ALWAYS CHASING RAINBOWS
On May 8, 1952, in a cramped and gloomy apartment in Greenwich Village, a man opened his eyes after lying in a coma for more than a week.
The room was empty.
The man rose naked from his bed and walked a few steps across the room. He may not have understood where he was. The room was so quiet, it had never been this quiet before, always there had been music, jazz and blues, and people, talking and laughing. Where did the music go? Why was he alone?
Weak and tired, he stood without speaking, still as the shadows.
Footsteps tapped lightly across the floor behind him and suddenly stopped. The woman who loved the man saw him standing there in the room and she cried out in alarm. For a moment he was startled, confused. Then he felt her slender, strong arms close tightly around him, he heard her say his name, and he was instantly comforted.
The man returned to his bed and closed his eyes.
The next day, as evening fell in Greenwich Village, Canada Lee died. He was forty-five years old.
Canada Lee was born in New York City on March 3, 1907, and christened with the mellifluous if somewhat daunting name of Leonard LionelCornelius Canegata. Called "Lee" by his friends, the boy was in the first grade at Public School (P.S.) 5 in Harlem when he decided that he wanted to be somebody special. Somebody important.
Lee Canegata didn't know at first how to go about this. But he was absolutely certain that he didn't want to be "just a man who worked hard, came home, ate, slept, went out to work again the next morning, with no chance for advancing in the world."
How did a seven-year-old get that kind of ambition?
The Canegata family history might have had something to do with it.
As a boy, Lee was told that "Canegata" was a Danish name taken by his father's family back in St. Croix, a tropical island of rolling hills, rain forests, mangroves, and sandy shores that was originally christened Santa Cruz by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Ownership of St. Croix changed hands a few times before Denmark finally bought it from the French in 1733 for $150,000. Hoping to stimulate the island's rather desultory production and trade, the Danish West India and Guinea Company sold huge plantation lots to anyone who had the cash. Most buyers were English, though a smattering of French and Dutch purchased property as well. Sugarcane quickly boosted St. Croix into a prosperous agricultural center, and more workers were needed in the fields and processing plants. African slaves had been transported to the island since the early 1600s; landowners now stepped up the slave trade, importing thousands more.
Canada's paternal ancestors were among those who survived the dangerous three-month passage from Africa's Gold Coast to the West Indies. Between 1670 and 1807, Danish ships transported eighty-five thousand slaves on this route, and ships from other nations carried thousands more. Author Leif Svalsen has traced the journey of one Danish slave vessel, the Fredensborg. "The heat along the equator was stifling, the calculated space per slave was about the size of a coffin, and the provisions on board were frugal and foreign," Svalsen writes. "Slaves were often chained and separated from loved ones as they sailed into an unknown future." The death rate was high; eleven percent of the 265 slaves aboard the Fredensborg died before they could be sold on the block at St. Croix's market, where buyers included free black and mulatto farmers as well as white landowners.
Planters, shipping barons, smugglers, pirates, and merchants grewrich off sugar, slaves, rum, cotton, and molasses. They built windmills and factories and lavish mansions called great houses. Lush plantations bore whimsical names like "Estate Jealousy" and "Wheel of Fortune," as well as epithets more significant to slaves, such as "Hard Labor."
By 1803, St. Croix's population of thirty thousand included a few thousand well-to-do planters and their 26,500 slaves. There is an old saying on the island: "Some doin' well, some seein' hell." Every Cruzan slave knew misery, but working in the cane fields was the devil's own torture. Toiling ten to twelve hours in grueling heat, a slave received a dozen lashes or more if he slowed in his work. Some committed suicide; a few managed to escape to the mountains. Runaways who got caught were whipped, pinched with glowing tongs, maimed, broken on the wheel, or hanged. Bloody rebellions broke out.
