Wednesday, January 2, 2013

New Blog: The Darkinboddy Chronicles

Many of you know of my love for history, my love for 19th century literature, and my love for baking cookies (don't worry--it all relates!). To that end, I have just begun a new blog entitled The Darkinboddy Chronicles, which relates the adventures of an unusual individual who lived through some of the most tumultuous events ever recorded in American history. Her name was Melanie Darkinboddy.*

Melanie's story has also inspired a new beginning for the Baked by a Negro Cookie Company and, finally, the long-awaited web publication of her unusual memoir, much of which I have had to reconstruct from rough notes, sketches, and jottings:

I hope to be able to publish at least three entries per week as a running serial, with imagery and other ephemera in an attempt to evoke the rich history from which her cookie empire was sprung. Below is a bit of biographical background on Melanie.

Born in 1857, the same year the Dred Scott Decision was rendered, Melanie Darkinboddy (pictured) was the original proprietor of Baked by a Negro Cookie Company, which she founded in 1896 in New York City. Naming her store "Baked by a Negro" to honor the wishes of a formerly enslaved woman known only as "Aunt Hagar," the small shop, located in a tiny storefront on 125th Street in Harlem, became one of the most successful small black-owned businesses of the fin de siecle. The success continued through the early decades of the 20th century and, with her new-found wealth, Melanie Darkinboddy became a generous and socially-conscious philanthropist, supporting every important Negro cause of the era, including Ida B. Wells's anti-lynching crusade, providing small grants to other black entrepreneurs, and funding the higher education of young Negro women and men.

Dearest to her heart, however, was her dedication to providing money and other assistance to Negro foundlings. A five year-old survivor of the conflagration that enveloped the Colored Orphans Asylum during the New York City Draft Riots in July of 1863, Melanie was devoted to ensuring that "... sad little colored foundlings such as myself receive a fair chance when thrust into this breathing world of ours." Business prospered in the early decades of the 20th century, as Melanie's indescribably delicious homemade cookies became the most popular two-penny treat in the neighborhood. Oddly, repeated attempts to convince her to market the cookies on a national level were met with a stone-faced resistance as Melanie echoed the words of her favorite poem, "Invictus", saying only "I am the master of my fate, and the captain of my soul."  Thus the years went along for the cookie-maker.

During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920 and '30s, also known as the "Jazz Age," Melanie Darkinboddy, then in her sixties,  became a humble patron of black artists, writers, and musicians, hosting innumerable parties in their honor from her elegant yet rather modest apartment overlooking Riverside Drive. A beloved figure throughout all of Harlem for the wit and wisdom she shared, along with her delicious small batch cookies, Melanie never turned a child away, sending many a  wayward youth home with a warm cookie and some good advice.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed in its wake took a heavy toll on Harlem businesses, and on the 125th Street shop in particular. In 1931, Melanie, then 73 years old, was forced to shut down. She continued to support her causes, albeit on a much smaller scale, often giving a few dollars here and there to young students attending the City College and Columbia University, respectively. The consequence of what she euphemistically called "a life so thoroughly and truly well-lived" began to take a toll on her health. By then, she only baked cookies for her small circle of friends, and was rarely seen in public.

In 1935, however, in horror at what eventually became known as the Harlem Race Riot, Melanie came out of retirement and managed to quell the palpable anger of the populace in the aftermath of the violence and bloodshed through the sheer power of her formidably humble personality. In an interview with a well-known reporter from the Negro press, the 78 year-old doyenne stated, "This is not how we Negroes carry ourselves. We must build up, not tear down. Heed my words--our Negro lives will not be worth much without capital in this capitalist world." Those words constituted the last public utterance by Melanie Darkinboddy. Her last known appearance was at an early June organizing rally for the 1941 March on Washington Movement, then being  organized by A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. Darkinboddy was seen leaving the rally before its end, but not before receiving a warm embrace from Randolph's wife, Lucille Campbell Green.

She disappeared into obscurity until May 17, 1954, when a tiny notice in the obituary section of one Negro paper recorded the passing of one "...Melanie Darkinboddy, shop-owner, Harlem, aged 97."  In a will probated nearly a year after her death, it was found that Melanie had left her small fortune in equal sums to various private charities engaged in the support of orphans and to historically black institutions of higher learning, and her papers to an anonymous beneficiary. 

All best in the New Year,


*Melanie Darkinboddy is a fictional character.


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