OXFORD, Md. — Long before there was a “Black Lives Matter” movement, there was Ruth Starr Rose, an activist artist whose paintings nearly a century ago captured the dignity and spirit of America’s black families at a time when stereotype and caricature prevailed.
It is fitting that an exhibition of her early 20th century work should find its way this week to Baltimore and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum as the city continues to recover from the tragic death of Freddie Gray. Rose, who died in 1965, would have recognized the Gray incident and ensuing riots as all too familiar.
As it happens, her last exhibition in Baltimore was in 1933 following the lynching of an African-American man (who had special needs) near her own family’s nearby farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. National Guard troops were sent in as civil unrest erupted.
Into this fray marched Rose. Despite death threats circulating in her area and volatility in the streets, she was determined that her exhibition proceed. Eight decades later, she’s back, largely thanks to the dedication of another woman of similar spirit and experience.
Barbara Paca, art historian and world-renowned landscape architect, began collecting Rose’s work about 10 years ago, following leads wherever they took her. In one instance, she paid some dopers for Rose drawings that she’d tracked down in the attic of the house they occupied. There she also found a list of names scrawled in Rose’s hand that led her to other people and paintings.
The nearly 6-foot-tall, athletic Paca and her architect husband, the ever-cheerful Philip Logan, make Oxford (pop. 600) their home, along with their 14-year-old son Tilghman, who also has special needs and is a familiar, beloved fixture in this tiny waterside village. When not in school in New York, he’s often spotted, sunglasses and bandana affixed, motoring around town in his electric wheelchair accompanied by his buddy Jorge.
But Tilghman’s greatest friend — and also a central character in the epic Paca-Rose narrative — is 94-year-old “Miss Frances” (Curtis), a petite church leader, community matriarch and descendant of Harriet Tubman. The friendship between these two is difficult to describe without a glossary of superlatives. In 2014, then-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley issued two proclamations recognizing Tilghman and Miss Frances for the intergenerational example they set for their community.
Paca’s dedication to Rose’s work and life has led to the largest private collection — and the majority of the exhibit — of these historically important paintings. Like Rose, Paca is a social progressive (though a staunch Republican), who was born to privilege and lineage. Both were shaped by richly integrated lives along the Eastern Shore and elsewhere and both tried through their respective talents to reshape the way people see each other.
Rose did so by portraying the nobility of blacks in their daily as well as their religious lives; Paca by curating and sharing Rose’s creations. Among her most captivating works are Rose’s depictions of black spirituals as congregations envisioned them. In “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” (1939), a chariot pulled by a horse with wings and guided by angels swoops down from heaven toward kneeling worshipers on the ground.
For Paca, who is a neighbor and friend, the Rose project has been an all-consuming intellectual as well as personal pursuit, though she is loath to rhapsodize in the first person singular. From observation and countless conversations the past year and a half, I suspect that curating these paintings completed a parallel journey of Paca’s own that began in the mid-1600s when her family first arrived on the Eastern Shore. Her forebears, a Who’s Who of patriots, planters, landowners, artists, warriors, writers and public servants, include a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, William Paca (1740-99), who fathered five children, including one out of wedlock with a “mulatto” woman.
Early blacks and whites, intertwined as they were for generations, have personal histories of their own that seek resolution in their own time. For Paca, the path that brought her together with Rose and the descendants of Maryland’s first African-American families culminates for her in a photo she sent me recently of Tilghman and Miss Frances surrounded by gospel singers in a Paris church.
“Crossing racial/social/economic boundaries, Tilghman and Miss Frances’s love is the last word on Ruth and her world,” she wrote. “They epitomize the message.”
I suspect Ruth Starr Rose would be pleased.
Kathleen Parke is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.