of industry, and so forth.

He died of a stroke on this day in 1941 in Birmingham.

He is not well remembered today for several reasons.  He was black, and therefore given little attention in his day by a profession almost exclusively white. (Even today, blacks make up only about 1.5 percent of the architects in the United States.)  His practice collapsed during the Great Depression; in Birmingham, the unemployment rate was twice the national average. And besides these factors, who ever remembers the architect of almost any building or structure, famous or otherwise?

In 1993, Allen R. Durrough of Bessemer, AL, a white Southern Baptist preacher, discovered a collection of hundreds of Rayfield’s printing plates in a decrepit barn that he was cleaning out before demolition. He has made it his mission to discover who Rayfield was, and to bring his accomplishments to light. His efforts have renewed interest in this obscure architect, and he has recently published a book about Rayfield and his work (see resource below).

This African American, who figured significantly in the development of the South’s urban landscapes, is no longer hidden or lost. Many of his buildings still stand - at least four are listed on the National Register of Historic Places - for all to appreciate.

Ward, Logan. “The Remarkable Mr. Rayfield,” Preservation Magazine, Jan-Feb 2011.
Durrough, Allen R. The Architectural Legacy of Wallace A. Rayfield, University of Alabama Press, 2010.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

JIM LIMBER (1858? - ?) Black Orphan in the Confederate White House

Jim Limber - James Henry Brooks
On February 15, 1864, Varina Davis, the First Lady of the Confederacy, while conducting errands in Richmond, witnessed a small black boy being severely beaten by a black woman. Mrs. Davis, known for her kindness and concern for the welfare of others, drove away the woman and rescued the child, whose age was estimated about seven. She took him home to the Confederate White House, had his injuries tended to, clothed and fed him, and integrated him into her household.

The boy, known as Jim Limber on weekdays, called himself James Henry Brooks when he was dressed up for Sundays. It is likely that Varina’s two sons, William and Jefferson, knew Jim Limber before the rescue. The Davis boys were members of the Hill Cats, a Richmond boy gang. Jim Limber was a staunch ally of the Hill Cats. Some accounts of the rescue have it that Billy and Jeff saw the abuse and fetched their mother to stop it. In any case, the two boys became fast friends with their new housemate.

First Lady Varina Davis
Records or statements of Jim’s status within the Davis family are rare and obscure. Various histories have called him “pet,” “adopted,” “ward,” “foster child,” and “protégé.” He was not a slave when Varina found him. His mother, a free woman of color, had died when he was an infant, leaving him in the care of her friend, a cruel woman who neglected him when she wasn’t abusing him.

Jim readily assimilated into the Davis family, and Mrs. Davis is reported to have treated him as she did her own sons. She notes in her memoir that Jefferson Davis himself went to the Richmond City Hall to register the boy, to secure his status as a free black. Some speculate that the Davises adopted him, but Virginia had no formal or legal adoption law in place during the 19th Century, and so with only very sketchy records which remain, whether they did or did not adopt him will probably never be confirmed. Most documents - federal, state, and municipal - were destroyed when the Confederate administration and its supporters evacuated Richmond in the first week of April 1985, so records of President Davis' actions no longer exist.

Jim remained with the Davis family through the fall of the Confederacy, traveling with Mrs. Davis and her household as it fled to Georgia, but Federal military officials took him away in May of 1865. The boy fought like a tiger, and both he and the Davises cried out loudly to each other as he was bodily carried away.  He was eventually sent north to a family which saw to his education and acquisition of a trade.

Sadly, the Davises never heard from him or of him again. With their own status in severe straits for many years following the war, they made no overtures to find him. By the time they were allowed to settle into quiet retirement, neither Jefferson nor Varina had the physical health to follow through on what had become a closed chapter of their lives.

Jim Limber, with an education and a trade, may have ended up with a better life than the Davises did. Varina’s rescue started him on a better path, and her efforts at the time of his removal to see him sponsored by a family who would treat him well undoubtedly provided him with opportunities better than if he had been left an urchin on the streets of Richmond.

No more information about Jim Limber seems to exist, including his trade, whether he married and had a family, or when he died.

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities: Encyclopedia Virginia

Ross, Ishbel. First Lady of the South: The Life of Varina Davis. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1958.

