!!PLANET EXCLUSIVE!! SHOULD COLUMBUS AVENUE BE RENAMED FOR REV. SAMUEL HARRISON? RUBERTO WANTS IT, BUT DO CITIZENS? LONG-OVERDUE HONOR OR A BOW AND SCRAPE TO POLITICAL CORRECTNESS? THE PLANET RAISES THE QUESTIONS
BY DAN VALENTI
‘He Gone Find Ray Charles’
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, APRIL 29, 2011) — The great comic Flip Wilson used to have a routine about Christopher Columbus’ journey to America in 1492. As Flip relates it, Columbus got on that boat not in search of continents but in search of soul. As Flip put it, in his “Charlene” voice: “He done got on dat boat. He gone find Ray Charles!”
In Pittsfield, The Planet repeats the bit, except with the punch line: “He gone find Martin Luther King.”
Should Columbus Avenue be renamed for Martin Luther King? Should the explorer and discoverer of America be tossed over the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria for the seminal figure in America’s quest for racial equanimity? That’s the question at hand for my Right Honorable Good Friends on the city council. If someone can wake Uncle Gerry Lee and Paul Capitanio out of their comas, the matter — referred by the august body to committee at the most recent meeting — will occupy the attention of these 11 of Pittsfield’s best and brightest.
Here’s Mayor Jimmy Ruberto’s case for the switch, made in an exclusive interview with The Planet. We share the vital exchanges and snippets of a wide-ranging one-on-one:
THE PLANET: Why are you proposing this move now?
MAYOR RUBERTO: I’ve been considering it for years. I waited until now because, well, first, there were a large number of other challenges and tasks that as mayor I had to address first. But also, Dan, it’s because I never wanted any racist type to say, ‘The mayor is doing this to court favor with the black community.’ If I had done this in my first term, the objection might have been thrown in my face. You know how this city is. Some would raise that, and it would become a sideshow. I know my motives. I know my heart. They don’t.
The mayor then goes on to talk about his favorable relations with African-Americans, his genuine respect for and friendship with the community’s black people. Ruberto’s family has had strong historical ties on the West Side, living there, working there. We also think more recently how the Gospel singers from Christ Memorial sang at his wife’s funeral. The mayor has been a regular at events honoring black leaders, has included African-Americans in fashioning policy, and has appointed African Americans to heading the police (Chief Michael Wynn), schools (Trevor Benson, PHS principal), and fire (Stan Ceasar in the Fire Department command).
PLANET: Certainly, this move isn’t “necessary,” the way passing a budget is or having a washed-out bridge repaired, yet you talk about this as somehow urgent. Why?
RUBERTO: As I said, it’s been something in the back of my mind for years. Every idea begins as a seed. It needs the right conditions to sprout. The idea’s time came when the-city councilor [now city clerk] Linda Tyer brought to my attention the significance of the Samuel Harrison House on Third Street [down the hill, directly opposite from the former Mt. Carmel Church on Fenn Street]. The house had been neglected, and Linda filled me in on the significance of [Rev. Harrison's] life. I understood we had to act to save this piece of history. We immediately got in touch with Rev. Harrison’s granddaughter and got the restoration effort under way. A couple weeks ago, I announced that I wanted to name a street for Martin Luther King in honor of the Rev. Harrison. [SEE HARRISON BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION BELOW from samuelharrison.org WEBSITE].
PLANET: Why Columbus Avenue?
RUBERTO: Because it connects to the center of downtown. It’s literally the main artery that links the West Side with downtown Pittsfield. I had thought of Linden Street, but it’s too far north. I wanted something more for center city. The second reason is the Second Congregational Church on the corner of Columbus Avenue and Onota Street. Dr. King was a member of the Second Congregational. That provides a natural “connect.”
PLANET: What do you say to those who see this move as a show of disrespect for Columbus?
RUBERTO: I can understand why people say that. I’m am of Italian ancestry, and Columbus is a giant figure in our cultural heritage, but I don’t think Christopher Columbus would have an issue in having the street named after Martin Luther King. Both were courageous, forward-looking people. No one, though, has had a greater impact on present-day America than Martin Luther King. This country changed, for the better, because of that man’s courage.
