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Black Belt

It was under an unrelenting July sun on Alabama 14, a two-lane slicing the Black Belt of Alabama, a strip of land south and west of Montgomery, that my gray and red Suburban began to lose power. The sight and smell of water and antifreeze boiling from beneath the hood were proof positive that the car was coming to a halt—and that there was nothing I could do about it. Gaining speed on my slowing automobile, a black man ran toward me and signaled that he was there to help. I am not sure whether I lowered the window or opened the door, but he provided a deadpan diagnosis: “busted water pump.” We got the car to his side of the road, coming to rest under the tree he and several other folks were using for shade. One of the group offered that he could replace the pump, if only one could be found.

The good Samaritan and I headed south in his ride back to Marion—from whence I had come in pursuit of a portrait by Nicola Marschall —and the closest auto parts store, only to find that they couldn’t supply the pump. Not to be undone by the lack of merchandise at a small town retailer, we turned back north, checking en route with my shade-tree mechanic. He had by this time taken the front end of the automobile apart and carefully arranged the members on some sort of a tarp, shielded from the dust and dirt of the yard that was his shop. From there, it was on to Greensboro and another storefront with the necessary component. Part in hand and the requested six-pack on ice, we gassed up and began the return trip. The back and forth provided enough time in my new friend’s wreck to learn a good bit more about each other. He was an out-of-work heavy equipment operator, living with his sister and her four children. I got the usual response when I told him I bought and sold pictures. When the job was done and I responded with, as I remember, eighty dollars—which is all I had in cash—the kind fellow fingered the bills, looked at me, and said “Mister, the Lord sent you to me.” I stuck out a very appreciative hand and said, “Sir, the Lord sent you to me.” I have a friend in Alabama—no, two. The mechanic and the driver split the money.

The Black Belt is that most marvelous of places. Rich in the extreme—at least for the plantation owners—during the days when cotton was king, it nurtured a lifestyle and culture that provided ease and opportunity for the sons and daughters of its elite—much as rice had in South Carolina. Perhaps no picture in the gallery’s archives represents the privilege of the antebellum Black Belt upper class more aptly than George Esten Cooke’s mourning portrait of young John Fairfax Lapsley. One of America’s earliest fully professional and prolific artists, the ever-itinerant Cooke painted the angelic “Little Fax” in Selma proper, recording for posterity a life cut tragically short. An allegorical combination of portrait, landscape, and still life, the canvas speaks powerfully to status, the lost child surrounded by symbols of his family’s position: fine dress, a thoroughbred horse, the Lapsley steamer in the background.

Born in Montgomery, Anne Goldthwaite, a pioneering twentieth century artist, was the granddaughter of the first Southern senator sent back to Washington at the end of Carpetbag rule. She studied in New York and prospered enough to have been in the roster of exhibitors at the Armory Show in 1913. Wetumpka’s John Kelly Fitzpatrick merits fuller mention, which follows. Clara Weaver Parrish, whose work as a stained glass designer for Louis Comfort Tiffany informed her jewel-toned landscapes, hailed from Selma, east of my roadside deliverance.

Jerry Siegel was an early collector in Selma, maintaining a small gallery there. It was primarily an exercise in pleasure, however—a place for him to enjoy his paintings—and he never would part with anything I wanted. Jerry was Black Belt aristocracy and had the good sense to recognize the value in the work the artists had produced. After all, their people knew his people. A year or so before Jerry died, he called and invited me down to go through his collection, and I was favored to leave with some wonderful works.

These divergent stories combine to remind me that in high places and low, the Black Belt is a place where true Southern hospitality—shared in kindness, swathed in local pride—can still be found.

George Esten Cooke (1793-1849)
Joseph Fairfax Lapsley (1848)
Oil on canvas
66 x 48 inches
Signature Details: Lower right
Owner: The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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