Supper Table Spotlight: Jennifer Bartell Writes about Elizabeth Evelyn Wright

We’re featuring the artists from the Supper Table project throughout the summer. This is the 13th in our series on Supper Table Artists

Jennifer Bartell again.jpg

Jennifer Sharain Bartell is a poet and educator, currently teaching at Spring Valley High School in Columbia. She has a BA in English Literature Creative Writing from Agnes Scott College and an MFA in Poetry from the University of South Carolina. Though she loves all forms of creative writing, poetry is her home. She has had literary work published in Jasper Magazine, The Texas Review, and Pluck!: The Affrilachian Journal of Arts and Culture, among others. Bartell is passionate about quality education and equality for all students in South Carolina. You can view her work at


Bartell was tasked with writing a creative non-fiction essay on Elizabeth Evelyn Wright, a remarkable late 19th century Black woman and educator whose desire to share her passion of knowledge with others never faltered. Bartell writes with painfully true poeticism on how Wright walked from church to church to receive funding for her schools, about how unnamed and un-prosecuted individuals set fire to nearly all of Wright’s schools, and how she still rose above these flames and founded the school we know now as Voorhees College. Bartell writes:

The school was burned. The fire sheriff did not investigate and said the fire was due to a faulty chimney. She went back to Tuskegee to complete her studies, graduated, and returned to Hampton County to establish a school. That school was burned. Next, lumber she intended to use to build a new school building was burned. Her intentions were to build a school for Black people, run by Black people, and supported by Black people.

Her plan was for young men who worked in the fields by day to learn in the school at night. Those young men whose hands picked cotton and cropped tobacco for a few cents a day came at night to pick up a book to gain knowledge.

Her faith commanded her to walk on and so she had her eyes set on an old mill between Cummings and Early Branch. She was going to transform it into a school. Before she could even have her first class in the mill, it was reduced to ashes.

The school was burned. The passive voice lies so well. The school was burned. As if it had lit the match and tossed it on itself. White racist arsonists burned those schools. Ignorance and hate burned those schools. It was prejudice in the hands of white men who burned the schools. It was an unabashed effort to uphold the laws of their ancestors: Keep Blacks illiterate and without knowledge.

She did not fear the fire and did not sit in the ashes of these moments. Instead she used them as motivation. Educating Black children in South Carolina was and still is revolution. Especially since poor white children weren’t getting an education at this time either.

To read Bartell’s full essay on Wright, as well as our other 11 essays, purchase a copy of our book Setting the Supper Table, which launches on Friday, September 6th at Trustus Theatre as part of the premiere of the Supper Table installation, performance, and film premieres. The book will be available via a limited-edition printing for $25 at this event, and tickets are available online now and selling fast:   

Poems Flow with Your Cup of Morning Joe via River Poems from One Columbia and the office of the Poet Laureate

  one columbia coffee


Local poets come together to create coffee sleeve poems about the historic flood and rivers of Columbia for national poetry month this April.


In conjunction with One Columbia for Arts and History, Ed Madden, the city of Columbia’s poet laureate, has created a project titled River Poems. This project will focus on bringing poetry to the people of Columbia during the entire month of April. Since 1996, April has been national poetry month, and one of the tasks of the poet laureate is to promote the literary arts. “As a project for the poet laureate, last year and this year both, we put poems on the buses. We had already decided the theme this year would be the river, because it is the theme for Indie Grits, but I think the flood added additional urgency to the theme,” says Madden.


Along with the bus project, the second project this year was to put the poems on coffee sleeves. “We’ve been trying to think of ways to promote poetry in unexpected places, so coffee sleeves felt like a really obvious place to put poetry,” says Madden. “You can drink your morning cup and read beautiful literature.”


Seven local writers came together for this wonderful opportunity to spread literature around the city. The writers include, Jennifer Bartell, Betsy Breen. Jonathan Butler, Bugsy Calhoun, Monifa Lemons Jackson, Len Lawson, Ray McManus, and Madden himself. After sending out a limited call to those artists to create a piece of poetry eight lines or fewer, each poem was then stamped on thousands of coffee sleeves that will be distributed at independent coffee shops around Columbia. Including both Drip locations, and the Wired Goat.


“I think the idea of the coffee sleeves is so smart. Columbia has a healthy relationship with the arts, especially the performing arts. But the city gives a lot of love to the fine arts, the design arts, and the literary arts that has thrived here for quite some time.  You’d expect that from a capital city to a certain extent. But what is unique in Columbia is that the art scene is so diverse, and there is a growing respect for that diversity. The literary scene is no exception. There is a little something for everyone here. I hope that resonates,” says Ray McManus, poet and author of the poem Mud.


Each of the eight poems centers around the idea of the river that runs through Columbia. This idea ties in with the theme of this year’s Indie Grits Festival, which is Waterlines as well as The Jasper Project’s multi-disciplinary project Marked by the Water, which will commemorate the first anniversary of the floods in October. There are also a few featured poems that represent the voices of people effected by the historic flood which ran through the city last October. Overall, each poems creates a sense of what the rivers mean to each poet, and how in many ways people are still mending together the pieces almost six months later.


When writing her poem titled What Stays, Betsy Breen was thinking back to a particular image she recollects from the flood. “I was thinking about the flood in October, and all the debris that washed up during that time. I have a particular image in my mind of a part of Gills Creek that I pass every morning on the way to work. The week after the rain stopped, it was filled with both keepsakes and trash. I was thinking of that when I wrote this poem,” says Breen.


It was almost opposite for McManus, who says most of his inspiration almost always comes from books and projects. “I love exploring directions that I didn’t otherwise intend. I’ve always been drawn to rivers; the way they perform; the way they’re always moving. And we depend on them more than we realize, especially in the most basic of functions. We grow from rivers, from the mud of rivers. At some point they become a part of who we are,” says McManus.


National poetry month begins on April 1. Columbia is sure to be celebrating all month with something to read as people drink their coffee and travel to work. “We are always looking for more ways to promote the arts, and I believe this year that includes a pretty unique project,” says Madden.


Don’t forget to pick up your cup of morning joe this month to feel the inspiration of poetry. Breen reminds us that “National Poetry month is much larger than this poem or project, of course, and I do hope people pay attention to all the different kinds of poetry around them.”

-- Alivia Seely