Harlem On My Mind: Abram Hill
Trymaine Lee: There's something about Harlem that's easier to feel than describe. There's just a vibe, an energy. The spirit of things long-since passed, but also on the verge of exploding. In some spots you can actually feel it stirring beneath your feet.
And one of those spots is in the heart of Harlem, in an old library on 135th Street, now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In many ways, it's where this entire series, Harlem On My Mind, began. So it's fitting that this is where we end. Oh Kevin, how are you doing sir?
Kevin C. Matthews: It's a pleasure to see you.
Lee: Likewise, how you feelin' today?
Matthews: Very well, thank you.
Lee: A few days ago I met up with Kevin Matthews, the Schomburg's chief of staff. After weeks of providing our team with an endless trove of documents, photographs, and audio recordings, he brought me inside for a quick visit. Thank you brother. How you doin', brother?
Male At Library: Good.
Lee: Thank you.
Matthews: Fellas, this is Trymaine Lee.
Lee: How y'all doin'?
Male At Library: Good to meet you.
Lee: Likewise. This is the place that inspired Jacob Lawrence to paint Schomburg Library. You probably know by now that I got my hands on a signed print of this piece at an auction house a few months back, which kicked off our Black History Month series, taking us from Jacob Lawrence to collector and curator Arturo Schomburg, to writer and editor Jessie Redmon Fauset.
Matthews: So you are entering Langston Hughes Lobby.
Lee: You can feel the history as soon as you walk in.
Matthews: And directly in front of you is what's called the cosmogram.
Lee: Inlaid in the center's floor is a large art installation which includes a brass circular cosmogram with rivers that meet in the middle.
Matthews: And this was actually designed to symbolize the coming together of Langston Hughes and Arturo Schomburg here in Harlem, Arturo Schomburg coming from Puerto Rico, Langston Hughes coming from Joplin, Missouri. And you see the tributaries running out to the sea symbolizing our crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.
Lee: This is beautiful.
Matthews: It is.
Lee: And it also holds some of Langston Hughes's ashes, right?
Matthews: That's right. Langston Hughes's ashes are right in the center in a book-shaped urn.
Matthews: Underneath the symbol of the fish. The stanzas around the cosmogram are Langston Hughes's famous poem, his first published poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
Lee: Was that the one in The Crisis?
Matthews: Yes it is, that's right--
Lee: And Jessie Redmon Fauset--
Matthews: That's right.
Lee: --was the editor at the time. That is amazing.
Matthews: It is.
Lee: And it's in the Schomburg Center where we pick up our story today, with the man whose name is written on the bottom of my Jacob Lawrence print, "To Abram Hill," it reads. He's one of the great Black American playwrights, and he got his start just beneath where I'm standing.
Matthews: The American Negro Theater is right downstairs.
Lee: Abram Hill co-founded the American Negro Theater in 1940. The group, known as the A-N-T, or the ANT, operated a small 150-seat theater from the basement of the Schomburg. Kevin led me from the Schomburg's library downstairs to the basement. So this is the original?
Matthews: This is the original. So behind these boxes are the original pillars. Those pillars go all the way through the building.
Matthews: The floorboards are the original floorboards from the American Negro Theater. When this was a space, these walls were not here. This was very much almost like an open church basement. And we believe the original stage was here. The staircase, as you see here with the banisters, were part of the original feature that they had in the American Negro Theater.
Lee: And you see on the wall here, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, On Strivers Row, of course, our guy Abram Hill, featuring Harry Belafonte? Along the wall are photographs of the ANT's history. So many of our great actors, writers, and musicians came out of this theater.
I mean, Isabel Sanford, Alice Childress, Earle Hyman, and of course, one of my favorite old school couples, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, who at the time were like the Beyonce and Jay-Z of Harlem. And they actually met through the ANT. Not to mention Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier. Come on now, listen, I mean, the crazy part about all of this is I didn't even know Hill's name until I started this journey. Most people don't know his name.
