I come from right around here. I grew up on Camp Street and then Rochambeau Avenue. I went to Hope High School and graduated from Brown University. The reason I'm mentioning this is because all the things in your life happen in the subconscious. When I went to Hope High School, it was half African American and half white. When I went to Brown there were 12 African - American students. I knew there was something wrong. After graduating, the next four years of my life were sort of lost. I went to law school in California for one year. It was not for me and I was not for them. I worked in Boston for three years in the stock market. I had no passion for it. I quickly learned that I couldn't be good at something unless I had my heart in it.
My parents, in particular my mother, had collected Providence Art Club artists for years. They lived in a house full of paintings by all the people you know who formed the Providence Art Club. I used to laugh at those paintings because I thought they were minor Leaguers. Life is so ironic. So now it's 1970. I didn't know if I was going to be able to make a living. I didn't know if I was going to have a career.
I had a friend who was a man of color who had an antique shop on Broad Street. His name was Al Jennings. He was a hero in the Korean War. He fought in the battle at the Yalu River and had Bayonet wounds on his neck. He called me up one day and said he had just got a painting and that I ought to come over and see it. So I went over to his antique shop on Broad Street and he had this painting by Edward Bannister of boys fishing. It had two large tears in it. He didn't know if it could be repaired. I told him it could be. He asked me if I wanted to buy the picture. I did and it hit me over the head. I already knew who Bannister was and not just from my mother. I always read the Providence Journal and I remembered in the 1960s that G. William Miller, who was a famous Rhode Islander had bought 14 Banisters and they were exhibited at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. He ended up giving them to the Smithsonian.
Getting back to the boys fishing. I took it to a conservator because it needed restoration. It needed to be relined. I realized that I needed to do more research on Bannister. I was oblivious to the atheneum, I didn't even know it existed so I went to the Providence Public Library. There was an elderly lady who was the librarian there and she helped me. She helped me for two days. She showed me all the things that Ray Rickman and Barnaby Evans already knew about Bannister that I didn't know. About how he had come from Nova Scotia as a seaman and how he had gone to work cutting hair in Boston for Christiana Babcock Carteaux. She was Cristiana Babcock, originally from the Narragansett tribe. She was part African-American and part native American and he worked for her cutting hair. Then they married and he became an artist.
Bannister took lessons from William Rimer at the L Institute. By the way, he is one of four significant African-American artists in the 19th century. There are only four: Edmonia Lewis the famous sculpturist from Ohio. She ended up going to Rome. Robert Duncanson who sold paintings to the King of Sweden and to baronesses in London. He moved to London and Henry O. Tanner who was Thomas Eakin's pupil. He spent his life in Paris. Edward Bannister doesn't do any of that. That being said, he has talent and I could see it in these two paintings that Miller had owned and I could see it in boys fishing.
Once the Civil War started, Edward and Christiana became very involved in the Underground Railroad. They were big abolitionists and they were big supporters of the Massachusetts 54th. Most of you all know the story from watching the movie Glory which came out in 1989. I found this out in 1972. The Union sacrificed the Massachusetts 54th at the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863. They sent them on an impossible mission, it was worse than the Pickett Charge at Gettysburg. There was no way they could get across this open field with the cannons. The Confederates were in these bullworks and the Sharpshooters picked them off. Bannister and Cristiana were so upset. Bannister did a painting of Robert Gould Shaw, the white Colonel who was the commander. That painting, by the way, is also missing, but it showed me that there was a commitment to doing the right thing in life that went way beyond the art.
The lady from the library also let me look at a copy of the Memorial Catalog from the Providence Art Club in 1901. They had all of Bannister's best paintings and the names of the Providence people that owned them. Many of these paintings were already in antique shops in 1970/71. There were 25 antique shops in the Rhode Island area and they all had paintings. It was unbelievable, 20 dollars, 10 dollars, no one was interested. I realized that this might be the start of a career, at least for a while, if I could find these paintings. Also, I thought I would be doing something good with my life, where there was some integrity, which my parents had brought me up to aspire to.
