By Susan Crockenberg, Contributor
A year ago at a breakfast Alice Outwater hosted at Shelburne Farms, Lydia Clemmons (the younger) alerted me to her family’s plans to transform their farm into an African American Heritage and Multicultural Center here in Charlotte. I was impressed with their undertaking and drawn in by Lydia’s enthusiastic rendering of the Clemmons Family Farm vision. But it was meeting Jackson and Lydia (the elder) Clemmons and listening to their inspiring and often poignant stories about their lives in Charlotte as well as their family history back to the time of slavery that fully engaged my heart.
At each stage of their lives, this remarkable couple has embarked on a project of daunting proportions: medical and nursing school for Jackson and Lydia, purchase of the 148-acre farm in Charlotte that they ran in their “spare time” with the help of their five children, working as a pathologist in Tanzania at the start of the AIDS crisis (Jackson), starting the first mail-order African Art import business (Lydia), and creating the remarkable Barn House on the Clemmons property (Jackson) after they had retired and were already in their 70s. Now in their 90s, Jackson and Lydia are embarking on yet another venture, one that meets their personal wish to remain in the home they purchased in 1962 and have lived in ever since and their dream to bring together African Americans and other members of the African diaspora to share their stories and their artistic, musical and culinary accomplishments with the community near and far.
Inspired, I wanted others to hear Jackson’s and Lydia’s voices and to meet this amazing couple. I would volunteer as a docent, I decided, a small but concrete act to counter the rising racism and mounting white supremacy currently infecting our nation, guiding people through Jackson Clemmons’ marvelous Barn House, sharing information about its history and design and about Jack and Lydia and their lives through their recorded narratives, their many photographs, the incredible artifacts they collected during their travels in Africa and from Jackson’s forays into salvage yards in the Vermont hinterlands. Sometimes when I give tours Jackson and the Lydias (elder and younger) grace us with their presence, and we listen to their narratives from their own lips, often stories I’ve never heard before despite the time I’ve spent with them. How many historical places can you visit where the historical figures that inhabited them are alive, lucid and eager to share their tales with their visitors?
Although the vignettes that make up Jack and Lydia’s narrative are too numerous and richly detailed to recount fully here (they are available on the Clemmons Farm website: clemmonsfamilyfarm.org), I offer a few sketches to illustrate their power to inform, sometimes to amaze or horrify, and always to warm our hearts.
In her soft engaging voice, Lydia (senior) relates how her grandmother Margie escaped, some 40 years after slavery ended, from the Louisiana farm where she had grown up, how she was recaptured, but was finally successful in fleeing from the town of Couchetta, Louisiana, traveling at night, hiding during the day, ending up in Ringgold, Louisiana, where she married a well-to-do African American farmer. Accompanying her were her two young children, one of whom would become our Lydia’s mother and tell the tale of that escape.
Jack speaks soberly of serving in the still-segregated U.S. Army during World War II, where in his own words “there were other battles to be fought.” Discrimination against African American soldiers was rampant to the point that his company prepared to defend themselves from an attack by a nearby company of white soldiers and where, as an educated Black man, he endured an uneasy relationship with other less educated Black soldiers who viewed his education and vocabulary as evidence that he was “trying to be white.”
Then there is Jackson and Lydia’s story of finding their Charlotte farm. Newly hired as a pathologist at the University of Vermont Medical College, Jackson (and Lydia) dreamed of raising their growing family in the country. From a local newspaper, Jackson learned of Charlotte and decided to check it out, taking a bus to Shelburne, walking the rest of the way. As he made his way down Greenbush Road, a dirt road at the time, he happened upon a Charlotte farmer, one Mr. Sautel, who was at that moment bidding his grown sons adieu. Jack asked the farmer whether he planned to remain alone on his farm, the two men discovered they had both graduated from the University of Wisconsin, and before long Mr. Sautel agreed to sell his farm to the Clemmons. Jack and Lydia’s decision to move to Charlotte shocked their extended family, who thought that as young up-and-coming African American professionals they should locate in a city and experience the good life there. Jack’s physician colleagues were similarly befuddled that he and Lydia would choose to live in rural Charlotte, which at that time lacked the cachet that has come to be associated with our town.
It is fortunate for those of us who reside in Charlotte today that Jack and Lydia Clemmons chose this beautiful place to settle. They have been engaged citizens and kind neighbors over the years and now are in the process of transitioning their family farm into an African American Heritage and Multicultural Center, a resource for the entire community. They have applied for and received positive feedback on a grant from ArtPlace America’s National Creative Placemaking Fund that will allow them to realize this dream, providing funds for the development of a multitude of programs and for further renovation of the farm buildings. One plan is to provide African American artists and scholars a place to live and work through short-term residences on the lower level of the Barn House, where they would be readily available to share their expertise with the community. Another is to create a system of interactive trails around the farm for visitors to explore when they come to the Clemmons Family Farm, now an official stop on the Vermont African American Heritage Trail.
Until the end of October, the Barn House will be open for tours most weekends for those who sign up in advance. Information about times and directions for signing up for tours are available at this link. We would love to have you visit the Barn House and learn more about the remarkable Clemmons family—their past, their current activities and what they dream of for the future for themselves, Charlotte and all of us.