Happy Day’s on Happy Hill: Historic community’s history on display at WSSU

by Joe Murphy

visions_7_14.jpg“Hanes Manor” by Jerry Hanes. (photo by Joe Murphy)

The vibrancy of Happy Hill, Winston-Salem’s oldest African- American community, is on full display at the Diggs Gallery on the campus of Winston-Salem State University. Last Friday night the opening ceremony for the exhibit Pride and Dignity from the Hill: A Celebration of the Historic Happy Hill Community took place at the Diggs Gallery.

The exhibit displays the work of local artists, many of whom are current or former residents of Happy Hill, in addition to nationally renowned artists as well and will run through February 26, 2011.

The project began in 2005, spearheaded by Diggs Gallery Director Belinda Tate with the aid of Chandra Cox, Chair of the Department of the Department of Art and Design at NC State University. They guided Happy Hill residents and natives as they adorned miniature replicas of historic homes with bright colors and iconic photography of their youth. Cox’s contribution to the exhibit was commissioned for inclusion in Winston-Salem State’s permanent collection.

Happy Hill is located in close proximity to Old Salem and the UNC School of the Arts and bordered by Salem Creek. The event coincided with the 17th annual Happy Hill Reunion.

Along with the miniature homes, the exhibit features paintings depicting Happy Hill, maps, photographs and a life-sized replica of a juke joint with life-sized figurines frozen in time, purchasing products like the soda, candy, pain relievers or cigarettes whose era specific ads adorn the model.

Winston-Salem artist and longtime Happy Hill resident Jerry Hanes work “Hanes Manor” depicts three adjoining houses on a slope. Recalling his youth in Happy Hill in the 1950s and 1960s, Hanes said “It was a time when a community really raised a kid.”

“[The goal of the project was] to capture the spirit of Happy Hill and to portray a time that was peaceful and was about love for each other, grounded in religion,” said Hanes.

The influence of spirituality throughout Happy Hill’s history was evident through the presentation. It began with the youth choir of Rising Ebenezer Baptist Church — one of three main churches in Happy Hill — regaling the assembled crowd with song. With the accompaniment of piano and a drum kit the choir sang songs, including an extended version of “Oh Happy Day.” The standing-room-only crowd in lined chairs often echoed back, both to the choir and the individual speakers later, giving the event the tone of a church revival rather than a gallery opening.

During the presentation, Georgiana Paige McCoy, a contributing artist to the exhibit, served as the unofficial historian of Happy Hill for the evening. She recalled the neighborhood as it was during her childhood: Most of the houses were unpainted, none of the streets were paved, outhouses and water spigots were interspersed between some of the houses for community use. At the time, it was considered a luxury to have an outhouse on your back porch. In addition to its residents, Happy Hill was populated by cows, chickens, goats, cats, dogs and the occasional horse. The neighborhood children knew which houses had fruit trees in the yard: apples, pears and cherries. McCoy also spoke of Happy Hill’s origins as a Moravian plantation and eventual development into a neighborhood for freed blacks after the emancipation proclamation.

Hanes is especially proud of the exhibit because “it is a way of keeping and defining and redefining our history. Nobody is anyone until they find out who they are through their history. I hope that this show will be a catalyst for other cities and communities that have a black experience to tell their stories.”

Thanks to this exhibit, and the grassroots community involved in its preservation; as event speaker and Winston-Salem City Councilman Derwin Montgomery said, “The history and heritage of Happy Hill will never be forgotten.”

wanna go? Diggs Gallery 601 Martin Luther King Jr Drive Winston-Salem, NC 336.750.2458;