Matthews: Harry Belafonte tells a beautiful story of when he was a young man, meeting Sidney Poitier in the American Negro Theater. And it was the experience here that he says led him to want to go into show business.
Lee: Can I say, I wanna just sit in this for one second. So these are the original floorboards from the American Negro Theater.
Lee: So we're literally walking in the footsteps of luminaries.
Lee: My goodness. I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, in the final part of our Black History Month Series, Harlem On My Mind, we bring you the story of playwright Abram Hill, a man who pushed against the very same things that Black actors, directors, and artists face today, questions of audience, success, and working outside of the white gaze. Hill's work spoke to the complexity, race, community, and class, and the always-centered Black audiences, unapologetically.
Abram Hill: There was such a dearth of Black plays on the docket and part of our effort was to create plays for Black people and for Black theater.
Archival Recording: Mr. Abram, where and when were you born and where did you go to school?
Hill: I was born in Atlanta, Georgia. I went to elementary schools in the city of Atlanta.
Lee: That's Hill in 1974. This interview is from the Schomburg Center Archives, courtesy of the Hatch-Billops Estate.
Hill: When I was into kindergarten or to first grade down in Atlanta, Sunday school put on Old King Cole was a Merry Old Soul, and I was the first violinist in that. And it was at that time that I felt the appeal of the magic of the theater, the lights, the scenery, and all that kind of thing. So I really had...
Lee: You're going to hear a lot from Hill in this episode. In many ways, Hill's name has been lost to history, and we wanted him to tell you his story in his own words. So in the early 1920s, Hill's family moved from Atlanta to New York City. Like Jacob Lawrence, Hill was a child of the Great Migration.
Hill: Then I went to Junior High School 31 in the Bronx, Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx in De Witt Clinton.
Lee: And if you caught the third part of our series, you'll remember that De Witt Clinton is where Jessie Redmon Fauset taught for a while. Hill would've been in school right around the peak of the Harlem Renaissance.
Dr. Koritha Mitchell: You're seeing lots of different kinds of Black people, some of whom are working class, some of whom are more well-to-do.
Lee: That's Dr. Koritha Mitchell. She's an associate English professor at Ohio State University, where she specializes in African American literature and Black drama and performance.
Mitchell: So I think it's the diversity of Blackness that he's seeing that would be such a marker of the Great Migration, and the opportunity that it allowed.
Lee: After high school, Hill attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the country's oldest HBCU. He was a pre-med student, but his interest in theater never really went away. After college, Hill returned to New York, with a vision for how to change the Black theater scene. What was the theater world like in the early 1900s that gave birth to an Abram Hill?
Mitchell: Turn of the century, 1890s and early 1900s, in order to get opportunities on the stage you really have to play into stereotype. So the first crossover stars have to do blackface in order to get their legs. In the 19-teens and '20s, part of what makes literature with Black characters appealing is if they are lowdown Black characters.
They're street hustlers, they're pimps, they're prostitutes. Those are the kinds of images that, you know, get a lot of traction. And so that, it seems to me, is a big part of what influences how he's thinking about the landscape, and what he wants to fill in the landscape with.
Lee: Hill wanted to beat back those stereotypes, and he got the chance in 1938 when he started working for the Federal Theater Project. The program had been established a few years earlier as part of the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration.
It was an effort to support artists and entertainers, as well as lift the country's spirits during the Great Depression. Abram Hill was assigned to the Play Reading Division. Hill talked about this period in a 1977 interview. This tape comes from the George Mason University Library System, and their special collections research center, part of a WPA oral history collection.
Hill: My particular job was to scrutinize scripts with Negro characters and Negro themes to see if these were true to honest portrayals of Negro life, or whether the stereotype kind of plays.
Lee: Hill was also part of the Federal Theatre Project's Negro Division. Its members performed some of the Shakespearean classics.
Archival Recording: A Negro theater unit of the Federal Theater Project produced a highly successful version of Shakespeare's immortal tragedy, Macbeth.
