North Carolina is home to legendary African American artists. The acclaimed works of jazz, blues and gospel musicians as well as visual artists, represent North Carolina to the world. Musicians John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Elizabeth Cotten and visual artists John Biggers, Romare Bearden, and Minnie Evans are familiar names.
Black History Month is a time for us to celebrate the contributions of African American artists from poets to performers to writers to craftspeople, both past and present, and to highlight the places where you can experience their artisty throughout the year across Creative North Carolina.
This year, a special exhibition in Charlotte showcases the African American experience in American history. America I AM: The African American Imprint is an exhibition that celebrates nearly 500 years of African American contributions to the United States. The exhibition is at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture (www.ganttcenter.org/web) at the Levine Center for the Arts in Charlotte through March 3. This is the only African American cultural institution to host this exhibition and serves as its final venue in the Southeast.
The exhibition presents a continuum of pivotal moments in courage, conviction and creativity that helps to solidify the undeniable imprint of African Americans across the nation and around the world. The more than 200 artifacts and information within the exhibit provides context for African American contributions that shaped American culture across four core areas: economic, socio-political, cultural and spiritual throughout the country’s history, culminating in the inauguration of our first African-American president. The exhibition includes objects as diverse as the typewriter Alex Haley used when he penned his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Roots to Prince’s guitar. The Gantt Center will extend hours as part of Black History Month on Tuesdays in February (12, 19 and 26) when the exhibition will be open from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
North Carolina has the distinction of being the birthplace of many African American visual artists who have earned national reputations. They include John Biggers (Gastonia), Romare Bearden (Charlotte), Selma Burke (Mooresville), Minnie Evans (Long Creek), Charles Alston (Charlotte), J. Eugene Grigsby (Greensboro) and younger artists like Beverly McIver (Greensboro).
The Gantt Center in Charlotte is also the permanent home of the John & Vivian Hewitt Collection of African-American Art, a collection of 58 two-dimensional works celebrating the expression and passion of twenty artists, including Charlotte-born Romare Bearden and other master artists, such as Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Ann Tanksley and Henry Ossawa Tanner.
Another noted African American visual artist is Minnie Evans (Pender County), recognized as one of the most import visionary folk artists of the 20th century. From 1948-1974, Evans created hundreds of artworks while working as gatekeeper at Airlie Gardens. Her colored pencil work, featuring dream-inspired images of prophets and religious figures, real and mythical animals, flowers, plants and faces, can be viewed at the the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh and the Guilford College Art Gallery in Greensboro. Her work is also part of the Cameron Art Museum’s collection.
The work of Romare Bearden (American 1911 – 1988), who is most noted for his depiction of the American South and his powerful collages, can be found in the permanent collections of the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington and at the. Weatherspoon Art Museum at The University of North Carolina in Greensboro and at the Mint Museum Uptown in Charlotte.
Sculptor and ceramist Selma Burke was chosen in 1943 to sculpt a portrait of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt which currently hangs on the wall of the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. It’s widely believed that her portrait inspired a similar design used for the Roosevelt dime. Her last monument, a statue of Martin Luther King Jr., can be seen at Marshall Park in Charlotte.
The Diggs Gallery at Winston-Salem State University offers one of the largest exhibition spaces dedicated to the arts of Africa and the African Diaspora art in N.C. The gallery also features a wonderful John Biggers mural, Origins and Ascension. Origins, located on the west wall of the atrium, addresses man’s continuous quest to understand the forces behind the beginning of life. Ascension, on the east wall, interprets the experiences, hopes, suffering and joy of living in America.
Winston-Salem’s Delta Fine Arts, which commissioned the Biggers work in the Diggs Gallery, houses its permanent collection at the school’s O’Kelly Library, which includes works by sculptor William Artis (Washington), Selma Burke, Romare Bearden, Samuel Brown (Wilmington), known for his drawings, printmaking and etchings, and painter and printmaker Stephanie Pogue (Shelby).
Visitors to the N.C. Legislative Building in Raleigh can also see a canvas mural entitled North Carolina Belongs to Children created by Biggers and his nephew James.
The creative influence of African Americans also is evident in public art across our state. Romare Bearden’s mosaic/mural Before Dawn is on view at the Charlotte Public Library, and African American painter Tommie Robinson has done numerous mural commissions in the Charlotte area, including a work at the Time Warner Cable Arena.
On the N.C. Central campus in Durham, Chandra Cox and Charles Joyner created The Fabric of Life, three canvases in the lobby of the university’s Jones Building. Connie Floyd and Charles Joyner’s DameDame floor at N.C. A&T reflects West African design motifs. Also on view at the university is Robert Delgado’s Faces of Science, a mural commemorating African American scientists. In Wilmington, the Minnie Evans Bottle Chapel and Memorial Garden at Airlie Gardens memorializes this N.C.-born folk artist.
Creative North Carolina is also the birthplace of musicians who went on to international fame, including jazz vocalists Roberta Flack (Black Mountain) and Nina Simone (Tryon). Other award winning musicians call N.C. their home today, including tenor and soprano saxophonist Branford Marsalis, jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon and pastor and gospel singer Shirley Caesar, all of Durham.
