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Charles E Sebree History

History of Charles E Sebree nationally renown artist born in Madisonville KY by Harold Utley.  (August 14, 1914 – September 27, 1985)

And Jesus said unto them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and his own house.”
KJV Matt 13:57

So often this is true of those in our hometown. Such is the case ofCharles E Sebree, a dancer, playwright, teacher and artist. Sebree iswell known nationally but is virtually unknown in Madisonville andHopkins County. Had it not been for Don Kington bringing this to theattention of the Historical Society Sebree might still be unknownlocally.

Charles E Sebree was born August 14, 1914 in the “Hall’s Bottoms” areaof Madisonville. As a child his dream was to ride the “Dixie Flyer” toa glittering outside world. His earliest creative influence was hisuncle, John Robinson, who often drew cartoons and stick men.

At the age of 11, he and his mother moved to Chicago, Charles began amore formal study of art. As a student in grammar school, his works wasshown to the Chicago Renaissance Society, an affiliate of theUniversity of Chicago. The University gave him a scholarship to attendthe Art Institute of Chicago on weekends.

After graduating from high school in 1932, Sebree attended the ArtInstitute on a Dudley Watson Scholarship. To supplement thescholarship, he worked at a variety of jobs – bootblack, waiter,dishwasher and dancer. Charles called himself a “hoofer”.

While he was at the Art Institute of Chicago, he was a member of theIllinois Federal Art Project Easel Division. Here he exploredportraiture through broad-brush strokes, creating powerful figurestudies such as “Woman with Lemons” in 1935. This work now hangs in theSt Louis Art Museum.

After attending the Art Institute of Chicago, Sebree remained there andinteracted with a group of artist centered on Chicago’s South Side. Thevitality of Chicago’s black arts movements came to rival that ofHarlem, and Sebree benefited from the involvement with colleagues suchas Margaret Burroughs and Eldzier Cortor.
During the 1933 World’s Fair, he designed costumes and sets for thepageant “Freedom’s Path”, produced and performed by renowned dancer,Katherine Dunham. He later joined the Dunham Company as a dancer andset designer, and in 1939, designed costumes for the premier ofDunham’s “The Lotus Eaters”.
In 1940 Sebree moved to New York City where he became involved in the theater and co-authored a successful Broadway play.

Sebree served in the U S Navy in WW II. While in the Navy Charles wroteshort plays regularly during his service. Upon his discharge, he waspresented with a fellowship by the Rosenwald Foundation, established in1917 by Sears, Roebuck and Company executive and philanthropist JuliusRosenwald. The $1,000 grant enabled Sebree to continue with his art.

In New York, Sebree continued his work in fine art and was alsoemployed extensively as a costume and set designed. By 1949 he hadcreated enough art pieces to hold a one-man exhibit at a New York Cityart gallery.

For several months in 1949 Sebree was a resident of an art colony wherehe associated not only with painters but also writers and poets. Thisassociation renewed his interest in writing and inspired him tocontinue his literary efforts.

Two years earlier he had written the play “My Mother Came Crying MostPitifully” followed by a one-act play “A Talent For Crumbs”. In 1952 hebegan work on a play entitled “Mrs Patterson”. The script caught theattention of Broadway producers and in collaboration with playwrightGreer Johnson, a Lexington Kentucky native, was turned into a “playwith music”, starring a rising young actress and singer, Eartha Kitt,who had made her name on Broadway in the review “New Faces of 1952”.

Briefly, “Mrs Patterson” is the story of the people in Hall’s Bottom-ofa girl with an imagination that stirred the dreams of those she talkedto into something approaching reality. The characters in the play areall Negroes. Mrs Patterson is a composite of Madisonville aristocracy.More specifically, she is the woman, “who lived on the hill.”

“Mrs Patterson” opened on Broadway on December 1, 1954. Kitt portrayeda 15 year-old girl who, living in poverty in a small Kentucky town,constructs a world of glamorous fantasy about herself.
“I know Mrs Patterson,” Sebree explains, “and I know her house. ThoughMrs Patterson is primarily a composite, she is based for the most parton Mrs Charles Everett Ruby (member of a prominent Madisonville familywho now resides in Louisville). The house was a big one, white withwide porches and overlooking Hall’s Bottoms. In the back were the smallbrick houses which one housed slaves.”
“Teddy Hicks (Eartha Kitt) was patterned after a girl who lived nextdoor to me in Mt Italy. We used to talk about how we’d go hoboingtogether.”  “We never did make it, though once we did get as far asEarlington Kentucky riding the rails. But we had to walk back.” Themale lead in the play, Willie Brayboy is pattered after a chum ofSebree’s, known only as “Sonny Boy”.”

“He had a yearning to hobo too,” Sebree recalls. “He’d always tell ustall tales and he played wonderful songs. It really hurt when I heard afew years back that he was killed in an automobile accident.”
Two things stick out in Sebree’s mind about his early days aroundMadisonville. One of them is the Vinegar Hill trash heap, where thechildren would go to play and where they contrived the fantasies onlychildren can.

The other was a distant aunt, a traveling preacher and purveyor of fireand brimstone. “One story that stands out,” he says, “is the one she’dtell about jaybirds. This is a story of the devil and power of thedevil. She said the jaybirds, on Fridays, carry sand to the devil andbury the dead. Jaybirds have always been kind of a mystery to me eversince.”

“Mrs Patterson”, which opened early this month (December 1954),received generally mixed reviews but, on the whole, commending it tothe public. Last week (ending December 18, 1954) it broke a houserecord at the National Theater, grossing $36,000 and is sold out forthe next 20 weeks—meaning it will at least last for this season.However, Eartha Kitt developed health problem that worsened during therun of “Mrs Patterson” and ultimately forced the closing on February26, 1955.

In 1961 Sebree moved to Washington DC where he taught summer courses inart and design at Howard University, designing costumes for productionsat the college, and continuing his painting.
Charles E Sebree died of cancer at George Washington Hospital onSeptember 27, 1985. On October 2, 1985, Sebree’s ashes were inurned inArlington National Cemetery’s Columbarium and are located in Court-1,Section-PP, Stack-18, and Niche-number 3.

In the fall of 1999, Charles E Sebree was memorialized with apersonalized brick installed in Madisonville’s Preservation Walk onEast Center Street. Sebree is a nationally known personality that isvirtually unknown in his hometown.


Submitted by: Harold Utley of the Historical Society of Hopkins County Kentucky

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