An antique rocking chair holds a prominent spot in the front room of Vivian Ayers Allen's home in Chester.
It’s a modest chair with a vintage country-patterned cushion, worn from years of rocking small children. A vine has grown from a nearby window and snaked itself around the chair, creating a sort of organic work of art Ayers Allen doesn’t want disturbed.
She doesn’t want to limit the vine's potential. It's symbolic of the life she has fostered in her children — nurturing growth without boundaries.
The rocking chair belonged to Mrs. Lila Jeanette Brown, a teacher and wife of the principal at the school where Ayers Allen graduated.
This tiny and feisty, but kind, woman giggles when she looks at the chair.
Ayers Allen, 94, was in the last class to graduate from Chester's Brainerd Institute in 1939, the last year the school operated. Brainerd was established in 1866 for local children of freed slaves. Students learned literature, science, math, languages, philosophy and the arts on a 14-acre campus that boasted 12 all-brick buildings within walking distance of downtown Chester.
The school is two blocks from Ayers Allen's home.
Ayers Allen, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, says she thrived in concert piano. Her love for the arts and passion for lifelong learning was rooted at Brainerd, like a rapid growing vine.
She left Chester to pursue larger-than-life experiences in education and art, and moved back to her hometown more than a decade ago. Those experiences are now showcased in photographs and artwork throughout her home.
Ayers Allen moved to Houston where she married and had her three children. She served on the board for the National Endowment for the Arts, where she created “Workshops in Open Fields,” a literacy and arts program for children. Ayers Allen also helped cultivate her children's talents that would make them famous.
“Life was based in a certain discipline and it should be like that for any kid, any color,” Ayers Allen said. “They should live.”
Her son, Tex Allen, is a musician. Her two daughters, Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen, are both Broadway and screen actresses, directors and producers.
Rashad sang and starred on Broadway, earning a Tony Award. Then she landed the role as Clair Huxtable on the popular 1980s television sitcom “The Cosby Show.” She starred in a handful of TV shows and movies during the next few decades. Now she produces and directs plays in New York and Chicago. She also has a recurring role on the award-winning TV drama series “Empire.”
Dancer and actress Debbie Allen is an Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony Award winner. She was in the 1980s hit TV show “Fame” and its subsequent films. She currently stars in “Grey’s Anatomy” and operates the Debbie Allen Dance Academy in Los Angeles.
Ayers Allen said she taught her children the importance of the disciplines.
“Don’t wait for them to ask for something, just playfully take them into something they have never thought about and charm them into taking the disciplines. You have to do that," she said. "It takes a little urging when they are young to make them stay with the disciplines. They will bless you forever.”
Ayers Allen taught by example. She moved her children to Mexico to learn new experiences away from the racist climate in the U.S. Southeast, Debbie Allen said.
"That was one of the best things she ever did for us," Allen said. "She let us see the world was a much bigger place than Houston, Texas. What we were experiencing there was not the way the world really was and the door was more open."
While in Mexico, Ayers Allen studied the Mayan culture, as well as Greek literature. She wrote a book of poems, “Spice of Dawns,” and the poem “Hawk,” which astronauts read in space. Ayers Allen worked at NASA in the 1960s.
Debbie Allen said her mother is a true Renaissance woman.
“She has grown up mastering the craft of everything,” Allen said. “She made the best fried apple pie. She could make any dress she ever saw on the cover of Vogue magazine.”
Rashad and Allen are preserving what they consider the reason their family learned to love the arts and education.
Rashad purchased Chester's Brainerd Institute in 1999 after a group of community members tried raising money to save the property from being developed. All but one of the original buildings is still standing.
Last year, Brainerd started offering programs to preschool children.
Ayers Allen still has a vision for Brainerd. She wants to continue educating young children through "Workshops in Open Fields." With her next birthday just weeks away, Ayers Allen continues reaching out, like that vine in her home, for new goals and experiences.
In their words
Rashad and Allen recently told The Herald about their mom’s extraordinary life and how she helped shape their passion for performing.
“I’m learning something from my mother every day, and I’m very grateful for that," Rashad said. "I’m very grateful to have the relationship we have. Sometimes, you know, with creative work, some people are not able to share their passion and their vision with those who are closest to them, I mean family members, because of a gap in understanding.
"I have never experienced that. I have been able to come to my mother and talk about any and everything openly. All of my life, it’s been like that. I grew up watching my mother work through so many circumstances that could have defeated her had she been (of a mind to let them). She was not of that mind.
"My mother always included us in everything she did, even if we were too young to fully understand what was happening, it didn’t matter. We were so young but she brought us with her. We went to lectures and exhibitions. We were there for conversations with other artists. We were never left out of the picture, we were always present, always engaged, always in the mix. It was very natural and spontaneous.
"We grew in an understanding that there were things that were maybe beyond our understanding at that point but … that we would have to give ourselves over to in order to learn, and that was inspiring and encouraging.
"We grew up understanding that the world is full of wonder, and so are we as people. And that our quest, our charge, our responsibility in life was really to explore, uncover and realize and act within the realm of a full human potential. And she taught us by example.
"My mother has done many different things. She is a very accomplished human being. she returned home to Chester and is determined that her accomplishments were never just for herself alone, and is so open and willing in sharing them with people. That’s what she does, that’s what she taught us and truthfully, that is a trait in our family."
Debbie Allen said:
"We have grown up with a woman who has always had a vision and an understanding of herself and given that to her children and demanded that of us.
"Mommy always recognized what our desires and our talents were and she just was, you know, unrelenting in terms of getting us opportunity. I thank her for everything that I am right now, honest to God, I thank her. My mother lives in a world of her own imagination and creativity and that’s how she functions.
"Mommy has just inspired us and made us know that that’s the way you need to live and that’s how she lived and continues to live.”
Allen said she involves her children just like her mother did.
“When I was doing “Fame,” (my daughter) Vivian was under the piano in a little Jesus basket, and when I went to London to do the musical 'Carrie,' they were with me on the plane.”
"It was Mom’s influence and determination to let us succeed in art that made a real difference. She raised us. It’s no surprise that we would grow up and do everything that we have done. Mom was just going to find the opportunities for her kids, and she did.
"I can’t thank her enough for loving us enough to give up a lot of her own ambitions, to raise up and give up benefits she didn’t have, make opportunities possible for us she didn’t have and educate us the way she had."
Tracy Kimball: firstname.lastname@example.org