But those days ended some years ago when McGee came face to face with a visible reminder of his past. At the World's Fair in Knoxville in 1982, he viewed an exhibit that included stereotypical prints of what life was like for many of the South's poorest black residents. Looking at paintings of field hands working in cotton fields, he says he felt "a combination of embarrassment and shame, anger and grief ... that eventually was overshadowed by a warm sense of pride and joy."
He and his wife, Gloria, professor of curriculum and instruction at Tennessee Tech, have translated those emotions into a tangible expression of the past. Several years ago, they started a collection they call "Cotton in My Hands," and to date they have more than 150 prints depicting that part of the black experience on display in their home and in his office in Derryberry Hall.
Producers of WDCN-TV's "Tennessee Crossroads" heard of the collection and asked the McGees if they would share it with the station's viewing audience. The McGees agreed, and the segment is scheduled to air at 7 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 13, and again at 10 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 16, on Nashville's Ch. 8. Local station WCTE-TV also plans to pick up this edition of "Tennessee Crossroads." Tune into Ch. 22 at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18.
Knowing that "Cotton in My Hands" is about to reach a larger audience than ever before leaves the McGees wondering if some people will misinterpret their intent. Visitors to the McGee home have not always embraced the collection - indeed, some have been offended by it.
"This is a part of African-American heritage that nearly all people of this race have difficulty handling," says Leo McGee. "Only in recent years have we been able to come to grips with this aspect of our heritage. Out of the experience I had in the fields of the South came a will to succeed and an appreciation for what my ancestors had to endure simply to survive."
McGee says he never thought he'd live long enough to see the day when he could celebrate what he once abhorred. He understands when the intent of his collection is not understood.
"The classic criticisms have ranged from 'That's disgusting' to 'It perpetuates racism.' Some have suggested that stereotypical artworks negate all the achievements of our ancestors. Reality may well be too uncomfortable. Instead of revisiting that aspect of their heritage, it perhaps is more expedient to ignore it. This strategy makes it much easier to deny that these conditions ever existed."
But, says McGee:
"We're trying to provide a forum for ourselves and others to develop a better understanding of and an appreciation for this aspect of African American heritage. While it was not a pleasant experience, its impact on the American economy and the African American family was enormous. After all, the main reason why slaves were brought to the American South was to work in the cotton, sugar cane and tobacco fields. We believe it would be appropriate for all Americans to reflect on this aspect of history. We have chosen to remember - not to forget."