Black student blocked from Mercer GA art degree

In 1968, Gwendolyn Payton of Macon approached the director of the art department at Mercer University. She wanted to discuss pursuing an art degree. He told her that she didn’t have what it took to win one, because she was black.

“He used a word I don’t want to call myself, but he said, ‘You’re not smart enough to graduate from my department.’ And I looked at him, and I thought, ‘Are you kidding?’ “, did she say. “He went on to say that people of color probably couldn’t get more than a C in his department and could never really graduate from his department.”

It wasn’t the first time Payton had been told she couldn’t do something.

She attended high school at AL Miller High School in Macon, where the principal said she was not sure Payton could graduate.

“I had heard that before. It wasn’t new, and I graduated from high school, so I didn’t really take that as something that would keep me from graduating, ”she said.

The head of the department ultimately barred Payton from receiving his art degree by not allowing him to participate in the senior art show, the last requirement for his major. She obtained a degree in biology.

“So it was really very, very heartbreaking for me because I had worked for four years,” Payton said.

It’s been almost 50 years, but it turns out the head of the department was wrong about Payton getting his art degree. After hearing Payton’s story, Mercer’s faculty decided to host Payton’s senior art gallery, as well as the work she has produced since, to complete the final requirement of her art major.

The gallery, titled “Faith of the Dreamer: Opposition to Truth May Derail Dreams But Dreamer’s Faith Prevails”, is available free of charge online. Plunkett Gallery at Hardman Hall, and one is scheduled for 10:30 am Friday.

“You just realized that things can and do happen for a reason at times, and honestly, I think that was the moment that I’m supposed to have it,” Payton said.

His life

Payton enrolled in Mercer in 1968 after participating in Mercer’s Upward Bound program in high school.

Although she wanted to study history, she said she felt the program wasn’t comprehensive enough at the time because it didn’t include a lot of African American history.

She decided to study biology and art, hoping to pursue a career in medical illustration.

Before her senior year in the spring of 1971, she met with the head of the arts department to discuss the remaining requirements for her major, as she planned to get married that summer. She discussed using the work she would be doing over the summer for her Medical College of Georgia portfolio as a main project, and said she didn’t remember there being objections.

When she returned to campus in the fall, married and pregnant with their first child, she went to the head of the department to discuss her portfolio featured in the senior art exhibit to meet her main requirements.

“He told me I had to do other paintings. Well, I did other paintings and two other paintings, including the one called “Rebirth of Colored Folk”. He seemed very offended by this, and he told me they were too controversial to be put on the senior show, ”Payton said. “In the end, he told me I couldn’t put anything on the senior show.”

The department head told her that if she couldn’t take another class in the spring, she wouldn’t get an art degree. Payton couldn’t attend classes in the spring because she was going to have a baby, and at the time, she didn’t know what else to do to get her art major, she said.

After graduating with a biology degree from Mercer, Payton earned another bachelor’s degree in medical technology from the Medical College of Georgia, where her husband received his medical degree.

They started a medical practice in Athens, and they worked together for many years.

“I used to say to my husband, ‘You look so good on paper, but once we introduce ourselves, something happens,’ and it’s really, really, really sad. I think our lives became what they are because we didn’t let these things deter us from doing what we thought we had to do.

The good moment

The Mercer faculty learned about Payton’s story with some luck.

Payton was waiting for a shuttle at Atlanta airport to take her back to Athens in October 2019 when she sat next to Sarah Gardner, a history teacher at Mercer.

After realizing a connection to the university, Payton began telling Gardner his story, and Gardner received permission from Payton to review it.

Gardner spoke to Anita Olson Gustafson, the dean of the liberal arts college, verified Payton’s story with Mercer’s registrar, and devised a plan with art department professors Craig Coleman and Ben Dunn to host the Payton’s senior art exhibit.

“I’ve come to learn that some people have ideas about me as an African American even without knowing me, and they do an assessment, and depending on where they are, they can cause difficulty. They may be a hurdle that I will have to get over, but I really think now is the time, ”said Payton.

Right the wrong

Ben Dunn, director of the McEachern Art Center and lecturer at Mercer, helped install Payton’s artwork with the help of his students at Mercer.

“It’s 48 years of painting by a pretty committed artist who still does very valuable and interesting work, and on top of that he also has this kind of hard-hitting historical narrative built into the history of the work; So you get, in a way, a lesson in the institution and sort of a movement towards an attempt at racial justice on our behalf, as well as some valuable artwork that you can enjoy, ”Dunn said.

“She was not allowed to exhibit her works as you can see inside. This was deemed too controversial at the time, which in the fine art context of 1972 is quite laughable to consider this too much. controversial. I think there is an assumption that the work being linked to thoughts like black liberation and black consciousness was obviously problematic for some of the older guardians here who kept her from exhibiting the works, thus preventing him from obtaining his major in fine arts as well.

Dunn said his students take the art installation work very seriously, and he thinks they were happy and proud to be a part of the project, he said.

“They were sort of the presence of the current cohort of students correcting that historic university move almost five decades ago.” We really didn’t spend a lot of time discussing whether this ‘is right or wrong. We kind of assumed it was the right thing to do at this point and then they kind of worked on it and were part of the solution rather than obsessing over institutional wrong. from so long ago.

Payton said she had no hard feelings towards the head of the department, who has since passed away.

“My only regret is that my mother worked very, very hard to push me to go to school, and she wanted me to graduate. She knew I deserved it and she passed away in April. She won’t be able to be here with me on Friday, but the flip side is that she knew I was going to have her, and she was really thrilled, ”she said. “I am really happy that she was so happy to know that before she passed away.”

This story was originally published September 25, 2020 5:00 a.m.

Jenna Eason creates useful news around the culture, business and people who make a difference in the Macon community for The Telegraph. Jenna joined the Telegraph staff as a Peyton Anderson Fellow and multimedia reporter after earning a journalism degree from Mercer University in May 2018 and an internship at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Jenna has covered issues surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, Central Georgia elections, and protests for the Central Georgia community and Telegraph readers.
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