Throughout this month, an exhibition titled #BlackOwnedCville by local photographer and filmmaker Lorenzo Dickerson is on display on the third floor of the Central Library. Dickerson says he was moved to pursue the project because, “I was curious myself about African-American businesses here locally. Growing up here I knew of some. Like Mel’s Café on Main Street was always a staple.”
But Dickerson had been away for many years, and moving back to Charlottesville in 2015, he says, “sparked my interest even more. …And I wanted to really display them and let others know that these businesses exist so we can support them here locally. I feel like a lot of people just don’t know that they are even there, that they’re providing these services.”
Dickerson’s exhibition is one of 80 events for adults and kids organized and facilitated by Jefferson-Madison Regional Library as part of the NEA Big Read (formerly The Big Read). The program, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, encourages engagement with the community themed around a single book. This year’s selection is the novel Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. Sarah Hamfeldt, adult programming and reference services manager at JMRL, says that in the past the NEA Big Read options were “heavy on the classics.” But with the introduction of a new category this year called Living Authors, the selection committee at JMRL had the opportunity to choose Jones’ novel and invite her to visit Charlottesville.
“The book itself is readable and relatable,” Hamfeldt says. “It is much more contemporary in tone than others we’ve done before.” Published in 2011 and set in 1980s Atlanta, Silver Sparrow follows the coming of age of two African-American girls who share the same father, but only one of them knows this. The narrative explores themes of love, belonging and security within the lives of the entrepreneurial, middle-class African-American cast of characters. It was pure serendipity when JMRL reached out to Dickerson and learned that he was putting together a collection of photographs that celebrates the entrepreneurial legacy of the local African-American community.
#BlackOwnedCville began with Dickerson’s next-door neighbor, Will Taylor, owner and operator of Chick-fil-A at Fashion Square Mall. And as Dickerson met more African-American business owners, they gave him names of other people to contact. With the goal of representing a wide array of businesses and services, the exhibition includes restaurateurs, medical professionals, artists and store owners.
“Entrepreneurship is something that’s been important to the local African-American community since emancipation from slavery,” Dickerson says. “A lot of African-Americans directly after emancipation from slavery purchased land and owned their own farms. So it’s always been something that’s important to the community. And of course you had Vinegar Hill and a lot of African-American businesses right here in the center of Charlottesville. So that legacy lives on in these entrepreneurs that are here now.”
What ultimately draws him to document the legacy and history of the local African-American community is his love of storytelling. “I used to sit at my grandmother’s feet as a child,” he says, “and ask her to tell me stories of the olden days.” About five years ago, his research into his own family ancestry, coupled with the desire to put together a cohesive narrative for his family, inspired his first film, The Coachman. “And I just fell in love with filmmaking,” Dickerson says. Since then he has made three more films. He has tapped into such a rich local history that the connections he makes during one film become the jumping-off point for the next film.
So many people think, “I don’t have anything to share, I don’t have a story to tell,” he says. His response? “You have a story to tell but you just don’t know it until I ask you the right question.” For the sake of preserving our local history and exploring questions about our future, let’s hope he keeps asking.
Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow is this year’s selection for the NEA Big Read. The author appears in Charlottesville to discuss her work on March 17 and 18.