Tuesday, February 27, 2024

CAM celebrates 60 years, opens first USCT Park to honor Black soldiers

LS3P rendering of the USCT Park that will open at Cameron Art Museum on Sunday. (Courtesy CAM)

WILMINGTON — Walk along the wooded area beside the Cameron Art Museum at dusk and a new illumination will light a path for reflection.

Lights dot the brush between tall pine trees near the 2,500-pound sculpture “Boundless,” created by Durham artist Stephen Hayes. Installed on Federal Point Road last year, the sculpture memorializes 11 men and one drummer boy on sandy soil — a place where 1,800 Black soldiers fought for their freedom more than 150 years ago in the United States Colored Troops.

READ MORE: US Colored Troops honored in ‘Boundless,’ bronze sculpture to be unveiled on CAM’s historic grounds

The historic site will be christened as the nation’s first USCT Park this weekend. CAM is hosting a community day Sunday, welcoming locals to explore the park and all museum exhibits for free. 

Roughly 250 feet from the museum’s front door, the park is situated where the Battle at Forks Road skirmish helped propel the fall of the Confederacy. Since 1980, local historian Chris Fonvielle has studied the grounds where CAM is located  — excavating earthworks, bullets, cannonball fragments, military uniform buttons, and other relics. 

“It convinced me a firefight had taken place there, but I found no documentary evidence to support the archaeological record,” Fonvielle said. 

He began focusing his studies on the battle, piecing together information and eventually giving it a new name. 

“Scarce Confederate correspondence from the battleground was postmarked Cross-Roads and Forks Road, as an intersection of the Federal Point Road. A byroad that ran toward the Cape Fear River stood about where you enter the Cameron Art Museum’s parking lot today,” he explained. “I thought the Battle of Forks Road had a nicer ring to it.”

Fonvielle wrote about his discoveries in 2007’s “Last Stand at Wilmington: The Battle of Forks Road.” He reworked the book three years ago to include the U.S. Colored Troops’ role in 2020’s “Last Stand into Glory at Wilmington: The Battle of Forks Road.” 

His research has compelled CAM staff for years to embrace the roots of its homeland. They have hosted living history days with reenactors, but this next step, scaling the USCT Park, documents that blood shed on the plot was not in vain. 

“Wilmington [was] the Confederacy’s most important city in the winter of 1865,” Fonvielle said. It was near the river and railroads, which allowed the military to receive necessary supplies.

“Some 3,300 U.S. Colored Troops led the Union army’s advance on the east side of the Cape Fear River after the Battle of Fort Fisher and suffered more than 50% of the army’s casualties,” Fonvielle said. “Their courage and sacrifice deserved to be recognized and honored —  I’m glad to have been a part in doing just that.” 

In the USCT Park, scattered seats surround “Boundless.” Even the metal used to erect them has a patina surface, to match the earthen pine straw falling beneath the tall Longleaf pines. Underneath, installed lights look like “candles in the night,” CAM deputy director Heather Wilson explained. “That’s how the park architect and CAM board member Charles Boney described them.”

The lights serve as an homage to the idea of troops marching, lanterns in hand to light the way, on their 17-mile trek from Fort Fisher to Federal Point Road, which took a month to reach. Wilson said it’s not just a reminder of freedom fought against all odds, but how it has laid the groundwork for those who continue in the fight for social justice today.

“It’s really beautiful — the way it’s so thought-out, down to the poetic lighting,” she said. “We wanted the sculpture to be surrounded by an educational space, a community space that continues to promote conversation, as well as offer contemplation.”

The park was designed pro-bono by LS3P. Board member Boney is vice president of the company. 

“The corten steel we used in the park will rust over time and stain the concrete bases, symbolic of the blood shed,” Boney said. “This project was one of passion for everyone at LS3P.”

The endeavor was a $250,000 undertaking for the museum, funded mainly by PNC Bank and donations from the community. CAM doesn’t receive money from state or local government entities. The museum campus remains a representation of community support over the museum’s 60 years in existence. 

As the arts institution prepares for the commemorative opening of the first park on Sunday, it’s also hosting a gala Saturday night to celebrate its six decades serving Wilmington. Attendees will see the park before it opens to the public.

Area performers will bring Claude Howell’s works to life during an upcoming event at Cameron Art Museum. Photo courtesy CAM.

CAM turns 60

A hundred years ago, artist Elizabeth Chant arrived in the Port City and began teaching classes on Cottage Lane downtown, between Dock and Orange streets. Two of her students were Claude Howell and Bruce Barclay Cameron Jr.

“Without those two, we would not be here,” Wilson said.

Howell is revered as one of Wilmington’s most recognizable artists, who left $800,000 to CAM when he died in 1997. His endowment continues to fund the acquisition of works created by North Carolina artists. 

At the time of his death, the art museum was operating as St. John’s Museum of Art on Orange Street. It was first founded in 1962 by a group of volunteers as a gallery but became accredited as a museum a decade later. The space was celebrated for its recognition of North Carolina artists, including Howell, who already had connections to the building the museum was first housed in.

