In a small, dark, interior room within the historic Ritz Theatre & Museum, an elementary school teacher — standing with one hand in the air, the other with an index finger raised at her lips — is trying to gain the attention of her students, who, having just been seated in rows of chairs in front of a blank screen, are, like most kids their age, having trouble sitting still. School groups are fairly common at the Ritz Museum, which houses historically significant remnants of Jacksonville’s predominantly African-American neighborhood of LaVilla.
The room finally falls silent and the screen lifts to reveal an animatronic African-American man dressed in period clothing of the late 1800s — a tan wool blazer, pressed white shirt, and a brown tie. The students learn that the robot portrays James Weldon Johnson, principal of what was then the Edwin M. Stanton School, and he has been working on a poem. James is joined shortly thereafter by his equally well-dressed brother, John Rosamond Johnson, who helps him adapt the poem into a song.
The short re-enactment lets students visualize a historic moment of great national and cultural importance. The now-calm children, paying rapt attention, learn that the song was first performed in 1900 by a group of youngsters just like them. Written in LaVilla by two of the neighborhood’s most famous residents, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” became one of the most cherished songs during the Civil Rights Movement.
The Johnson brothers, however, are just two on a long list of creative and successful residents of LaVilla which, during its heyday, was known as the Harlem of the South. With no architectural footprint, the students’ exposure to this animatronic reenactment and the Ritz Museum’s collection represents one of the few opportunities they’ll have to connect with the history of what may well be Northeast Florida’s most important contribution to the story of America.
As a child, Jacksonville-based artist Princess Simpson Rashid attended predominantly African-American schools in Atlanta and then in New Jersey. She says her classes would sing “Lift Ev’ry Voice” at least once a week, often more.
“We sang that song almost as much as we said the Pledge of Allegiance,” she says. “It was a very significant part of my youth.”
Rashid has studied the history of LaVilla and her artwork has been featured in several shows at the Ritz Museum, including an installation about two years ago celebrating the life of James Weldon Johnson.
Johnson’s lyrics — while heavy on optimism — speak to challenge and hope, frustration and fear, freedom and struggle. The history of Jacksonville’s African-American community since the first performance of “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” specifically within the LaVilla neighborhood — a community risen from necessity within a segregated Southern city — is quite complex. And it’ll be some time before the group of school children visiting the Ritz Museum will be able to grasp why black people needed a separate community in the first place. Or why, after segregation ended, urban planners decided to drop Interstate 95 right through the heart of the neighborhood. Or why the city turned a blind eye as crack cocaine (and the ramped-up War on Drugs) wrought havoc on the families who remained after many had fled, LaVilla’s historic buildings crumbling all the while.
That complicated history — of progress born from struggle and often mired in tragedy — is explored through the works of 10 artists (Thony Aiuppy, Glendia Cooper, Ingrid Damiani, Overstreet Ducasse, Dustin Harewood, Marsha Hatcher, Hiromi Moneyhun, Princess Simpson Rashid, Chip Southworth, and Roosevelt Watson III) displayed in a new, compelling exhibition opening at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens on June 14. LIFT: Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience using Johnson’s lyrics as inspiration and co-curated by the Cummer and the Ritz Theatre, is intended to be a platform to discuss the region’s complex history regarding issues of race, equity, and community.
Education, as a theme, flows heavily through many of the pieces included in LIFT. Though she typically depicts colorful, abstract-expressionistic scenes, Rashid’s piece Stanton Lines will be familiar to anyone who has ever posed for such a photograph. After filing out into the muggy, late-spring morning, a group of students and teachers assemble, standing on tippy-toes, straddling the steps of the building’s exterior staircase, or hanging over its railing, while an administrator — tasked with organizing the all-school photograph — directs traffic, asking everyone to ensure their faces are visible to the camera.
In illustrating such a moment, Rashid has filled her canvass with abstractions and spherical motifs. There are collage elements incorporating African sculpture. The words “Education” and “Freedman” appear like modern spray tags on the railings of the staircases, which cut diagonally across the piece. The face of James Weldon Johnson peeks out from several spots on the canvas. Most notably, the heads of the individuals posing for the portrait (dressed in period clothing from the late 1800s) are faceless.
“The idea is that these people could be anybody. You, me, any of us,” Rashid says of Stanton Lines, which is being donated to the LIFT exhibition by local collector Richard Shafer.
Rashid has transformed a seemingly mundane episode in the lives of a group of African Americans living in the South into a powerful reflection on equality and progress. Education was seen then, just as it is now, as one of the great equalizers in an inequitable society.
