hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture February March 2024


From oppression to liberation

New show at Williams museum explores the journey of Black Americans


John Quincy Adams Ward’s 1863 bronze sculpture “The Freedman,” left, helped to inspire an exhibition by seven contemporary Black artists exploring the meaning of emancipation in the 21st century. Hugh Hayden’s 3-D printed “American Dream,” right, offers a direct answer to Ward’s work. Photos courtesy of Williams College Museum of Art


John Quincy Adams Ward’s 1863 bronze sculpture “The Freedman,” left, helped to inspire an exhibition by seven contemporary Black artists exploring the meaning of emancipation in the 21st century. Hugh Hayden’s 3-D printed “American Dream,” right, offers a direct answer to Ward’s work. Photos courtesy of Williams College Museum of Art


John Quincy Adams Ward’s 1863 bronze sculpture “The Freedman,” left, helped to inspire an exhibition by seven contemporary Black artists exploring the meaning of emancipation in the 21st century. Hugh Hayden’s 3-D printed “American Dream,” right, offers a direct answer to Ward’s work. Photos courtesy of Williams College Museum of Art


Contributing writer


A girl in a blue dress is riding a seesaw. She is holding on at the apex, and her dark hair falls over her shoulders in summer braids.

The artist and photographer Letitia Huckaby sets her portrait in a hinged oval frame, like a locket to wear at someone’s throat, and in the other half, a set of steps leads up a grassy bank to a winter field — where a house used to be.

A body of work called “Two Greenwoods” brought Huckaby to the center of a community that rose to national prominence a hundred years ago.

W.E.B. Du Bois knew the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, Okla. He walked the busy streets of the thriving Black downtown, and so did Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee University. Visiting Greenwood in the 1910s, the two early civil rights leaders saw a place where Black entrepreneurs had created an economic and cultural hub in that era of segregation — a neighborhood with Black-owned stores, restaurants, a theater and live music in a city where, according to the Greenwood Cultural Center, Count Basie first encountered big-band jazz.
And then violence struck. One day in the spring of 1921, a white mob attacked with guns, bombs and fire, killing and injuring hundreds of Greenwood’s residents and reducing most of its buildings to rubble.

“The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre desecrated the Greenwood neighborhood — one of the most prosperous African-American communities in the early 20th century,” Huckaby writes, describing themes in her work.

In her paired images, she recognizes loss, she said in a phone interview from her home in Texas, and she wants to respect all the generations alive today — and the spirit in the community that has grown and persisted in all the years since the massacre.

This winter and spring, Huckaby will consider ideas of courage and community as one of seven internationally acclaimed contemporary artists taking part in “Emancipation: The Unfinished Project of Liberation,” which opens Feb. 16 at the Williams College Museum of Art.

The show, opening here a year after 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, explores ideas of liberation — what it means to move into the broader society, to be considered a citizen, to have legal rights and to imagine new futures, said guest co-curator Maurita N. Poole, who is executive director and chief curator at the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University.


Many views of freedom
Colors cascade like banners in Maya Freelon’s tissue ink monoprints. She calls to beauty, transcendence, ancestry and celebration, she says in her notes for the show, with love for her grandmother and for her godmother and namesake, Maya Angelou.

Alfred Conteh’s celebrated sculpture “Float” hovers in the air. A figure seems to rise surrounded in helixes, and they are budding like vines. The figure is scarred and flowering, and she is made from the atomized dust of steel and bronze.

From many perspectives, these artists are looking closely at the roots of the nation’s ideas of freedom and how they play out in the 21st century, Poole said in an interview over Zoom with co-curator Maggie Adler.

“I hope that people, when they see the show,” Poole said, “will think about these artists responding to issues that are foundational and, at the core, … fundamental to what it means to be an American.”

The idea for the show began with a conversation in 2018 between Poole and Adler, who is curator of paintings, sculpture and works on paper at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art — and an alumna of the art history graduate program at Williams College.

Adler said the catalyst was a bronze sculpture from the Carter’s collection, “The Freedman,” created by the abolitionist and artist John Quincy Adams Ward in 1863 after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Sitting on a tree stump, a man looks toward the horizon. Broad-shouldered and muscular, thoughtful and direct, he holds tension in his body and reflection in expression, as though he is moving and making decisions.

He “seems to be grappling with the idea that freedom will demand a new way of being,” Poole writes in the show’s catalog.