The English Georgian-style brick structure, constructed in the early 1800s, was home to the St. John’s chapter of the Masons. By the 1950s, it operated as a restaurant. During renovations, Howell helped restore what’s now considered the oldest mural in North Carolina and can be seen today in the Children’s Museum of Wilmington, located on the former St. John’s campus.

Louise Wells Cameron volunteered at St. John’s museum and her husband, Bruce B. Cameron, served on its board of directors, along with Howell.

By the end of the ‘90s, the museum needed to expand as it had outgrown its Orange Street home, despite purchasing adjacent properties to add another art wing, classrooms and studios.

A drive for a new facility began in 1997, when the Bruce B. Cameron Foundation started a $4 million endowment campaign to help fund the museum’s advancement into the new millennium. The board of directors voted to name it the Louise Wells Cameron Art Museum.

So far in 2022, CAM has welcomed upward of 60,000 guests; it’s also continuing its promise to embrace talent across the Tar Heel State. CAM’s permanent collection is more than  3,000 deep and growing, especially with recent gifts by two North Carolina families — collectors who will turn over their catalog of art to CAM.

“Promise” opens this weekend, showcasing the works owned by Glen and Florence Hardymon of Lake Norman and Andrew and Hathia Hayes of Wilmington, the latter of whom taught at UNCW.

“The Hayes are lifelong educators and art collectors who moved to Wilmington in 1976 and started going to St. John’s,” Wilson said. “Andy has served as interim director of the museum twice.” 

The art the two families are donating include glasswork from Rick Beck, who taught at Penland School of Art in Spruce Pine, a small town tucked in mountainous Mitchell County, paintings by Greensboro portraiture artist Beverly McIver, works by painter Yanceyville Maud Gatewood, and pottery created by Wilmington ceramicist Hiroshi Sueyoshi — who taught at CAM for years.

Also included in the collections are nationally revered paintings by pop artist Robert Rauschenberg and abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell.

The donations from the Hardymons and Hayes add over 100 pieces to CAM’s permanent collection.

“It’s all about relationships at CAM,” Wilson said. “Rick Beck suggested the Hardymons reach out to us because they’re really interested in education and want their art to live somewhere where it will be used for the greater benefit of the entire community. Ultimately, our relationship with artists, our relationship with this gallery — that’s what fosters relationships with the collectors.”

CAM’s 60 year gala Saturday night will offer a sneak peek of “Promise.” It also will have on exhibit “60+,” honoring works assembled by Elizabeth Chant, Mary Cassatt, Minnie Evans, Claude Howell and others.

The gala is the biggest fundraising event the museum hosts roughly every other year, bringing in $100,000 or more. It continues to garner support from Bruce B. Cameron Foundation as well.

The museum’s famed pyramid rooftop peaking near the pines at the corner of Independence Boulevard and 17th Street is located on land the Cameron family donated. It serves more than just a place for artistic reprieve, it’s a snapshot of a family’s lineage, fighting on separate sides of history.

According to historian Fonvielle, Bruce B. Cameron’s two great uncles served in the Civil War and fought against each other at the Battle of Forks Road. The brothers, Cpl.Hosea Lewis Horne and Cpl.Jacob H. Horne, were both farmers in the Monkey Junction area before joining the military.

Their mother, Katherine Lanier Horne (Bruce B. Cameron’s great grandmother), lived nearby, as her sons came face-to-face in combat. Hosea was a Confederate cannoneer in the 1st North Carolina Light Artillery (Wilmington Horse Artillery), while his brother, while Jacob served in the 2nd North Carolina Union Volunteer Infantry.

“How Jacob Horne came to join the U.S. Army is a mystery I have not been able to unravel, despite 42 years of trying,” Fonvielle said. “But their mother would have heard the sounds of the Battle of Forks Road from her front yard, the battlefield being only 2 miles away.”

Boundless by Stephen Hayes is located at the Cameron Art Museum. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

Education and outreach

Cultural curator Daniel Jones gives tours of “Boundless” weekly. Since the sculpture was installed, tens of thousands of people have visited to see it. Wilson estimates 4,000 kids and young adults have toured with schools to learn about the importance of the men who fought for 34 hours from Feb. 20 to 21, 1865. 

“Whenever Daniel’s out there giving a tour to kids, he said the adults just kind of tag along to hear the stories, too,” Wilson said. 

One centers on Caesar Evans. Enslaved in Brunswick County, Evans joined the 37th regiment of the USCT to fight for his freedom in 1864. Ninety-four miles north of Wilmington, New Bern was a refuge town for escaped slaves in the southeast.

“At one point, Caesar managed to leave his owners and went to New Bern to join the Union Army,” Wilson said.

According to an article by historian David Cecelski for Coastal Review, Evans was 19 when he joined the military. He eventually returned to the Cape Fear to fight at Fort Fisher and the Battle of Forks Road. 

After the war ended, he found his surviving family members, who also had been sold as slaves, and saved enough money to buy back the land in Piney Grove he was once help captive on.

Evans is one of 1,820 names featured on “Boundless” and one of the men Jones is gathering oral stories on to preserve the legacy. 

