Interview with Michael Brenson
From “Bomb Magazine”
Looking back to his past, the Afro-American artist Melvin Edwards reflects on the passions, encounters, and ideas which have accompanied him throughout his artistic career — from his childhood in the Afro-American community of Houston, to the beginnings in Los Angeles, and from his move to New York to the travels in Africa and Cuba.
MICHAEL BRENSON: Your life has been an epic one, so I don’t know how we’re going to tell the story. But we have to start somewhere, so let’s go back to the beginning. You were born in the Fifth Ward, in Houston, in 1937. It was a very particular place, at a very particular time. What was it like, growing up there?
MELVIN EDWARDS: Well, I’m the oldest child, and the house we lived in was my grandmother Coco’s house. She was my father’s mother; her name was Cora Ann Nickerson. She and my grandfather [James Benjamin Edwards] divorced in 1920, maybe earlier. She came to Houston, and he went to Kansas City. He would come occasionally and visit Texas, but I didn’t get to know him very well. Now, my mother’s father [James Frank Felton] lived just outside of Houston, in McNair. It was a village, part of the larger area called Goose Creek; so we saw him maybe once a month. In my teens, he came to church on Sundays in Houston and sometimes visited with us or other family members. I should explain, my father’s family’s primarily from the woods in East Texas, a place called Dotson, which is a part of a larger village called Long Branch, which is in the triangle of Nacogdoches, Henderson, and Carthage in Texas. Or, the bigger triangle is Nacogdoches in the south, Shreveport in the east, and Dallas in the west. Anyway, people there were farmers. These communities developed right after slavery, because many of them moved west from Alabama or Georgia. The community that my family was a part of primarily came from Alabama. We don’t know exactly where, though my mother’s father [James Felton] is from Opelika. My mother’s father came later, around 1910–1915, working in the saw mill industry. He met my grandmother there, in Minden, Louisiana, and married her in Louisiana, and then, when they divorced, he moved with his children [three daughters and one son] to Texas. Anyway, all that added up to, by 1937, when I was born, my mother living in the Fifth Ward in Houston. That was one of the three black wards, with the Fourth and Third Wards. Fifth Ward was the youngest; it’s on the north side, so farm families moving in from East Texas often stopped there because that’s the first place they got to.
MBaWhy do they call them wards?
MEaI think a lot of cities do that. Newark is broken up into wards. It wasn’t racial, I think, it was just the political organization of the city. The first school for blacks in Houston [Booker T. Washington High School, 1893] started in the Fourth Ward, which was at one point Freedmen’s Town, because it was where people went when slavery ended. The second one was in the Third Ward, Jack Yates High School, and then my high school, Phillis Wheatley, started in 1927. The ward communities are knit, to this day, like a village. We run into people any number of places, and if you say you’re from Houston and you’re from the Fifth Ward, they say, “Oh, you’re not from Houston, you’re from Fifth Ward, Texas.” There was a… loyalty is a word that fits, in a lot of ways. For one thing, we had locks on the front door, but the one on the back was a nail with a stick in it, and it was never locked. Truthfully, we didn’t have to lock houses in that period.
MBaThe way you describe the Fifth Ward; it doesn’t sound that urban.
MEaNo, it’s urban, but it’s full of people from rural areas. But when I was a small boy, they had streetcars and paved streets, as opposed to gravel or oyster shells. Houston was a large city just broadly laid out. That was a movement all over the country, moving from rural to cities. There was a loyalty, and the back door had a nail with a stick.
MBaWas it all houses?
MEaThey were row houses, one story, and everybody had a yard. We had a double lot so there was extra yard area and a garage. The row houses were built by people who were trying to make money off rent, so they put them relatively close together, but even those houses had ten or twelve feet between them. I remember it well, because when it rained, that was where the water came down off of both roofs, and that was where we dug when we wanted to play with clay. Yeah, Houston’s very green. You could say, regionally, it’s like north coastal Florida, south coastal Alabama, or Louisiana—bayous, and all of that. In Houston, I think there are four bayous; the main one divided Fifth Ward from downtown and the other wards. If you go there now, all of that’s still there, but those wooden houses, they just can’t last a hundred and fifty years, and a lot of them are falling down.
The other thing about the Fifth Ward, was that there was a significant Mexican component. So, for instance, on my street, on Wayne Street, the Sierra family lived across the street with kids my age, Enrique and Angelina. They were my playmates, and we were in and out of the houses all the time. My earliest Spanish was “Ándale, ándale! Melvin, go home!” Because we were probably over there playing too much and vice versa. Anyway, when I was five, we moved to McNair, because my father started working for Humble Oil, where my grandfather had worked. He lived in that same village. Humble Oil—which later became Exxon with Standard Oil—built communities for the workers, and they were separate racially. My grandfather had his own house, and he had two or three little houses that he built to rent out and make money. Our little house was about 24 x 30 feet, wood, tar paper on cinderblocks]. My room was probably about the size of this table. It being close to the outskirts of Houston, the toilets were outdoors.
