Little, Black, and Bold
Andi Owens, GS ’63, on Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Harlem walking tours, and being Black at Columbia in the ’60s.
By Willa Neubauer
Andi Owens is just over five feet tall and the fastest walker I know. I was reminded of this in early September, my first day back in New York after a six-month hiatus, when I saw Owens chatting happily with the MTA worker sitting behind the glass partition at the 110th Street 1 station. When he turned towards the exit, I re-introduced myself as “the girl who lived in the apartment beneath him.” Andi’s black beanie, emblazoned with the word “Harlem” in old English typeface, bobbed excitedly as he recognized me. Jogging up the stairs, he gestured for me to follow him out of the station and onto our block. I briefly took off my mask to wipe the sweat collecting on my upper lip as I struggled to keep up with Andi, who reminded me that he was 92 years old and “fit as a fiddle.” I had little trouble believing this.
As we made our way towards our building, I couldn’t help but admire the joy with which Owens seemed to navigate New York. Nearing Amsterdam Avenue, he pointed towards the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and exclaimed, “Isn’t that marvelous!” as if seeing it for the first time. As a 61-year resident of Morningside Heights and South Harlem, a Columbia alumnus, and a seasoned tour guide at Harlem Heritage Tours, Owens had surely walked down Broadway hundreds of times before our September stroll. Owens knew New York in a way that I had only dreamed of, embracing, without pretension, not only its cultural cornerstones but also its curious mixture of characters.
It was no surprise, then, that when I phoned Owens in late February to ask whether he would talk with me about his experiences as a tour guide, museum curator, and Columbia student, he was more than willing. In early March he invited me to his apartment, located one floor above my old place, for the interview. We sat together, masked, listening to Tracy Chapman and admiring the large portrait of Barack Obama hanging on his bedroom wall. Surrounded by troves of artwork, books, and jazz records, Owens told me everything.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Andi Owens: On all my tours I introduce myself. I interrupt the conversation and say, “Let me introduce myself.” I say, “First of all, my name is Andi Owens: A-N-D-I O-W-E-N-S.” Number two: “I am a handsome Black dude.” Number three: “I’m 92-and-a-half years old.” And number four is very special: “I’m still sexy.”
The Blue and White: I love that introduction. Would you be able to tell me about your experiences at Columbia to start?
AW: When I was at Columbia in 1959, there were no more than a half-dozen Black students, so I was really an outsider. But I’d spent four years in the Air Force, so I was bold and bad to begin with. So, I began to talk to some of the students and they said, “Oh, Andi, why don’t you create your own organization?” At Columbia, I was an English major specializing in continental and European drama. I actually put together a student organization called the Queen’s Revels within the University and I directed Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and also the American premiere of Plato’s Symposium with Professor Mark Van Doren, who helped us with dramatization.
What was extraordinary about the Queen's Revels was that we did not use student actors and actresses for the leads. We used professional actors and actresses because, at that time, there was no classical theater in New York City—it was all contemporary theater. So in the showbiz magazine, I would run an ad asking for actors and actresses for this production, and, oh, these actors and actresses showed up with fantastic résumés. Their interviews, of course, were wonderful. But then at the performance afterparty, it was always confession time: They had never done any professional or classical theater in their life. But they were fantastic artists. They were extraordinary. And so, Shakespeare’s As You Like It was performed at the hall near Columbia’s library.
B&W: Can you tell me about the night of your first performance?
AO: The night of our performance—well, in fact, there had been a dance the night before at the auditorium. Of course, Columbia students were racist at that time, so I was the oddity—but it didn’t bother me then. I just overlooked all that. Well, those who were holding the dance hadn’t cleaned up, knowing we were doing a theater performance the next day. Oh my gosh, that didn't bother me. So, I called a dozen members of our theater group and we went in and began cleaning up the space ourselves, mopping it and so forth. [Those who held the dance] were so embarrassed that they then came in after and did a thorough job. That was As You Like It, my first production.
