It’s a Sunday evening and Melvin McDuffie is mad.
He stands on a dirt road, a scowl scrunching up his face, ignoring his brother Frank’s outstretched hand. He wears his Sunday best — a crisp white shirt, dark khaki shorts and black shoes, the kind with buckles and straps that criss-cross over the wearer’s feet.
McDuffie can’t remember exactly what he was mad about, but he recalls the many Sundays like the one portrayed in Leo Rucker’s painting like it was yesterday.
“That’s on Liberia Street,” says McDuffie, who is now in his seventies. “I’ve got my Sunday shoes on and we’re standing on that dusty road. We used to put petroleum on our shoes to get them to shine.”
The painting is a snapshot of a scene from McDuffie’s past, one from his childhood decades ago when he was only about 3 or 4 years old. His older brother Frank, who has since passed away, stands next to him while a third character in the foreground captures the photo.
The work, titled “Shake On It,” is on display as part of Winston-Salem artist Leo Rucker’s exhibition at the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art. Rucker is a part of the museum’s Southern Idiom series which highlights the diversity of artists in the city. Using historical photographs from Old Salem, Rucker, who also works at Old Salem, produced nine paintings that portray individuals and families that lived in Happy Hill, the historical black neighborhood in Winston-Salem, during the 1930 and 1940s.
“Happy Hill was a thriving community for different generations,” says Rucker, who grew up in Winston-Salem on 14th Street. “The paintings represent the success of some of these families. I wanted to show, ‘What was life like across the creek?’”
After the abolition of slavery, many freed slaves bought an acre of land on a hillside that eventually became known as Happy Hill. For decades, the neighborhood was the epicenter of black life in the city. But factors like racist housing practices, the construction of the city’s first public housing units and eventually the construction of highway 52, which cut right through the neighborhood, brought drastic changes to the once thriving neighborhood.
In “Shake On It,” you can almost smell the savory scent of post-church meals being served in the nearby homes, hear the unison cry of the cicadas, feel the grime of the dirt and dust as it wafts in the air and settles on your face, hair and every inch of exposed skin.
McDuffie dates the scene at about 1948. During those years, he and his brother Frank would play near their neighbor Ms. Velma’s house while their mom was visiting with her after church.
“It was a traditional Sunday,” he recalls. “You would go to Sunday school and then go to the 11 o’clock service at church. Then in the afternoon, at grandma’s house you’d eat. Fried chicken, okra, squash, corn, beans. There was never a shortage. Then, you’d go see your friends and enjoy the rest of the day.”
On other days of the week McDuffie remembers seeing neighbors congregating on front porches, playing music while people danced in the yards.
“Most of the folk were hard-working,” he says. “Most of the folk loved and cared about each other. That’s the kind of life you’d want. That’s the kind of neighborhood you’d want. Why do you think you called the hill happy? Happy Hill was a wonderful place.”
McDuffie, who had six siblings, now lives in Durham and traveled more than an hour to attend the opening reception for the show last week.
“How can people care unless they know,” McDuffie asks. “This exhibition is a resuscitation of a life that was lived.”
In a different corner of the gallery, a young woman looks longingly out at the viewer, her eyes full of wonder. Beside her, a work in graphite depicts a man sitting with a girl, perhaps her daughter, each of their faces lifted ever so slightly with a smile.
“She looks like she’s comfortable in his arms,” says Rucker about the girl in “We Happy.” “I wanted to have a balance. A good mix of men and women.”
Rucker spent a month deciding which of the 300 or so archival images he would paint for the show.
“Each one will help us understand that time period,” he says. “Each one spoke a different conversation to me.”
In “In front of Ms. Mottie’s house,” a toddler reaches playfully towards the camera as they sit in a wooden high chair outside of an old, shotgun-style house. Freshly washed laundry hangs on a line strung along the front porch of a house that sits on a cinderblock foundation. The painting has a quaint feel to it, harkening to a simpler time.
“This was the inner city but it has a rural, country feel to it,” Rucker says. “I grew up going down dirt roads like this.”
Across the way, a casually cool man stands in the foreground of a painting entitled, “The Stoneman.” He leans gently to one side as if caught right before the shot was taken. A tobacco pipe hangs loosely in his mouth, a mustache protecting his upper lip. According to the original photo, the man in the picture and painting is John Forney, a local stonemason. Like many of the other photographs used for the exhibition, not much is known about those depicted besides their names. That’s why Rucker puts his own spin on their tales and give them backstories of his own making.
“You can tell he’s strong,” Rucker says as he gazes upon the painting. “Look at the strong hands. You can imagine him working as a mason.”
Rucker recalls a stonemason from his own childhood named Robert and projects his personality onto Forney.
“[Robert] was passionate about [his job],” Rucker says. “He was meticulous. Everything had to be perfect.”
Even without knowing the intimate details of the lives of those he paints Rucker says that immortalizing them in paint or graphite is important to keep the memory of Happy Hill alive.
“I want people to think about the paintings,” he says. “Maybe they can find something that’s relevant or recognize something.”
Despite all of its challenges, Happy Hill continues to be known for its history and significance in Winston-Salem, and that’s what Rucker is working to preserve. And for McDuffie and those who still remember the Happy Hill that once was, it’s enough.
“It’s a joy that you can see and relate to,” says McDuffie, who continues to visit Happy Hill when he’s in town. “It was joy. You know what they say. You can take me out of Happy Hill, but you can’t take Happy Hill out of me. We are spread all over the world, but that is our home. It’s like, ‘welcome home.’”
Painting Happy Hill is on display through Aug. 11. Find out more about the exhibit here.