Adler wanted an exhibition that gave contemporary artists the flexibility to visualize emancipation in their own ways. She reached out to Poole, who was then director and curator at Clark Atlanta University Art Museum. Poole has also served as a Mellon curatorial fellow for diversity in the arts at Williams College, and together she and Adler approached Horace D. Ballard, who was then curator of American art at the Williams College Museum of Art, before he moved on to become curator of American art at Harvard Art Museums.

“I was excited about it,” Poole said, “because I thought it would be an opportunity for a new generation to reflect upon those issues, and particularly in the 21st century to figure out how we understand the meaning and implications not only of freedom, but of citizenship.

She feels students can explore those meanings in greater depth, especially for Black Americans. The artists have opened up these questions here in contemporary sculptural work, she and Adler said.

Sadie Barnette explores repression and abolition and resistance in her installations, with fantastical and celebratory elements like glitter. Jeffrey Meris traces challenges in healing and in lived experiences as transient and renewing as snow.

Sable Elyse Smith reveals forms of violence in incarceration. And Hugh Hayden brings “The Freedman” into the 21st century with a precision, 3-D printed contemporary man echoing his strength and breaking his shackles.


Connecting two communities
In her “Two Greenwoods” project, Huckaby explores two communities related by family and time. Many of the founders of the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa came from Greenwood, Miss., she said, where her father was born. He served in the military, and his last duty station was in Oklahoma, so Huckaby has roots in both places.

In the decades after the Civil War, she said, freedmen’s towns, communities of free Black families, were growing across Oklahoma and Kansas. Oklahoma had so many, it nearly became a freedmen’s state.

These newly formed states had land and resources — seized from Native nations — and people from the Deep South were moving to the Plains.

“The community in Tulsa prospered to the point where they were called the Black Wall Street,” Huckaby said. “They had their own businesses, their own schools, their own hotels, their own theaters, their own … you know, everything. And all but one block was completely annihilated in this event.”

The event was a coordinated attack by a substantial number of white residents in the still-segregated city. Over two days, from May 31 to June 1, 1921, 35 blocks of homes and businesses burned to the ground.

More than 300 African-Americans were murdered, more than 10,000 were left homeless, and more than 2,000 business destroyed, according to the Greenwood Cultural Center, making it one of the single deadliest and most destructive acts of racial violence in U.S. history. No one was ever criminally charged in connection with the attack.

And the effects are still visible, though the community continues to work together for change today.

When Huckaby first came to Tulsa, she said, she talked with descendants of the Greenwood neighborhood’s founders. And she found generational trauma within the community. The centennial three years ago brought them into the news, she said, but they felt sensationalized, turned into a spectacle where no one was giving them anything constructive in return.
So she explored the past through her own family connections.

“I ended up photographing a city block in Tulsa, near where the Greenwood community was, that had no houses,” she said. “All that was left was stairs that would have led to porches, … and it was a poetic representation of the community that was lost.”

She knows the first Greenwood, in Mississippi, very well, because her grandmother lived there, and Huckaby went back to photograph the block of houses where her father was born and raised. Her mother went with her.

“My father’s deceased,” Huckaby said, “and after he passed away, my mother left Oklahoma and went back to Louisiana, where she was originally from. … And so we drove to Greenwood, Mississippi, which is in the Delta.

“And the drive brought back so many memories to her. That was probably the most precious part about my making that body of work, to listen to her reminisce about driving up to visit him in Greenwood and meet his parents. … She’s the one that was able to point out to me exactly where the house was. … So I learned a lot about him through her, but I also learned more about her.”

Tracing history through families

The roles of family and family history have become a through-line in the show, Adler said.
Maya Freelon also remembers her grandmother in her work, creating vibrant hues and cascading shapes with found objects.

“My grandmother used to tell me we came from a family of sharecroppers that never got their fair share,” she writes in the exhibition catalog. “She grew up during the Great Depression and knew what it was like to need and not have. … She taught me how to make something out of nothing, how to make a way out of no way, and how to make quilts piece by piece.”

One day, Freelon writes, looking through her grandmother’s attic, through old Jet and Ebony magazines and books signed by James Baldwin and Alex Haley, she found tissue paper that had soaked up color from the dampness.

“This watermark,” she writes, “what many would call an accident from an old leaking pipe, changed the trajectory of my artistic career.”

Huckaby too invokes her family and her past in the cloth that carries her images.
“I was printing on heirloom fabrics for a while — quilt tops that my great-grandmother had sewn,” she said. “So there was this connection to past generations — sometimes people I hadn’t even met before. They had passed before I was born, but they left these artifacts that I then was able to use in my practice and create a whole conversation with them.

“And I’m really attracted to a kind of Southern aesthetic when it comes to color,” Huckaby continued. “Especially in Louisiana, there’s a lot of color in the architecture in low-income communities, in the Black community. You see a lot of vibrant color.

“And there’s a richness just to the landscape in the South. … It’s kind of like that red clay, and I don’t even know how to explain it, but I feel like that influences my color more than anything else, just the look of the South.”

Silhouettes form on cotton cloth like people seen through a window. Washes of color touch the walls behind them.


Preserving generational links
Silhouettes form on cotton cloth like people seen through a window. Washes of color touch the walls behind them.

In “Bitter Water Sweet,” a new body of work, Huckaby has talked with descendants of the founders of Africatown in Mobile, Ala.

“It’s the only freedmen’s town that I know of that was actually started by Africans,” she said. “They hadn’t been enslaved for a long period of time. So their descendants still know who their ancestors were.”

In 1860, 110 people of the Dendi, Fon, Isha, Nupe and Yoruba in West Africa — living in and near Dahomey, now Benin — were abducted and brought to the United States as slaves aboard the Clotilda, one of the last known slave ships to arrive in this country. A white Alabama businessman, Timothy Meaher, smuggled them in illegally even by U.S. laws at the time.
And in a rare convergence, their families today know their names: Abile, Gumpa, Jaba, Zazoola, Kehounco, Kupollee.

Some were couples, some families and some children, according to Margaret Brown’s recent documentary film, “Descendants.” They were forcibly divided and sold in Mobile and Selma and elsewhere, a kind of forced separation of families that white slave owners inflicted constantly on enslaved people — one reason the kind of knowledge Africatown has held onto has become so rare.

But emancipation and the Civil War came, and a group of the survivors from the ship formed a community in 1867. They shared relationships, experiences, culture, and passed them down through their families. And their descendants have fought for generations to preserve that knowledge.

“They know what areas their ancestors were from in Africa — and customs, something they still hold onto,” Huckaby said.

The descendents built a heritage house, she said, a museum of their own with photographs taken across generations along with writings and artifacts. They have family stories.
“And in some cases they know what their ancestors looked like, because when they came, there was images made of them,” Huckaby said. “That’s mind-blowing to me.”

The families connected to Africatown also have oral histories. In 1927, Cudjoe (Kazoola) Lewis, the last survivor of the group that arrived on the Clotilda, shared his story with the internationally acclaimed folklorist, novelist and playwright Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston wrote a book, “Barracoon,” based on her interviews, Huckaby said. (A barracoon is a jail where enslaved people were held.)

Lewis “was a bit of a storyteller,” Huckaby said, “so people would come into Africatown to hear his stories and record their own.”

On her own trip, she photographed descendants of the founders. They have held elements of their community together for more than 150 years, she said, even though for generations they were not allowed to talk openly about their shared past, for fear of retaliation.
“But now they can openly talk about it, and they don’t want to stop,” she said. “They want to just keep telling their story.

“I think that’s the part that they cherish the most, being able to know something about their ancestors, the way they lived, the kind of things they said, and have that passed down and be able to continue to pass that down. When you go to community meetings, it’s all generations there. It’s grandparents, it’s working adults, it’s teenagers, it’s little kids — they’re all there to absorb and keep their history alive.”


“Emancipation: The Unfinished Project of Liberation”


Seven nationally acclaimed contemporary artists offer new and recent work visualizing Black freedom, agency and the legacy of the Civil War today and beyond: Sadie Barnette, Alfred Conteh, Maya Freelon, Hugh Hayden, Letitia Huckaby, Jeffrey Meris and Sable Elyse Smith.

Where: Williams College Museum of Art
When: Feb. 16 through July 1, with an opening celebration from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23

Special event: Frances Jones-Sneed, professor of history emerita at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, will explore the question “What does emancipation mean in the Berkshires?” at 6 p.m. March 7.
Admission: Free
Information: artmuseum.williams.edu