Davis, Varina. Jefferson Davis, A Memoir by his Wife, 2 vols. New York: Belford Company, 1890.

Monday, February 14, 2011

ABRAHAM LINCOLN: His Ancestry and The Extinction of His Line

Abraham Lincoln was born 202 years ago on February 12, 1809, in a log cabin in Hardin County, Kentucky, and died in Washington, DC, on April 15, 1865, the victim of an assassin's bullet.

In his professional portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln, my husband Phillip often is asked if any direct Lincoln descendants live today. The answer is no. The last of the line died in 1985, with no further issue. Only ten generations of Lincolns, of the bloodline of which our 16th president is a part, lived in North America.

The first of Lincoln’s ancestors to set foot in North America was Samuel Lincoln of Hingham, England, a teenager apprenticed to the weaver Francis Lawes of nearby Norwich, who immigrated in 1637 with family and business to Salem in Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Within weeks, young Samuel was drawn to New Hingham Plantation (Hingham today) where two of his older brothers, Thomas and Daniel, had already settled, having crossed the fierce Western Ocean (as the Atlantic was called) in 1633.

1.  SAMUEL married Martha Lyford, who bore eleven children, of whom four sons and four daughters reached maturity.

2.  The fifth of these children, MORDECAI, born in 1658, trained in Hull as a blacksmith under Abraham Jones, whose daughter Sarah he married.  She bore him two sons, Mordecai (1686) and Abraham (1688), the first Abraham in the Lincoln family, and three daughters.  When Sarah died in the late 1690s, Mordecai married the widow Mary Chapin, who bore two more children.

3.  MORDECAI the younger and Abraham fledged their wings and settled in Freehold, New Jersey, where they established a forge in their father’s tradition.  Mordecai married Hannah, daughter of their landlord.  Hannah bore Mordecai six children, one daughter of which died in 1720 at age three.  Hannah died in 1727; Mordecai soon married Mary Robeson, who added three more sons to the family.  In 1730, Mordecai pulled up stakes and headed into Schuylkill country in Pennsylvania, where his neighbors were the families of the frontiersman Daniel Boone.

4.  Mordecai’s oldest son JOHN married Rebecca (Flowers) Morris in 1743, a widow with one son. She and John had nine more children, five sons and four daughters.  They lived near Lancaster, PA, for about 20 years, until 1768, when John moved the family to the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, near present-day Harrisonburg.

5.  ABRAHAM, John’s eldest child, born in 1744 while the family still resided in Pennsylvania, was 24 when this move occurred.  He wed Bathsheba Herring in 1770.  His neighbor and friend, Daniel Boone, a frontiersman and explorer, told stories of the Kentucky land beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. These stories sang a siren song that Abraham could not resist.  He went with Boone in 1781 and purchased land there.  In 1782, he packed Bathsheba, his four children - Mordecai, Josiah, Mary, and Thomas - and his goods through the Cumberland Gap, never to be seen again by the Valley folk. He was soon killed by raiding Indians while clearing his land.

Lincoln cabin at Knob Creek, KY
6.  THOMAS, age eight, witnessed his father’s death. After living with various kinfolk, Thomas apprenticed himself in 1800 to a carpenter and cabinetmaker in Elizabethtown, Kentucky.  By all accounts, Thomas became proficient in this trade, producing work of impeccable quality.  By 1806, he had created a small estate for himself and married Nancy Hanks. He and Nancy had three children, Sarah, Abraham, and an infant son who died within a few days of birth. Sarah and Abraham lived into adulthood.

7.  ABRAHAM grew up on the frontier in Kentucky and Indiana. He settled in Illinois once he reached his majority. Despite minimal formal education, he learned how to read, write, and cipher. With these skills, he learned many trades, mastering few, particularly the law. He married Mary Ann Todd, whose family had founded Lexington, Kentucky. Their children numbered four: Robert, Edward, William, and Thomas, of whom only Robert attained adulthood. Abraham moved in and out of politics, serving four terms in the state legislature, one term in the U. S. House of Representatives, failing in his 1858 bid for the U. S. Senate, and succeeding in his 1860 bid for the White House. He presided over the Civil War. As the war ended, shortly after his second inauguration, he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC.
Robert Todd Lincoln 1843-1926

8.  ROBERT, a young man at the time of his father’s death, took over as the family’s administrator, attending to his mother’s affairs the best he could in the deep grief and despair that dogged her for the rest of her days.  He married Mary Harlan, and they raised three children in their Chicago home. Robert built a summer home in southern Vermont, which he called Hildene, eventually retiring there. Of his and Mary’s children - Mary, Abraham II ("Jack"), and Jessie Harlan - only Mary and Jessie lived into adulthood and married.

