Hampton alum, father create ‘I AM 400’ banner honoring 400 years of African American achievement

Growing up with a father who is a visual artist, Jeromyah Jones said he always heard a picture is worth a thousand words.

“Later in my life, I learned one word can change a life, so I decided to put these two affirmations together and decided, one picture can change a thousand lives,” Jones said.

It’s a philosophy Jones took to Hampton University, where he studied art.

Over the years, he nurtured that philosophy and has brought back to his alma mater in the form of special art banner, “I AM 400.”

The banner, which he created with his father, artist Jerome Jones, is a collection of 69 painted portraits of notable figures and trailblazers from the African American community.

The portraits, transformed into digital images, are side-by-side on a 4-by-12-foot white vinyl banner. The images are meant to highlight the history and victories of African Americans over the past 400 years, said 29-year-old Jeromyah Jones.

“With there being so many negative images and negative stereotypes and images about African Americans … this is one way you can combat that by showing the true character and culture and contributions of African Americans during this 400 year period,” he said.

The banner is on display on the main floor in the William R. and Norma B. Harvey Library at Hampton University.

It will be open to the public until at least late August, as the region commemorates the 400th anniversary of the first Africans to arrive in Virginia, said library director Tina Rollins.

On Wednesday, the 2011 Hampton University alum and his 59-year-old father — originally from Norfolk — said the inspiration for the banner evolved from a biblical scripture.

The father and son had a few joint art exhibits around Virginia, including at Hampton University, the Black History Museum & Cultural center in Richmond and the Amtrak Main Street Station.

They were looking for a single venue to exhibit the originals. The banner idea made sense.

“ ‘Thou has given a banner to them that fear thee that it may be displayed because of the truth,’ and I thought this is amazing,” he said. “That fits perfect … to have our artwork in a banner, to share who we are as a people and who we give glory to.”

The title of the project “I AM 400” is an acronym derived from one of the elder Jones created in 1993 called “Ingenious African Minds.” It is a pen-and-ink sketch of 75 prominent African American men and featured in the banner’s lower right-hand side.

A project that has been four decades in the making, the banner is an African American “who’s-who,” with subjects hailing from several industries and disciplines, such as science, history, law, politics broadcasting, sports and music.

Some portraits include pioneering NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, poet Nikki Giovanni, broadcaster Max Robinson, Serena Williams, Alex Haley, Colin Powell and Oprah Winfrey.

To create the banner, the men took photos of the individual pieces, put them on a Google drive and then printed a sheet of the images. The elder Jones arranged them, cut them out, placed them on a poster board and had a graphic designer put the images on the banner.

Twenty of the banners are for sale. Some already are hanging in schools and museums on the East Coast, Jerome Jones said.

The banner on display at Hampton University was donated from a sponsor who acquired the artwork, Jeromyah Jones said.

It will be used as a visual history tool for students to study those African American pioneers who paved the way, he added.

Jerome Jones’ hope is that the banner can be used as a teaching tool not just for youth but for everyone.

“There is a back story to the black glory,” he said.

For Jeromyah Jones, the banner also is symbolic of the African quilting legacy.

“It does remind us of the quilts of our ancestors … who used them almost like road maps and perilous times they were in,” he said. “It really shows how powerful art is. We just don’t want to create decorations. We want to create declarations, declare that we must be free from the oppression that we see.”

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