Ruberto rejected the notion that this was a move engendered by political correctness — that is, ditching the white, European for the black son of the Jim Crow South. He also dismissed that his proposed move was aimed at courting favor with Gov. Deval Patrick and a rumored job for Ruberto once he leaves office. Ruberto rejected naming King Street after MLK because the street is an insignificant by way and, basically, a dump. Ruberto added that he was in favor of “Columbus Avenue” being used for the name of another Pittsfield Street, to keep the Columbus name part of Pittsfield.
Third Street to be Named after Samuel Harrison
The Planet has heard through sources other than the mayor that when the Harrison House restoration is completed later this year, Ruberto will be looking to have Third Street renamed after Harrison. The mayor would not comment on that, up or down. He seemed surprised that we learned of this, which suggests that it is true. Certainly, the restoration of the Harrison House will be part of the mayor’s legacy, since it brings to the site the respect and honor it deserves.
Here’s Why ‘Columbus Avenue’ Should Remain ‘Columbus Avenue’
Ruberto makes a convincing case for naming a street after Martin Luther King, but The Planet disagrees that it should be Columbus Avenue. Our objections:
* The move is unnecessary
* Columbus Avenue is a major thoroughfare, with many people and mailing addresses, including seniors. Seniors depend heavily on federal checks (Social Security, Medicare, etc.). They generally don’t use computers. They receive the checks and most information by mail. When mail addresses change, you’re tempting fate. The Planet recalls the renumbering (not the renaming, which is more problematic) of East Center Street in Lee. It caused much chaos with the mail delivery.
* Every printed document, label, and list that has “Columbus Avenue” as an address will have to be changed. How will seniors know about this? One can’t assume they are paying close attention to city hall and city council initiatives.
* What do the citizens want, first, residents of Columbus Avenue, who will be the most affected, and second, citizens overall in the city? There is a petition circulating objecting to the mayor’s plan. By Tuesday, 70 had signed. Listen to the people. If they object, the move shouldn’t be done.
* There are less obtrusive ways of honoring Martin Luther King. Naming opportunities abound in public life. Why does it have to be one of Pittsfield major arteries?
* The objection can be raised also that Ruberto waited until now because he knew it would create a howl of protest. As a lame duck, he has no need to worry about what voters will think or do.
Who Is Rev. Samuel Harrison?
Here is information about Rev. Samuel Harrison. You will see the man’s historical signifiance not just to Pittsfield and New England, but to American itself.
This materials comes from the website, www.samuelharrison.org.
Samuel Harrison, was born into slavery in 1818 and found his way toPittsfield in 1850 to become the eloquent pastor of the Second Congregational Church. His congregation was small but his work for black equality put him on the national stage. He lectured and debated in cities up and down the East Coast and as far away as Seattle. For the most part, Rev. Harrison’s weapon was the pen rather than the sword. For more than 50 years he wrote passionate essays, pamphlets, sermons and books condemning racism on every level. In an age of lynchings and violent bigotry he feared no man and no man or institution was too big for him to challenge.
During the Civil War he went head to head with Abraham Lincoln over equal pay for blacks serving in the Union Army. He won. And in June 1864 Congress granted equal pay for the 180,000 blacks who fought on the side of the North. Rev. Harrison knew first-hand how badly blacks were treated in the military. He served as chaplain of the famed Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first all black infantry to fight in the Civil War. The exploits of this unit were dramatized in the movie “Glory,” which, coincidentally, had as its hero another Berkshires man. Robert Gould Shaw, the 26-year old colonel who commanded the 54th, lived in a house that stood on the site in Lenox where Ventfort Hall stands today.
Born: April 15, 1818 in Philadelphia, PA to enslaved parents. Samuel and his mother were given their freedom 3 years later.
Age 17 – felt a strong calling into the ministry while working for his uncle as an apprentice shoemaker. He had an equally strong desire to educate himself to fulfill that calling.