Archival Recording: Let me find him, fortune. Tyrant, show thy face.
Lee: And they also got the opportunity to write plays of their own. In 1938, Hill co-wrote Liberty Deferred. The play was experimental and raw, set in a place called Lynchtopia. The ghost of lynch victims march on Washington to demand passage of the Antilynching Act. Hill received some positive attention for his work from his colleagues, but the play was never made. Scholars told us it was just too much for white audiences. But for Hill, the work wasn't about the opinions or preferences of white folks.
Hill: My feeling was that if a play is worthy and meritorious, it should be produced. Some of the members of that committee wanted to disqualify plays that did not have a certain political orientation.
Lee: But this was a time when fears of racial progress were colliding with fears of communism. And the government axed the Federal Theatre Project in 1939. At age 29, Hill was out of a job.
Mitchell: Once the Federal Theatre Project is ending, and that kind of government-subsidized opportunity disappears, he is clearly interested in independent Black theater. He starts to have these meetings to figure out who's interested in this more independent movement.
Lee: Hill and actor Frederick O'Neal were the group's leads. Here's Hill again.
Hill: Then there were a number of us who were idle and had nothing to do in terms of theater art and theater craft. I wasn't able to get into Broadway, so a number of us got together in organizing the American Negro Theater.
Lee: The American Negro Theater, that's how it got its start. The year was 1940, and they had just $0.11 in their pockets.
Hill: So this was the basis of our philosophy in the theater, was to succeed in breaking down the barriers of Black participation in the theater, to portray Negro life as we honestly saw it, and to sort of fill in the gap of theater, a type of theater, a type of play that did not exist.
This was a theater that was to represent the people. This was a theater of social significance. This was a theater of honesty and integrity. This is a theater that is going to fulfill the needs of the Black participants in this movement, and was going to satisfy the needs of the local community.
Lee: Abram Hill's theater would be by Black people, for Black people.
Hill: We decided to call it the American Negro Theater, which was known as the ANT, and the initials ANT suited us very much, because it meant you were an ant, and you were a real worker.
Lee: The group started off rehearsing in a funeral parlor and staging productions in the basement of the 135th Street Library, which is now the Schomburg Center, where that honey-colored stage I got to visit earlier still stands.
Hill: And the most we could seat in our little theater in the basement of the 135th Street Library were 150.
Lee: The group's first full-length performance was the play, On Strivers Row, written by Hill. Admission was just $0.49. That would be about $8 or $9 today. What exactly was the play about?
Mitchell: It is (LAUGH) the story of a husband and wife, the Van Strivens, and the wife, of course, has all of these very particular ideas about how things should be done in high society. So it's really a satire that is making fun of these people who have these, you know, aristocracy of the soul behavior hang ups, and how making fun of that is part of how the Black community needs to be challenging itself to continually rethink how it's operating.
Lee: Strivers' Row was and still is a real place in Harlem. It's an historic stretch of brick and brownstone townhouses, originally built for wealthy white New Yorkers that were reclaimed by Harlem's Black elite. A list of former residents reads like a who's who of Harlem.
Names like Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., vaudeville performer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, musician and composer Eubie Blake, and the list goes on and on. And the play did the very same thing that Hill set out to do when his career began: it rejected stereotypes and showcased the diversity of the Black experience.
Hill: Now, plays up until that time for the most part dealt with the exotic lower depths of Negro life. And we thought that there was not enough representation of the so-called ordinary or the so-called middle class Black. So our aspirations were to fill in that gap.
Lee: Harlem loved it. The play, which starred Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, was a hit, running for five months, and the ANT took off. Hill helped jump start the careers of the Black actors he trained and cast.
Mitchell: People like Sidney Poitier.
Sidney Poitier: They call me Mr. Tibbs.
Mitchell: Ruby Dee. (LAUGH)
Ruby Dee: Forget about the family. Have yourself a ball for once in your life.
Lee: To support the work, the ANT received grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, but they were also funded in part by a membership model.
