Friday, October 23, 2020

“Oh, What a Beautiful City”: Treasures from NRPL’s Archives Center’s African-American Collection

African American history is central to the understanding of American history. This insight deserves repeated emphasis. African American history is central – not marginal, not tangential, not secondary, not something to be noticed only during Black History Month (though it is perfectly appropriate for deep focus then), but without understanding African American history in its full entirety we will fall short in understanding the history of our nation and the contemporary dynamics of our political life.

Bethesda Baptist Church Program / January 20, 2014
Bethesda Baptist Church Program / January 20, 2014

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee / A Raisin in the Sun / Playbill / 1959
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee / A Raisin in the Sun / Playbill / 1959

Harlem Blues & Jazz Band at New Rochelle Public Library / Concert Announcement / February 23, 2020
Harlem Blues & Jazz Band at New Rochelle Public Library / Concert Announcement / February 23, 2020

Whitney M. Young, Jr. / National Urban League / Flyer / May 21, 1968

At the New Rochelle Public Library, African Americans are documented in photographs and civic records in the Library’s Archive. With the growing force of the civil rights movement after World War II, the Council for Unity of New Rochelle was formed in 1947 “devoted to securing equal opportunities in employment, education, health, recreation, housing, and civil rights for all citizens, regardless of race, creed, or ancestry.” These words are quoted from a 1948 booklet of the Council for Unity, a key document in our Publications Collection, along with a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1962 that describes in a concise narrative the Lincoln School desegregation case. 

Much of the printed ephemera that abounds in our collection is more celebratory.  First and foremost are concert programs of Ellabelle Davis, a New Rochelle resident who was the first African American to sing the lead role in Verdi’s opera Aida. There is a program from 1971 of the St. Catherine A.M.E. Zion Church, where she first sang in the church choir. Ms. Davis was later celebrated by the late Karen S. Allen in the opera The Gentle Lark of New Rochelle. Other concert programs include those of Katherine Graves, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, and Pearl Primus and her company, all of whom performed in New Rochelle. Our Publications Collection also features materials of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Colored Women’s Club of New Rochelle, the National Association of Negro Business, and the Alumni Association of the Charles W. Dickerson Field Music, Inc. 

Ellabelle Davis Headlines 1948 Season at Carnegie Hall / Jan 13, 1948
Ellabelle Davis Headlines 1948 Season at Carnegie Hall / Jan 13, 1948

Ellabelle Davis recorded the song “Oh, What a Beautiful City,” and one can discover in our Archive tints of the sentimental beauty of that spiritual song in many documents and recordings of African American history. Hear Ellabelle Davis sing it in this magnificent rendition from a 1950 London Recording, Ellabelle Davis Sings Negro Spirituals, one of several of her recordings we have digitized, and preserved. The novelist James Baldwin expressed one of the essential statements on the meaning of history. He wrote: “History is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in everything we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.” It is worth noting that this stunning quotation is presented as a monumental inscription in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, which should be the first destination on your agenda the next time you visit the nation’s capital.

October 16, 2020 / David Rose / New Rochelle Public Library Archive

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Small Tracts and Fugitive Pieces

A Guide to New Rochelle and Vicinity by Robert Bolton / 1842
Samuel Johnson, the preeminent literary figure of the 18th century, once organized a collection of materials from the library of the Earl of Oxford known as the Harleian Miscellany. In doing so, Johnson spoke up for the importance of preserving "small tracts and fugitive pieces," that is, ephemeral pamphlets that are more likely to be discarded than preserved. On the contrary, Johnson insisted, such "fugitive" pamphlets constitute a vital part of a library collection. He went even further, stating with great emphasis that such tracts "preserve a multitude of particular incidents, which are forgotten in a short time...and which are yet to be considered sparks of truth, which, when united, may afford light in some of the darkest scenes of state."

