Arts & CultureArts Features

Rosenwald Schools, Gentrification Photo Exhibits Show Different Approaches to Medium

Through a new lens

Former Rosenwald School students
Brothers Frank Brinkley and Charles Brinkley, Sr. are former students at a Rosenwald School. (Photo by Andrew Feiler)

“I saw that a camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sort of social wrongs,” iconic Black photographer Gordon Parks told an interviewer in 1999, just three years from his 90th birthday. “I knew at that point that I had to have a camera.” 

Parks got himself a camera, and before passing away in 2006, built a lasting legacy that lives on in the images he captured from the 1940s to ’70s. 

His legacy also lives on in those who have followed in his path — photographers and artists of all mediums who have documented the African American experience. To kick off 2022, Charlotte will host two exhibits that use photographic imagery to tell different aspects of what it means to be Black in America through different artistic mediums and in different times.

Collage for the culture

The Merriam-Webster definition of gentrification is “a process in which a poor area (as of a city) experiences an influx of middle-class or wealthy people who renovate and rebuild homes and businesses and which often results in an increase in property values and the displacement of earlier, usually poorer residents.” 

In the 11 years since Joanne Rogers moved to Charlotte from New York, she has seen gentrification run its course in the rapidly growing city. 

Little by little, developers have been changing the character of Charlotte’s oldest neighborhoods, many of which are historically Black, and pricing out the people who’ve lived there for decades.

And what’s worse, Rogers said, is that some people — usually those who benefit — see gentrification as an improvement.

“It’s not really an improvement. It’s not really moving forward. And if it is moving forward, at what cost?” said Rogers, owner of Nine Eighteen Nine Studio Gallery in Uptown’s newly created Visual and Performing Arts Center (VAPA).

“These are human lives that have existed here. This has been their home for how long and should people be just allowed, investors be just allowed, to do such damage? There’s a heavy collateral in these so-called improvements.”

The soul of Charlotte is not being nurtured, it’s being destroyed, Rogers said, and it’s not just happening here; gentrification is a story so constant across the United States that it’s on the verge of becoming normalized to the point that even opponents see it as inevitable. 

Rogers is hoping her gallery’s latest exhibit, America Gentrified by Charlotte artist John “Trey” Miles, III, will help people see gentrification for what it truly is. 

America Gentrified is a 50-piece collage series constructed on 11-by-14-inch panels that showcase the various forms of gentrification within a community.

Collage artwork by John 'Trey’ Miles
One of 50 pieces in the new America Gentrified photo exhibit at Nine Eighteen Nine Studio. (Artwork by John ‘Trey’ Miles III)

The collages are composed of pre-selected photographs that Miles chose for how they represent gentrification in one way or another. He constructed each piece by manipulating the photographs on a computer then cutting and arranging them to recreate a hyper photorealistic collage.

The art within the America Gentrified exhibit was heavily influenced by Romare Bearden, a multimedia artist native to Charlotte who began creating collages in his mid-twenties. 

Miles’ artistic journey began similarly to that of Bearden, and his most recent work is reminiscent of the Queen City icon. In it, Miles has coalesced traditional scenery into abstract artwork in a way that demonstrates the true imagery and precision of the collage process.

Miles’ earlier pieces focused on the aesthetic relationships between shape, form and color, while his current works are influenced by political struggles affecting the Black community in the past and present.

“America Gentrified tells the story of gentrification everywhere,” said Rogers, who curated the show. “People are disenfranchised, they lose their home, they lose their investments because other people are coming in and investing in the land.

“The artist tries to make you feel like it’s only one place. He shows you the story of the changes going on in one neighborhood throughout all 50 series.”

John ‘Trey’ Miles III speaks at the America Gentrified opening at Nine Eighteen Nine
John ‘Trey’ Miles III at the America Gentrified photo exhibit opening. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The America Gentrified photo exhibit will be on display at Nine Eighteen Nine through Jan. 30. It is the first exhibit in Nine Eighteen Nine’s new 13,000-square-foot space inside the VAPA Center.

In 2021, a cooperative of diverse artists including BLKMRKTCLT, Jazz Arts Charlotte, McColl Center and more worked with Mecklenburg County to transform an underutilized county building, the former Hal Marshall Center, into the VAPA Center. 

Located on North Tryon Street, the VAPA Center currently features five galleries, theaters, rehearsal space, practice space and art studios for individual artists. Nine Eighteen Nine has 8,000 square feet of gallery space at the VAPA Center, plus an event venue, classrooms, a wood shop and a print shop.