Mitchell: Early on, there was a lot more attention to ANT from outside of Harlem. And so they did a very concerted effort to get people directly from Harlem. By the third year, they were 90% supported by Harlem audiences, and were very, very pleased with that.
Hill: And we had quite an organization. At its height we had about 250 members, and at our height we had about 2,000 subscribers who paid us an annual fee of $3 for three productions.
Lee: Even with all of the success, the finances of the ANT were always strained.
Hill: We all worked free of charge, and we'd have to pawn our typewriters and whatever else we could sometimes to raise the money to pay for the productions we had.
Lee: And in 1944, a play called Anna Lucasta brought questions of success and money to a head.
Mitchell: So it is originally written by a man named Yordan about a prostitute from a Polish family. Abram Hill rewrites it to focus on African Americans.
Lee: Before Hill's adaptation, the writer, Philip Yordan, who was white, had not been able to get any traction with it.
Hill: They stage it in Harlem, it ends up moving from Harlem to Broadway in 1944, and then just over the top success, a two year run that remains a record for a Black cast that isn't a musical cast.
Lee: Alice and Alvin Childress starred in the 1944 Broadway production. Sidney Poitier was cast in the second Broadway run in 1947.
Mitchell: So the success is extraordinary. They end up making movies of it.
Archival Recording: One of the most sensationally daring plays of our time, a hit all over the world, Anna Lucasta comes to the screen with every shocking scene intact.
Mitchell: So Hill, without question, is the reason that Anna Lucasta ends up being a successful venture.
Lee: But the success was bittersweet.
Hill: Sometimes success can spoil one's outlook.
Lee: In one of those interviews from the late '70s, Hill talks openly about how the business arrangements for his role in the Broadway production of Anna Lucasta fell apart.
Hill: And whereas I had a contract with Philip Yordan to get a percentage as co-author, as a collaborating author on the script, this contract was lost. My personal contract with Yordan was misplaced. The American Negro Theater's contract with Yordan had been misplaced. Intentionally or unintentionally, they were lost. We had nothing legal to back us up. And Yordan, when I would talk to him, he says, "The producer is going to take care of you and the American Negro Theater. Don't worry."
Lee: No surprise here, but Hill and the ANT were not taken care of. They were left with pennies on the dollar, making only 2% of the profits from the Broadway production.
Hill: No movie rights, no radio rights, no other right. We just get 2% from the Broadway production. That was his agreement.
Lee: Anna Lucasta was a turning point for the ANT.
Mitchell: So the fact that he doesn't get properly paid and credited is a real problem.
Lee: And there's another reason. Hill had made big stars out of some of the actors he worked with, and by the late 1940s, people like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier started leaving the ANT to pursue other ambitions.
Mitchell: Scholars definitely argue that it was the beginning of the end, because of all of the downtown attention that ANT then started to get. Because once you had that attention, the community focus, especially from the actors' point of view, really got muddied.
Hill: We would always suppress the individual for the good of the whole group, you see. You were not the star of the ANT, you were just one of the ants. And none of us could rise higher than the entire group. We were out to build a real group that the name American Negro Theater, you saw that name, that would have more meaning than any star that worked for them.
Mitchell: But actors, of course they want more and more opportunities.
Hill: And ultimately what led to Hill living ANT?
Mitchell: Well, I do think we're back to that frustration. And people were also trying to say that he wasn't very good at administrative things, and so basically yes, these are human beings who ended up going at each other in various ways. And this is when we're reminded that our heroes are human and he was just, finally in 1948, like, "I'm done. This is no longer worth it," and walks away.
Lee: Under Hill, the American Negro Theater put on 19 productions, 12 of them originals.
Mitchell: And they'd last a little bit longer after that, but not much.
Lee: In 1950, Hill's co-founder, Frederick O'Neal, would also leave the ANT. And in 1951, the organization dissolved. For a while, Hill taught drama at his alma mater, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He eventually came back to New York and became a public school teacher. In that 1974 tape from the Schomburg's archives, Hill's future comes up.
