Arts

Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds — one day only!

Every week or so, a large manila envelope arrives in the mail, postmarked Wilson, N.C. Inside, a sheaf of xeroxed newspaper clippings from late 19th and early 20th century editions of the Wilson Daily Times. Bobby Boykin is the benefactor, and I thank him mightily, especially when gems like this appear:

Wilson Daily Times, 25 January 1921.

Just a few months past the earth-shattering release of “Crazy Blues,” the first blues recording by a Black artist for a Black audience, Mamie Smith and Jazz Hounds would have been a hot ticket anywhere, much less Wilson. The band played three shows in a single day at the Globe Theatre, Samuel H. Vick‘s vaudeville hall/movie theatre on the second floor of the Odd Fellows Lodge on East Nash Street. Darcy Yancey and Isaac Shade were selling tickets at their respective drugstores. 

(If I could time-travel, I’d want not only to see Smith perform at the Globe, but see who saw her perform at the Globe.)

Mamie Smith and her Jazz Hounds, including Willie “The Lion” Smith on piano, 1920.  Donaldson Collection/Getty Images.

2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the release of “Crazy Blues.” For more about the significance of Mamie Smith’s work, see Daphne A. Brooks’ New York Times piece, “100 Years Ago, ‘Crazy Blues’ Sparked a Revolution for Black Women Fans,” published August 10.

Mamie Smith publicity photo, Apeda Studio, New York, circa 1922, in collection of Old Hat Records.

Saint Mark’s organist honored at concert.

Wilson Daily Times, 27 February 1971.

“Mrs. Wilton Maxwell (Flora Clark) Bethel, church organist of St. Mark’s [Episcopal] Mission since 1930, will be honored Sunday for her faithful years of service during the 5 p.m. concert featuring the St. Augustine’s College choir.

“Mrs. Bethel served as a student organist for the Raleigh school during the worship services at the college chapel.

“From 1932 to 1964, Mrs. Bethel was employed in the Wilson city schools system where she furthered the use of her musical talents. For many years, she was the musical assistant for the Darden School Choir.

“In addition she has taught private classes in piano and organizing for a number of students in the Wilson community, while at the same time serving as organist for the St. Mark’s Mission. Mrs. Bethel’s contribution to music at St. Mark’s Mission will be recognized during the concert by the St. Augustine’s choir, which is said to be a tribute to all the makers of music to the greater glory of God.”

“I didn’t want red. … Well, you know why.”

The pandemic has shuttered Vanilla Powell Beane‘s millinery shop, but could not stop her from creating a hat especially for Congresswoman Cori Bush of Missouri. Now This Politics delivers the take:

A program honoring the Great Emancipator.

Wilson Daily Times, 21 February 1941.

——

  • Ruffin 4-H Club — the club affiliated with Ruffin School in Black Creek township.
  • Beatrice Rogers — perhaps, in the 1940 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer James Rogers, 35; wife Agnes, 30; and children James Joe, 12, Beatrice, 9, Leslie, 7, and Josephine, 6.
  • Maggie Herring
  • Lucretia Rogers
  • Eloise Rogers
  • Clinton Williams
  • Alma Wards — in the 1940 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer James D. Worthy, 71; wife Flora Jane, 65; son Essex, 23; daughter Dora Ward, 40, widow; granddaughter Alma Ruth Ward, 10; and granddaughter Celesta Harden, 22.
  • Vernell Pleasant — in the 1940 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: widower George Pleasant, 55, farmer; daughters Mittie, 27, and Nancy, 22; and granddaughter Vernell, 10.
  • Magdelene Parker — perhaps the Mary M. Parker below.
  • Beatrice Newton — in the 1940 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer John Newton, 42; wife Bessie, 32; and children Bennie, 16, James, 12, Beatrice, 10, Charles, 8, and Harvey Lee, 1.
  • Sallie Parker — in the 1940 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer Toney Parker, 45; wife Sallie, 44; and children Willie Lee, 21, Levi, 20, Eli, 18, Walter Lee, 16, Mary M., 13, Sallie M., 11, and Lillie M., 8.
  • Gerlean Farmer — in the 1940 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: widow Addie Farmer, 32, farm laborer; children Geraldine, 10, Marcellus, 7, Addie I., 6, Elijah, 4, and Charles, 3; and brother-in-law Earnest, 19.

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