PEOPLE: Polly Spiegel Cowan

Visiting the Ann Frank Museum: a reflection by Holly Shulman.

 

Ann Frank
Ann Frank

This is a guest post by my historian sister,  Holly Shulman, who recently presented a paper at a conference in Amsterdam. While she was there she visited the Ann Frank Museum, hosted by one of the curators, Dienke Hondius, who later asked Holly what her thoughts were about the museum. This is Holly's response. 

 

Dear Dienke,

Here is an attempt to answer your question as to why I found the Anne Frank House Museum personally disorienting.

The nub of the question is what are we doing when we remember (and commemorate) Anne Frank: something about the Jewish experience, or something about the human experience?

When I was a child the holocaust was talked about in our house, but it was not the subject of general conversation – in society, in politics, in literature – that it later became.  That, of course, is the subject of Hasia Diner’s book, We Remember with Reverence and Love.  Perhaps 1945-1968 (with the publication of Arthur Morse’s When Six Million Died) was a kind of limnal or marginal period of remembrance.  In my house we talked about my parents’ German backgrounds, especially my mother’s.  She remembered my grandmother trying to find who might still be living among her German relations, but could locate no one.  Her family on both sides had arrived around 1850 as part of that general wave of German emigration to the US, and like so many Jews had steadily moved West until they reached Chicago.  One of their relations sent home letters during the American Civil War that remained extant and are published as A Jewish Colonel in the Civil War.  And like so many immigrants, my mother’s family kept many German ways, especially their food, but also the practice of Christmas, which was, after all, a German holiday by way of England.  Many German Jewish families had Christmas meals and presents, and as the German practice was to buy a tree on Christmas Eve, so it was the custom of my grandparents and my parents.

By the late 1930s, after my mother’s family could discover no living relatives in Germany, my mother and my grandmother joined an organization to sponsor Jews trying to flee Hitler.  My mother even received a letter (in German) from Albert Einstein after they tried to save two mathematicians and their son (unsuccessfully).

So I knew about the holocaust. It related to the history of my family, and I felt both gratitude and guilt that I had been born in the United States – a sentiment I think shared by virtually every American Jewish child of my age.

But reading about it as a child was not simple.  There were no books, as there were by the time my daughter Rebecca was a child.  By then there were a ton of memoirs and stories from survivors and children of survivors.  But in the 1950s we simply and only had Anne Frank.  There were no movies that I remember, or radio shows, to which we still listened.  We were, as many have written, very concerned with being American, even as American a family as mine, and swept up in the universalism of the era.

The story of Anne Frank had a huge impact on me as a member of a German-Jewish upper middle class family who wanted for nothing and who were on the one hand politically and socially Jewish but on the other totally alienated from Judaism as a religion.  (My father’s side was a bit more complex in its background – but that is another story for another time.) This mixture of no religion and complete Jewish identity – at least with their German Jewish past – is central I believe to any understanding of the meaning of Judaism in the post enlightenment world.  Being Jewish is more than a religious belief.  It is being part of a people and a history.  What in Hebrew is called Am Israel, the Jewish people. As a child the holocaust was there, always there, but always distant.  It was The Diary of Anne Frank that made it all real.  Not the camps, of course, but the fears and the hiding and the drumbeat of threat.  I remember reading the book so clearly.  I must have been 10 or 11.  I took it to bed with me to read at night, and after I shut off the light the fears and shadows of the book were like a fog wrapped around me, they crept inside of me and stayed somewhere in of my body.  With Anne Frank I knew, I KNEW, I was Jewish and that I would remain Jewish, and that Hitler would not win.  Anne Frank cemented my identity as a Jew.  Reading her Diary was an act of affirmation.

As an adult I thought about her and her book less and less.  I read more Jewish history.  I sent my children to a Jewish nursery school and we joined a synagogue.  Being Jewish became part of the daily pattern of my life, even while struggling with the notion of a God and becoming an atheist.  The most recent books about Europe and fascism and the destruction of the Jews that have meant a lot to me are more like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands and Jeffrey Veidlinger’s In the Shadow of the Shtetl.

It is against that background that I saw that Anne Frank House – at your gracious invitation and marvelous hospitality.  What I saw was an Anne Frank who is no longer a symbol of the destruction of the Jews, and of the always recycling hatred of the Jews, but a generalized emblem of victimization, of the problems of power and authoritarianism, of the results that can occur when ordinary people are too afraid to speak up.

In that light, I suppose I felt that Anne Frank now belongs to the world, but in a sense not to me.  You may think this a very odd comparison, but let me contrast Anne Frank for a moment to Queen Esther.  Every year Jews remember Queen Esther for saving the Jewish People, and Purim became a very important holiday in Europe because all the cycles of destruction and attempted destruction became folded into that one story.  But Purim was and remains Jewish.  There is no holiday celebrating Anne Frank, but all those visitors are commemorating Anne.  Esther is particular, ethnic, and globally irrelevant.  Anne is for everyone.

After visiting with you I felt a bit dizzy.  Part of me celebrates that Anne Frank can become such a potent figure of dignity and the fight against oppression.  But part of me experienced a loss – of a childhood figure who had once crept into my body as I lay in warm sheets falling asleep and told me stories that changed my life.


Libby Holman, Fernand Leger and Mannequins in Dreams That Money Can Buy

I can't imagine a more perfect blend of people, ideas and art. Here's a clip from the 1947 flim Dreams Money Can Buy, produced and directed by Hans Richter, Dada/surrealist artist. The film, which follows a story line about a man with the talent of seeing into people's minds to help them craft dreams, features segments by Surrealist superstars, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Fernand Leger. Here's the Leger segment:

Mannequins...Fernand Leger. Be still my seesaw heart. But there's more.

