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Satchmo, Latimer left large legacy in Queens

Youngsters (l.-r.) Heather Mercedes Guzman, James and Samantha Burns and Kloe Pirovolikos blow out the candles on a birthday cake for jazz legend Louis Armstrong at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in 2009.
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Central to the New York Landmarks Conservancy’s mission is preservation, revitalization and reuse of the city’s numerous architecturally significant buildings. In recognition of Black History Month, the conservancy is urging New Yorkers to visit sites or places that are crucial to understanding the role of African Americans in the city’s history.

Few sites in New York City are as critical to African-American history as the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, home to the legendary jazz musician for more than 30 years.

“Louis was a pioneer in civil rights,” said Michael Cogswell, director of the museum. “He was the first black American to have feature billing in a motion picture … the first to host a national network radio variety show and the first performer to put in his contract that he would not play any place that he could not stay.”

Cogswell added that Armstrong’s remarks on the Little Rock crisis in 1957 — he was the first black celebrity to speak out publicly on the injustices of Little Rock — are legendary.

Nine black students who, only three years after school segregation was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, were initially denied entrance to their high school in Little Rock by the Arkansas National Guard as well as angry mobs of white students and parents.

The confrontation resolved itself when President Dwight Eisenhower ordered 1,000 paratroopers to escort the students into the school. The integration of the Little Rock school was considered a watershed event in the civil rights movement.

Visitors to the National Historic and New York City landmark, at 34-56 107th St. in Corona, can enjoy guided tours of Louis’ longtime home. The tour features audio clips from Louis’ homemade recordings and visitors hear Armstrong practicing the trumpet, having a meal or talking with friends.

Visitors can also explore an exhibit on Armstrong’s life and legacy as well as the Armstrongs’ Japanese-inspired garden. According to the museum’s website, Armstrong’s achievements were substantial.

During his career, he had an impact on all musicians who would follow him. He recorded hit songs for five decades and his music is still heard today on television and radio and in films. Armstrong also wrote autobiographies and magazine articles while composing dozens of songs that have become jazz standards, in addition to performing an average of 300 concerts each year.

The borough president has been a major supporter of the Louis Armstrong House and has funded the new visitors center by providing $2.8 million in capital improvement funding and another $125,000 for repairs and reconstruction of the garden wall, according to spokesman Dan Andrews.

New works at the museum include a new portrait of Armstrong painted by singer Tony Bennett, on display until Feb. 29, in addition to two other exhibits currently on display.

“Keep Up the Good Works: The Gosta Haggloff Collection” features treasures from the newest Armstrong collection, acquired from Sweden in 2011. It closes Feb. 29. “Satchmo’s Stuff: Highlights from the Museum Collection” spotlights objects from the museum’s six other collections, including a gold-plated Selmer trumpet given to Louis by King George V.

The Lewis H. Latimer House in Flushing was home to yet another African-American icon, pioneering electrical inventor Lewis Latimer, from 1903 until his death in 1928.

According to the Historic House Trust website, Latimer was born in 1848 and taught himself mechanical drawing while in the Union Navy.

As an expert draftsman, Latimer worked with three of the greatest scientific inventors in American history — Alexander Graham Bell, Hiram S. Maxim and Thomas Alva Edison —and played a key role in helping develop the telephone and inventing and patenting the carbon filament, a significant improvement in the production of the incandescent light bulb.

Latimer would also later supervise the installation of street lighting and the building of electric plants in American cities as well as London and Montreal.

“Borough President Marshall has also been a huge supporter of the Lewis Latimer House,” said Andrews.

Funding by Marshall’s office for the Latimer House totals $800,000 from fiscal years 2003-12 and includes new wrought iron fencing, lighting and roof restoration. In addition, the siding of the house is currently being repaired.

“We are keeping the story of our past alive,” said Marshall.

The Lewis H. Latimer House Museum, at 34-41 137th St. in Flushing, is open Tuesday to Thursday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 718-961-8585 or visit historichousetrust.org.

Posted 7:51 am, February 23, 2012
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