MBaBut you had running water.
MEaWe had running water, but we didn’t have running hot water. We bathed in metal tubs.
MBaDo you remember it as being exceptionally hot during the summer in those early years? Was it just something that you were used to?
MEaIt wasn’t an issue. The tradition in the South was, people fanned with hand fans. Every church and every funeral parlor gave them out, so everybody had them, and that’s still the tradition. But basically, as a teenager, I was out playing. The thing about childhood life—and much of adult life, too—it was outdoors, not in the house. So it wasn’t just that people made smaller houses. Of course, they build bigger ones now, but Texas people still like to live outside. They barbecue; they socialize outside. The only bad thing was, in that region, mosquitoes. Certain parts of the year, that was not pleasant. I still remember pulling the sheet over my head and just hearing that sound. (laughter)
MBaDid your family go to church?
MEaThey did more when I was younger. After a while, I would say that the number of kids—There were three brothers and one girl: I was first; then Anne, my sister in ‘43; and my brothers, born in Dayton, Dan ‘46, Gregory, ‘48.
MEaPresbyterian, but they’d gone to all kinds of churches. Up in East Texas, in the country, the family was active in the Baptist church. That’s where the burials of Edwards are [my father’s side of the family]. Now, because the population is so small, they only have services once a month, because the population has all moved to Houston, Dallas, et cetera. But families have kept their land and a few older people are there, and some of the people who grew up in the city who are my age, they still do mini-farming. They have enough land to have cattle, and if you’re raising twenty cows a year, that can add thirty thousand dollars to your income. They go up on Saturday, get back into Houston in time to go to church—because many of them are people who go to church. But religion, in my house, I would say, was rational [personal], it wasn’t tied to the ideology. All I knew was that Baptists spent more time in church with music and they produced a lot of musicians. My mother is ninety-five and she just published a book on her growing up from age six to sixteen [Silver Tracks and Running Roses: Memories of a Goose Creek Girl by Thelma Felton Edwards]. Some friends went through the kinds of things where they’d get emotional and get saved, or have crises and find God at night, you know. In my family, they didn’t, and they even made jokes about it. You could say God is important, but you had to be rational about it.
MBaIt sounds like the household was really not ideological in that way.
MEaNo. Well, in a sense, it was politically. When we lived in Dayton, Ohio, my father and a friend created an organization called the West Side Civic Club, which was a black political organization. That was Republican. And when we came back to Texas, he was a Republican. But not Republican like Republicans now; the Republicans now were the Democrat-Dixiecrats of that era. My father was a part of the Eisenhower movement in Texas.
MBaYou moved to Dayton when you were seven. That must have been a real change, in every way.
MEaIt was, it was. We arrived there in June of 1944. My father had gotten picked to be trained for the Boy Scouts [administration], and then he was assigned to Dayton. He was the first black Scout executive that they ever had, and he was the first Scoutmaster of the first black Boy Scout troop, which was formed at the church we went to. His work, prior to that, was primarily labor or a waiter, that kind of thing. He worked for the Houston Light & Power company, and for a pipe supply company. He was very adept, physically ambidextrous, and very smart. He did one year of college, but that was all. He graduated high school when he was, like, twenty-six years old, because, as was typical, he came from the country when he was ten. He didn’t always stay in school, because he worked.
MBaDid your mother finish college?
MEaNo, mama had me when she was in high school, and then she went back and finished [high school] right away. She and her three older sisters, the same thing happened. They all had children, married, and then went back to school eventually.
MBaI gather that your parents had some feeling for education.
MEaOh, very much. Even my mother’s father, who had only three years of grammar school in Alabama, believed in it, bought encyclopedias and pored over words. No, education was important, but there was also always the need to work.
MBaWhat was it like moving to Ohio from a segregated Texas city?
