Monday, March 15, 2021

In Search of Thelma L. Whiteurst

Furious Flower conference 1994. Thelma L. Whiteurst second from right, standing. Redmond Collection 

For nearly ten years, she was presented only as the "unidentified woman." But a chance email exchange allowed me to finally discover who she was.

First, the backstory.

In 2012, Mary Rose, our talented and diligent metadata librarian at Lovejoy Library at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), did the painstaking work of identifying hundreds of people appearing in photographs in the Eugene B. Redmond African American Cultural Life digital collection. Some people were easier to identify than others. Of course, that person in that image is Gwendolyn Brooks. Yes, that's Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez. But what about the many others who were not so prominent?

Look, to find dozens of hard-to-identify people in photographs, you absolutely need a Mary Rose. She took the time to cross-reference names on conference programs with people in pictures. She made phone calls. She sent emails. She studied photos, noting what people were wearing in one context and linking an item in one image to another setting. She reached out to people who knew people.

One of my favorite Redmond images came from the Furious Flower conference at James Madison that was organized by Joanne Gabbin in 1994. The image showed eighteen people, including Mari Evans, Gwendolyn Brooks, Naomi Long Madgett, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. And then, there was one person whose name we could not find. She was not on the program. She did not appear anywhere else as a poet. Who was she? Without knowing, the decision was made to list her as we knew her: "unidentified woman."

Years went by. Rose left SIUE and is now the Archival Library Research Manager at the Madison County Archival Library. Every now and then, I would return and look at that photograph from 1994. I loved seeing all those folks. But of course, the one person unidentified haunted me.

Last month, I was exchanging emails with Joanne Gabbin and a group from the James Madison Library. At one point, poet and retired Spelman professor Opal Moore was added to the thread. During a conversation, I mentioned and shared the photograph that I had stared at for over a decade. Moore took a look and responded immediately that the so-called unidentified woman was in fact quite known to her. It was her mother, Thelma, L. Whiteurst.

Whiteurst worked for Illinois Bell for thirty-five years before retiring. She was a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. She was also a gospel singer, described by those who knew her as "a legendary soprano soloist." In addition, she was member of the Voices of Melody Ensemble and The Wooten Ensemble.

Whiteurst had joined her daughter Moore, a poet and professor from Spelman College, at the Furious Flower conference in 1994. When Gabbin realized Whiteurst was in attendance, she asked her to sing a song for the conference honoree, Gwendolyn Brooks. Whiteurst sang the song "My Tribute" in acknowledgement of Brooks and the momentous occasion.

At some point during the event, Redmond gathered attendees for a group shot -- a practice he has done countless times over the last four decades. Redmond prompted poets and literary scholars to gather with him for the photo. The group likely insisted that Whiteurst join them as well.

In retrospect, one reason we had trouble identifying Whiteurst by name was because she was not on the conference program. She was not a literary artist or scholar who we could cross-reference in conventional ways. So we waited and kept looking. And fortunately, I happened to share the image with Opal Moore, who also appeared in the image.

Whiteurst passed away in 2012, the same year that Love joy Library posted images from the Redmond Collection online.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you Howard for your persistence. You understand that at Furious Flower magical things happen. On that night at the banquet, I asked Sonia Sanchez to do an impromptu tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks. My request resulted in a poem that she penned in 20 minutes that was so good that she didn't revise it to appear in the anthology, Furious Flower: African American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present. After Sonia read her poem, I asked Mrs. Whiteurst to sign a song of her choice. Without accompaniment, she sang the beautiful hymn "My Tribute." Her performance was so magnificent that people teased her the next day, in Opal's presence, that she must have been given some warning that I would ask her to sing. The gospel truth: she received no such warning. It was pure magic.
Joanne Gabbin, Conference Organizer