The gallery is also home to nine studios that will host artists participating in The Palette Table, a “roundtable” group Rogers founded in 2016 with a mission to provide information and increased opportunities for artists of color through mentoring, skills training, administrative support and networking. 

Rogers originally ran The Palette Table out of a 4,000-square-foot home-turned-gallery near Mint Hill. The additional space inside the new VAPA Center location will allow for more collaboration and access to artists with strong messages like Miles.

It is Rogers’ goal that America Gentrified presents people with a new perspective on the impacts of gentrification, not just in Charlotte but in cities like it across the country.

And hopefully, through art, the message will sink in.

“You’re not writing. You’re not screaming in someone’s face. You’re putting your art out there for people to see and I think people respond faster, or more comfortably, to art than they do other forms,” Rogers said. “It’s a louder, but softer voice.”

Documenting a forgotten era

Tucked away into a corner of University City in northeast Charlotte, off an unassuming side road that connects to the busy Mallard Creek Church Road, sits a building that is somewhere near its 100th birthday. 

Its rich history is unbeknownst to almost all of the thousands of people who drive near it every day, or the hundreds who live in the Mallard Glen apartment complex that overlooks it. 

For five years now, staff at the Charlotte Museum of History has been leading an effort to restore and relocate the Siloam School, a wooden structure that, beginning in the 1920s, hosted African-American students ranging from first to seventh grade.

In that time, the Save Siloam School Project has raised more than $660,000 toward its $1-million goal – along with an immeasurable amount of awareness around the history of the school.

Yet to those not in local government, philanthropy, education or journalism circles, the words “Siloam School” may ring a bell but rarely garner any real acknowledgement. A new historic photo exhibit that opens Feb. 5 at Charlotte Museum of History will give the full context around the Rosenwald era, which helped inspire the construction of Siloam School sometime in the early 1920s. 

Based on the book by photographer Andrew Feiler, A Better Life for Their Children tells the story of one of the most significant moments in the history of education in the rural South: the ambitious Rosenwald Schools program, launched by educator Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck & Company.

Former Rosenwald School student and teacher Ellie J. Dahmer
Former Rosenwald School student and teacher Ellie J. Dahmer, widow of slain civil rights leader Vernon F. Dahmer Sr. (Photo by Andrew Feiler)

Of the nearly 5,000 schools built for Black children with the support of the Rosenwald Fund, only about 500 survive today, and many of those are threatened by decay and neglect. 

A photographer and fifth-generation Jewish Georgian, Feiler drove more than 25,000 miles across the South to document the fragile history of Rosenwald schools. 

Along the way, he interviewed former Rosenwald School students and teachers, as well as preservationists and community leaders. 

Pleasant Plains School in Hertford County, North Carolina
Pleasant Plains School in Hertford County, North Carolina 1920-1950 (Photo by Andrew Feiler)

That work became A Better Life for Their Children, a book of photographs, stories and essays published in early 2021, then inspired the accompanying photo exhibit. 

“We often see America’s challenges as intractable, especially those related to race,” Feiler said. “Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald reached across divides of race, religion and region, and they changed this nation. Their accomplishment still speaks to us today, showing that individual actions matter.”

While the Siloam School was designed using the Rosenwald plan, there are no records indicating that the school received Rosenwald funds. 

It is likely that the local Black farming community in the Mallard Creek area raised money for the school and donated time and labor to build it.

In 1890, African Americans in what would become University City began fighting for control of their schools. A petition by the “Colored Citizens of Mallard Creek” was brought before the Mecklenburg County Board of Education calling on the board to appoint a “committee of colored men to look after the interests of the colored school in said district,” adding that “the present committee of white men fail to take that interest in the welfare of their school.”

In 1903, the board purchased a one-acre lot on John Adams Road, then made of dirt. The lot would become the site of Siloam School.

Despite not being officially considered a Rosenwald School, staff at the Charlotte Museum of History and other advocates hope the photo exhibit will highlight the importance of preserving historic educational landmarks like Siloam School. The relevance doesn’t stop there. 

“A Better Life for Their Children offers us the opportunity to explore the history of education in Charlotte and across the South,” said Fannie Flono, Charlotte Museum of History trustee and chair of the museum’s Save Siloam School Project. “This history has never been more relevant, as our city and county work to improve equality and opportunity. The Rosenwald Schools story can help us understand how we got here and how we move forward.”

The photo exhibit will open Feb. 5 and run through June 18, included in museum admission. A free community day to celebrate the opening is planned for Feb. 26, as part of the museum’s annual African American Heritage Festival.

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