Arts

Iredell County Chronicles, no. 6.

“Reach in your pocket. There … find a dime & look at the face of it.” You will find the likeness of United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Who was the artist who fashioned the likeness the graces our national currency? Mooresville native, Dr. Selma H. Burke, a native of Mooresville, Iredell County, an American woman descended from slaves.

The daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal Zion minister, Burke was born 31 December 31 1900. Around 1907, playing in the mud in a creek near School Street, Burke realized that she had a fascination with and talent for sculpting. Her mother, knowing she needed more “practical” training, persuaded her to further her education at the school now known as Winston-Salem State University. Burke made her way to Harlem, New York City, as a nurse, but by the mid-1930s was the recipient of the grants that allowed her to study sculpting in the U.S. and Europe. In 1944 she won a competition, securing commissioned to sculpt a plaque portrait of Franklin Roosevelt. It was unveiled in 1945 and adapted for use on the dime, though credited to engraver John Sinnock.

Burke, wearing a smock, seated next to her portrait bust of Booker T. Washington, 1930s. 

Burke’s portrait and an original bust she sculpted can be found in the Mooresville Public Library.

Burke’s plaque portrait of F.D. Roosevelt.

Text adapted from “Dr. Selma Burke,” themooresvillemuseum.org; and “Selma Hortense Burke,” NCpedia.org; photo by Pinchos Horn, Federal Art Project, Photographic Division collection, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; image of F.D.R. plaque courtesy of ncdcr.gov.

Hanging tree guitars.

“Freeman Vines has been building guitars for fifty years, and no two of them are alike. While a commercial guitar company like Gibson or Fender seeks uniformity in their instruments, Vines seeks singularity. He doesn’t force his raw material into a predetermined form. Instead, he follows its lead. He closely considers the unique qualities of the wood and allows his own artistic spirit to connect with its character and its history.

“This material might be an old mule trough, a torn down tobacco barn, or a broken piano. Or it might be a hanging tree.”

That hanging tree is said to be the black walnut at which Oliver Moore was hanged in 1930, the last official lynching in Wilson County. Folklorist and photographer Timothy Duffy, founder of Music Maker Relief Foundation, has spent years with Vines, chronicling his craft. Hanging Tree Guitars emerged from Vines and Duffy’s collaboration with folklorist Zoe Van Buren.

A review at the Foundation’s digital exhibit of Vines’ work: “To meet Freeman Vines is to meet America itself. An artist, a luthier and a spiritual philosopher, Vines’ life is a roadmap of the truths and contradictions of the American South. He remembers the hidden histories of the eastern North Carolina land on which his family has lived since enslavement. For over 50 years Vines has transformed materials culled from a forgotten landscape in his relentless pursuit of building a guitar capable of producing a singular tone that has haunted his dreams. From tobacco barns, mule troughs, and radio parts he has created hand-carved guitars, each instrument seasoned down to the grain by the echoes of its past life. In 2015 Vines befriends photographer Timothy Duffy and the two begin to document the guitars, setting off a mutual outpouring of the creative spirit. But when Vines acquires a mysterious stack of wood from the site of a lynching, Vines and Duffy find themselves each grappling with the spiritual unrest and the psychic toll of racial violence living in the very grain of America.”

 

Langston Hughes speaks for Negro History Week.

Today marks the 118th anniversary of the birth of poet, playwright and social activist Langston Hughes. To my astonishment, shortly after he celebrated his birthday in 1949, Hughes came to Wilson to deliver a lecture in the auditorium of Darden High School. The event marked a celebration of National Negro History Week, and its proceeds went to support the Wilson Negro Library‘s bookmobile fund.

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Wilson Daily Times, 8 February 1949.

Wilson Daily Times, 9 February 1949.

Hat tip to Wilson County local historian Tammy Medlin for leading me to this story.

The graveyard artistry of Clarence Best, pt. 3.

I’ve written here of Clarence B. Best, the marble cutter whose custom gravestones can be found in cemeteries across Wilson County and beyond. Here’s more, all in Rest Haven cemetery.

