Arts

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.”

Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 9.02.59 PM

The Bathing Girl (1932).

Wilson County Negro Library.

negro library trustee board

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

library

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.

The graveyard artistry of Clarence Best, part 2.

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.

screen-shot-2016-11-19-at-11-08-09-am

  • Sylvia Boykin, died 1939. Rocky Branch United Church of Christ, near Kenly, Wilson County. SLEEP IN PEACE. Unusual dark pink granite marker.
  • Mrs. Polly B. Deans, died 1962. Rocky Branch United Church of Christ. Best’s basic rectangular layout, though addition of husband Ernest Deans‘ name is unusual.
  • Henrietta Stevens, died 1959.  Rocky Branch United Church of Christ. SHE WAS THE SUNSHINE OF OUR HOME. Heart shape executed in concrete.
  • Willie Coleman, died 1964. Or 1967. Jones Hill Baptist Church cemetery, near Sims, Wilson County. I have not been able to find a death certificate to settle the question of his death date. [Based on the number accepted and installed, I assume Best deeply discounted the stones upon which he made indelible engraving errors.]
  • Henry Winstead II, died 1966. William Chapel Baptist Church cemetery, near Elm City, Wilson County. Rough-cut marker with “II” squeezed in as an afterthought.
  • Roscoe and Mary J. Ford, died 1965 and 1954. William Chapel. Best apparently obtained much of his stone from reject piles, probably belonging to larger outfits like Wilson Marble & Mantel. This marker is clearly a single headstone split into his and hers. It is also a repurposed stone. As shown in the detail below, the lower two-thirds of the faces of the markers were ground clean. The ends of the machine-cut lines were erased, and scratches left by the abrasive can be seen below the letters.
  • Theodore R. Lenzy, died 1969. William Chapel. Seldom seen format highlighting the decedent’s surname.
  • Cleo and Thomas Davis, died 1974 and 1986. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Their marriage date is a nice touch. Thomas’ info added by machine.
  • Viola S. McCray, died 2007. Rest Haven. This is mystifying. Best carved McCray’s name and birthdate when he carved those of her husband on the other half of this marker. McCray died more than 40 years after Best stopped carving (and 30 years after his death.) Who, then hand-engraved her death date in Best’s style?

img_9914

All photos by Lisa Y. Henderson, November 2016.

“Gone but not forgotten”: the eternal art of Clarence B. Best.

Nearly all grave markers from the last 30 years or so are machine-cut, their lettering precise and even and utterly predictable. In Wilson County’s African-American cemeteries, however, even a casual perusal of older markers reveals artisanal work. Though there are many styles, one font repeatedly snags the eye — squarish letters with flared serifs and, especially, 9’s with long, pointed tails. These engravings are the work of marble cutter Clarence Benjamin Best, who, for more than 50 years, chiseled lambs, stars, stylized flowers and Masonic emblems, as well as pithy grammatically idiosyncratic epitaphs, into slabs of stone. I have found his work in rural Wilson County cemeteries and as far afield as Wayne, Edgecombe and Greene County, but Rest Haven cemetery is the ground zero of his oeuvre.

Best, whose monument business operated from his home on the outskirts of east Wilson, got his start as a marble cutter at Wilson Marble Mantle & Tile Company on North Railroad Street. By the early 1920s, he was designing and cutting headstones for African-American clients, perhaps initially as a side gig. He seemingly worked at every price point, offering custom monuments that collectively testify to his skill and endless creativity.

Clarence Best is just one of North Carolina’s unsung vernacular artists. These samples are a tribute to  the breadth of his work:

photo-collage-1-copy

  • James Brody Artis, died 1963. June S. Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County. GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN.
  • George and Beulah Best, died undated and 1972. William Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County.
  • William and Mary Kittrell, died 1952 and 1947. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Likely a repurposed machine-etched stone. Not uncommonly, Best was off with his spacing estimates for lettering and here had to squeeze in the H. for William Kittrell’s middle initial.
  • Ben Hart, died 1951. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Modern asymmetric concrete slab inset with etched black glass.
  • Virginia Hooks, died 1972. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Virginia Hooks and her mother Donella died within months of one another. The shapes of their stones differ, but the style is much the same — name, dates, and a long epitaph. For Virginia, some extra verbiage crept in: WE MISS YOU NOW OUR HEARTS ARE SORE AS TIMES GOES BY WE MISS YOU NOW OUR HEARTS ARE SORE AS TIMES GOES BY WE WILL MISS YOU MORE. YOUR LOVING SMILES AN GENTLE FACE. NO ONE CAN FILL YOUR SPACE.
  • Donella Hooks, died  1972. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. TO SOME, SHE MAY BE FORGOTTEN/ TO OTHERS, JUST PART OF THE PAST/ BUT TO THOSE WHO LOVED AND LOST HER/ HER MEMORIES WILL ALWAYS LAST/ JUST A CLUSTER OF BEAUTIFUL LOVE SPRAYED WITH A MILLION TEARS/ WISHING GOD COULD HAVE SPARED HER/ FOR JUST A FEW MORE YEARS. (The last line shoe-horned in.)
  • Jacob Edwards, died 1950. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson.
  • Archie Harris, died 1935. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. WE LOVED YOU BUT GOD LOVED HIM BEST.
  • Matthew and Lillian Williams, died 1968 and 1975. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Pink granite was an unusual medium for Best. Names engraved on the front. On the back, astonishing and enigmatic carvings. Depending from banners, two large peaches (hearts?) carved with a plump fish for Lillian and a rifle for Matthew.

