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.)