Age 18 – began attending Western Reserve College and Prepatory School (now known as Western Reserve Academy) from 1836 -1839.
Age 22 – married his childhood sweetheart & later moved to Newark NJ to operate a shoe shop while training as a minister under the tutelage of a former pastor of the 1st Congregational Church.
Age 32 (in 1850) – moved to Pittsfield to become the 1st pastor of the 2ndCongregational Church that was founded 4 years earlier in 1846 and located 2 blocks from the current site of Over the Rainbow restaurant.
Age 34 – purchased a building lot for $50 and had this house built 7 years later at a cost of $300; borrowing $50 from each of 3 abolitionist friends and securing a $150 mortgage from what is now Berkshire Bank. One of the 3 abolitionist friends was George Nixon Briggs, the Governor of Massachusetts from 1844-1851. Here Samuel Harrison lived with his wife Ellen and their 6 surviving children.
Age 44 – Resigned as pastor of the 2nd Congregational Church and was employed as an advocate and fundraiser for the National Freedmen’s Relief Society to aid the Freedmen of the sea islands of SC.
Age 45 (Aug 1863) – Mass Gov John A Andrew arrived by train from Boston to visit the widow of Colonel Robert Shaw who died during the assault on Fort Wagner near Charleston SC. Colonel Shaw led the 1st and most famous all black infantry to fight in the Civil War, the 54th Mass Infantry that was immortalized in the 1989 Academy Award winning film “Glory”. During the Gov’s visit he called upon Rev Harrison and asked him to go to SC to express the sympathy of the Commonwealth over the tragic death of Colonel Shaw and that of nearly half the members of the regiment who died during the disastrous assault on Fort Wagner. Just 2 days before the tragedy a letter was sent from Gov Andrew’s Military Sec’y to Colonel Shaw citing a “strong and unanimous” endorsement by the Governor of Mass, the President of Williams College, and highly respected clergy and laymen of Western Mass for Rev Harrison as the 1st Chaplain of the Mass 54th. Rev Harrsion reported for commissioning and duty at Morris Island, SC and states in his autobiography that he was treated “in all respects…same as other chaplains of a fairer hue.” But when payday came around “the paymaster refused to pay the men of the regiment the same amount paid to white troops because they were of African descent”. Harrison wrote, “Three months passed and no pay. I knew that my family’s means were nearly used up… My wife and six children, a debt of three hundred dollars on my house, and grocery bills. I had a hard burden to carry.” Chaplain Harrison filed a formal complaint to his superior officers, but to no avail. Harrison wrote, “I grew sick under the pressure.” So sick was he that he requested and received a medical discharge during his 4th month of service. He thereupon complained to Mass Gov Andrew at being declined equal pay on account of his African ancestry. Gov Andrew vigorously and repeatedly petitioned President Lincoln to honor Harrison’s claim for equal pay and that of all servicemen of African descent serving under an enlistment contract issued by the Sec of War acting under the orders of the President of the United States. In June 1864 legislation requiring equal pay, retroactive to Jan 1864, was passed in the army appropriations bill. Harrison states in his autobiography that it was suggested during his brief military service that he was “the victim” upon whom the whole matter of equal pay would turn and, as a consequence of the relationships he’d established with men of influence, that indeed was the case (At the bottom of this page are links to documents concerning the case of equal pay located at the Library of Congress).
Age 48 (1866) – Rev Harrison filled the pulpit of the Sanford Street Congregational Church (now St. John’s Congregational Church) in Springfield, MA. Rev Harrison served there as pastor until 1870.
Age 54 (1872) – Rev Harrison returned to pastor the 2nd Congregational Church where he continued to serve faithfully until the time of his death in 1900.
Age 64 (1882) – Rev Harrison began serving as Chaplain of the W.W. Rockwell Post of the Grand Army of the Republic. He served until 1884.
Died: August 11, 1900 in Pittsfield, MA
Rev. Samuel Harrison, Historical Timeline:
MANY PEOPLE WANT A PIECE OF THE PLANET TODAY, AND SO WE BID ADIEU FOR THE MOMENT.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE”
LOVE TO ALL.