The song, The Girl With the Prefabricated Heart, was sung by Libby Holman, a Jewish, bisexual, broadway star and chanteuse  and a huge supporter of civil rights, anti war and environmental causes. She may be obscure today, but in mid 20th Century America, she was a superstar. Known not just for her stage and recording performances, but also for a scandalous and difficult personal life, as well as for her serious and deeply held committment to political causes.

Libby Holman, 1931
Libby Holman in 1931
 
 
 
Louisa Carpenter, in 1941 she was magager of Robin Hood Theater, Deleware
One of Libby's great loves, Louisa Carpenter. Here, in 1941. Deleware Public Archives.

I'm just going to imagine for a moment that Libby Holman and my mother, Polly Cowan, must have crossed paths at least once in New York City or Connecticut, where they both owned homes.

The soundtrack in the clip above differs slightly from the one in the original. Same song, same singer, but a different recording. Both include Josh White, a now-famous African American folksinger, who Libby worked and sang with, sometimes at great peril to both of them.

 

Libby Holman and Josh White 1944
Libby Holman and Josh White, 1944
hans richter, dreams that money can buy, libby coleman, the girl with the prefabricated heart, photo Arnold Eagle.
Hans Richter on the set of The Girl With The Prefabricated Heart. Photo Arnold Eagle.

More about Libby Holman here and here

More about Josh White here


THANKS FOR GIVING ME MY MOTHER

My mom and dad, Polly and Lou Cowan, died on November 18th. The year was 1976. They tend to float into my awareness during this holiday season, but it's been so long that I have to remember to remember. No wonder Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday.

Polly Spiegel Cowan, November 1958. Photo by Mary Morris Steiner Lawrence.

contact sheet, portrait of Polly Cowan by Mary Morris Steiner, 1958

And by strange coincidence - which I do not actualy believe in - the other day I received a packet of photos from the estate of Mary Morris Steiner Lawrence, who died in 2009. The package came on Monday the 21st, which means it could have been sent from San Francisco on the 18th. Close enough.

Mom raised me to believe in reincarnation and communicating with spirits. It was not something she spoke about with any but a few close friends, and with me. The story of her death is interesting, though, in this light. She called me about a week before she died. I was living about three hours away from Manhattan, in the Catskill Mountains of NY. She summoned me to the city to go with her to her bank so she could transfer my share of some heirloom jewelry to a safe deposit box we would open in my name. She had had her jewelry appraised and evenly divided amongst the four children. She didn't want us to have to pay inheritance tax on it when she died.

I thought she was being ridiculous. She was only 63, her health was perfect, she was fine. Great. But I went. I asked her why. She wasn't about to die. She said, "Oh, Liza, you and your sister think I'm going to live forever, but when my time comes, I will go."

We made the exchange. I spent the night. Meanwhile, for the past couple of weeks  I had been horribly - for me- depressed. I couldn't seem to shake off some kind of dread and sorrow that I didn't understand at all. It had been triggered by watching the TV movie Sybil about child abuse. But I hadn't been abused, of that I'm certain. On the contrary, my childhood had been filled with love, stability and good times. But that movie touched some nerve and I couldn't shake it. 

I talked about it with mom, told her about some other stuff that was going on in my life, stuff about friends, work, the usual. She told me that although she knew it was impossible, she wished we could live together again.

The next morning we spoke about reincarnation and communicating from beyond the grave. This was not an unusual topic for us, but in hindsight it was poignent. The very last paragraphs we spoke, as I waited to catch a cab to the train station, were about how she would try to communicate with me after she died.

I never saw her again. A few days later there was a fire in my parents apartment and they both died. 

And yes..she did communicate with me. I had lucid dreams for weeks afterwords in which we would chat. I would say, "mom, this isn't a dream, right?" and she'd say, "No, it's not a dream. I'm here." When those stopped, I would see her in the mirror, looking at me from what should have been my reflection. Or a photo of me would turn into a photo of her. Then it all stopped.

These days, she rarely communicates. When my daughter Willa was born, mom would visit us through the twinkly lights above the crib. I told this to my brother Geoff one day when he was visiting. He laughed. All the lights in the house flickered, sputtered, went out. Then came back on. 

Some days she leaves me a little token. Nothing, really. A pen found in the wrong place at the right time. Stuff like that. Or she directs a packet of photos to be send on the anniversary of her death.

Here's to all the ancestors we have lost. No matter when. 

Polly Spiegel Cowan. 1958. Photo by Mary Morris Steiner Lawrence.

Polly Cowan. Photo by Mary Morris Steiner. November 1958.

 

 


 


WEDNESDAYS IN MISSISSIPPI: The real housewives of Jackson Mississippi

This Op-ed was written by Marlene McCurtis & Cathee Weiss, producers of the Wednesdays In Mississippi Documentarty Film.

There been a lot of buzz recently about (the book and movie) The Help – Is it “true”?  Who is represented fairly?  What’s good and is not so good. Many question the actual merits of movie’s  “feel good” approach to race relations.  As filmmakers this controversy has confirmed our belief that we need more books, more films, and most importantly more talk about what really happened in Mississippi during this time of enormous change.

