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A human skeleton displayed in a Connecticut museum piqued curiosity and sparked speculation for years. In 1996 historians began to unlock the mysteries held in the bones, finding they belonged to a slave named Fortune, and were to use as a teaching tool for years after his death. Debate continues about the future of Fortune’s bones, but the stories behind his skeleton are very much alive.
- Ysaye Maria Barnwell, PhD Composer, Fortunes Bones Cantata; President and Member, Sweet Honey In The Rock
- Marilyn Nelson Professor of English, University of Connecticut, Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. This much was known about the skeleton that hung in a Connecticut museum for decades, it was human. It was real, and its name was Larry, at least that was the name scrawled on his skull. Local children were both frightened and intrigued by the bones, crafting local lore about where it had come from and what Larry's life had been. Eventually, historians were hired to unlock the mystery, and the truth they uncovered is even more shocking than the myths.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio to discuss this is Ysaye Barnwell. She is a composer, singer, educator, author and researcher well known for her work with the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Ysaye Barnwell, good to see you again.
DR. YSAYE MARIA BARNWELLOh, thank you, Kojo. It's great to be here.
NNAMDIAlways a pleasure. In 1999, a group in Waterbury, Conn. started to investigate the skeleton story. They soon found out that the man whose bones it was made of was not named Larry after all. What is his name, and what do we know about his life?
BARNWELLWell, we've been calling him Fortune, but the reality is we don't know whether Fortune is his first name, his last name or his real name. He is a man who was enslaved in the household of a physician, Dr. Preserved Porter. I always think his first name is fascinating...
BARNWELL...because of what followed. So we refer to his as Fortune or with respect to him as Mr. Fortune. But it would be good to know if that was his real name, actually.
NNAMDIIf you are interested in this story, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Are you familiar with the story of Fortune's bones, or are you hearing it for the first time today? Either way, we imagine you've got questions about it. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. While the idea of Fortune's body being used for medical research, probably without his permission, shocks our sensibilities today, stealing bodies for medical purposes was once quite common, wasn't it?
BARNWELLYes. It was very common. And, actually, in some forms, it still exists today, particularly if you think about unidentified bodies who may have been just abandoned, who -- people who have no families or their families don't know that something has happened to them, are now still being used as medical specimen. There's a fascinating book called "Medical Apartheid," written by Harriet Washington, which catalogs this and many, many other kinds of abuses of black bodies, whether they're used for medical research, whether they've been included in circuses around the world.
BARNWELLNo matter how they've been used, she has looked at this in depth.
NNAMDIIndeed, exploitation of minorities and the poor did not end when grave robbing stopped. Is Fortune's story a precursor of sorts to the more familiar legacies of the Tuskegee experiments in Henrietta Lacks?
BARNWELLI certainly put Fortune at the beginning of that curve because he died in 1798. I found it fascinating that Ms. Washington -- Dr. Washington didn't include Fortune, to my knowledge, in her book. So Fortune was early on. And, during that time, the study of medicine included, as it still does, the use of cadavers so that people can learn about human anatomy. And I think Dr. Porter wanted to also teach colleagues and members of his family more about medical anatomy.
BARNWELLAnd so, for this reason and because access to black bodies has been easier than to other kinds of bodies and because, very often, medical schools are actually situated very near or inside of black or poor communities, the access to black bodies has been much more available.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Ysaye Barnwell. She's a composer, singer, educator, author and researcher, best known for her work with the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Now, we get to the part about your involvement in this and how that evolved. Marilyn Nelson at the time, the poet laureate of Connecticut, was commissioned to tell Fortune's story by way of poetry. Then you were commissioned to put that story to music. Tell us about that process.
BARNWELLYes. I think it's important to say that there is a committee in Waterbury of people who were looking at African-American heritage and who had begun by interviewing everyone over 80. And the story of Fortune started coming out during that process. At the end of a long process where they interviewed people, they commissioned a play. And when they began researching Fortune, they wanted to do the same thing, to somehow put this story in the form of art so that it could be communicated to a wider group of people around the country.
