From Coast to Coast, the AJBM Literary Foundation Perseveres to Make the World a Better Place Through the Arts

This is an original article from Tualatin Valley Creates. 

It wasn’t the first time Rick Jones had been fired by his Aunt.

Arthenia J. Bates Millican was tired of lip service from her family. In 1997, she was done with “help” from her nephew Rick. Or so she thought.

Arthenia, once a prolific writer, was aging. Increasingly, she had difficulty assembling full works, writing fragments on cornflake boxes, pantyhose cardboards, or scraps of paper. This loss of ability to bring her written thoughts to completion led her to reach out to family. She hoped they would take up the cause to protect, preserve and promote her legacy as a Black poet, writer, scholar and humanitarian of the South.

In his visits to her home, Rick began to realize his aunt was deeply suffering from what she described as “graphamania.” Starting with haphazard notes spread around her house, he began cataloging more than a hundred boxes of her written material. Living in her Sumter, South Carolina home on weekends, Rick became almost obsessed with his aunt’s work. It dawned on him that inside those boxes was the incredible gift his aunt had given the world. And he discovered something else: a treasured record of his own family history.

Arthenia Bates Millican, Fall 1960. Image Courtesy of the AJBM Literary Foundation

Arthenia, born in 1920 and raised in rural South Carolina, was an active figure in the Southern Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s. She had an esteemed career as a teacher, university department chair, and doctoral recipient. With her passion for education, she gained a following in the South and, later, worldwide. In addition, she wrote voraciously.

Using old-fashioned print rollers, Arthenia self-published much of her writing. Classmates created artwork to go along with her poems and stories. She struggled to get formal representation by a literary agent or publisher; there was pressure for Black writers to mimic more urban, more white patterns of speech. But Arthenia remained steadfast in her commitment to writing in realistic, common dialects of people in the South.

In spite of obstacles, Arthenia thrived in a rich creative community of Black writers. Alongside celebrated literary artists of the time like Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and Jerry Ward, she wrote her premiere work, Seeds Beneath the Snow, published in 1969. Three years later, Arthenia became only the second Black woman to receive a PhD in English from Louisiana State University. Strong in her principles, she never changed her writing style to gain recognition or money.

“It was more about an addiction to writing and education,” Rick Jones explains now.

"Seeds Beneath the Snow" was published in 1969. Image Courtesy of the AJBM Literary Foundation

As time went on, Arthenia took note of her nephew’s increasing dedication to indexing her works. In 2001, Rick Googled her name. He showed her numerous hits highlighting her papers, books, and poems. Rick helped Arthenia see that her work was out there, and its merits were recognized in the literary world. The following year, he was honored to officially sign on as his aunt’s literary agent.

Rick and his family, increasingly energized and inspired by her written works, created the AJBM Literary Foundation in 2008. The Foundation’s mission is focused on preserving Arthenia’s writing and making the world a better place through the arts. Its programs also provide young artists with mentorship and platforms to present their work alongside world-class writers. It also connects students with opportunities to learn from and be inspired by professional artists across disciplines, including music and dance.

The development of the AJBM Literary Foundation has not always been a smooth path, however. Arthenia’s 1912 home, now a designated South Carolina Literary Landmark, needed major renovations to preserve it. And in 2005, someone broke into the property and stole many of Arthenia’s journals from her early writing years. Stories and conversations she had with artists – including her mentor, Langston Hughes – plus many of her reflections on life and pieces of her family’s history were sadly lost.

Arthenia with her brother Edward, 1970. Image Courtesy of the AJBM Literary Foundation

In addition, Rick says, “there is just so much unpublished material.” This obstacle, however, is a cherished one.

Immersed in the Foundation’s mission, Rick is persevering. Plans are in place to gift Arthenia’s papers to the University of South Carolina’s South Caroliniana Library. He is consolidating her unpublished second novel, Journey to Nowhere, for potential release. A short film about Arthenia’s life is also in the pipeline, along with an initiative to adapt a previously-made documentary film for television.

In 2017, Rick and his wife moved to Oregon. As its Director, Rick has brought the foundation’s work with him from Sumter, its home base, to the Pacific Northwest. The AJBM Literary Foundation, now operating from coast to coast, continues to bring communities together by fostering open dialogue and engagement with the arts.

In Lincoln City, for example, Rick has partnered with an education-focused nonprofit, Music is Instrumental, to develop a musical composition to bring one of Arthenia’s stories off the page. In Hillsboro, he is collaborating with a local writer to pilot a high school curriculum based on Seeds Beneath the Snow.

Today, The AJBM Foundation is actively seeking a home in Hillsboro for the interactive curriculum, which was successfully piloted in South Carolina. The curricular has been designed to provide the best levels of learning for students by spanning five areas of the arts – Drama, Music, Dance, Visual Arts, and Media Arts – all while learning about the historical significance of Southern Black culture. Rick challenges any school in the area to implement this engaging program.

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Contact the Foundation to learn more about piloting the AJBM Literary Foundation’s high school curriculum. You can purchase the Foundation’s most recent release of Arthenia’s work, The Bottoms and Hills: Virginia Tales, on their website.

Interested in literary arts? Join TVC for a Virtual Creative Networking Event for Literary Artists, co-hosted with local publisher Airlie Press, on November 12th from 6:30-7:30pm. Register via Zoom.

Special thanks to Rick Jones for participating in an interview for this article. Written by TVC’s Communications and Program Manager, Ashley Baker.