When his sons were still in school, Macon artist Charvis Harrell says he was always frustrated by the lack of Black history in their history classes.
“You know, it's just pick cotton and Martin Luther King,” Harrell said. “In between that time nothing else ever happened, you know?”
Which Harrell knew wasn't true. So he made art inspired by overlooked history to keep around the house. The idea was to get his sons thinking, talking and questioning.
In his show “Monuments For Heroes Which Have None” at the Mill Hill Community Center in Macon, Harrell does the same thing for the rest of us.
Harrell said he was put on this path when he was in school and got assigned a report on Paul Robeson, who at the time he’d never heard of.
“When I was in eighth grade and this was like 1988 before the Internet,” Harrell remembered.
“So I went home. This was like on a Friday. We had to stand in class and read the report in class on Monday.”
He couldn’t find anything about Robeson for the report, so since then he’s become a self- proclaimed Robeson super fan. His show has two paintings of the singer, actor and activist who was black listed as a Communist in the 1950s. One is of Robeson as a young football player. The other is of Robeson in his role as the despotic ruler of a Caribbean nation in the film Emperor Jones.
Harrell says he’s working now to recognize more women than he has in the past, women like Claudette Colvin.
“She was the 15-year-old girl who got arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the Montgomery bus, like about nine months before Rosa Parks," Harrell said. “But because she was a 15-year-old pregnant girl, and the aesthetics with something like that, the movement didn’t really want to get behind it.”
So Rosa Parks was handpicked to get arrested sometime after Colvin, making Parks the name we all know. In addition to Colvin there is journalist Ida B. Wells, presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm and Civil Rights activist Gloria Richardson.
The history in the painting Harrell is working on now is closer to home. It depicts a pair of soldiers in what Harrell calls the Camp Haskell uprising.
Camp Haskell was an encampment of black militia stationed in Macon during the Spanish American War at the the end of the 19th century. The soldiers were from places north of Georgia where Jim Crow laws were not as severe. When they got to town, they learned about a tree beloved by white townspeople. The tree had been used for at least one lynching.
“And it was a tree in town where they hung Willie Singleton at,” Harrell said. “So when the soldiers got off the train they heard about this tree and got some axes and they chopped that tree down.”
That set the stage for violence. Later a soldier named Elijah Turner was shot and killed for not giving up his seat at the front of a trolley car. Nowhere in Macon are there monuments to either the lynching tree or to Turner’s death.
It’s just another reason why Charvis Harrell paints.
Harrell’s “Monuments For Heroes Which Have None” can be seen at the Mill Hill Community Center at 213 Clinton St. in Macon until December 28.