The Black History of High Point, NC: Telling The Stories That Need To Be Told

by Tonya Dixon | January 9th, 2015
Courtesy of Phyllis Bridges

Courtesy of Phyllis Bridges

The arts and basically anything dealing with the arts has always intrigued and interested Phyllis Bridges. So much so that the High Point, North Carolina, native single-handedly taught herself the vast business of art buying and gallery ownership.

Her passion for art and her love of history is what ultimately led to her producing a documentary titled “High Point: A Memoir of the African American Community”. The documentary is set to premier with much fanfare on January 17, 2015 at High Point University. The release will coincide with the university’s planned Martin Luther King, Jr. Day activities.

Ironically, Bridges attended High Point University majoring in interior design. Not only did it provide for her education, but it also spawned her love and appreciation for art; black art in particular. Eventually Bridges began experimenting as a freelance interior designer. She commuted from North Carolina to the Maryland/Washington DC area bringing style and beauty to private citizens’ homes as well as government facilities. Bridges noticed that many of the homes were big and glorious, but the art wasn’t comparable. “The houses were way too gorgeous not to have nice art to go with them,” she says. “You don’t have a half a million dollar home and decorate it with Dollar General art.” Her observations gave her the idea to open an art gallery and become an art dealer.

For one solid year Bridges learned the business, and in 2008 she opened her own gallery. It was such a success that she outgrew three facilities. However, due to unforeseen circumstances Bridges eventually had to close her beloved gallery. But her love for art never waned, rather it intensified. Along the way she discovered what she believes to be the separating factor between black art and all other artwork; something most people don’t realize.

“Black art tells our story. Our history is in our art like no other art. Landscape, still life and other genres don’t do that. We tell what we’ve been through, where we have been and where we are going.”

A simple visit to the little-known Rosetta Baldwin African American Historical Museum in the heart of the black community in High Point is all it took to jumpstart the concept for the documentary. As soon as Bridges toured the museum she was astonished at all of the unheard of, never-discussed, bounty of rich African American history. It was at that moment that she decided it was a history that had to be told. It was information and stories that had been buried long ago and it certainly wasn’t being taught in the public school system.

The more bridges came in contact with different works of black art, the more she heard the stories behind the art, which gave her a craving to know more. Before long she knew she had unearthed a treasure trove of information and a source of virtually untapped, stream of first-hand information; eye witnesses to rarely spoken of past. Bridges knew she had to quickly capture it.

The documentary is a memoir of many of the African American “seasoned” citizens of High Point. It covers the community’s history from slavery to 1968. Bridges says the wealth of information seemed to stream endlessly from the individuals she interviewed. Although, she initially thought people would be reluctant to talk and might even resist dredging up the past, instead she found them overwhelmingly happy to talk and tell their stories.
Of course the majority of the information is given through oral history because a great deal of black history, especially within families was never written down for fear of retaliation from a society that discouraged black literacy (at one time it was illegal for the black population to read and write).

The documentary grabs viewers from the very beginning with stories of flourishing black neighborhoods filled with black owned businesses like general stores, trade smiths and even hotels. Most notably was the Kilby Hotel, which recently collapsed. The Kilby Hotel was one of two Black owned hotels in High Point and was listed in ‘The Negro Motorist Green Book’ as a safe haven for blacks when they traveled throughout the south. From doctors and lawyers and teachers to the first black police and firemen, the black community had emerged and grown as a city within a city.

Courtesy of Phyllis Bridges

Courtesy of Phyllis Bridges

Unbeknownst to many people, even current High Point citizens, High Point was largely a black city due in large part to the expansive opportunities in the upholstery and furniture industries, the railroad and paving of city streets. It was also a hot spot during the Civil Rights Movement. High Point had the first sit-in with high school students only 10 days after the Woolworths sit-in in Greensboro. It was led by Ben Elton Cox, at the time the city’s civil rights leader as well as an original Freedom Rider.

Bridges has been fortunate enough to capture the essence of black life from the great grandchildren of slaves as well as the children and grandchildren of those living during the Jim Crow era. Because of High Point’s Quaker roots and the group’s staunch aversion to slavery, there was not a great deal of slavery in High Point, but there were certainly some instances. Many of the interviewees recanted things they experienced themselves as well as stories they were told filled with sadness as well as cheerful moments. In addition to oral histories many photos are also a part of the documentary to bring to life a long-forgotten and buried past.

Even more documentaries are currently being planned and prepared. Bridges admits that she is on a journey now that she couldn’t stop even if she tried. “It all started with the art, but it expanded into the history. I didn’t decide this. God decided it. I just wanted to have a nice fine art gallery, but now I’m making documentaries and beyond. I even won a few awards. So wherever god is taking me I’m going, no questions asked,” Bridges says.

All of the documentary interviewees have been invited to the premier and will be on-hand for an audience Q&A following the event.

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