A sea of familiar faces fills the walls of the Legacy Museum of African American History.
Civil rights leader M.W. Thornhill, who became Lynchburg’s first black mayor. World Series champion pitcher Jim Bibby. Dr. Clarissa Wimbush, the first black female dentist in the city. Prominent magician Benjamin Rucker, who performed under the name Black Herman during his career in the early 1900s.
Immortalized in paint, ink or graphite, each face has been given its own place of importance as a part of “Let Your Trumpets Blow, Let Your Mighty Voice Be Heard,” a portrait exhibition featuring the artwork of students from Heritage High School.
“To have the opportunity for that to be displayed at Legacy Museum is a tremendous honor,” says Tim Beatty, principal of Heritage whose portrait hangs beside a three-dimensional portrait of artist Martha Jackson Jarvis.
“The Legacy Museum has been a staple in the Lynchburg City Schools and the Lynchburg city community as far as African American heritage and history [go].”
“Let Your Trumpets Blow” began as a project Heritage art teacher Jon Roark created for his students in the wake of the Charlottesville riots in 2017.
“I really wanted to teach them about their community more than anything,” says Roark. “... A community that has sort of labored in obscurity because of Jim Crow, that needed to be known about.”
Inspired by The Memory Project — a nonprofit venture for which artists create portraits of children in challenging situations around the world in order to lift their spirits — Roark decided to have his class draw portraits of members from the Lynchburg-area African American community.
“I wanted a memory project of Lynchburg,” he says.
Armed with a grant from the Lynchburg City Schools Education Foundation and a list of names he’d compiled with the help of various area museums and community leaders, Roark helped students pick a subject whose story resonated with them.
Some students chose to create one portrait while others made multiple pieces. Some opted to use more traditional portrait materials like acrylics and charcoal, while others worked in ceramics and mixed media.
The collection of around 70 portraits was first displayed in the Academy Center of the Arts’ Warehouse Theatre Lobby last June.
“The figures represent a wide range of individuals and their time in Lynchburg from the early 1900s — when my grandmother Anne Spencer, a poet and civil rights leader became the first African American female librarian to be employed by the segregated George Jones Memorial Library — to our current Mayor [Treney] Tweedy, who made history by becoming our first African American female mayor in the City of Lynchburg,” says Shaun Spencer-Hester, noting the diversity in the exhibit.
“Let Your Trumpets Blow” featured portraits of both men and women in various eras and professions.
Like Spencer-Hester, local curator Brooke Marcy was moved by the portraits when she saw them at the Academy.
“I said, ‘We need this at the Legacy Museum,’” says Marcy, who curates art exhibitions for Riverviews Artspace. “It needs to be up longer.”
The Legacy Museum agreed, and, a year after it premiered at the Academy, “Let Your Trumpets Blow” opened at the museum in the Tinbridge Hill neighborhood, where it will remain through most of the summer.
“It’s a perfect fit [for the museum],” says Joyce Dixon, president of the museum’s board of directors.
Spread across the two rooms, as well as the hall connecting them, the portraits fill the space with the warmth of twinkling eyes and friendly smiles.
Graphic artist Stann Webb’s portrait hangs diagonally from a lifelike graphite sketch of veteran Carroll Reeves, who received a Bronze Star for his service in World War II. Among a cluster of portraits farther down the wall is beloved Amherst baker Mary Woodruff of Woodruff’s Café and Pie Shop.
Behind a pane of glass are large, eye-catching acrylic paintings of a few giants of Hill City history: aviator Chauncey Spencer, minister Vernon Jones, tennis coach Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson and Harlem Renaissance poet Anne Spencer.
Directly in the middle of the famous crowd is astronaut Leland Melvin in his orange NASA space suit.
“I just feel such gratitude and am honored to be included with these icons, these legends, who paved the way for me to go to space,” says Melvin, who did not know about the portrait until he was contacted for an interview. “... And to be displayed by students from my alma mater at the Legacy Museum in Lynchburg is just out of this world.”
Although it has been on display at the Legacy Museum for less than a week, “Let Your Trumpets Blow” has already fostered a sense of community, just as Roark hoped.
“The [most fun] thing is that I’ve had so many people come in and just say, ‘There’s my neighbor,’ ‘There’s my friend,’ ‘There’s my relative,’” says Marcy, who curated the show at Legacy. “It’s really exciting once again to hear the stories.”
The portrait of Jackson Jarvis, which is visible from the museum entrance because of its bright and colorful background, even caught the eye of the artist herself, who confirmed via email that she offered to buy it.
And while Roark’s class wrapped up its Lynchburg-styled memory project more than a year ago, he says he sees the portrait collection as open-ended.
“I kind of hope we can keep all the art together and continue to add to it,” he says, “because the story is still being written.”
Emma Schkloven covers arts and entertainment for The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5489, and follow her on Twitter and Instagram @byEmmaSchkloven.