Artists celebrate start of Black History Month


CW/ Joesph Field

Desi Gillespie, Staff Reporter

Among all the works that have been displayed over the years, several plywood boards hang humbly on the wall of The Arts Council Gallery. These are mud paintings by Bernard Wright, the protege of folk artist Jimmy Lee Sudduth. The earthen paints of grass, clay and berries form the thoughtful figure of Martin Luther King Jr. against the wood.

“To me, the arts and black history go hand in hand,” Wright said. “Jimmy Lee [Sudduth] taught me how to do everything with my art, and if he was still living, he would be here today. He and our old folks teach us how to represent black history. … I already had two pictures of Dr. King and a maid when I got the call they were doing this exhibit.”

Artists and community members visited downtown Tuscaloosa for The Arts Council’s monthly event, First Friday. The night featured several performances from the Tuscaloosa Children’s Theatre, Alabama Blues Project and Theatre Tuscaloosa.

This First Friday highlighted the rich history of African-Americans in the arts. The Arts Council Gallery, dedicated to Black History Month, honored local artists including Yvonne Wells and LaShonda Scott Robinson.

One of the quilts in Wells’ series, “Men of Movement,” depicted King singing while flanked by two protesters. The quilt had a purple border and a purple cross, representative of Christ, to signify King’s pastoral career, Wells said. A mountain was also stitched into the background of the portrait, symbolizing King’s famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon.

“At that time, there was a lot of singing songs, sometimes to tell stories and sometimes to make the moments go faster,” Wells said. “‘We Shall Overcome’ is a song that I imagine he was singing at the time. He was about love for people, for mankind – not just for black or white, but for all the downtrodden people.”

The Alabama Blues Project, an educational organization dedicated to preserving the heritage of blues music, was one of several groups to perform for First Friday. They were represented by instructor Russell Crowe and executive director of school programs Brenda “B.J.” Reed. The two took to the black box theater on guitar and vocals, respectively, and presented a model lesson to demonstrate the teaching they do in local schools.

“Throughout its history, Alabama was one of the major states where blacks were brought from Africa,” Reed said. “Black History Month is important to understanding where we came from. It’s not just a black thing. People need to take at least one day of this month to learn something new about black history in the nation.”

Instructors for the Alabama Blues Project teach history along with music lessons. Students at area schools grow not only in musical skill, but also in an appreciation for the origins of the blues.

“Most all modern musics stem from traditional music from Africa,” Crowe said. “You can’t pick up a record today without hearing the influence of African-Americans and their music… even the ‘backbeat of the blues,’ emphasizing beats on the two and four, every record from the 50s onward has that rhythmic pattern. The influences are so commonplace that we don’t even recognize where they came from, so it’s a huge impact, musically and culturally.”

Theatre Tuscaloosa also celebrated African-American history with a preview of their upcoming show, “Crowns.” A gospel musical, the story traces back the tradition of church hats, being influenced by slavery, African rituals and the New Testament.

“This story is about reminding people of the true history behind everything,” said “Crowns” actor and UA senior musical theatre major LaBorn Brown. “If you look back at old photos of African-American women going to church, people would look at the hats and think it was just the style. But these hats have a meaning, there’s a story to every hat, and I think this show does a good job of saying that these hats were symbols of the people who wore them.”

With an emphasis on history and progress, the First Friday kickoff to Black History Month drew diverse crowds of students and members of community, but the month is just getting started.

Design Box: ?

The Arts Council Gallery’s Black History Month Exhibition will be on display through Feb. 25. The University of Alabama will also be holding a range of events throughout February.

Historical tours, movie nights and campus dialogues are being sponsored by several campus organizations. For a calendar visit

For more information on First Fridays, visit

“Crowns,” presented by Theatre Tuscaloosa, premieres Feb. 15 in the Bean-Brown Theatre on Shelton State’s campus. Tickets are available at