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Brailey, Willie Van

Willie Van Brailey with finished (l) and unfinished stools (r)

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A native of Orangeburg, Willie Van Brailey grew up on Treadwell Street – an historic neighborhood where newly freed slaves aspired to make a better life for themselves. Claflin University (1869) is located just across the street and many of South Carolina’s first African American lawyers, doctors, architects, and entrepreneurs were born in the neighborhood. This is the nurturing environment in which Willie Brailey was raised. His mother, Marie Brailey, learned the art of chair caning from a close friend and neighbor, Mrs. Icie Williams. She used her skill to supplement the family income and became known throughout Orangeburg for her chair caning prowess. Mrs. Brailey was recognized with the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award in 1997.

Willie Brailey learned the art of chair caning from his mother and began caning in earnest in 1979. When his mother’s eyesight began to fail and she was no longer able to work on chairs, Brailey decided to complete all of her unfinished projects. At this point, the Treadwell Street tradition began to reach a much wider audience. Brailey became the first male to work seriously in the tradition and he expanded on what his mother taught him. He developed eleven new designs using various math and geometric formulas to make his work more precise and symmetrical. The high quality of his work and the attention to detail has long been recognized by antique dealers and others throughout the region. He was not only in demand to replace and repair traditional designs, but to create new designs as well.

Willie Van Brailey lived on Treadwell Street where he kept the chair caning tradition strong and vibrant. He was a participant in the annual Folklife Festival at McKissick Museum and each year he donated a chair to an individual in the community. Brailey often discussed his craft at group meetings throughout Orangeburg County and took special pride in passing on a tradition he learned from his mother fifty years prior. Brailey passed away in December of 2013. He received the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award in 2011.

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