Jack Pinto Family Interview Essay
Cruz walked into the Pintos’ home with the family and members of the local Pop Warner team, many wearing his No. 80 jersey. During the 75-minute visit, Cruz played the Madden NFL video game with the children and spoke with the family.
“There were instances where we would take some time to talk football or talk just life in general,” Cruz said. “But those instances lasted a couple of seconds before you would revert back to saying something about Jack or something about the family or something about the nearby family that also suffered a loss. It was tough.”
Cruz was struck to learn that Jack was buried in his replica jersey.
“You don’t know whether to say thank you. You don’t know whether to say you appreciate it,” Cruz said. “It leaves you kind of blank, but I’m definitely honored by it, and I’m definitely humbled by it.”
Cruz’s mind returned to football for Wednesday’s practice, but his first encounter with Coach Tom Coughlin had nothing to do with the Giants’ crucial game at Baltimore on Sunday.
“Incredibly proud of what he’s done,” Coughlin said. “That family will remember that all their days. The fact that he went and did that speaks volumes about what he has inside.”
Cruz had hoped to honor Jack with a big game against the Falcons, but he was limited to three catches for 15 yards in a 34-0 loss. The defeat dropped the Giants to 8-6, putting them in danger of missing the postseason.
Opposing defenses have made it more difficult for Cruz to contribute than during his breakout last season. The Falcons sent double teams at Cruz on third downs, a strategy used by numerous opponents this season.
With Cruz bracketed on his underneath routes, he has not been able to break as many big plays. He is averaging 12.8 yards per catch, a significant drop from his 18.7 mark last season, which ranked third in the N.F.L.
“They’re nothing new for me,” Cruz said of the double teams. “It’s just a matter of understanding where it’s coming from and being able to beat it. The only way to beat a double team, honestly, is just to go right through it. It’s hard because every play isn’t designed to just go straight.”
As Cruz drove away from the Pinto home on Tuesday, his thoughts were much clearer than when he arrived.
“Just how short life can be,” Cruz said. “How much you have to cherish every moment and how much you have to cherish every opportunity you get with your family, and never take anything for granted because just a day at school could change all of that.”
Ahmad Bradshaw missed Wednesday’s practice with a knee injury. Bradshaw is determined to play against the Ravens after missing Sunday’s game, but Tom Coughlin will leave the decision to the team’s training staff. “We’d all love to have him play, but it’s going to be a medical decision; it’s not going to be mine,” Coughlin said. ... Defensive end Justin Tuck (shoulder) was a surprise addition to the injury report. Tuck said he did not know about his status for Sunday’s game.Continue reading the main story
The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Jack Whitten on 2013 Dec. 1 and 3. The interview took place in Woodside, N.Y., and was conducted by Judith Olch Richards for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Jack Whitten and Judith Olch Richards have reviewed the transcript. Jack Whitten's corrections and emendations appear below in brackets. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability by the Archives of American Art. The reader should bear in mind that they are reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.
JUDITH RICHARDS: This is Judith Richards interviewing Jack Whitten on December 1, 2009, at his studio in Woodside, Queens, New York, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, disc one.
Jack, I'd like to start with your family, as far back as you want to go– it could be even your grandparents, if you have information about them, and then going on to your parents and yourself and your siblings. And then we'll focus on you again.
JACK WHITTEN: Yes. My mom [as] Annie B. Whitten and my father was Mose Whitten.
MS. RICHARDS: Annie – A-N-N-I-E?
MR. WHITTEN: A-N-N-I-E.
MS. RICHARDS: And B is –
MR. WHITTEN: Belle. Annie Belle.
MS. RICHARDS: Where was she born?
MR. WHITTEN: She was born in Alabama. She wasn't born in Bessemer, though. She was born in Clinton County, I believe. My father was born in Mississippi. Mose Whitten. Occupation? My father was a coal miner and my mom was a seamstress who later opened a kindergarten in Bessemer. Whitten Kindergarten.
MS. RICHARDS: You talked a lot, in previous interviews I read, about your childhood. You were the oldest?
MR. WHITTEN: Oh no. No. My mom was married twice and her first husband, [was] Monroe Cross.
MS. RICHARDS: Monroe Cross?
MR. WHITTEN: Yes. James Monroe Cross, really. Monroe was his middle name. My mom had four kids with James Monroe Cross. Monroe Cross was a local sign-painter. He did commercial signs. He had a business, which was very unusual at that time in the South for a black man to say that he had his own business and especially something like sign-painting. Very unusual.
MS. RICHARDS: How did he learn that? Do you know?
MR. WHITTEN: That I never – no one ever told me. I don't know if he was self-taught or if he was trained in a school. I never knew. But that was my mom's first husband and she had four kids. Two boys and two girls. Martha Cross, Laverne Cross, James Monroe Cross Jr. – he was named after his father – and Thomas Cross, the youngest. And James Monroe Cross, my mother's first husband, died an early death when the youngest kid was I think somewhere like one year old or so.
