By Bostik Johnson
On February 21, the Mispillion Art League (MAL), hosted its second Third Thursday event of the year, showcasing an informative presentation about prominent local African American artists and celebrating the history of the Rosedale Beach Hotel and Resort with renditions of popular black music.
Donna Blakey, MAL member and organizer of the event, began the presentation with a discussion about the life of renowned black artist Edward Loper Sr., one of Delaware’s most celebrated cultural figures. Loper was born on the east side of Wilmington on April 7, 1916, and lived in Delaware up until he died at the age of 95 in 2011. Loper graduated from Howard High School in 1934 and was known as an amazing athlete. Loper used his passion for art to secure a job at the Works Progress Administration as a painter. At that time, Loper’s friend saw his work and told Loper that his work held no real value and advised Loper to visit the Philadelphia Art Museum to hone his skills. Loper visited the museum every Saturday for 25 years and found his inspiration from artist like Cézanne and El Greco. There he began to see an appreciation of colors and was later known in his career as the “Prophet of Color.”
Loper’s paintings focused on landscapes, still life, and portraits around the Wilmington area. He was the first African American artist to have his painting accepted at the Wilmington Society of Fine Arts in 1937, which was an inspiration as Loper had to deal with discrimination, segregation, and financial hardships all of his early life. Loper’s works can be seen in the Mechanical Hall Gallery at the University of Delaware.
“I urge everyone to take a drive up to the museum to see some of Loper’s work because they are fabulous and very inspirational,” Blakey commented.
The next artist Blakey presented was Simmie Knox, an African American artist who overcame much adversity to become an inspiring figure in the African American community. Knox was born on 1935, in Alabama, where he grew up poor with most of his family working as sharecroppers. At the age of 13, Knox was hit in the eye with a baseball. His teachers encouraged him to draw as a way to help recover his eye from the injury. After graduating high school, Knox spent some time in the military and then attended Delaware State University as a biology major. There he spent much of his time doodling microorganisms and with the advice from one of his professors, Knox enrolled in several art classes at the university. After completing his studies at Delaware State, Knox transferred to the Tyler School of Art at Temple University.
In 1976, Knox painted a portrait of Fredrick Douglass which became a huge sensation and is now featured at the Smithsonian Intuition. In 2000, Knox received the assignment of painting the portraits of President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton. Knox is the first African American artist to create an official presidential portrait. His work is currently on exhibition at 919 Market in downtown Wilmington until March 21. Knox actually has a personal connection with Donald Blakey, Donna’s father, who was Knox’s swimming instructor at Delaware State University.
“We became very close friends through that particular activity,” said Mr. Blakey. “I have had wonderful opportunities to go to his house in Washington D.C. and talk about the old days at Delaware State.”
The last artist Blakey presented was Doris Price, an African American artist who found her inspiration from listening to jazz music. Price was born in Sussex County Delaware and received her bachelor’s in painting and writing from Empire State College of the State University of New York. She wrote the book “Jazz from the Belly of the Blues” which talks about her love of jazz music and how a small place in Delaware inspired all of her work.
“The connection is when she was just a girl her family owned a property that the Rosedale Beach Hotel was a part of,” commented Ms. Blakey. “In her book she says that she happily drifted off to sleep listening to the strains of music upstream from the local dance hall called Rosedale.”
At this point in the evening, Mr. Blakey and his team of singers informed the crowd about the history of Rosedale. The Rosedale Beach Hotel and Resort was located in Millsboro, Delaware and operated from the 1900s to the 1970s. Rosedale Beach was officially incorporated on April 14, 1937 and featured a hotel, boardwalk, dance hall, picnic tables, campgrounds, and amusement parks. During the age of segregation, there were few places for people of color to go for entertainment and hotel accommodations. Music legends like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Nate King Cole, and Miles Davis performed for meals and lodging. The hotel is no longer physically at the location in Millsboro, but lives on through individuals who experienced it. Mr. Blakey said that when he was working at Rosedale during the summer, he was limited in places to eat, play, and sleep, but all that changed when he was introduced to the hotel and resort. He said people all over the country would converge to Rosedale to experience a vibrant musical experience that no other place in Sussex County was offering.
“What we tried to do was refresh the crowd’s memories, take them back to a period of time where Rosedale was the hippest spot in town,” Mr. Blakey commented.
Mr. Blakey and his team of singers preformed hits from various singers who played at the Rosedale Hotel. These hits included songs from Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday (Lady Day). The Mispillion Art League crowd joined the performances with applauds, dancing and singing along.