Thanksgiving Dinner Menu / Fort Slocum / 1920
Sparks of truth! What a fascinating phrase! The Archive of the New Rochelle Public Library has its own collection of pamphlets that deserve recognition as the "sparks of truth" that illuminate the history of New Rochelle. Our collection of pamphlets is gathered into a group of records call the Publications Collection. In this collection are the ephemeral pamphlets, brochures, and printed notices that document our social and cultural life through the course of two centuries. Over the years, the Library staff has built up a collection of hundred of pieces of printed literature. Many items have been generously donated by history-conscious city residents who find an old trunk in the attic with their own fugitive pieces. The Publications Collection includes historical programs for anniversaries and special occasions, stage coach schedules, periodical publications such as the magazines They Say and The Tatler, church bulletins from our many churches, concert and graduation programs from our schools, exhibit programs of the Library, journals for annual Police Department benefits, offprints of scholarly articles about Thomas Paine, auction notices, industrial catalogues, street maps, a variety of printed city codes that regulate traffic, building, plumbing, and civil service - the list goes on and on. To make sense of this miscellany is the business of archives, and we now have the archival collection of printed materials organized into logical categories known as "archival series" described in a finding guide to the entire collection. 

National Airmail Week / Commemorative Envelope / 1946       

Found among this historical bounty of printed matter are some unexpected items; for example, a bookplate of Carrie Chapman Catt; a musical score for City Alive, the official song of New Rochelle; an invitation to a cruise sponsored by the Quahaug Club, dated 1865; a report card of a high school student from 1945; and two of Norman Rockwell's "Four Freedoms" posters. There are also many brochures in French relating to La Rochelle, France, our "sister city" which launched the migration of Huguenots who landed on the shore of what became the City of New Rochelle. Samuel Johnson claimed that there are many advantages to maintaining such a collection of printed literature or "flying sheets." The obvious advantage for us today is that the Library makes accessible for study a great stream of occasional documents that collectively portray the scintillating historical landscape of our city that we can all claim as our own "sparks of truth."

Advertising Brochure for Greater La Rochelle, Our “Sister City” in France / 2016

Calendar Illustration for Teddy’s Deli / c. 1960sLibrary Exhibit / Association of Women Painters and Sculptors / 1915

Images (In Order of Appearance): 
1. A Guide to New Rochelle and Vicinity by Robert Bolton / 1842
2. Thanksgiving Dinner Menu / Fort Slocum / 1920
3. National Airmail Week / Commemorative Envelope / 1946
4. Advertising Brochure for Greater La Rochelle, Our “Sister City” in France / 2016
5. Calendar Illustration for Teddy’s Deli / c. 1960s
6. Library Exhibit / Association of Women Painters and Sculptors / 1915

September 3, 2020 / David Rose / New Rochelle Public Library Archives

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

A Tribute to the League of Women Voters of New Rochelle

League of Women Voters buttons

A Tribute to the League of Women Voters of New Rochelle 

August 18, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote. This success of the women's suffrage movement stands as a transcendently important moment in the history of American democracy. Carrie Chapman Catt, who led the movement as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, also established the League of Women Voters in 1920 to continue to educate on all the social and political issues bearing on the rights and responsibilities that come with voting. Four years later, in 1924, New Rochelle established its own branch of the League of Women Voters, and the fact that Ms. Catt was a resident of the city ensured that their challenges, their power, and their successes would be intertwined. The New Rochelle Public Library was also part of the equation as a venue for lectures, meetings, and programs sponsored and organized by the League. 

Carrie Chapman Catt Bookplate

An inconspicuous part of the League's legacy has been the preservation of its own history. The art and practice of keeping documents often happens unseen, but League officers have carefully preserved the record of its work over the years as the most knowledgeable curators of its history. However, let this important work be inconspicuous no longer! The League of Women Voters of New Rochelle has utilized the Library for the storage of its records, and its entire collection is now formally organized as part of the Library's Archive. An archival finding guide to the collection is available here. This is a rich and wonderful collection of documents that provides, in great detail, not only the history of the League but a political history of the City of New Rochelle itself. The League of Women Voters of New Rochelle has been a formidable actor in the field of education, and with the organizatino of its historical records its legacy as a nonpartisan political organization is again revealed as a vital leader in the education of the community. Kudos to the League of Women Voters of New Rochelle!  