MS. RICHARDS: Was it an accident or a –
MR. WHITTEN: No, it was not [an accident]. It was some sort of an illness. All we know is that he was taken ill, came down with a lot of pain. He took a friend of his to a hospital because the friend was sick and when he was there at the hospital – this is the story that I grew up with – when he was at the hospital, he became ill with severe pain and it proceeded to get worse and worse during the day.
Without notifying my mother or anyone else in the family, they claimed that he was rushed to the operating room and operated on and he died, I think on the table. My mother always suspected some sort of foul play but no one could ever prove it. He was a well-known guy, there, doing that kind of work.
MS. RICHARDS: Foul play in terms of purposefully or just accidentally?
MR. WHITTEN: She seemed to think that – the stories I heard from her always was they think that it was purposely. I mean, he always got racial threats. I grew up with stories, like –
MS. RICHARDS: Because he was doing something that he shouldn't be doing?
MR. WHITTEN: A black man doing a job that white people did not want him to do. I've heard stories, like, he would be up on a scaffold doing a sign. He would come back down and someone would have left a note attached to the ladder. You know, thinks like: "Watch out, boy, the Ku Klux Klan is watching you. We don't want niggers doing this kind of work." That kind of a thing. And from what I hear, he received several threats like that, so it's not far fetched to say that there could be something to her suspicion. But no one ever knew. No one could prove it nor was anyone in a position to pursue it. But that's what I grew up with, those stories.
Of course, I never knew the man. I wasn't even born then. People in the community said that I bear a resemblance of him and people even go so far as to say that I received his talents, in some way. [Laughs.] People in the South, though, believed in stuff like that. They have – they call it – what's the word they use? Marked, a child is marked. That's what the Southerners would use. People would say that because of my mother's grief, I was a marked baby. I don't know what to say about things like that, but I'm aware of it in terms of, you know, Southern folklore.
MS. RICHARDS: So she, then, met your father.
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah. After years of struggle – I think she almost lost the family home. She moved in with her mother, my grandmother, whose name was Etta.
MS. RICHARDS: E-T-T?
MR. WHITTEN: E-T-T-A. Etta Cuningham.
MS. RICHARDS: With two N's?
MR. WHITTEN: E-T-T-A, C-U-N-[N-] I-N-G-H-A-M. That was my grandma, whom I remember. I have a fond remembrance of her and a little bit of our neighborhood.
MS. RICHARDS: Did she grow up in Alabama, too?
MR. WHITTEN: She grew up in Alabama. Born in Alabama, grew up in Alabama. The family moved to Bessemer and that's where she had her kids. Etta Cuningham. They said I even looked like him. He also did paintings. The first artwork that I ever saw, that I grew up with, was done by this man. I have it at home.
MS. RICHARDS: In your–
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah. If we go to the apartment on Thursday, I'll show it to you. When my mom died, I requested from the family this painting, that I should have it because that's what I grew up with. That was the first thing that I saw that you could call art. My mom kept it on the wall all those years.
MS. RICHARDS: So how did your mother meet your father?
MR. WHITTEN: I think she met him at some sort of a church function, something to do with the church. He had come up from Mississippi, looking for work. And I was told that they met at church, which is probably true. I mean, at that time the social networking took place in church, primarily. Young man, young woman – you know, if it [was] not school, but at that age they wouldn't have been at school, it most likely was at church.
MS. RICHARDS: He had –
MR. WHITTEN: My father was not a churchgoing man, though. Later, he pretty much removed himself from the church.
MS. RICHARDS: He hadn't been married before?
MR. WHITTEN: He hadn't been married before, that we know of. Later, after his death, though, something did happen, [others] tried to claim that he was married – which was a nasty incident because, after his death, my mom was left with three of her kids: myself, [the] oldest, my brother Jesse –
MS. RICHARDS: J-E-S-S-E?
MR. WHITTEN: Jesse Whitten. So my father's name was Mose Whitten, so Jesse Whitten and my younger brother, Billy Whitten. Billy F. Whitten, which stands for Frank. It would be Billy Frank Whitten. He was named after his granddaddy. My grandfather – my father's father – was Frank Whitten, from Mississippi.
MS. RICHARDS: So you're saying that when your father died, there was some kind of claim?
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah, there was a little nasty incident there. Someone in the family – and it was the grandfather, really. My father had a little pension payment from his work in the mines. He came to the house – this was, like, about a year afterwards – trying to say that my father was married to some woman and they were not legally divorced. And therefore, the pension should go to her. I remember this. It was nasty. But the courts didn't accept that, so the little bit of pension money that my mom received went to us, which wasn't much, at that time. The guy was a coal miner.
MS. RICHARDS: It's amazing there was a pension.
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah, it was very little. And on top of it, he was in debt. At that time, you know, all of those big companies down South had ways to ensnarl people in debt. They had what are called company stores. And you could go there and buy goods on credit. It was set up in such a way – both black and white; it wasn't just black people. [Laughs.] In truth, there's a lot of Southern blues songs written about that. You know, I sold my life to the company store. That's a true thing, very true.
So people would take out debt toward their payroll and they could never catch up because of high interest rates and everybody's always living on the edge. So financially, all those people who worked for those mines, they never get out of debt. I remember my mom, being such a Christian soul, thought it was her duty to pay his debt, which literally took money out of our mouths. But she did it.
MS. RICHARDS: How old were you when he died?
MR. WHITTEN: I would have been approaching five years old, about five. Yeah.
MS. RICHARDS: So what was the school like that you went to, the elementary school? And what were your main interests as a student?
MR. WHITTEN: I was good in the sciences – math, you know, or biology. Those were my top subjects. But I was always into the arts. I painted when I was a kid. I have paintings that date back to my teenage years.
MS. RICHARDS: What materials did you use?
MR. WHITTEN: Oil paint. I built an easel [on canvas board].
MS. RICHARDS: Did you have trouble finding the art materials in Bessemer?
MR. WHITTEN: The first art supplies that I used were leftovers from [James Monroe].
MS. RICHARDS: I was going to ask you if he had left supplies.
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah, my mom kept all that stuff: his brushes, his paints.
MS. RICHARDS: From James Monroe?
MR. WHITTEN: Things that he used to use, from James Monroe. The first time I ever used art supplies, it was from the stash of goods that my mom had saved all those years. My mom was a person who never threw anything away, never. [Laughs.] Our house was, like, a junkyard in the back. You know, a house, a junk house, [where] you kept everything. But that's typical Southern. Southerners do not throw anything away.
MS. RICHARDS: Or [the] Depression.
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah. They came out of that period, so people were very frugal. You know, it was always a matter of survival. You're talking about a people who live, constantly, right on the edge, economically: subsistence living.
MS. RICHARDS: So you said after you used James Monroe's supplies, you were able to buy supplies in Bessemer?
MR. WHITTEN: Yes.
MS. RICHARDS: Was there an art supply store, or craft store?
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah. Well, there were stores, like craft stores – local five-and-dime stores that usually had some art supplies. But I remember making my own easel. I did landscapes.
MS. RICHARDS: Where were you getting the information about being an artist, and having an easel, and what an easel was and how it was built?
MR. WHITTEN: [I learned from shop class in junior high school]
MS. RICHARDS: Were there magazines that you could look at art, or artists, or see pictures of people painting at easels, so that you even knew about all that?
MR. WHITTEN: No. There was, in the neighborhood, one or two – what you would call outsider artists. I remember this; there were. And that part of Alabama, you know, that's also the hometown of Thornton Dial. Thornton Dial is one of America's best known outsider artists.
MS. RICHARDS: He grew up in Bessemer? He lived in Bessemer?
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah, sure. I always visit him when I go home. So there [were] people like that, who were outsider-type artists. But other than that, I had no access to the museums were off limits. All through high school and junior high school, when they took us on school field trips, they never took us to the museum because it was off limits to blacks. They took us to the steel mills and took us to the coal mines, but never to the museums. [Laughs.] It's incredible, truly incredible.
MS. RICHARDS: So as you were going through elementary school, you said you were good at and interested in science, but you also did art.
MR. WHITTEN: I did art and I did music. I played tenor saxophone.
MS. RICHARDS: Did you have private music lessons, or learn in school?
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah. Well, at first I had private music lessons and then we learned at school. I was a member of the school band, the marching band, and in high school, a member of the dance band. And I played tenor saxophone seriously. I mean, I thought at one point that I would go into music. I didn't sell my horn until, oh, 1962 or '63.
MS. RICHARDS: Were there other people in your family interested in music, or who played an instrument?
MR. WHITTEN: Absolutely. I grew up with a piano in the house. Both my sisters played piano. Toots, my sister Toots; Martha played piano. My sister Laverne played piano.
MS. RICHARDS: Oh, I don't have Laverne. Wait, yes I do. Okay.
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah. They were both piano players. My brother before me, Tommy, was a tenor sax player. So I grew up with talent, you know? And, of course, my mom, as a seamstress, even in terms of her – my mom made all of our clothes. I mean, for years I wore homemade clothes. My mom would buy used clothes – from Army Surplus, Salvation Army – take them apart, clean them, dye them any color she wanted, and would remake them into outfits for us.
MS. RICHARDS: Did she learn from her mother?
MR. WHITTEN: She learned primarily from her mother.
MS. RICHARDS: You said she supported the family as a seamstress.
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah. At first, before she opened the kindergarten, all of her income, for the whole family, was from her work as a seamstress.
MS. RICHARDS: Did she teach you how to sew?
MR. WHITTEN: She demanded that all the boys know how to sew. [Laughs.]
MS. RICHARDS: Obviously, the girls, but also the boys?
MR. WHITTEN: Oh yeah, the girls. My sister Laverne was a terrific seamstress. She was well-known in the community. But my mom taught us to sew, do repair work. I remember my first project was making a pair of pajamas.
MS. RICHARDS: So at one point there were seven children living –
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah, it was seven kids. The first four kids that my mom had, plus the three that she had with my father, Mose.
MS. RICHARDS: Was this a house with a few bedrooms? I mean, how did you all –
MR. WHITTEN: One, two, three bedrooms. Mom had added on an extra room. Yeah, it was ample space.
MS. RICHARDS: Did you also have a garden?
MR. WHITTEN: We had a garden. The same as everybody, down there. A garden was something that everybody did. We were within the city limits, so we couldn't have things like a pig. We were allowed to – you could grow chickens; we had chickens. We grew rabbits; we grew ducks.
MS. RICHARDS: To eat?
MR. WHITTEN: To eat and to make a little change. I remember having as many as 50, 60 rabbits that we would use not only for food on the table, at home, but you could also make an extra dollar by selling them to people who wanted fresh rabbit or fresh chicken, or fresh duck.
But we were not allowed to have cows and pigs within the city limits of Bessemer. Small town, but right across the tracks from us, where the city limits stopped, people had cows, mules, horses, small farms.
MS. RICHARDS: So in school you were playing the saxophone. You were continuing creating art works.
MR. WHITTEN: And I was the local school artist.
MS. RICHARDS: And you were the artist.
MR. WHITTEN: I was the school's artist.
MS. RICHARDS: So if something –
MR. WHITTEN: Whenever there was anything needed to be done – posters, anything – they always called me. I did it.
MS. RICHARDS: As you were going through school, you weren't imagining – you enjoyed the art – but you weren't imagining becoming an artist.
MR. WHITTEN: Well, it wasn't encouraged.
MS. RICHARDS: You said, in fact, you were thinking of being a musician.
MR. WHITTEN: I was thinking of being a musician, but any form of the arts were not encouraged because of economic reasons.
MS. RICHARDS: Sure.
MR. WHITTEN: You know, you always said that it's nice that you can do that, but you can't make a living at it. So it was never encouraged. All through high school, I would – my first art classes were in high school. John B. Hall. John B. Hall was my first art instructor.
MS. RICHARDS: John B. –
MR. WHITTEN: John B. Hall.
MS. RICHARDS: H-U-?
MR. WHITTEN: H-A-L-L.
MS. RICHARDS: Oh. Mm-hmm [Affirmative].
MR. WHITTEN: He was my first art instructor at Dunbar High School. It wasn't an extensive program, but it was a beginning. John B. Hall was an interesting man. But in those days, like at a black high school like that, an instructor being an art instructor, he was also the physical ed instructor [laughs] the coach, the social studies – what else did he do? Drivers' training.
MS. RICHARDS: So he must have taught just one art class a week?
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah, one a week. That's what it was. We had kind of a shed of a place that we worked in.
MS. RICHARDS: Did he bring in reproductions of artworks in books and things to share that you might not have seen before?
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah. There [were] some books and reproductions of things. But the main thing I got out of that class was John B. Hall had a side job doing [hand lettered price cards doing a brush]. That is, you know, at that time before mechanized silk screens and so forth, local department stores would have sales.
And all those sales tags were [painted] by hand with a brush. And John B. Hall had the accounts that he did that kind of work. He taught me how to do it. And when he left being an instructor at Dunbar to accept another position down at Alabama State [College], he gave me those accounts. So through high school, I made extra money.
MS. RICHARDS: So you had him as an instructor early in the high school years –
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah.
MS. RICHARDS: – and were able to do that.
MR. WHITTEN: Right. So he was a great man. I really credit him –
MS. RICHARDS: Was he white or black?
MR. WHITTEN: No, he was black. Oh, no – are you kidding? At that time, it was –
MS. RICHARDS: Oh. You couldn't teach?
MR. WHITTEN: No. It's strictly segregated. I grew up in a strictly segregated apartheid [society].
MS. RICHARDS: So all the teachers had to be black as well.
MR. WHITTEN: Black. All the teachers, all the students. I grew up in a total, separate, segregated society. Total. Not a little bit. Total.
MS. RICHARDS: And when you were doing these signs, though, you were doing them for white stores as well as black.
MR. WHITTEN: Oh yeah. White-owned stores. [Occasionally] somebody did sort of a small business, they would call to do a sign, a poster. One of the bigger accounts was a place called Manufacturers' Outlet. They did these once-a-week sales – dollar sales, they called them. Right? And I would have to paint signs with a dollar sign – sometimes eight, 10 feet. [Laughs.] I took over my mom's whole dining room to do these things. We did them on white butcher paper. And they wanted them big, bold, graphic.
MS. RICHARDS: And then rolled them up and carried them?
MR. WHITTEN: Carried them all and installed them. Small [price]cards like that – one dollar, 50 cents, 25 cents. You know? Two for a dollar, three for a dollar. And truthfully, when I think back, it was fun. My first example of doing large-scale things. You do an eight-, 10-foot dollar sign – that's quite impressive.
MS. RICHARDS: And did you ever imagine continuing that kind of work?
MR. WHITTEN: Well, it was in my mind to do the arts, but again, it was never encouraged. Coming from a poor black community, segregation. And the instructors had your interests in mind. They were thinking about your future. So for me, I went to Tuskegee Institute out of high school, right out of high school.
MS. RICHARDS: I was going to ask you – how did you end up going there? Did the instructor encourage you, said that was the right place? Or did you independently research it or think about what would be best?
MR. WHITTEN: Well, no, I got a full – Tuskegee had what is called a work scholarship program. And because my grades were good – I was an honors student – that allowed me to go into Tuskegee, pretty much a full scholarship program. But it meant that I had to work.
MS. RICHARDS: How far was that from Bessemer?
MR. WHITTEN: Tuskegee from Bessemer – that's in Montgomery Country. It's about hour-and-a-half drive. Not more than two hours, if I remember. Tuskegee Institute at that time was known as Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee Institute, Alabama.
MS. RICHARDS: Was your mother very happy about that?
MR. WHITTEN: Oh, absolutely. My older brother [James] did some college.
MS. RICHARDS: Which brother?
MR. WHITTEN: James. And my sister Laverne did some college at the local community college. She didn't finish. Who else had access to college? [My sister Martha went to nursing school.] That was about it. James went to the Korean War in the Army.
To backtrack a little bit, if you came out of that kind of a community in the South – again, white or black – what was available to you, number one, was the U.S. Army – if your family didn't have money to send you to college, if you didn't have grades. Or the steel mills, the coal mines, the ore mines. And if you were black, you know, that was it. It was either the Army or the coal mines. You had very little chance of local employment.
MS. RICHARDS: Except for those very few people like you who managed to get to college.
MR. WHITTEN: Very few people. Yeah. Very few. So when I got into college at Tuskegee, that was a big thing. Big thing. And they [steered] me toward the sciences. So I went into Tuskegee as a pre-med student.
MS. RICHARDS: When you said, they [steered] you toward the sciences –
MR. WHITTEN: "They" are the school, my instructors in high school.
MS. RICHARDS: Oh, in high school. So you went in intending to major in some scientific field.
MR. WHITTEN: I went into – the idea was I was taking pre-med studies – mathematics, biology, zoology, that kind of thing – botany – which were subjects I really had a feeling for. And I was an Air Force ROTC [Reserve Officers' Training Corps] cadet. So the idea was to be an [Air Force] doctor. And Tuskegee at that time was well known for their special Air Force ROTC [program] because of the Tuskegee airmen, that came out of a program – that program originated at Tuskegee. That's why they call them Tuskegee [Airmen]. [Army Air Corp for blacks.]
In truth, they used to bring a lot of those guys in to talk to us to our class about their experiences in the war, experiences with racism in the military. They were advisors. I remember a lot of them, terrific bunch of guys. That's why I keep a little photograph of them on my wall up there.
MS. RICHARDS: So how long did you continue at Tuskegee focusing on science?
MR. WHITTEN: I stayed at Tuskegee for two years. Two years. But after two years, I realized that – by that time, I was thinking a lot, starting to read [philosophy]. And still in the back of my mind, the arts.
MS. RICHARDS: Were you also meeting other students from different places at Tuskegee who expanded your world?
MR. WHITTEN: Most of them were local, from the South. Probably the first people I met that sort of expanded my notion of the world – we had some of the first African students that studied in the USA: kids from Ghana, from Nigeria. I knew them. The first time I'd met people actually from another country. I remember having a lot of fun with those kids. But most of the student bodies were local. Tuskegee was an all-black college with all black instructors. So the law forbid anybody white from mixing.
But in the back of my mind was always the arts. Even at Tuskegee, I continued to do landscape – drawing from the landscapes.
MS. RICHARDS: And also playing the saxophone?
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah. A little bit. Still playing the saxophone. I played in the Air Force ROTC marching band, which was a highly disciplined thing to do. Air Force marching band was a serious business.
MS. RICHARDS: When you left Tuskegee after two years, you gave up the ROTC track?
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah. I dropped out of that. I realized that my love for airplanes and everything was great, but, you know, it was kind of a romantic idea. When you're taking those ROTC classes, we realized that this thing that you're supposedly driving is a weapon. [Laughs.] It can quickly [make you] lose your romanticism. [Laughs.] So I left Tuskegee –
I should say something happened at Tuskegee that I didn't really understand. And the only way I can describe it when I tell this is revelation. I remember being in an early morning Air Force ROTC class. And it was as if something had put their or somebody had put their hands on me.
And I remember standing up, like, bewildered, like in a daze, and I didn't understand what was going on. But I remember the instructor calling to me, "Cadet Whitten, Cadet Whitten. Attention!" And I sit down back in my seat, right, but I didn't know what had happened. But after that incident, I realized that I had to leave Tuskegee. Then I went further South to –[Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA to study art.]
MS. RICHARDS: But what was the incident?
MR. WHITTEN: It was like something had touched me. It had changed me.
MS. RICHARDS: What was the communication?
MR. WHITTEN: The feeling was that I had to leave Tuskegee.
MS. RICHARDS: Was is a positive feeling or a fearful feeling?
MR. WHITTEN: Well, it was a feeling that I didn't know what was going on. It was hard to – it was hard to describe it in that sense. It's like the kind of experience that I've often heard people in the South who are religious people who claim that if they were preachers, they would say things like, God called me to preach. That's would be the explanation.
MS. RICHARDS: It was a feeling of wanting to go beyond something.
MR. WHITTEN: Go beyond something.
MS. RICHARDS: To break free of something.
MR. WHITTEN: It had to be something other than Tuskegee and the studying of medicine and going into the military. My oldest brother was a military person. He [was] a very decorated veteran from the Korean War. And he was back at Tuskegee in the Army ROTC to receive his Second Lieutenant [commission]. And he was about to graduate.
MS. RICHARDS: Become a commissioned officer.
MR. WHITTEN: That's right. In the U.S. Army. So the military thing – my other brother Tommy was already in the military. So I had two people ahead of me that were military people. And of course, my uncle –[Thomas Cunningham, a World War II veteran who served in the Pacific with the Navy.
MS. RICHARDS: Tommy was enlisted.
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah, he was enlisted. Tommy left high school – smart guy. Faked the birth certificate [laughs] because he was underage. Fast as he left high school, he went straight to the U.S. Air Force. And in those days, that was unusual because nobody black from Bessemer, Alabama, went to the U.S. Air Force. You went to the U.S. Army.
But Tommy was a smart kid. And he went to the U.S. Air Force, which was very unusual. I remember when Tommy came back to Bessemer wearing his blue uniform – boy, people were taken aback. Even caused some trouble amongst white people there because they had never seen a black kid wearing an Air Force uniform. You didn't see that. Very unusual.
So military was sort of ingrained in me. The truth about it – I even grew up reading military manuals [laughs] if you can believe that. We actually got manuals from surplus Army stores, read about weaponry – all kinds of stuff. When I got to Tuskegee, shit, I knew a lot of stuff about the military.
MS. RICHARDS: Did you hunt as a kid in the summer?
MR. WHITTEN: Oh, yeah. Hunting was my middle name. Hunting and fishing. I was a terrific shot. I grew up with guns. We used guns. Hunting everything – everything from squirrel to rabbit to quail to deer – even raccoons, possums. We said in the South if it moves, we shoot it. [They laugh.] We ate everything. But it was a lot of fun. You know, it's sort of – it's still with me, in the summer months [in Greece. I spear fish with a gun.]
MS. RICHARDS: Your father died when you were five so he didn't teach you how to shoot in all those – did your mother or did you have uncles?
MR. WHITTEN: My older brothers. My uncle Jesse across the street, who was a steel mill worker. He would at times take the kids out.
MS. RICHARDS: Your mother's brother?
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah, my mother's brother lived across the street from us – Jesse. He would occasionally take the kids out hunting. When I became a teenager, my mom remarried a man named Wesley.
MS. RICHARDS: First name Wesley?
MR. WHITTEN: Or his last name was Wesley. His first name – that's a good question. That didn't last too long. [Wesley Sims]
MS. RICHARDS: Oh.
MR. WHITTEN: But he made a big impact on us kids as teenagers.
MS. RICHARDS: Good impact?
MR. WHITTEN: For us, it was positive. For my mom, not so positive. But you know, he had a big farm. He would take us hunting, fishing.
MS. RICHARDS: Did you move to his farm?
MR. WHITTEN: No. No. We always stayed at our family home. But we went there regularly – wasn't too far. He was from the area we call McCalla.
MS. RICHARDS: How do you spell that?
MR. WHITTEN: M-C-hyphen-C-A-L-L-A. In truth, you'd say you were where Thornton Dial lives now.
But we would go there to fish and hunt. And this man Wesley knew a lot about the woods. He knew a lot about the forest and how to hunt for wild vegetables and all kinds of medicinal plants he knew. So he trained me to do that stuff. I would go into the woods with him and he would point, we would pick things. You know, this is for this, this is for that. So that was very good. I enjoyed that. The man knew a lot about folklore.
But also he had a dark side to him. In truth, it became known that Wesley was a conjurer – the word in the South is used for somebody who's connected to some sort of a spiritual forces. And they can use it against you, right? So he was known for this. Kind of a con man, the truth about it.
But that didn't last too long with my mom. But for us, the kids – my mom often said that she married him primarily because of us, the boys – having three boys, no father. He sort of filled in the gaps. It worked for a while.
MS. RICHARDS: She sounds like an incredibly strong person.
MR. WHITTEN: My mom?
MS. RICHARDS: Yeah.
MR. WHITTEN: You had to be. For someone to say that they raised seven kids by themselves at that time in the South under those conditions politically – you had to be a strong figure. Otherwise, we wouldn't have survived. My survival depended on the family – who was my mom – the church and the school. Those were the three institutions that guided us.
MS. RICHARDS: So after you left Tuskegee, then where did you go?
MR. WHITTEN: Went further south to Southern University.
MS. RICHARDS: Where is that?
MR. WHITTEN: In Baton Rouge [LA]. I went there as an art student.
MS. RICHARDS: And why did you pick that place?
MR. WHITTEN: It was available. It was a state school, which meant that it didn't cost that much. Tuskegee did not have an art program. In truth, if Tuskegee had had an art program, I probably would have stayed there. But I went to Southern.
MS. RICHARDS: Was that an integrated school?
MR. WHITTEN: No. Hell no. Schools down South did not integrate until much later. Strictly black state college. All black instructors. And there I had my first black art instructors. One of the main ones that I worked with was a fellow named Jean Paul Hubbard. H-U-B-B-A-R-D. Jean Paul. He was a [black Louisiana] French Cajun.
Did watercolors. He was known for his watercolors. And I often think of him because I speak so much about the influence of photography on my work. Jean Peal Hubbard went out in nature, took 35-millimeter transparencies, brought them back to the studio, projected them and did paintings of them. That's kind of amazing.
MS. RICHARDS: What year was that?
MR. WHITTEN: That would have to be '59 – early '59 – because I only stayed at Southern for a year.
MS. RICHARDS: Were the results what you had imagined? – was his work similar to what photorealism looked like? Artists who also –
MR. WHITTEN: It was the beginning of that kind of a thinking. I mean, he did these transparent watercolors done from slide projections. It was my first experience with somebody using a gadget like that, like the camera, taking from nature. But I realize more and more it must have had an effect upon me, that that was my first encounter with somebody doing that kind of a thing doing those kinds of procedures – way before I came to New York [city].
MS. RICHARDS: When you started at Southern University, you started to see yourself as becoming an artist?
MR. WHITTEN: Oh, as an artist. By then I knew that – I understood that revelation I had at Tuskegee better. And I knew then that that's what I'd do. My family became very angry. My oldest brother [James], who was graduating with his Second Lieutenant commission, was beyond [laughs] appalled.
MS. RICHARDS: You threw your life away.
MR. WHITTEN: Oh, my God. [Laughs.] "You don't know what you're doing. You're throwing your life away." He actually hit me. He and his buddies.
MS. RICHARDS: Trying to knock some sense into you.
MR. WHITTEN: My mom was berserk. Again, you're throwing your life away. You don't know what you're doing. That there was no encouragement from nobody. Nobody. One man at Tuskegee, a professor of architecture – I went to him because I was having doubts about what I was doing, involved with music –
[Telephone rings] there's the phone. Maybe since we have this break time, I'll take it.
MS. RICHARDS: Oh.
MS. RICHARDS: So you were saying that there was the architecture teacher and you went to him for advice.
MR. WHITTEN: Yes, I met this professor at Tuskegee – of architecture. And I went to him; he was the closest thing to art. [Laughs.] And I told him my doubts about going into medicine and going into the Air Force. And he told me about Cooper Union [New York City] – that's when I first heard of Cooper Union. He told me it was tuition-free, that there was a test involved – if you went there and made this application, did this test and you pass, you could have a tuition-free school. Never heard of anything like that. [Laughs.] But that's when I first heard of Cooper.
MS. RICHARDS: What was his name?
MR. WHITTEN: I don't remember his name, unfortunately. But he was a professor of architecture.
MS. RICHARDS: But you went to Southern University –
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah.
MS. RICHARDS: And was that tuition-free?
MR. WHITTEN: No, no. It was a state school but it was inexpensive. Probably was something like – I don't remember exactly but somewhere in the range of [$400-$800 a year].
MS. RICHARDS: Were you supporting yourself?
MR. WHITTEN: At that point, yeah, because Mom didn't have any money at that time. Well, in truth, nobody in the family did. She would send food packages, though, both at Tuskegee and at Southern, which was quite helpful. Only problem with that, though, every time I got a box, all my buddies would be in line [laughs] because they knew what was in that box, right?
MS. RICHARDS: So you were an art major and was that – did you define that as painting, sculpture?
MR. WHITTEN: Drawing, painting. Unfortunately, because of restrictions down there from a moral point of view and religious points of view, you couldn't use a nude model – the model was always draped, which was a big mistake. But, you know, that's the South for you. Within that Bible Belt, so it wasn't allowed.
MS. RICHARDS: You did take figure drawing?
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah, I took figure drawing. I had a very good art history course – I remember his name: Professor Cardoza; forget his first name; Cardoza was his name – which gave me a pretty good start in art history. Because I realized when I came to New York, later, that I knew a lot, all from books [and slides]. Never saw the real thing but I could recognize stuff from slides and books.
MS. RICHARDS: Were there other students you met at Southern University whom you kept up with and who were important friends or influences?
MR. WHITTEN: It was a small group of us in music. I was still doing a little playing on the side. We would go to New Orleans [LA] a lot; hang out there at jazz clubs and so forth, and I did a little playing with the sax, in bands and so forth. Nothing too serious because by then I was realizing that I'm leaning more toward painting, not music.
MS. RICHARDS: Were you allowed to go to the museum in New Orleans?
MR. WHITTEN: Never went to a museum in New Orleans. I don't remember if it was because I couldn't go. It was still the segregated South though, you know. But I don't want to be misquoted there. I don't know if it was because they didn't allow us there. In Birmingham, we didn't go because we couldn't.
MS. RICHARDS: When you were at Southern University as an art student and you were studying art history, what artists in art history were you particularly drawn to or who were especially inspiring or exciting to you?
MR. WHITTEN: Well, believe it or not, Italian Renaissance. [Laughs.]
MS. RICHARDS: It's had that impact on a lot of people.
MR. WHITTEN: Italian Renaissance was probably my first big interest. And again, I had never seen those things. Only from slides and in books. Now, I often think about that. I might have been drawn to that because in church, going to Sunday school, we saw illustrations of religious subject matter – that probably was the connection. Illustrated Sunday school books [inaudible]. The story of Jesus.
MS. RICHARDS: The saints.
MR. WHITTEN: Yeah. Then when I discovered Italian Renaissance, probably just connected the two. But something beyond just the notion of illustration.
MS. RICHARDS: So you went through that school for two years, the university?
MR. WHITTEN: I only stayed at Southern for one year. I got involved politically down there with the civil rights demonstrations. We closed down Southern University – it was a big thing, big thing – and led a civil rights march. The locals became involved – the local ministry – and we led a huge, huge, absolutely huge civil rights march.
MS. RICHARDS: What was the target of that particular march?
MR. WHITTEN: We went to the state capitol building. We marched to that state capitol building. It started off as a student protest because we felt that being a black state school, we were not being funded properly. That's what started it. Even in the art department: There [were] no facilities that were worth [any]thing. So that's how the protest started, that the state was not funding the black schools properly. But it mushroomed into a much larger civil right thing.
I was always interested in civil rights. My mother led voter registration rights. At home, my mother would have meetings with the local people where she taught how to pass those tests. In those days, black people had to pass a test to become a registered voter. Plus, you had to pay a poll tax. My mama used to have meetings where she would teach people how to pass those tests and one of the times when I was in high school, probably the first paid commission I had to do [as] artwork, was from a man named – oh boy, it's important that I call this guy's name – he was a local civil rights activist. Asbury – Asbury Howard, that was his name.
MS. RICHARDS: Do you know how to spell "Asbury"?
MR. WHITTEN: It's probably A-S-B-U-R-Y.
MS. RICHARDS: Oh. Okay.
MR. WHITTEN: Howard. He was a known civil rights activist in Bessemer. But Asbury came to me – I must have been eleventh grade – and he said, son, I hear you can draw, you're an artist. I want you to do something for me: I want you to paint me a poster of a black man with his hands tied him behind him in chains. I want a big poster that I can hold like that. I think he gave me 50 cents. I did that poster. He took that poster and led a little demonstration there, in Bessemer, Alabama, on the steps of the county courthouse. Got beat up for it.
MS. RICHARDS: I was going to say, that was dangerous.
MR. WHITTEN: Damn right. Very dangerous. But he used that poster that he had paid me [for].