210225ind History

Christiana Babcock Bannister is shown in this painting by her husband Edward Bannister. A black couple in the 1850s, their successful careers defied the stereotypes of the time and their legacy can still be seen throughout Rhode Island.

The year 1819 was memorable for a hard-working African American/Narragansett Indian couple named John and Mary Babcock. They lived in the southwest corner of North Kingstown, out past Slocumville, even out past Shermantown, in an area that was always known as “Dark Corners.” Dark Corners nestled up against Stony Fort, and although Stony Fort was officially part of South Kingstown, everyone knew it to be Narragansett tribal land. It was the land of John and Mary’s ancestors and, although dark and foreboding to some, it probably felt like home to the Babcocks and their kin. In 1819, Mary gave John a daughter. They named her Christiana. Little did they know then, but their daughter would one day leave her mark on the world in a most extraordinary way.

Nothing is known of Christiana’s early life. Any education she received she probably got at home, as the Dark Corners District Schoolhouse would not open until she was too old to take advantage of it. Most likely, her ticket out of Dark Corners came when her older brother Charles married Cecilia Remond and he took her with him as he relocated to his new bride’s hometown of Salem, Massachusetts. The Remonds were successful black business owners in Salem; operating not only a wig factory, but also the highly successful “Ladies Hair Work Salon.” Cecilia, who operated the salon with her sisters, took Christiana under her wing, as did the entire Remond family. This family, led by eldest brother Charles Lenox Remond, was prominent in the Abolitionist movement in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Indeed, Charles eventually toured America, England, and Europe with William Lloyd Garrison, William Wells Brown and Frederick Douglass on an anti-slavery Abolitionist tour. Christiana’s new brother-in-law of sorts was known as a moving, fiery and unapologetic speaker, a firebrand like Douglass himself. This was the stage upon which Christiana received her “worldview”; these years set up her future.

After an 1850 marriage to Desiline Carteaux, who was many years her elder, she next shows up in historic records as Madame Carteaux, the owner of a chain of upscale hair salons in Boston and Providence. These salons featured a line of cosmetics and skin and hair care products that she had invented. Perhaps they were the ancient secrets of the Narragansett Indian women, or maybe she came up with them all on her own; whatever the case, they were wildly popular and had made her a prominent and successful black businesswoman in a time when such a thing was unusual. Even more unusual was the fact that the majority of her clientele were the wealthy and prominent white women of the two cities. She was so successful, in fact, that the abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator” profiled her in a January 1854 issue. She had dropped her family name by then and went by the much more exotic-sounding name of Christiana Carteaux. She may have let go of her Babcock roots, but she never lost touch with who she was and where she came from. You see, besides being a successful businesswoman, Christiana was an activist. She worked fervently for a number of causes; chiefly, as you would expect, freedom for her people — the abolition of slavery. Indeed, in the era of the Civil War, Christiana had the honor of presenting the colors to the famed all-black 54th Massachusetts along with Frederick Douglass himself. Prior to its formation, she had worked alongside Douglass and Charles Remond recruiting black men from Massachusetts and beyond to serve.

Around the same time that Christiana was transforming herself from an unknown girl from North Kingstown into a prominent activist that stood side-by-side with folks like Frederick Douglas and William Lloyd Garrison, another talented and inspired young African American was making his way from New Brunswick, Canada, to Boston. Edward Bannister, along with his brother William, had decided to head to America to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming an artist. Besides being a darned good house painter, he had a natural talent as a barber, and eventually ended up working in one of Madame Carteaux’s hair salons to put food on his table and to finance his quest to become a painter. Edward, too, was an activist, and he eventually became acquainted with his somewhat famous (not to mention attractive) boss. After the breakup of her marriage, they fell in love and were married on June 10, 1857. They worked together on causes they both cared about and championed equal pay for black soldiers who fought in the Civil War and held fundraisers to assist the widows and orphans of slain African American soldiers. They were prominent and well-respected members of the Boston African American community. They made a difference.

With his marriage to Christiana in 1857, Edward was finally financially sound enough to devote all of his attention to his passion for painting. Christiana’s faith in him began to pay off soon after, as he began to get commissions and receive accolades for his talent. In later years, when speaking of this time and his wife’s contributions to his success, he said, “I would have made out very poorly had it not been for her, and my greatest successes have come through her.”

By 1869, the atmosphere in Boston had changed to such a degree that the Bannisters decided to relocate to Christiana’s home state to the south. The city of Boston’s reputation as a center for abolitionist activity and its relatively benign acceptance of African Americans had caused an influx of migration of former slaves. The resultant backlash from white residents who feared a loss of jobs and majority status forever changed the way the black man was viewed in the city. In October of that year they took up residence in Providence and would spend the rest of their lives there.

The move did little to change the lifestyle that the Bannisters were accustomed to. Christiana’s hair salon empire was equally successful in Providence and they quickly became part of not only the city’s black community, but its growing art community as well. Edward and Christiana were instrumental in the founding of the Providence Art Club, as well as the now prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. But even with all that, Edward was still only renowned as a regional artist. His big break came in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, when his painting “Under The Oaks,” which he entered into the competition without notifying anyone that he was a black man, took a major prize. The judges, once they realized what they had done, came close to rescinding the prize, but the other artist in the competition would not hear of it and the prestigious award remained his. With this he became a nationally-known artist.

While this was going on, Madame Carteaux continued to run her hair and cosmetic business and pursue noble causes. In Providence she took up the cause of the fate of the city’s elderly black female community — most of whom had spent a lifetime as servants of the city’s white residents — and helped found “Bannister House,” a nursing home that is now named after her. She and Edward endowed the facility with a number of his paintings, including his portrait of her. They are presently on long-term loan to the Newport Art Museum.

Edward’s Medal at the Centennial Exposition brought him fame and continued success. He was now among the most successful black artists and continued to win awards and accolades. In spite of it all, he could never escape the shadow of prejudice that tainted his many successes. It has been said that Bannister’s career was motivated by a desire to disprove a comment in the New York Herald which had incensed him. It stated “The Negro seems to have an appreciation of art, while being manifestly unable to produce it.” Edward Bannister’s life, as well as his work, emphatically denounces this stereotypical comment and then some. He died at a prayer meeting at the Elmwood Street Baptist Church on Jan. 9, 1901, of a massive heart attack. His last words were, “Jesus, help me.”

Christiana’s life took a rapid downward spiral from that point on. As they were childless, there was no one to look after her, and she died penniless and alone at the State Hospital for the Insane in December 1902. She was eighty-three.

The life of Christiana and Edward Bannister still leaves many mysteries. How did a backwoods girl like Christiana Babcock manage to transform herself into the sophisticated Madame Carteaux? What happened to the substantial fortune that they had amassed; how could someone so successful die penniless? Also amazing is the fact that the majority of Bannister’s most important works have disappeared from the art scene, including “Under The Oaks,” his masterpiece. Where are they now? One thing though is certain. A little girl born in the backwoods of North Kingstown had grown up to change her world. And Bannister House, The Providence Art Club and RISD itself stand to this day as a testament to a life well-lived.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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