Anyway, being honest, the 25 antique shops were all over the place and they were run by funky people. Antique antique dealers are very strange people. They don't exist anymore, but in those days they did and they had instincts about people. If they sensed that you're doing it for the right reasons and you're treating them fairly, they're loyal. I ended up finding a lot of Bannisters because I developed relationships with these people.
So I started finding them. I found four or five of them because the lady had given me a copy of the Memorial Catalog. Unfortunately, I ran out of money and I had no idea what to do. I knew there were more paintings out there so I reached out to two friends who were brothers and who were related to me. My father had been their father's best friend. My father had been their father's lawyer during the Depression. They were the Frank Brothers, Buddy Frank and Mel Frank. They were both about 15 years older than me but they were already my friends and they liked me. So I called them on the phone and met with them and told them what I was doing. I said I thought this was important work. They were both far left about the issue of race so they both agreed with me that this was an issue about inequity. They agreed to buy some paintings and would keep them in their houses. But, one of them, Buddy Frank, was a visionary. He said to me, “you know at some point you got to find a museum for these paintings.” That was easier said than done because most of the white museums at that time had no interest in these artists. It was amazing.
I found one Museum in Washington called The Museum of African Art that owned four Henry O. Tanner’s. So I called the director on the phone. His name was Warren Robbins and I told him I was finding Bannisters and that I already had some. He told me to come down the next day for lunch at noon and he would buy me a sandwich. I got up at 4:00 in the morning and drove to Washington. I arrived a little before noon time and it was not what I expected. First of all, he was the least Museum director ever. He had been in the State Department for his whole career in Germany and, while in Germany, had bought eight African sculptures which were beautiful. Then he retired and bought Frederick Douglas's House in Washington. It was now the Frederick Douglas Museum of African Art. He did have four Tanners that I thought were mediocre Tanners. They were the later period of Tanner where, after he'd gone to Paris, he became influenced by Vuillard and Bonnard. Robbins was very blunt with me. He said he would love to have some Bannisters but that he had no money. He told me he was running the Museum on a shoestring but there was a guy I should talk to. “I don't know if he'll see you, he's the head of the Art Department at the University of Maryland and he knows a lot about Bannister.” He gave me his phone number and said he lives in Hyattsville, he never picks up the phone, but you can call him.
I called David Driskell and he answered; this is like one of the turning points of my life. I told him what I'm doing and he said come over to Hyattsville. So I went over to Hyattsville and spent three hours with him. I got back home at 4 in the morning but what came out of it, which was mind blowing, is he had already been named, and no one knew this, I was one of the first people that he told it to, there was going to be an exhibition in two years at the Los Angeles County Museum called Two Centuries of Black Art in America and he was going to be the curator. It was going to go from Tanner, to Duncanson, Bannister, Edmonia Lewis all the way up through Aaron Douglas, and Romare Bearden. He was already starting but he didn't have any Bannisters. He told me any great Bannisters you can get me I will put in the exhibition. He also suggested that I go out to Cincinnati? He didn't have any Duncansons. Before leaving we had a frank conversation. Even though I was very young, I asked him the important question. I said, is me being white going to be an issue on this with you? He said I don't care if you're green, if you can find these paintings and bring them to museums.
David told me about his history. The most famous black art professor of the 20th century was a man at Howard University named James Porter. James Porter wrote a book in 1943 called Negro Art in America where he made the case that black artists belonged in the mainstream. David was his Protege and his pupil. As a matter of fact, David told me that when he took courses from Porter, he was the only person in the class at Howard, but Porter treated it like there were 30 people there. Later I learned from David about the Harlem Renaissance, who Alain Lock was and about James VanDerZee. It opened a whole new window to me about artists that had been overlooked. But I could only do so much. So I went home that night but couldn't fall asleep. I realized that if I could find these pictures and David put them in that exhibition, it could make a difference. So I went and told my friends the Frank brothers about it. I told some other people that I knew about it, a doctor in Barrington named Richard Frates and Paul and Leonard Granoff who lived diagonally across the street from my mother. They ended up buying paintings and it worked out wonderfully. If you ever find a copy of the catalogue you'll see that there's about 15 Bannisters in there. I found 12 of them. There's also about 15 Duncansons in there and I found 12 of them too. I went all the way out to Cincinnati to get them.
