Minnie Evans: A Journey from Trinidad

Minnie Evans, Airlie Oak, oil paint on wood, 1954. Courtesy, Smithsonian American Art Museum. The oak is located at Airlie Gardens, a public botanical gardens in Wilmington, N.C., that now has a sculpture garden dedicated to Evans. She was employed at Airlie Gardens for 26 years.

Minnie Evans, Airlie Oak, oil paint on wood, 1954. Courtesy, Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Airlie Oak is located at Airlie Gardens, a public botanical garden in Wilmington, N.C., where Evans worked for 26 years. The Garden’s most popular attraction is now a sculpture garden inspired by Evans’ work and dedicated to her.

To Jake and Catherine,

who got married under the Airlie Oak last weekend

I recently found a transcript of a 1971 interview with Minnie Evans, the African American visionary artist who did most of her work in Wilmington, N.C., in the mid-20th century.

She was born Minnie Eva Jones in Long Creek, a rural community north of Wilmington, in 1892.  She was raised largely by her grandmother, Mary Croom Jones, a seamstress.

When she was still a small child, the family moved to Wrightsville Sound and began making its living by gathering oysters and clams and selling them in the streets of Wilmington. Evans was there at the time of the Wilmington Massacre of 1898.

She left school after the 6th grade in order to help support her family.  She never received any art training.

Photograph of Minnie Evans by Nina Howell Starr, undated. Print available from Fine Art America

Photograph of Minnie Evans by Nina Howell Starr, undated. Print available from Fine Art America.

She made her first drawing in 1935. The first exhibit of her work was in Wilmington in 1961. Galleries in New York City began organizing exhibits of her work in 1966. She had a solo exhibition of her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1975.

Art critics and art historians have compared her paintings to aesthetic traditions as far ranging as Yoruba face paintings and the works of the French post-impressionist painter Henri Rousseau.

Evans said that she had always lived in a world of dreams and visions and was attempting to portray that world in art.

The interview transcript that caught my eye was in the Archives of American Art, the Smithsonian Institution’s research center for preserving and studying the primary sources that document the history of the visual arts in the United States.

Minnie Evans, The Tree of Life, drawing, 1962, North Carolina Museum of Art

Minnie Evans, The Tree of Life, drawing, 1962, Courtesy, North Carolina Museum of Art

That transcript is one of several transcripts of interviews with Evans at the Archives of American Art.

I was especially interested in it because of the interviewer and because of the radio station on which the interview aired.

The interviewer was Celestine Ware, a fascinating black feminist theorist who had just published Woman Power: The Movement for Women’s Liberation at the time of her interview with Minnie Evans. She was a writer, editor, and TV and radio producer in New York City.

Celestine Ware speaking at a radical feminists' memorial service for the French philosopher and feminist activist Simone de Beauvoir in New York City on May 1st, 1986. Courtesy, Redstockings Archives

Celestine Ware in New York City, May 1st, 1986. She was speaking at a memorial service for the French philosopher and feminist activist Simone de Beauvoir. Courtesy, Redstockings Archives

The radio station was WBAI, an eclectic, generally left-leaning station in New York City.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, you never knew what to expect from WBAI, except that it was bound to be interesting. The first broadcast of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,a marathon, star-studded reading of  Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and live coverage of anti-war protests and bra burnings– all could be found on WBAI.

I was struck by many parts of Ware’s conversation with Minnie Evans, but the excerpt that I am going to quote here involves the artist, who was nearly 80 years old at the time, telling Ware about her ancestors and how they came to America from Trinidad.

I have edited the transcript very lightly for the sake of readability.  You can find the original, unedited transcript here.

Celestine Ware:  “When did your family originally come to America?’

Minnie Evans: “Oh, my family.”

Celestine Ware: “Yes. Way, way back.”

Minnie Evans: “Yes, way back. My, that was [when my great-] great-grandmother was a little girl.  My grandmother sat down and told me the story that her grandmother had told [about how] they came from Trinidad.

Celestine Ware: “Can you tell me one of those stories about coming from Trinidad?”

Minnie Evans: ” Well, Mother said that [it all began with] her great-grandmother Margaret. Her name was not listed as Margaret until after she came to Wilmington, but her [real] name was Marney. And they were sold, her husband, herself and five children. They were drove somewhere through the forest, through the woods, and her husband [was] taken [with] some kind of a fever and he died.

