Barnstable Patriot

New book from local Cape Cod press seeks to understand the role of race in American history

By Ellen Chahey

Posted Mar. 22, 2016 at 2:14 PM

“Icons of the Civil Rights Movement: Dispelling White Privilege,” a recent release from the West Barnstable Press, is a masterful work about a critical time in American history from the perspective of many who lived it. The book was researched, written and illustrated by the Rev. Dr. David A. Purdy and Pamela Chatterton-Purdy, a husband and wife from Harwich Port.

This book is a love story: a story about a couple’s love for each other and for the family they brought into being; a story of love for their country and its ideals; and a story of their love for humanity.

It is also a journey story: a story about a physical journey to many important places in our country’s tumultuous racial history and a story about a journey to understanding deeply the role of race in American history and in the psyche of Americans of all colors.

And it is an art book, stunningly produced. But the art is more than artful. The artworks are icons in the Christian theological sense of the word: sacred works, bathed in golden light that represents the heavenly, which the viewer doesn’t gaze upon so much as gazes upon the viewer with a calm yet challenging presence that demands, “And what do you love?”

I have known the Purdys for decades, from before we all lived on the Cape. They’re both retired now from their “day jobs”: he from the ministry of the United Methodist Church and she from teaching art. But the icons, and the Purdys’ passion for racial justice, anchors their lives. They come into Hyannis often from their Harwich Port home as vital participants and leaders at the Zion Union Heritage Museum on North Street in Hyannis, where Pam’s icons live when they are not being displayed in schools, museums, and other venues. Together, they have been awarded the Barnstable County Human Rights Commission’s “Cornerstone Award” (2011) and the NAACP of Cape Cod’s “Unsung Hero Award” (2012).

They had previously published a book of the icons, but the new 2016 version not only includes new icons but adds nearly 100 pages of text. They interweave their family story (they committed to adopting one child of color for every biological one they birthed, resulting in two daughters by birth, one African-American son and one son half African-American and half Vietnamese) with an account of a trip they took to civil rights sites in the South in 2004. They intersperse their own story with a remarkable collection of 24 oral histories of the civil rights movement, some that they recorded on the southern trip, others that they heard from people who came to view exhibitions of the icons.

One of the stories is of local interest: that of Harold Tobey of Hyannis, the first black police officer in town, later the head of security for the Hyannis Public Library, the first African-American president of the town council, and among the visionaries of the Zion Union Heritage Museum.

The 35 icons range from historical figures to people who suffered or died during the 1950s and 1960s in the cause of voter registration and desegregation to living heroes such as singer and activist Harry Belafonte and President Barack Obama. One icon of Cape Cod interest is that of Captain Jonathan Walker, born in Harwich, who was arrested in Pensacola, Florida, for trying to help slaves to escape. The marshal there branded Walker’s hand with a hot iron made in the sign “SS,” for “slave stealer.” There’s even a quick mention of the Barnstable Patriot, which reprinted a letter he wrote to his “dear wife and children” from prison.

The Purdys have several book signings coming up in April:

April 1, 5-7 p.m. The Cape Cod Cultural Center in South Yarmouth

April 9, 3-5 p.m. The Zion Union Heritage Museum, Hyannis

April 24, 11-noon The Harwich United Methodist Church

April 30, 2-3:45 p.m. Brooks Free Library, Harwich Center

The new version of the book is available at the museum’s gift shop.

The Purdys praised the work of West Barnstable’s Nancy Viall Shoemaker, who designed and produced the book.

The subject of both a story and an icon is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose family perished in the Holocaust. Personally invited by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King to participate in the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, the rabbi wrote of it later, “Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

As David Purdy and Pamela Chatterton-Purdy produced the words and images for this treasure of a book, they must have felt that same sense of prayer by action. I think you will, too.

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