Today in Gay History

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July 04

Stephen Foster
1826 -

STEPHEN FOSTER, American composer, born (d: 1864); Like Yankee Doodle, the composer Stephen Foster was born on the Fourth of July. His list of sentimental down-home hits—“Oh Susanna,” “Old Folks At Home,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” "Jeannie with The Light Brown Hair,” and “Old Black Joe”—make the jingoistic George M. Cohan appear strident and un-American by comparison.

Flag-waving or no, what made fireworks go off for this star-spangled tune-smith was another composer – George Cooper, a handsome young man who is best known today for his “Sweet Genevieve,” a song perhaps best sung as a barbershop quartet, when drunk. So taken was Foster with sweet George Cooper that he abandoned his wife and family to run away with him. So, as you put out the bunting to celebrate the glorious Fourth, think of Stephen Foster, grand old American composer, “gwine to Lusiana” with George Cooper, not a banjo, on his knee.

Portrait of Edmonia Lewis by Henry Rocher - National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
1844 -

MARY EDMONIA LEWIS  was an American sculptor who worked for most of her career in Rome, Italy. Born free on this date (d: 1907) in New York, she was the first woman of African-American and Native American heritage to achieve international fame and recognition as a sculptor in the fine arts world. Her work is known for incorporating themes relating to black people and indigenous peoples of the Americas into Neoclassical-style sculpture.

In Boston, Lewis befriended abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and sculptor Edward A. Brackett. It was Brackett who taught Lewis sculpture and helped propel her to set up her own studio. By the early 1860s, her clay and plaster medallions of Garrison, John Brown and other abolitionist leaders gave her a small measure of commercial success.

In 1864, Lewis created a bust of Colonel Robert Shaw, a Civil War hero who had died leading the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment. This was her most famous work to date and the money she earned from the sale of copies of the bust allowed her to move to Rome, home to a number of expatriate American artists, including several women.

She began to gain prominence in the United States during the American Civil War; at the end of the 19th century, she remained the only black woman who had participated in and been recognized to any degree by the American artistic mainstream. A major coup in her career was participating in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. For this, she created a monumental 3,015-pound marble sculpture, The Death of Cleopatra, which portrayed the queen in the throes of death. This piece depicts the moment popularized by Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra had allowed herself to be bitten by a poisonous asp following the loss of her crown. Of the piece, J. S. Ingraham wrote that Cleopatra was "the most remarkable piece of sculpture in the American section" of the Exposition. Much of the viewing public was shocked by Lewis's frank portrayal of death, but the statue drew thousands of viewers. Cleopatra was considered a woman of both sensuous beauty and demonic power. Her self-annihilation has been portrayed numerously in art as well as literature and cinema. In Death of Cleopatra, Edmonia Lewis added an innovative flair by portraying the Egyptian queen in a disheveled, inelegant manner, a departure from the Victorian approach of representing death. Considering Lewis's interest in emancipation imagery as seen in her work Forever Free, it is not surprising that Lewis eliminated Cleopatra's usual companion figures of loyal slaves from her work. Lewis's The Death of Cleopatra may have been a response to the culture of the Centennial Exposition, which celebrated one-hundred years of the United States being built around the principles of liberty and freedom, a celebration of unity despite centuries of slavery, the recent Civil War, and the failing attempts and efforts of Reconstruction. In order to avoid any acknowledgement of black empowerment by the Centennial, Lewis's sculpture could not have directly addressed the subject of Emancipation.After being placed in storage, the statue was moved to the 1878 Chicago Interstate Exposition where it remained unsold.

The sculpture was acquired by a gambler by the name of "Blind John" Condon who purchased it from a saloon on Clark street to mark the grave of a Racehorse named "Cleopatra". The grave was in front of the grandstand of his Harlem race track in the Chicago suburb of Foresst Park, where the sculpture remained for nearly one hundred years until the land was bought by the U.S. Postal Service and the sculpture was moved to a construction storage yard in Cicero. While at the storage yard, The Death of Cleopatra sustained extensive damage at the hands of well-meaning Boy Scouts who painted and caused other damage to the sculpture. Dr. James Orland, a dentist in Forest Park, and member of the Forest Park Historical Society acquired the sculpture and held it in private storage at the Forest Park Mall.

A testament to Lewis's renown as an artist came in 1877, when former US President Ulysses S. Grant commissioned her to do his portrait. He sat for her as a model and was pleased with her finished piece. She also contributed a bust of Charles Sumner to the 1895 Atlanta Exposition.

In 2002, the scholar Molefi Kete Asante named Edmonia Lewis on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans

As they say, Edmonia Lewis never married and had no children. She is generally believed to have been a lesbian according to authors Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross in A Black Woman's Guide to the History of the United States.

