Call Me Ted Lemmon
By: Elise Zerega (BMRC Processing Intern)
You don’t have a name like Eugene Pieter Romayn Feldman and not live up to it. That it was I discovered while processing arguably my favorite collection at the DuSable Museum of African American History, the Eugene Feldman papers. Since my time at DuSable is now at a close, I felt it fitting to detail what made this collection stand out as an intern archivist.
Eugene P. R. Feldman was a co-founder of the museum and held half a dozen different jobs there until his death in 1986. Now, every collection I have had the pleasure of processing at DuSable has contained some golden nugget worth discussing. What marks the Eugene Feldman papers as unique and noteworthy in my mind is that it is the first collection I have processed where the personality of the subject shines through. A quick perusal of the papers and you will find a charming, funny, and truly loving man who cared deeply about the work he did. In case you dare not to believe me, here are some of my favorite aspects from Eugene Pieter Romayn Feldman’s papers that encapsulate who he was.
For starters, in the subseries “DuSable Administration” you will find some timesheets employees clocked in and out on. What is so joyous about a timesheet, you ask? Well, every now and then Eugene would write in the comment box next to his time of departure, “LOVE!” This is the quickest and easiest way to get to know the heart of Eugene: he loved love and wasn’t afraid to let anyone know, even in an everyday timesheet.
In the “Correspondence” series you’ll get to know Eugene pretty quickly. He was the type of guy who after typing up a letter to his father, niece, brother, sister, nephew, friend, prison inmate, among many others, would doodle on the last page, filling it up with hearts and giant “LOVE!”s and flowers. In a job that can occasionally get tedious, Eugene’s letters never ceased to lighten up my day. He was always thoughtful, always exuding the joy he found in life to those he wrote to.
I hesitate to share with you one of the most humorous findings in hopes you’ll go to the collection to figure out it yourself. But for those that will never get a chance to meet Eugene, aside from his mural in Founders Hall at DuSable, which wonderfully depicts him and his goony smile, I’ll go ahead and tell you about Ted Lemmon. I came across the name Ted Lemmon perhaps every other day while processing Eugene’s papers. He was either referenced in letters, authored a poem or two, or filled out his own time log at DuSable. The mystery of Ted Lemmon plagued me, for he was sparsely in the collection to get enough context as to who this man was. A letter to poet Will Inman revealed that Ted Lemmon was Eugene’s alter ego: a naughty-joke telling prankster to Eugene’s sweet and loving nature. Yes, Eugene was such a nice guy that he had to create an alter-ego to tell a dirty joke.
Yet my favorite aspect of Eugene is seen in his own writings in the second series, especially his poems. In his poems his dedication and belief in civil rights is evident. One poem I feel sums up his drive for equal rights is the following, entitled “I am human first of all”:
I know that there are categories, clear and well-defined,
I know that there are plans and places nicely all designed.
But I am man and I am woman I am child too
And I am white and I am black and the colored hue
And I reject the grovéd road or role you make me take
For I am human first of and all designs are fake!
Here was a white, Jewish man who empathized with every race and gender. When his house in Alabama saw a burning cross on its lawn for his civil rights activism, he went up north and helped start the first African American history museum in the nation. A museum he was dedicated to until the day he died.
The one piece of Eugene that struck a strong chord with me was in a memo he wrote to Charles and Margaret Burroughs, which Ms. Burroughs of course made a dozen copies of. Thank goodness she did for it would have been a shame to lose Eugene’s reflections on his time at DuSable:
It has made me rich. Rich in the only way that counts and in the only way that I want to be rich: rich in culture, rich in understanding, rich in being more free from prejudice, rich in my association with Black men and Black women... I rejoice in this wealth. It I such a bank account of knowledge in a bank that never fails or goes bankrupt. I rejoice in the glow it gives my life and that I have been in its gloried rays for almost a quarter of a century.
My own thoughts cannot say better how I have found my own time at DuSable and at the BMRC in general. So thank you all at the DuSable museum, from the security guards who kindly greeted me every morning to the various staff I would meet with a smile in the halls. Most of all thank you Librarian and Archivist Bea Julian for making my time at DuSable a wonderful and growing experience.
And of course, thank you to Eugene Feldman for being a lovely character to process and for introducing me to Ted Lemmon.