Still I Rise: The Black Experience at Reynolda

Master Bedroom Gallery

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“Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear / I rise.” Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” published in 1978, was an assertion of dignity and resilience in the face of oppression. In the 1980s, Angelou used Reynolda as her stage, sharing words of humanity, survival, and triumph. But before her, numerous Black lives impacted and intersected with the story of Reynolda. Still I Rise: The Black Experience at Reynolda examines the lives of the Black women and men who helped shape Reynolda as it evolved from a Jim Crow era working estate into a museum for American art. 

From 1912 through the 1950s, during one of the most repressive climates for Black people in North Carolina history, Black men and women navigated Reynolda’s segregated spaces—farming the land, constructing buildings, and working as domestic staff within Reynolda’s walls. During this era, segregation, the exploitation of Black labor, and laws that regulated Black behavior affected the lives of all individuals in the Reynolda story, whether at Reynolda or at the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. While the struggle for equality did not end with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the story of Reynolda pivoted to one of a public cultural institution. When it opened its doors in 1967, Reynolda’s intersection with Black lives shifted as the young, fledgling museum provided a venue for Black artists to celebrate their art. Artists such as Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and Maya Angelou transformed the historic setting into a stage for their art and teachings. Through art, letters, photographs, and audiovisual recordings, Still I Rise: The Black Experience at Reynolda examines Reynolda’s complicated past in a space designed for reflection and healing.

This exhibition has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Select Archival Photographs
Flora Pledger and Lillie Hamlin, circa 1930
Sam Stimpson, circa 1950
Nora Hamlin Wilkes, Sam Hamlin, Willie Grey Davis, Hugh Davis, Clinton Davis, Helen Hamlin Clayon, Paul Hamlin, and Lillie Hamlin (seated), circa 1950
Five Row teacher Lovey Eaton, circa 1917
Children of Five Row School, circa 1920
Thomas Warren, circa 1930
Mamie and Harvey Miller sit with their granddaughters Nancy Sue (left) and Brenda (right), circa 1950
Jacob Lawrence and his wife Gwendolyn Knight at the 1981 Contemporary American Arts Seminar
The Spirit of Reynolda: Black Contributions to Reynolda 1912-1962, 1993 exhibition held on the Sun Porch

Angelou and Bearden: 40 Years Later program

Maya Angelou and Romare Bearden Interview

About Reynolda’s Five Row Community

Reynolda, as a working estate, existed in the context of pervasive racial inequality known as the Jim Crow period. The segregated community of Five Row, so named because it originally consisted of a row of five houses, was home to Reynolda’s African American farm workers and their families. Located parallel to Silas Creek, Five Row was situated out of sight of the bungalow and the other village buildings. A boarding house accommodated several families, while another large building served as the church and school. Unlike the houses in Reynolda Village, those in Five Row did not have electricity or indoor running water. Families made do with kerosene lamps and coal heaters. Water was drawn from several taps of artesian well water.

The majordomo for the Babcocks, Harvey Miller, grew up in Five Row: “They were frame houses. They had four rooms or five rooms, at that time you had your privies outside. But you did have piped water, but not in your house. I was about as far from–I could take a hose pipe and run water from the spigot up to my mother’s wash tub, two lengths of hose, so I wouldn’t have to carry it.”

Good wages lured many tenant farmers to join the Reynolda work force. Ellis Pledger walked twenty miles a day to make $9 a week, three times what he received elsewhere. In 1916, he moved to Five Row with his wife, Flora.

Residents of Five Row remembered it as a close-knit community, as expressed by Flora Pledger: “But I thought it was the best place I’d ever seen. I loved it, I loved it. And if it was like—had the water and everything that I’ve got now—I’d rather be there than anywhere that I could be. I just naturally loved it. People was friendly and sociable and everything, and the children—you never had to whup ‘em, they was just good, like a family. We’d get along with one another, you never had to lock your door. You just go on and shut the door. I just come on out in the summertime when I went to work, I just come on out and let the door come shut. Not the wooden door, just the screen door, just cooling the house when you get back.”