In a sunken conversation pit, its surrounding carpeting painted long ago in the earth tones of blackness, a few of us sat perched high above the city in Mount Auburn laughing and talking about Herbert Allen, whose home we were in, and also about Benjamin “Ben” James Allen, the brother he’d just lost April 15.
So, really, this is some about life and some about death, like life itself.
Anyone who knows the Allen brothers knows it’s a blessing and an honor to do so, but some of us have no idea these men are walking-around Black History Month icons.
For example, I only really knew Ben by reputation, his good humor, his renowned frugality and from the art gallery exhibits that attract mostly a certain echelon of black Cincinnati collectors, patrons and hangers-on.
I will tell you who you’ll see at these places, and disregard that you maybe don’t know these folks; the name-checking is a flipped-on light switch to the city’s major black arts patrons who quietly sponsor and support all genres of art but whose names do not festoon museums and arts centers. And there’s not a meaningful working black artist from here to New York to Chicago and beyond who hasn’t been touched by the support of folks like Pamela and Lennell Myricks, Jim and Pam King, Vernita Henderson, Melvin Crim, Melvin and Brenda Grier, the Art Museum’s Donald P. Sowell Committee and the Duncanson Society of the Taft Art Museum.
Incestuously, some do double duty between committees; some are lone wolves poneying up their own money to ensure black artists are exhibited — and purchased — throughout this city.
So it is during some of these exhibits that Ben and I would usually pass each other — he on his way out because he was always early to scope out art, and me on my way in because I am always late and broke.
“I left it all for you,” he’d say to me, a nod to not only his competitiveness but also to his reputation for buying high art as low as he could to perhaps sell later for as much as he could.
Through the years I’d heard, maybe from Herbert, that Ben was the city’s first black licensed realtor.
And in true understated, hushed and downplayed fashion, Herbert didn’t hint at his brother’s path.
It was in that conversation pit that Henderson and Crim clued me in, passing me a copy of The Cincinnati Herald, a Jet, Ebony and Black Enterprise all rolled into one wherein the pages trumpet the black news of Greater Cincinnati, sometimes the only outlet that does.
Here’s the back story I learned about the man I’d passed in galleries.
In 1950 — not that long ago — Ben was the first black to graduate from Xavier University after returning home from the Army, which drafted him right out of high school.
He got turned on to real estate while in college, but he also got the reputation as a grassroots, one-man civil rights faction there. And at that time, in the country and in this city, I imagine scores of blacks were grabbing their proverbial seats at the front of metaphorical buses.
Ben’s was his graduation gown.
An XU administrator told him a gown hadn’t been ordered for him and, therefore, Ben would not walk with his class. When Ben replied that he’d wear a suit and walk anyway, a gown appeared.
He became a real estate broker and established Ben J. Allen Realty in his basement. The Cincinnati Board of Realtors in 1973 — both Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr., are dead and the Black Power Movement is in full effect — denied him his realtor’s license despite his qualifications. When the Ohio Board of Realtors refused to overrule the local board, Ben appealed all the way to the U.S. Attorney General’s office and got his license.
I learned of Ben’s death in an email from the Myricks.
I learned of Ben’s death again from Herbert, an avid art collector, writer and potterer, a Renaissance Man at nearly 91 years old whose painted clay faces and grotesquely beautiful figures I collect and hang in my kitchen and sit all around my apartment.
I looked for him breathlessly out my apartment window Saturday morning as the Clay Alliance set up its annual Spring Pottery Fair along Woodburn Avenue.
Soon as I saw Herbert (I call him Mr. Allen) leaning gingerly on his cane, I put shoes on and ran down to greet him. I didn’t know how to offer my condolences on his brother’s death without seeming ritualistic or crass, so we just chatted at first.
Then he turned his tall thin frame away from the din of artists pitching their tents. I knew what he was about to say.
I gingerly hooked my arm in his.
“I lost my brother,” he said directly yet softly.
“I know, Mr. Allen,” I said, my voice pleading and teetering on melodrama. And that was that. I asked if Ben had been ill. He had. And he’d been hospitalized and, later, cared for at home, Henderson would tell me later that day. Mr. Allen then proceeded to tell me all about Ben’s two daughters, the elegant way his wife, Helen, had handled and arranged the service and how Ben, the youngest of three, died just 15 days shy of his 87th birthday.
Then it struck him that all his loved ones had May birthdays — that his sister, Jeanette, would be 90 in May, he’d be 91 in May and his daughter also had a May birthday.
I don’t have room to describe how it feels to walk through Mr. Allen’s three-story Mount Auburn home, its floor-to-ceiling walls covered in black images, its corners crowded by African fetishist sculpture or how he never talks about being among the first of Allied Forces to liberate Buchenwald on April 11, 1945.
But I will, God forbid, when Mr. Allen goes.
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