World Affairs Conference in honor of Carrie Chapman Catt, 1930

It is interesting to know that other local branches of the League have maintained archival collections, such as the one at Columbia University Libraries documenting the League of Women Voters of the City of New York. And, there are archival collections of Carrie Chapman Catt papers at the Library of Congress and the NY Public Library. Ms. Catt's work as an advocate for world peace as also deserves renewed attention. In 1930, she participated in a "World Affairs Conference" in her honor held in New Rochelle that focused on the possibilities for lasting peace. With the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, and with availability of the archival collection at the New Rochelle Public Library, there will be many occasions to study the work of Carrie Chapman Catt and the League of Women Voters even further. 

August 13, 2020 / David Rose / New Rochelle Public Library Archives

Thursday, July 23, 2020

The National War Fund: A Story of Philanthropy and Crisis

New Rochelle Community Chest Appeal / 1942  (front)

New Rochelle Community Chest Appeal / 1942  (back)

A community chest was once a popular means of collective philanthropy, superseded today by non-profit foundations and the digital philanthropy of crowdfunding online. The first community chest appeared in Cleveland, Ohio in 1913, and New Rochelle organized its own in 1936 during the Great Depression, In the 1930s, business and social leaders of New Rochelle touted its community chest as "one campaign for ten human welfare agencies," noting the efficiency of one brief annual appeal by a single agency rather than ten individual appeals. The agencies that benefited from the largesse of the community included the New Rochelle Day Nursery, Huguenot YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and the Colburn Memorial Home for the Aged among others. The local community chests of mid-century eventually morphed into what we now know today as the United Way. 

U.S. Committee for the
Care of European Children / 1943
In 1941, the philanthropic landscape changed with the advent of war. With the new crisis, the New Rochelle community chest broadened its mission to include emergency aid for victims of wartime catastrophe in Europe and China beginning in 1942. This was done through a new agency, the National War Fund (NWF). The NWF was created as an umbrella agency to support the United Service Organizations, known as "the USO," that provided live entertainment and other social support for American troops overseas. In addition, the NWF distributed its funds to affiliated relief organizations providing succor to nations suffering from Nazi oppression and the wartime tragedies of homelessness, hunger, persecution, imprisonment, exile, and injury brought on by the global conflict. There were many such relief organizations aligned with the "United Nations," as America and her allies were then known; these included American Relief for Norway, the U.S. Committee for the Care of European Children, The British War Relief Society, the Greece War Relief Association, and the United Seamen's Service. 

National War Fund Member Agencies
with Norman Rockwell Illustration / 1943
Though there were many other fund-raising appeals during World War II (most notable were the periodic war bond drives), the NWF aligned with local community chests to provide direct aid to a host of relief organizations. The New Rochelle community chest was one of hundreds of local civic organizations that supported this effort through the NWF. In 1942, it advertised its mission as a community chest and "war chest." Among the many historical treasures of printed literature in the Library's archival collection is a fine assortment of pamphlets distributed during the war years to educate the public and raise awareness about this intricate network of national relief organizations. A small selection of these pamphlets appear here. One of the ("Remember Us") includes the artwork of famed New Rochelle artist Norman Rockwell whose message "each according to the dictates of his own conscience" typifies the appeal to common philanthropy in a time of crisis. As we struggle to come to grips with the current pandemic and express appreciation for the frontline workers in medicine and public health, it is helpful to reflect on the past generosity of ordinary citizens in a time of national and global crisis. The National War Fund existed from 1942 to 1947. Its history may seem obscure to us today, but it is one that deserves a much more comprehensive historical exploration. 

June 29, 2020 / David Rose / New Rochelle Public Library Archives

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Seven Things You Might Know about Carl Reiner, The Dick Van Dyke Show and New Rochelle

Remarks by Barbara Davis, City Historian at the 2018 event for the honorary re-naming of Bonnie Meadow Road to Dick Van Dyke Way

  1. In 1953, Carl Reiner and his wife, Estelle, and their two children, 6-year old Rob and 3-year old Annie moved from an apartment in the Bronx to their first home, at 48 Bonnie Meadow Road, in New Rochelle. They paid about $30,000.