Over fierce objections from planters, the Danish governor began to phase out slavery, first by banning importation of any more human cargo, and then, in 1847, by proclaiming that all children born to slaves were now free, while the rest of the slave population would be liberated in fourteen years. Unwilling to wait, eight thousand slaves marched on Frederiksted in July of 1848 and demanded immediate emancipation. Though he had no authorization from the Crown, Governor-General Peter von Scholten, long sympathetic to abolition, freed them. In so doing, he attempted to right centuries of injustice; he also helped to plunge an already precarious sugar economy into a full-on depression. Suddenly, 90 percent of the population had no money, property, or jobs. A labor act set wages at five cents a day for most freed slaves, who often were charged the same five cents a day for food from the company store, an arrangement tantamount to enslavement. In 1878, frustrated black laborers rioted for a week, burning fields, factories, and great houses. Wary of more revolts, government officials in 1880 offered higher wages, better land, and new opportunities to former slaves and their families.
James C. Canegata, a literate and ambitious man with an entrepreneurial spirit, saw his chance and seized it. Local accounts say he built a fleet of small merchant ships that sailed between St. Croix and American ports, becoming one of the wealthiest black merchants in the Virgin Islands. Reportedly, Canegata once owned the arcaded building on King Street where Alexander Hamilton had worked as a counting-house clerk before moving to the American colonies in 1772. He also operated afinely appointed dry goods store, which remained in the family for years. (David Hamilton Jackson, famed labor leader and civil rights activist, worked briefly for Canegata as a bookkeeper.)
As his business thrived and prospered, Canegata and his wife, Jane Gerard Canegata, started a family. James Cornelius was born in 1885, and a second son, David Cornelius, was born in 1887. Well-educated in private schools, these precocious and adventuresome boys were particularly keen on sports. James was an avid boxer, and both lads took up riding before they could reach the stirrups. Their father owned some of the finest horses on the island, and often employed jockeys to race his Thoroughbreds. James and David were fearless horsemen who "could sit a saddle or ride bareback the most ferocious animal," reported a St. Croix special correspondent in the New York Age.
As the eldest son, James might have expected to inherit his father's successful business. Despite this, the seventeen-year-old inexplicably shipped to New York City as a cabin boy in 1901. Perhaps James chafed under his father's rule and wanted to make his own way, or perhaps the allure of the great metropolis, with its glorious skyscrapers and teeming streets, its booming economy and ardent conviction that anything was possible, proved inexorable for an ambitious young man. As the teenager sailed into the New York harbor, excited and perhaps a bit fearful, he set eyes on the island that would be home for the rest of his life. St. Croix seemed a world away.
When James decided to stay in America, family lore holds that his father abruptly disinherited him and left the family fortune to David instead. After studying medicine at McGill University in Montreal, David Canegata returned to St. Croix, the first native to practice there. Appointed to the post of Municipal Physician, he strived to eradicate communicable diseases among the poor. During forty-five years of public service, Dr. Canegata held positions in all three branches of government, including eleven years as chairman of the legislature, ten years as a judge, and two years as the island's chief executive. His assiduous campaigns for self-rule, native suffrage, and a bill of rights for the territory earned him the admiration of his people. He died in 1972 and was buried on the island, where a popular park bears his name.
Canada Lee was very proud of his West Indian roots, his grandfather's successful business, and his uncle's careers in medicine and public service.When he became famous himself, Lee visited his relatives there and often spoke warmly of his Caribbean heritage to reporters, pointing out in one interview that the St. Croix Canegatas had been well educated for generations, "and I didn't finish grammar school."
While David set about his medical career in St. Croix, brother James struggled to find his place in New York. Arriving in the first major wave of West Indian immigrants to this country, James hoped for a bright future in his new home. He quickly learned that Afro-Caribbean emigres often had advantages over native blacks. Better education and a long history of political and economic dealings with whites could work to their benefit, and many whites treated them more favorably than native blacks when it came to offering jobs or leasing apartments. This is one reason why interactions between native and West Indian-born blacks were notoriously prickly, especially in New York City where West Indians gained a reputation for arrogance and their vexation over the primitive segregation of American society. Many West Indians believed they had little in common with indigenous blacks; they saw themselves as a separate and distinct Caribbean community that could be further subdivided by island of origin. West Indians spoke with different accents, worshipped in different churches, wore different styles of clothing, and followed different codes of behavior within the family.
