Echoes of the Past Come Alive at the Penington Friends House
by Todd Drake
Late at night in the summer of 2020, standing in the backyard of the Penington Friends House in Manhattan, the city was eerily quiet due to the Covid pandemic. Echoing off the tall surrounding apartment buildings, you could hear the faint sound of people chanting “Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter.” That summer of protest deeply moved the residents of the Penington. While being extremely Covid careful, most of us still found ways to participate in the BLM movement: some marched, some documented participants with photographs, some gave out water to passing marchers. One march even went right up 15th Street in front of our building, our hastily put up BLM signs and flags bringing smiles to those passing by.
Our community, including residents, the board, and staff, began reading and discussing the BLM movement. Todd Drake, a manager, and Jimmy Manocchio, a long time resident and illustrator designed a BLM mural with input from our Jawad Rayan. Everyone in the house including board members painted the mural one summer night.
While immediately cheered by many passing by, the mural seemed like a beautiful cover to a book in need of a new chapter. The first chapter belonged to Penington’s founding board members. This included Phebe Thorne who was a plain Quaker who envisioned the Penington as a safe home for youth moving to the city. She left money in her estate to set up a free residency at the house. Mariana Wright Chapman was another early board member. She and her husband were vigorous advocates for the rights of slaves and women. During the Civil War they were both active in the Underground Railroad. She led Suffragette organizations at the state and national level and was called many times to speak in Albany before the legislatures by Governor Theodore Roosevelt. Anna Rice Powell and her husband, who were also both members of the first board at the Penington, were antislavery advocates and fought for prison reform, the rights of women, and Native Americans. Her husband, Aaron Powell, was “consecrated by Sojourner Truth '' and lectured in the American AntiSlavery Society. Anna also promoted health care for prostitutes and other women in prison.
But what chapter could we write today as a mostly white institution? The idea of giving all we had to offer, our home and ourselves took form as a residency dedicated to addressing racism. Initially proposed by Todd Drake, the Penington’s director of Outreach, Drake shared the idea with the board of directors and the residents. Everyone embraced the idea, recognizing the potential it had to help the cause and to transform the Penington and help the wider Quaker community.
Bayard Rustin, the important but little known Quaker Civil Rights activist who advised Martin Luther King Jr. and who attended the 15th Street Meeting, located next to the Penington, came to mind as an inspiring role model. His life matched many of our community’s own members’ passions for the arts, social activism, and seeking to live by the Quaker principles of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship. Todd reached out to Walter Naegle, Bayard’s surviving partner and the person who has done the most to ensure Bayard’s legacy. Walter also supported the idea while stressing that the selected artist or activist embrace the non-violent, inclusive, approach so central to Bayard’s life work.
With board support, it was decided that the house would offer a year’s free room and board to a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Person of Color) artist or activist. Their only requirement was to complete a project designed to address racism in the United States and to share that project with the wider Quaker community. A Quaker BIPOC selection committee was formed to select applicants with the strongest proposals.
After many meetings and interviews the committee selected Desmond Beach, a powerful African-American visual artist from Maryland. The house residents had the final interview to make sure the recommended resident could successfully live in a collaborative setting.
We will always remember that final interview. Desmond sat in the Penington’s parlor beneath the new beautiful, hung, portrait of Bayard Rustin that had been gifted to the house by Walter Naegle. Desmond’s warm and open heart won over the house almost instantly. After the interview ended a social media reminder photo popped up on our phones. It was a photo of the house painting our BLM mural exactly one year earlier. A new chapter had been written.
Desmond was approved by the residents and will move into the Penington to begin his work in late September of 2021. His project will involve creating a mixed media art exhibit and performance that pulls from historic and contemporary imagery, the intent being to bring healing to the African-American Community. He will share his work and this healing event with the Quake community as well.
The first year of this residency has been funded by the Bayard Rustin Fund, the Penington Board, New York Yearly Meeting, New York Quarterly Meeting, Brooklyn Monthly Meeting, and individual donors. You can make a donation to fund future residencies by going to our website: www.penington.org. Please reach out to us if you would like to make a large donation.
You can Google “Desmond Beach artist”, to see examples of his amazing art or you can go to www.desmondbeach.com. Be sure to follow the Penington Friends House on Instagram, too, at @penington_friends_house to stay up to date with his progress and for opportunities to experience his art.
Questions about the residency can be directed to Todd Drake at [email protected]