Set in the middle of the civil rights era in Mississippi, The Help depicts the relationship between two groups of women-- middle class white southern women and their black maids.  At the end of the day, it is a piece of fiction, one writer’s interpretation of the complexity of racial relationships in the south.  Yet, during this same time period there were real-life  black and white women in Mississippi quietly, and some times not so quietly,  working  hard to dismantle the dehumanizing Jim Crow system.  These women were obsessed, not about their toilets or polished silver, but rather about the abject terror incited by such racist stalwarts as the White Citizens Council and the Ku Klux Klan.  They were determined to do what they could to help create a more just society  for themselves and their children.   A few years ago we discovered a story about a few of these very real and committed Mississippi women. As documentary filmmakers, we felt compelled to add their story to our shared history.  It is the story of an amazing, yet little known organization called Wednesdays in Mississippi.

 

During the summer of 1964 under the banner of Wednesdays in Mississippi, over 400 women, both black and white met behind tightly drawn curtains to discuss how they could support the civil rights movement.  These were middle class women—white women who did have ‘help’, yet could clearly see the cruelty and the untenable nature of the segregated system.  They were also black women who were not maids, but who were business owners, schoolteachers, nurses and librarians.  They all were women with power and the will to invoke change. 

Hope justice resolve
Dorothy Irene Height and Polly Cowan, co-founders of WIMS. From the WIMS website 

These revolutionary meetings were organized by Dorothy Height, the head of the National Council of Negro Women and her close friend and colleague, Jewish political activist, Polly Cowan.   Dorothy and Polly were northern, yet they knew women all over Mississippi were working to support civil rights. 

 

The summer of 1964 was Freedom Summer. Thousands of Northern college kids came into Mississippi to set up Freedom Schools and register people to vote.  That same summer Wednesdays in Mississippi brought black and white women from the north into Jackson to meet with their southern counterparts. Here’s how it worked: every week a team of women from a different northern city flew into Jackson. They came in undercover, as respectable ladies- wearing white gloves and  pearls.   They went into the heat and terror of Jackson, often against the wishes of their families, sometimes with great risk to their personal safety. Their goal was to listen to and support the women of Mississippi who sought peaceful and lasting change.

  dorothy height, polly cowan, fanny lou hamerFannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Height and Polly Cowan


While in Mississippi these northern women met with women like Elaine Crystal, a Jewish woman who decided, “to stop playing bridge and be a part of some thing that made a difference.”  Elaine helped form Mississippians For Public Education and fought to keep the public schools opened. And women like Jane Schutt, who was an active member of the integrated organization Church Women United and served as the chair of the Mississippi Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights.  When in December of 1963, the Klan burned a cross on Jane’s yard, she decorated it with Christmas lights and kept right on working for racial equality. 

 

In the black community they found women like Clarie Collins Harvey.   A prominent businesswoman, Clarie had the economic freedom to boldly stand up to racist policies.  She  started WomenPower Unlimited, a grassroots organization  to support young civil rights workers in the state and to register black voters.   Clarie also developed the Chain of Friendship, an informal network of white women outside of Mississippi who supported the efforts of women fighting for integration inside the state.   Jessie Mosley was another mover and shaker in the black community. A professor’s wife, she started the first chapter of the National Council of Negro Women in Mississippi in the 1950s. While her husband’s courses at the Jackson State University “were often observed by members of the Klan or White Citizen’s Council”, this didn’t deter Jessie. She was a huge supporter of Wednesdays in Mississippi and worked  closely with Fannie Lou Hamer and other women activists to develop Head Start programs.

 

Throughout the 1960’s Dorothy Height and Polly Cowan continued to work through Wednesdays in Mississippi (which later became Workshops in Mississippi) to join black and white women together.  They spread throughout the state helping women work together to develop everything from home ownership projects for low-income families to community-based farm co-ops. 

 

In the end, it doesn’t seem fair to place the burden of truth on just one story, like The Help.  Wednesdays in Mississippi offers another perspective on this “truth”. As those who were involved in this project are now reaching their 70s, 80s, and 90s, it is crucial that their story like so many others from that time be documented before they’re gone. The truth will be found when the stories of those on the front line and in the living rooms, those who were the backbone of the movement are told.    Wednesdays in Mississippi is just one of those many stories.

 

 

To find about more about Wednesdays In Mississippi and other women in the movement, please check out the following links:

wimsfilmproject.com

http://www.history.uh.edu/cph/WIMS/

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wednesdays-in-Mississippi-Film-Project/266953138296

http://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy

http://www.sites.si.edu/exhibitions/exhibits/freedoms_sisters/main.htm

http://www.nps.gov/mamc/index.htm

http://seesaw.typepad.com/blog/2010/04/wednesdays-in-mississippi.html

 

 


WEDNESDAYS IN MISSISSIPPI

In the past few days since the death of Dr. Dorothy I Height, I have been spending time thinking about her, and researching more about Wednesdays In Mississippi the organization Dr. Height founded in 1963 with my mother, Polly Cowan, . Today I found this fascinating article from 2002 by Lottie Joiner from the The Crisis Magazine. All quotes are from the article:

"By 1964 Black people had been fighting for civil rights for more than a decade, but white resistance remained strong. From the sit-ins in North Carolina to boycotts in Birmingham, demonstrations in Little Rock and freedom rides from Washington to Louisiana, civil rights battles were being fought all over the South. Yet hardly a dent had been made against segregation in Mississippi, a state distinguished by its often brutal stands against civil rights. The first White Citizens Council was established in the state in 1954. Lynchings were common. So were church bombings and cross burnings. Blacks who tried to register to vote were beaten, harassed or killed by local law enforcement officers, many of whom were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Civil rights sympathizers mysteriously disappeared, their remains found years, sometimes decades, later in rivers, fields or under the hard red clay that supported the state's cotton economy.  "

Down In The Delta, from The New Crisis, by Lottie Joiner 2002. I apologize for the ad links but I wanted to show you the original article with photos and I don't have a hard copy to scan. The scroll links are active, so click the arrows and you can look at it all. Please note the beautiful photographs by Michele Stapleton and Dennis Dennis Marsico.