B&W: After As You Like It, you organized a second performance, correct?
AO: Yes, we directed the American premiere of Plato’s Symposium. We presented that at Barnard, at the Barnard gymnasium, and it was really quite extraordinary, with new professional actors and actresses. After that production got good reviews also, I then decided I wanted to do Aeschylus’s Agamemnon on the steps of Low Library. However, when we were trying to get the organization chartered out of the University at this time, … nobody would be a faculty advisor for us. So we risked getting in trouble with the University—can you believe that?
And so, me being little, Black, and bold, I went to the Vice President at the University, Dr. Harold E. Low, whose offices were in Low Library, which I knew was going to be an advantage. He received me very well. He said, “Andi, where did you find the name, ‘the Queen’s Revels’?” And I said to him, “I’m an English major in Continental and European Greek drama, and I know that Queen Elizabeth had a private theater company. Now Columbia University is founded by King George III, an Englishman, right?” And so, I said, “Elizabeth had a private theater company called Children of the Queen’s Revels, and this is an English institution. We’re not Children of the Queen’s Revels, we’re just the Queen’s Revels.” He just loved that. He was so excited that he said, “I will be your faculty advisor.” And so it happened that whenever I needed anything from the University, I went to Harold E. Low, my faculty advisor, and got whatever I wanted.
Now, let me tell you about that extraordinary final performance on the steps of Low Library. Our cast was mostly Barnard women in the end. In the play, Clytemnestra knifes and kills Cassandra. Well, the beautiful thing about having Dr. Low as our faculty advisor was that in Greek drama, death never takes place on the stage, always in the palace—Low Library was our palace. Dr. Low said, “We will have the doors of Low open for that scene.” Well, Cassandra was stabbed inside Low Library. And her voice just bellowed out—oh, my, it was just so beautiful. I mean, it truly felt real. The chorus ran up the steps and then carried her body down the steps and deposited her—now, I shouldn't say deposited, let me say placed—her limp body at the foot of Alma Mater. Other chorus members draped a black fabric around the base of Alma Mater. [Pointing to a production photograph he has on hand.] And that’s what you see here.
B&W: How fantastic that you have a photograph of this moment.
AO: Yes, isn’t that great? It was a beautiful performance. We had a large audience for something like $5.50 a person. Dr. Low himself rented 1,500 chairs, and I thought, This graciousness is just overwhelming! But when I got ready to register the bill—and this was for three nights—the bill was $350. And pardon the expression, but I was a poor-ass student on a GI Bill. Oh my gosh, though, I didn’t get excited. I was just so thrilled to have had the performance. I never went to Dr. Low and said anything to him at all, but I had thanked him for the chairs when they arrived. I was so pleased that he was honorable enough to accept us and be our faculty advisor to make this performance possible. Of course, had his office been in another building, there’s no way Low Library would have been open for that scene.
I was a producer of that play, for Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. Rather than direct it myself, I said, let me hire a professional director. What he did blew everybody’s mind. He used Miles Davis’s “Sketches of Spain” for the background music of that performance, and it worked. He was right there with the record player, turning it on and off. People couldn’t see him, but he was there. Isn't that incredible?
B&W: Incredible—jazz in the background of this Greek play! What a balance. And were the chairs the only lasting cost of this final performance?
AO: Yes, there were no other costs. The professional actors and actresses did this for their résumé, because there was no other classical theater at that time in New York City, only American theater. We had about 15, 20 actors and actresses who interviewed for the play, for our production. The professional director, he did the auditioning. I didn’t harass him. I let him do his thing. I saw his résumé and I talked with him and I felt that we were on the same page. This was a historic moment. There was a review of the play at that time—the person who reviewed the play was a professor in the Greek and Latin department, which was extraordinary. Everybody was astounded, thinking, “How could a student suddenly pull this magic off?”
B&W: How impressive—having no money, having to find professional actors, and having to find your own faculty advisor to support you. So that was the last year that you were at Columbia, correct? Did you continue to live in this area after that?
