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Neomah Scharps

Neomah Scharps: Arts and Civic Volunteer – 2/15/24

Written by Chris Rader

From a simple beginning in the segregated city of Little Rock, Arkansas during the Great Depression to a civically-involved community leader in Los Angeles, to an arts patron in Wenatchee, Neomah Scharps contributed much to her world.

Neomah was born in 1932 and, according to her 2021 obituary (presumably written by her daughter), ”learned early on what it meant to survive.” After graduating from high school, she received a diploma and certificate of merit from Johnson Business College in 1949. Two years later she became part of the Great Migration, a period when millions of African Americans left the South in search of freedom and better lives.

She moved to Los Angeles and found work as a secretary. She also joined the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Council, a nonprofit uniting people under age 25 in fighting for civil rights and social justice. She became its secretary – and met Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the NAACP and soon to become the first African-American Superior Court justice. His tireless work to enable Black students to integrate schools and universities inspired her for the rest of her life.

In 1957 a Los Angeles television writer asked Neomah to return to her home town to conduct interviews with nine Black youths who had integrated Central High School in Little Rock. She learned they had suffered much trauma, being separated into separate classrooms and even receiving death threats.

“This made her realize the enormity of the barriers they were up against,” according to her obituary.

After her article appeared in the NAACP newsletter, the TV writer invited Neomah to a party. Here she met Larry Scharps; he was working toward a psychology degree. They married in 1958 and subsequently had two children, Laureen and Eric. Larry became a psychiatric social worker adviser at Los Angeles County General Hospital, retiring in 1982.

Larry and Neomah Scharps. Both photos courtesy of Laureen Scharps

While raising the children, Neomah Scharps found time to volunteer for various community organizations. She was active in the League of Women Voters and served on the board of directors of the Hollywood Leadership Council. She also was named to the Mayor’s Community Development Advisory Committee.

Serves on grand jury

In 1973 Scharps was selected to serve on the Los Angeles County grand jury for a year. She was one of 10 women on the 23-person jury and one of only two Black members. This appointment brought her notes of congratulations from many people. Elizabeth Gunn wrote, “You will make an important contribution. You have convictions, understanding, and knowledge. In addition, you are intelligently articulate.”

Scharps later explained to a Wenatchee newspaper reporter that the L.A. County grand jury functioned as a watchdog.

For example, its members oversee the quality of services
provided by a county government which has an annual
budget greater than that for many states. The jury also is
charged with hearing cases considered for indictment by
the District Attorney’s office (1).

During her year on the grand jury, Scharps and her fellow jurists heard cases investigating the county Air Pollution Control District (suspected of protecting the petroleum and chemical industries), county hiring practices (accused of ethnic and racial bias), and other cases involving juvenile crime, mental health, organized crime and pornography. The jury also heard testimony from several defendants in the Nixon-era Watergate scandal who had connections in Los Angeles County, including the “plumbers” accused of ordering the break-in at a psychiatrist’s office.

After her term was finished, Scharps worked on a police-community relations study being developed by the League of Women Voters. She served on the Metropolitan Area Council on Police-Community Relations and was chairperson of the county Juvenile Crime Committee and
Mental Health Committee.

Moves to Wenatchee

Neomah and Larry Scharps had visited the Olympic Peninsula in 1971 and liked it very much. They decided to move to Washington after Larry retired, and so made a few trips to tour the state. They agreed they liked Wenatchee. After purchasing a lot on Chatham Hill Road in Sunnyslope, they built a house and rented it out for a few years before moving in permanently in 1983.

The couple was fond of the arts, including classical and other types of music. They supported the Wenatchee Valley Symphony and the local Performing Arts Center, as well as the North Central Washington Museum (now Wenatchee Valley Museum) and the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust. Neomah became a museum volunteer.

In 1991, Neomah Scharps curated an important art exhibit called “Symbolic Selections” that was held jointly at the museum and at Wenatchee Valley College’s Gallery 76. She gathered works by contemporary Black artists from all over Washington state including Florence Baker-Wood, Marita Dingus and Barbara Thomas.

Together, the galleries exhibited 86 pieces: drawings, paintings, prints, sculpture, multimedia and wearable art including headdresses and jewelry. According to The Wenatchee World, “The show is based on personal and universal symbolism used by the artist….(featuring) artists of international renown” (2).

Jacob Lawrence’s lithograph “Aspiration” was one of 86 pieces created by African-American artists in the “Symbolic Selections” exhibit curated by Neomah Scharps
in 1991. Courtesy of Laureen Scharps.

Commenting on the exhibit, Scharps noted, “It is my desire to share with the community the range of interest experienced by African-American artists – also to make the public aware of the caliber of Black artists who live and work in the Pacific Northwest. I hope that this exhibit will serve as the beginning of a tradition.”

Scharps received many accolades for the exhibition. In a thank-you card to her, Wenatchee Mayor Jim Lynch wrote, “I especially enjoyed the Monad (Graves) cloth figures.” Prominent arts patrons (and World publisher) Kathy and Wilfred Woods called the exhibit “a resounding success.”

I do not exaggerate when I tell you this is one of the most
satisfying shows I have seen. The vitality just leaps out at
you! And the variety is breathtaking. For me, one of the
best parts was the chance to meet several of the artists
and hereafter to be able to associate a specific personality
and subsequent work we will see…. I am staggered by the
amount of time you and Larry have donated to this project.
… We are not only proud of your work at the museum, we
also have for some time considered it a blessing that you
two came to join us here in the Northwest. You all bring
such richness to our lives (3).

Today, Kathy Woods recalls Neomah fondly. “She was a really interesting lady!” she said. “I had a good time with her. She was a lot like (the late Wenatchee musician) Leslie McEwen; very upfront, with a delightful sense of humor.”

Larry Scharps died on June 23, 2018 and Neomah on March 4, 2021. Their son Eric preceded his father in death. Their daughter, Laureen, and her husband Gernot had moved to Germany. Laureen Scharps donated a box of family mementos to the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center; these papers were invaluable in documenting her mother’s life for this article.

SOURCES
Lawrence H. “Larry” Scharps obituary, Wenatchee World, June 28, 2018.
Neomah Scharps obituary, Wenatchee World, March 27, 2021.
WVMCC Collection #2022-10-C, donated by Laureen Scharps: photos, letters and news articles.

ENDNOTES
1. B. Hutmacher MacLean, Wenatchee World, Jan. 9, 1983.
2. Wenatchee World, Sept. 19, 1991.
3. Letter from Kathy Woods, fall 1991.

This story was originally published in Confluence Magazine in the Summer edition of 2022. In an effort to preserve these stories, the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center will be posting these stories on the museum’s official blog.

Become a member to get a free copy of Confluence Magazine. Learn more about how to become a member here!

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