Who are the guardians of culture in small town USA? I’d have to say people like Hazel Valentine of Nashville, N.C.; that’s who.
Valentine was in her 90s when I interviewed her in the early 1990s. She started our conversation with a few questions for me. Who are your people? Where are they from? Valentine wanted to know. Imagine my surprise and her amusement, when we found that both she and my mother were born in Hamilton, N.C. and that her uncle was also my great-grandfather.
Once my family history was out of the way, I stood on more solid ground with my subject. We got to Nashville, the Nash County seat, and its cultural legacy. Removed as it was from nearby Rocky Mount, Nashville needed cultural opportunities of its own, she said. How the town took on this task was her story.
Valentine had become program chairman of the Nash County Cultural Center in the early 1990s, after she and others had rescued the former Nashville Baptist Church building, which needed repairs and renovation; the group received permission from the county, which owned the building, to “dust off the pews and have a few programs.” Then the building became home to the Nash Arts Center, which Valentine helped found.
Valentine ultimately persevered in all sorts of ways, through heating issues in winter and needed repairs. She enlisted area church choirs to perform at the center’s Christmas Music Festival; four choirs participated. A rousing success. She asked women of nearby Momeyer to come and discuss ornaments they’d made for a community Christmas tree. They came, presented a program about the ornaments, all representing Christian symbols. Plans began to repeat the music festival the next year.
She seemed determined to move the center forward, to develop programs in any way possible, focusing on history through music, art and drama, things that bind communities. The histories presented in the stain-glass windows would make interesting programs for the center, she told me. She always had an eye on history, while she looked ahead to what was next.
The center had brought in talent and had created a following. People knew where the center is and that they could use it.
In 1997, the Nash County Cultural Center became Nash Arts, Inc., housed in the Nash County Cultural Center, better reflecting the programming focus. According to its current website, Nash Arts presents juried and competitive exhibitions, more drama, literature and creative writing, educational programs, in cooperation with local schools and other community agencies.
Valentine, a parole officer at the National Training School for Girls and a school teacher, was Nashville postmistress for 16 years, but her real legacy lies in her later years and her volunteer work, especially at the cultural center.
The Nashville Graphic newspaper once described a vivid collection of artifacts in Valentine’s house thus: “Mementoes of yesterday and plans for tomorrow.” That was Valentine’s approach to preserving history. Nash County owes her a lot.