In honor of A. Philip Randolph’s 127th birthday, I wanted to write about this statue of the great civil rights leader at Union Station in Washington, D.C. Enjoy and let’s hope for a better recognition of his accomplishments in the future. For more information on Phil, check out the A. Philip Randolph Institute (http://apri.org/) or the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago (http://www.aphiliprandolphmuseum.com/)
A.(Asa) Philip Randolph (1889–1979) conceivably could have held a door open for Harriet Tubman and then—years later—helped Cornel West move into his freshman dorm, and still had time to change Ta-Nehisi Coates’s diaper. He probably didn’t. But he could have.
Randolph is a rare sort of generational bridge and it is criminally bizarre that more people don’t know about him. His earliest achievements were made with black railroad workers, fighting for unionization and workers’ rights on behalf of his fellow sleeping car porters in the 1920s. He is widely considered to be the crucial organizing force behind the 1963 March on Washington and spoke after Martin Luther King, Jr. (imagine that: MLK as the opening act). He met with three different presidents, probably most importantly FDR, when he threatened to organize a march on D.C. in 1941 if the military industrial workplace weren’t racially integrated. His relative obscurity in American classrooms may be an accident of history, or perhaps just a result of his relatively secular and socialist leaning, characteristics not particularly celebrated during the Cold War. Suffice it to say: Randolph was a rock star and deserves to be remembered.
The American landscape bears a few reminders of Randolph, but not nearly as many as MLK. Streets, parks, schools, and institutions in cities ranging from Jacksonville, Florida (his hometown), to New York City (his adopted hometown), bear his name, not to mention Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit. In 1990, the sculptor Ed Dwight added to the Randolph canon with a bronze statue dedicated at the concourse of Union Station in Washington, D.C. and donated by the AFL-CIO. Randolph spoke at major universities, before hundreds of thousands at the 1963 March on Washington, and with presidents, but today, he holds forth just outside of a Starbucks in one of the busiest railroad stations in the country, one hand held out professorially to make a point, and the other holding a pair of glasses. Or, at least what is left of them.
It may seem odd that an archaeologist would take an interest in a 1990s statue of a civil rights deity. Archaeology is popularly understood as a study of past cultures through their material culture, usually including ancient artifacts. Many archaeologists, however, apply the same principles to our modern world, distilling the discipline down to a study of people and their stuff. It’s a great way to observe how our own material culture factors into our daily interactions with others and the creation of our own identity.
But, back to those glasses. Randolph’s glasses exemplify the crazy circle of logic that connects form, function, and meaning. The statue still holds just the right eyepiece and part of the right temple. This suggests that the glasses broke not once, but twice. But, that only accounts for the present pair of glasses. In an email, Mr. Dwight mentioned they were actually the statue’s second pair.
I did a Google image search to see if I could pin down when the glasses were broken. The earliest mention of the Randolph statue I could find came from an article in the George Washington University student paper, The Hatchet, from 2000. The author mentioned the statue by the baggage claim area “holding his glasses in one hand.” While this is not entirely explicit, it does suggest a whole pair of spectacles, since they are barely noticeable when broken. Sometime after 2000, then, the glasses were snapped off. A Flickr post from 2006: broken glasses. A 2012 article in the New Republic: statue present, glasses missing. Another blog post from 2012 highlighting D.C.’s monuments to labor shows the statue: sans lunettes. Finally, a 2013 blog post about a family trip to the “Let Freedom Ring” march in D.C.: no glasses.
Archaeologists try to find the function and meaning behind the physical form of artifacts. That search is sometimes an attempt to understand why a seemingly anachronistic design persists when better technology is available, or why an altruistic behavior persists in a society regardless of its potentially negative effects. I’m not a sculptor, but it seems to me that a pair of bronze specs in a concourse where millions of people traverse each year have all the tensile resilience of a Doozer condo during a Fraggle famine. Maybe you could hang a scarf on them, but definitely not a winter coat.
So, why put a pair of glasses in Randolph’s hand at all? Why not in his coat pocket or on his face? If the purpose of a statue, presumably, is to honor and preserve public memory, then it may mean that the glasses in this case probably have more to do with meaning than function.
I noticed something a little odd while reading about Randolph online. A search of the Digital Public Library of America (dp.la) and the American Memory photograph collection on the Library of Congress found very few photographs of Randolph with glasses. Unfortunately, most of the photos at the Library of Congress are only available in large-scale format at the library, but out of 156 images listed, only one had a pair of glasses in the frame: lying on the desk in front of him during an interview in his office. Another photo found through dp.la and held by the Smithsonian depicted Randolph at Howard University speaking with a group of women in 1960. The women stood around Randolph as he held a document in one hand (maybe signing an autograph on the event program) and a pair of glasses in his other hand.
