Bearden’s 1911 birthplace: A fateful time for Charlotte

Early Carolina Morning, by Romare Bearden 1978.

When America’s foremost collage artist, Romare Bearden, was born 100 years ago in Charlotte on Sept. 2, 1911, the city was in the midst of a heartbreaking transition, a hardening of racial segregation that was taking place throughout the South.

 A new online exhibit from Levine Museum of the New South, Romare Bearden’s Charlotte, 1911, explores that important history.

Tom Hanchett, curator of Romare Bearden’s Charlotte 1911, will give an illustrated, free talk at 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 18 at the Duke Mansion, 400 Hermitage Road, Charlotte.  Reservations are required: Email pmartin@tlwf.org or call 704-714-4448.

African-Americans made up nearly a third of the population of this prosperous little city in 1911.  Railroads and cotton mills had pushed Charlotte’s population up 88 percent to 34,000 people in the decade before Bearden’s birth.  His mother and father lived in a handsome house on Graham Street owned by the new baby’s great-grandparents, H.B. and Rosa Kennedy.  Members of Charlotte’s black middle-class, the Kennedys owned a grocery store and rental houses and attended the substantial brick St. Michael's Episcopal Church.

But African-American success was in jeopardy. During the 1890s, a deep economic depression sparked racial and political tensions. A “White Supremacy Campaign” led to a new North Carolina state constitution in 1900 that disfranchised most black voters.  In Charlotte, the Seaboard Railway station instituted separate White and Colored waiting rooms in 1895; the city's Independence Park barred black people in 1903; starting in 1907 streetcars ordered blacks to sit in the back. Residential patterns began to shift.  Third Ward, where Bearden and the Kennedys lived, still mingled blacks and whites on many blocks.  But new, segregated neighborhoods were springing up, such as all-black Brooklyn in uptown’s Second Ward area, and all-white suburban Elizabeth.

No wonder many African-Americans began leaving the South for the promise of the urban North, an exodus called the Great Migration. Romare Bearden’s parents joined that stream about 1915, moving to New York City.

Today Bearden is considered one of America’s most important artists, a visual poet whose work is often acclaimed as an extension of the Harlem Renaissance. His bold paintings and collages reflect the Great Migration – and more generally America's wider 20th-century journey from a rural nation to an urban one.  Much of Bearden’s art celebrates the bustling everyday life of the big-city North. Yet he returned often to the South of his youth, to folk life scenes from Charlotte and rural Mecklenburg County.

Now – just in time for the city-wide Bearden 100 festivities commemorating the artist’s birth – Levine Museum debuts an online exhibition: Romare Bearden’s Charlotte, 1911.  A companion website, www.Charlotte1911.org, links map and city directory data to paint a picture of the city’s racial patterns in 1911.   Both are developed in association with Main Street Carolina, directed by Professor Robert Allen at UNC Chapel Hill, an award-winning effort to create new computer-assisted tools for investigating the state’s history. 

To explore, go to www.Bearden1911.org where you’ll find a detailed map of the city published in 1911.  Click on markers to bring up vintage photos, text and links to Charlotte today.  Highlights include Bearden’s family home on South Graham Street, St. Michael’s Church where he was baptized, and Pinewood Cemetery where relatives are buried.  You can view nearby sights, find African American landmarks, and glimpse the wider Charlotte-Mecklenburg landscape in the years when the Queen City was becoming the Carolinas’ leading urban center.

Romare Bearden’s Charlotte 1911 is part of an array of exhibitions and programs in Charlotte, New York and elsewhere recalling his legacy on the centennial of his birth.  The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, ImaginOn, Davidson College and UNC Chapel Hill will mount installations of Bearden’s art. The Charlotte Symphony will present a gala concert, and a new park will break ground Sept. 2 in uptown Charlotte’s Third Ward, near the artist’s birthplace.  Most ambitious, the Mint Museum will open Romare Bearden: Southern Recollections featuring 100 of the artist’s creations, then tour the exhibition to Florida and the New York City area in 2012.  Click this link for information on other events planned in Charlotte.

Tom Hanchett

More photographs of the artist and his work.

Top artwork: Early Carolina Morning, from the Profile/Part I: The Twenties series (Mecklenburg County). 1978. Collage on board, 29 x 41". Collection of Dr. and Mrs. Clinton N. Levin.  Copyright Romare Bearden Foundation.  Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Photograph copyright Frank Stewart, Black Light Production.