  • Joseph Earl Mercer, died 1969. Apparently, a young man who loved cars.
  • Clifton L. Howard, died 1969. Best made gravestones affordable by offering customers damaged or repurposed markers such as this one, which appears to be the top portion of a larger piece.
  • Ruby M. Ellis Opie, died 1965, and Charles E. Ellis, died 1964. THEY WAS AN AFFECTIONATE SON & DAUGHTER.
  • Charlie H. Thomas, 1965. Modeled after the white marble markers provided by the military to veterans.
  • Johnnie G. Baker, died 1962. GOD LOVES LITTLE CHILDREN.
  • Rev. Nebraska H. Dickerson, died 1969. To his oft-used dogwood and cross motifs, Best added an open book.
  • Dora M. Hoskins, died 1963. Past Matron, Order of Eastern Star. DIEING IS BUT GOING HOME.
  • William Earl Artis, died 1961. Inclusion of his mother Cora Dawes’ name is unusual as is the near-italicization of the date lines.
  • James Powell, died 1939. DEAR FATHER. GOD FINGER TOUCHED HIM AND HE SLEPT.

In loving memory.

I have remarked at length about the artistry of Clarence B. Best‘s hand-carved gravestones here and here. In Adventures in Faith: The Church at Prayer, Study and Service, a booklet commemorating the 100th anniversary of Calvary Presbyterian Church, Best’s son Clarence H. Best and daughter-in-law published an ad honoring Best and wife Geneva “Eva” Smith Best.

Best made special mention of his father’s nickname, The Tombstone Man, and memorialized the elder Bests’ gift of a hand-crafted baptismal font, which is still in use. The carving on the edge of the basin block is classic Bestian.

This inscription may have been added later. Though apparently hand-carved, it does not appear to be Best’s work.

Many thanks to Tracey Ellis Leon, a life-long member of Calvary, for lending me a copy of Adventures in Faith and for taking the photos above.

A singer in evangelistic meetings.

“Who are the best-known African American voices in Adventist church music?

“Some may answer with selections from among today’s well-known songsters: Wintley Phipps, Charles Haugabrooks, the Aeolians. But there is also a good case to be made for names not so well known, their music sung by saints from week to week and year to year in a thousand congregations across the breadth of our world church: “This Little Light of Mine,” “Nothing Between My Soul and the Savior,” “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” “Give Me Jesus.” Isn’t it worth our while to remember who these individuals are? Their contributions to the spiritual growth and grounding of generations of Adventists and other Christians deserve more than the casual rendition of their songs. These composers and arrangers deserve our intelligent appreciation.

Charles Lee Brooks (1923-1989), born in Wilson, North Carolina, and raised in Baltimore, Maryland, began singing at age 4. Though keenly interested in classical music, Brooks is best remembered by Adventists as a singer in evangelistic meetings. As a personal memory, I was fortunate to serve as his teenaged accompanist during a memorable evangelistic series by E. E. Cleveland labeled the ‘Trinidad Triumph.’ Later, as an associate in the General Conference Secretariat, Brooks established the Office of Church Music and became its chair. He served as chair of the Church Hymnal Committee.”

— Excerpt from Nevilla E. Ottley-Adjahoe, “We Sing Their Songs: Significant Voices in African American Church Music,” Adventist Review, http://www.adventistreview.org

Four-part harmony.

The Gospel Four, circa 1940.

Like The Soul Stirrers, the Gospel Four were a quartet with five members. Founded in the Lucama area, the Gospel Four achieved local fame fed by their weekly radio show during the 1940s. Shown above, they were Jim Lawrence Jones, his brother Paul H. Jones, brothers Robert Powell and Russell Powell, and Eddie Finch, who was married to the Jones brothers’ sister Ida Mae.

Wilson Daily Times, 15 February 1947.

  • Jim Lawrence, Paul and Ida Mae Jones — Jim Lawrence Jones (1917-1976), Paul Henderson Jones, and Ida Mae Jones were children of Thomas and Mary Ida Bagley Jones.
  • Robert Powell — Robert (1908-1956) and David Russell Powell (1911-1990) were sons of David B. and Sarah Boykin Powell.
  • Eddie Finch — Nash County native Edward Finch (1909-1978), son of William and Mattie Finch, married Ida Mae Jones (1912-1986) in Johnston County, North Carolina, on 10 January 1931.

Photograph courtesy of Edith Jones Garnett. Thank you!

Artist, lawyer, preacher.

On 15 September 1939, Cora L. Bennett, a writer employed by the Works Project Administration interviewed William Arthur Cooper for the Folklore Project. The transcript of the interview is housed at the Library of Congress. Here is an excerpt:

William A. Cooper, artist and preacher gives the story of his life as follows:

“My work has been my life. Whatever degree of success I have had has come about, I believe, as a result of my dogged determination to do something tangible for my race.

