Standing in the parking lot at West End Fresh Seafood Market on Beatties Ford Road, looking at the newly painted mural on the building’s south-facing wall, an untrained eye might think it was completed. But artist Abel Jackson says there’s still about 36 hours to go.
“Only Dr. Bertha’s done,” Jackson says, pointing to the portrait of Dr. Bertha Maxwell-Roddey, an icon of Charlotte education, on the far left of the mural on Beatties Ford Road. He goes through a list of updates he needs to make to the other five portraits on the wall, plus other additions such as placing chalk writing on the board behind Maxwell-Roddey and finishing touches on the bus below her. Then after a few seconds his eyes go back to Dr. Maxwell-Roddey.
“I kind of feel like I could go back and fill in some highlights … But no, that portrait is done,” he says, possibly trying to convince himself more than me. After all, an artist’s work is never done.
Jackson’s new Beatties Ford Road mural, titled “River of Life,” was a commission from West End Fresh Seafood Market owner Bernetta Powell, whom he’s know for years. It depicts six luminaries of the Beatties Ford Road corridor: Dr. Maxwell-Roddey, James Ferguson II, Julius Chambers, Hattie “Chatty Hatty” Leeper, Harvey Gantt and Sarah Stevenson.
Funded by a Placemaking Grant from the city of Charlotte, the mural has long been a goal of Powell’s. Once she was awarded the grant, she reached out to Jackson, who’s been creating art in Charlotte for nearly 20 years, and the two got to work on community outreach. They wanted to honor West End legends, so they put together a list of about 15 people who have had lasting impact on the corridor and, with the help of city staff, began outreach efforts.
Making use of the extra time afforded by the COVID-19 shutdowns, the group canvassed as they best they could amid a pandemic, utilizing social media and email lists from local community organizations and church groups to reach as many West End residents as possible. The participating residents voted, and the top six members were set to be included.
The title “River of Life,” which Jackson will add as he completes the mural in the coming week or so, comes from an expression that appears to have been coined by Rev. Clifford Jones, pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, in a 1990 Charlotte Observer article written by Frye Gaillard about an attempt to rename a three-mile stretch of Beatties Ford Road to Martin Luther King Drive.
In the article, Jones is quoted as saying, “It’s the river of life for the black community,” referring to Beatties Ford Road. Powell, who attends Friendship Missionary, heard Jones use the same expression during a sermon there and it stuck with her, eventually inspiring the name of the artwork.
The title also plays into the fact that Powell and Jackson prioritized placing living people into the mural as subjects.
“Everybody’s alive with the exception of [Julius] Chambers,” he said. “So we wanted to say, ‘These are people who are still alive to this day and that energy is still flowing through the community.'”
To ensure that energy flows through his work as well, Jackson met with four of the six people that he planned to paint. Because he could not meet with Sarah Stevenson, who is in an assisted-living facility, he met with her sister and son.
“I got a chance to talk to them and see how they saw things and what their experiences were like and what they went through and discuss ideas and concepts — just really who they are as people,” he says. “I enjoyed that whole process. So now this is just the execution.”
As he wraps up that execution, we put together some information for those not familiar with these six Charlotte legends.
Dr. Bertha Maxwell-Roddey
Born in 1930, Dr. Bertha Maxwell-Roddey helped integrate Albemarle Road Elementary School after coming on as principal there, one of the first Black women in the area to serve as principal at an all-white school. In 1970, she became the second Black full-time professor at UNC Charlotte, then became the first chair of the Afro-American and African Studies Department there. In 1974, she co-founded the Afro-American Cultural Center — today the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture — in Uptown.
Dr. Maxwell-Roddey started the first Head Start program in Charlotte and co-founded the Theodore and Bertha M. Roddey Foundation. She has served on more than 50 boards and commissions and received numerous awards for her dedication, including the Thurgood Marshall Award of Education, Order of the Long Leaf Pine, and Eagle Fly Free Award from the Institute for the Advancement of Multicultural & Minority Medicine.