Archival Recording: Would you ever like to get back into the theater?
Lee: The interviewer asks, "Would you like to get back into theater?"
Hill: Well, to tell you the truth, the theater's a jealous mistress, and it absorbs you so completely, and it's such a hit and miss situation, it took me ten years to get it out of my system. I did not undergo therapy, I just tried to work with myself until I could accept the fact that I was no longer in the theater, and I didn't really need it that badly, that I didn't have any contribution to make at this stage in my life. And these are quiet years that I'd like to relax and not be under so much pressure. (LAUGH) You know?
Archival Recording: Yeah.
Hill: So that's about the answer.
Lee: "I didn't have any contribution to make." Man, that's a heavy statement. And no disrespect to Mr. Hill, but it wasn't true. After the break, two men who were involved in different productions of On Strivers Row 30-some years apart. They break down how the legacy of Abram Hill and the American Negro Theater continue to live on. Stick with us.
Voza Rivers: My name is Voza Rivers, and I'm a son of Harlem.
Lee: I first met Mr. Rivers, who is now in his late '70s, back when I was a young reporter covering Harlem. He's a giant in the arts. He's a theater director and a documentary filmmaker with a list of awards a mile long. And he was born and raised in Harlem. Mr. Rivers got into theater in the '60s. He met a man named Roger Furman in a public speaking course.
Rivers: Here's this guy, and he was a member of the American Negro Theater. And when he mentioned the people who were all there with him, I said, "Oh my god, this is something." And at the end of his lecture he said, "Listen, I wanna keep the foundation of what I learned at the American Negro Theater in a new theater company that I'm creating."
Lee: That theater company is the New Heritage Theatre Group. Today it's the oldest Black nonprofit theater company in New York City. Sixty years ago, Voza Rivers was just a young guy who hung around and helped out.
Rivers: People from the American Negro Theater who were his friends, Abram Hill, came by to endorse what Roger was doing.
Lee: Mr. Rivers worked his way up from a volunteer who cleaned bathrooms and ran errands to business manager. And after Roger Furman died, Mr. Rivers took over.
Rivers: The first tribute I would do in Roger's memory was to call Abram Hill to get permission for me to do Strivers Row in 1984.
Lee: On Strivers Row, the ANT's first big hit, the one we heard about earlier, written by Abram Hill.
Rivers: So I sat with Abram Hill. Now, I've never produced anything up until that point. (LAUGH) And now here I am, taking on this major production.
Lee: But you've been practicing, you've been training, waiting in the wings though, right?
Rivers: Waiting in the wings.
Lee: So you actually had Mr. Hill there with you, helping to, like, shape this thing. What was it like, actually working with him?
Rivers: Well, he gave notes and you listened. "I want to change this setting. I want to change the lighting. This is the kind of costume that I want the costume designer to dress people in."
Lee: What was his personality like, and his voice? How did he carry himself?
Rivers: Every time I was in his presence, I always thought that I was around a professor at a college, because that's the kind of stature that he held. He was a very conservative guy, always in a suit. Never saw him without his suit and tie on.
Lee: Never. Never once.
Rivers: He was dapper. He held up that tradition of what esteemed Black men during that period would look like. Everything about him was very serious. Not only did Abram Hill talk about the fundamentals of theater, he also talked about the responsibility of being advocates for our culture, to also articulate and advance the Black movement in arts and culture and in civil rights.
Lee: Mr. Rivers decided to follow the example set by Abram Hill.
Rivers: The first thing that I knew was I had to have a commitment to the community. Most of my work was done, and there was no admission at all.
Rivers: We just wanted our people to come and see themselves reflected, laugh, learn history. Because I felt that we had the obligation of making our founding theater companies proud. So from day one after I did Strivers Row, I knew I had to get the best director, best set designer.
Because Roger had it, and Abram Hill had it. So I had a lot to live up to. We knew and we understood the history and the foundation and the obligation that we had to keep the memory and the history correct about whose shoulders we stand on.