9.1  Robert’s elder daughter MARY married Charles Isham, and they named their single child Lincoln.

9.2  Robert's younger daughter JESSIE married three times, but had children only in her first marriage to Warren Beckwith. One of the three children was stillborn. The other two were named Mary and Robert.

Lincoln Isham 1892-1971
 10.1 LINCOLN ISHAM married, but he and his wife had no children. 
Mary Lincoln Beckwith 1898-1975

10-2.  MARY LINCOLN ("PEGGY") BECKWITH lived from 1898 until 1975, spending most of her adult years in the Hildene homestead in Vermont. She never married.

Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith 1904-1985
10.3 Her brother ROBERT TODD LINCOLN BECKWITH lived in several places around the country, and eventually settled on an estate in tidewater Virginia. He married three times, but none of these unions produced children. Born in 1904, he died in 1985.

Thus the bloodline from President Abraham Lincoln died out 348 years after it had landed in Salem, Massachusetts. Today, many related Lincolns still live in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, all the descendants of great-greats of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins related to our sixteenth president.

Tarbell, Ida M.  Abraham Lincoln and His Ancestors.  Lincoln, Nebraska: Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 1997.  Originally published in 1924 as In the Footsteps of the Lincolns by Harper & Brothers, New York.

Keelan, Donald B.  Robert Todd Lincoln's Hildene and How It Was Saved, 1975-1978.  Arlington, VT: The Keelan Family Foundation, 2001.

Miers, Earl Schenck, Editor-in-Chief, Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission.  Lincoln Day by Day: A Chronology 1809-1865.  Dayton, OH: Morningside House, Inc., 1991, facsimile edition.  Original published in 1960.

Neely, Mark E. & Harold Holzer.  The Lincoln Family Album.  Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990, 2006.

Lincoln’s Virginia Ancestors

Hildene: The Lincoln Family Home

Sunday, February 6, 2011

DELMONICO’S FIRST OPENS - Early February 1827

5th Ave & 44th St location - 1897-1923
On February 2, 1827, Swiss immigrants Giovanni Del-Monico and his brother Pietro Antonio Del-Monico paid $312.50 to rent a quarter-house at No. 23 William Street in New York City.  Sandwiched between the business district and the dwellings of most New Yorkers, the location was ideal for the cafe that the brothers envisioned.

Only a little more than a year before, the Erie Canal had opened. Governor DeWitt Clinton had poured into the Hudson River the contents of a keg of water brought via the new canal from Lake Erie , as part of a grand ceremony. The opening of the canal marked the awakening of the small city into the major commercial metropolis it became, as goods from far inland and the Great Lakes region were now quickly transported to the port of New York City for trade and export.  The Del-Monicos deliberately designed their part in that transformation.

Giovanni, born in Switzerland in 1788, found his fortune in his early adult years from the sea.  By the time he was thirty years old, he commanded a three-masted schooner.  He traded tobacco from Cuba, wines from Spain, and lumber from the United States.  He did well, and when he decided to set up shop on land in 1824, he had amassed sizable capital.  He chose New York City, and became well known near the Battery as an importer of fine French and Spanish wines. He anglicized his first name to John for all but legal business, and the hyphen was later dropped, most likely as a marketing measure.

“The significance of the Erie Canal for New York’s future was clear to this thrifty wine merchant,” writes Lately Thomas in Delmonico’s: A Century of Splendor.  “In many ways the city was little better than primitive, and it was almost totally deficient in amenities which were commonplace in Europe. As the town acquired wealth, there would be an increasing demand for the luxuries that wealth can provide, and John Del-Monico surmised that by supplying some of the things lacking in the city he might be more profitably engaged than in selling wines at retail.” John wanted to open what would become the modern restaurant.