Canada's father, James, is usually described as a reserved, taciturn man, but he must have had an independent streak. Having defied his father by moving to New York, he then violated an unwritten code of Manhattan's West Indian community by marrying a black woman from the American South. Lydia Whaley Gadsen was a handsome, strong, and imposing daughter of deeply religious parents from South Carolina. She had a child from a previous marriage, a quiet little toddler named Robert Gadsen. After marrying Lydia, James treated the soft-spoken boy as his own son.
Together, James and Lydia Canegata had three children. First, in 1907, came a son, Leonard Lionel Cornelius, called "Lee." (There is some confusion over this name; Lee was also called "James" by certain family and friends, and his father would list him as "James C." in the 1920 U.S. Census.) A daughter, Claudia, was born two years later, followed in four years by another son, William, nicknamed "Lovey" by his mother for his sweet face and long, curly locks. When the children weresmall, their father worked as a porter in a factory; later, he took an office job at the National Fuel and Gas Corporation, where he would remain for decades. A loving but strict mother, Lydia raised her children to behave well and obey the Good Book. James, called Pop by his children, also ruled with a firm hand, warmly praising achievements but brooking no insubordination. The couple worked hard to make a comfortable home, but the household was modest by necessity. An American journalist describing Canada Lee's family history pointed out that in St. Croix, the Canegata clan "knew dignity and a measure of ease. Here, they knew humiliation and poverty."
Lee was born on West Sixty-second Street in a neighborhood known as San Juan Hill, a colorful but overcrowded section of Manhattan that sprawled from Amsterdam Avenue west to the Hudson River, between Fifty-third and Sixty-fourth streets. San Juan Hill may have earned its name when black veterans moved there after the Spanish-American War, although the military moniker also may stem from the turf wars that constantly broke out between poor blacks and immigrants.
Despite its mean streets and rough characters, San Juan Hill and the neighboring Tenderloin district were exciting places. Here was Black Bohemia, keeping time to the new rhythms of ragtime, the cakewalk, honky-tonk, and hot jazz that spilled out of the theaters, hotels, bars, and clubs. One can imagine Lee as a small boy playing on his stoop, listening to music by some of the great black musicians of the time, including Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, James Reese Europe, W. C. Handy, and J. Rosamond Johnson. But before long, Lee's family was on the move, and so was Black Bohemia.
When Lee was four or five years old, the Canegatas pulled up stakes and joined the mighty river of black migration flowing north into Harlem. In the 1800s, Harlem had been home to a series of white immigrant communities, including Dutch, Irish, Germans, and European Jews. But the area was overbuilt with apartments, and when an economic depression hit, the real estate market slumped. An enterprising young African American realtor named Philip A. Payton, Jr., seized this opportunity and began filling apartments with reliable black tenants who, faced with a housing shortage in the city's segregated neighborhoods, were willing to pay steeper rents than whites.
The Canegatas and thousands of other black families streamed into acorridor east of Eighth Avenue between 130th and 145th Streets. Black Harlem, as historian David Levering Lewis has observed, "seemed to flash into being like a nova."
This was the Harlem that Lee would forever call his home. The Canegatas settled down at 141st Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues. They joined the local Salem Methodist Church, a congregation founded in a basement a decade earlier by the Reverend Frederick Asbury Cullen, poet Countee Cullen's adoptive father. James and Lydia "were church-going people," according to Lovey's son, Bill Canegata. "My grandmother was a healer. She would go off and pray and be religious and come back and lay hands on people and take away their sickness. She was called Sister Canegata ... They were strong people for the church, my grandparents." Decades later, Canada Lee would say he joined only one organization in his life, and that was Salem Methodist.