“The piece is set in a specific period of time, but I wanted to make it clear that the importance of the moment is relevant today. We are still struggling with the same issues,” Rashid says.
In creating Stanton Lines, Rashid drew inspiration from months spent digging through Florida Historical Society archives. She says she sought to portray the Stanton Preparatory School (founded in the 1860s) as it might have been during the Reconstruction Era, a period of American history she finds particularly interesting.
“A lot of people focus on the Civil Rights era or slavery,” Rashid says. “But that 10-year window [reconstruction era], where the country was really trying to live up to its ideals, is what had always interested me.”
“It was such a brief time,” she says of the period that followed the Civil War. “We had black senators and representatives. But, on a smaller level, there was a focus on building up these communities. And education was a big part of that. Stanton Prep was manifested from those values.”
Rashid has nearly a dozen more pieces in the exhibition, exploring her responses to a broad range of historic and current events, including the 2015 case of Sandra Bland, a black woman who died after she was taken into police custody following a routine traffic stop.
Overstreet Ducasse has never been afraid to use art as a means of highlighting and addressing hard truths. Nearly every piece in his provocative Targets series — in which Ducasse transposes the countenance of significant historical or cultural figures onto targets one might find at a gun range, then filling the compositions with sometimes-cryptic imagery and ironic references — explores a controversial topic, from the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. to the shooting death of an unarmed Trayvon Martin.
Ducasse has explored his connections to James Weldon Johnson in the past and decided that for LIFT, he would use his and Johnson’s shared reverence for music as a jumping-off point.
“Music is what inspired me to be an artist to begin with,” says Ducasse. “It’s had a huge impact on my consciousness.”
As an immigrant, the Haitian-born artist says his experiences as a black person in America were unconventional, including encountering prejudice in the African-American communities in which he lived. “There was a lot of fear and ignorance,” Ducasse says of his mistreatment at the hands of classmates and neighbors. “Ignorance doesn’t have to last your whole life, though — that kind of thing can be changed just through two people hanging around each other.”
Ducasse says he often found refuge in the music of the Wu-Tang Clan. The popular ’90s hip-hop group filled its ranks with idiosyncratic characters, many of them with mythological backstories that combined New York street culture and Kung-Fu cinema. As a budding young artist, Ducasse undertook a character study of each Wu-Tang clansman.
“They were just such individuals, all with their own unique personalities,” he says of the original nine members. “They really proved to me that you could be an original person.”
Inspired by a line from Wu-Tang’s “Protect Ya Neck,” in which GZA begins his verse with the line, “Run on the track like Jesse Owens,” the targets featured in LIFT playfully use the divergent definitions of the homonym “race” — one of competition and one of common characteristics — to scrutinize white privilege.
Ducasse rendered one target of Jesse Owens to look like a credit card, including numbers and an expiration date. The card carries the label: “You are not my Master Card.”
“Don’t run home without it,” Ducasse laughs, discussing his piece titled The Race Card.
While he says the topics he and other artists are exploring through LIFT are important, he stops short of saying they’re timely subjects.
“Honestly, we’ve all been dealing with this stuff through our art for years,” he says. Ducasse thinks showcasing his and other likeminded artists’ works at an institution as renowned as the Cummer will help bring the subject matter to a broader audience.
From highlighting the works of noted Harlem Renaissance sculptor and Northeast Florida native Augusta Savage, to last year’s Whitfield Lovell multimedia installation Deep River, the Cummer has consistently featured art that seeks to tell lesser-known stories.
“Art, aside from being beautiful, can be a lens to explore topics that are complicated or hard to talk about,” says Hope McMath, the Cummer’s museum director.
The first four decades of the 20th century represent what may be the most artistically fertile period in Northeast Florida’s history and much of that output took place within LaVilla, McMath explains.
“It was an incredible hub of creativity,” she says. “Yet, it’s a history that most people aren’t exposed to. I’m from here. And that certainly wasn’t a history I was being taught as a young person.”
That missed opportunity is why McMath says it’s important that the Cummer plays a role in sharing these untold stories. “The fact that the genesis of this song took place less than a mile from where [the Cummer] stands today, in a place that was a burgeoning cultural center that embraced diversity in all its forms, points to the way things could be.”
McMath says LIFT explores parallels between the history of the song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” and the struggles that continue to this day.
“The lyrics to the song remain incredibly relevant,” says McMath.
Acting as a conduit for the message the Johnson brothers wrote about was a task that artist Dustin Harewood admits he approached with some hesitation. The Florida State College at Jacksonville art professor, who spent much of his youth in the Northeast and went to high school in Barbados, says that though he was familiar with the song, he didn’t feel he was as connected with it as he imagined other artists to be.