photo-collage-copy

  • Henry and Mamie Lucas, died 1942 and 1962. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. A rather plain piece with lettering somewhat rougher than usual.
  • Charles and Gertrude Jones, died 1963 and 1968. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. All Best’s main motifs — extra deeply incised family name, flowers, decorative border and religious epitaph.
  • Maggie Ellis, died 1964. Hilliard Ellis cemetery, Wilson. Dogwood design at top center.
  • Daisy Price, died 1965. Elm City colored cemetery. Extraordinary piece with stylized angel.
  • Dewey Gaston, died 1946. Elm City colored cemetery. A unique lily of the valley motif, symbolizing Christ’s second coming.
  • Link Bell, died 1959. Pyatts Chapel A.M.E. church cemetery, Edgecombe County. This oddly proportioned marker was perhaps the recycled top half of a broken slab.
  • Clarence Winstead, died 1968. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church cemetery, Stantonsburg.
  • Lucy Edwards, died 1971. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church cemetery, Stantonsburg. An apparently recycled marker, as tablet seems to have been chiseled clean.
  • Lucille Ellis, died 1964. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church cemetery, Stantonsburg. A heart engraved with a dainty ‘LOVE’ depending from a dogwood flower.

photo-collage-1

  • Fannie Newsome, died 1960. William Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County.
  • Ada Artis Rowe, died 1964. William Artis cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County. Unusual ablet in the form of a closed book.
  • Sarah Artis Speight, died 1950. Artis Town cemetery, Greene County.
  • Ruel and Louise Bullock, died 1969 and 1968. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Masonic and Eastern Star emblems.
  • Malissia Hill, died 1929. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. An early model, the tails of the 9’s are rounded. Off-center epitaph.
  • Betty J. Levy, died 1975. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Marble plaque inset into brick. Among Best’s last works.
  • Addie W. Taylor, died 1963. Masonic cemetery, Wilson.
  • Rev. R.J. Young, died 1933. Masonic cemetery, Wilson. Masonic emblem.
  • Short W. Barnes, died 1943. Masonic cemetery. A delicate cross top center.

photo-collage-1-copy

  • John and Mary Hogans, died 1951 and undated. Elmwood cemetery, Goldsboro, Wayne County. In God we trust, and a cross sprouting leaves.
  • Henry Sharper, died 1945. Elm City colored cemetery. Bird in tympanum (symbolizing eternal life) perhaps machine-cut. Veteran of World War I.
  • William H. Hall Sr., died 1925. Bethel A.M.E.Z. Church cemetery, Stantonsburg. One of the earliest stones, before Best settled in on the pointed 9’s.
  • Georgina Hall, died 1933. Bethel A.M.E.Z. church Cemetery, Stantonsburg. A tiny off-center cross leans curiously atop the tablet.
  • Edward Newsome, died 1956. Fremont colored cemetery, Fremont, Wayne County.
  • Milton and Nora Reid, died 1961 and 1965. Turner Swamp Baptist Church cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County.
  • Locus. Turner Swamp Baptist Church cemetery, Eureka, Wayne County. Perhaps a repurposed machine-cut stone. (The scroll at top is not Best’s work.) The incised trapezoid below the deeply cut tablet is unusual.
  • Walter M. Foster, died 1928. Rountree cemetery, Wilson. A fine early work framed in delicate florals with an epitaph whose freehand font diminishes in size.
  • Gus and Cora Armstrong. Rest Haven cemetery, Wilson. Bizarrely proportioned lines of lettering.

——

In the 1900 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: farmer Benjamin Best, wife Eliza, and children Virgin N., Mildred, Junius, Sopremia, Benjamin, Corinthia, Remantha, Olian, and Clarence. Benjamin and Eliza reported having been married 25 years, and Eliza reported that 10 of the 12 children she had borne were living.

In the 1910 census of Cross Roads township, Wilson County: widow Eliza Best, 53, with children Junius, 29, Rematha, 20, Allen, 18, and Clarence, 16, plus grandchildren Suprema, 5, and Martha A., 3.

