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Kelsey in Focus: Installment #8

Curated by T. G. Wilfong, Curator of Graeco-Roman Egyptian Collections

Reconstruction of the Doric Temple in the Triangular Forum at Pompeii; watercolor, ink, pencil; 19th century AD; donated by Professor Michele Valerie Ronnick, 2021

Donation: A Pompeii Temple Reconstructed & Its Historic Honoree

In 2021, Professor Michele Valerie Ronnick (Wayne State University) donated to the Kelsey Museum a 19th-century watercolor showing a reconstruction of the Doric Temple in the so-called Triangular Forum at Pompeii. The Kelsey Museum, of course, has a long association with Pompeii, given museum founder Francis Kelsey’s interest in the site and the material on display in the museum (most notably the Maria Barosso watercolor facsimiles of the Villa of the Mysteries paintings). Both the Barosso watercolors and this new donation are useful reminders of how archaeologists recorded and published color images before the availability of color photography (first used for significant archaeological recording purposes in 1939 for the excavation of the Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo).

Professor Ronnick has donated this painting in honor of William Sanders Scarborough, in part due to his connections both to Pompeii and to Francis Kelsey, but also to honor his extraordinary life and career. Born enslaved, Scarborough had to learn to read and write in secret. He went on to become one of the leading Black scholars of his era and was the first Black person to have a professional position as a classics scholar in the United States. Ronnick’s donation of the Pompeii watercolor in honor of Scarborough serves to highlight a remarkable but still little-known historical figure, with ties to Kelsey Museum founder Francis Kelsey. This edition of Kelsey in Focus celebrates both the donation and the honoree for Black History Month 2024.

William Sanders Scarborough (1852–1926)

Portrait of William Sanders Scarborough, captured by photographer C. M. Bell between December 1903 and March 1905. Photo from the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, C. M. Bell Studio Collection.

William Sanders Scarborough was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1852 to a freed father and an enslaved mother. Due to the legal doctrine of partus sequitur ventrum—meaning “what is born follows the womb”—Scarborough inherited his mother’s slave status in an era during which the education of enslaved people was forbidden. In spite of these conditions, he excelled at his studies and became interested in the ancient world and classical languages. After the American Civil War, Scarborough attended Atlanta University and later received his BA from Oberlin College in 1875. In 1877, he became a professor of classics at Wilberforce University in Ohio. The textbook he published four years later on ancient Greek earned him wide recognition.

During his career, he published many articles on classics, a monograph on Aristophanes’ Birds (1886), and essays on politics, travel, art, books, and the place of classical studies in the education of African Americans (some of his writings can be viewed here). In 1883, Scarborough joined the American Philological Association and—during his 44-year membership— presented papers at more than 20 meetings. He became the first Black member of the Modern Language Association in 1884. From 1908 until his retirement in 1920, Scarborough served as president of Wilberforce University, after which US President Warren Harding appointed Scarborough to a position in the US Department of Agriculture. Scarborough’s autobiography, however, was not published until 2005. In this extraordinary document, which Professor Ronnick found as a 368-page manuscript in Columbus, Ohio, Scarborough recounts his life, his scholarship, and his political activism, as well as the various forms of racial discrimination he faced.

William Sanders Scarborough: The Kelsey Connection

In 1898, Francis Kelsey invited William Sanders Scarborough to a gathering of colleagues at his home in Ann Arbor. In his autobiography, Scarborough notes that Kelsey’s invitation “may seem too small to mention,” but its “worth was incalculable to me.” He goes on to characterize such gestures as “a sign post pointing the way to my people for the recognition they desire.” Kelsey also appears in a sympathetic light in an episode that Scarborough otherwise described as “unpleasant.” Scarborough was scheduled to present at the 1909 meeting of the American Philological Society (now the Society for Classical Studies) in still-segregated Baltimore, but he was refused admittance to the 40th anniversary dinner to which he had subscribed on account of his race. Kelsey quickly wrote to Scarborough expressing his regret at the incident—a letter that Scarborough quotes in his autobiography. Francis Kelsey clearly took a strong interest in Scarborough and his career.

More generally, Scarborough and Kelsey had a mutual fascination with the remains of ancient Roman Pompeii. Scarborough visited Pompeii in 1901, during his first trip to Europe. His autobiography contains a detailed account of his ascent of the still-active Mount Vesuvius (which would erupt again just a few years after this visit), in which he vividly imagines Pliny the Elder’s view of the eruption that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum. Francis Kelsey, of course, visited Pompeii a number of times—his visits partly recounted in his own diaries and partly through a series of photographs in the Kelsey Museum archives. Kelsey’s love of Pompeii and view of its importance led him to commission Maria Barosso to make facsimiles of the wall paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries, to allow visitors to his planned museum in Ann Arbor to see what he saw. Surely Scarborough and Kelsey talked of Pompeii, along with other matters, when they met.