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T.J. Reddy’s story and artwork are more important than ever

By Mark I. West

June 16, 2020

Long before the phrase “Black Lives Matter” became a rallying cry for civil rights activists across the nation and world, T.J. Reddy had already established himself as one of Charlotte’s leading civil rights activists. 

As a student at UNC Charlotte in the late 1960s, Reddy advocated for the creation of a Black Studies program, and today he is recognized as one of the leaders who helped make UNC Charlotte’s current Africana Studies Department a reality. In the early 1970s, he fought tirelessly for racial integration. As a result of his activism he was arrested on dubious charges and, in 1972, was sentenced to a 20-year prison term. The case drew national attention with Tom Wicker, a New York Times columnist, calling his imprisonment a “miscarriage of justice.” In 1979 Governor Jim Hunt commuted Reddy’s sentence.  

Artist, poet and activist, T.J. Reddy.

After his release from prison, Reddy turned to painting as a way to express himself. He aligned himself with the social realism movement, but his version of realism included a touch of magic and an appreciation for the spiritual. He looked to the painters associated with the Harlem Renaissance for inspiration, and credited Romare Bearden as one the artists who influenced his work.  

Reddy’s art often deals with difficult topics, but he offers hope for a better future. Many of his paintings celebrate teachers and the importance of providing children with positive self-images. His commitment to the civil rights movement is reflected in his art, but his paintings cannot be reduced to political statements.

Reddy died on March 31, 2019, but his legacy lives on through his art. Fortunately for those of us who live in the Charlotte area, several examples of his work are still on exhibit in public places.  

“Remembrances of Charlotte’s Second Ward” at the Charlotte Convention Center. Photo: Doug Tober

The Charlotte Convention Center is home to an expansive work by T.J. Reddy titled “Remembrances of Charlotte’s Second Ward (Brooklyn and Blue Heaven).”  Painted in 1996, this large painting is the most prominent of Reddy’s various public art projects. It is located on the C Concourse just off the MLK Blvd. entrance to the Convention Center.  In this work, Reddy set out to depict the “cultural values” of the residents of the African American community that once existed on the site where the Charlotte Convention Center is now located. The work features a montage of images of people interacting within the contexts of their homes, schools, churches, and places of business. Like pages from a photo album, these separate images depict moments in the lives of families or scenes from special community events. However, when viewed together, they interconnect both visually and thematically. As its title indicates, this work is a tribute to Charlotte’s Second Ward, but it can also be seen as a celebration of community.

Another example of Reddy’s public art can be found in the lobby of the Levine Museum of the New South. Titled “Pews on Parade,” this work features a series of images that are painted directly on the surface of a long, wooden church pew. These images have spiritual connotations, but the focus is on the congregants, the people who sit in the pews of Charlotte’s African American churches. As such, this work, like “Remembrances of Charlotte’s Second Ward,” speaks to the value of community.

“Pews on Parade” at the Levine Museum of the New South. Photo: Bertha Tillman

Many of Reddy’s paintings include images of children interacting with their parents or teachers. In fact, there are several such images in “Remembrances of Charlotte’s Second Ward.” In various interviews, he stressed the importance of teaching children. This theme is reflected in his painting titled “The Child as an Open Book,” which is on permanent display in the main stairway of UNC Charlotte’s Atkins Library. It depicts a mother and child reading a book together. The book is the focal point, but the loving nature of the relationship between the mother and her child sharing a book is at the heart of the painting.

UNC Charlotte’s College of Education also has a painting by T.J. Reddy on permanent exhibit. The painting depicts a wise woman who is presented as being at one with nature. Located just outside the Dean’s office, it was donated by then Dean Mary Lynn Calhoun when her associate dean, Barbara Edwards, retired. As Barbara recently recalled, Reddy came to her retirement party:

Having been friends with T.J. since the late 1970s, I was delighted that he found time to come to my retirement party at UNC Charlotte in 2009. But I was completely speechless when Dean Mary Lynne Calhoun and T.J. surprised me with their subterfuge and presented one of his beautiful paintings from the series, “Scenes for the Teacher,” to be hung in the College of Education in my honor. As was his custom, T.J. renamed the painting to suit the occasion of its transference from him to a permanent home. He called it “Accolade.

T.J. Reddy presents “Accolade” painting now located outside of the Dean’s office at UNC Charlotte. Photo: Barbara Edwards

T.J. Reddy had a special connection to UNC Charlotte. He promoted the establishment of UNC Charlotte’s Black Studies Program when he was an undergraduate student, and this program evolved into an academic department, which is now called the Africana Studies Department. He was the very first artist-in-residence in the department in 2009. At the end of his residency, he gave the department a portrait of Dr. Bertha Maxwell-Roddy, the founding chair of what was then called the Afro-American and African Studies Department at UNC Charlotte. Reddy called this painting “Bertha and Her Children.” This painting is one of several works by Reddy in which a female figure is surrounded by the bounty and beauty of nature. In this particular painting, however, the background is peopled with smaller figures, representing the countless students and other people whose lives were shaped in some way by Dr. Maxwell-Roddy.   

“Bertha and Her Children” Photo: Akin Ogundiran

In “Bertha and Her Children” and in many of Reddy’s other paintings, teachers and elders are honored. Through his art, T.J. always celebrated the people who care for children, who teach students, who nurture creativity, and who build communities. He sometimes talked about how we all belong to a larger “human ecology,” and this theme of interconnectedness permeates his art. In many ways, Reddy is an artist for these divisive times. His paintings draw attention to the many injustices that riddle our society, but they also help see all that we have in common, offering a vision of a more caring and just world. 

Mark I. West is a professor of English at UNC Charlotte, where he has taught since 1984. He was recently selected for the Bonnie Cone Professorship in Civic Engagement in recognition for his community-service activities. His articles have appeared in various national publications, such as The New York Times Book ReviewPublishers WeeklyAmericana, and British Heritage.

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