As we come upon the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act on July 2nd, 1964, we should be reminded that human rights afforded to everyone is something we continually fight to achieve. From Civil War battles against slavery and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, to African Americans’ rights to own property, vote, shop, dine, use public facilities and transportation, and even be afforded an education, civil rights has matured far longer than a century now. Still, the battles wage on.

artesia hs

ALL IN THE CLASS: Artesia High School graduating class of 1955. Courtesy photo, CAM and CCDC.

North Carolina especially has seen its fair share of activism. In 1938 Greensboro students protested a theater because of its exclusion of racially balanced movies. In 1943 in Winston Salem, black tobacco workers went on strike against R. J. Reynolds. In 1960 Ezell Blair, Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Joseph McNeil hosted a peaceful sit-in after being refused lunch service at Woolworth‘s in Greensboro. In 1968 parents and students in Hyde County boycotted public schools after school reassignments. Stories like these only tip the scale of the many people who fought with gusto to live in the same paradigm of opportunity as white people.  

Sixteen historically black schools in New Hanover and surrounding counties were on the brink of integration in the early ‘60s. Their closings and its impact across the state of NC will be the focus at the Cameron Art Museum’s latest exhibition, “School Pride: The Eastern NC Story,” an installation by Willie Cole. In conjunction with the Countywide Community Development Corporation (CCDC), the show commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act.

Last year Juanita Harper, chair of the CCDC, asked CAM’s executive director, Anne Brennan, to collaborate on the project. Because the CCDC committee comprises alumni from the 16 schools, access to the content would be readily available. Harper believed CAM would be the best forum to interpret these indelible historical stories and events. 

“Art and music provide a potent arena for gathering people together to converse, to share, to remember, and to heal,” Harper told Brennan. “It is through healing we can resolve issues of the past, and discover new energies and direction for the future.”

Willie Cole’s installation work, often hung with a political and social commentary bent, fit the bill as the artist to interpret the committee’s memories in “School Pride.” CAM’s senior advisor, Jeanne Butler, heard Cole speak at UNCG’s Weatherspoon Gallery and learned that the New Jersey artist’s family live in southeastern NC—more specifically, right outisde of Wilmington in Navassa, where CDCC is headquartered. The collaboration seemed kismit. 

“Desegregation connects to me in the obvious way—the same way it connects with you,” Cole explains. “It changed our entire country. My father’s family is from NC, so this opportunity has helped me understand his educational journey.”

With the help of CAM registrar Holly Tripman Fitzgerald, “Digitization Day” was held from 2013 to 2014, wherein alumni turned over personal keepsakes of their studies and attendance at the all-black schools. It became the research and inspiration for Cole’s installation.

“The primary building blocks are the photos collected during  ‘Digitization Day,’” Cole explains. “The museum provided me with text and images . . . My work here is 90 percent conceptual, which means most of the objects and artifacts were collected and assembled as opposed to made. I simply asked myself: ‘What is the common denominator in any school experience?’” 

Cole heard the stories from many of the CDCC members beforehand. Their recollections and mementos showcase culturally rich and artifactual  pride of strength and beauty compiled at these educational institutions.  

“Since much of the culture of the schools was uprooted through the sudden implementation of school integration, this project offers the opportunity to help continue documentation, to fit fragments together of what material culture does remain, along with the capture of memories and stories,” Anne Brennan states. “Through the four-month duration of ‘School Pride,’ CAM and CCDC also commits to contextualizing ‘School Pride’ within views of the national conflict regarding civil rights and school desegregation.”

An artist by nature, a way of life he was born into, Cole says his work “touches on all levels of learning and the human experience.” Though he isn’t necessarily focused on the burden of being socio-political within his work—“unfortunately, black artists are always viewed this way by others,” he says—he hones in on the spiritual fruition offered from creativity. 

“I’m interested in the manifestation and representation of spirit energy and the compression of time,” Cole says. “To see my work as social, political, or global is either a reflection of the times we live in or the narrowness of the lens through which black artists are perceived.”

With the site-specific installation of “School Pride,” Cole is quite aware of the greater impact and resonance it has in today’s classist and often unbalanced climate. “The fact that many school districts in this country have been re-segregated through socio-economics shows that there is no quick fix to racism,” he says. “In that sense, [this] commemoration becomes a reminder of not only how far we’ve come but how far we have to go. It also illustrates the strength and weaknesses of legislation.”


“School Pride: The Eastern NC Story”—Installation by Willie Cole

Black & White Opening Gala, Sat., June 28th, 6 – 11 p.m.  • $45-$50
Buffet dinner, cash bar and music by Grenoldo Frazier and Band on Fire
Lecture/walkthrough with Willie Cole
Sun. June 29th, 3 p.m. • $5-$10
LBJ Presidential Legacy Awards Luncheon, July 2nd (see page 28)
On display through November 2nd

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