"It was in this climate that women such as Ruth Batson decided to travel to Mississippi in 1964. The call came in March. Leaders of five national women's organizations - the National Council of Negro Women, the National Women's Committee for Civil Rights, the National Council of Catholic Women, the National Council of Jewish Women and United Church Women - convened a three-day summit in Atlanta to address the treatment of women and girls who were jailed for their civil rights activities. Black and white women came from Atlanta and Albany, Ga.; Montgomery and Selma, Ala.; Charleston, S.C.; Jackson, Miss.; and Danville, Va.

The women heard firsthand accounts of the brutality inflicted on civil rights workers. The sessions were led by NCNW's Dorothy Height, who encouraged the women to organize locally and work on ways they could help in their own communities.

For many who attended, it was an education in just how harshly and unjustly the South was treating its Black citizens. Before the session ended, Claire Harvey, the spokeswoman for the Jackson, Miss., group, stood and issued this plea:

"If northern women could visit us regularly during the summer, to act as a quieting influence by going into areas that are racially tense, to try to build bridges of communication between us, between our Black and white communities - to be a ministry of presence among us - it would be of tremendous help to us."

  Fdrl_er-natcouncilnegrowome
Dr. Dorothy I Height and Eleanor Roosevelt, 1960

"Every detail of the project was meticulously planned, including travel and safety precautions, but also how Black and white participants would interact with each other and even how they would dress.

For the participants, many of whom had never crossed the Mason-Dixon line, it was a lesson in the southern way of life. For example, the Black and white participants could not be seen speaking to each other publicly and could not lodge together. The women were told of police traps, such as handmade stop signs or extremely slow speed limits. So they wouldn't stand out, they were advised to wear white gloves like most women of the South did at the time.

" 'We helped to get them to understand the importance of living within the pattern," Height says. "There was no way we could bring about change if we went down there and tried to upset it.' "

    packing list for wednesdays in mississippi 1963

Original packing list for Wednesdays Ladies. Wednesdays in Mississippi, from Wednesdays In Mississippi digital history website

"We got the news the night before we went to Mississippi that [the three young men] were missing," remembers (Susie) Goodwillie. "I realized then that this was really serious. I was committed to go more than ever." The world would realize how serious the situation was when the bodies of the three men were discovered more than a month later.

In Jackson, Goodwillie, joined by her college roommate, who had just completed her first year of law school, was housed in the elegant Magnolia Towers. She says their rent check from NCNW had to be laundered several times before it reached the hands of their landlords, prominent members of the White Citizens Council.

If people asked, the young women told them that they were in town working on a cookbook featuring southern recipes. Like nice southern ladies, they wore white gloves and attended church three times on Sundays. "We had to be impeccable," says Goodwillie. "If we were going to get through to white women we had to be totally acceptable to white Mississippi upper-class standards."

(Doris) Wilson lived with a Jackson State University librarian and her family until she found other housing in the Black community. She eventually stayed with a professor whose mother was afraid to turn on the lights at night because she feared being shot.

"My God, it really was bad," recalls Wilson. "These were [financially] comfortable Black people, but that was the kind of tension they lived in." Their housing needs met, Goodwillie and Wilson faced another dilemma. They had to meet each week to arrange site visits and meetings with local women willing to host discussions about race relations. But the two couldn't be seen in communities outside of their race, much less get together."

  Height_1
Dr. Dorothy I. Height

"(Josie) Johnson and her team were held to strict secrecy, only immediate family and the U.S. attorney general's office could know about the trip. The women were also told that they could not travel as an integrated group beyond Chicago. "When we arrived at the airport [in Jackson] I think I expected to have the Klan there and whisk us off to who knows where," Johnson says.

But Johnson was met by members of her host family, who took the group to a community rally held in a local Baptist church. Johnson, who is 70 now and still living in Minneapolis, was surprised to see the perimeter of the church patrolled by Black men with shotguns.

The next day the team traveled as an integrated group to Vicksburg, Miss. They were well aware of the cars that were following them. "I remember the fear in driving from Jackson to Vicksburg," says Johnson. "It was such a beautiful state. You have this image of all the evil and ugliness that was taking place there, the abuse of people. To see that it was a lush, green, beautiful state was a surprise."

  Team1Debriefing_p1-1
Team Debriefing. Scan of original document. WIMS digital website.

"At the freedom school, the group observed young workers sorting books. The facility was a converted barn with partitions separating classrooms. Johnson could see the difficult struggle. "When you think school, you think walls. This was just benches and, like an open-air facility," she says.

After the visit, the women drove through Vicksburg's Black section. "I can close my eyes and see it," Johnson says. "Many of the places where people lived were shotgun-looking houses. You could stand in the front door and look out the back. It didn't look like a thriving community. The people looked like they were living on the very margins of our society."

The group returned to Jackson that evening and attended a hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights at Tougaloo College in Jackson. The organization was gathering data on the condition of the people who were working on the voter registration effort. The women heard stories of people being jailed, fired from their jobs, placed on detention in school and "just all kinds of things that seemed incredibly unreal."