BARNWELLAnd so they commissioned Marilyn to write the poem for me. Someone who I am still trying to locate wrote to me and said she had heard Marilyn read this poem. She said she was looking for a composer. This person wrote to me and said, I think you're going to be interested in this. I was deeply interested. I contacted Marilyn. Marilyn contacted the Waterbury Symphony, who had been looking for a composer and had come up with several suggestions that didn't feel right. And Marilyn encouraged them to consider me, which they did, and, ultimately, I was commissioned to set this poem to music.
NNAMDIWell, we'll talk about a specific poem later in the broadcast, and I'm probably going to ask you to read it. But had you heard about his story before being asked to tell it?
BARNWELLNo, I had not. It was not until I got the email from this woman telling me about the poem. I went online. I looked for it. I found it. And at that point I thought, oh, my goodness, I really would love to work on this project. It had so many questions. And when I started talking to the people at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, I had listed about 50 questions that I thought, you know, if we do this as a larger project in addition to the performance, I would hope that some of these questions would be answered by the time the project was done.
BARNWELLBut I think, actually, they'll probably make many more questions instead of...
NNAMDII was about to say, because you and I have worked together on this at the University of Maryland, and I wanted to ask, how much progress have you made with a 50-question answer? How far have you gotten?
BARNWELLI think I'm developing another list of 50.
NNAMDIBecause there are literally hundreds of questions that...
NNAMDI...float through the mind when one reads this story. Let's talk a little bit more about what's going to be happening at the University of Maryland because Chris in Silver Spring, Md., on the phone, would like to ask or talk about that. Hi, Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISKojo, thank you for accepting my call, and I commend your show. I watch it -- I listen to you every day.
CHRISNow, can you tell me when the -- when you will be at the University of Maryland? I go to the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center quite often for a number of the plays and other cultural events that they have, and I definitely want to come and see your performance.
BARNWELLYes. Thank you. The performances are Feb. 25 and 26 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. There will be a full orchestra, a 200-voice choir, an African bell choir and eight soloists, so I do hope that you'll come out and hear this performance.
NNAMDIChris, thank you very much. You missed a couple of sessions that we've already had at the Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts about this, but...
NNAMDI...those are available. If you go to our website, kojoshow.org, you can find links there to all of the activity that has taken place at the University of Maryland Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center over "Fortune's Bones."
CHRISThank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you very much for calling. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. You can also send email to email@example.com, a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org. Your first reaction when you heard the story was, for me, amazing because I did not know your non-musical, non-artistic background, if you will. So talk about how this first struck you, what you did in another life.
BARNWELLWell, yes. I have to admit, sometimes reluctantly, that my...
NNAMDIYou sound like a lawyer or recovering lawyer.
BARNWELLWell, my doctoral dissertation was an anatomical study at the University of Pittsburgh. And I also had been on the faculty at Howard University and so had observed students doing dissections, et cetera. So when I first heard this, I wasn't horrified by the fact of dissection. I was horrified by the fact that the body of an enslaved person, African, had been utilized in this way. He couldn't possibly have given consent because he had already passed on.
BARNWELLInformed consent didn't exist until this -- shortly before this century when people were asked -- beginning to ask that folks sign, that they consented to medical procedure. So I was horrified because of the circumstance of this story and the fact that the body remained in the family, the skeleton remained in the family until 1930 when it was given to the Mattatuck Museum by a family member. And then...
NNAMDIWe're talking about from the 18th century.
BARNWELLFrom -- that's correct. And then the Mattatuck Museum had the skeleton fully articulated and hung it for 40 years in the museum for all of the school children and all of the museum visitors to come and see "Larry," which is the name someone had written across the scalp, to see the skeleton hanging there.
NNAMDIThat sound you hear is my teeth gritting. But one of the things that's striking about Marilyn Nelson's "Manumission Requiem" is how celebratory it is, putting an emphasis on the freedom that Fortune finds in death. But when you set about the work of putting Maryland's poetry to music, you weren't sold on the idea of using a celebratory second-line sound from a New Orleans funeral as a model. Why not?
