Two Districts, One City: Roots Historical Arts Council

"What was once full of dilapidated buildings and overgrown brush in a floundering part of Lubbock is now transforming itself into a burgeoning art scene through various efforts, with the Roots Historical Arts Council and the Caviel Museum being the corner stones of its transformation."

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“If I were young and black, I’d get the hell out of Lubbock, Texas,” an older black gentleman said as he guided me through an art exhibit titled Beautiful People, Places and Things of East Lubbock. The photo project, which celebrates the diversity of the people on Lubbock’s east side, is located in the Roots Historical Arts Council Revitalization Center on 23rd and Avenue A.


Being young and black myself, I came back to the area after college to begin my career, and although I have been lucky to have been blind to some of the injustices placed on past minorities in Lubbock, I understood where the man was coming from because, sometimes, when I hear people discuss the east side and how, “those people,” act, or even hearing from a Lubbock Police Officer once, “they just don’t know how to take care of things,” when referring to, “that side,” of Lubbock, it does make me want to get the hell out of Lubbock, Texas. It’s not racist if you’re referring to the ghetto, right? Wrong, Lubbock, oh so wrong.


Then some days you discover a group of people, a place, an art piece, or a story that makes you realize that being young and black in Lubbock is a great opportunity to create change. That’s what the Roots Historical Arts Council has been doing all along. Those efforts aren’t in vain as the excitement of the opening of the Caviel on Juneteenth begins to heighten.


There’s west of I-27….


…. and then there’s east.


What was once full of dilapidated buildings and overgrown brush in a floundering part of Lubbock is now transforming itself into a burgeoning art scene through various efforts, with the Roots Historical Arts Council and the Caviel Museum being the corner stones of its transformation.


In a rapidly growing city where most of the newly implanted young professionals are flocking to the south side (also being infested with strip malls-galore) the downtown area, although slow in popularity, has begun to become an important art scene for the South Plains. Of course, that’s one Friday a month for Lubbock’s monthly First Friday Art Trail where the likes of LHUCA, CASP, Tornado Gallery and The Buddy Holly Center have become popular. When it comes to the Lubbock art galleries, some have reached their adolescence phase, leaving smaller, lesser-known galleries just wanting to be invited to sit at the cool kid table.


Early this spring I headed north on I-27, but instead of my instinctual turn to the west at the 19th Street exit to make my way to the Lubbock Cultural District, I turned east to meet with Eric Strong, one of the passionate citizens that is helping transform East Lubbock.


The transformation has been slow but it’s there. I met Eric at the Revitalization Center for the Roots Historical Arts Council in a small brick building on 23rd and Avenue A. The building sits along a railroad track with an older residential area on one side of the tracks and industrial steel structures on the other side. Almost hidden between the two sides and sitting in the yard of the Revitalization Center are some of the most interesting public art pieces I have seen in Lubbock. The structures are conducive to the infamous Lubbock winds so that when a breeze rushes between the metal pieces they move, change forms, sing, and dance in a Seussical manner. Even as cars rushed by on Avenue A, the outdoor art pieces told stories and I immediately wanted to sit down with Eric Strong and listen.

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In a room surrounded by posters of past events that the center sponsored, (including concerts by Gladys Knight and Tom Braxton, story telling contests, a roast of city councilman, T.J. Patterson and, more recently, the Timothy Brian Cole Dedication which was a dedication of the statue on the campus of Texas Tech University for a black man wrongfully accused of rape) Eric told me more about the organization.


The building that houses other organizations also offers office space, “at the same price of a cheeseburger,” Mr. Strong said in his colorful manner. The space is also home to the Seedlings Youth Art Gallery where the Take Pride in the Eastside Project is on display and sponsored by a CH Foundation Grant. The center is mostly funded through grant writing and business sponsorships.


Mr. Strong said that the organization’s name was inspired by the movie Roots and when it began in 1977 to celebrate the culture of African-American history in Lubbock, the whirlwind of controversy swirled.


“A lot of people don’t know the history (of African-Americans in West Texas),” Eric said. “I went to Dunbar, people don’t even know who Paul Laurence Dunbar was,” he told me before we made our out of the center and drove the street to Avenue A and one block past 19th street, to the old Caviel Pharmacy building, which has been converted into an art gallery.


Before entering the building, Eric looked out across the street at vacant lots and overgrown brush, and as if reminiscing he said, “a town once flourished here with hotels, restaurants and churches,” he then shook his head and opened the door to the building where I was welcomed with the colorful works of Lubbock artists.


The Caviels Museum of African-American History is filled with the works of artists such as James Watkins, Robert McCelmore and Smithsonian artist Tony Glee. The paintings and sculptures celebrate a vibrant community and jump from the walls in carnival like celebration of the faces and places of the jubilant Lubbock East Side that takes one away from the rugged outside and the forgotten community that is gaining a new and reenergized life.


The museum will be opening to the public on Juneteenth but watch for the announcement of a reception that will take place on June 20th, which is still in its planning phase.


The Caviels Museum of African-American History is one of the many projects of the organization. Roots recently received a $10,000 donation to maintain the East Lubbock Gateway, which is a marker that will be placed on corner of 19th, and Avenue A to welcome visitors to the community and a $110,000 grant from HUD helped initiate the gateway’s landscape.


Although Interstate 27 created a manmade barrier that added to the segregation of Lubbock in the 1950s and early 60s, the self-inflected segregation must come to an end. It is imperative that Lubbockites begin traveling beyond I-27 to get caught up in the exciting art work and make a place at the table for this very important art gallery that still lingers in my mind as a celebration of life, love and passion in a city where art is finally finding its own place beyond the strip malls and chain restaurants and beyond the self placed boundaries of a separated history.

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Images: Courtesy of James Villanueva

James Villanueva is the Managing Editor for The Slatonite Newspaper in Slaton, Texas. James’s writing has been featured in Texas Monthly, Campus Pride, Latino Lubbock Magazine and the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, to name a few. James has written two books, “Remembering Slaton, Texas: Centennial Stories 1911-2011” and “Flick”. James’s short story, “Dancing with White Boys” was selected for an anthology that became a finalist for the national LAMBDA Literary Award in 2014. James lives in Slaton, Texas and is raising a rowdy dachshund named Oliver and teaches High School Theater in his spare time.

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