As a boy, Lee was slight for his age but wiry and strong, a bundle of energy. Though not as conventionally handsome as his little brother, Lovey, Lee possessed a razor-sharp mind, indisputable charm, an impish smile, and a tendency toward mischief. One of the first friends he made in the new neighborhood was a boy some three years his senior named Billy Butler. One day Billy ran hell-for-leather out of a basement, chasing Lee, who "ducked behind something and put his foot out," Butler said. "I tripped over it, went up into the air, came down, and my tooth went through my lip." He ended up with two scars to remember Lee by, and often teased his lifelong friend about it.
Lee's parents enrolled him at P.S. 5 on 140th Street and Edgecombe Avenue. It was there, in the first grade, that he decided that he wanted to be somebody special. Somebody important.
He already was somebody important to other boys in the neighborhood. Lee Canegata was king of the block, the Robin Hood of 141st Street, who defended their turf against a gang of thugs called the "Syndicate." Armed with bottles and broomsticks, the Syndicate trolled the streets, stealing money and toys from smaller kids. Determinedly scrappy, Lee was the only boy brave enough to stand up to these bullies. Children bigger and older than Lee ran to him for protection when the Syndicate came calling. One day the plucky tyke challenged the leader of the gang. Friends and admirers gathered around to cheer their champion as Leethrashed and pummeled the Syndicate leader in what one witness called "a fight almost to the death."
Lee battled his way to the top of the heap at school, too. Most days it seemed he was doing more skirmishing than learning. "I fought my way to and from school every day and learned that all I needed was as many fists as the next guy," Lee said. While he might have been a hero on his own block, he wasn't above a little bullying himself on the playground. When a monitor wrote his name down one morning for being tardy, he waited for the boy after school and punched him in the jaw. Lee also admitted that he rarely bothered to bring his own lunch to school. When it was time to eat, he simply waited until another boy opened his lunch box. Seizing his hapless victim, Lee would shout fiercely: "I gotcha!" His classmate either divvied up the grub or took a pounding. "It was a little game I invented," he recalled, laughing sheepishly. "Sometimes the boys didn't want to play. Then I just took what I wanted. I could whip them all, big or little."
He was king of the hill, but it wasn't enough. I want something more, he told himself, something better.
Maybe it was family history that put the notion in his head--the shipbuilding grandfather, the uncle on the Privy Council. Or maybe the heroes of his favorite stories inspired him. Lee may not have been a stellar student, but he was a born bookworm. "I was always reading stories and imagining myself a buccaneer," he said. "I was crazy about Grimm's fairy tales, and later the [Horatio] Alger books and Tom Swift stories."
An interesting reading list: Grimm's fairy tales of magical transformations, where frogs turn into princes. Tom Swift, boy genius, inventing his way out of countless perils. Alger's ragged boys rising to riches by dint of hard work, pristine morals, good manners, and physical cleanliness. In these books, success is not a question of luck, or wealth, or social class, or color. Success will be yours if your desire is fierce, your heart virtuous, your wits sharp, your back strong. These are stories that helped forge our great national myth that anyone can succeed in America if only he tries hard enough.
Lee Canegata was ready to try, but at what? What could a seven-year-old do?
His first stab was music. Maybe he saw those players around town, laughing and talking and dressing fine, and maybe he liked that hot musicspilling out of the bars and clubs and rent parties. Maybe he chose music because his sister Claudia sang so well and his pal Billy Butler studied the violin.
Whatever the reason, Lee told his mother he wanted to take music lessons, and Lydia thought it was a good idea. Maybe music would keep the boy out of trouble.
She sent Lee to the new Music School Settlement for Colored People, where he studied with one of the academy's founders, J. Rosamond Johnson. A classically trained musician and composer, Johnson had made a name for himself writing hit songs for vaudeville and Broadway and later served as musical director of the Grand Opera House in London. He also composed the celebrated anthem Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing with his brother, lyricist James Weldon. The Johnson brothers contributed much talent and energy to the Harlem Renaissance, and the Music School became a training ground and showcase for serious musicians. Lee Canegata showed an immediate aptitude for music. He studied violin and piano with Johnson, and also took lessons from Professor William Butler, who happened to be the father of Lee's pal, Billy.
