The Clifton House: A Labor of Love and Legacy

By Amy Stolls and Jessica Flynn
Four of Lucille Clifton's children sit on the concrete steps at the front of a large house

Sidney Clifton (2nd from the right) with three of her siblings on the steps of the Clifton House. Photo courtesy of Sidney Clifton.

When beloved artists pass away they leave behind a legacy of change. Those of us moved by the artists’ work are changed. Those of us who grow wiser from their teachings, richer from their ideas, more empathetic because of their renderings, and more loving because they showed us beauty when we couldn’t see it, we are all changed. And when someone—often a family member—builds upon that legacy by preserving and sharing the artist’s home—the very space where the art was created—the potential for significant change can extend deep into a community and well into future generations.

“Always leave a place better than how you found it,” the award-winning poet Lucille Clifton used to tell her daughter, Sidney. Sidney Clifton, now an Emmy-nominated producer with over 20 years of experience in the animation industry, grew up in a 100-year-old house in Baltimore, Maryland, that her parents purchased in 1968. Her father, Fred Clifton, was a sculptor, philosophy professor, and community activist who, along with Lucille, raised their six children in that house until 1979, when it was lost to foreclosure. “I remember looking out the window and seeing the house being auctioned,” said Sidney.

Lucille Clifton built her writing career in that house. She wrote six books of poetry and one memoir there, including her first collection, Good Times, published in 1969. She won two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, one in 1970 and the second in 1973. And she served as the state of Maryland’s poet laureate from 1974 until 1985.

In 2019, on the ninth anniversary of Lucille’s death, Sidney reached out to the owners of the house. She learned that the same family had remained in the house all of those years since 1979—and to her amazement, that they had put the house on the market the very day she called. “It was beautiful, and gut-wrenching to walk through, but in good shape,” Sidney said. When she opened the door to what had been the game closet, she was astonished to find her name still on the wall in the place where she had scribbled it so many years ago. “My mom’s presence is very strong in the house,” she said.

Sidney recalls how, back in the day, the house had acted as a “sanctuary for young artists,” and her aim now is to recreate that space, to support young artists and writers through in-person and virtual workshops, classes, seminars, residencies, and a gallery. Plans are underway for 2021. It is of chief importance to Sidney that the space be used to help model to young people what the artist’s life can look like. As her mother once wrote, “We cannot create what we cannot imagine.”

To support Sidney’s vision for her childhood home, the Clifton House recently received preservation funding through the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Given Lucille Clifton’s pre-eminence as a culture bearer of the Black experience in America, it seems particularly fitting that the poet’s house is recognized among a group of grantees that includes the homes of two other iconic culture bearers, Paul Robeson and Muddy Waters.

For more quotes by Lucille Clifton, check out this homage. And to read some of Lucille Clifton’s poetry, watch out for How To Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton, a new collection of poems with both familiar and lesser-known works, including 10 newly discovered poems that have never been published. Edited and with a foreword by Aracelis Girmay (a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow), the collection is due out on September 8th, 2020, from BOA Editions, with support from a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Amy Stolls is the National Endowment for the Arts Director of Literary Arts, and Jessica Flynn is a Literary Arts Specialist at the Arts Endowment.