Charlie Murphy
1953 -

CHARLIE MURPHY was an American singer-songwriter who was born on this date (d: 2016); Growing up during the civil rights and anti-war movements, Charlie devoted his life to social change. His conviction was fueled by his experience at Camp Claggett, a summer camp led by a group of extraordinary adult activists who were also involved in the human potential movement. He worked as a camp counselor throughout his college years while studying sociology at Loyola University in Baltimore. He also received training in group facilitation at the Center for mid-Atlantic Trainers, where he became their youngest facilitator.

After college, Charlie chose to work with youth through the Roanoke Virginia mental health services. Charlie soon discovered, however, that he was being asked to help these young people to adjust to a world in turmoil rather than to empower them to take an active role in making things better. So, he left the world of mental health and chose to express his passion for social change through music. From an early age Charlie loved music and played the guitar. This unleashed a passion for writing and composing songs.

In the mid seventies, Charlie toured the country as a folk singer, inspiring audiences with a passion for social change. He was a pioneer of the men’s movement and sang openly about Gay rights, making him one of the few out and proud Gay singer/songwriters of his day. He appeared on the landmark 1979 album “Walls to Roses”, that featured both Gay and straight men who supported the struggle against sexism. In the late ‘80s, Charlie founded the award-winning band, Rumors of the Big Wave, with creative partner and cellist Jami Sieber.

His AIDS anthem, I Choose Life, landed the band a spot as featured artists on a Barbara Walters special commemorating the 20th anniversary of the AIDS crisis. Rumors of the Big Wave played with Ziggy Marley, Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, and Midnight Oil. They traveled nationally and internationally and produced several award-winning albums. 

Murphy's album Catch the Fire (1981), released on the Good Fairy Productions label, contained the original version of 'Burning Times', later covered by Christy Moore and Roy Bailey. The album also contained the LGBT rights anthem 'Gay Spirit'. The album is notable for addressing LGBT issues and pagan spirituality within its lyrics. The song "Burning Times" concerns the persecution of women accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages and early modern periods. Its chorus mentions several pagan female deities: Isis, Astarte, Diana, Hecate, Demeter, Kali... Inanna. It also memorializes that nine million women died, this holocaust against the nature people. The other key song, "Gay Spirit", expresses the frustration of growing up gay within a prejudiced society: When we were born they tried to put us in a cage, and tell our bodies what to feel, we have chosen to feel all the truth, that our bodies do reveal.... The chorus is a rousing burst of optimism: There's a gay spirit singing in our hearts, leading us through these troubled times, There's a gay spirit moving 'round this land, calling us to a time of open love.

In 1996, Charlie and Langley resident, Peggy Taylor, a journalist and creative development specialist, founded a creativity-based youth development organization called the Power of Hope: Youth Empowerment Through the Arts. Their Creative Community Model for integrating the arts into youth development, quickly caught fire and began to spark a transformation in youth work. In 2005, Charlie, was awarded an Ashoka Fellowship in recognition of his life-long achievements as a change maker and for his groundbreaking work in the youth development field.

In 2006, Charlie and his husband, theater-artist Eric Mulholland, began traveling internationally, leading Creative Community-based youth programs and trainings in Uganda, South Africa, Italy, and the UK. Three years later, with Peggy and UK-based entrepreneur Ian Watson, Charlie formed PYE Global: Partners for Youth Empowerment to further spread the international work. Charlie and Eric spent several years developing an international network of PYE partners and facilitators dedicated to bringing creativity and hope into the lives of young people. With over one million youth impacted to date and thirty partners in fifteen countries, Charlie’s influence continues to grow and promises to flourish in years to come.

Walt Whitman
1855 -

On this day in 1855, WALT WHITMAN published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The first edition consisted of twelve poems, and was published anonymously; Whitman set much of the type himself, and paid for its printing. Over his lifetime, he published eight more editions, adding poems each time; there were 122 new poems in the third edition alone (1860-61), and the final "death-bed edition," published in 1891, contained almost 400. The first edition received several glowing — and anonymous — reviews in New York newspapers. Most of them were written by Whitman himself.

The praise was unstinting: "An American bard at last!" One legitimate mention by popular columnist Fanny Fern called the collection daring and fresh. Emerson felt it was "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed." This wasn't a universal opinion, however; many called it filth, and poet John Greenleaf Whittier threw his copy into the fire.

ECHO Conference, NYC, 1965
1965 -

ECHO (East Coast Homophile Organizations) protesters picket Independence Hall in Philadelphia on Independence Day.

Today's Gay Wisdom
2018 -

Preface to Leaves of Grass
by Walt Whitman

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

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