EyeShow: A Virtual Exhibition (Seventh in a Series)

Keith Johnson PhotoNot every history lived out in this city is recorded. This, the seventh installment of “EyeShow”—a series of commissioned works by local artists as part of an ongoing virtual gallery in the Independent—is meant to evoke one of those lost stories. Howard el-Yasin describes below the obligation to remember that defines this work:

This project conceptually represents a conflation both of my memories about my late paternal Grandmother, who came to New Haven seeking a better life than what was available to blacks living in the Jim Crow South, and of the institutional exclusion of some people from the plush, luxuriant, comforts of Yale University as a blue velvet coffin. This sculpture, “Blue Velvet Suitcase,” will likely continue to be transformed, and ultimately will be presented as part of an onsite exhibition. I am grateful to Keith Johnson for photographing the first iteration of this work presented online.

My Grandmother retired from Yale University (c. 1979) after 20 years of custodial worker service. My Grandparents had left the South (c. 1940), she with this navy blue suitcase (now an artifact), seeking opportunity in New Haven, CT during the Second Great African-American Migration. Through a familial connection to a family in Danville, VA by whom my great-grandmother was also employed, my grandmother became the maid and my grandfather the chauffeur and of a wealthy family on St. Ronan Street. They lived in the attic, and my grandmother enjoyed retelling how Mrs. kept a kosher kitchen, but when Mr. was away Mrs. would creep upstairs for a taste of aromatic pork chops.

She was smart, but uneducated ,and received low wages her whole life, mostly for providing domestic (and custodial) help; but she was fearless and beautiful, too, so had been hired as the first black female elevator operator at Shartenberg’s Department Store before beginning her tenure at Yale.

Proud, intelligent, and self-determined, she wore this blue smock uniform over her own clothes when cleaning toilets, scrubbing floors, and emptying trash cans five days a week. Outspoken and strong-willed, she was also gentle and kind. Sometimes she sat down to rest while cleaning classrooms in which she hardly understood the subjects being taught. This was all before women were allowed to sit in the same classroom with men; and to which only a few non-white men had been granted access.

She brought home stories that Yale students had either shared with her or that she overheard, along with various scavenged fragments of their privileged lives - discarded clothes, books, and furniture. For several years after leaving the velvet coffin she continued ‘housekeeping’ for the niece of her former benefactor family, maintaining the luxuriant sheen on opulent dark wood furniture. While her promise of humanity may have been unrequited, she is remembered.

Howard el-Yasin


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