On 24 January 1917, Clarence Best, 22, of Wilson township, son of Benjamin and Eliza Best, and Geneva Smith, 22, of Gardners township, daughter of Henry and Mahala Smith, were married in Gardners township by C.H. Hagans, a Primitive Baptist minister. Fred Woodard, John Barnes and Len Woodard witnessed.

Clarence Best registered for the World War I draft on 5 June 1917. He reported that he was born 22 October 1894 in Wayne County, North Carolina; that he resided at RFD #4, Box 4, Wilson; and that he worked as a stone rubber at Wilson Marble Mantle & Tile Company. He claimed that he supported his wife and his mother and her two grandchildren. He was described as medium height and build, with brown eyes and black hair.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Saratoga Road, marble cutter Clarence Best, 26, wife Geneva, 26, and son Clarence H., 1, plus Eliza Best, 68, Martha Ann Best, 11, and Suprema Hooks, 11. Next door, Junius Best, 38, wagon factory assembly man, wife Mary A., 27, and children Mary Olivia, 2, and Colonius, 4 months.

Eliza Best died 1 September 1929 in Wilson of “injury of rt. leg; cut her leg on a piece of tin.” She resided at 1310 East Nash Street, Wilson, and was the widow of Benjamin Best. She was about 64 years old and had been born in Wilson County to Jim Ellis and Zannie Applewhite. She was buried in Rountree cemetery; Clarence Best was informant.

In the 1930 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 203 East Nash Street, marble works polisher Clearance Best, 37, wife Geneva, 37, and son Clearance, 11. Nearby: wagon factory laborer Junious Best, 47, wife Mary, 39, and children Mary, 12, Colanelus, 11, Mattie, 7, and Rematha, 2.

In the 1940 census of Wilson, Wilson County: marble dresser Clarence Best, 46, wife Geneva, 46, and son Clarence H. Best, 21, tobacco stemmer, plus nephew Frank Brake, 14.

In 1943, Clarence Herman Best registered for the World War II draft. He reported his home address as 1306 East Nash Street, Wilson; his date of birth as 3 October 1918; and his closest relative as Clarence Benjamin Best, his father. His employer was Johnson C. Smith University, Charlotte, North Carolina.

Genevia Smith Best died 23 September 1969 in Wilson. Per her death certificate , she was born 19 August 1896 to William Henry Smith and Martha (last name unknown.) She was buried at Rest Haven cemetery; Clarence Best was informant.

Clarence B. Best died 18 November 1980 in Wilson. The double headstone he had created after his wife’s burial — with extra pointy 9’s, a cross, and a slighty too-long epitaph — awaited his death date as a final entry. When the time came, it was, of course, incised perfectly by machine.

img_8942

Be honest & true. Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you.

wdt-5-23-1951

Wilson Daily Times, 23 May 1951.

All photos by Lisa Y. Henderson.

 

Theatrical jottings.

Samuel H. Vick‘s Globe Theatre was the first black-owned moving picture theatre in Wilson. As early as 1914, the Globe occupied the second floor of the Odd Fellows Hall at 549-551 Nash Street and, in its earliest days, under the management of J.J. Privett, also hosted vaudeville acts.

Here, from the New York Age‘s weekly “Theatrical Jottings” column in 1914 are announcements of the Globe’s offerings:

1 22

22 January.

Screen Shot 2016-07-19 at 9.58.26 PM

29 January.

2 12

12 February.

3 19

19 March.

3 26

26 March.

9 17

17 September.

9 24

24 September.

A teenaged Ethel Waters joined the Hill Sisters act when it passed through Philadelphia and, on the road with them, gained the sobriquet “Sweet Mama Stringbean.” See Cullen et al.’s Vaudeville Old and New: An Encyclopedia of Variety Performances in America, volume 1.

False, unscientific belief in racial superiority.

In March 1945, the Torchlight, a student journal at Atlantic Christian College — a small college founded in Wilson in 1902 — published this surprisingly progressive review of Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit:

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 10.28.51 PM

“True, the affair between Tracy and Nonnie is disturbing; but an illicit affair should be disturbing, regardless of a situation of mixed races. No, the love affair is not Lillian Smith’s problem; the thing she points out with capital letters is the question: What are we going to do about the Negroes in our country, the Negroes who are thinking and desiring a new life? And that question is one we must answer soon. If Lillian Smith has awakened one person to the cruelty involved in a false, unscientific belief in racial superiority and to a consciousness of the white people whose misused power has produced a spiritual degeneracy, her purpose has been accomplished. …Revolting, shocking book? Yes, for those who cling to the past!”

Picture-Taking Barnes.

Said Hattie Henderson Ricks, who lived in East Wilson from 1911 to 1958: “Yep, that’s me standing up there, and [my sister] Mamie sitting in the chair. And that little arm [of the chair] off there, it was Picture-Taking Barnes, they called him then. You were gon have your pictures made, you went to Picture-Taking Barnes.”

