Wandering in York County

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Chambliss' painting called "Black American Experience"

Ophelia Chambliss’ painting on the black experience brings insight into York’s past

For this year’s York History Storyteller’s evening, we were given clear instructions: Find two images that reflect York and talk about them.

If you didn’t get a chance to attend the event, my history blogging and writing colleagues Joan Concilio, Jeff Kirkland, Jeri Jones, June Lloyd, Scott Mingus Sr., and Stephen H. Smith picked some amazing photographs. From Jeri’s presentation on York’s geology, Joan and Stephen’s focus on one-room school houses, and June’s discussion on Punch, the cigar-store statue, we had a fun evening discussing York’s history.


You can watch York’s History Storyteller’s presentations here. 

Lorann Jacob’s hands working on her latest sculpture of Bill Schintz

Looking back, I feel confident that I explained my grandmother’s, Lorann Jacob’s, hands and the maker spirit of York. However, by the time I spoke again about Ophelia Chambliss’ work, I got a little too comfortable on stage and forgot most of what I wanted to say! Luckily, I write this blog and have the opportunity to emphasize the message I wanted to tell.

In September of 2018, two friends and I attended Chambliss’ presentation on York’s Black American History held at York College’s Center for Community Engagement. The reception celebrated her paintings in the gallery called “Hidden Figures” and will be on display throughout 2019. Chambliss told me the purpose of the gallery is to “bring awareness to York’s Black History and to fill in the gaps in the story in terms of what we see, hear, read, archive and record.”

One of my favorite paintings is called “Black American Experience.” Before I get into my thoughts on the importance of her work, let me tell you a quick story.

We still have things to learn about one another

I teach a class in a private school to ninth graders called American Cultures. I focus on American history from 1865 to current day. Notice how the name of the class is plural — American Cultures. Our country, including York County, encompasses many, hundreds even, of subcultures. The bubble we grew up in only touches a fraction of the different ways of experiencing this life including food choices, music, clothes, traditions, beliefs, and practices.

The school where I teach is quite diverse. 44 percent of the students are white and 56 percent are children of color including Black, Hispanic, Arab, Asian, and Native American students. It’s also a residential school where students live on campus throughout the year in a student home with a house mother and house father. There are about 12 to 13 students in each student home and they are groups by sex and age. 

Two weeks ago, a student home of high school girls invited me to their Thanksgiving feast. Each girl selected one food item to prepare for their guests, many of which were quite different from what I was used to eating at my holiday dinners. I ate handmade mozzarella sticks, Jalapeno poppers, mac and cheese, and kale chips. After dinner, a junior in the home asked the thirty or so guests to share what their families do to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Now, keep in mind my dad’s family is Pennsylvania Dutch and my mom’s side of the family are Americanized Lithuanians. I’m used to eating mashed potatoes, stuffing, turkey, gravy, and cranberry sauce around a table after which we talk about what’s going on in our lives and current events. After about two or three hours, we hug our goodbyes and depart for the evening with leftovers in plastic containers.

However, not everyone celebrates Thanksgiving the same way. What they girls shared around that student home dinner table opened my eyes to the true plurality of our culture. Our students shared things like having a dance party where their uncles DJ’ed the latest hiphop music, calling in Chinese takeout, the whole family getting in their PJ’s and watching movies. Many said after dancing for a few hours, the entire family would grab paper plates, pile on soul food, and crowd around the living room to watch a movie together. Sounds fun right?

I spend hours with my students everyday, more time than with my own family. And, I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t realize how multicultural my classroom truly is. Even as a Social Studies teacher, I assumed my students basically celebrate the holidays the same way I do. How obtuse of me. That single evening revealed that no matter how educated we become, we still have things to learn about one another.

Chambliss’ paintings on the black American experience

The painting by Chambliss called “Black American Experience” shows an older couple walking hand-in-hand on their way to church. Ophelia describes the frame as what looks like stain glass in an art nouveau style. Framing them in this way, she says, represents them in a new way, from their point of view, and with an emphasis on the positive.

Here are a few more of her paintings.

Chambliss’ painting showing Black Power
Chambliss’ painting showing Cookson Playground
Chambliss’ painting of Hester Oliver
Chambliss’ painting of Zach Shaw
Chambliss’ painting of a peaceful protest

These are just a few of the many paintings taken from a gallery featuring the history of black people in York County. If you want to see the rest of Ophelia’s gallery, it’s located at York College’s Center for Community Engagement on 59 E. Market Street, York. This is particularly fitting since the building used to be known as the Lafayette club — a members-only club for white males until  it was desegregated when women were permitted in the early 1990s and blacks were allowed in 1998.

The story of my Thanksgiving dinner and this painting serve as an example. They challenge us to be more than tolerant, but accepting and respectful of the way of life of other people. Chambliss’ gallery celebrates communities of color through her artwork.  The hope is that a more inclusive understanding of our past as well as how other people live today will make for a more harmonious and informed future.  

You can see more on Chambliss’ galleries here.

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