During the last week of January, 2014, Lycoming College Commercial Design students and members of the Williamsport African-American community had the opportunity to work with Visiting Artist Stephen Marc and art professors Lynn Estomin and Michael Darough on a community history project. Stephen Marc is a storyteller who uses photography to construct a visual interpretation of more than 500 years of African American life, history and culture. Members of the local community contributed stories, memories, photographs and artifacts to create a series of digital montages documenting aspects of their family and/or community history. Community members were paired with design students to create visual representations of their histories. The result was a unique series of digital montage prints that were on exhibit at the James V. Brown Public Library in Williamsport from March 13 through April 25, 2014.
Community participants were Sam Belle, Rahmin DeVaughn, Twila Dodds, Lucille Evans, Velna Grimes, Vanessa Hunter, Linda Jackson, Richard James, Curley Jett, Jane Luther, and Curtis Ousley. Visiting artist Stephen Marc created a memorial montage for Mamie Sweeting Diggs. Design students participating in the project were Sara Anthony, Ethan Bierly, Sifa Blackmon, Megan Brad, Kelly Ciesla, Chris Connolly, Kristi Costantino, Stephanie Engle, Lauren Karol, Briana Riddick, Jessica Schote, Amaraja Sholder.
Click on each community participants name to learn more about each montage image.
Sam Belle included sporting images to illustrate the time when the black athlete became prominent in the high school scene.
There are photos of Sam in this Bethune baseball uniform because Williamsport High School did not have a baseball team at that time. Sam has spent years on the Center’s board (the former Bethune- Douglass Center) since the 1960s and he enjoys working with students.
Sam was interested in the Center because his grandmother was president of the board, his mother was a member of the board and his aunt was a summer playground supervisor.
The group of small children at the bottom left of the page is Sam and his kindergarten classmates – they were the first class at the Bethune-Douglass Center in the late 1930s.
Her pieces combine images of her late mother, Thelma Clipper, her great-great-grandfather, Thomas Hughes, her great-uncle, Nathaniel Morgan and other family and neighborhood photographs.
Her first image features Thomas Hughes, the first African-American police officer in Williamsport, sho was the first Williamsport police officer to die from injuries received in the line of duty. Because he died several days after the attack from injuries he sustained, he was not considered as having died in the line of duty. Lucille and her family researched the incident and presented sufficient evidence to give Hughes the appropriate distinction in 2003 – 97 years later.
In the second piece, the soldier in the uniform is her great-uncle, Nathaniel Morgan, who served in the Union Army. He came back to Williamsport where he was a preacher.
Curley Jett’s image focuses on his career in the Williamsport Bureau of Police. As the first black chief in the department’s history, Curley served for 27 years before being promoted. He was with the force from 1973-2001.
The photo in the center is Curley in his dress uniform and the image superimposed in the background is of his wife pinning his chief insignias on his collar. The signatures on the sides of the image were gathered at his retirement party by members of the police force.
Now, Curley spends his time on the CAPPA (Community Alliance for Progressive Positive Action) board and ministering with Love Unlimited Ministries. Curley also was a former president of the Bethune-Douglass Center Board of Directors.
Velna and Linda focused on the historical significance of The Center in their piece. The idea of a black community center originated in 1916 as a result of discrimination of the local YWCA when a young black girl was unable to participate in a Girl Scout troop there.
“It started from nothing and sustained for decades,” Linda said, recalling the days when there was a “colored YWCA” and a “white YWCA” in the community. Even though The Center’s building has been sold, the organization still continues to provide a service to the community. The Center began as the Walnut Street Home and then became the Park Avenue Home, the Campbell Street Home and the Bethune-Douglass Center. Now, The Center program operates out of Trinity Church.
“It’s Williamsport’s history and it should be told,” Velma said.
Rahmin DeVaughn, a student at Williamsport Area High School, carries on his family tradition of community involvement by tutoring younger children at CAPPA.
Vanessa Hunter’s image features images of the home where she was born and raised and the matriarchs of her family that were very influential – her mother, her grandmother and her aunt.
At the bottom right of the image is the inscription, “A Celebration of Aliveness,” which was inspired by her good friend, the late Marguerite Bierman. “She celebrated her life and I wanted to bring that celebration of life into my image. She’s not here anymore, just like some of the women in the photo, but it’s a good message to embrace your life.”
Richard James dedicated his piece to the memory of James “Boomer” Robinson, who died Jan. 12, 2014, as the result of a fiery crash with a city police cruiser that was going 88 mph along East Third Street.
The accident shocked the black community, as Boomer was just a nice guy on his way to work and in the wrong place at the wrong time. Richard wanted his piece to focus on the loss of an average guy and keep his memory alive. “His death has become part of Williamsport’s history now.”
This is a tribute to local historian the late Mamie Sweeting Diggs by visiting artist Stephen Marc.
Mamie Sweeting Diggs was a self-taught historian whose dedicated pursuit of her family’s story and other aspects of how people in this area aided runaway slaves in the pre-Civil War era led to an honorary doctorate from Lycoming College.
“Dr. Diggs,” as she was respectfully and fondly called by friends and family, was a direct descendant of Daniel and Annie Hughes, the former an Underground Railroad conductor who led escaped slaves up the Susquehanna River to safe houses in the area, including his homestead on Freedom Road. As the teller of her family’s story, Diggs was generous with her time and spoke both locally and outside the area for many years.
Twila Dodds, a freshman at Williamsport Area High School, included images from several generations of her family.
Twila was adopted, so she focused on her birth and adoptive families and the businesses they’ve owned in the community.
Her goal was to highlight the importance of family.
Williamsport Area High School student Curtis Ousley’s image includes people and family who are important to him.
Jane Luther, of Jersey Shore, included images of her family members Bishop Joseph P. Thompson and Cathrine Thompson, set among a large family reunion portrait.
Bishop Thompson was a runaway slave who came to Williamsport when he was 16 years old in 1834. He was “sponsored” by Cathrine Gilchrist’s father and he eventually married Cathrine.
The family photo was taken in 1929 or 1930 and includes her great-great-grandfather Joseph Bryan of Jersey Shore, along with her mother, aunts and uncles.
Thanks to her research with Mary Sieminski, of the Lycoming County Women’s History Project, she learned more about her family and distant relative Julia Collins, whose novel was the first published by an African-American woman.