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Feb 02

The Heritage Research Center and Black History Month: The “A files”—contributed by Marcellaus Joiner

Posted on February 2, 2022 at 11:11 AM by Tamara Vaughan

For February’s celebration of African American history and heritage, Marcellaus Joiner takes a survey of the rich resources available in the Heritage Research Room’s vertical file relating to “African Americans: Cultural Events.” The vertical files contain everything from newspaper clippings to fliers and programs and are divided into subjects and categories of local events, people, and places. Visit the HRC on the second floor of the High Point Public Library. 


newspaper clipping of people dancingJust one of the many items found in the “African Americans: Cultural Events” vertical file found at the Heritage Research Center: “Starlight Dancers” photograph taken by Don Davis, Jr., for The High Point Enterprise, 1971. 


This February, I will focus on the Heritage Research Center’s vertical file covering African American Culture in High Point. Items in the file range from 1931 to 2007 and include such subjects as poetry, art, dance, and artifacts. “African American Culture” by definition can be described as—but not limited to—the contributions of African Americans to the cultural development of the United States, either as part of or distinct from mainstream American culture. African Americans’ culture and identity are rooted in the historical experience of our people dating back to the Middle Passage. Out of this experience, our story is told through art and expression. The culture is both distinct and enormously influential on American and global culture as a whole. This file covers some of High Point’s contributions. 

One item in the file that jumped out at me when I saw it was an article from 1932.  World-renowned poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist Langston Hughes had visited William Penn High School. The article, written by John Mebane, describes an evening at William Penn with a small crowd, but crowd size was not a deterrent in Hughes' passion or delivery of his poetry. The evening selections were a mixture of poetry from his life experiences as well as heart-felt observances of social issues in American culture at that time. Two of the selections from the evening were published in their entirety in the article.

Feet o' Jesus
At the feet o' Jesus,
Sorrow like a sea. 
Lordy, let yo' mercy
Come driftin' down on me.
 
At the feet o' Jesus
At yo' feet I stand.
O, ma little Jesus,
Please reach out yo' hand.
[Hughes, Langston. “Feet o’ Jesus.” 1930.]


Cross
My old man's a white old man
And my old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.

If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well.

My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I'm gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?
[Hughes, Langston. “Cross.” 1926.]

Other poems that were read that night were “Brass Spittoon” and “Elevator Boy.” Hughes’s visit was at the early stage of his career and was a once in a lifetime experience for those in attendance.

black and white image of a man in a suit“Portrait of Langston Hughes.” Photograph. Van Vechten, Carl, photographer.
 From the Library of Congress 
www.loc.gov/item/2004663042/  

Fast forward to more modern times: our file also contains an entry on a local artist, Michael Pendergrass. Pendergrass’s passion for art started at a very young age. He drew one of his earliest sketches on the side of the house that he lived in on Vail Street with his mother’s lipstick. He of course suffered the consequences, but this experience was an early catalyst to start his journey to being an artist. Born in High Point, he attended Fairview Elementary School, Griffin Middle, and High Point Central High School. The article focuses on his early life experiences that feed his passion for art. One experience related in the article was his memory of his teacher, Herman Forbes, taking his class on a field trip to the North Carolina Museum of Art. While visiting the museum he saw Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy.” The painting was visually impactful on the young Pendergrass, and it further pushed him to figure out how to start his journey at this craft. He began educating himself on classical artists at the old location of the High Point Public Library on South Main Street. While at Griffin Middle School, his teacher Mrs. Adams began introducing him to African American artists. He was exposed to such greats as Charles White and Lois Mailou Jones. He began developing his own style, creating his own sketches and learning from artists that he came in contact with. The article covers Pendergrass’s journey to New York to study at the Art Students League and his eventual return to High Point. It is a compelling story of a native son of High Point who paints the world as he sees it.

black and white image of man in front of a portrait of a womanArtist Michael Pendergrass

illustration of Rwandan horrorsIllustration of Rwanda horrors titled “Endangered Species” by Michael Pendergrass (lower). Both photographs by Don Davis, Jr., 1971. Article in the Heritage Research Center, High Point Public Library. 

The last entry in the file is a clipping from The High Point Enterprise, February 25, 2009. The article is about the Black History Expo, an event that is close to home: my High Point Public Library colleague Maxine Days coordinates this program. The event had its inception in 2000 and has been growing consistently ever since. The Black History Expo has become a staple in High Point during the month of February and has been hosted at a few different locations, but most commonly takes place at the High Point Public Library. It boasts a number of different vendors highlighting various African American businesses throughout the area. The expo isn’t just a showcase for business owners but also an avenue for artists, historians, dancers, healthcare providers, and various departments from the City of High Point. It is an opportunity to showcase what the African American community has to offer in High Point.

What this particular file is lacking in the number of entries, it makes up for in the quality of content. It shows that High Point has a deep African American cultural history that spans decades, that it has world-class talent right here in our hometown, and that the African American community of High Point continues to grow and thrive. 

If you have any flyers, programs, published press releases of African American cultural events and programs, please feel free to donate them to the Heritage Research Center at the High Point Public Library to be included in this file. 

 

Marcellaus Joiner is Supervisor of the Heritage Research Center of the High Point Public Library where he specializes in family history. He also serves as the archivist for the High Point Museum. Contact him at 336.883.3637 or marcellaus.joiner@highpointnc.gov

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