By Carol Vaughn —
A New York City musician with Eastern Shore roots was among panelists speaking at “Gleaming in the Shadow of Slavery: A Conversation with Descendants of African Americans of Old Yale.”
The virtual seminar, held Sept. 19, was sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.
The Yale and Slavery Research Project began in October 2020 with the mission of understanding the history of Yale in relation to those “who actively promoted slavery, anti-Black racism, and other forms of exploitation,” as Yale President Peter Salovey said.
Newman Taylor Baker was one of six panelists for the event, organized by Charles Warner Jr., a member of Dixwell Avenue Congregational UCC in New Haven. The church is the country’s oldest African-American Congregational church and was the church many early Black Yale students attended.
The panel was moderated by Crystal Feimster, associate professor of African American Studies. The panelists all are descendants of early Black graduates of Yale.
“I think it’s really important for us to honor the Black folks who have come through Yale, whether that is as students, as employees, as enslaved people, as paid labor,” said Feimster.
Baker is the grandson of the Rev. Dr. Thomas Nelson Baker, who earned a bachelor degree in sacred theology from Yale Divinity School in 1895 and a Ph.D in philosophy in 1903 from Yale, making him the first Black person to earn a doctorate in philosophy in the United States.
Baker is a professional musician, specializing in percussion. He grew up on the campus of Virginia State University, where his parents were professors.
Baker over the past several years has connected with the memory of his ancestors and has traveled the country doing family research, according to his introduction given by Feimster.
At the same time, Baker connected with the washboard as a historically significant musical instrument. He is a member of the New York City band, Ebony Hillbillies, New York’s only Black string band.
Baker recently returned from a tour of Europe, where he performed and taught.
Baker spoke about his ancestor, Thomas Nelson Baker.
“My grandfather I’ve gotten to know in the last 10 years or so. I knew he had graduated and gotten his Ph.D. from Yale. As I child, I knew that, but I didn’t know anything else about him. He and my grandmother had both passed before I was conceived so there was no opportunity to meet them,” he said.
He said he had traveled to Pittsfield, Mass., to visit his grandparents’ graves, which he called “the first time I was close to them in any way.”
“I took the washboard and I played for them,” he said.
Baker said his attraction to the washboard as a musical instrument “is really what got me going into looking at my grandfather.”
The washboard he plays is special to him. He found the instrument while cleaning out the apartment of a good friend after her death in 2007.
“I found this washboard and it had been used. She used it to wash clothes,” he said.
His friend, Evelyn Blakey, was the daughter of jazz drummer and band leader Art Blakey.
“When I got this washboard, I just imagined that Evelyn at some point had washed her clothes, her brother’s clothes, and her father’s clothes with that washboard, so I took it home not expecting to play it but just because I thought it had that juju, that magic,” he said.
Three years later, at age 69, he was asked to substitute as percussionist with the Ebony Hillbillies — and, specifically, to play the washboard.
“So I took the washboard in. I had shotgun shells that my friend had given me to play (with),” he said, adding that as he began to play, “There came a point where my hands were doing things … I don’t know where it came from. It was like I was watching this thing happen and I felt like it wasn’t me, but it was my ancestors showing me how to play the washboard.” After that experience, Baker was inspired to learn more about his grandfather and the rest of the family.
“It’s been a really great journey after that point,” he said.
Baker visited the Eastern Shore in June 2019 as part of his quest. While here, he visited the Boys & Girls Club at Occohannock Elementary School, where he played the washboard for the children.
His grandfather was born in 1860 on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. He died in 1941. Thomas Nelson Baker was born enslaved on a plantation in Seaview.
He was the oldest of eight children, five boys and three girls.
Newman Baker’s ancestors on his father’s side had lived on the Eastern Shore since the 1750s.
“In learning about my grandfather, I learned a lot about myself,” Baker said.
His grandfather’s mother learned to read and then taught her son, according to Baker.
“The only book they had to read was the Bible,” he said.
Thomas Nelson Baker attended school from age 8 to 12, when he had to leave to work on his father’s farm. After the slaves were freed, his father was given some of the same land he previously had worked on as an enslaved person.
When his grandfather was 21, he was able to leave the farm. He went first to Hampton Institute to continue his interrupted education, graduating in 1885.
Then, he taught for a year in the Dismal Swamp area, teaching other Black people, before he headed North to continue his own education.
“It had always been a desire of my grandfather to return to the South and to teach his people. After he got his Ph.D., that’s what he wanted to do, but it didn’t happen for him. But it did happen for him through his son, my father, T. Nelson Baker, Jr.,” Baker said.
His father after earning a Ph.D. at Ohio State University in Chemistry, the first Black person to do so there, taught for years at Virginia State University, where he was chairman of the Chemistry department.
Baker noted his own brother, Thomas Nelson Baker III, also earned a Ph.D., from Cornell University.
“It’s just interesting to me that three same names — and all of them ended up being Ph.D.s,” he said, adding, “I’m the different one — I’m the musician.”
His grandfather upon going North first attended Mount Hermon School, a preparatory school in Massachusetts. Then he attended Boston University, graduating as the university’s first Black valedictorian, before going on to Yale.
Thomas Nelson Baker was ordained at Dixwell Church and served as its pastor while he was starting his doctoral studies. He later spent most of his career as pastor of Second Congregational church in Pittsfield, Mass.