ella west gallery is carrying on the-legacy-of-black-wall-street-–-indy-week

Ella West Gallery Is Carrying On the Legacy Of Black Wall Street – INDY Week

The day that Linda Shropshire opened her dream art gallery turned out to be a lively one. 

A summer storm had blown through the city two nights before, leaving behind a trail of damage and more than 70,000 Durham County households, including Shropshire’s, without power. Downtown, though, the lights were still on, and so was the press preview event for Ella West Gallery at 104 West Parrish Street. 

Arriving at the gallery, Shropshire surveyed the storefront. Inside the pristine space, named for Shropshire’s mother, was the inaugural exhibition, Return to Parrish Street: A Dream Realized. Outside, street debris and cardboard boxes had blown up against the entryway. 

“These guys from the barber shop saw me struggling and yelled out the window, ‘Hey sister, we got those, don’t worry about it!’” Shropshire says. “Next door, there’s a Black women-owned dental office, Bull City Dental, and one of my friends is a dentist there. She comes out in her dental scrubs and sees me sweeping and grabs the broom and says, ‘Go get ready.’” 

Such a synchronous moment of Black community on Parrish Street is not without precedent: For decades, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the four blocks stretching along this street—anchored by the thriving NC Mutual Life Insurance Company and Mechanics & Farmers Bank—were home to a hub of Black businesses that came to be known as Black Wall Street. When W.E.B. Du Bois visited the city in 1912, he was struck by the thriving scene of Black entrepreneurship. 

“Today, there is a singular group in Durham where a black man may get up in the morning from a mattress made by black men in a house which a black man built out of lumber which black men cut and planed;” he wrote later, “he may earn his living working for colored men, be sick in a colored hospital, and buried from a colored church.”

Things have changed in the century since: Urban renewal and the construction of Durham’s 147 razed Black neighborhoods, displacing families, businesses, and generational wealth. M&F Bank remains open, a few doors from Ella West Gallery, and nearby placards recognize the street’s past. Still, as Durham has changed, Black Wall Street has receded into public memory and it would be easy to walk down the street—buffered, now, by new luxury condos—without knowing the immense history behind it. 

But Shropshire believes a new moment is on the horizon and ticks off the arrival of companies like Meta and Google—companies, to be sure, that will also further complicate the complex relationship between scrappy artists and a gentrifying city—as evidence that Durham is gaining prominence and more people will be ready to invest  seriously in art.  

Local Black-owned businesses are also on the rise and Shropshire has worked in tandem with what she describes as a “cultural cohort”—businesses like Missy Lane’s Assembly Room, Cicely Mitchell’s capacious, soon-to-open Main Street jazz venue; and Durham’s Old Hillside. Bourbon Company. At the gallery’s opening night, Mitchell sponsored the music and Old Hillside provided bourbon. 

“Younger people are moving into this area and they’re looking for these things,” Shropshire says. “They don’t want to always have to go to New York or Paris or LA to find great artwork. My goal was to create a world-class experience for a fine art gallery, but one that feels like home.” 

On a recent muggy August morning, I was waiting outside the gallery to meet Shropshire when a voice piped up behind me: “Waiting for Linda?” 

The voice belonged to Holly Ewell-Lewis, a close friend of Shropshire’s—and the godmother of one of her daughters—who happened to be buying bread from the bakery across the street. She walked over and together, we peered through the windows. 

Until recently, the building Ella West Gallery is in was a bike shop, its windows shrouded in black blinds and interior smelling of grease and parts. A year later, the 1,200-square-foot space is coated floor-to-ceiling in white paint and is completely unrecognizable from its prior self. The original windows, now uncovered, flood the room with light. 

“I’m so proud of Linda,” Ewell-Lewis says. “She really did it.” 

Inside, paintings by the Raleigh painter Clarence Heyward line the left wall and photographs by Durham’s Kennedi Carter line the right. Heyward has an uncanny gift for painting eyes, and from wherever you stand in the room, the eye contact of his striking figures—which range from George Stinney and George Floyd to portraits of his friends and children—follow you across the room, giving the impression of a directive. 

Carter, 24, is a dynamo in the photography world—she has the especially arresting achievement of having had, by way of her first editorial assignment, photographed Beyonce for the cover of British Vogue; Shropshire describes her as a “once-in-a-generation prodigy”—has a series of intimate domestic portraits featured on the opposing wall. As with Heyward, her inspiration is often family life; several lush self-portraits feature Carter toward the end of her pregnancy with her son, Atlas, belly swollen and swimming in amber light. 

