In honor of Black History Month, we’re exploring the lives of four Black Charlotteans who are part of the Museum’s Path of Portraits project. Path of Portraits is part of our mission to honor the history of all members of our community and provide a space that encourages visitors to connect with people from the past. Working with Charlotte Is Creative and four local artists, the Museum commissioned four portraits of historic figures in Charlotte history. Each artist painted their respective portrait live at the 2021 African American Heritage Festival, after which the paintings were installed in the Museum with biographical information. The project was funded by the Arts & Science Council.
This week’s featured Charlottean is Nance, as imagined by Abel Jackson. Nance was enslaved by Hezekiah Alexander and what little we know of her life comes from the records of the Alexander family. We don’t know how Nance came to the Alexander home in Charlotte, where she was born, or even how old she was when she arrived. Prior to 1786, we know that Nance lived at the Alexander homesite. She was likely a young woman at the time and may have been responsible for many different tasks, including cooking meals, tending the substantial vegetable garden, harvesting crops like tobacco, processing flax for clothing and linens, or other duties.
Local artist and muralist Abel Jackson painted his version of Nance’s portrait at the 2021 African American Heritage Festival at the Museum.
When Mary (Polly) Alexander, Hezekiah and Mary’s middle daughter, married Charlie Polk in 1786, Nance moved into their household nearby. Perhaps Nance’s responsibilities were similar to what she did in the Alexander household. About ten years later, Mary died, and Hezekiah updated his will to reflect the passing of his daughter. In that codicil, Hezekiah noted that Nance now had three children and that they all would be bequeathed to Charlie Polk as his son-in-law. Who was the father of Nance’s children? What were their names? What happened to Nance and her children after Mary’s death? We don’t know the answers to these questions.
Detail of Hezekiah Alexander’s codicil (meaning addition or supplement) to his will, written between 1796 and 1801. In this addition, Hezekiah mentions Nance and her three children, who moved with Hezekiah’s now-deceased daughter Mary, to the household of Charles Polk after their marriage in 1786. The line referring to Nance by name is underlined. A transcription of Hezekiah’s will can be found in the North Carolina Archives.
Like others who lived their lives in bondage, what we know about Nance is written by her enslavers. For the Path of Portraits project, the Museum researched and created detailed biographies of the featured Charlotteans. But for Nance, the gaps are vast. Despite the gaps and dire lack of details, artist Abel Jackson focused on Nance’s relationship as a mother. Nance’s portrait is one of the first paintings visitors see as soon as they walk in the Museum.
Though we know so little about Nance’s life, this striking portrait by Abel Jackson acknowledges her humanity and the life she and her children lived in Charlotte.
Follow along all month to learn more about the Charlotteans featured in the Path of Portraits or come see them on display at the Museum on Saturdays.
Have a great weekend!
Charlotte Museum of History
About The Charlotte Museum of History
The Charlotte Museum of History exists to save and share the Charlotte region’s history, helping create a better understanding of the past and inspiring dialogue about the future. The museum is the steward of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House and homesite, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest home in Mecklenburg County. Visit charlottemuseum.org and follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The museum is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass