A Portrait of Mayfield
Mayfield, where Ellis Wilson was born in 1899, is a town of just under 10,000 people and the county seat of Graves County, Kentucky. Settled in about 1819, it is located in the heart of Western Kentucky’s most productive tobacco-growing region. In the early 20th century, it was also a center of clothing manufacturing; even the minor-league baseball team was known as the Clothiers.
Another famous Mayfield native is writer Bobbie Ann Mason. Much of the movie adaptation of her novel In Country was filmed in and around Mayfield.
The following portrait of life in the town at the time of Ellis Wilson’s childhood was written by Steven H. Jones and Eva F. King for The Art of Ellis Wilson, the catalogue accompanying a 2000 exhibition of Wilson’s work organized by Murray State University. It is used by permission of the authors and the University Press of Kentucky.
Ellis Wilson’s early experiences in the small western Kentucky town of Mayfield were to have lasting influence on his evolution as an artist. The community in which he spent his childhood shaped his early personality and value system. Throughout his career he would paint scenes of the everyday life of black people, and his portrayals would reflect black cultural themes of family, work, and religion—institutions that had been so important to his family, and consequently to Wilson, in Mayfield. Wilson’s artistic interpretations were filtered through the lens of his early experiences in his hometown.
Although no formal history on the topic of race relations in Mayfield exists, valuable oral history has been collected. At the beginning of the twentieth century, shortly after Ellis Wilson was born, Mayfield, like most places in the southern United States, was racially segregated, and blacks had restricted access—in some cases no access at all—to public institutions. The forced isolation of the black communities in the early 1900s made possible the development of distinct institutions such as the black church and the black family, which differed from their mainstream or white counterparts.
In the early 1900s, the African American community in Mayfield was smaller and more spatially confined than the white community. The black neighborhoods had specific names—Out-Cross-the-Ditch, Boxtown, Pee Wee Ridge, Out-in-the-Field, and the Bottom, which was the largest section. These areas had a rural flavor. Some people owned horses and wagons, and many raised pigs and chickens. Some Out-Cross-the-Ditch residents had barns located on their property, even though they lived within the city limits. Ellis Wilson lived in the Bottom community with his extended family; in a 1975 interview he described his family as “country,” referring more to their way of life than to their physical locality. This rural lifestyle was more common in the black sections of Mayfield than in the white neighborhoods in the early 1900s. This background would later enable Wilson to understand and identify with rural blacks in the southern United States and in Haiti and to produce colorful bodies of work depicting rural society.
The Bottom neighborhood included several churches, one of which was the Second Christian Church, which had been founded by Ellis Wilson’s mother, Minnie. Friends and family members remember the Wilson children spending a good deal of their time at the church, which was located a block from the Wilson home on the same street. Ellis Wilson’s nephew James Wilson said, “Uncle Ellis called the church ‘Mrs. Minnie’s Church,’” a familiar term of reference for the church. Next to the church was a large grocery store and a family restaurant called Streets. Other black-owned businesses in the Bottom were a barbershop owned by Ellis Wilson’s grandfather and later his father, Frank Wilson; a funeral home; and a movie theater. A black physician, Dr. Taylor, resided in the Bottom and, according to Ellis Wilson, provided a place for young people to go on Sundays to dance and play piano.
The system of legalized segregation barred African Americans from access to goods and services, so they developed their own resources such as the businesses mentioned above. This situation made it possible for business owners such as Frank Wilson to generate income and leisure time that afforded them opportunities not available to black common laborers. For example, Frank Wilson used revenues from his barbershop not only to support a wife and children, but he also took painting lessons from an itinerant teacher of art and produced some paintings that family members remember to this day. Ellis’s memories of his father studying with the white teacher inspired him to become an artist himself. In an interview in 1975, he said “I guess I got what little talent I have from him.”
In the early 1900s, all blacks who attended school in Mayfield, including Ellis Wilson, went to the Colored Graded School located in the Bottom. The school, by many measures the most important community institution in the Bottom, had an all-black staff and was relatively independent from the city school system. This nurturing environment allowed blacks to develop significant measures of dignity and confidence in their skills. Wilson exhibited these qualities in his determination to acquire an education and in his belief that he could become an artist.
Most black citizens in Mayfield at the time were considered impoverished by whites using the standards of the day; however, the black community was viewed by blacks as economically stable and socially cohesive. Blacks and whites encountered each other in the economic sphere. Wilson’s family had a strong work ethic, which was the social norm in the community at that time. His mother and sister worked as maids for a white family. Ellis Wilson mowed lawns and worked in tobacco, and his male siblings likely had similar jobs in and around the community. At one time Ellis Wilson worked as a janitor of Day’s Ready-to-Wear Dress Shop. (His portraits drawn in cleaning wax on the store window attracted the attention of passersby and delighted the white store owner, who encouraged the weekly drawings.) Wilson developed a respect for manual labor and self-sufficiency.
Graves County Courthouse, early 1900s
(photo courtesy Kentucky Historical Society)
taking tobacco to the Mayfield market
(photo courtesy Kentucky Historical Society)
More About Mayfield:
Our Town USA: Mayfield, Ky. | Mayfield-Graves County Chamber of Commerce