The way the reviews of the exhibition were controversial. There were people like Hilton Kramer that buried it when it came to Brooklyn. I went to three of the four openings. This was now my life and it was very interesting. I mean, the big thing it did was, at every Museum when I went to the opening, 50% or two thirds of the people were African-American. I had a sense that a lot of them had not been in that museum before so it was a big deal, it was the start of something.
David Driskell and I now had trust between us. He trusted me and I trusted him. He called me up one day and said, he may have finally found a collector who wants to buy this art and who wants to keep it in their home. It won't have to end up in a museum. This could make a difference and he said he was going to give the collector my phone number. He was not going to tell me who it was but they will call me. So three or four days go by and, you know, this is like the lady that you meet and she says give me your phone number and I'll call you back. You know what that means. So anyway, the phone rings and it's Bill Cosby and he says Camille and I know all about you from David Driskell. He's our adviser and I'd like you to come to my house in Shelburne Falls which is in Massachusetts. It's right on the Mohawk Trail. I'd like to talk to you about buying paintings from you. So I go and I walked into his house. Camille isn't there in the beginning. But Cosby is in his bathrobe; he's got his feet up on his desk and he's smoking a cigar and he starts to lecture me about Bannister. He doesn't know anything about Bannister and this is my life so, as Deborah will tell you, you can't take me anywhere. I look at Cosby and I told him I had seen him in I Spy. I never got to the Huxtable part, but anyway I said to him, look I know you are a famous American. I know you were a serious athlete at Temple. You played basketball and you played football. You played track. I'm nobody I said, but this is the one thing in the world that I know a lot about so don't four-letter word talk to me about Bannister and he backed off. It was the start of me selling them paintings over four or five years, some very significant paintings even though, and I'm not saying this because of the history, it's just the facts, I never liked him and I don't think he ever liked me.
The hardest artist to find of the four Great black artists was Edmonia Lewis. She had gone to Oberlin and was thrown out because she thought it was racist. She put Spanish fly in the drinks of the faculty at a cocktail party and was kicked out. She ended up moving to Rome where a lot of her sculptures are. So it was very hard to find them. She did some very interesting subject matter like “The Old Indian Arrow Maker and his Daughter” and “Hiawatha”. Some of the subjects were right out of American culture.
I found the Indian Arrow Maker and his Daughter and I told Driskell about it. Driscoll said sell it to Cosby, so I brought it to Cosby's house and he and Camille looked at it. By the way, Camille was the one who really liked the art and really collected it. She was the brains. They bought the piece from me. Cosby calls me back a week later and says he doesn't like the piece. He said I want you to take it back. You don't have to give me my money back but, he says the next time you get a Duncanson you call me. So I went and got the Indian Arrow Maker back. I ended up giving it to the Museum of African Art in Washington for their permanent collection. A year later they did an exhibition of their collection. The exhibition is written up in the Washington Post and the photograph they use is of the Indian Arrow Maker and his Daughter! So naturally I sent a copy of the article to Cosby in the mail and he called me up and said don't you ever do that to me again. I got the message.
As I said we're not close friends but we needed each other. He called me up one day and he said he had got a great idea. I want you to come out with a Bannister, Duncanson and a Tanner and I want you to be my guest on The Tonight Show. I'm replacing Johnny Carson on March 6th, put that down. This is in January and he says March 6, 1978. It's up to you to get a Bannister, a Duncanson and a Tanner. I told him I didn't fly and he said he doesn't care, that NBC will pay the train fare. So I arranged it, by the way, the Tanner that the Rhode Island School of Design called The Wailing Wall, which is a fabulous Tanner, that's the work that Granoff bought from me. That's the Tanner that I had on The Tonight Show.
My close friend, the late Billy Reynolds, the sports writer for the Providence Journal, came with me. We took the train up to California. I was on the Tonight Show at three minutes of one and I was so scared. I've played in tennis tournaments for a lot of my life but this was much worse than playing in any tennis tournament. I mean, I almost went out the side door 10 minutes before the show started. I was ready to leave. I really thought I was going to embarrass myself but people that like me said I didn't.
