Mike Moses at the “Paul B. Moses: Trailblazing Art Historian" exhibition at U of C's Regenstein Library.
Mike Moses at the Regenstein Library Credit: Clayton Hauck for Chicago Reader

Mike Moses never knew his father, Paul Bell Moses. For the most part, he was afraid to ask about him. 

He knew about his father’s remarkable life in broad strokes. For example, he knew Moses—the first African American student admitted to Haverford College, a protege of the eminent art collector Albert Barnes, and later a scholar of French impressionism in the University of Chicago’s art history department—was brilliant and well-liked. He also knew how his father died, murdered in 1966 by two white youths when he was just 36 years old. 

Mike was a toddler at the time; his mother, Alice, never remarried. She died in 1994 having never spoken to her son at length about his father.

“I always sensed there was this pain within her. I didn’t want to open up old wounds,” says Mike, 59, a physical education teacher at the University of Chicago Lab School.

But Alice—herself a brilliant, longtime science teacher at the Lab School—was a fastidious archivist. She collected everything of her husband’s: manuscripts, paintings, photos, newspaper clippings from when he wrote art criticism for the Chicago Daily News and the Tribune, even high school yearbooks. With each move to a new Hyde Park apartment, Mike dutifully carted the boxes along.

Now, Paul Moses’s story has been brought out of storage and into public view. “Paul B. Moses: Trailblazing Art Historian,” on display at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library through December 16, traces the many milestones of Moses’s life, as told by items from Alice’s collection. It also dusts off Moses’s pioneering scholarship on Edgar Degas’s prints, from his pivotal 1964 Renaissance Society exhibition on the subject to reams of research for a book which, sadly, never came to fruition.

Ever since he first pored over the collection’s contents a decade ago, Mike dreamed of creating a show about his father. How, though, was beyond him.

“If you’d asked me maybe three, four years ago, what curating meant, I would have said, ‘Well, I’d have to google that,’” Mike says, chuckling. 

But a chance encounter during the pandemic, at a makeshift dog park on a patch of green next to a defunct U of C dorm, changed all that. There, Mike met Stephanie Strother, a graduate student in art history, when their dogs Riley and Jasper took a liking to one another. When Strother told Mike her area of study, “bells went off.” 

Their meeting felt nearly as charmed for Strother, who happened to share the same research interests as the late Professor Moses: turn-of-the-century and early 20th-century French art. She was especially impressed by Moses’s early focus on Degas’s prints, an area of scholarship relatively unprobed until decades after his death.

“I was struck by how interesting his life sounded, and by the fact that I didn’t know who he was—there was no historical knowledge of him in the department. That seemed really wrong to me,” Strother says.

Archival material on Paul B. Moses. Credit: Clayton Hauck for Chicago Reader

Once they’d assessed the material, they approached the University of Chicago the following spring to pitch their idea. The school enthusiastically agreed, and the exhibition opened at the beginning of the academic year.

Mike and Strother uncovered additional items to supplement Alice Moses’s collection. While Paul was living abroad as a teacher at the Overseas School of Rome from 1957 to 1959, he was cast as an extra in Ben-Hur; stills in the exhibition identify him as the servant who helps remove Messala’s armor at the beginning of the film. Moses, a talented artist in his own right, had gifted a watercolor of the Haverford campus as a graduation memento to his friend William Wixom, who himself became a noted art historian. When Wixom died in 2020, the watercolor, on display here, was still among his treasured possessions.

The exhibition also nods to the professional dynamics Moses navigated as one of the only Black professors at the University of Chicago. While teaching a general humanities course, Moses advocated for removing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the assigned reading list for incoming freshmen, citing its racist stereotypes. At the time, many of his white colleagues, literary critic Wayne C. Booth among them, criticized Moses’s objections as anti-intellectual and insufficiently “objective.” 

Years later, however, Booth acknowledged not only that he grew to understand Moses’s stance, but that it inspired his 1988 book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction

The Company We Keep can perhaps best be described as an effort to discover why that still widespread response to Paul Moses’s sort of complaint will not do,” Booth wrote. “Though I would of course resist anyone who tried to ban the book from my classroom, I shall argue here that Paul Moses’s reading of Huckleberry Finn, an overt ethical appraisal, is one legitimate form of literary criticism.”

Clearly, Booth was among the many awed by Moses’s compelling personality and intellect. When Daily News critic Franz Schulze took a yearlong personal leave, Moses, who had already written on occasion for the Sunday Tribune, was the paper’s first choice to replace him. His critiques from that period are warm, witty, erudite, and utterly persuasive—persuasion which piqued in urgency when it came to Chicago artists whom he felt weren’t getting their due.

“Nobody could debate him. It was well above a debate, because he knew what he was talking about,” Mike says.

Just a week before his death, Moses made his last public nonteaching appearance at the Art Institute, lecturing on Matisse for its women’s board. On March 24, 1966, after he and Alice returned home from a dinner party, Moses offered to drop off Mike’s babysitter, who lived a short drive away in Bronzeville. For unknown reasons, after dropping her off, Moses drove to the north side, perhaps stopping for something to eat or for a nightcap. Along the way, he crossed paths with 20-year-old Patrick Kennedy and 16-year-old Richard Tolowski. His body was later discovered in Portage Park, a gunshot wound in the back of his head.

When Kennedy and Tolowski were apprehended, both initially claimed that Moses had “proposed they take part in an unnatural act,” prompting the argument that led to Moses’s murder inside the vehicle. During the murder trial that June, however, the city’s homicide investigation unit commander reported that Kennedy and Tolowski had been looking for someone to hold up—Tolowski wanted to run away to California, and Kennedy had already been placed on probation for serving as an accomplice to a carjacking some years before. Police concluded that Kennedy shot Moses outside the car, as he attempted to escape. Kennedy was sentenced to 14 to 30 years in prison; Tolowski, a minor, was turned over to the Illinois Youth Commission and vanished from the press record. 

Archival material on Paul B. Moses. Clayton Hauck for Chicago Reader

It’s still unknown exactly what happened that night, and unclear how much time either served. Mike Moses isn’t particularly interested in finding out.

“I just don’t see what I would have gained from that. To me, it kind of glorifies them,” he says. “Instead, it’s out of sight, out of mind. Gone and forgotten.”

Though very few of them remain, those who knew Moses made it their mission to ensure he was not forgotten. Alice was inundated with condolence letters from her husband’s students the world over, from Chicago to Rome. The University of Chicago’s radio station honored Moses with a half-hour memorial program that offers just a sampling of the lives Moses touched, including Booth, Schulze, artist and critic Harry Bouras, composer Ralph Shapey, and humanities scholar Alice Benston (whose son Kimberly is now a professor and onetime president of Haverford, Moses’s alma mater). They recalled a man whose prodigious gifts—in scholarship, art, teaching, even cooking—were dwarfed only by his more-prodigious curiosity.

“You could be walking along and a building you passed a good number of times would make him stop . . . or the arching of the trees with a new snowstorm,” Benston remembered. “Whatever you were working on stopped at the moment for his expression of his delight.”

Haverford plans to house an abbreviated version of “Paul B. Moses: Trailblazing Art Historian” in fall 2023. Earlier this month, the college also dedicated an undergraduate research conference to his memory. Both bring greater visibility to Moses, who, thanks to an anonymous benefactor, has had a scholarship at the school named in his honor since 1982.

Mike, for his part, is at peace knowing his mother’s decades of devotion paid off. 

“I’m a happy guy . . . It was a fact-finding mission of getting to know my father. And I know my father now.”

“Paul B. Moses: Trailblazing Art Historian” 
Through 12/16: Mon-Tue and Thu-Fri 9 AM-4:45 PM, Wed 10 AM-4:45 PM, closed 11/24-11/25, Hanna Holborn Gray Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago, 1100 E. 57th, 773-702-0095, lib.uchicago.edu/scrc

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