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Palmer Hayden Comes Home: Discovering a Native Son

By Janet Payne

Janet Payne is the retired fine arts coordinator of the Stafford (VA) County Public Schools. This article originally appeared in the International Review of African American Art, volume 16, number 1, and is reproduced here with the permission of this publication.

In 1996 on one of my many visits to the Hampton University Museum, I had the opportunity to see the recently acquired Countee Cullen collection. As I viewed the familiar names of African American artists, I noticed an artist unknown to me—Palmer C. Hayden of Wide Water, Virginia. Could that be the same Widewater in Stafford County where I am the fine arts coordinator? How could this be? My research on the Stafford-born artist Palmer C. Hayden began in this moment.

Struck by the need to permanently establish Hayden's reputation in his home county, I applied for a curriculum development grant through the Virginia Commission for the Arts. With this support, retired art educator Retta Robbins authored the curriculum packet and provided teacher workshops on Hayden. Now all fourth graders in the county learn about the major American artist from "around the way."

The material on the artist was rather scarce but again I called on Hampton University Museum staff to help me. While attending the opening exhibitions at the museum's new site, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet Samella Lewis, founder of the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, home to a collection of 40 paintings by Hayden. At that point, I knew my mission was clear--to bring those paintings to Hayden's Stafford County.

Painting featured above: Baptism, 1958 by Palmer C. Hayden (Peyton Cole Hedgeman, 1890-1973) | Widewater, Virginia | Oil on Canvas 29" x 39"I discovered that a former art student and Widewater native, Alethea Jackson, was a great, great niece of Palmer C. Hayden. Jackson told me about a painting in her church which the artist had done in 1958. Imagine my excitement when I heard that an original Hayden painting was right here in Stafford County! After seeing the painting, I was struck by its similarity to the 1945 composition Baptizing Day, a recollection of Hayden's youth while living near Aquia Creek in Stafford County. Both of these compositions depict actual families from his church as well as other familiar imagery of the area—lily pads along the creek bank and fishing boats.

Many of Hayden's images had their origins in childhood memories, including the notable John Henry series. Widewater was a flag stop along the railroad and Hayden's father told him the legendary story of John Henry.

I was startled to see that the Widewater church painting was signed "Peyton Cole Hedgeman," Hayden's given name. Now it was clear to me why Hayden's name was not well-known in our community. While circumstances surrounding the name change are not certain, we know that Peyton Cole Hedgeman became Palmer C. Hayden while in the Army.

After acquiring the exhibition catalog Echoes of Our Past: The Narrative Artistry of Palmer C. Hayden from the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles, I began regular correspondences with Harvey Lehman, member of the museum's board of directors. In August 1998 Harvey drove to Stafford County from Hampton University where his son was a student. I took Harvey to Belmont, home, and studio of Stafford artist Gari Melchers and the proposed site for my vision of a local exhibition of Hayden's works. We also drove to Widewater and Harvey saw the baptism painting hanging in the church. By that time Harvey shared my commitment to bringing the Palmer C. Hayden collection home to Stafford County.

In September of 1998, Stafford art teachers were presented with the Hayden curriculum and accompanying teaching materials. As fine arts coordinator, I was invited to present lectures at various venues throughout the community. In December Belmont director David Berreth secured funding from Mary Washington College for the exhibition. Belmont curator Joanna Catron secured a contract for the delivery of the Hayden collection and developed public programs which included lectures on the arts of the Harlem Renaissance by art historians Richard Long and David Driskell.

This "Homecoming for a Native Son" has brought a new spirit to our community. Record numbers of visitors are traveling to Belmont to discover this local artist, much as I did three years ago. Palmer C. Hayden is now known and recognized in his home community. The artistic struggles and triumphs of Peyton Cole Hedgeman will continue to be taught for generations to come and will become a part of the culture and history of Stafford County, Virginia.

Visit these sites for more information on Palmer Hayden:The Janitor Who Paints | Palmer Hayden | 1930 | Oil on Canvas

In the Library

These library resources have information on Mr. Hayden:

Extraordinary People of the Harlem Renaissance by P. Stephen Hardy & Sheila Jackson Hardy
More than forty profiles on people who were part of the Harlem Renaissance, including a profile on Palmer Hayden.

Biography Resource Center, part of our database collection, has several possibilities. You will need a CRRL card to access this database.

  • "Palmer Hayden." Notable Black American Men, Book II, Thomson Gale, 2006.
  • "Palmer Hayden." St. James Guide to Black Artists. St. James Press, 1997.
  • "Palmer Hayden." Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 13. Gale Research, 1996.

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