On this Fourth of July, a group of Easton artists celebrate the lives while mourning the violent deaths of African-Americans who, while citizens of the United States, have been and, as we see from recent atrocities, still are treated as second-class citizens.
When Nancy Tankersley and her family attended a May 30 Black Lives Matter rally along Marlboro Avenue in Easton she said she was “overcome by a young African-American woman who was so sincere, so appreciative as she drove by reading all the signs and shouting out her thanks. Her graciousness in the face of all that has happened within black communities shamed me. All I had done was stand there for an hour of my life while we waved signs and chanted. It woke me up to the realization that we all need to do more.”
As Tankersley is a painter, a professional artist and teacher of art, her natural inclination, her best means of demonstrating support was to organize an art show relevant to this cause. The featured artist of the Waterfowl Festival and one of the co-founders of the Plein Air Festival brought together 25 artists who work and live in and around Easton for an “Artists for Justice” exhibit outdoors. Each artist chose to paint a portrait of a particular African-American who lost his or her life due to systemic racism in the United States. Not all were victims of police violence as in the case of George Floyd whose murder by neck compression—a chokehold by knee—sparked the current international groundswell of street protests and social media condemnation. Justice in the wake of their deaths, whether at the hands of police or vigilantes, failed all of them.
Tankersley reached out to artists who she has mentored in her Easton studio along with other downtown artists. The show, which runs from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, the Fourth of July, was conceived by a white artist and painted by white artists. As such, Tankersley sees it as “an apology for being silent for so long. Of the hundreds of artists, I have taught, I can count on one hand the number of black students. I want to rectify that.” Meanwhile, she says, “This is a learning experience for us to get to know these people who were murdered.” To that end, all of those attending can pick up a booklet containing the stories behind each portrait. She hopes it will be seen as an invitation for a wider audience of artists of “all colors, ages and ability to participate. . . .”
The show will be held at 11 Aurora St. on the edge of Easton’s Arts and Entertainment District and adjacent to the historic Hill neighborhood that has been home to free African-Americans since long before the Emancipation Proclamation. The art will be displayed on a wooden fence next to the renovated former home of Atelier 11, which will soon become the home of Tankersley and her husband Carl as well as the site of her new studio.
Tankersley contributed two portraits to the show “to even it out’’—to 26—one for each of the other artists. One by Tankersley is of Michael Brown who shooting death in a confrontation with a Ferguson, Mo. police officer spurred the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014. The other is of Hattie Carroll who in 1963 was killed in Baltimore by a drunken, racist brute from Charles County who assaulted employees at the Eager House restaurant before moving on to the Emerson Hotel for more drinks. After ordering a bourbon, Billy Zantzinger beat Carroll, a barmaid and mother of nine, on the shoulder, neck and head with a cane and called her vile names because, he complained, she took too long to deliver his booze. When his wife complained he struck her with the cane, too. Carroll died of a brain hemorrhage a few hours later.
Her death was immortalized a year later by Bob Dylan in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” on his “Times They Are a-Changin’ ‘’ album. (Apparently, the times haven’t changed enough.) Dylan wrote in part:
But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears,
Take the rag away from your face, now ain’t the time for
A year earlier, Dylan wrote “The Death of Emmett Till.” A Chicago teenager, Till was visiting cousins in Mississippi when may have wolf-whistled a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, in a grocery store. Her husband, Roy, heard about it and accompanied by his half-brother J.W. Millam abducted Till from his great-aunt’s house. They threw him in a truck, pistol-whipped him along the way and finished beating Till to death in a barn. They threw his body into the Tallahatchie River. It was recovered, bloated and disfigured in time for a trial in which the Bryant and Millam were acquitted by an all-white male jury. One year later, Bryant and Millam gave an interview with Look magazine in which they freely confessed to the murder knowing that double jeopardy shielded them. Till’s body was returned to Chicago where his mother insisted on an open casket at her son’s funeral. The story, plus photos of the body, became a sensation when published in black-oriented Jet magazine. Till’s murder in 1955 is widely marked as a catalyst of the modern civil rights movement.
This song is just a reminder to remind your fellow man
That this kind of thing still lives today in that
ghost-robed Ku Klux Klan.
But if all us folks that think alike, if we gave all we could give,
We could make this great land of ours a greater place to live.
Besides these historical references represented in “Artists for Justice” are those that are on the front burner of the current Black Live Matter movement. Among these
are Breonna Taylor, the Louisville, Ky., EMT worker shot to death in her own bed during a no-knock police raid in search of a drug dealer who, if they checked, was already in custody. Fearing a home invasion, Taylor’s boyfriend shot at the invaders, not knowing they were cops. In their return fire, the police raiders shot Taylor 10 times. Her portrait was painted by Joan Hart.
Another from this year is Ahmaud Arbery, murdered by armed neighborhood vigilantes in Georgia who say they suspected him of what? Speeding while jogging? No, it was jogging while black in their white enclave. Travis McMichael and his father Gregory followed Arbery in a pickup truck while they were just hatefully stupid enough to have the murder recorded on video by a trailing car driven by Roddie Bryan. Police waited months before charging the vigilantes, waiting until after the video surfaced. Arbery’s portrait was painted by Rhonda Ford.
Other portraits include that of Freddie Gray whose death in police custody erupted in violence in Baltimore in 2015. That painting is by Mary Ellen Mabe. The George Floyd painting is by Sara Linda Poly. Portraits of two other recent victims of police violence—Raynard Brooks, shot in the back in Atlanta after being found sleeping in his car, and Elijah McClain, who died after being stopped for wearing a ski mask, wrestled to the ground in chokehold and injected with a tranquilizer—are by Kathie Rogers and Maggie Sarfaty, respectively.
While the show is open for just the Fourth, Tankersley hopes to exhibit it in galleries or other locations in the area. “Maybe it could be part of a mini-movement,” she said.