Their Eyes, Their Faces

Thomas McKeller (detail), 1917-21, John Singer Sargent. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Thomas McKeller (detail), 1917-21, John Singer Sargent. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. McKeller was born in Wilmington, N.C., in 1890.

I always wonder what happened to them– the men, women and children that fled Wilmington, N.C., after whites started killing black people there in 1898.

Nobody really knows how many left. All we know is that their homes were shuttered, their businesses gone, their streets empty.

We know the stories that those who stayed told: about hundreds or even thousands of people hiding in the swamps as white people went on a rampage and killed black people in the streets.

After the shooting stopped and the bodies were collected, many black citizens left Wilmington and scattered across the U.S.

Unknown hundreds left immediately. Others left a year later or two, five or ten years later, after they realized that the massacre wasn’t the end of the violence or even the worst of the violence: it had become a way of life and all around them the casualties kept mounting.

And while we know they left, we rarely know what became of them.

McKeller was the Sargent's model for Atlas in Atlas and the Hesperides (1922-25) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

McKeller was Sargent’s model for Atlas in Atlas and the Hesperides (1922-25) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

But now and then, I run into them. African American families that I meet in Wilmington tell stories about them.

Or I stumble upon mention of them in old historical accounts when I am visiting archives and libraries in other parts of the country.

But those times are rare. In most cases, I am left to wonder what happened to them and where they ended up and what became of their lives.

After 9/11

I remember, after 9/11, the New York Times published stories about every single victim of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Each story had a photograph of the person and said at least a little about who they were and what they loved.

Many included a quote from a friend or relative. Some mentioned hobbies or maybe told a brief story about how they first came to America or what they liked most about being a firefighter or a police officer.

I found those stories deeply moving. They only gave us a glimpse at those people’s lives, but at least it was something.

I wish we could do something like that for all the people killed or driven out of Wilmington in 1898.

Not just the people that left right after the massacre, but also all those that fled Wilmington later.

of Boston's Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent, available from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

One of Sargent’s charcoal drawings of McKeller appears on the cover of Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent, available from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Maybe stories like the ones that the New York Times did on 9/11’s victims would make the victims of 1898 realer to us. Maybe we would remember them better than we do now.

I thought of all this a few days ago when I stumbled onto a reference to one of the survivors of Wilmington’s racial massacre in a place that I never would have expected to see it– a catalog for an art exhibit at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston.

The exhibit is called “Boston’s Apollo: Thomas McKeller and John Singer Sargent.”

Sargent was one of the great portrait painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the last part of the painter’s life, an African American man from Wilmington, Thomas McKeller, was one of his favorite models.

Sargent’s Boston Paintings

Between 1916 and his death in 1925, Sargent employed McKeller as a model in a remarkable series of charcoal drawings, paintings and murals.

Today most of that artwork is still in the Boston area.

In addition to the charcoal drawings at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum, you can find murals for which McKeller posed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Boston Public Library and Harvard’s Widener Library.

The Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum’s exhibit sounds interesting– complex, multi-layered and interesting.

But more than anything, what caught my eye was McKeller’s home, Wilmington, and when he was born there, 1890.

Study for Chiron and Achilles for the Rotunda of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1916–21), John Singer Sargent. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Study for Chiron and Achilles for the Rotunda of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1916–21), John Singer Sargent. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

In the exhibit’s catalog, I saw that McKeller family owned land at the corner of 5th and Nixon Street in Wilmington, not far from the current site of the 1898 Memorial Park and the historical marker for Abraham Galloway.

Thomas McKeller was baptized at St. Stephen AME Church, a church where I once spoke, and his father Elisha was an officer in the Giblem Lodge, the city’s first African American Masonic lodge.

Thomas McKeller came into the world at the beginning of a decade that briefly saw the city blossom with racial, cultural and political progress.

That all ended with the racial massacre in 1898, when McKeller was eight years old. He left Wilmington when he was 23.

He was one of the refugees. When he fled Wilmington, he was getting away from the ugly, hollowed out shell of a place that the city had become when the white supremacists came to power in 1898.

Thomas McKeller was also the model for Sargent's "Nude Man Standing" (ca. 1917-20) at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Courtesy, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Thomas McKeller was also the model for Sargent’s Nude Man Standing (ca. 1917-20), a charcoal drawing at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

McKeller may have been looking for more than one kind of freedom when he left Wilmington.  In a video interview accompanying the exhibit, his great-niece, Deidre O’Bryant, speculates that he may have also been looking for a home where it was not as dangerous to be a a gay man.

(I don’t know how much better the Boston area really was for a gay man. While McKeller lived in the city, even Harvard’s leaders waged a campaign to dismiss gay professors and expel gay students.)

McKeller came to Boston and eventually found a job as a bell hop and elevator attendant at the Hotel Vendome. Sargent stayed at the hotel when he was in Boston, and that’s where the two met.

The exhibit explores McKeller’s life, his relationship with Sargent and his influence on Sargent’s art.

It explores the homoerotic power of Sargent’s depictions of McKeller and the nature of the two men’s relationship. It also explores the dynamics of power, race and artistic representation in their collaboration.

The exhibit makes clear that McKeller did not have an easy life in Boston. But at least he had a life. At least he got out. At least he had a chance to love and be loved.

And now, unlike so many others that fled from Wilmington after 1898,  he is remembered.

From now on, I will look at Sargeant’s oil portrait of McKeller at the top of this page whenever the victims of 1898 seem like an abstraction to me because I do not know their names or what they looked like.

I will look at his eyes and I will look at how beautiful he is.

Then I will remember: that’s who they were trying to kill, and that’s who they killed. People like him.

Now I want to know what happened to all the others who fled Wilmington. I want to know where they ended up and what became of them. I want to see their eyes, their faces.

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