Patrick Henry Reason, Rison, African American literature, African American art, antebellum New York, African Free School, Abolition, family history, family papers, Caribbean diaspora, Haitian American, archives, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Near the end of his life, Patrick Henry Reason sat down to write a history of his family. He had spent his first fifty years in New York City, where he had made a living as an engraver, and the next thirty in Cleveland, where he had worked as an artist for a jewelry firm. Now, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, he was an old man, and he wanted to record everything he knew about four generations of his family. The narrative that he composed, on eight small sheets of stationery, jumps from one date or place name to another, yet every page is filled with tenderness. The history begins with the stories of Reason’s grandparents: “My Grandmother was Marie Catherine Malville a native of Aux Cayes in the Island of St. Domingo, born about the year 1778 and died in the City of New York 1840 aged 62 years.”1 (See figure 1.) After “1840,” Reason placed an asterisk, and below this sentence, he explained that his grandmother had died “(at my home) and in my presence.” Then he followed the course of his grandfather’s life: “My Grandfather was Jean Baptiste Marceau surnamed Tancrede. Born about March 1773. Died 1840. St. Pierre, Martinique. Died at my home and in my arms, two weeks previous to the death of his wife. Aged about 67.”2 The whole narrative unfolds like this, with one memory making way for another. At the bottom of this same page, Reason tried to find room for the name of his sister’s godmother, so that he wouldn’t forget it later.
Reason’s name may be familiar to scholars of African American art and literature, though you wouldn’t learn why by reading this family history. He was born in Manhattan in 1816 to Michel Rison, who had come to the United States earlier that century from Guadeloupe, and Elizabeth Malville, [End Page 697]
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who had grown up in Haiti.3 By the time of Reason’s birth, his parents were already a part of New York’s free black community. He went to the African Free School, on Mulberry Street, where Alexander Crummell and Henry Highland Garnet were two of hisclassmates.4 When he was seventeen, he joined the shop of an abolitionist and engraver named Stephen Henry Gimber as an apprentice. Three years later, Reason’s copper engraving of a kneeling black woman in chains appeared as the frontispiece to Lydia Maria Child’s The Fountain for Every Day in the Year. He made portraits of James Williams and Henry Bibb for their published slave narratives and taught evening drawing classes. None of this information shows up in Reason’s chronicle of his family, and the narrative has other gaps. Although his parents’ and grandparents’ lives were almost certainly changed by the revolutions in their native countries, Reason doesn’t say much about the circumstances that brought them from the Caribbean [End Page 698] to the United States.5 Their paths from slavery to freedom go unexplained, too. While these gaps could be taken for silences, another explanation seems just as likely. Reason might have been writing this narrative for someone who already knew the details of his career, or those of his parents’ routes to Manhattan, by heart.
Reason’s family history is a manuscript—a description that works both in a no-nonsense way and as something more revealing. As Peter Stallybrass has shown, the concept of a “manuscript” is relatively new. That word first started to appear in English sometime around 1600, a century and a half after the invention of printing. “Before printing,” Stallybrass explains, “there was writing...