Mamie&hattie 001

George Washington Barnes‘ one-armed chair is also recognizable in this image of Ricks’ great-aunt, Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver:

sarah-jacobs-001

Per Stephen E. Massingill’s Photographers in North Carolina (2004), Barnes was perhaps the first of three African-American photographers operating in Wilson in the early part of the twentieth century. In the 1908 city of directory of Wilson, George W. Barnes’ listing shows that he worked for photographer Orren “O.W.” Turner. The others were J. Thomas Artis, active in Wilson by 1921 and also in Wilmington, North Carolina, in the 1920s, and Connecticut native Edwin D. Fisher, active by 1930.

Screen Shot 2015-12-12 at 9.30.14 PM

Wilson City Directory, 1916. (The asterisk * indicates “colored.”)

In The Sweet Hell Inside (2001), Edward Ball prints a letter that 28 year-old Elise Forrest wrote her boyfriend Teddy Harleston after she arrived in New York City in 1918 to begin classes at the Emile Brunel School of Photography. “Dear Ted,” she began. “This morning I went to school. I am the only woman. There is one other colored, a young man from Wilson, N.C., …” … Who?

E Barnes Street

1922 Sanborn map of Wilson showing 2nd floor location of Barnes’ East Barnes Street photography studio.

Interview of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved; photographs in possession of Lisa Y. Henderson.

He has always conducted himself as an American citizen.

Wilson native Isaiah Prophet Thorne‘s peripatetic lifestyle criss-crossing Europe as an entertainer required that he periodically apply for passport renewals and demonstrate his continued allegiance to the United States.

In the earliest document I’ve found, dated 1909, 24 year-old Thorne asserted that he was a singer, that he had left the U.S. in 1898, and that he was temporarily living in Berlin, Germany.

IP Thorne 1.png

In 1915, his application required additional information revealing that his father was dead; that he was now working as a vaudeville artist in Naples, Italy; that he had last left the U.S. in February 1910; and that he needed his passport to travel in Italy, Egypt, Tripolitania [Libya], Greece, France, Spain and England “performing in vaudeville.”

IP Thorne 2

This application contained a small photograph affixed to its reverse and appears to list a contact relative: Warren Thorne, 604 Spring Street, Wilson.

IP Thorne 3

Two years later, Thorne again applied for a renewal, indicating that he was a theatrical performer who had left the United States in September 1907 (which conflicts with the statement above) and was now staying in Saloniki, Greece.

IP Thorne 6

World War I was raging, and Thorne had joined the British Colonial Force. He was required to submit an Affidavit to Explain Protracted Foreign Residence and to Overcome Presumption of Expatriation. He confirmed that he had last been in the United States in 1907 and had spent the intervening years performing in England, Germany, Holland, Russia, Denmark, Romania, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and Greece. He claimed that he did not pay income tax because he made too little income, and he was not sure when he would return to the U.S., but was willing to do so “if called for service.”

IP Thorne 7

The interviewing officer, American Vice-Consul H. Earle Russell, concluded that Thorne’s explanation for his protracted foreign residence was satisfactory and that he was “entitled to protection as an American citizen.”

IP Thorne 8

In 1920, Thorne again applied to renew his passport. This application erroneously asserted that he had first left the U.S. in 1888 (when he was only 3), but revealed that his father was named Preston Thorne. It also yields a beautiful black and white image of the man.

Screen Shot 2016-03-09 at 7.21.09 PM

Isaiah P. Thorne apparently never returned to the United States. I have found only one additional source of reference for his life — in the final pages of The Black Russian, Vladimir Alexandrov’s astounding biography of Frederick Bruce Thomas, the Mississippi-born son of former slaves who built a fortune of millions as the owner and impresario of renowned restaurants and nightclubs in Moscow and Istanbul: “Frederick died … on Tuesday, June 12, 1928, at the age of fifty-five. Because [his wife] Elvira was out of the country, all funeral arrangements were made by his friends. One of these was Isaiah Thorne, a black man from North Carolina who had worked for him at Maxim and who became his token executor.”; “Isaiah Thorne effectively adopted [Frederick’s sons Bruce and Frederick Jr.] when [their mother] Elvira was away ….”; “On November 25, 1930, at Thorne’s instigation, Fred and Bruce went to the American consulate general in Constantinople to apply for a passport” because “he wanted to help them escape the hardships of their lives in Turkey by taking them with him to North Carolina, where he had family.”; but “Thorne did not succeed in taking the boys to the United States because he could not raise the money ….”

Box 4495, Volume 002: Constantinople, Emergency Passport Applications, Argentina thru Venezuela, 1906-1925; U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line], http://www.Ancestry.com