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
The scene is now iconic; four young Black men, students at the Historically Black North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro sat down at a segregated lunch counter in a local Woolworth’s department store. In the aftermath, their actions – in ways that we wouldn’t fully understand for decades – went “viral”, inspiring a generation of young Americans, Black and White, to challenge the racial status quo of the American South. Among those who were paying attention was a North Carolina native son, raised in Brooklyn, named Max Roach.
Months after the so-called Greensboro Sit-In, a staged version appears on the cover of Max Roach’s now classic We Insist! Max Roach’s – Freedom Now Suite. The album stands as an early musical testament to the burgeoning rage, anger and passion that would take the Civil Rights Movement from its early victory in Montgomery in 1955 into a future that would dramatically alter race relations in the United States. And as perhaps fitting, the impetus for Roach’s artist statement came in the aftermath of tragedy.
Roach was barely out of his teens when he began playing with many of the stalwarts of Be-Bop in the mid-1940s, but he came to prominence in a quintet that he fronted with trumpeter Clifford Brown. When Brown was killed in an automobile accident is 1956 at age 24, Roach went into an understandable funk. As Roach told the Los Angeles Times in 1991, "I got really strung out on booze.” Roach’s recovery came via a community of Black artists and activists who embraced him in the city of Chicago, including Maya Angelou, playwright Lorraine Hansberry and most importantly vocalist Abbey Lincoln, who would later become his collaborator and wife. Also, in that community was a young singer-songwriter named Oscar Brown, Jr., who in 1959 begins to collaborate with Roach on what was to be a performance piece that marked the centennial of the signing of Emancipation Proclamation in 1962.
Then February 1, 1960 happened, and events of that day and subsequent others, changed the direction of Roach and Brown’s project, injecting it with a sense of urgency. Speaking with the Boston Globe in 1992, Roach admitted, “We could never finish the piece because we felt the Emancipation Proclamation was all rhetoric.” We Insist! reflects the contradictions that Roach, Brown and others felt at the languid pace of social and political change – anticipating Nina Simone’s chastising on her classic “Mississippi Goddamn” of those naysayers who say “go slow”.
In many ways Roach, Brown and others including Abbey Lincoln, who provides vocals throughout, the legendary saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, trumpeter Booker Little, and Chicago native, trombonist Julian Priester, had little choice but to speak truth to power musically at that time. For example, the Motown label had just incorporated two months after the Greensboro Sit-In, and it would be another four or five years before they had the cultural gravitas to move the needle, and in any event the label founder Berry Gordy was not inclined to do so. The Stax label was still a regional mom-and-pop outfit when recording began on We Insist! in late August of 1960. Even vocalists like Sam Cooke and the aforementioned Simone, who are remembered as “voices” of the movement, were a few years away from the recordings like “A Change is Gonna Come” or “Young, Gifted and Black” which many associate with the Black protest movement of the era. Max Roach el al seemed to be out on a limb.
The literal centerpiece of the Freedom Now!
By the end of the 1960s, the sense of urgency that We Insist – The Freedom Now! Suite emboldened, could be heard throughout American culture in the work of musicians, playwrights, novelist, poets and visual artists alike. Almost 60 years after its recording the vision of resistance that We Insist! conjured is as relevant and needed today as it was then.
Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies and Professor of English at Duke University, where he is Chair of the Department of African & African-American Studies. Neal is the author of several books including Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic and Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities and hosts the weekly video podcast Left of Black, produced in collaboration with the John Hope Franklin Center for International and Interdisciplinary Studies. Follow Neal on Twitter at @NewBlackMan and Instagram at @BookerBBBrown.