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story.lead_photo.caption Architect Kwendeche talks about the plan to transform the former Jesse Thomas Grocery Store into the Henry L. Dumas Cultural Center in Sweet Home. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

Minnie Porter Hayes of the small community of Sweet Home, near Little Rock, remembers spending time with her first cousin, Henry L. Dumas.

"Henry's mother and my dad were sister and brother," she says. "His mother was born a Porter," and had the quirky first name of Appliance. "His mom happened to be my favorite, favorite, favorite aunt," Hayes adds. Years later, when her Aunt Appliance retired to Sweet Home, Hayes spent all her time with her.

The two cousins both "came up" in their grandmother's house, Hayes says. While Dumas lived there, Hayes was there nearly every day. They were still children when he moved to Harlem, but reunited whenever Dumas returned for visits and for funerals.

Now a retired teacher, Hayes dedicates her time to honoring the legacy of her cousin Henry -- a renowned writer and poet whose works, most of which were published posthumously, caused author Toni Morrison to laud him as "an absolute genius."

A half century after the 33-year-old Dumas was fatally shot by a New York Transit Authority officer finds Hayes steering the Sweet Home-based Henry L. Dumas Foundation. The organization, a nonprofit since 2009, is blossoming from a community garden into what will be a complex whose central building Hayes, as a child, once predicted she'd own.

On a recent sun-drenched morning in the lush Henry L. Dumas Memorial Organic Vegetable Garden, Hayes, some of her family members and foundation board members chatted near the garden, while volunteers picked peas that will be given to members of the community.

photo
Hashim Mustafa (left) and Willie Talley (right) pick purple hull peas in the Henry L. Dumas Memorial Organic Vegetable Garden in Sweet Home.

"This was all trees ... We couldn't do anything with it," Hayes says. "We were trying to figure out what we were going to do with the garden area to get these trees out of here. So we went to the Granite Mountain Quarries [and its head, Haskell Dickinson] and we asked them if they could help us. And they came right in and they cleared this entire land.

"Once they cleared it, then we [were] wondering, 'Well what can we do with this now?'" Hayes got the idea to plant vegetables and share them free with community members. "We have a lot of elderly people here as well that don't always get fresh vegetables," she says.

CULTURAL FOOD

Next door to the garden is the old Jesse Thomas Grocery Store building. It has been taken down to the studs in preparation for its comeback as the centerpiece for the foundation's cultural center.

For the transformation, the group turned to Kwendeche, a local architect and artist who goes by a single name. Kwendeche is spearheading plans to redesign the store and adjacent house, and build a library and theater.

Also at the garden this particular morning, Kwendeche showed blueprints. The old grocery store will have its exterior and interior rehabilitated. Part of the process will be removing the portico, which is not original to the store, and installing vintage gas pumps to replace the ones that once stood in front. The Craftsman-style house will become an administrative center. Future plans include a museum and visitors and research center.

"The intent is to do phase I, get it restored to a point where we can submit for eligibility on the National Register of Historic Places," Kwendeche says. The goal is to "bring it back as close as possible to the way it was, during the time that Henry Dumas came to the store."

Inside the store, Kwendeche pointed out what will be the exhibit space, a meeting room, accessible toilet and a warming kitchen for catering. "There's work to be done to make the ceiling more plumb; the roof is kind of sagging." He says three window openings will be replaced with new wood windows. Rehabilitation work is scheduled to begin in October and end in January or February.

Hayes' family patronized the grocery store in its heyday; she passed it on her way to school as a child. She remembers being only 9 or 10 years old when she told her girlfriend that when she grew up, she was going to buy the store and the big house -- "it was big to me" -- beside it.

In 1982, the now-adult Hayes passed by the store, at this time vacant and boarded up. A for sale sign was outside. She inquired and was told another party had put up earnest money for it, but that buyer's financing subsequently fell through. Hayes bought the store, which would be used as her daughter's day care center, a church, a T-shirt shop and an arcade. She also got the house and garden property.

Finally the store sat empty again. There was some discussion about starting an after-school program at the building. But Hayes had a bigger vision; she wanted to see something in Sweet Home named in Dumas' honor.

photo
Henry L. Dumas Foundation founder and chairman Minnie Porter Hayes, a first cousin of Dumas, shows photos of a 2012 foundation dedication ceremony that took place in the Sweet Home community. Shown in the photo are Dumas’ widow, Loretta Dumas of Somerset, N.J., (second from left) and Eugene B. Redmond of Fairview Heights, Ill., literary executor of Dumas’ estate (fourth from left).

THE DREAM TAKES SHAPE

Then Loretta Dumas, widow of Henry L. Dumas, came to visit from her home in New Jersey. With her was her late husband's friend and colleague, Eugene B. Redmond. During a chat with them, Hayes said, "You know, we don't have anything in Sweet Home to even commemorate Henry's work, [honor him] or anything." Hayes noted that in other cities and countries, Dumas was studied and celebrated -- but there was not so much as a marker in his native land. She mentioned the vacant former grocery store. Loretta Dumas asked to see it and to take pictures of it. After doing so and returning home, Dumas showed the photos to others ... as did Redmond, professor emeritus of English and literature at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and poet laureate of East St. Louis, Ill., has stoked interest and appreciation of Dumas' work as literary executor of his estate and editor of his published poems and short stories.

In 2012, the property was dedicated as a future cultural center and library during a program with Redmond and Loretta Dumas in attendance. Work began at the end of that year and continued into 2013, but the going has been slow due to limited funding. The organization has received a number of small grants, Hayes says, "but we're anticipating larger grants."

The grocery store will be one of the venues to house Henry Dumas' works. The house will become an administration building that will have Dumas' archival papers and memorabilia and displays that chronicle the history of Sweet Home. The garden will eventually give way to the library, which will have a small theater "so that we will be able to bring in writers from around the country," Hayes says. "And we know that they will come, because they're telling us that 'If you build anything about Henry Dumas or any other writers, we will come.'"

Redmond says he is "extremely excited and euphoric" about Arkansans learning more about their native son. The work on the forthcoming cultural center and related facilities, he adds, "is very edifying to me. It's very uplifting."

He plans to contribute a cache of all the work he has done on Dumas since his death, while Loretta Dumas will donate items dating back to her late husband's childhood. "It's going to be a very precious place," Redmond says. "I jump for joy every time I think about it ... that there's a home for it."

Foundation representatives, meanwhile, are planning another event in April, National Poetry Month. Hayes calls the event a combination of poetry, jazz and books, featuring speakers who will present pieces of Henry Dumas' work. They hope to implement a Henry Dumas Heritage tour, venturing to New York and other places he lived and worked.

Meanwhile, the foundation is seeking supporters and volunteers beyond the community, which still includes other Dumas relatives.

There, "everybody's excited" about the garden and the center development, Hayes says.

"They come out in the morning time. They love to see us down here and if they don't see us ... they start calling. And it's good. When you get back in the community ... and you're doing things, it kind of invigorates the community."

For more information about the Henry L. Dumas foundation, visit Henryldumasfoundation.org.

Photo by Special to the Democrat-Gazette/ Henry L. Dumas Foundation
Henry L. Dumas
Photo by Thomas Metthe
Minnie Porter Hayes and her husband, Joe Hayes (left), hold hands as they walk around the Henry L. Dumas Memorial Organic Vegetable Garden in Sweet Home.
Photo by Henry L. Dumas Foundation
A young Henry L. Dumas is shown with his mother, Appliance Watson, in 1947.

Style on 09/16/2018

Print Headline: Sweet Home hero: Renowned poet and writer Henry L. Dumas finally getting hometown recognition 50 years after his death

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