Professor Butler was a neighborhood celebrity. At age twelve, he ran away from home to join the army as a drummer boy and left ten years later as bandmaster. He bought a townhouse on a tree-lined street in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, where his white neighbors often mistook him for a janitor. One of his tenants was a six-foot-tall Irish beauty who made her living as a marketing gimmick. She was one of the "Seven Sullivan Sisters" who were unrelated but nevertheless blessed with identical heads of floor-length red hair, just the ticket for touting new toiletries. Butler married this Irish rose and eventually moved with her to Harlem. Lee Canegata never forgot the first time he saw Mrs. Butler send her crimson curtain of newly washed hair cascading down from a second-story window to dry.
Professor Butler reputedly made and lost several fortunes. In good times, the family enjoyed a houseful of servants, chauffer-driven limousines, and expensive tailored clothes. Butler began his day in a morning coat, striped pants, and a Homburg hat. In the afternoon, he changed into a "lounge suit," the equivalent of a Wall Street power suit. At dinner, he wore a tuxedo and expected his family to sit at the table in formal dress.
Lee's friend Billy Butler was also enrolled at the Music School Settlement.After months of violin lessons, Lee was deemed proficient enough to join Billy and his sister Celia in a community orchestra under Professor Butler's baton. Every inch the soldier-bandmaster, Butler ran his music program like a battalion. He could be patient with talented pupils, but his patience had limits and his expectations were high. Billy and Lee sometimes balked at the professor's strict discipline. Once, when they were supposed to be practicing, they sneaked into a local racetrack instead. When the boys got home, Lee got a lecture and Billy got a whipping.
Possessing a natural talent for music, Lee advanced rapidly in his studies, despite the fact that he went days at a time without practicing. He could leave his violin in its case all week and then sight-read his way through his lesson, leaving many teachers none the wiser. When a piece of music fired his imagination, however, he worked on it hour after hour with discipline and concentration "while other kids played stickball," one reporter noted. At the age of eleven, he made his concert debut at a student recital in Aeolian Hall, an eleven hundred-seat venue at 29 West Forty-second Street that was almost as grand as its famous neighbor to the north, Carnegie Hall. Lee played Drdla's Serenade, admirably handling what must have been considerable pressure. A reporter noted that after the Aeolian Hall concert, "competent critics said he had a brilliant future."
But something went wrong. Though he continued to study seriously for three more years, Lee came to the decision that music would never bring him the fame and admiration he craved.
Decades later, Lee gave reporters different stories about why he decided to quit music. He told one that "a virtuoso's lot was not to his liking." He told another that "his inherited spirit of adventure interfered with his cultural improvement." Still another writer reported that Lee's parents had objected to the idea of a concert career--a rather unlikely explanation. A fourth account states that "to become his own man [he] had to leave his fiddle behind and run away from home."
Perhaps there's a bit of truth in all of this, or perhaps Lee realized that the odds were awfully long against a black man trying to make a career in classical music in the 1920s. Then--as now--orchestras were nearly if not completely lily white. Black classical musicians found few opportunities to work unless they were light-skinned and willing to pass for white.As the son of an Irish mother, Billy Butler could have passed in order to work, but chose not to. He gave up the violin, switched to the saxophone and clarinet, and enjoyed a successful career playing jazz and conducting orchestras.
Lee admired Billy for refusing to pass. In Billy's place, he would have made the same choice, but because Lee was dark-skinned, this was never an option. After much thought, Lee decided not to follow Billy into jazz, nor would he try to follow Professor Butler into a teaching career, or Rosamond Johnson into black musicals and vaudeville revues. Instead, after seven years of intense study with some of Harlem's finest teachers and a successful student debut in one of New York City's premier concert halls, Lee carefully packed away his violin one day and, without telling his mother or father, bundled up some clothes, took a last look at home, walked out the front door, and disappeared.
What could drive a fourteen-year-old boy to run away from a loving, stable family?
If he couldn't be somebody as a concert musician, maybe he could be somebody racing horses.
Copyright © 2004 by Mona Z. Smith