Many people care about the history of the place they call home, but some people devote themselves to it. Kinston’s Choci Gray is one of them.
For the past five years, Gray has hosted the Chitlin Circuit: an annual community event that features stellar performances by some of the town’s most celebrated Black musicians. Typically, the Chitlin Circuit is held in February, but the event will not take place this month because of the pandemic.
Gray’s Chitlin Circuit event hearkens back to the time of segregation, when Black entertainers were forced to leave white clubs immediately after their performances. These entertainers would head to a Black-owned venue in the same town to perform, eat, and be in fellowship. This network of venues was called the Chitlin Circuit.
Many of America’s most celebrated musicians—Ella Fitzgerald, B. B. King, Duke Ellington—worked the Chitlin Circuit, and North Carolina had its share of such venues. Gray, a Black artist and owner of a venue (The 1901 Building) herself, feels strongly about celebrating the North Carolina musicians who are a part of that story.
Gray was raised just outside of Kinston in a rural community called La Grange. She grew up listening to the music of James Brown, but didn’t learn until later in life that many of the players who crafted his sound— Nat Jones; Maceo Parker; his brother, Melvin Parker; and Dick Knight—were from Kinston. These players helped Brown develop a style that the world now knows as funk, and they are among many gifted Black musicians from eastern North Carolina who are credited with shaping modern American music.
That legacy and its potential compelled Gray to return to Kinston after a period of living abroad as a young adult.
“I realized there was a lot of culture here to be developed,” she recalled. “I wanted to go into the community and bring forth all this stuff and involve the older generation so they can tell our history, and involve the younger generation so they can know their history.”
Since returning home, Gray has been deeply involved with community development work in Kinston. In addition to running Da Loft, Gray has served on the county’s recreation committee, and she’s created murals for King’s Barbecue and the Woodmen Community Center. She nominated Maceo Parker and Dick Knight for the North Carolina Heritage Award, which Mr. Parker received in 2016 and Mr. Knight in 2018. She was also a consultant on a recent effort to apply for a Pomeroy Foundation Historic Marker to honor Nat Jones, an under-recognized Kinston musician who cowrote many of James Brown’s songs and was the musical director of the James Brown Band. The Pomeroy Foundation has funded a highway marker in honor of Mr. Jones that will be installed later this year. It will be the first historical marker in Kinston to recognize an African American.
Last year’s Chitlin Circuit featured performances by Maceo Parker and Dick Knight, and by another North Carolina Heritage Award recipient—the jazz musician and band leader Bill Myers, of Wilson, who received the award in 2014.
“This is historical, by itself,” Gray said, in an interview on the eve of the event in February of last year. “It's the Chitlin Circuit, and it’s on Black-owned premises, which is the part that makes it authentic. I never would’ve believed that the same musicians I grew up listening to and dancing off of would be coming here. I feel like history is taking place, and I’m a part of it. That’s a story.”
All in person programming has been suspended through the end of March 2021 at the 1901 Building. Gray tentatively plans to resume the Front Porch series—a community storytelling and genealogy program—during the Kinston Barbeque Festival in the first week of May. The Chitlin Circuit program will resume in person for Black History Month next year.
Visit the African American Music Trails of North Carolina to learn more about the Black music traditions of eastern N.C.
Videographers: Matt Zeher, Laura Casteel
Audio: Matt Zeher
Editing: Matt Zeher
Producers: Choci Gray, Earl Ijames, Samuel Gerweck, Sandra Davidson
Photography: Sandra Davidson
Written by: Sandra Davidson