During a tour he gave during the last year, Wilson found a descendent of Evans by happenstance. Pauline Hankins, a judge in Bolivia and board member for the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, visited to hear Jones speak about “Boundless.”

“We had this amazing moment where Daniel was giving a lecture and put an image of Caesar Evans on the screen, and Pauline was like, ‘You’re telling me he was in the USCT? I had no idea,'” Wilson recalled.

“This history exists in the margins, Wilson added. 

African-American roots are not easily traced, as culture, histories, language, even names, were essentially erased by colonizers. Slave records often aren’t readily available and families only have first names to work with.

“So Daniel is looking through the Muster Rolls and finding areas where multiple men joined the USCT and fought here. And then he’s contacting African American churches looking for oral histories.”

Wilson and Jones are planning to celebrate the sculptural centerpiece and park in 2023 as a homecoming celebration to honor the men who fought on the site. Wilson said they have continued to connect with descendants of Evans and are extending the search to generations of families with ties to other USCT soldiers (anyone with ties are encouraged to contact CAM). 

Sunday’s park unveiling will feature free programming beginning at 1 p.m. with a land acknowledgement ceremony by Aya Shabu, along with remarks by community leaders. The Williston Alumni Choir will perform and there will be reenactors from Battery B, 1st Battalion and the 35th USCT from Tryon Palace. 

Actors Johnny Lee Chapman III and Carolyn Evans are scheduled to perform from the perspectives of members of the USCT and their families.

An artist from Fuquay-Varina, Chapman will be scaling the life of Powhatan Beaty, a soldier who fought at Forks Road and became an actor after the Civil War. He’s most revered for performing for Frederick Douglass at Ford’s Theater in D.C.  

The piece Chapman delivers is an embodiment of Beaty through spoken word, monologue and poetry. He first learned of Beaty a few years ago while working with Michael Williams on the Black on Black Project about the 1898 Wilmington Massacre.

READ MORE: Cultural reflections: Art exhibit celebrates Black educators in Wilmington before and after desegregation

“Boundless” inscribes over 1,800 names of Black soldiers that fought in the USCT. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

ALSO: Portrait project highlights Wilmington’s Black-centric world, pre-1898

When he learned Beaty served in the USCT, Chapman said he asked: “Why are we not talking more about the fact this battle was won on Forks Road and 42 days later, the Confederacy was signing surrendering papers?”

Chapman studied Beaty, a man born into slavery in Richmond, who gained his freedom when his family moved to Cincinnati. As a child, Beaty was involved in theater and as a teen studied under a cabinetmaker, Henry Boyd. His experience in manual labor served him when he was called upon to help build the defense of the Civil War, as many Black Americans were commissioned to do at the time. 

At 25, Beaty decided to join the Union Army’s 5th United States Colored Infantry Regiment on his own volition. He received a Medal of Honor — the highest military award, unprecedented for a Black soldier during the time — as part of his service in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farms.

“It was almost a Union loss because the company he was with, over 50% of the platoon passed away,” Chapman said. “But he made this daring sprint to get the American flag back because the color bearer had been killed, essentially.”

That remobilized the Union troops, who ended up winning the battle and paved the way for Beaty’s infantry to merge with the troops in the South to fight at Fort Fisher and the Battle at Forks Road.

“It’s such a historic moment: to be able to take the lens and talk about a particular soldier whose life was really impressive, even before you know the conscription,” Chapman said.

While history books cover Beaty’s military service narrowly, to bring him alive — in all his efforts — means showing a man’s life fully lived and the resiliency to overcome during treacherous times for Black people in America. Chapman captures Beaty beyond the battlefield in his three-part, 20-minute performance and delves into his career as an actor, performing with one of the top Black actresses of the time, Henrietta Vinton Davis, in Shakespearean works “Richard III” and “Macbeth.” 

“It’s poetic and theatrical and lived in, which I think resonates more,” Chapman said. “It’s important nowadays to continue to tell these stories because we want access to those records for the next generation. It helps a lot to see this individual as an artist, a soldier, a veteran, and a cabinetmaker — somebody that others can relate to in today’s times.”

In addition to Chapman’s performance, Mouths of Babe Theatre Company will stage a theatrical reading of “Wilmington Reconstructed,” based on Wilmington’s racial history, including the events of 1898 and their impact today.

The community will also be invited to participate in a community lantern project as part of the upcoming annual “Illumination” exhibit celebrating 60 years at CAM.

Wilson is looking ahead at the opportunities the USCT Park can serve in the long-run. It’s been ruminating in her mind since she started speaking with Hayes about creating “Boundless” in 2018. CAM staff always envisioned it would be a sacred space for reflection, while also hosting gatherings, field trips, classes, workshops, storytelling and living history events. 

A sundown concert and conversation series is slated for the spring.

“It will be music that connects to the story of the United States Colored Troops,” Wilson said, “such as the drumline from DREAMS of Wilmington. The end-goal is to facilitate conversations — that’s what this has been about, since the very beginning. We know that art is a common language we all share.”

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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