Frederick Douglass and William Brown will be first honored
| Worcester Magazine
The 177th annual meeting of the Worcester County Mechanics Association last Sept. 22 may not have initially seemed like the stage for some imminent groundbreaking news that would excite the community — even though it was noteworthy that the meeting was being held online for the first time in the association’s history.
However, the association owns and operates Mechanics Hall, 321 Main St., Worcester, a historic, world-renowned venue built in 1857. In the Great Hall of Mechanics Hall where famous orators have spoken and internationally acclaimed musicians and orchestras have performed, portraits of 19th-century national and local notable persons look down on the proceedings. But currently none of them are of Black Americans.
That will be changing following the announcement made at the Sept. 22 meeting when association members were told that a Mechanics Hall Portraits Project had been formed along with a Portraits Project Committee to oversee the process of adding the portraits of two Black Americans in the Great Hall. They are famous author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), and Worcester businessman and abolitionist William Brown (1824-1892).
“When Mechanics Hall Board of Trustees voted to launch the Portrait Project, we were not only voting to include Black leaders in the gallery of the Great Hall, we were voting to address the racial injustice which diminished the accomplishments of Black leaders and excluded them from American history,” said Stacey Luster, president of the Worcester County Mechanics Association.
“We were voting to acknowledge Black history as American history. We were voting to make history!” Luster said.
Mechanics Hall Executive Director Kathleen M. Gagne has credited Luster with the idea to add portraits of Black Americans to the Great Hall.
Luster said at the time that when she did bring up the matter, “I’m grateful that everyone said we need to do something about that. There was no question that we need to address that historical wrongdoing.”
A few weeks after the announcement, Luster said, “I think people hadn’t thought of it. I think there are a lot of Black people who hadn’t been in the hall. And I think people are excited.”
Gagne said she felt the excitement in the community in the wake of the news.
“I did. I’m so grateful about that. It’s Mechanics Hall reflecting our community. All of the community has always been welcome, but this is a really important statement about that inclusivity.”
Gloria D. Hall, public art administrator and preservationist, recalled that when she heard about the portraits announcement, “I said ‘Good. I’m very happy it’s going to be done.’ And yeah, ‘It’s about time.’ But as they say, ‘All things in time.'”
Hall wasn’t in on the original decision, but Gagne approached her to serve on the Portraits Projects Committee, and Hall is its co-chair.
Hall’s career has been dedicated to the presentation of experiences that connect people to places and history, and one of her many roles is as the co-founder and project manager of the award-winning public art exhibit “Art in the Park.” She earned a master’s degree in historic preservation from Goucher College in Baltimore (she has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Northeastern University).
Meanwhile, she has long been an advocate for changing Worcester’s historical visual presentation, including at Mechanics Hall.
“The visual representation of African Americans within the cultural landscape in Worcester is sorely lacking, particularly in public institutions,” Hall said. “That’s been part of my thinking for a while.”
When she was a winner of the Worcester County YWCA’s Katherine F. Erskine Award in Arts & Humanities in 2004, she said she made remarks at the awards event which was held in Mechanics Hall.
“I made a point to acknowledge that there were no Blacks in the hall,” she said.
The portraits of four women were installed in the hall in 1999.
“In 2004 (at the Erskine Award) I was speaking about women. The four women would have been an opportune time to include a Black woman,” Hall said.
So when Gagne contacted Hall about the Portraits Project Committee, “I said, ‘Oh yeah, this is something I’ve already spoken about,’ Hall said.
Still, “I was honored to be asked,” Hall added. “As a preservationist, I think I have something to offer.”
The committee is getting to work, meeting once a month.
“The portrait committee is starting to meet in earnest, defining the tasks that need to be completed,” said Gagne, who is also a member of the committee.
One possibility that’s been discussed is adding a third portrait — of a Black woman, Gagne said.
“We haven’t decided yet. We’re looking at a woman. It was important to the committee and also to our organization that we at least consider a woman of color who may be honored that way,” Gagne said.
“That is one of the considerations. In terms of who it is going to be or when it is going to be, that is something the committee is working on,” Hall said. “I would always want a Black woman to be included. So that is always something I would advocate for.”
Nineteen portraits were installed in the Great Hall from 1866 (George Washington and Abraham Lincoln) to 1927 (Sen. George F. Hoar), all of them men.
In 1999, following an initiative from the Worcester Women’s History Project, the portraits of four women (Lucy Stone, Abby Kelley Foster, Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton) were unveiled.
They were the last additions, until now.
According to Gagne, Douglass spoke at Mechanics Hall on at least one occasion. He has been called the most important 19th-century American for his brilliant mind and the tremendous impact he had on the course of American history. The Worcester County Mechanics Association invited Douglass to speak in Worcester no fewer than five times (possibly more) both before the hall was built and after.
William Brown, an upholsterer and carpet maker, was highly regarded in the community for his accomplishments, including his inventions and business acumen. He was a friend of Douglass and a well-known abolitionist. It is reported that he was active in the Underground Railroad. Brown was the first Black person to become a member of the Worcester County Mechanics Association. Dr. John Goldsberry, an honorary trustee, is Brown’s great-great grandson.
Besides Gagne and Hall, the members of the Portraits Project Committee are:
Che Anderson, assistant vice chancellor City & Community Relations, UMass Medical School, and Worcester County Mechanics Association trustee; Robert Blair, retired building manager, Mechanics Hall; Susan Ceccacci, architectural historian and historic preservation consultant and member of Mechanics Hall Property Committee; Erin Corrales-Diaz, curator of American Art at Worcester Art Museum; Maritz Cruz, consultant and director of Racial & Gender Equity, YWCA of Central Mass.; James C. Donnelly Jr., Mirick, O’Connell, DeMallie & Lougee, LLP; Dr. Dorista Goldsberry, great-great daughter-in-law of William Brown; Stacy Luster, general counsel and assistant to the president for Employment & Equal Opportunity, Worcester State University and president of Worcester County Mechanics Association; James David Moran, vice president for Programs and Outreach at American Antiquarian Society; Deborah Packard, executive director of Preservation Worcester and Worcester County Mechanics Association trustee; Hilda Ramirez, executive director of Latino Education Institute at Worcester State University; Jessie Rodrique, program director at Newbury Court, Concord; William Wallace, executive director of Worcester Historical Museum; Kristen Waters, professor of philosophy at Worcester State University. Jonathan Ostrow, Preservation Worcester Endangered Structures Committee, Mechanics Hall Property Committee, Worcester historic preservation advocate and former electrical contractor.
“It’s a nice representation of the community and people who are really smart about art institutions and art history,” Gagne said of the members.
“It’s progressing. It’s been good,” said Hall.
Not least among the issues to consider will be money.
“It’s an expensive project,” Hall said. “We’ll need money in order to do this.”
“We will need to raise money, and we’ll need a concrete budget,” Gagne said.
The project for the women’s portraits cost $100,000.
A committee for the four women’s portraits in Mechanics Hall was formed in 1996, and the portraits were installed in 1999.
“I hope it doesn’t take that long,” Gagne said
The addition of two or three portraits may mean some re-arranging of the current 19 from their lofty perches in the Great Hall.
“We will have to give serious consideration to how we are going to rearrange the portraits to allow the two additions. We have decided they will go to the Great Hall. When the women were added we had a great team who looked at it as an art installation. We moved some so that it was cohesive as an art installation,” Gagne said.
Other portraits in Mechanics Hall include four in the Washburn Hall lobby and a portrait of the late Julie Chase Fuller, former executive director of Mechanics Hall, in the hall’s Boyden Salon.
Gagne said that unseen by almost anyone yet is a moveable gallery that was supposed to be unveiled last March. The gallery includes photographs of performers at Mechanics Hall in the 1970s and ’80s including Duke Ellington, Beverly Sills, Yo-Yo Ma and Isaac Stern.
Back in the Great Hall, the paintings have a distinct 19th-century look.
Should the new portraits fit in to that style?
“There was a very deep conversation about this,” Gagne said of the committee’s deliberations. “On the one hand we’re not in the 19th century we’re in the 21st century. But the gallery is a historic part of the hall. With the exception of George Washington, they’re all 19th century.”
Hall said, “I think it should be keeping with what’s there.”
Hall noted in preservation and restoration there are “two lines of thinking.” One school of thought often associated with the English 19th-century art critic John Ruskin is “when you add an addition to something it should not be an effort to live in the past because it’s kind of deceptive that way,” Hall said.
But another school of thought, harkening to Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, a 19th-century French architect and author, is that “you try to create something that’s close to the original as possible,” Hall said.
“I’m leaning in having it in keeping with what is in the time, particularly because it’s people who had an impact on the city of Worcester within the time of the 19th century,” Hall said.
“Either one can work as long as it looks good. But I think my perspective is to be in keeping with what’s currently there. Also if you do something different it’s almost like a separate but equal thing, strange as that may sound,” Hall said.
Gagne agreed. “If we did the portraits in another style they would be separate. They would stand alone. The point of adding people of color who had impact on 19th-century Worcester is to honor them. So to separate them out defeats the purpose of honoring them,” she said.
An important step will be taken when the committee puts out a call to artists for the project.
“That’s why we have very smart people on the committee. We have people who have a lot of experience with calls to artists for 19th-century portrait making,” Gagne said.
“The women were painted by four different artists, so possibly the two men will be painted by different artists. Hopefully we will find artists of color, and that’s a priority,” Gagne said.
“It’s going to be a competitive process. Yes, if the person we select is a person of color that would be wonderful,” said Hall.
Gagne sees educational possibilities all along the way in the process.
“I’m excited about the educational opportunities that this idea is generating through the planning process and installation. The story of Frederick Douglass is amazing, but so is the story of William Brown,” Gagne said.
Gagne’s best-case scenario for the installation of the new portraits is 18 months from now.
“The project was approved at the time the COVID hit. It really has put a stop to the momentum of projects,” Gagne said. Mechanics Hall itself has been closed to the public for in-person concerts for months.
“But people are really rallying around this project, so onward and upward,” Gagne said.
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