“The song is so powerful and filled with so much reverence,” Harewood says. “I don’t often see my work carrying that same kind of weight. It was overwhelming. So I wondered, how do I honor the song, but at the same time be who I am as an artist?”
To remedy the situation, Harewood spent months reading and then revisiting the lyrics of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” honing and sharpening any initial stimulus that popped into his head.
“As I was reading through it, three lines kept jumping out at me,” he says.
Out from the gloomy past
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is now cast.
Harewood says he feels these words speak to the ascension of African Americans since the song was written. The phrases inspired a series of abstract paintings, each begun with “[brush] strokes that were more dark or had more angst,” which he painted “over with more intentional, brighter patterns,” before adding more layers in a similar fashion.
“The idea is working your way out of a past,” says Harewood. “I think you can look around today and see evidence of progress, despite the psychological scars of our past. The president is black, of course, and that can’t be discounted, but in everything from music to art to business, African Americans are achieving mainstream success.”
At the same time, Harewood says, “There are a lot of ghosts here, in Jacksonville.”
For other pieces in the exhibit, Harewood drew from his initial experiences as a newcomer to the city, when he says he had a visceral sensation he describes as “the first time I could really feel the Deep South.”
“When you look at the neighborhoods around Jacksonville and where the poverty is concentrated,” he says, “the disparities are as plain as they’ve ever been.”
Traveling around Northeast Florida for her work, photographer Ingrid Damiani says she has become familiar with a vast majority of Jacksonville’s sprawl.
“I work in a lot of different neighborhoods,” Damiani says. “As I got to see more and more of the city, photographing in places like under-served schools, for example, the divide between people — economically, opportunity-wise — just became increasingly upsetting, to me.”
“I’m not an introvert and not typically an activist,” says Damiani. “But I just kept thinking how much I wished I could do something photographically that could address what I was feeling and thinking about.”
Using James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography Along This Way as a reference, Damiani spent countless hours walking the formerly bustling Ashley, Davis, and Jefferson streets on the edges of Downtown Jacksonville.
For her series of photographs featured in LIFT, Damiani incorporated relatives of former LaVilla residents, prominent cultural figures, and some of the few architectural remnants of the once-grand neighborhood in an effort to highlight the values, ideals, and important aspects of daily life in that section of the town.
In one photograph, local hip-hop artist Mal Jones sits alone, in a small folding chair in front of the brick shell of the former Genovar’s Hall, a once-iconic music venue where both Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong performed. The building, on the corner of Ashley and Jefferson, was one piece of a cultural hub that included the Strand Theater. Genovar’s has been abandoned since the 1980s.
Damiani says when she learned about the history of Genovar’s Hall, she tried to picture it as it once was. As a portrait artist, she wanted to be able to see people in the space.
“I was thinking about Mal [Jones], who is a great musician and activist, and was trying to picture him performing there.”
Using historical records and blueprints from the city, Damiani staged four more portraits in and around significant LaVilla landmarks.
“One of the things I was thinking about, with these pieces, was, ‘How do we preserve or destroy our history?’” Damiani says.
Education, religion, music, and activism were themes that Damiani says kept jumping out at her while she conducted her research, which included conversations with ministers, educators, activists and other leaders from the city’s African-American communities. Another theme was struggle, which Damiani says, after being hesitant to address, she was encouraged to include in her work.
“I was talking to one prominent minister in town,” Damiani recalls. “He said the song ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ really deals with the blood, the tears, the struggle, and the hardship.”
As a white woman, Damiani says, the project opened up the door for her to have conversations that she previously hadn’t felt comfortable having.
“The show is about the African-American experience, and so it took me a long time to figure out my role in it,” Damiani admits. “The whole time, I’m trying to understand things that are difficult to talk about and exhausting for others to explain. But it’s an ongoing process.”
Ultimately, the goal of the LIFT exhibition is for audiences to engage in a similar process — both the internal dialogue and external interactions that Damiani describes. Such conversations are at the heart of the founding of the Ritz Theatre & Museum, where the exhibit Through Our Eyes, imagined by Ritz’s founding curator Lydia Stewart, began looking at the intersections between art and social change.
McMath says LIFT is a continuation of those conversations.
“It’s a platform for convening groups of people to talk about our progress, our challenges, our aspirations as community,” McMath says. “Because of that, we chose artists who present multiple viewpoints and a broad range of experiences.”
By asking contemporary artists living in the place where “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” was written to funnel the words of the song through their own experiences and perspectives, McMath says, the exhibition is a microcosm of a broader common history. “We wanted to engage our local artists so that they could be the lens,” McMath says. “They are the truth-tellers.”