MEaBut I didn’t know that it was segregated. I didn’t know. You follow me? Age seven, I didn’t know there was a white community. Houston being a large city, the black sections were large, say, fifty thousand people each, so the wards had their own high schools, stores, everything. In fact, I would say, in my memory, until we left Houston, I don’t remember white people. A child’s world is so much within the community and the area. And life was really complete for a young kid. Then in Ohio, we lived in a housing project. Those were new back then. We were lucky to get the housing, through my father’s civic contacts, through the Scouts. It was called DeSoto Bass. Now it has the bad reputation that all housing projects have, but my memories of it are just the opposite. Based on my experience, I’d build them all over the place—but they would only be two stories tall, and they would have plenty of land around them. And everybody would be employed; that’s always the key. But anyway, when William T. Williams and I, and Smokehouse, are painting walls, and dealing with communities, and public art, my thinking goes back often to that experience in Dayton. Now, this was the North, but the housing projects were segregated. Some had been built a few years earlier, in Roosevelt’s time. They were a little nicer. The ones we were in were newer. We may have been the first ones to be living in those. My grammar school, Wogaman Elementary, on the other hand, was integrated. Miss Lemon, my teacher, was white, and there were white students in class. The way I see it now, it was full of immigrants from the South, primarily West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, black and white. There were conflicts involved in that. Although I didn’t notice it, Wogaman evidently had enough of a problem with that that my second year, they bused most of the white kids to another school, Irving Elementary School, which was closer to the center of the city. And my father said, “Well, we didn’t come all the way to Ohio to have you go to a school that’s just like the ones we had in Houston.” In other words, not integrated. So then I went to Irving, too, and I was there for the next four years.
MBaDid you have art class there?
MEaYeah, everybody took art there. Mrs. Bang was the art teacher. I remember she wore a blue smock. I thought at the time, Well, artists must wear blue smocks, because she did. She had us draw from models sometimes; she put students from the class up on a platform. I remember Flora, this blond, I would now say, chubby, German-faced girl, blond with rosy cheeks, and a blue-and-white pinafore. (laughter) When the art teacher said, “Draw her,” and I drew her, and it looked like Flora—that floored me, because I had no idea that that kind of drawing was possible.
MBaSo it was Mrs. Bang who took you to the Dayton Art Institute?
MEaYeah, exactly. It was the first time I ever saw a museum. It had a mini zoo, so it was also the first time I ever saw a peacock, or a deer, caged, but a deer. That was important, no question. I still remember a teacher doing a demonstration. We were outside, and she had a Venus drawing pencil, and she was drawing the foliage of a tree. I mean, she wasn’t doing it leaf by leaf. I liked it. And I remember the armored figures. I think they had a full stuffed horse [taxidermied] and a figure in armor. And a harpsichord. Our game was, when these guards, who I now know were senior citizens (laughter), were not near us, to go bang on the harpsichord, and they’d come creeping around to try and catch us, and of course we were gone. So I knew what a harpsichord was. In Dayton, going to the museum and going to concerts was a part of Irving Elementary’s program. Now they’ve torn that school down.
MBaConcerts, you’re talking about classical music?
MEaYeah. Dayton, in that period, was relatively enlightened about trying to do things for the community. I never understood why everybody didn’t do that. I mean, my high school in Houston, we had very enlightened educators, I would say; but, in that period, in the South, the main thing was just to finish, so you had possibly a little bit better job opportunities. But the respect for education was high and in every family there was somebody who’d had a little more education, when it was financially possible. For instance, my grandfather’s brother, when another brother was killed in World War I, he got the insurance money, so he went to college, if only for a year. But he married somebody who finished college. That’s my uncle J.D. He worked as a waiter at the Elks Lodge, that is, the white Elks Lodge, and that provided him with a good living. He knew how to handle that. Once he had a little money to get started, he did things with it that made his life different, like buying property. All of our houses were wood, but his was brick. He and Aunt Hattie, they had two incomes and no children, and their life was economically better. They had a new car every four years. They lived what you would now call a middle-class life. But most families…we had an old car. The one we drove to Houston, when we moved back there from Dayton, that was a classic. Dad had found an old 1934 Hudson, a limousine, practically. So much space that when we drove from Ohio to Texas, the kids were in the back and there was a steamer trunk between us and the front seat. (laughter) Years later, I said, “Why did you sell it?” He said, “I ask myself the same thing.” He wished he’d kept it. It had wooden spokes. (laughter) We arrived in Houston on Armistice Day, November the eleventh, 1949. We had driven all day and all night, for two days, from Dayton to Cairo, Illinois, and then down through Missouri and Arkansas, and through all of Texas. My father was so tired that for part of the drive he had me sitting beside him, pressing the gas pedal. Big image, but hard to imagine for more than a minute or two at a time. His foot couldn’t do it.
This interview, Melvin Edwards by Michael Brenson, was commissioned by and first published in BOMB on November 24, 2014, Part of the The Oral History Project Series. © Bomb Magazine, New Art Publications, and its Contributors. All rights reserved. The BOMB Digital Archive can be viewed at www.bombmagazine.org.