It’s a sunny June afternoon and several women from the 14th Street Community Center are hanging the long sections of bright orange paper that comprise the Memorial Wall, which is hung on the south wall of the gymnasium. There are calls for different kinds of adhesives, questions about the height of placement, and discussions about the proper technique for securing the paper to painted brick. Two women stand on benches to adhere the wide strips of brightly-colored paper while two more stand on the ground behind them with their hands raised, propping the women up and ensuring that no one loses her balance. The paper is secured with the utmost care: wrinkles and dimples are smoothed out prior to taping. Conversations take place, meanwhile—one woman is having her dress tailored for the Fire & Ice ball, another is telling stories about someone whose name is listed on the Memorial Wall. The North End Super Reunion Memorial Wall is a huge undertaking, and it’s only a part of the four-day-long celebration coordinated by the North End Super Reunion Committee. The Memorial Wall is s significant feature of the event, as it lists the names and includes photographs of North End community members who have passed on since the last Reunion. Over the next several days, attendees will scan the entries, reminiscing about their friends and loved ones.
During summer of 2017, the Ohio State University Center for Folklore Studies partnered with the 14th Street Community Center and Dr. Drew Feight of the Digital History Lab at Shawnee State University to document the history of Portsmouth’s North End Super Reunion (NESR), a quadrennial (meaning, occurring every four years) homecoming that brings together current and former residents of the North End, a historically African American neighborhood in Portsmouth, Ohio. The NESR is organized by an all-volunteer team of residents who log countless hours to make this event meaningful for their friends and families.
From June 29th to July 2nd, 2017, the neighborhood was buzzing with energy. Old friends were reunited, and new friends and connections were made. People shared stories and photos in the months prior to the gathering on the NESR Facebook page, commenting on Throwback Thursday and Flashback Friday prompts. Among the event highlights were the Youth Promise Drill Team’s STEP performance and balloon launch, the Fire & Ice Ball (where the exquisitely themed room and dazzling outfits wowed us all), and the delicious Baked Bean Cook-off (featuring entries with names like “Beast Mode” and “Bean There, Done That”). The reunion concluded with the North End Community Church Service, which brought together eight pastors and congregations from across the neighborhood. Food and conversation were at the center of the NESR, as attendees stayed up until all hours of the night telling stories and reminiscing about the neighborhood. The reunion wrapped up on Sunday with a relaxing afternoon of live jazz in Bannon Park. View NESR photographs and oral history interviews through the Ohio Field School's Collection on Shawnee State University's Digital Commons@Shawnee site!
The history of segregation, desegregation, and Black life in Portsmouth has been discussed and explored by the North End community and local scholars. However, Black life in Portsmouth and Appalachia more generally remains underrepresented in the public record. (See the end of this article for more sources on this topic.) North End residents regularly document their events and celebrations, maintaining informal archives within their homes. Several community members, many of them Black women, have been documenting performances and conversations that tackle difficult local topics. Maxine Malone—a pillar of the 14th Street Community Center—writes and produces plays about topics impacting local youth, such as bullying and biracial identity. Maureen Cadogan collects historical artifacts (especially Jim Crow-era memorabilia) and displays and discusses them at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration. Drew Carter, former resident and local community organizer of World Sound Entertainment and Watch Me Grow, has been interviewing influential leaders, organizers, non-profit directors, musicians, and artists in the city and surrounding area using Facebook Live. Along with his team of students, Dr. Andrew Feight of Shawnee State University has authored several articles for Scioto Historical about such varied topics as the all-Black Civilian Conservation Corps units that helped build Shawnee State Forest, and Black Friday, a day in 1830 when the enforcement of the “Black Laws” led to the forcible removal of African Americans in the city. Most recently, Dr. Feight published an article about segregation, desegregation and the creation of McKinley Memorial Pool in Portsmouth.
Throughout the four days, our collaborative archiving and documentation resulted in 17 archival scans, 155 photographs, 6 video interviews, and 6 event recordings. All of the materials produced through this collaboration will be housed with the NESR Committee at the 14th Street Community Center c/o Drew Carter, and copies will be stored at the Digital History Lab at Shawnee State University and the Folklore Archives at Ohio State University. These materials will be freely accessible to the public.
- Family History with Maureen Cadogan, a digital gallery of the Ohio Field Schools
- North End Super Reunion Facebook page
- African American history essays and collections in the Local History Digital Collection at Portsmouth Public Library (contact Carolyn Cottrell)
- Essays on African American history on Scioto Historical (contact Dr. Andrew Feight)
Recommended Reading & Sources
- Eastern Kentucky African Migration Project at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (created by Karida Brown)
- hooks, bell. Appalachian Elegy and Belonging: A Culture of Place.
- Gone Home: Race and Roots through Appalachia by Karida Brown (UNC Press, 2019)
- Catte, Elizabeth. “The Mythical Whiteness of Trump Country” in Boston Review. November 7, 2017.
- What You’re Getting Wrong About Appalachia by Elizabeth Catte (belt Publishing, 2018)
- "Ethnicity and Race, African Americans, Immigrants, Native Americans" section of the Appalachian Studies Bibliography (available for free online through West Virginia University Libraries)
Dr. Cassie Patterson