Lee: Today, Voza Rivers remains the executive producer of the New Heritage Theatre Group. The group has produced dozens and dozens of plays in Harlem and all across the world. But not long after his first production, Mr. Rivers lost touch with Abram Hill. When was the last time you talked to Mr. Hill before he passed?
Rivers: When I did our version of On Strivers Row. So we're talking about 1984. Shortly after that, we didn't see Abe Hill. I think he was dealing with his own health challenges, and the fact that people didn't remember him.
Lee: Wow. That must, I wonder if that must have been tough, obviously. I mean, he plays the foundational role, and they just didn't know who he was.
Rivers: They didn't remember him.
Lee: Abram Hill died in 1986. He had been suffering from emphysema. He was 76 years old. His service was held at Riverside Church, just at the border of Harlem and the Upper West Side. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis spoke. Sidney Poitier and Fredrick O'Neal were honorary pallbearers. And Alice Childress read Hill's obituary. The program for his memorial service reads, quote, "He was delighted to see the revival of Strivers Row." There's a strong legacy of Black theater that has grown from the foundation of Hill and the ANT.
Rivers: National Black Theatre, Barbara Ann Teer, they're now 50 years old. Woodie King, New Federal Theatre is still going strong, 50 years old. My theater company, 56 years old. And I'm so proud when I go to the Schomburg and I see that there's an American Negro Theater still with the small stage, active in the Schomburg, so that others could understand the importance of what the American Negro Theater meant to Black theater.
Lee: Why do you think it is that, you know, largely Mr. Hill's name especially has been kind of lost to history?
Rivers: Abram Hill was responsible for laying the foundation where a Ruby Dee, a Sidney Poitier, a Harry Belafonte could flourish, to be noticed beyond Harlem. And so the focus became not where they came from, but where they were at that particular time. And they became the celebrities. So what he could not do is to keep the family together.
Lee: Mr. Rivers describes it the same way Professor Koritha Mitchell did. Stars were born, and in some ways, they left Abram Hill and Black theater behind. Keeping the family together, as Mr. Rivers points it, is just as hard today as it was back then.
Rivers: A number of the younger actors who've gone to schools and they're not teaching them the history of Black theater. They're teaching them the history of theaters on Broadway, plays on Broadway, by white directors and white actors getting all these awards and accolades.
Rivers: When they come to a community-based theater, we don't have those resources to pay them to come in and join, to be a part of something. So as a result, it's like we are a bus stop on the way to something else.
Goss: So Metropolitan Playhouse was putting on this play, and they do a lot of classic American theater plays. And Strivers Row was on the season for that year.
Lee: In 2017, On Strivers Row made another comeback, this time at New York's Metropolitan Playhouse, under the direction of Timothy Johnson. At the time, actor Anthony Goss was 25 and he'd never heard of the play.
Goss: I went in for the open call and I auditioned, but I didn't even know who Abram Hill was. At the time I heard about the American Negro Theater, because I visit Schomburg a lot, and I've seen, like, a lot of history about the American Negro Theater. But yeah, I got introduced to the play and then I was hooked on the work.
Lee: Anthony landed the part of Chuck, the secret broke boyfriend of well-to-do Cobina Van Striven.
Hill: It was probably one of my most joyful experiences, honestly. We had 16 actors, all Black actors, coming together from different parts of life. The actors that participated, we're all still close. It was a smash play. It was great.
Lee: You know, one thing that Abram Hill and the American Negro Theater went through back in the day was, you know, they had this platform and this literal stage for so many great Black actors and actresses. But then there was always that draw of downtown, the draw to some of the white theater programs.
And brothers and sisters trying to figure out, do I stay up here, you know, and do it for the people and do it for the community? Or do I heed the call of the money and the white gaze? And I wonder if, as an actor today, a Black actor today, whether you still feel that same kind of tug and pull, or if you feel connected or rooted in some specific kind of way.
