Anyone who’s seen Alex Pentek’s sculpture Kindred Spirits in Midleton, Co Cork, will be delighted to hear the news that he’s been commissioned to create a piece commemorating pioneering African-American lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston. Pentek spoke to Ryan Tubridy – a big fan of the Kindred Spirits sculpture – on Tuesday about his new commission and the man it’s honouring. And Charles Houston seems to have been the sort of man whose words were frequently inspirational – Alex Pentek has, needless to say, been researching the man he’s been asked to commemorate and he read a quote from Houston, from his time fighting in the First World War:
“The hate and scorn showered on negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in dying for a world ruled by them. I made up my mind that if I got through the war, I would study law and spend my time fighting for men, who could not strike back.”
And that’s exactly what Houston did, and after graduating from Harvard law School, he went on to help put an end to the racist Jim Crow laws in the US. He was particularly appalled at segregation in America’s schools and his work eventually helped eradicate the practice in state schools. The central plank of the Jim Crow segregationist laws was the notion of ‘separate but equal’. Houston argued that if blacks and whites were to ‘separate but equal’, then housing, educational facilities and salaries all needed to be equal. He planned to make it so expensive to be ‘separate but equal’ that the separate part would be abandoned. It was a huge victory for civil rights in the US, as Alex told Ryan:
“He did something amazing. He set a pathway for others to follow. He tutored Thurgood Marshall, who was the first black Supreme Court judge.”
Alex Pentek decided that being symbolic was the way to approach the commission, so he researched floriography, which he describes as “the field of using symbolism through plants and flowers”. It was during this research that he made a key discovery:
“I found out that the allium flower is the international symbol for unity and for staying true to one’s principles.”
So Alex picked the allium flower for his sculpture, in stainless steel, just under 5m tall. And he’s called it Unity. It’s to be unveiled in front of the Charles H Hamilton Elementary School in Washington by the end of the year.
To hear more from Ryan’s chat with Alex Pentek, including discussion of his piece commemorating the Native American Choctaw Nation gift to a famine-ravaged Ireland, go here.
Niall Ó Sioradáin
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