The next day, they learned that the freedom school they had visited had been bombed later that evening"

  MembersResponsibilities-1
Scan of original document from Wednesdays In Mississippi
. WIMS website

I have quoted from this article with permission of the author Lottie Joiner, who is a senior editor at The Crisis Magazine  . When I mentioned this article to Marlene McCurtis, one of the documentary filmmakers who are making the Wednesdays In Mississippi documentary  she told me that this was the article that actually gave her the idea for the film. Figures. 

I urge you to read the entire article which is in a very easy to read  here at Bnet


   Mary McCloud Bethune, Dorothy Height, Polly Cowan National Archives for Black Women's History at the Bethune Council House
Mary McCloud Bethune, Dorothy Height, Polly Cowan. National Archives for Black Women's History at the Bethune Council House



DR. DOROTHY I HEIGHT, REST IN PEACE

 Dr. Dorothy I Height, Polly Cowan, Dorothy I Height dies April 20, 2010, Wednesdays In Mississippi, women in civil rights, civil rights as women's work

Dr. Dorothy I Height and Polly Cowan, Co- Founders of Wednesdays In Mississippi

Dr. Dorothy Irene Height died early this morning at age 98. One of the great leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement, her activism, passion, brilliance and determination changed the lives of millions. She was also my my mother's great friend and colleague. Our family loved Dr. Height, and will miss her deeply.


I direct you to my sister, Holly Shulman's, excellent website documenting the Civil Rights Organization, Wednesdays In Mississippi, founded by Dr. Height and our mother, Polly Spiegel Cowan 

WEDNESDAYS IN MISSISSIPPI WEBSITE


 Dr. Dorothy I Height, Polly Cowan, Wednesdays In Mississippi, women in the civil rights movement, Hope Resolve Empathy Understanding

From the Wednesdays In Mississippi Website. Click image to link.


Wednesdays In Mississippi mostly worked in secret in order to protect the women who participated, whose lives could be in danger from the mission.


 Dorothy Height, Wednesdays In Mississippi, Polly Cowan, Secret Project in Mississippi, interracial meetings of women 1964, NY Herald Tribune 1964
"Secret Project in Mississippi- Interracial meeting of Women" NY York Herald Tribune, 1964. From The Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College. Click image to link.


Text:

New York Herald Tribune, Aug. 30, 1964  By Dick Schaap, City Editor:

They met secretly, these few white women and Negro women of Jackson Miss., in a business office on a border  street separating Negro and white residential sections, because the white women were afraid to bring Negros into their home and afraid, too, to go to Negro Homes. Their fear, of course, was of retaliation from the white community. Their interracial meetings were inspired by a project called Wednesdays in Mississippi, a secret project revealed only yesterday, that over the past two months quietly brought into Mississippi 48 Northern women, white and Negro, many of them socially prominent. The mood of these meetings, encouraged by the Northern visitors to help 'build a bridge' between Jackson Negro and white women, was expressed best, perhaps, in the frank remarks of one local white woman who attended. " My husband would kill me if he knew I were here." she said. "But he's a wonderful guy."" These (white) women are living through a frightening, schizophrenic experience," Dr. Hanna A. Levin, of Maplewood, NY, an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University, said yesterday.

Mrs Levin was the leader of Team Seven, the last of the Northern teams- drawing women from New York, New Jersey, Boston, Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Paul - to make an excursion to Mississippi. Six of the teams had seven members; one team had six members: every team had at least two Negros on it.

The Northern visitors included Mrs. Robert B. Meyner, wife of the former governor of New Jersey; Mrs. Jerome B. Weisner, wife of the Dean Of Science at Massachusetts Instititute Of Technology; Mrs. August Hecksher, wife of the director of the Twentieth Century Fund, Inc., Mrs. Robert S. Benjamin, wife of the chairman of the board of United Artists Corp.; Mrs. Dorothy I. Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women; Mrs. Edward L. Ryerson jr., daughter -in- law of the former chairmn of the board of Inland Steel Co, and the overall project coordinator, Mrs. Louis G. Cowan, wife of the director of the Communications Research Center at Brandeis University.

ACTIVITY

Each team flew into Mississippi on a Tuesday - the last group landed on Aug. 18- spent Tuesday night in Jackson, spend Wednesday visiting Freedom Schools and other facilities set up by the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) in such towns as Meridan, Hattiesburg, Ruleville, Canton and Vicksburg, went back to Jackson Wednesday night and returned home on Thursday.

The Negro members of the teams always stayed in private Negro homes. The white members of the fist five teams stayed in motels. Then, as the group slowly acquired contacts in the white community, the white members of the last two teams found lodging in private white homes. Wednesdays In Mississippi employed a paid staff of three women - two white and one Negro - who spent the entire two months in Mississippi.

Many of the visitors paid their own way to Mississippi but a majority were subsidized, at least in part, by such organizations as The National Council Of Negro Women, The YWCA, The National Council Of Jewish Women, The National Council of Catholic Women, The League Of Women Voters and several church groups.

Each woman was briefed by Mrs. Cowan before she left, given background reading material - including the speech by Mississippi Prof. James Silvester (Silver) which lead to his book, "Mississippi: The Closed Society" and a pamphlet called "Behind The Cotton Curtain" - then was debriefed by Mrs. Cowan when she returned. The debriefings were tape recorded.