BARNWELLWell, the fact is that a New Orleans funeral has two sections. It has the dirge as one is going to the cemetery, and it has the joyful pace at the end with the second line, where people really are celebrating the fact that this person lived. And the community joins in and celebrates with the rest of the family. I didn't want to do -- it felt too easy to go there. And so I made some choices about including the elements, but from a really different perspective.
BARNWELLSo what I start with is a choir of traditional African bells, which clatter and then go into a rhythm, and the rhythm is picked up by some of the instruments in the orchestra. So that rhythm, which is -- has a kind of busyness to it, is going at the same time that the dirge is being played by the low brass instruments. And one of the things that I thought about when I was doing this was if Fortune were to hear this now, he would be hearing contemporary Africa. He would be hearing contemporary African-American sounds, and I wanted to blend those as part of his funeral march.
NNAMDILet's go to Harold in Oakton, Va. Harold, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HAROLDYeah. Kojo, I'm listening, and I'm surprised that a very important issue has not come up.
HAROLDMy whole family have donated their bodies to science, to the Virginia Anatomical Society. Fifteen years ago, my wife died. Her body was immediately taken to them. And, hopefully, some current-day doctors and nurses were able to use her cadaver, as you're calling it, to train themselves or get trained upon. And I'm surprised that issue did not come up. You talk about getting cadavers, but how about the donation, body donation? There's quite a few of us who do this.
NNAMDIActually, Ysaye Barnwell did mention that in one of her responses, that people, in fact, now donate either their entire bodies or parts of their bodies to science. I guess the distinction in the case of the man we now know as Mr. Fortune is that he didn't have a choice, did he?
BARNWELLHe did not have a choice. He was owned by the man who made the decision to utilize his body for science -- scientific and medical purposes. I applaud people, and I have made a similar decision myself in the past because it's important that students who are learning medicine in various medical fields have real specimen to study. So when we make a conscious choice that we'd like to donate our bodies, I think that is an amazing and wonderful thing.
BARNWELLIt is when we do not make that choice, when someone else makes that choice for us, when there is no consent from family, from the person, when tissues are removed from our bodies and are not disposed of, but are given to scientists or researchers who are in the process of developing new products from those tissues, that, I think, is when we get into real trouble because consent has not actually or really been given.
NNAMDIFortune died, as we said earlier, in 1798, around the age of 60, but he was baptized in the Episcopal Church in December of 1797. Do you think that Dr. Preserved Porter had a role in that baptism? Because, obviously, that occurred not long before Fortune's death. And do you see any significance there at all?
BARNWELLI'm reluctant to link those two together. I don't know how it is that Fortune developed a relationship with the Episcopal Church. I'm very curious. Some of my questions have to do...
BARNWELLWell, yes, with the role of the Episcopal Church in slavery because we see it in Rhode Island. We see it in Connecticut. We see it in Massachusetts. We do not see it in the South, where the Baptist and the Methodist seem to have taken hold in terms of the religions that are practiced and are spread to slave communities. So I'm very fascinated with how Fortune might have been related.
BARNWELLI'm also fascinated with the fact that there's no mention that his wife or four children were also baptized, and I don't know why one and not the other. And I don't know if it's significant that he was baptized only a year before he died.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, but I'm going to throw out a provocative question here to the members of our listening audience. It has not yet been resolved about what is to be done with Fortune. Do you think that he should be laid to rest or that research on his remains should continue? 800-433-8850. Do you think Fortune should be laid be to rest or that research on his remains should be allowed to continue? 800-433-850 or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Ysaye Barnwell. She is a composer, singer, educator, author and researcher, well-known for her work with the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and now involved in the production coming Feb. 25.
NNAMDIAnd 26th, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. How did you get involved with the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center? And this has become a university-wide project.
BARNWELLAnd a community-wide project.
NNAMDIAnd a community-wide project.
BARNWELLYes, absolutely. A colleague of mine, who is at the University of Maryland, Alvin Mayes, in the dance department, mentioned to his colleagues that this piece had been written and performed. They were fascinated. They asked me to come in and discuss it. They decided that they would like to include it as a centerpiece for their 10th anniversary celebration.
