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I have always been fascinated by the stories behind the scenes – the people who made the historic homes we all like to visit so interesting. I just want to pull up a few additional chairs around the period furnishings and let the elegant atmosphere fill me in on what great conversations were had at the table in the dining room or who sat next to who to cool off on those hot afternoons while sipping sweet tea on that large porch. If only these unique venues could tell us all their secrets.
Living history museums are the next best thing – where you can learn about the local history in an ideal setting, while on public tours.
The Weeden House Museum is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Huntsville Alabama and I was graced with a visit. Having been Northern Sympathizers in the Civil War, Huntsville has one of the largest collections of Antebellum homes available to examine, and they all have their own story to tell.
In the heart of downtown Huntsville, in the historic Twickenham district, is the birthplace of artist Howard Weeden.
As I stood in the elegant setting of the room Howard both was born and had died in, I listened to the celebrated artist of African Americans be championed by Gina James, the Managing Director of the Weeden House Museum.
Who was Howard Weeden?
Maria Howard Weeden was an American folk artist from Huntsville, Alabama, who primarily worked with pen and ink. Her drawings depicted the everyday life of African Americans in the Reconstruction-era South.
Yes, Howard was a she.
During the Civil War
While Huntsville was Yakee occupied and Yankee-friendly, there were still challenges. With no men around, Howard and 2 other female family members had short notice of eviction placed on them as soldiers were to take over their home. They had to move into the slave quarters – so over a dozen people were to share a 300-square-foot space.
That didn’t last long and the women relocated for the duration of the war to Tuskegee Alabama where the oldest daughter was away at college. This let Thomas study too 0 and learn from painter William Frye.
When they returned home, it was to an empty house that needed a lot of work and to be fully refurnished.
That was going to take money – and Howard stepped up to support the Weeden family.
What was amazing about her?
She was tiny. She was legally blind by today’s standards. She was self-taught with her art. She had tuberculosis. She was determined.
I would have loved to have known her – anyone with that kind of determination and work ethic is my soul sister.
Being visually challenged she had to work on her art with supplies being literally inches away from her face and her horsehair brushes sported only 2-3 bristles.
She started small with commission work and things took off.
She made everything from dinner party place cards to copying art from books for her friends.
African American Art
She did portraits of people.
The final results were amazing as they didn’t look like paintings but had almost photographic perfection.
She managed to capture the spirit of the people she knew and grew up with instead of the popular fictionalized “Mammie” and “Uncle Tom” depictions that were shared at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. That is not how she saw the friends she had grown up loving.
Why was the Uncle Tom Image so Popular?
It was the book by Harriet Beecher Stowe that came out in 1852. It was called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and it helped fuel the abolitionist movement. It also led to the Civil War with its depiction of slavery, cruelty, and hard-ships.
Even “Mammie” was a fictionalized character.
A mammy, sometimes spelled mammies, was a term used in the United States for a black woman who worked as a nanny and/or housekeeper. The word mammy originated as an alteration of mamma, meaning mother.
Mammies were commonly portrayed as fat, jolly women who wore scarves around their heads and aprons around their waists.
Just look at how it took over 100 years to get “Uncle Ben” off rice and “Aunt Jemima” off pancake syrup. That imagery was perpetuated even by Hollywood!
Howard Weeden’s art was different.
She depicted the everyday life of African Americans in the Reconstruction-era South.
One of my favorite Weeden quotes is: “I give the people what they want because I know that is what they need.”
She was ahead of her time in so many ways.
Howard Hits Europe
Her art resonated with people, thanks in part to her good friend Elizabeth who championed her work and helped build Harold a European following.
In 1895, Weeden exhibited several portraits of African-American freedmen and freedwomen in Berlin and Paris, where they were well received. This is where she would connect with writer Joel Chandler Harris who wrote the foreword to her book Bandanna Ballads in 1899.
It resonated with people, thanks in part to her good friend Elizabeth who championed her work and helped build Harold a European following.
Poet Maria Howard Weeden
Weeden also wrote poetry, and she combined both poetry and art in her four books published between 1898 and 1904. Some of her poems were written in the black dialect, now known as African-American English, as she was inspired by stories and folktales told to her by her subjects when they were sitting for portraits.
While I could see samples of her books in the display cases of the Weeden House Museum, I couldn’t touch them – what a treasure that would be to simply page through!
It’s amazing to think about all she accomplished – and we still have her work to appreciate today!
Check it out for yourself
If you’re ever in Huntsville, Alabama – be sure to visit the Weeden House Museum. It’s a beautiful example of antebellum architecture and it’s filled with Weeden’s stunning artwork.
Gina James was a former school teacher and does an incredible job bringing not only Maria’s story to life, but has so many more gems to share about the Weeden House Museum.
Keep in mind that this home is no longer part of the Weeden family but owned by the City of Huntsville, it is leased by the Twickenham Historic Preservation District Association and maintained as a 19th-century house museum.
That is a lot of fancy ways of saying non-profit.
When you go:
- Tuesdays-Saturdays at 10:00 AM & 1:00 PM
- All History Tours Are Guided Tours and last approximately 1 hour
- All hours are subject to change based on event rentals
- Doors Open & Tours Begin Precisely At 10:00 AM & 1:00 PM
Tickets are $3-5, children and adults, and must be paid in cash – it is a non-profit and those credit card fees add up!
The Weeden House Museum Address
Other fun things to see in Huntsville Alabama
- Alabama 1
- Alabama 2
- Alabama 3
- Alabama 4