    This is how their son, Rob, later described New Rochelle:
    "There was a 'Leave it to Beaver' aspect of suburban life, we went sleigh riding and played ball. There was a lot of unbuilt land in that area where my friends Steven Rabin, Michael Leeds, Paul Schindler and I played army."

    In another article, Carl remembered buying fresh corn from the Hutchinson Farm, down the street.

  2. In 1959, Carl produced a pilot in 1959. "Head of the Family" as it was called, based on his own life living in the suburbs and working as a writer for a variety show. He played the lead; his wife was played by Barbara Bitton. It did not fly. An actor by the name of Dick Van Dyke was recommended for the lead by Sheldon Leonard, a TV comedy producer.

  3. Although they had no intention of leaving their home in New Rochelle, Carl once told a reporter that the film industry mecca of the West Coast beckoned him in 1960.

  4. The first episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show aired on October 3, 1961.

  5. After the first year, the show was due to be cancelled. The sponsors convinced CBS to continue for at least another season. By its third episode of its second season, the Dick Van Dyke Show became the 2nd most watched show in America. The first? The Beverly Hillbillies. 

  6. After four more seasons, with 157 episodes, the last Dick Van Dyke Show aired on September 7, 1966.

  7. Today, it is considered one of America's "most beloved" sitcoms. The show won more Emmy's than any other during the 1960s. The first was received after the first season, when Carl Reiner was awarded for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy. It was nominated a total of 23 times and was awarded 15 Emmys by the Television Academy. TV Guide ranked in #13 out of the 50 greatest TV Shows of All Times.

    Now, here is something we all know – New Rochelle is proud and honored to have been the setting of The Dick Van Dyke Show!

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Bloomsday and New Rochelle

Bloomsday: June 16

James Joyce's Ulysses has a reputation as one of the most challenging novels to read and understand. Yet every year on June 16 readers around the world celebrate the book on a literary holiday known as Bloomsday. Bloomsday gets its name from Leopold Bloom, the protagonist of Ulysses, whose action occurs on June 16, 1904. Bloomsday is an annual tribute to Ulysses, which is far-reaching, complex and encyclopedic. By extension to the whole world of books, Bloomsday is really a celebration of reading. If you enjoy reading books, then Bloomsday is your day. It is a secular holiday, a day of literary obligation, the High Holy Day of the modernist literati.

In the opinion of many, James Joyce was the greatest literary genius of the 20th century. His output was small in quantity of titles – the short stories of Dubliners and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and Finnegans Wake, an impenetrable anti-novel that exceeds even Ulysses in its complexity. These are books whose depth of feeling, range of reference and understanding of the human condition place them in the handful of essential works of literature. Janet Flanner, a New Yorker correspondent, wrote, "The publication of Ulysses in 1922 was indubitably the most exciting, important, historic single literary event of the Paris expatriate literary colony. It burst over us, young in Paris, like an explosion in print whose words and phrases fell upon is like a gift of tongues. Joyce's Ulysses [was] part of the library of our minds."

Ulysses is a comic novel with much to teach us about the arts of reading in its departure from the norms of what a novel is. For those about to tackle Ulysses here are some helpful hints. First, on the narrative level, the novel is about a typical day in Dublin, Ireland focusing on three characters: Leopold Bloom, his wife Molly Bloom, and Stephen Dedalus. Through the technique of interior monologue the reader enters Bloom's mind to experience his thought process, the pathos of his emotions, and his curiosity about the world as well as all the lapses that make one human. Next, each of the book's 18 episodes has a set of symbolic correspondences to Homer's Odyssey, a time of day, a location in Dublin, an organ of the body, a representative color, an art, a unifying symbol, and a stylistic technique. Finally, Ulysses is jam-packed with fragments of poetry, drama, music, newspaper headlines, advertisements and experiments with language. Joyce also incorporated real people and events into the story that intrude in the dramatic unfolding of Leopold Bloom's travels through Dublin. One of those events tangentially involves the history of New Rochelle.