From the Wednesdays In Mississippi Film Project:

"However, it was on Thursdays that the quiet revolution took root. This was when the “Wednesdays Women” put on their white gloves and pearls and secretly met with Black and White Mississippi women. In living rooms over tea and cookies the Southern women openly discussed their fears and suspicions about the civil rights movement.  Many, for the first time, voiced their support for change. At that time in Mississippi, mixing with outsiders had dire consequences.  Yet the women came,  they listened  and their hearts and minds began to open.  Their clandestine meetings became the catalyst for great change."


 Dr. Dorothy Height, fashion icon
Dr. Dorothy I. Height was also a fashion icon. She could really wear a hat!  Photo by H. Darr Beiser, USA Today, 2008


  President Obama, Dorothy I.Height, photo Pete Souza,
January 18, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)  President Obama and Dr, Dorothy I Height

  President Obama crying at Dorothy Height funeral, April 29, 2010
At Dr. Dorothy I Height's funeral, April 29, 2010, President Obama cries. I love this photo and the fact that Obama was so moved by such a great woman.


For a comprehensive look at WIMS please go to: Wednesdays In Missisippi website

and The WIMS Film Project

And this, From Laura Flanders, GritTV




More GRITtv

MARY MORRIS STEINER LAWRENCE 1914-2009

A tweet from the Monroe gallery in Santa Fe alerted me to the sad fact that Mary Morris  Lawrence  died earlier this month. Here's a link to a story in The San Fransisco Chronicle:

"In 1937 she became the first female photojournalist hired by New York's Associated Press. She was photographer and Hollywood columnist for New York's progressive tabloid PM, shot photo stories for Look Magazine, and produced a variety of award-winning projects in a world-roving career. "I was good in the newspaper business," she said, "because I had this way of wanting to get the dope. I had an aggressive nature, a creative spirit." Her trail-blazing career is chronicled in books and periodicals, one describing "a 23-year-old wisp of a girl, with a thick mass of tousled brown hair and dancing blue eyes, Miss Mary Louise Morris ... daily faring forth with camera slung over her shoulder to cover every variety of news and feature story." SF Chronicle, Aug 23, 2009

Ralph Steiner, Mary Morris, Mary Mary morris steiner, mary morris lawrence, Polly Cowan, Lou cowan, Max Lerner, Edna Lerner, elegant dinner party, man bites woman on shoulder,

L to R: Max Lerner, Lou Cowan, Mary Morris Steiner, Polly Cowan, Ralph Steiner (biting my mom's shoulder,) photo set up by Mary or Ralph, shot by Edna Lerner.

The SF Chronicle article omits the fact that Mary was married to Ralph Steiner,  iconic American photographer. Mary told me in a phone conversation last year that when she and Ralph were partners in their New York City photography studio, they split the shooting equally, but he got all the credit. They didn't really pay attention to who was shooting, who was setting up the shots, who was climbing the ladder. It was all in a day's work.  She didn't care. The paycheck came in and that was pretty much what mattered at the time. I don't think either one of them realized at the time how famous he would become and how relatively, but not completely, obscure she would become. So those Ralph Steiner photographs that are now highly collectible, the ones done in the NY studio might be by Mary.

Mary Morris Steiner photo, Liza Cowan, Polly Cowan, mother and child in mirror, reflections mother and child, smocking dress,  

Photo by Mary Morris Steiner (Mary Morris Lawrence, for google's sake) Polly Cowan and baby Liza Cowan circa 1950

Another obit, somewhat more substantial,  from The Oakland Tribune: "In his 1938 book, "Get That Picture!" cameraman A.J. Ezickson described her as a hard worker and a cunning "scout," gaining access with her small RolleiFlex camera to scenes her less enterprising colleagues (the same ones who made "sly jibes" about Morris Lawrence) were barred from by using her wits but never "feminine wiles."

Last year Mary and I discussed the possibility of her having a retrospective exhibit here at PSAW, but there were more technical difficulties than I could  overcome from 3,000 miles away. The 95 year old Morrie lived in San Francisco and had only original prints of her work, which she did not want to ship to Vermont. I'd have been happy with scans but we never worked out the logistics of having them made and printed. Alas.

Morrie only published one book in her lifetime, Bringing Up Puppies, A Child's Book of Dog Breeding And Care, written by Jane Whitbread Levin (another Sarah Lawrence chum)

Bringing up puppies front

Bringing up puppies back

Bringing Up Puppies, by Jane Whitbread Levin and Mary Morris Steiner (Lawrence)

So here 's to you Morrie, talented, brave and wise. You will be missed.


DR. DOROTHY I HEIGHT, POLLY COWAN, AND OBAMA'S INAUGURATION

Dorothy I. Height, Polly Cowan, civil rights, women in civil rights, wednesdays in mississippi

My mother, Polly Spiegel Cowan, civil rights activist, died in 1976. As I watched the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama I held in my heart the image of my mother and her dear friend and colleague Dr. Dorothy Height.

Cheers to you, Mom, watching from wherever you are now. And cheers to you, Dr. Height. I'm glad you got a great seat at the inauguration. You more than deserve it.

From the NY Times, Sept 17, 2009

One of Mr. Obama’s guests, Dorothy Height, 96, will have a place of honor on the platform — in her wheelchair. Ms. Height, a longtime social activist, was accepted at Barnard College in 1929 but was turned away when she arrived because the school had met its quota of two black women.

“I never thought I would live to see this,” she said of the inauguration of a black president. “This is real recognition that civil rights was not just what Dr. King dreamed. But it took a lot of people a lot of work to make this happen, and they feel part of it.”