AO: After my Columbia days, I then went to Broadway. With this expertise, I had some credibility. But everyone was white in that era, everything was white. They looked at me and said, “Yes, we have a job for you, Mr. Owens.” I said, “Thank you. What is it?” They said, “The assistant director, four levels down.” I said, “For God’s sake, what is that?” My intuition knew. They said, “Coffee boy, you start at the bottom.” And I said to them, “Not in this life nor the next life.” Oh, no.
B&W: I can understand that. I expect you didn’t end up taking that job, or did you?
AO: No. After that, I got caught up in a circle of Black artists, and we created the Genesis II Gallery of African Art. During that time, we did art exhibitions in my apartment here. A beautiful apartment—the bedroom and the living room were galleries with spotlights and everything. We didn’t have all this furniture, at all. For five or six years, we did that. Then, we did traveling exhibitions around the city of New York, and various institutions became involved. We sold Black artists’ works. I got a chance to know all the prominent artists, Black artists, which was great. From there, we created the museum in residence, Genesis II, at City College. This was with Leonard Jeffries during that whole Black era. This is in 1960. Now, I came from Minneapolis, Minnesota. I call myself a Black Swede—I was not into Blackness at all. I was into whiteness and classical music and that whole scene. So, when I came to New York, Malcolm X terrorized me as he terrorized most whites. [Laughter.] I’m a black dude that was terrorized, that was terrible. You know, what he was saying was all true, but it was just so—
B&W: Did you find that his beliefs were too radical for you at that time?
AO: Well, yes. It was the same time as Dr. King, but Dr. King was able to reach the middle-class African Americans, whereas Malcolm X terrorized us. He said, “We don’t want freedom later, we want it now.” So, I stayed out of Harlem. A couple of years in, at the major library in City College, we played Malcolm X records and all the other Black music and news so far. The students really took to us, which was amazing. It was really quite wonderful. Even though, to them, I acted very “whitey.” I didn’t have any soul at that time.
B&W: After graduating from Columbia, did you feel like you were able to start embracing Black culture and Black African heritage in a new way?
AO: Yes. At that time, Columbia was all white, and I fit in very well, even though I was Black-skinned. I understood the culture as it was. Then, I began to expand my culture—with Black artists being out there, living in their communities, going to other galleries, and meeting so many different types of people. After a number of years at City College, the museum moved to Strivers’ Row. We were on 139th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. Right across the street from us was that famous chocolate cake place.
The new exhibition I’m designing for our new space is “The Black Panthers Celebrate the Royal Empires of Black Africa.” There are eight empires, the first of which is going to be Wakanda. The warriors are going to be female, because, in many of the ancient empires, the warriors were women. You tell that to the Black men today, they just die. They can’t believe it’s true. But in the Black community today, the strongest people are the Black women. Anyway, Wakanda will be the first empire, and it will be in space. Black kids will love that. There will be a special room for each empire. The ancient African organizations were all called empires and Europe just didn't exist at that time—we’re talking about before B.C. The second one will be ancient Egypt and Nubia. And then we’re going to do the Ife/Benin empire, then Carthage, Zulu, Hehi in South Africa, and the eighth empire is going to be called “Barack Obama and the American Empire.”
B&W: How fantastic. So the eighth empire will be an ode to American Blackness?
AO: Yes. And if people say, “Did Donald Trump try to convince you that Barack Obama was not American, that he’s African?” I’ll say, “Well, I’m celebrating his Africanness!”
B&W: Are you curating or organizing this exhibit? What role do you have at the museum now?
AO: I’m doing it all! The money is there now for Blackness. People realize the need, that young people need to know where they stand in America, and what happens when you hang around and accomplish nothing. This is a real challenge for the survival of Black people. I want the museum education to appeal to young people and enlighten their minds, so it has to be very, very attractive. As far as your question goes, I am doing all of it. But we’ve been out of business a few years. We had to rewrite the charter, and we couldn't use the name Genesis II museum any longer—if we used Genesis II, it’d be maybe $500, $600, $700. We went after a new name, “Genesis,” and the state said yes.