Shropshire says she plans for Ella West to feature a diverse array of artists, with an eye toward marginalized voices. In early September, new works by the Carolina-born artist Ransome will join the walls, and in October, Parrish Street will come down, replaced with works by Maya Freelon and the artist Sachi Rome. In January, the gallery will hold a solo show for the Durham sculptor Stephen Haynes. 

Shropshire grew up in Charlotte, attended undergraduate school at NC State, and moved to Durham in 1996. She’s worked in politics and real estate; the plan to open a gallery was sparked after she took an early retirement package from Cisco and went to pursue her MBA from UNC-Chapel Hill. There, she began sketching out careful plans for a gallery that would attract art lovers and serious buyers alike. 

Jes Averhart, a friend of Shropshire’s who runs a program that coaches women to reach their professional potential, says Shropshire’s business acumen is striking. 

“I’ve never seen anybody have an idea and turn it into a reality and a grand opening as fast as she has,” Averhart says. “She felt really certain about the vision around the gallery. And she just went after it.”

Shropshire’s background may be more practical, but her relationship with the arts runs deep. As a seventh grader at Ranson Middle School, her art teacher, Winston Fletcher, introduced her to a canon of Black artists rarely taught in schools: Edmonia Lewis, Elizabeth Catlett, Ernie Barnes. She was hooked. 

Barnes, incidentally, was one of Fletcher’s close childhood friends, the kind of cosmic detail that seems indelible to the gallery’s story. Earlier this year, Shropshire—who holds positions on the board of trustees at the Black Trustee Alliance for Art Museums and the North Carolina Museum of Art—helped facilitate NCMA’s acquisition of an Ernie Barnes painting. Despite Barnes’s wide renown outside North Carolina, it is the first painting of his that the museum has ever owned. 

Ella West Gallery is another first: The first gallery owned by a Black woman in the Triangle. A milestone, yes, but more than a century after Black Wall Street, also a reflection of just how white and gate-kept the art world continues to be. 

“There was an article that came out and it said, ‘Ella West Gallery is the only Black woman-owned gallery in North Carolina.’ That’s cool, but you know what, it’s really not cool,” Shropshire told Forbes in a recent article. “That should not be something we’re celebrating.”

“Durham is the center of the universe,” Kennedi Carter says. She’s riffing on a line by the poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs but affirms that she finds truth in the adage, too—which is why she’s stayed in North Carolina, even as her star has risen far beyond the state.

It’s Ella West’s first artist talk, featuring Carter and Heyward, and the gallery is standing-room only, with nearly 50 people gathered. Whenever someone pushes the door open to join the crowd, sounds filter in (car bass, horns, dog barks) but otherwise, all eyes and ears are on the artists—a rare reverence in any space or city. Shropshire plans to host frequent talks like this and sees them as opportunities to give artists a platform and to educate both artists and potential buyers on the market. 

“Within the last few years, there have been a lot of art opportunities popping up,” Kennedi Carter says over the phone a few days later, citing programming at institutions like 21C and the Nasher as examples, as well as DIY spaces like the Fruit and NorthStar Church of the arts. “I feel like it’s another era.” 

Heyward agrees. 

“Ella West Gallery is bringing the art world to Durham. Linda Shropshire has created a space that is on par with galleries in larger art markets like New York and Los Angeles,” he writes over email. “I’m honored to be included in the inaugural exhibition at the gallery alongside Kennedi Carter and Ransome. Hopefully my work helps set the tone of the caliber of work to expect.” 

The gallery, so far, has been a critical success: Several paintings have sold, and the business has accrued write-ups in Harper’s Bazaar, Garden & Gun, and Forbes, the kinds of glossy magazines that people looking to invest big on art flip through. 

In 2022, the sale of a copy of the artist Ernie Barnes’s most famous painting, Sugar Shack, made national news when energy trader Bill Perkins bought it at a Christie’s auction for a record $15.3 million—76 times its estimated value of $200,000.

 Painted in 1976, the joyous, sloping figures filling the frame were drawn from Barnes’s childhood memories of sneaking into the Durham Armory as a teenager and watching dances. Perkins has said that he sees his role as an art collector as that of a steward helping to establish the value of Black artists in the market. 

The Armory is just blocks from Parrish Street, where two signed Barnes lithographs—
“The Comedian” and “Head over Heels”—have a home at the front of the gallery. When I bring the Christie’s sale up with Shropshire, wondering if that moment was a crux, she nods but reminds me that Barnes died in 2009.

“I don’t want people to have to wait to become ancestors to be respectfully compensated,” she says, repeating a charge that she made to the crowd at the gallery’s opening night and to art collectors at large: “That is up to you.” 

Follow Culture Editor Sarah Edwards on Twitter or send an email to sedwards@indyweek.com.

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