The Emancipation Proclamation and the subsequent two world wars spurred the largest migration in American history. During the nadir of the African American experience, following the short lived Reconstruction Period, this group was clear that they would have to do for themselves. African Americans left the southern states in droves for northern, eastern and western cities, establishing customs and ways of life befitting this dignified group of people.
Normally, the eldest or most able sibling would blaze the trail. Younger family members would follow once the eldest was settled. As more and more southern folks arrived, most American cities established restrictive, discriminatory housing legislation. Consequently every American city had it’s African American neighbourhood(s). Tulsa had its Greenwood, Chicago its South Side, Memphis its Beale Street and Manhattan its Harlem. When reflecting on the Harlem community of the 1930’s, the late Dr. John Henrik Clark recalls Harlem being safe, clean and politically active.
One of the features of these vibrant, often self-sufficient communities, was the food vendor. My great grandfather, Monroe Shannon, could be classified as such. A property owner with a family house, a boarding house and a large garden on a Kansas City, Kansas corner lot, Monroe Shannon would hook up the horse and wagon to make the evening rounds. His route began with a song. Each vendor had one, announcing the arrival of their fresh foodstuffs - greens, beans, black eyed peas, yams, corn, even ice. Each song was the individual creation of the vendor.
Through colour and the Carolina Quilt Code, The Watermelon Man Quilt Collection celebrates the memory of neighbourhood vendors and their these home spun songs, fore-runners of an indispensable media marketing tool, the radio and television jingle.