BARNWELLAnd as we continued to talk about the story of Fortune, they began to understand how big the project could be and how many questions there were and thought that it would really be good to involve as many aspects of the university and the community. And this is possible, so they asked me to be the curator for this project. And I agreed to do it because...
BARNWELL...it's one of the most incredible projects I've been involved in. And so, yes, we have anthropology. We have medicine. We have law. We have history, African-American studies. All of these departments at the university are involved in this. And it is a project that has put "Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem" poem on the ninth grade reading list throughout the Prince George's County. So it's pretty big.
NNAMDIAnd it is our hope that this is making Mr. Fortune proud. His voice is not the only one that tells history. We also hear from generations of Porters and from Fortune's wife, Dinah. "Dinah's Lament" may be the most powerful piece in a collection of emotionally-charged work. Would you kindly read it for us?
BARNWELLAbsolutely. "Ms. Lydia doesn't clean the doctor room. She say she can't go in that room. She's scared. She make me take the dust rug and the broom and clean around my husband hanging there. Since she's seen Fortune head in that big pot, Ms. Lydia say that room make her feel ill, sick with the thought of boiling human broth. I wonder how she think that make me feel to dust the hands what used to stroke my breast, to dust the arms what hold me when I cried, to dust where his soft lips were, and his chest what curved its warm against my back at night."
BARNWELL"Through every season, sun up to star light, I heft, I scrub, I knead: one black women alone, except for my children. The world so white and nobody know my pain but Fortune Bones."
NNAMDIWhen I read that poem -- and I guess this is what poets do, they surf to inspire the imagination. When I read that poem, it did not occur to me, until that moment, that after Fortune died, his wife was still serving the Porter family.
BARNWELLAnd his children were still there.
NNAMDIAnd his children were still there, and so his skeleton was in a place where they could see it every day. And she presumably had to do the cleaning around them.
NNAMDIIt boggles the imagination to think of the daily emotions that somebody like that, his wife, had to go through every day.
BARNWELLIt really -- it does boggle the imagination. And I wonder what kind of reaction or response she got from the community, the community of her peers who worked in other people's homes who knew about this. It just...
NNAMDIWell, if you go to our website, you can also see the video of Ysaye Barnwell singing "Dinah's Lament." If you have questions, call us at 800-433-8850. Again, the question, do you think Fortune should be laid to rest or that research on his remains should continue? Obviously, this is a community that's very torn about this because, on the one hand, you have people who say, enough.
NNAMDIFortune has been exploited and used enough. On the other hand, you have people who say, no, this is both a unique opportunity for us because, with the use of more advanced science, we can find out more about Fortune. We know the injuries he suffered during life. We know the kind of work he might -- he was doing. This can also give us the opportunity to learn even more about the life of people who were enslaved around their time. And Mr. Fortune now belongs to the world in perpetuity, so he should remain. How do you resolve that dispute? Where do you come down?
BARNWELLWell, as a scientist and as an artist and as an African-American, I have really different perspectives. I do want to say that, in addition to what we have learned about him already, with improved science, we may, in fact, be able to test his DNA. Now, it's an obvious question why haven't -- hasn't that been done. Part of the reason is that Dr. Porter boiled all of the soft tissue off the bones in order to be sure that they were absolutely clean.
BARNWELLAnd with that, they took away all of the soft tissue, which might have been available for DNA testing, but the testing is becoming more and more sophisticated every day. It would be lovely to know where, in fact, Fortune came from. And that is the way to find that out. So, in a sense, there are probably many other kinds of tests that will emerge that will tell us even more.
BARNWELLThese bones, unlike any other human bones that we know about, are "pristine." They've not been buried. And so they remain in a uniquely pristine form for looking at. Now, the question is, what -- when is enough enough? And I don't know how to answer that question. Although, I lean towards Fortune having some form of respectful burial. I don't know whether there are some in between.
BARNWELLI guess, for me, the in between is out of African tradition, which is that if you are going to approach something or someone about looking at them, studying them, utilizing them in some way, if one does it with respect and asks their permission, it may, in fact, be OK, and so...
