By Janet Payne
Janet Payne is the retired fine arts coordinator of the Stafford (VA) County Public Schools. This article originally appeared in the International Review of African American Art, volume 16, number 1, and is reproduced here with the permission of this publication.
In 1996 on one of my many visits to the Hampton University Museum, I had the opportunity to see the recently acquired Countee Cullen collection. As I viewed the familiar names of African American artists, I noticed an artist unknown to me—Palmer C. Hayden of Wide Water, Virginia. Could that be the same Widewater in Stafford County where I am the fine arts coordinator? How could this be? My research on the Stafford-born artist Palmer C. Hayden began in this moment.
A Solid Beginning
Arnaud “Arna” Wendell Bontemps was born on October 13, 1902, in Alexandria, Louisiana, a child of middle class parents of mixed racial heritage—what is sometimes called Creole. His father, Paul Bismark Bontemps, was descended from French plantation owners living in Haiti and their slaves. After coming to the United States, the Bontemps family lived free in Louisiana for decades, and the many of the men worked as skilled brick and stone masons for generations. In addition to working his trade, Arna’s father also played music with a popular band. Arna’s mother, Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-ah) Carolina Pembrooke was descended from an English planter and his Cherokee wife. Maria taught public school and enjoyed creating visual art.
"I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother. Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books — where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas." (From The Big Sea, one of Hughes’ autobiographies)