Restaurants - public dining rooms - were unknown in that day. Diners without means to cook their own food relied on the meals provided by the local inns and hotels where they roomed, whose kitchens catered only to their tenants.  Taverns and a few inadequate cafes met the immediate needs of hungry souls walking the streets. Menus did not yet exist; you ate what was served you. Although it may have met basic nutritional needs, the food rarely inspired favorable comment.

John knew he needed help to build his vision, so he went back to Switzerland in 1826 and consulted with his older brother Pietro, who was a confectioner.  Pietro listened carefully to John’s ideas, measuring them against his own interests before deciding. He had a family, and his well-established trade was lucrative. He saw John’s arguments as sound and practical, however, and agreed to partner with him in New York. They had about $20,000 in capital between them, a staggering sum in those days, which would go far if wisely invested.

Back in New York City, “Delmonico & Brother” started small. Half a dozen plain pine tables with chairs provided customers a place to sit. (This idea of private tables for customers was novel.) A counter covered with a white cloth displayed Pietro’s pastries and confections. John served the coffee and hot chocolate. Pietro’s wife was the cashier and accountant, a woman employee, another novelty which drew American customers. The shop also offered the wines for which John was known, liquors, fancy ices, and fine tobacco products. They kept the shop neat and clean, a third novelty to the public in either the New World or the Old.

The city’s European residents were first to discover this little oasis. The brothers kept their prices as Spartan as the furnishings, but the shop’s popularity enabled them to make a profit. The combination of the quality of their wares and their hospitality was found nowhere else in the city, but the brothers refused to take advantage with elevated prices. Their business sense, reputation, and skill enabled them to make good deals.

Lorenzo Delmonico, nephew of John & Peter
Because of their intelligent marketing and provision of high-quality goods, the brothers expanded into the property next door in less than three years, and a formal kitchen and restaurant opened in 1830 with superlative French cooks who brought to the American palate new flavors using commonly available and previously ignored ingredients. They provided a bill of fare - a menu - another new concept. The proprietors and the wait staff treated each customer with impeccable service. The Delmonicos made lunch or dinner a reason for going out. Thus, also, was born the original businessman’s power lunch.

As circumstances and fortunes changed, Delmonico’s expanded and moved several times, bringing in more family members who exhibited a natural acumen to management of the business, especially John and Peter's nephew Lorenzo. In 1837, the establishment first took on the name “Delmonico’s Restaurant.” At one time, the business boasted four branches throughout the city, each drawing a different clientele. It finally settled at Fifth Avenue and Forty-fourth Street, opening in 1897, and closing in 1923, partly a victim of prohibition, although many other cultural factors had their influence, including the decline of societal distinctions.

Throughout its history, the restaurant was a gathering place for everyone who was anyone. Early on, Albert Gallatin (Secretary of the Treasury for Jefferson and Madison) frequented the shop. Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and William Makepeace Thackeray dined here, and in 1866, from one of the dining rooms, Samuel B. Morse sent the first telegram over the newly repaired trans-Atlantic cable. (The cable had failed eight years before after having only functioned for a few weeks.) Sam Ward (“King of the Lobby”), Boss Tweed, “Diamond” Jim Brady, Lillian Russell, Jenny Lind, Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain, J. P. Morgan, and Edith Wharton were regular patrons, among many others of varying notoriety, and every President and future President from Monroe through Franklin D. Roosevelt was a guest there at one time or another.

1837 restaurant building, open today
Many restaurants have copied the name, hoping to cash in on the marketable name, both during Delmonico’s tenure (which the Delmonicos sometimes fought in the courts) and after its closing. But the original Delmonico’s business is gone, and there is no connection between the original and any that followed. “The Original Delmonico’s Steakhouse Restaurant,” located at 56 Beaver Street (sometimes called South William Street), one of original locations, has been open off and on since 1929. This building was the first which the Delmonicos built in 1837 specifically as a restaurant. It is currently open, and has been refurbished to resemble the splendor of the original in its turn-of-the-century heyday. It also strives to provide its patrons with the original excellence in both food and service.

Delmonico’s Restaurant has given us the Delmonico steak (a boneless rib-eye), Delmonico Potatoes, Eggs Benedict, Baked Alaska, Oysters Rockefeller, and Lobster Newburg, among other original dishes.

Thomas, Lately. Delmonico’s: A Century of Splendor. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967.