 

From NewsChanne8 in Washington, DC, January 19, 2009

At 96 years old, Height has seen many firsts, but when Barack Obama  is sworn-in as the nation's first African-American president, it will be an experience for her unlike any other. "I'll be glad I lived long enough to see it and I think it's the answer to so many prayers- something that people have worked on for a long time."

Born in Richmond, Height first started working in New York City. By the late 1930's, she had established herself as a civil rights activist and joined the National Council of Negro Women.

American leaders regularly met with her. Height encouraged President Eisenhower to desegregate schools and President Lyndon Johnson to appoint African-American women to positions in government. "She has been the glue that has held our civil rights and human rights movement together for the last 40 years and one of the things I'm so happy about is that she lived to see the day," said Rev. Walter Fauntroy, civil rights activist.


In 1957, Height was named president of the National Council of Negro Women. It was a position she held throughout the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960's. It was a time when the idea of an African-American becoming president seemed impossible. "You know, I had thoughts that often were disturbing, but you can't work at something if you don't believe in it. And I believed that someday this would happen," said Height.


Now that it is happening, the National Council of Negro Women is gearing up for a huge celebration on Inauguration Day. Height will be at the swearing in and then as the parade comes down Pennsylvania Avenue, there will be a celebration at their headquarters along the route.


"We are the only African-Americans who own a building within this quarter of Pennsylvania Avenue and for the first time we'll be ushering in an African-American president," said Christine Toney, National Council of Negro Women


But while the crowds along Pennsylvania Avenue celebrate a new president, Height will also use the day to reflect. It's been a long road to get here and she knows there is still work to be done. "I think that many opportunities have opened up. The country's come along way and I would say to young people to keep up the spirit that we have now and keep your eyes open and your heart open and see how you can take us to the next step," said Height.


So at 96 years old, Height marks another first on Tuesday - one that's stirring up feelings like none other. "It's not just a feeling of joy. It's a feeling of achievement and a feeling of greater confidence in a society in which we live. I think the possibilities of America are unlimited."


Links to Wednesdays In Mississippi, the Civil Rights organization founded by my mother and Dr. Dorothy I. Height.

http://www2.vcdh.virginia.edu/WIMS/

http://www.wimsfilmproject.com/

http://lauraflanders.firedoglake.com/2008/11/07/got-docs-wednesdays-in-mississippi/


CAROUSEL HORSES: HERSHELL, DARE, CARMEL

The amusements of Atlantic City in the last post made me think of carousels. I have spent periods of my life obsessed with carousels. In my own childhood I rode the Stein & Goldstein horses at the carousel in Central Park in New York City. But more than that, we had our own carousel horse on our lawn in Redding Connecticut in the early 1950's. Nowadays, nobody in their right mind would leave a vintage wooden carousel horse outdoors, exposed to the elements and gaggles of rowdy children, but in those days the discarded horses were not particularly valuable or appreciated as works of folk art.
carousel, charles dare horse, carousel horse on lawn Liza Cowan, circa 1951, Redding, CT.

charles dare, carousel horse, carousel horse in private collection, children on charles dare carousel horse

Photo by Mary Morris Steiner

My sister just sent me this. Sorry about the quality, it's a many times scan, but here is my mother, Polly Spiegel Cowan, with my sister Holly and brother Geoff on the carousel horse.  I don't understand the seeming discrepency in the color of the mane, but I guess that between the time of the picture with my mom and sibs, and the one of me, the horse was painted. Ouch.

The horse  sat on our lawn for years. The mind boggles. I rode this horse until my early teens, when we sold the house. And by "we" I mean my parents. Years outdoors exposed to the elements runied this fine piece of sculpture, and I regret that more than I can begin to express.

Carousel dare carousel NY State Museum
These horses are in the New York State Museum in Albany.  Armitage/Hershell machine probably carved by Charles Dare in the 1890's.

Carousel Charles Dare
Attributed to Charles Dare. Photo from James D. Julia Auction, Maine.  This is the horse we had. The breastplate and saddle on ours was simpler, but otherwise they match up. My heart is breaking.

Moving on from my heartbreak...

When my daughters were little, we were lucky to have a house in Greenport Long Island, where there is a beautifully restored Hershell Carousel right on the water's edge. I got a call one evening at dusk that the horses were about to be moved to their newly built pavillion, so I raced over and got this shot of some of them stacked up and ready to go. The light was fading too fast, so I only got a couple of good images.

 

Carousel horse, carousel greenport ny, allen herschell carousel horses, hershell horse,


Liza Cowan Photo 1999, Hershell Horses, Greenport NY Carousel

 hershell carousel horse, greenport LI


This Hershell beauty was up and rolling when I took the picture. The Greenport Carousel actually has a brass ring, which makes it even more exciting and historic.

 

 

 

Liza Cowan Hershell carousel horse painting on photo copy of cowan photo


Mixed Media by Liza Cowan.

 

This is a painting I did on top of a photocopy of a photo I took of a Hershell horse at the Greenport, Long Island Carousel. If you've never tried painting on top of a photocopy you should. It's really fun and easy. Best if you put down a coat of clear medium first.

