Thank you to the overwhelming number of you who read and shared “Chernow Gonna Chernow” and, most of all, for the support you showed the Schuyler Mansion and Jessie Serfilippi, the “accidental Hamilton iconoclast.” This month, I’ll be celebrating the paperback launch of You Never Forget Your First by introducing you to historians and scholars I admire. In order to promote them, I’m going to keep the posts public, but I do hope you’ll sign up. Saturday editions are free, and paid allows you to comment and access to occasional AMAs.
Kelvin Parnell Jr took his first art history class because he was dating an artist and wanted to speak her language. At the time, Parnell was a sophomore majoring in history at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, staying close to home and family. “I may not have been a history student, but I am a student of history,” his father liked to say, and Parnell ended up being a student of both. He’s now an art history doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, and next year, he’ll be the Wyeth Foundation fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where he’ll be working on his dissertation, “Casting Bronze, Recasting Race: Sculpture in Mid-to-Late Nineteenth-Century America,” and learning about museums and public engagement. “I don’t want my ideas or anyone’s ideas to be locked away in the ivory tower,” he told me. “We all deserve access to these ideas.”
Alexis: Your work requires you to read presidential history, but presidential historians have comparatively superficial knowledge of art history! We know the major works on presidents, always accompanied by the same anecdotes about them, but not much more. You’ve studied Selma Burke, a Harlem Renaissance sculptor who plays a role in one of these stories, so I think it’d be interesting to go through it together. In 1944, Burke won a competition to sculpt Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the new Recorder of Deeds building in D.C. She was told to work off photographs, but insisted on an audience with the president and, much to everyone’s surprise, he consented. The first 45-minute session went so well, FDR invited her back for another, and she would have returned for a final session, but he died before that could happen. The only thing I know about those meetings is that Burke sketched on brown lunch bags and they talked about their childhoods.
Kelvin: This was really the height of the war and getting a meeting with the world’s most powerful man was no small feat. Burke had such an intimate relationship with her work, and she liked to do them her way. Her meeting with Roosevelt was about becoming intimate with him to capture not just a likeness but an essence. She was engaging in myth-making, because the nation needed it.
Alexis: The country had gone from the Great Depression, which had been hardest on Black Americans — unemployed white Northerners argued they should be given the jobs of Black workers, and in the South, racial violence and lynchings dramatically increased — to World War II.
Kelvin: Think about it, a country in desperate need of raw material is spending its limited resources and effort on a bronze sculpture of the president by an artist who at the time had no national profile, particularly amongst white Americans. Selma Burke knew the stakes. Further, if you look at the last photo taken of Roosevelt you wouldn’t even think she saw him at all, her sculpture didn’t capture that man — she captured something more, something greater, and she did it in only two meetings. As an aside, I need to mention that were it not for Mrs. Roosevelt, the sculpture would not have been finished in the way Burke envisioned. As Burke received immense pushback from the fine arts committee under this New Deal program, Mrs. Roosevelt ended a months-long standoff and approved the work the way Burke wanted it.
Alexis: Oh, wow. This is the version I’ve heard: Eleanor Roosevelt drops in on Burke’s New York City home and takes a peek, only to see a version of her husband that looked much younger than the man she’d just lost. To that, Burke said, “I didn’t make it for today, I made it for tomorrow and tomorrow.” As far as presidential historians are concerned, that’s the end of the story. But it’s not, and I haven’t known what to make of this part, which I learned recently: A year after Burke’s sculpture was revealed, John R. Sinnock, the U.S. Mint’s Chief Engraver, sculpted a very similar profile of FDR on the dime. Burke spoke out immediately, he denied copying her, and experts were somewhat divided. What’s your take?
Kelvin: Thank you for bringing this controversy to the attention of your readers, because it is something I have been wrestling with for a few years now. There is no denying the aesthetic similarities between the two works, down to the stylization of the president's hair, forehead wrinkles, and even the crow’s feet around his eyes. I have not done enough research on the Sinnock side of the debate to give a definitive answer as to whether he appropriated the design.
Alexis: A Black woman seeking justice against a white man for anything during that time seemed like an incredibly brave act, one doomed to fail. It's safe to say that Burke knew the odds were against her.
Kelvin: Burke’s reaction to the dime design is critical to the story. Once again, you have a story as American as apple pie or baseball. A Black woman performs an invaluable labor for the nation and then is subsequently discarded, marginalized, and gaslit to believe that she is the problem for raising concerns over her work being stolen and her contribution being undervalued. In sculpture she helped nurture the nation by revitalizing the president’s image and gave them almost a beacon in which to turn. To have that thrown back in her face is just disrespectful.
Alexis: And it doesn’t end there. Next year, when you’re a fancy Wyeth fellow at the Smithsonian, you’ll be awfully close to the FBI headquarters, which currently bears the name of J. Edgar Hoover, its first director. Hoover is the villain in most stories, and every single one that involves Black people, so of course he had to get involved. Burke called for an investigation into Sinnock, which Hoover took as an invitation to investigate her. But that’s not the right word for what the FBI did to Burke. She was stalked and harassed, but I don’t know much more.
Kelvin: So the real story is that the real story has not been told — and I have plans to. But I will say this about Burke, “undeterred” does not begin to describe this incredible woman. She grew up in the Jim Crow South, attended college, was a nurse. She uprooted her life to follow her dreams to be an artist in Harlem; she travelled to Europe and trained with Henri Matisse and Aristide Maillol just to come back and drive trucks in a Navy shipyard to aid in the war effort. She is someone who was a trailblazer and quite frankly a bad ass by any metric. You did not tell her “No” or that she could not do something. You either walked with her or you saw her pass you by. After all that, who is J. Edgar Hoover to her? Just another man in her way.
The weekly edition is free, but the production of history is not! If you can, please consider supporting Kelvin Parnell Jr. by following him on twitter and subscribing to Radical Optimism, his (soon-to-launch) newsletter. I’m afraid there seems to be no book focused on Selma Burke or her work; she is included in books on Black artists. Kelvin suggests Women Artists of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Amy Helene Kirschke. He also encourages you to check out Burke’s archives at Spelman College, and I encourage you to follow the HBCU and, if you’re able, donate to its research library.