Growing up in Smithfield, North Carolina in the 1950s and early ’60s, Charles Joyner was embraced by his community. There were strong role models up and down the street. Everyone looked out for each other. And if he misbehaved somewhere, his parents knew before he got home.
But the small agricultural town was segregated. Charles had to walk past a white school to get to his Black one. So in 1964, when an assistant principal announced that the American Friends Service Committee was accepting applications for its Southern Negro Student Program, he was excited.
The program brought African American students north. They lived with host families, and attended desegregated schools.
Charles’ mother worked in the Burlington factory. She was unsure. His father, who had been blind since 14, helped Charles convince her. Feeling pressure to succeed — not just for himself, but his entire community — in 1964 he headed to Westport.
The Ader family — Saul, his wife Leda, and their children Peter and Wendy — opened their home to Charles. There were culture shocks (“that first Sunday with bagels and lox was something!” he laughs). But the Aders’ extended family and friends — and soon the broader Staples High school community — welcomed the newcomer from North Carolina.
It helped that Charles was a very good football player. But his friends came from many groups. Lou Nistico and his family — owners of the popular Arrow restaurant in Saugatuck — were among his strongest supporters.
Joyner’s experience was not like some others in the SNSP program. It was not easy to adjust to new schools. Northern communities were not always welcoming. He considers himself fortunate to have landed in Westport. He has nothing but fond memories of his 2 years here.
He had always loved art. But, he says, he was “busy being a jock.” He did not take advantage of Staples’ excellent art courses.
He did, however, take a mechanical drawing course at Staples, with the legendary Werner Friess. A meticulous man, he fined students if their T-squares fell on the floor. He influenced Joyner greatly.
So did a friend of the Aders, an architect with an office in Greenwich Village. Joyner spent entire days with him.
Joyner also remembers his summer job with nursery owner and landscaper Evan Harding. Though the work was mostly outdoors, one day he asked Joyner to create a set of drawings for him.
After graduation, Joyner headed to Iowa State University to play football.
The experience was not good — for him, or the few other Black athletes there. But he got a good foundation in landscape architecture. After transferring to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, Joyner pivoted a bit to his longtime passion, art.
The tradition was easy. The “structure” of mechanical drawing and architecture became part of Joyner’s style. He earned a degree in art and design from A&T, then earned an MFA at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. He added printmaking and photography to his skills.
His work won awards in national exhibitions, and is exhibited around the US and in Africa. He was awarded 2 grants for public arts projects.
Joyner is a noted teacher of art and design too. He became department chair — and assistant dean — at North Carolina State University’s noted College of Design.
He had long wanted to go to Africa. A 1994 trip to establish a study abroad program (“at NC State the white kids went to Europe; the Black kids did not go anywhere,” he says) was the first of over 2 dozen visits.
Joyner helped create a robust program, extending from Accra, Ghana into small villages in nearly every region, encompassing sculpture, weaving, pottery and batik.
But Joyner never forgot his Westport roots. Two years ago, he was honored to be interviewed for the Westport Library’s Artist in Residence archives series.
And when the Westport Permanent Art Collections asked to buy one of his works, Joyner donated it instead.
Next week, he returns to Westport. A new exhibit — “Charles Joyner: Stepping Out on Faith” — opens at the Westport Library on Thursday, March 10.
That night (6:30 p.m. reception; 7 p.m. event, in-person and Zoom), he joins Emmy and Peabody-winning filmmaker, playwright and professor Trey Ellis — a Westport resident — for a panel discussion.
“As a storyteller myself, I’m proud to be right here to help ignite the conversation around the impact that the Southern Negro Student Program had on racial identity social justice and education — and the hard work we still have to do,” Ellis says.
They’ll be joined by Bonnyeclaire Smith Stewart. A former SNSP student herself at Norwalk High, she is the founder and executive director of 4 Million Voices. The nonprofit researches and publishes accounts of the lives of African Americans. She is developing a documentary film about Black students who came north to finish high school.
Smith Stewart and Joyner have been friends for over 50 years. He looks forward to seeing her here — along with many other Westport friends, old and new.
(No pre-registration is needed for Trefz Forum event. Click here for the Zoom link, to watch at home.)
Such a great article. Love that you learn something and get inspired by people.
Thanks to the wonderful folks at the Westport Library for continuing to bring wonderful art, programming and exhibits to our town! ‘Looking forward to Thursday…
Terrific story of success well told, thanks Dan
Great story. Especially Charles’ early experience,staying with the wonderful Ader family in Westport. They were close friends of my family, in Weston, during the turbulent 1960’s.
Wow, great and inspiring story, Dan. At the time I lived two houses down from the Aders on Cross Highway. Don’t remember Charles Joyner, but being 8 yrs old at the time, I didn’t hang around with a whole lot of high school students! Looking forward to seeing his work, and happy to see that he’s a resident of my new home state of N.C.
Best wishes to Charles, who was a great teammate on our Staples ’66 team. (A pretty good drummer, too!) I’m delighted by his success as an artist and fellow teacher, and I wish I could be there for this event.
So very proud to call this man my Dad!! This article is a great representation of his life as a student and an artist. My brother and I, and our children benefit greatly from my Dad’s experiences. It is awesome to see his story shared with the world!
We were on the track team together, myself a sophomore and Charlie a senior. He’s easy to remember because I think he was one of only two black members of the team in 1966. He was very well liked and had a sense of humor too. We didn’t interact much, he being a sprinter and myself a distance runner. It’s always nice to learn where people have gone in life and done so well.
Wasn’t Charlie a basketball star too at Staples? If so—and if Charlie should see this—I wonder what he remembers about the games played against Norwalk High and the legendary Calvin Murphy.
In any case, Charlie is clearly a man of many talents and I wish I could be there in person.
Delighted to read this article and to see some familiar names in response to Dan’s item. I remember the Blau family well, and the Pomerantz’s too. I’ve been away from Westport since 1971, living in eastern Canada. But some of my very best Westport memories include Charlie…and yes, Fred Cantor, Charles played basketball too and he would often go up against the amazing Cal Murphy.
I was quite a bit younger than Charlie but at that time I idolized all the great Staples athletes and I remember him well. Remember feeling incredible pride that he was obviously very much at home and happy during his time in Westport. I remember the Ader family too but I never knew there was a connection with Charlie and that they were so instrumental. These great memories pop up in the most unexpected places and at inexplicable times thanks to Dan. Is this heaven? No. Westport.
Eric- I hope you’ll be able to attend the opening of Charles’ show this Thursday… unfortunately my brother Peter and I live too far away to attend but I know Charles will love meeting people who remember him from 1964 and ’65. Wendy Ader-Jones.
Mom and Dad would have been very pride of this article about my brother.
I continue to carry on their support and love for his success.
I’m one of his biggest fans.
I’m very pride also.
When I was a freshman design major at NC State University in the Fall of 1993, Charles was the professor for my very first design fundamentals studio course. To this day, I still marvel at how lucky I was to have had him as an instructor. I learned so much about rigor, commitment, process, exploration, creativity, etc. from him, and on top of all that he was just so damn likable! A truly inspiring person and teacher, his influence has stayed with me all these years since then. Reading this profile and looking over the material included was really wonderful. Congratulations, Charles! Know that the ‘ripple effects’ of what you gave us students way back then is still reverberating in the world. Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU.