As far as anyone knew, the skeleton was named Larry. For more than 200 years, it had been handed down and passed around in Waterbury, Conn., then displayed for several decades at a local museum. It eventually ended up in storage. Some townspeople thought he might have been a Revolutionary War hero. Others thought he had been a felon, hanged for his crimes. But Larry turned out to have a real name: Fortune. Fortune had been a husband and a father of four–and a slave.
Art, rooted in history
This year, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center brought Fortune’s story to Maryland through a series of musical performances and discussions, celebrating him and considering the questions that surround his life and death. Why couldn’t his family bury him? Why was his story lost for so many years? Beyond that, what are the ethical implications of his body’s journey after his death?
“Fortune is part of our history, and he speaks to all of us,” says Community Engagement Manager Jane Hirshberg. “It’s art that has a subject matter.”
The Clarice Smith Center reached out to neighboring counties and Washington, D.C., particularly the African-American and faith communities, to bring locals to campus for discussions with faculty and other experts.
“We really see ourselves as trendsetters in committing to not just people who come out for a single night’s performance and move on, but who stay engaged,” says Director of Artistic Initiatives Paul Brohan, emphasizing that the performing arts center’s mission goes beyond putting on big-ticket productions. “People have been asking probing questions and exploring what Fortune’s story means to us in Maryland.”
“Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem” was the main event in February, based on poems written by Connecticut poet laureate Marilyn Nelson. First performed in Waterbury, it was brought to Maryland to anchor the series and give more depth and understanding to the issues surrounding Fortune’s story.
The poems were set to music by Ysaye M. Barnwell, a noted Washington-area composer and the curator of the series. They were performed by a full symphony orchestra, three choirs, seven soloists and a chorus of African bells.
“A requiem is really a process, an artistic process through which we celebrate the life of someone who has died and memorialize that person in some way,” Barnwell says. “We all hope, as human beings, for some closure at the end of a life. Fortune didn’t have that, so that is what we are trying to do.”
A Slave in Life and Death
Little is known about Fortune—including whether that was his first or last name. What historians and scientists have discerned is this: He was a slave to physician Preserved Porter, who owned a 75-acre farm in Waterbury. Fortune likely worked the fields and tended to livestock.
His background is unclear. He could have been among the thousands who came on ships from Africa—which is what he named one son—or perhaps he was born in the Colonies.
His wife, Dinah, outlived him and Porter, continuing to serve Porter’s widow and family. His other son, Jacob, also served the Porter family, but there are no details about his two daughters or Africa.
Fortune died suddenly in 1798 at the age of 60. A snapped vertebra in his neck indicates a quick death, but his bones show years of wear and tear, including injuries to his shoulder, hands and feet.
After Fortune died, Porter took his body apart, boiled it down to the bones and labeled each of them carefully. He was a specialist in bone-setting, and this might have been the doctor’s first opportunity to study a full human skeleton. He lived in an era without cadavers readily available for scientific study, forcing physicians to find their own methods—sometimes gruesome—to further their knowledge.
Fortune’s skeleton was valued at $15 in Porter’s will and was passed down to his descendants, generations of whom continued to practice medicine.
“When Fortune died, he did not cease to be the physician’s property,” says Barnwell. “That’s what’s horrifying to so many people. Understanding that Fortune is many of us and we are in many ways Fortune, how do we change the circumstance of our lives in society so these kinds of horrors don’t continue to take place?”
His Story, Our Story
Fortune was an early example of unethical treatment, but he wouldn’t be the last. More than a century later, the Tuskegee syphilis study caused hundreds of African-American men to suffer the effects of a treatable disease, all in the name of science. In the 1950s, Henrietta Lacks unwittingly provided the first set of regenerating cells to the biomedical community to fuel research and discoveries, but she did not receive any recognition for decades. The mistreatment of African-Americans fostered a distrust of the medical community that lasts to this day.
“These aren’t comfortable conversations,” says Rhonda Dallas, interim director of the Prince George’s County Arts and Humanities Council (PGCAHC). “But with the programming and artistic elements and the diversity of voices represented, it brings a greater understanding to a difficult issue.”
The planning committee for “Fortune’s Bones” included members of many local community organizations, including the PGCAHC, the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System, along with University of Maryland faculty and staff from College Park and the schools of Medicine and Law in Baltimore,
clergy and local artists and activists.
“It’s so easy [for a performing arts center] to be insular and present what they present and call it a day,” says Steven Newsome, a Prince George’s County arts activist. “Cultural organizations must, in order to survive, engage a broader public and engage people in meaningful ways.”
The series featured small musical events, including a community sing and a “ring shout,” one of the oldest forms of African-American cultural and religious expression.
On-campus discussions touched on slavery, its lesser-known history in the North and its role in the university’s past. Other discussions, held in libraries in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, focused on medical ethics.
With two sold-out performances of the requiem, standing-room-only crowds at several of the discussions, and a number of first-time visitors drawn in by the unique story, the Clarice Smith Center achieved its goal for the series. The community partnerships established through “Fortune’s Bones” will continue, Hirshberg says, as the center looks for new projects to pursue together.
Centuries Later, Bringing People Together
Today, Fortune’s skeleton is still in storage at the museum—but his story has traveled far beyond it.
Many questions remain: Should he be buried? Should he be put back on display? Should his bones be studied further, with ever-improving technology, to see what more we can learn?
That’s a decision for his descendants, Barnwell says. She hopes they might
come forward if Fortune’s story is told throughout the country.
Brainerd Blyden-Taylor, artistic director of the Nathaniel Dett Chorale in Toronto, Canada, flew in for the performances and hopes to bring “Fortune’s Bones” to his city next winter, emulating Maryland’s discussion-based approach.
“It’s wonderful that a university would see the benefit in bringing the community around his issue,” he says. “It’s fantastic to see a man who was little known in his life, in the remembrance of his death, is bringing people together.”
Freshmen Discover Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks contributed to some of the biggest scientific discoveries of the last six decades, including the vaccine for polio. But she never knew, and her family was kept in the dark for years.
Her story was chronicled in the bestseller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” given to all freshmen this academic year.
“It’s science, it’s history, and it’s a local story,” says Lisa Kiely, assistant dean for undergraduate studies, who heads the First Year Book program. “It’s a lesson to our students: You may see a new discovery, and you should know where it came from.”
In 1951, Lacks was treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the only medical center in the area that would accept African-American patients. She died that year, but her cells, taken as samples by doctors, lived on and continued to regenerate—something doctors had never seen before. The immortal cell line was nicknamed “HeLa” and is still used in biomedical research today.
But HeLa’s origins were kept secret, and it took decades for her family to discover the truth and receive recognition.
One of her sons, David Lacks, speaking as part of the “Fortune’s Bones” series, now celebrates her contributions. “She was a giving and proud person,” he says. “If she was living today, she would have given anyway.”–ks