Goss: You're always faced with that. Okay, what does it mean to be a Black actor today? How do you want to portray yourself? Because you see so many people getting put on in the world. But maybe they're not advancing culture, or maybe they're not representing it in a positive light.
But they're trying to get famous, or they're trying to attach themselves to something. Whereas for me, and I know people in my circle in general, there's a responsibility. And it started with Abram Hill. It started with learning my history as an actor.
But there's also the pressure of wanting to be on Broadway, and wanting to have that light, and wanting to be noticed. I mean, that's that commercial aspect, it's pulling always, because you want to be successful. But it's a balance. But if you're rooted in truth and your ancestors guide you, I think you always will get to some level of whatever success is, regardless.
Lee: Have you had to actually stand there and make a decision where you said, "I could play this kind of role and make this kind of money, but."
Lee: Like, have you actually had (LAUGHTER) to do that?
Goss: You know, it's interesting. So for me, I've been fortunate enough to do a lot of Black history plays. And the plays were pretty good, they're pretty fire. But I know there was, there was a play, I don't remember the exact name that called for Black actors.
Just looking at it I just was like, I just can't understand or rectify it. There's just nothing here that's truthful. You know, it was just the part, just a caricature. So you get presented with those things sometimes, but hopefully, you know, it gets better.
Lee: And so I wonder how doing Strivers Row changed you as an actor, but also as a man. (SIGH)
Goss: It changed me. It just gave me a perspective of what it means to be here today, and to act. And I've been blessed to work with some other Black actors. We do a play off Broadway that was called The Black Angels Over Tuskegee, about the Tuskegee Airmen. Every time before we hit the stage, we'd lock hands in a circle and we'd say, "To all those who came before, and the many yet to be born."
Lee: Thanks to On Strivers Row, Anthony feels more rooted in his history. And it's a history he's surrounded by every day, walking the streets of Harlem, the neighborhood he moved to when he was just starting out, long before he ever learned Hill's name.
Goss: Now, when I got here I would just walk the streets. And I didn't know I was walking on Strivers' Row at the time. So I would just be walking and looking at this property. I'm like, "Oh, this is pretty nice." I had no idea it was Strivers' Row.
Lee: I wonder if, as you walk these footsteps, and literally in their footsteps in Harlem, whether you really feel a true connection in the spirit and energy of all of those that came before you.
Goss: You do. You do. You're looking for, like, pieces of what was. Strivers' Row, you can walk down there today, and I can still see where they say, you know, "Walk your horses," and some of the original architecture. And if you pay attention, you can still feel it. You know, Schomburg is still the center of, you know, the rich cultural history. But it permeates if you're looking for it and if you're open to it. It's there.
Lee: I could feel that spirit during my trip to Harlem a few days ago. I wanted to take some time to really soak up the energy of this space, this space we spent so much time learning about and immersing ourselves in. So I set out to visit the buildings and blocks that meant so much to the four figures we followed in our series: Jacob Lawrence, Arturo Schmoburg, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and of course, Abram Hill. I started on Strivers' Row.
Man, after weeks and weeks of research and poring over documents and pictures and just, I've seen Abram Hill, Abram Hill, Abram Hill. I kind of, like, fell down this rabbit hole. And to be on Strivers' Row and to think about Abram Hill's inspiration, this was it.
And these beautiful old buildings, the masonry, the fine detail. There are a few Greek columns up here in the windows. I mean, it's a cold, winter day right now, but I can imagine during the summertime he would've been walking down these streets, socializing, creating.
Especially at a time when there were so many tropes and stereotypes, I mean, they were really pushing the envelope creatively. All of these spots are just so close to one another. I went to one of Jessie Redmon Fauset's old apartments, the one she shared with her sister on 142nd Street.
It's a one, two, three, four, five or six story building. And you can imagine from this building, Jessie Redmon Fauset, you know, working and living and really just finding her way. I tried but failed to find the art studio where Jacob Lawrence got his start.