On June 15, 1904 the steamship General Slocum caught fire in the East River of New York City, leading to the death of most of its passengers. Over 1,000 people died, a disaster noted several times in Ulysses in action that took place the next day on June 16. In the "Wandering Rocks" episode of Ulysses we find: "He passed Grogan's the tobacconist against which newsboards leaned and told of a dreadful catastrophe in New York. In America those things were continually happening. Unfortunate for people to die like that, unprepared." While the General Slocum was not heading toward New Rochelle on that fateful day, the maritime disaster led to the economic decline of "Starin's Glen Island," a tourist destination of New Rochelle that was then enormously popular.

What does this snippet of history buried in Ulysses teach us? There are many symbolic overtones too numerous to parse here, but the

outstanding fact is that such detail of history is a node of meaning in a network of language that enriches the whole reading experience. In Ulysses there are so many "luminous details" that it takes several readings to savor the enjoyment of connecting them all. In this, Ulysses was uniquely designed to be re-read – our enjoyment expands with each new reading. For some, this might be too much to take. After all, Joyce once commented that he required of his readers nothing less than that they devote their entire lives to reading his works. On the other hand, Joyce considered literature a perpetual affirmation of the human spirit. This is what we must require of all literature and art. But in this case, if asked what Ulysses is "about," one would have to reply: Ulysses is about reading Ulysses.

Happy Bloomsday!

June 1, 2020 / David Rose / New Rochelle Public Library Archives

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Benjamin Eli Smith and the Simplified Spelling Board

The Simple Speller booklet

At the turn of the 19th century the citizens of New Rochelle were graced by the presence of a scholar who deserves to be remembered and appreciated. The man was Dr. Benjamin Elli Smith (1857 - 1913), the Managing Editor of The Century Dictionary, said to be the American rival of the prestigious Oxford English Dictionary. Dr. Smith lived in New Rochelle from the 1890s until his death in 1913, and he was a lively and productive member of the Board of Education, a personal friend of Superintendent Albert Leonard. Dr. Smith was the motivating force behind the creation of the Rochelle Park Association, an early civic and property improvement association of one of the city's prominent and handsome suburban neighborhoods. Our Archives holds a fascinating collection of his personal papers.

Letter to Dr. Smith from Andrew Carnegie
Dr. Smith also had a role in the promotion of spelling reform through the work of the Simplified Spelling Board. A brainchild of the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the Board was organized to promote the gradual simplification of English spelling. Established in March 1906, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle devoted a full page to the announcement of the Board's formation with the headline: "The American Spelling Reform Financed by Andrew Carnegie." As Dr. Smith explained, during a dinner meeting with a "spelling reformer," Carnegie put out a challenge that "if you will secure thirty gentlemen of prominence who will agree to put into practice the changes you suggest I will finance the movement." Dr. Smith and friends secured 700 names and Carnegie's challenge was met. 

Foreseeing that English would become a global language, Carnegie believe a phonetic alphabet would guarantee its world acceptance. For his Board, he asked for "gentlemen of prominence," and he got them. They included a Supreme Court Justice (David J. Brewer), the Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (James A.H. Murray), the creator of the Dewey Decimal System (Melvil Dewey), the preeminent American author (Mark Twain), the President of the U.S. (Theodore Roosevelt). It had long been noted that English spelling is beset with many inconsistencies; the most famous may be the construction "ough," pronounced variously in the words tough, through, and although. Rationalizing these inconsistencies formed the work of the Board, but progress was exceedinly slow. Yet even Justice Brewer vowed to use phonetic spelling in his opinions issued by the Supreme Court, and the New York World spoofed him with the headline: "Justis Brewer Telz How He Uzez Nu Speling in Hiz Opinyunz."

Board of Education Resolution on death of Dr. Smith

Even with the success of The Century Dictionary, Dr. Smith was reluctant to use it as a tool for spelling reform, claiming that a dictionary "is a record of accepted public usage rather than an arbitrary maker of words and spelling." However, his administration of the Simplified Spelling Board proceeded for several years, and he remained a friend of Andrew Carnegie. With Carnegie's death, the Board dissolved, and Dr. Smith's greater impact remained the legacy of his devoation fo the City of New Rochelle as a member of its Board of Education and the Rochelle Park Association. 

May 7, 2020 / David Rose / New Rochelle Public Library Archives