“I was born in the country near Hillsboro, N.C. As a small boy I worked on the farm. I worked in the tobacco fields, worming and stemming tobacco as well as in the cotton fields. For about four months in the winter I attended a Mission school in Hillsboro for negros. In summer time I worked as a janitor and some times as a cook or house boy.

“When I was about fourteen I began to support myself, and soon there after went to the Industrial Institute at High Point, N.C. as a work student. I worked on the school farm,
got up at five o’clock in the morning to milk the cows, plow and hoe cotton and corn, and anything else that needed to be done. While I was at this school I also took up brick laying along with my other studies.

“From High Point I went to the National Religious Training School at Durham, N.C. There I took the four year Theological Course. Still working my way through school, I received the Bachelor of Theology Degree from that institution.

“As soon as I had finished I went to Wilson, N.C. where I started out as an insurance man, and at the same time preaching at a small church on Sunday.

“I went from there to Burlington, N.C. where I was elected Principal of a high school. I also served as Principal of the high school at Graham, N.C. and taught at various other places. All this time I was studying law at night and passed the State Bar examination in 1922.

“I became interested in art for the first time a few years before this. I was in bed with a severe cold and while lying idle I thought I would try to do two pictures illustrating the Biblical quotation: ‘Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, but straight is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life, and few there be who
find it.’ The members of my church were quite pleased with the pictures. Their pleasure encouraged me a great deal, and from that time on I began to paint other things. It was then I started painting the members of my race, anybody I could get 3 to sit— field hands, teachers, children, cooks or washerwomen. I had taken no formal lessons at the time but I kept right on trying to see what I might do.

“I have attempted to show the real negro through art. I believe that unless we have some record of the negro that is neither burlesqued with black face nor idealized with senmentality, the younger generation of negroes will be deprived of inspiration from their own race. …”

——

William Arthur Cooper (1895-1974), preacher, lawyer, and artist, painted the portraits of Negro field hands, domestic servants, children, religious and civic leaders and business executives. As a member of the North Carolina Interracial Commission, Cooper made a “good will” tour to colleges and universities in North Carolina where he exhibited his portraits and lectures on art and black culture.

Cooper’s papers, housed at University of North Carolina at Charlotte, include: “Biographical materials; correspondence, concerning portrait commisions, lectures on art, and exhibitions of his work; two account books containing expenditures; receipts; a journal, 1935, containing expenditures and notes concerning his “good will” tour; a report on the tour; Cooper’s publication Educating Through Fine Arts; his book A Portrayal of Negro Life, 1936, which contains reproductions of his portraits acompanied by his explanatory text, and documents related to the book including proposed plans, sales records, and a typescript of the book which contains portraits not included in the published version; price lists for Cooper’s paintings; exhibition catalogs, clippings, miscellany, and a book by Charles C. Dawson, ABCs of Great Negroes; and 36 photographs of Cooper, of his friends and church members, and his portrait paintings.”

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The Bathing Girl (1932).

Wilson County Negro Library.

negro library trustee board

Board of Trustees, Wilson County Negro Library, 1948: clockwise around the table, Willie Mae Freeman, Carter Foster, Anna Johnson, D’arcy Yancey, Barbara Foster, James Whitfield, Elizabeth Jenkins, G.K. Butterfield Sr., William Hines.

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Willie Mae Freeman, Elizabeth Jenkins, Dora Dickerson.

This early iteration of the Negro library was located in a first-floor storefront of Mount Hebron Masonic Lodge No. 42, 115 North Pender Street.

Photographs courtesy of Freeman Round House Museum, Wilson, North Carolina, and digitized at http://www.digitalnc.org.

Now That He Is Safely Dead.

A Dead Man’s Dream

Now that he is safely dead,
Let us praise him.
Build monuments to his glory.
Sing Hosannas to his name.

Dead men make such convenient heroes.
For they cannot rise to challenge the images
That we might fashion from their lives.
It is easier to build monuments
Than to build a better world.

So now that he is safely dead,
We, with eased consciences will
Teach our children that he was a great man,
Knowing that the cause for which he
Lived is still a cause
And the dream for which he died is still a dream.
A dead man’s dream.

Carl Wendell Hines, Jr.

——

Carl W. Hines Jr. penned this devastating poem in 1965 on the occasion of the assassination of Malcolm X, but it is often, and perhaps more appropriately, associated with the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. Hines was born in Wilson in 1940, son of Carl W. Hines and Ruth Johnson Hines and grandson of Walter Scott Hines and Sarah Dortch Hines.