Celebrating Saint Andrews’ Edward Mitchell Bannister for Black history month

SAINT ANDREWS – Kerri Chrus, senior guide at the Ross Memorial Museum, is proud of the nine-panel exhibit about artist Edward Mitchell Bannister that has been at the museum since 2019. Bannister was able to produce 600 paintings and works on paper despite the challenges he faced as a Black person during the second half of the 19th century. Now, Chrus is making a funding application and hoping to see the Ross Memorial Museum improve the exhibit and the excellent work already done.

Artist Edward Mitchell Bannister was born on November 2, 1828, in Saint Andrews. Barry Murray, president of St. Andrews Civic Trust and archival volunteer, helped work on the Bannister exhibit. He says that Bannister’s parents were Hannah Alexander (d1844) and Edward Bannister (d1832), originally a preacher from the West Indies. Bannister spent his formative years in the village, before moving to Boston, Mass., where his painting career and work as an activist began. He later moved to Rhode Island and, at the time of his death in 1901, he was a regionally respected painter.

History allowed dust to gather on Bannister’s work until he was rediscovered in the modern era. Murray is sure Bannister’s work has graced the walls of several official American residences from the Bush to the Obama administration, and some Bannisters are held by the Smithsonian Institute.

Murray, an amateur historian, first “stumbled” on Bannister “…in a book. But it did not tell me what I needed to know,” So, he began digging, mostly in American books and newspapers. Murray was joined by David Sullivan, who has extensively researched the 60-plus Black community in Saint Andrews. Murray and Sullivan were approached by Kings Landing living history museum and invited to prepare information for a panel in a static display about Bannister. The exhibit eventually came on loan to the Ross Memorial Museum.

There were a few surprising facts Murray discovered while researching with Sullivan. “His (maternal) grandmother, known as Black Violet,” Murray says, “remembered being kidnapped from her village in Africa. Many people know that they are descended from Africans,” Murray says, “but not many people actually remembered being kidnapped.” In the British Empire, including British North America, the Slavery Abolition Act came into effect on Aug. 1, 1834. However, according to The Blacks in Saint Andrews section of the Old New Brunswick website, there were no slaves in the province after 1810.

After his parents died, Bannister and his younger brother, William, “were tucked under” their grandmother’s arm, says Murray. The exact status she had is unconfirmed, although Murray knows she owned land and worked for Loyalist Harris Hatch. Hatch, a lawyer and merchant, was the first owner of the house now known as the Ross Memorial Museum. The exhibit today is displayed in the room underneath where servants, such as Bannister’s grandmother, probably stayed.

“He may have visited his grandmother here,” Chrus says. “He may have seen the books that Harris Hatch owned, and this could have been his inspiration.” In addition to the exhibit panels, Chrus has set up an artist’s studio in the room, complete with an original Bannister watercolour on loan from Archdeacon Matheson.

Murray is certain that Hatch recognized Bannister’s abilities. “He provided him with materials and mentorship,” Murray explains. Murray also relates that Bannister is said to have practised his art with bits of charcoal on barns and fence styles in the area. Bannister and his brother worked as a farm labourers for Hatch.

As young men, the Bannister boys left Saint Andrews, shipping out as cooks, and appear in the Boston, Massachusetts 1850 census. They gained work as barbers in Boston, where Bannister met Christina Carteaux, a hairdresser of African American and Narragansett descent. Bannister applied to Carteaux for a job, probably not knowing they would marry and share an active interest in abolition actions (slavery remained in the United States until 1865). Murray thinks Carteaux’s hairdressing operation was “a front” for her abolitionist activities. The Bannisters worked to end racism and slavery, marching for equal rights and fundraising for abolitionist causes.

Bannister worked, photographed, and painted in Boston and then Providence, Rhode Island area for many years. However, his early upbringing influenced his work and his stance in life. Murray noted cows were a frequent subject of Bannister’s paintings, perhaps drawing on his early agricultural work. The exhibit panel Sullivan and Murray wrote quotes the Nov. 10, 1896, St. Andrews Beacon and says, “When he left Saint Andrews for Boston, his brain was fired with the ambition to reproduce on canvas the glowing pictures of wild coast life and sylvan loveliness that had filled his childhood with never ceasing wonder.”

Art historian Juanita Marie Holland writes in an essay, “It is possible that he experienced little in his small village that would lead him to consider his race as an obstacle to this pursuit [to be an artist].”

In his adult life the trials were frequent and racial prejudice hampered, for example, his as access to training. Bannister was once challenged when he went to receive a prize that he won in a contest he had entered with only his signature so as to escape judgement by race. However, he was allowed to collect the prize. Holland quotes Bannister as saying, “I have been sustained by an inborn love of art and accomplished all I have undertaken through the severest struggles which, while severe enough for white men, have been enhanced tenfold in my case.”

“Really, the exhibit it the tip of the discussion of Black history in Saint Andrews,” says Murray. The Edward M. Bannister exhibit will be on view when the Ross Memorial Museum reopens at 188 Montague St. in June.