“She don’t think he really just died. He couldn’t go and she believe they killed him.”

Celestine Ware: “Was this in Trinidad or North Carolina?”

Minnie Evans:  “Yes, this was in Trinidad. This was before they got to North Carolina a long time.

“And then two or three of her children taken sick with smallpox or cholera in the woods and they died, but she and her youngest child, they survived. They didn’t get sick at all.

“So they came on. They didn’t like that master that had them. He give them over to another man as far as she could understand and they taken a boat and came on to North Carolina.”

Celestine Ware: “I see.  And your family has been in North Carolina ever since?”

Minnie Evans: “Uh huh, and she said they came to a place called Charles Town.”

Celestine Ware: “Yes, yes.”

Minnie Evans:  “But this town was Charleston, South Carolina, and they were brought on from there to Wilmington.

“So a man bought them, [and then he] brought her and her little baby from Wilmington, from New Hanover County, [and took them] up in Sampson County and that’s where they grew up at.”

Celestine Ware:  “Now did your mother see slavery times?”

Minnie Evans: “Not my mother, my grandmother.”

Celestine Ware: “Saw slavery?”

Minnie Evans:  “Yes, she saw slavery.  She was five years old in freedom, and then there was some other, older children [too].  And her mistress and master . . . [took my great-grandmother’s] two oldest children from her and gave them to his daughter for a wedding present.

“And they stayed up in Sampson County, and then she stayed down in Long Creek, down with [another] man and his family.

“So after freedom…,  my great-grandmother, she and two or three other women went where their children had been taken from them. Went up into this county and they were gone for three weeks or more walking through that country to where they got to where the children was and brought her two children back.”

Trinidad, where Minnie Evans’ ancestors were held in bondage, is an island in the Lesser Antilles, in the southern most part of the West Indies, approximately 2,000 miles southeast of Wilmington. It is now part of the nation of Trinidad and Tobago.

Formerly held by the Spanish and French, Trinidad had been taken by the British in 1797. At that time, the British colonies in the West Indies included Jamaica, Barbados, Bermuda, the Leeward Islands and a dozen other islands that were renown for the profitability of their sugar plantations and the barbarity of their systems of slavery.

Minnie Evans, My Very First, 1935. Pen and ink on paper. Courtesy, Whitney Museum of American Art

Minnie Evans, My Very First, 1935. Pen and ink on paper. Courtesy, Whitney Museum of American Art

The ties between North Carolina and the British colonies in the West Indies had run deep since the 1600s. In the 1670s, the Lords Proprietors had even studied the system of slave labor on one of the British sugar colonies, Barbados, so that they might model the development of what became North and South Carolina on that system.

The early trade relationship between the Carolinas and Barbados–involving slaves, sugar, lumber, agricultural products and much else — was so important that historian Peter Wood once described the Carolinas as a “colony of a colony” of Barbados.

The relationship between the Carolinas and Trinidad was not nearly as close, but Minnie Evans’ ancestors were far from the only enslaved Africans who had spent at least some time in the slave labor camps of Trinidad before coming to the North Carolina coast.

I do not think that I will ever forget Minnie Evans’ story of her family’s enslavement in Trinidad and their journey here.

But I also do not think that I could ever forget the passage in Celestine Ware’s interview when Evans described her grandmother’s story about the first days of freedom after the American Civil War.

Whenever I pass through that part of coastal North Carolina, I will remember her great-grandmother and the other newly-freed black women at Long Creek making the journey to Sampson County to retrieve the children that had been taken away from them.

A group of black women, surrounded by dangers of many kinds, making their way through unknown parts to find their children: it had to have been an epic journey, and it could not have been easy.

I will remember that story and I will those women’s courage, determination and love.

Minnie Evans, Green Animal, ca. 1963. Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Minnie Evans, Green Animal, ca. 1963. Museum of Modern Art, NYC

2 thoughts on “Minnie Evans: A Journey from Trinidad

  1. Dr. Cecelski, once again you have shared the story of one remarkable Black Eastern North Carolina native, and opened up a whole world. I’m struck by how your telling brings us together in ways I had not considered. And now I’m falling down another rabbit hole of history – this time Barbados and Craven Co. Grateful, as always.


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