Anyway, after the show Cosby told Reynolds and me to go back to our hotel room and he will get in touch with us because he had other plans for us. So we go back to the hotel room and 24 hours goes by and we never hear from him so we both agreed, we're done and we got on the train and went home. The Bannister I had on the Tonight Show was the Newspaper Boy. I heard Ed McMahon muttering in the background, I wonder how many of these Cosby owns?
The big thing that I said, which I said from my heart, I made the analogy to baseball where, you know, until Jackie Robinson, black people couldn't play in the major leagues. There were the Negro Leagues where there were players like Josh Gibson and Satchel Page. They would play exhibition games against the white players in Cuba in the off season. It's been documented that the black players were better and beat the white players. I'm not saying that's the case with art. I'm not going there, but my point is, there was something that needed to be corrected. So while all this was happening the Museum of African Art was taken over by the Smithsonian. They ended up with 120 Bannisters most of which came from me. By the way, I had an art handler who was a friend of mine that packed the paintings for me carefully because I was sloppy and he was careful and also he was willing to drive them from here to Washington. I want to thank George Wall.
Of the Bannisters I had, the three best ones were the Newspaper Boy, the Palmer River and the Hay Gatherers. I got out of Bannister around 1980. They had dried up and I wanted to get involved in other art. There was a very good dealer in Newport, Rhode Island named Roger King who ended up handling Bannisters and selling them to people like Ed Bradley of 60 minutes and Ed Holland. Those of you that know music, Ed Holland in Holland, Dozier and Holland wrote the lyrics for Motown like the Supremes, Where did Love go Where did my Love go, that's a Holland song. He owned three Bannisters.
I believe Palmer River was own owned by a man who lived off Benefit Street by the name of
Darby Ott who would never sell me the painting. This went on for ten years. He said I'm not letting that painting get into some black Museum. That's what he said to me. He called me up one day in 1981. I could tell in his voice that he was in the ninth inning. He asked if I wanted to come over and buy the painting. I went over, bought it and sold it the next day to a collector in Rhode Island named Daniel Meshnig who was a friend of my mother's and who collected Providence Art Club artists. He owned the painting for a long time and, to make a long story short, about three years ago the National Gallery bought the painting for, at the time, a record price.
What actually happened was they originally turned it down when Meshnig offered it to them, over my objection. A curator there, Harry Cooper, called me on the phone and said we can't buy this artist. This artist sucks. That's what he said to me. I told him I didn't agree with him but. I knew then it was a dead deal. My biggest advocate there was Nancy Anderson who is a great person. She told me that Washington was a black City and that we should have this painting. Nevertheless, they turn it down. About two years later I got a brochure from Sotheby’s in the mail. There's the Palmer River coming up at auction in two weeks and the estimate on it is 60 to 80 thousand. I called Nancy and told her. She had not heard about it and said, “Oh my God Ed” she says, “can you send me the brochure?” I FedExed her the brochure and she called me back two days later and said there's a man who worked for the State Department who had retired had just given us a lot of money and, as long as the painting passes his approval, she had enough to buy this and can pay what Meshnig wanted. So, sure enough, that happened and that was the record. But, I want to go further because there's another person I want to acknowledge and, once again, I'm not going to talk about money. Records are meant to be broken. My mother was really, for her day, the great collector of Provence Art Club artists. But there is someone else who I think surpassed her and he owned the Hay Gatherer. His name is Nick Bruno and Nick, who wants to do the right thing in life, wanted the Hay Gatherers, because there was three black women gathering hay, to go to a major Museum and, with the help of a friend of mine, the Worcester Museum acquired this painting. So now the National Gallery has bought one and Worcester has bought one. It's a different game. They paid for the art and you didn't have to donate it to them. I mean, what I had to live with for 20 years was the 120 Bannisters that went to the Museum of African Art that was taken over by the Smithsonian, and the person who became the director there, who is not a friend of mine, kept those paintings in the basement for 20 years. They never saw the light of day and when I talked to David Driskell on the phone he would be moaning. He tried everything. Now she's gone and it's a different game. There are famous people in Hollywood and in the movies who are now buying this art and there is a dealer in New York who, to his credit, is facilitating this. So that's my story.