James Ferguson II
Along with Julius Chambers, James Ferguson II co-founded North Carolina’s first integrated law firm in 1967 and has been at the center of many high-profile civil rights cases over the years, including helping to secure justice for the “Wilmington 10” more than four decades after their wrongful conviction for arson.
“I just want to feel that I’ve done all I can do to bring about equality – for everybody,” Ferguson told the Charlotte Observer upon winning the Charlotte Post’s Luminary Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. “That’s what life is about – trying to create the society we think we want.”
Influenced by the racial intolerance he saw growing up in the rural community of Mt. Gilead in the 1940s and ’50s, Julius Chambers flew through his higher education at North Carolina Central University, University of Michigan and UNC Chapel Hill with honors. He became the first intern for the new NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1963, and in June 1964 opened his own practice in Charlotte, which eventually became the first integrated law firm in North Carolina.
Chambers helped shape civil-rights law by winning benchmark United States Supreme Court rulings such as the famous Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education decision in 1971, which led to federally mandated busing, helping integrate public schools across the country. Despite having continuously been a target of white supremacists, such as in the 1965 bombings of his and other civil rights leaders’ homes in the West End, Chambers is remembered today as a lion of the civil rights movement. Most recently, Zebulon B. Vance High School was renamed to Julius L. Chambers High School in honor of the man, who passed away in 2013.
Sarah Mingo was born in Heath Springs, S.C. in 1925. Forced to leave high school without a diploma, she moved to Charlotte, where she worked as a housekeeper in Charlotte Memorial Hospital and met her husband, Robert Louis Stevenson. In 1970, she moved from Cherry to the Beatties Ford Road corridor, where she taught at a day-care center, worked at the Charlotte Area Fund and established a mediation program for the city, now known as the Community Relations Committee.
Her activism to acquire uniforms for a son’s school band led to her role in merging the black and white PTAs within CMS before courts forced the school district to desegregate. She served on the CMS Board of Education from 1980-1988. In 1980, Stevenson co-founded the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum, and has since helped launch the Sarah and Samuel Stevenson Scholarship Fund in honor of her youngest son who passed away in 2006, and the South African Students Scholarships.
On her website, Sarah’s sister Elloree Erwin regularly provides friends, family and followers with updates on how Sarah is doing.
Hattie “Chatty Hatty” Leeper
Hattie Leeper, known to her audience as “Chatty Hatty,” began what would become a 20-year tenure at Charlotte’s WGIV Radio as a teenager in 1946. She would become the first African-American woman on the air in North Carolina, and is a member of the N.C. Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
She pivoted in 1973, beginning a new career teaching communication at a number of colleges, including Johnson C. Smith University and Gaston College. She retired in 1998, then ran her own communications school in Charlotte until 2004. She has received numerous awards and was inducted into the Black Radio Hall of Fame in Washington D.C. in 1989. Little known fact: Hattie sang background vocals on Aretha Franklin’s classic single “Respect.”
Harvey Gantt grew up in the 1940s and ’50s in then-segregated Charleston, S.C., where he often attended NAACP meetings with his father. He moved to Charlotte after graduating from MIT, and in 1971 co-founded Gantt Huberman Architects. He and his firm designed some of the city’s most iconic landmarks, such as the Charlotte Transportation Center, TransAmerica Square, ImaginOn, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, and the Johnson C. Smith University Science Center.
He joined Charlotte City Council in 1974 and was elected Charlotte’s first African-American mayor in 1983. He would go on to serve two terms. Gantt continues to serve the city in different roles to this day. In 2009, the former Afro-American Cultural Center opened the doors to a new facility to be named the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. Though reluctant at first, Gantt wrote on the museum’s website why he eventually accepted the honor.
“I thought about the enormous history of the residents of the historic Second Ward community of Brooklyn, where the Gantt Center now stands,” he wrote. “I hope that those who have already ‘crossed over’ can smile and feel proud knowing that we have not forgotten their sacrifices; how they nurtured, pushed and prodded young minds to strive for excellence. We are forever grateful to them.”
Just as we are forever grateful to Gantt the other community leaders who join him in the “River of Life” mural.