All right, so we're looking for 306 West 141st Street. Wow, so this here, this would've been it, right around here somewhere. So there's a school here now. If you see this now, clearly the school is in the middle of nowhere. But this is 306 West 141st Street, where Charles Alston had his studio.
And so as the story goes, Jacob Lawrence had a little studio that he rented in the corner of the bigger studio. And he talked about really being so shaped and molded by the folks who were coming through. And it's actually not that it's by happenstance, but then by Augusta Savage, who first noticed Jacob Lawrence's skills and got him into the WPA program.
And then to find himself under the wing of a Charles Alston right here. This, in some ways, is where it began. I finish my tour where this story opened, at the Schomburg Center at 135th Street. Kevin Matthews had shown me the lobby, the basement theater. And then we headed upstairs.
Matthews: So we are actually in the main library. This is the landmark building.
Matthews: So we are walking the hallways that Arturo would have walked. And what is now our main exhibition hall was at one point the main reading room.
Lee: This whole odyssey started with a Jacob Lawrence print of the Schomburg. So in Jacob Lawrence's Schomburg Library, would it have been here?
Matthews: It would've been here. So as you come this way, you will see the columns that are in some of the original images. And we'll see the large picture windows that you just saw from outside. This is the front of the 135th Street Library.
Lee: This was it. You know, and I've said it before, but just to walk these floors and to be in these spaces that, you know, I don't think it's overstating to say, these spaces helped shape Black America, Black identity. I don't think it's at all. I'm probably (LAUGH) understating it.
Matthews: There are no words to fully describe it.
Lee: There's one final piece to this story, the inscription on my print of Schomburg Library by Jacob Lawrence to Abram Hill. How did Lawrence and Hill know each other? Over the last few weeks, I've asked just about everyone we've talked to about this connect, most recently Voza Rivers. And if anyone would know, I was just sure it would be him. I'm wondering if you, you don't have any? You don't have the key?
Rivers: I don't have the key to that. (LAUGH) I saw that question come up, but I don't have the key.
Lee: So no dice. But just this weekend, our team found something really interesting in a book we borrowed from the New York Public Library. The book is a comprehensive look at Lawrence's artwork called Jacob Lawrence, Paintings, Drawings, and Murals.
It's by Peter T. Nesbett and Michelle DuBois. And in this book, there's a photo of Lawrence's Schomburg print. Underneath the photo it indicates that this painting was commissioned by the Schomburg Center, and the painting was, quote, "For translation into limited edition prints that were later sold to benefit the center."
Now, remember, this painting was done in 1986, the same year that Hill died. So we can guess that in Hill's last year, perhaps even in one of his last acts, he purchased a limited edition print to benefit the Schomburg. Maybe this was out of love for the center, maybe out of love for Lawrence's work, or love for the community. Maybe all of it.
We may not be ending this series with a definite answer on the relationship these two men had. But honestly, it doesn't really matter. Because we do know that all of the lives we looked at this month, Lawrence and Schomburg and Fauset and Hill, are connected in how they shaped us, as they wrestled with and shifted and pushed what it meant to be Black in America.
If you missed any of the other episodes of our series, you can find them in our feed wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you'd like to share a few stories, or reflections of your own, you can tweet me at Trymaine Lee. That's @TrymaineLee, my full name, or email us at IntoAmerica@nbcuni.com. that was IntoAmerica@nbc and the letters uni.com. We'd love to hear from you.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. The archival audio of Abram Hill from 1977 is courtesy of the WPA Oral History Collection from the Special Collections Research Center at George Mason University Libraries.
And the interview from 1974 comes courtesy of the Schomburg Center Archives and Hatch-Billops Estate. Thanks to Jonathan Shandell from the theater arts program of Arcadia University, and to Professor Kate Dossett from the University of Leeds for their research guidance.
And, and of course, a big, big shout out to all the folks over there at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for their help with this entire series. I'm Trymaine Lee. Thank you for joining us on this journey through Harlem. We'll see you next Thursday.