 

charles carmel, carmel carousel horse, carousel prospect park, child on carousel horse, restored carousel, carmel jumper


Photo by Liza Cowan. WG riding a Charles Carmel jumper, Prospect Park Carousel

 


The carousel in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY has beautifully renovated horses carved in Coney Island sometime between 1910 and 1915 by Charles Carmel. We spent many an afternoon there. The American Folk Art Museum in New York recently had and exhibit, which I missed, called Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses, The Synagogue To The Carousel, which traced the art of Jewish immigrant carvers "inspired by their memories of the  symbols and forms they left behind. Some of the same Jewish artisans who arrived in America at the turn of the twentieth century and carved for their local synagogues also found work carving horses and other animals for the flourishing carousel industry."

Cover
"Gilded Lions and Jeweled Horses" Exhibition Catalog, American Folk Museum with Brandeis University Press. 2008
Listed on my Powell's Bookshelf (under MY WEBSITES on upper right of sidebar.)

 


carousel paris france, carousel france, carousel luxembourg, child on small carousel horse, child on paris carousel
Photo by Liza Cowan

This turn of the century carousel is in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. The children can take sticks and try to spear the wooden hoops. This must hark back to when carousels were used to teach jousting to knights. It's as much fun for the children as grabbing for the brass ring. Notice how petite these horses are.

mechanical horse, child on mechanical horse, child on amusement park horse
Photo by Liza Cowan.

And then, sometimes, a mechanical horsie -ride -for- a- quarter is just as much fun. Although GW is wearing the same dress as in the Paris photo, it is not the same day, or even the same country. She just adored the dress.


Carousel at Shelburn Museum  
Carousel at Shelburne Museum, Shelburne VT

Now we live only a few miles from the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne Vt. They also have a working Hershell Carousel. They also have an amazing collection of historical carved carousel animals. It's worth the trip.


HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM

Today is my mother's birthday. Had she lived, Polly Spiegel Cowan would be 95 years old today. She died when she was a mere 63, but she lives on in the hearts of those who loved her.

Polly cowan at redding (small)
Polly Spiegel Cowan, Redding CT, circa 1948. Photo by Mary Morris Steiner

Lena 1906 (small)
My grandmother, Lena Straus Spiegel.

It's Lena's birthday too, after all. On this day in 1913 she gave birth to the last of her four children.

And finally, a picture of Polly Spiegel Cowan and little Liza Cowan. I wouldn't be here if Polly hadn't been born.

Steiner liza&polly (SMALL)
Polly Spiegel Cowan and Liza Cowan. Circa 1952. Photo by Mary Morris Steiner.


Mary Morris and Polly Cowan

I got these photos in the mail today. They were photocopies, not original prints, but who cares. I'd never seen them before and they are of my mother, father and their best friends at my mom's 40th Birthday in 1953.
Max Lerner, Lou Cowan, Polly Cowan, Mary Morris Steiner, Ralph Steiner
From left to right, Max Lerner, my dad (Lou Cowan,) my mom, (Polly Cowan.)  Above Polly is Mary Morris Steiner and biting Mom's shoulder is Ralph Steiner. On a personal note, isn't my mother gorgeous?? Too thin, perhaps, but wowza. Photograph probably by Edna Lerner, set up by Mary Morris Steiner.
Pollys_40th_3

Photo by Mary Morris Steiner copyright 1953
L to R. Max Lerner, Holly Cowan (my sister) Lou Cowan, Polly Cowan and Ralph Steiner. At first I thought this was some kind of fashion shoot with a roll of seamless paper, but in fact this was a wall in our New York City apartment. My dad planned this celebration with great ingenuity. He bought forty presents for my mother, not sure what they were but I remember a lot of fake gold wedding rings, had them all wrapped and tied in grocery twine and suspended all around the apartment. Four years old at the time, I wasn't at the party.  But my three siblings were and the affair was family legend.

I got the photos in the mail and the descriptions of the party over the phone from Mary Morris Steiner (now Lawrence.) Mary and Polly had been best friends at Sarah Lawrence college. The third best friend was Edna, who later married their professor Max Lerner. Mary married the photographer Ralph Steiner. And mom, of course married dad, who was radio and later television producer and executive Louis G Cowan. But this unusual group of former college co-ed weren't just housewives.  They married famous men, but they had their own careers as well.

My mother was a radio producer and later a civil rights activist. Edna Lerner was a psychologist.  Mary Morris joined The Associated Press in 1937 as the only woman phototo journalist. Later she worked for PM (Picture Magazine) a leftist daily newspaper in New York City. When I knew Mary and Ralph they were working as advertising photographers .

Pollys_40th_2_2

Photo by Mary Morris Steiner copyright 1953. Clockwise from the far left: Ralph Steiner, Geoff Cowan (my brother) Polly Cowan, Max Lerner, Edna Lerner, Paul Cowan (my bro) Holly Cowan and on the floor, my dad, Louis G. Cowan. The trunk which serves as a coffee table was filled with family photos, all of which were destroyed in the fire.

These photographs are particularly poignant for me because most of my family's earliest photos were burned in the fire that killed my parents in 1976. Each addition to our scant collection is precious. I'm also happy to have images of the party that was the stuff of legend around our dinner table. And then there's Mary.

I looked for Mary Morris Steiner for years, but only knew her as Morrie (her nickname) Steiner. Google searches were in vain. Finally Sherrie, at the Charlotte (VT) Community Library, found a file of clippings on Ralph Steiner, who had moved to Vermont later in his life. Sherrie found me Mary's second married name and some phone numbers.

So now, not only have I found  an important link to my family history, but a new friend as well. And, in my role as gallerist, I have found an amazing photographer. I'm hoping that someday I will be able to exhibit her work at PSAW. So far it's just a hope, because it would be a large task, but keep your fingers crossed.