Fresno State professor one of the many honored as a trailblazer at African American Museum event


Thomas-Whit Ellis beside AAHCM board of directors Lynnette Brown (left), and Brittany Jacob (right). (Manuel Hernandez/ The Collegian)

In 2000, Thomas-Whit Ellis directed the play “Golden Child” in Taiwan, performing it both in English and Mandarin. He was chosen by the United States Senate as a Fulbright Scholar to travel to Taiwan and direct a production for seven months, becoming an ambassador for the arts. 

He is the first African American theatre arts professor at Fresno State and directed the first all Black, Latinx and Asian productions at Fresno State.

In addition to his theatre career, Ellis also served as the chair for the Africana Studies program.

After having a prolific career in theatre arts, spanning decades, Ellis was recognized as a “local trailblazer,” and honored by The African American Historical & Cultural Museum (AAHCM) of the San Joaquin Valley in Fresno. 

“It’s truly an honor. But more importantly, it’s an honor to be with this cohort of other luminaries and pillars of the Black community. It’s just a gratifying experience to be recognized by the Black community because that’s what I’ve been dedicating my career toward,” Ellis said.

The African American museum held “Trailblazers 2023,” an event that honored eight local community members and three award recipients, on Feb. 24. It was a night that celebrated Black excellence.

Ellis recalled when he first got hired “many, many years ago” at Fresno State. He said that a group of students petitioned to have a Black theatre professor. Before he accepted the offer, Ellis was also the first Black theatre arts professor at the University of Georgia. Ecstatic from the news in Fresno, Ellis submitted an application and the “rest was history,” he said.

His career gained greater recognition when he became the first Black professor to present an American college production in the National Theatre of Nigeria and the Van Troi Theatre in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.

The United States currently holds an embargo against Cuba, restricting trade with all Cuban products. This embargo was established during U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s term in office and the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro, prime minister and revolutionary leader of Cuba.“Directing in Cuba was also very big because we [Americans] don’t know we have this embargo against Cuba, and a lot of Americans don’t know about Cuba. So that was an eye opening experience as well,” he said.

Trailblazer 2023 began with introductions for each award recipient. From board members to prominent activists and Fresno City councilmembers, attendees dressed in extravagant, formal attire, eating food while honoring the trailblazers.

Nefesha Yishra’el, new executive director of the African American Museum, was appointed to the position and has been actively engaging with the community since her appointment in August 2022. In a recent interview with Fresnoland, she said she made the bold decision to reject a salary from the museum and instead raise it from the community.

Before she was the executive director, Yishra’el was hosting art workshops and putting together events for ArtHop. 

Yishra’el curated “Trailblazers 2023” and included live painters, a violinist and quilters. A week before the event, it had sold-out completely.

“Tonight was an epic night. It was history. it reminded our people that we have so much to celebrate,” Yishra’el told The Collegian. “To get the feedback from the community that we got, was really powerful. I was so thankful. It felt very rewarding in a way that nothing compares to your community response.”

Audia Yvonne Dixon, a Fresno State alumna, was one of the featured live artists to have been featured at the event. Dixon is also the artist-in-residence at the museum. 

During the event, she was working on an untitled piece, which she told The Collegian is a major shift in her usual color palette. 

“This is a painting of a cloud that I took after a storm, outside of campus where I attend, Clovis Community, and I really want to take a picture of it. So I’m really just trying to challenge the same kind of things I’ve had in grad school, you know how to place black children or black bodies in natural landscapes,” Dixon said.

Dixon is currently a professor at Clovis Community, and an alumni of Fresno State. Her large-scale works surround Black subjects with an emotional atmosphere. 

“I’m really grateful. It’s just to see some familiar faces and meet some new ones and create relationships and networks with people. It’s like it’s really, really enriching,“ Dixon said. “Just being able to follow my passion in the way, and how it continues to grow, I’m just grateful that I have the access and the privilege for people to support me to do what I love.”

Kimberly Tapscott-Munson was honored with a Trailblazer Award. She is the first woman of color to be elected to the Fresno County Board of Education. 

Tapscott-Munson worked 20 years as a librarian for the Fresno Unified School District, and she then became the first vice-president of the Kings and Tulare County NAACP. She is also a community consultant member of Miguel Arias, a Fresno City councilmember for District 3.

“It’s important that we remind [the youth] who they are, that they come from kings and queens and that slavery is not where we began from. It’s what came after, and it does not define us. It does not describe us, and it’s not who we are. We use our legacy and our future,” Tapscott-Munson told The Collegian.

Brenda Buckingham, Arrie Smith, Crystal Jackson, Anita Evans, Glenda Allen-Hill, Booker Tallaferro Lewis II were also honored as trailblazers during that night. Ryan McClarty was the recipient of the “Shining Star Award.” Rodney Murphy earned the “Jesse McDonald Jr.” award. Shantay Davies-Balch was honored with the “Passing The Torch” award.

Henry Ellard Jr., the vice-chair of the African American Museum board of directors, led the night with a speech during the ceremony. He’s originally from New York but made his mark as a prominent fashion figure in Fresno.

“Culture. It’s about culture. We got to come together because we’re all one. I got out here [from New York] and I’m like, ‘Okay, everybody’s doing their thing. But we all spread out in different places,’” Ellard Jr. said. “We can’t fight against each other or none of that. We come together and make it happen then the sky’s the limit.”

With previous experience working with Christian Dior, Gucci and Cartier, Ellard Jr. moved to Fresno and created the “Better Living Art Club,” an art program which targets disadvantaged kids.

Ellard Jr. is currently in the process of creating an art scholarship fund with Fresno State.
“Here, they have a low percentage of minority artists. And so we’re trying to fill that void. But upon them giving the scholarship to the kids, we will guarantee a full-time job when the kids graduate, so bringing everything full circle,” he said.

The African American Museum is now taking nominations for “Trailblazer 2024.” The museum will also begin to hold art classes for kids every first and third Saturday of the month beginning March 4.