University of Virginia (Charlottesville, VA)


Artist Lisa Henry-Benham created a dresser trunk for the Carver Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia -- later demolished for the expansion of Preston Avenue -- which was the only hotel listed for black travelers in the "Negro Motorist" Travelers Guide. Photos by Lisa Henry-Benham

William D. Williams, associate professor of architecture at the University of Virginia, first came up with the idea for the Dresser Trunk Project after coming to an important realization. "I was working with Project Row Houses, an arts organization in Houston, on renovating the El Dorado ballroom. The El Dorado is where Elvis reportedly heard Big Mama Thornton sing 'Hound Dog.' I realized while trying to bring it back to its original glory that there were hundreds of venues like the El Dorado in cities all over the country, and that many of them had been lost or forgotten. I started the Dresser Trunk Project as a way of giving a voice to these important places of refuge for black travelers, and to use art as a way of reminding people of the importance of black business districts during segregation." In FY 2006, the University of Virginia received an NEA Access to Artistic Excellence grant of $44,000 to support the traveling exhibition and catalogue. Eleven artists/architects each designed a box based on a dresser trunk -- the case in which a musician carried his gear -- to tell the stories of musicians who traveled along the Southern Crescent train line. The trunks contain stories, photographs, maps, and computer-generated models to document the clubs, hotels, and other places musicians stayed in eleven cities along the train line, from New York to New Orleans.

Each trunk and its contents symbolically and architecturally represents a now-forgotten place of refuge for African-American musicians during the Jim Crow era. In fall 2007, the exhibition will tour to each of the sites by train, the passengers being a more diverse audience than might see the works in museums or universities.

(From the NEA 2006 Annual Report)