The N.C. Arts Council’s Heritage Award recipients have included some of our state’s finest traditional musicians, past and present. They include guitarists Etta Baker (Morganton) and John Dee Holeman (Durham) as well as banjo player Joe Thompson (Mebane), all of whom also received National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowships. Other Heritage Award recipients include guitarist Richard “Big Boy” Henry (Beaufort), gospel singer Reverend Faircloth Barnes (Rocky Mount), guitarist George Higgs (Tarboro), guitarist and buckdancer Algia Mae Hinton (Johnston County) and guitarist Bishop Dready Manning (Gaston).
From the 1920s to the 1940s, the Hayti area of Durham was home to the distinctive regional music style known as Bull Durham Blues, practiced by Blind Boy Fuller, Reverend Gary Davis and the duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Today, the St. Joseph’s Historic Foundation at the Hayti Heritage Center promotes the African American cultural experience year-round with concerts, visual arts exhibits, a film festival, a Juneteenth Celebration and unity march and the Bull Durham Blues Festival, the largest blues event in our state.
Eastern North Carolina has produced a host of musicians who went on to musical fame and then returned to their hometowns of Kinston, Wilson and environs. They include saxophonist Maceo Parker; his brother, drummer Melvin Parker and drummer Sam Lathan, who were mainstays of the James Brown band. Trumpeter Dick Knight, another James Brown regular, originally came to Kinston to work as a band teacher. They also have contributed their talents to The Monitors, the local big band founded more than 50 years ago by educator and band director Bill Myers.
The richness of musical heritage in these communities inspired the N.C. Arts Council to conduct intensive research and interviews with musical artists in eight counties including Lenoir, Greene, Wilson, Jones, Edgecombe, Wayne, Pitt and Nash. A guidebook celebrating this musical heritage and including artist interviews will be distributed by UNC Press this fall.
African American contributions to traditional craft have also been honored with N.C. Arts Council Heritage Awards. Recipients have included woodcarvers George SerVance Jr. (Thomasville) known for his dancing dolls, and Arliss Watford (Ahoskie) whose imaginative carvings depict family, friends and animals.
Thomas Day, an early 19th century free African American furniture craftsman, lived and worked in Milton where he was much sought after for the high quality of his work. The town’s Union Tavern, which housed his furniture workshop, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1975 and the accompanying highway marker features Day’s name.
This year marks the return of the biennial National Black Theater Festival (NBTF) taking place Monday, July 29-Friday, August 3 in Winston-Salem. A major program of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, founded in 1979 as the first professional black theater company in the state, this community-wide celebration features more than 100 new works and classic offerings from black theater companies from across the country. It includes workshops and seminars, NBFT Fringe (spotlighting college productions), NBFT Poetry Jam, Reader’s Theater and various programs for youth.
At other times of the year, high quality black theater works can be found at historically black colleges and universities including Winston-Salem State, N.C. Central and Fayetteville State University.
Livingstone, an historically black college in Salisbury, entered into a unique collaboration with Catawba College to form a symphony in 1966. Today the Salisbury Symphony Orchestra is a professional orchestra performing four concerts each year on the Catawba and Livingstone College campuses.
The American Dance Festival, a school for dance as well as a six-week summer series of modem dance performances in Durham, brought attention to the contributions of African American dance artists in the 1980s and 1990s with summer tours by African American dancers, together with audience discussions led by African American scholars at historically black colleges and universities across the state. Today it remains a key venue for experiencing the works of African American choreographers including Alvin Ailey, Bill T. Jones, Ronald K. Brown, Cleo Parker Robinson and many others.
The African American Dance Ensemble, founded by Raleigh native Dr. Chuck Davis originated in New York City in 1968, came to Durham in 1980 at the invitation of the American Dance Festival and has remained in Durham ever since. Today it offers a range of performances, residencies, education programs and movement and master dance classes with a theme of “peace, love, respect for everybody.”
Creative North Carolina also provides a supportive home to many African American writers and poets, including Maya Angelou (Winston Salem), former Piedmont Laureate poet Jaki Shelton Green and novelist Zelda Lockhart (Durham), Lenard Duane Moore (Jacksonville), Gerald W. Barrax (Raleigh) and others. N.C. Heritage Award winner Louise Anderson (Jacksonville) brought the rich storytelling practices of the African American community to new audiences during her lifetime.
The first book written by a slave — or any Southern African American — was The Hope of Liberty, written by George Moses Horton in 1829. Horton, born in 1797, lived in Chatham County and became a community fixture at the Chapel Hill Farmer’s Market where he sold fruit, performed poems from memory — since he could not read or write — and sold love poems he would make up for the sweethearts of UNC students, who would write them down as he recited them. He went on to publish two books of poetry.
In 1996, Horton was inducted into N.C.’s Literary Hall of Fame, and in 1997 Chatham County Commissioners declared Horton Historic Poet Laureate of Chatham County. In 1999, the N.C. Division of Archives and History approved placement of a historic marker for Horton, the first for an African American and for a nationally recognized artist in Chatham County.
A variety of Black History Month celebrations are scheduled throughout the Department of Cultural Resources. To find out more, visit www.ncdcr.gov/BlackHistory.