NNAMDIWell, here is what Evelyn in Baltimore, Md. has a question about, and this is, I think, of crucial importance. Evelyn, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EVELYNGood afternoon. My feeling is that if there are any identifiable descendants of Mr. Fortune, then these are the people who would make that decision as to whether his remains should be interred or whether they should continue to be used for medical research. Personally, I think his remains should be interred. And it's really very difficult to imagine what his family could have encountered just being there, knowing this is my father, this is my husband, and he was literally boiled. Well, he was boiled, and it's just awful. So...
NNAMDIWell, there has been quite a bit of work putting -- to trying to find any descendants.
BARNWELLYes, that is -- the question that you raised is the most profound one. Where are his ancestors? We do not know. And, without DNA, without people hearing the story who may actually have been hearing it passed down from generation to generation, I don't know how we will discover those ancestors. We are hoping that somehow they will surface because it is only they who can really make that decision.
NNAMDIYou're exactly right, Evelyn. And the work goes on. On now to Gary in Milwaukee, Wis. Gary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GARYThanks for taking my call, Kojo. The question I have is, is this whole thing a circus about the same time as "the dirty little secret about slavery in Connecticut," which had been hidden for so long by the Brahmins and blue bloods almost denying that it existed? And I think about the same time they had actually uncovered a slave cemetery, which no one had wanted to talk about, has this kind of brought that whole issue to the fore and made people look at the reality of what was actually going on in the North as well as the South?
NNAMDIBecause Connecticut isn't a state most of us associate with slave.
BARNWELLRight. Most of us don't think about slavery in the North at all, but I do feel like, you know, sometimes there's a readiness time, a period when things begin to reveal themselves. And it feels like it happens within a circumspect period of time that all of these things begin to manifest. So we have the burial grounds in New York. We have these situations in Connecticut. We have the revelations about the family, the Brown family in Rhode Island, as well another family in Bristol, R.I. who were heavily involved in the slave trade.
BARNWELLAnd so I think we're beginning to really just uncover a lot of information about slavery in the North, beginning to understand what has happened and what the connections are with slavery in the South because there obviously are relationships. A good book to read is called "Complicity." I'm sorry I don't have the name of the author at my disposal right now. But I'll give it to Kojo, and he can put it on the site. But it looks at slavery in the North and many of these issues -- excuse me.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Gary. We have the good fortune, even though we're running out of time, to be joined by the poet Marilyn Nelson, author and poet. She is the former poet laureate of the state of Connecticut and professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut. She joins us by phone from Minnesota. Marilyn Nelson, thank you so much for joining us.
PROF. MARILYN NELSONThank you, Kojo. Kojo, I'm so sorry I couldn't join you earlier (unintelligible) writing workshop.
NNAMDIYeah, I knew you have responsibilities, but we're glad you took the opportunity to join us in the minute or two we have remaining. You were commissioned to turn Fortune's story into a work of art. How did that happen? And had you heard his story before being asked to tell it?
NELSONYes, sir. Marie Galbraith, who was the director of the Mattatuck Museum, called and asked whether I would be willing to write something to honor a skeleton in the museum collection. I had not heard the story before, and she sent me the research materials that the historians and anthropologists had come up with and asked me to just sit down and write something about Fortune.
NNAMDIWhat was your first reaction when you learned the story?
NELSONMy first reaction was the same one that I think many people in the city of Waterbury had, which was just to be horrified by the apparent inhumanity of Dr. Porter in taking -- using the body of someone he had known. I find that really horrifying, sort of macabre in a kind of ghoulish way. So I've done -- the first poem I wrote was the one in the voice of Dinah.
NNAMDI"Dinah's Lament," which was just read for by Ysaye Barnwell. I'm afraid we've just about run out of time, but what I can say is that what you did was turned this into a thing of beauty. And so the "Manumission Requiem" will be on display Feb. 25 and 26 at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. Marilyn Nelson, thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIMarilyn Nelson is an author and poet, former poet laureate of the state of Connecticut and professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut. Ysaye Barnwell is a composer, singer, educator, author and researcher. Ysaye Barnwell, always a pleasure.
BARNWELLThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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