Based on what we know up to now about Randolph’s glasses, they may seem like a thoughtless weakness, a design liability. Broken twice, no one has bothered to fix them in at least a decade, so why bother putting them there in the first place? While they may seem like a pointless attempt at prop placement, or a functionless affect, one particular account of Randolph may hold a clue to their meaning.
Just a few years before Randolph’s death in 1979, Jervis Anderson wrote one of only two biographies of the civil rights leader. Anderson’s serialized biography in the New Yorker in 1972 was followed by a book published the following year based on interviews with Randolph and his friends and colleagues. Anderson had intimate access to Randolph and an insight into his mannerisms, personality, and spirit absent from other accounts written years later. Early on in the book, he constructs a character of “formal cordiality,” based on the impressions of Randolph’s contemporaries, which included a stiff dignity and vanity that framed his public intercourse with blacks and whites alike. Just a handful of pages into the book’s prologue, Anderson takes the reader inside Randolph’s office on 125th Street in Harlem:
A visitor’s first impression of Randolph’s office was one of serenity, especially when he was there working quietly, his horn-rimmed glasses in place, and looking—despite his splendid presence—somewhat lonely in the large, slightly darkened room. The first impression of his office would endure, but that glimpse of him was usually fleeting. No sooner did a visitor enter than Randolph laid aside his work, took off his glasses, and left his desk to meet his guest in the middle of the room…This appearance, together with the gracefulness of his movement and the slightly studied fluency of his gestures, suggested some past attachment to matters of fashion and an enduring one to the idea of style. (Anderson 1973, p. 7–emphasis mine)
This passage is a first visual impression of Randolph and places him in a familiar setting. Anderson suggests that the “glasses in place” were part of Randolph’s private persona: necessary for work but removed promptly when the time came for social interactions. The passage gives the impression that the writer is little more than a “fly on the wall” in what is a private space for Randolph. Knock on the door, the glasses come off, and Randolph brings his tall frame out from behind to desk to greet his visitor.
Unlike Bayard Rustin, Randolph’s contemporary and friend, or Malcolm X, whose tortoise-framed glasses were an iconic part of their look, Anderson seems to suggest that the removal of the glasses was more of a part of Randolph’s public persona than their intended function. Malcolm X bought his trademark glasses to replace a prison-issued pair he wore to correct an astigmatism. These became “part of the aesthetic tools that defined him as a man on a spiritual and political mission,” and an artifact symbolizing “the practical and personal meaning of professionalism” for X, as described by Carol Tulloch in her new book, The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives of the African Diaspora. For Randolph, taking off the glasses was part of the “lithe, smart movement” and “studied fluency of his gestures,” described by Anderson.
Today, when you come out of Starbucks, checking your email as you walk to meet your train, you may not notice Randolph’s statue. If you did, you might be prompted to duck under his outstretched hand. Union Station has moved the statue several times and its current position is a little awkward for its obtrusiveness. Tim Noah wrote about this for the New Republic in 2012, stating that the statue moved from just outside the men’s room (and don’t even get me started on the unfortunate, but probably unintended, racial space implications of this placement) to its current position. But, the 2013 blog post shows the statue in the station’s magnificent, but currently under renovation, main lobby, next to a wreath, probably in commemoration of the 50-year anniversary of the March on Washington. An ambitious recently announced plan spells out even greater changes to the station and perhaps new locations for Randolph’s statue, sort of like an Elf-on-the-Shelf game for bronzed civil rights leaders. (pssst, how ‘bout considering a new name for the joint?).
Based on accounts of Randolph’s persona, the current placement is out of character with Anderson’s “certain version of the gentleman,” and more like a man desperate to get your attention, hand outstretched, “Do you have a second to talk?” The glasses in Randolph’s hand function more as an inside joke or a personal characteristic noticed only by people who knew Randolph well, rather than an actual element of style or a necessary corrective. If they were on his face, would the bronze Randolph be easily confused with Rustin or Malcolm X? Photographic accounts of Randolph don’t support their existence, but the private and personal memory documented by Anderson places this artifact in a context unique to his mannerisms and personality.
The plaque on the statue’s base contains a quote from Randolph, in which he states, “You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold.” Randolph earned those glasses. He may only hold a fragment of them, but he really should keep them. And if he can get a better spot in Union Station’s future, I’m sure he’d take that too.