"When President Barack Obama makes history in Charlotte by accepting the Democratic Presidential Nomination for a second term, Nellie Ashford hopes we won’t forget there was a time when our city might not have welcomed a person of color."
Leland goes on to say; "In her pretty folk art paintings, Ashford reminds us of the ugliness in our past. Nellie Ashford, 68, is a self-taught folk artist who began painting about 15 years ago. Her pictures are a delightful and historical recollection of Charlotte in the 1940s and 1950s"
I first saw her work during a tour of the Democratic National Convention Committee headquarters uptown, where nine of her pieces are on loan. One painting in particular captivated me. She calls it “So Near But So Far.”
From a distance, it looks like a cheerful piece of folk art with a big yellow-orange school bus filling most of the canvas.
|Nellie Ashford and her work, "So Near But So Far".|
Up close, Ashford’s message becomes clear. Inside the bus are white children, being driven to school through a neighborhood of lush green lawns and a tidy picket fence. Walking in the opposite direction are barefoot African-American children who were not allowed to study in the same schools as white boys and girls. A chain-link fence separates the two.
“You always walked in a group because you didn’t want to be out there alone,” Ashford said about black schoolchildren in the segregated 1940s and ’50s of her childhood. “Sometimes people would throw things at you. Sometimes the bus would go by fast and splash water. They may take a dog and let the dog get to you. There was no regard to the little people walking to school.”
“I paint about things I remember as a child,” she said. “It’s a part of history that made us who we are. Without those humble people that I paint about, there would not have been a Harvey Gantt or a Mayor (Anthony) Foxx or a President Obama even.”
The trouble is that Nellie Ashford is 68, while the article also says she is 69 but nevertheless we can assume she was born in 1944. So she was an infant in the 1940's and a toddler in the early 1950's. Then in 1962 she apparently left for New York during what has often been termed the great northern migration.
Now before I point out the obvious, let me say that I think Nellie's art is entertaining and in many ways it expresses the feelings so many have about the south. But frankly the article sensationalizes at the expense of the artist segregation that she was either too young to remember or wasn't in Charlotte during a time to experience.
Leland continues; "She left Charlotte in 1962 for New York City and the promise of a better life, part of a great northern migration of African-American men and women. “I didn’t want to work in the kitchen scrubbing floors,” she said. “I knew that I wanted something better.” "
In order for our President to "show" the world how far we have come the DNC must build the proper stage. Enter Nellie Ashford, as well as Tavis Smiley who has a retrospective of the south on display in Charlotte as well. Smiley's exhibit includes an eerily lit Ku Klux Klan robe and photos of cross burnings and lynchings.
But Charlotte, isn't now and wasn't then, Selma, or Memphis, or Montgomery or Atlanta of the early 1960's. It wasn't the "Jim Crow" South of the 1950's or 1940's.
Charlotte was such a non-issue in the civil rights movement, that Dr. King made only one trip to Charlotte, where he made a short and polite speech that had the beginnings of his famous I had a dream speech and left town the same day.
It wasn't that Charlotte didn't have a segregated past, it was just so far ahead of so many other cities that we were just small potatoes compared to Detroit, Chicago and Atlanta.
Soon after 1945 Charlotte was on a progressive fast track to racial equality. Charlotte's business leaders were smart enough to understand that Jim Crow was bad for business.
Charlotte began to integrate public schools in 1957, it wasn't without a measure of controversy but it was a start. And by 1963 while George Wallace was claiming allegiance to "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" most of - if not all of Charlotte's businesses and public venues were already fully integrated.
Which might explain why Charlotte avoided the riots and murders that plagued other cities in the 60's. But Nellie Ashford wasn't a Charlotte resident then and so she would not have known.
Nellie Ashford wasn't in Charlotte in 1968, she didn't see how this community came together both black and white in a solid show of unity after the death of Dr. King. She wasn't here to see hundreds fill Oven's Auditorium, or Charlotte's Mayor Stan Brookshire walk up the steps of St. Paul's Baptist Church along with the future Governor Jim Martin to attend a memorial service for Dr. King at the African-American church.
While fires where burning in the streets of Chicago and Detroit, Charlotte was quiet as a Sunday morning in the days that followed the murder of Dr. King in Memphis.
There is no valid point in embellishing Charlotte's segregated past, there is no reason to sensationalize the negative aspect of Jim Crow except to build upon some twisted need to shame Charlotte's citizens in some perverted effort to build upon the Obama movement.
What Leland and even Ashford fail to point out is the Charlotte is as progressive now as it was back in the earliest days of the civil rights era.
Leland might do well to point out that there was a time when our city would have "welcomed a person of color" when other cities might not have offered the same.
You can read Elizabeth Leland's complete story on Charlotte's segregated past here. Read about Tavis Smiley's exhibit at Creative Loafing here, and read Elizabeth Leland's rebuttal to criticism of her series here.