B&W: Where is its current location?
AO: It’s on 126th Street, and it’s been lots of chatter figuring out the new charter. Meanwhile, I’ve been planning the exhibition.
B&W: How fantastic. I know this is a very broad question, but when you’re putting together these exhibitions, what do you want to present? What do you want to show the Black community about Black American and international cultural history?
AO: We Black folks were the first humans on planet Earth. We’re celebrating these important communities before Europe had even gotten started. And we have to understand that the evolution of planet Earth is the evolution of humans. Human empires come and go. Civilizations rise and fall. Right now, we need young people to know that we are not secondary citizens. We were primary citizens, but the evolution of the human race is constantly changing. So, our day has come, has gone—however, we ain’t dying! It’s amazing how George Floyd created a whole new revolution in Minneapolis, my hometown.
B&W: Yes, an international revolution. I’m curious what you think Columbia’s role is in 2021 in supporting Black cultural history in Harlem—what do you think they could be doing better?
AO: We are going through a revolution. If you are aware, previous to six months ago, in all the commercial ads in newspapers and magazines, all the models were white. There wasn’t a Black face to be seen. Now, Black models are dominating. Of course, when you have a Black model, because of his color, the fabric that he’s wearing stands out even more. Now, Black models are not being used so much for integration, but rather because it enhances the ad. And my argument is, “Why the hell didn’t they think of this a long time ago?” [Laughter.]
Well, okay, now let me say this to you. This area is known as Morningside Heights purposely to separate it from Harlem. But, historically, it’s Harlem. Now, when I was at Columbia, as I said, it was only a half a dozen Black students, maybe a few more, and racism was—well, forget it, there were so few Black people on campus. I was able to fit in anywhere—anywhere and everywhere. That wasn’t a problem. Where a change in climate came about was when Columbia was quietly buying up all of Morningside Heights and much of Harlem. Now, there are almost as many Columbia students in central Harlem as there are Black folks. Columbia owns all those buildings and was able to get them for nothing.
B&W: Can you tell me a little about your walking tours of Harlem? Did you start giving tours around fifteen years ago?
AO: What Neal [Shoemaker], the Head of Harlem Heritage Walking tours, does is a series of walking tours. He does a Central Harlem tour, and the best one, of course, is the Harlem Renaissance. There are very few of them because of travel restrictions and so forth. But the Harlem Renaissance tour is of old Harlem during the 20s and 30s. That was the era that rent parties were the bold things, and [in] every one of these six-, seven-story apartment buildings, there was always one upright piano, and that piano moved from floor to floor. In those days, there were jazz musicians and prominent jazz clubs, and those clubs were all integrated.
B&W: Harlem was the place to be.
A&O: It was. Anyway, my style of tours is different from Neal’s style of tours. Neal is an artist and actor, and has now been giving virtual tours. In fact, Columbia has just bought those virtual tours from him. These tours embrace Harlem. The people on the tours ask me, “Why do you love Harlem?” I say, “Because the people here have a spirit that people nowhere else seem to have.” And everyone talks to you! It has a wonderful spirit. But yes, it is changing, and a lot of middle-class Blacks want to leave Harlem, also. They want to move into a new community, though when they do move into a new community, they wish they were still back in Harlem. Anyway, I’m hoping that when we get this new museum open, Columbia will be supportive of us, and the students will come and visit it.
B&W: Well, I will work to spread the word. And when the exhibition opens, I will be there!
AO: We’ll have another interview when it does. It’s going to be my last—how do I want to say this? My final explosion to the universe! It’s going to be spectacular. I’ve been working on it hard, and I want it to be spectacular. It’s been put together with hardly any money at all, but with my creative ingenuity. And thank God I have that.