From Harlem to Texas: African American Art and the Murals of Aaron Douglas

Black Arts and Texas may seem like an incongruous subject to folks living in the twenty-first century but thinking about the subject in 1936 seems even more problematic.  The year 1936 marked the centennial of Texas’ independence from Mexico.  Touted as a World’s Fair, the Texas-sized celebration was staged at what has become known as Fair Park in Dallas.  Although the Texas Centennial Commission had attempted to block the construction of a separate building to recognize Texas’ black history and the accomplishments of its African American citizens, the federal government was contacted by a committee headed by Eugene Kinckle Jones and finally $100,000 of the government’s three million dollar allotment to the exposition was provided for partial funding of the hall and its exhibits.

"Hall of Negro Life" at Fair Park in Dallas, TX

“Hall of Negro Life” at Fair Park in Dallas, TX

Titled “The Hall of Negro Life,” the building and exhibitions opened on June 19th, 1936, in time for Juneteenth, a celebration of the same date in 1865 when Texas’ African American residents learned they had been granted emancipation over two years earlier when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863.  The celebration was covered in The Dallas Morning News on 20 June, 1936, which provides a shocking but all too familiar account of the culture of racism in the Southern United States during the twentieth century as black citizens were prevented from visiting exhibitions in the other exposition buildings.

Although the black leaders involved in obtaining funding for the Hall of Negro Life lobbied for an African American architect and an African American construction company, the firm of Dallas architect, George L. Dahl, was selected to design the building in the Art Deco style utilized for all of the buildings Dahl designed at Fair Park.  Separate exhibitions related to Negro progress were featured at the hall: education, aesthetics, health, agriculture, mechanics, art, business, social service, newspapers, religion, legal exhibits, and miscellaneous.

In the same year Alain Locke, intellectual, philosopher, educator, and “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote the influential Negro Art: Past and Present.  Locke encouraged African Americans to become involved in the arts, saying

A needed and logical step in the support of the Negro artist and the development of Negro art must come from an awakened interest of the Negro public in this matter. Negro churches, schools, organizations of all types should make Negro art vital and intimately effective in our group life by studying it, circulating it and commissioning it. Only under such circumstances will it become truly representative.

It is likely that one of the goals in dedicating separate space to black artists at the centennial celebration was to bring a bit of the Harlem Renaissance to Texas.  Although New York City is generally regarded as the home of the Harlem Renaissance, cities such as Cleveland, Ohio, Chicago, Illinois, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had thriving arts scenes in the twenties and thirties.  Dallas did not.  The Hall of Negro Life provided space to exhibit ninety-three works by thirty-eight African American artists.  The anglo New York City philanthropic organization known as the William E. Harmon Foundation, then a major patron of African-American art, loaned the art and Alonzo J. Aden, then curator of the Howard University Gallery of Art in the nation’s capital, was chosen as the exhibition curator.

The Harmon Foundation also funded four mural paintings for the octagonal lobby of the Hall of Negro Life.  Despite having no association with Texas, and living in Harlem at the time, Kansas native Aaron Douglas was chosen by the foundation to paint the murals with the theme From Slavery to Freedom.  Although the exact circumstances regarding the choice of Douglas and his theme were not disclosed, Douglas went to Dallas with an extremely credible background having already painted many murals for a variety of homes and public places.

Among those in Art History circles in the United States, people recognize Aaron Douglas’ accomplishments in the arts.  But his contributions are, unfortunately, not well-known outside the profession — even among black Texans.  There is an African American museum built on the site of the Hall of Negro Life at Fair Park in Dallas, Texas, but the museum’s website makes no mention of the murals he created for the hall in 1936.  Douglas was born in Topeka, Kansas and graduated high school there in 1917.  He matriculated to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska and earned a B.A. in 1922.  Shortly thereafter he moved to New York City and became associated with the Harlem Renaissance.  In 1930 he created murals for Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee and by 1940 he had begun teaching there and subsequently founded the Art Department.  He taught twenty-seven years and in 1994 the University named their gallery in Douglas’ honor.  In 2007 the exhibition Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist was organized by the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas; the exhibition also traveled to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art the following year.  A few of the honorifics used to describe him are “The Father of African Art,” “Dean of African-American Painters,” and “Pioneering Africanist.”

"Aspects of Negro Life," painted in 1934. Courtesy of New York Public Library

“Aspects of Negro Life,” painted in 1934. Courtesy of New York Public Library

His first mural, Jungle and Jazz, was painted in 1930 (some sources note it was 1927) for the Club Ebony in Harlem, however, his best-known mural, Aspects of Negro Life, painted in 1934, was installed in the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library, now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.  Considered an American Modernist, Douglas utilized a modified Cubist style mixed with motifs from Egyptian art in a tableaux related to the syncopation of Jazz; the artist, however, referred to his style as “geometric symbolism.”  From Slavery to Freedom highlighted the progress that had been made by African Americans since emancipation.

Unfortunately the Texas Centennial Commission chose to demolish the Hall of Negro Life in the spring of 1937 after futile attempts by the African American committee to keep it intact had failed.  Along with the demolition, two of the four mural panels by Douglas were lost or destroyed.  Fortunately Alonzo Aden had written a guide for the Dallas exposition titled “Educational Tour through the Hall of Negro Life” that was available to viewers and was reprinted in Southern Workman 65, no. 11 (1936): pp. 331-32.

Aaron Douglas, Into Bondage, 1936.  Oil on canvas 60 3/8 x 60 1/2 in. (153.4 x 153.7 cm) Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Aaron Douglas, Into Bondage, 1936. Oil on canvas 60 3/8 x 60 1/2 in. (153.4 x 153.7 cm)
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Douglas’ series for Fair Park was comprised of four panels but what is presently known as Into Bondage (above), part of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s permanent collection in Washington, D.C., and Aspiration, among the collections at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, are the only two extant panels.  The first mural (now lost or destroyed) was devoted to the life of Estevanico (Little Stephen), a Moroccan slave who accompanied the Spanish explorer, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, first to Florida and subsequently to Texas; Estevanico is acknowledged as the first black person to live in Texas.  The second mural was known as the “Negro’s Gift to America” and featured, according to Aden who was quoted by Jesse O. Thomas, “ ‘agricultural workers on the left and the industrialists on the right’ ” bringing their gifts to “Labor.”  All of the oil on canvas paintings related the advancement from slavery to becoming productive citizens in modern twentieth century cities such as Dallas.

One can see desperation and hope in Into Bondage; I believe this is a characteristic found in most murals by Aaron Douglas.  Here the small shackled figures at the left of the composition (perhaps women) are overtaken by the large muscular men who also are shackled and move hesitantly toward the slanted slave ships on the horizon.  The undulating rings of monochromatic color indicate Douglas’s understanding of Orphic-Cubism or Orphism, the French response to Cubism initiated by Robert Delaunay and his wife, Sonia Terk Delaunay; Douglas’ year in Paris (1931) likely made him aware of their style.  Shooting into the rings, a piercing light terminates in a minute star.  Perhaps it is related to Frederick Douglass’ (no relation) North Star abolitionist journal and the star that led some blacks out of slavery.

Aaron Douglas, Aspiration, 1936.  Oil on canvas, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

Aaron Douglas, Aspiration, 1936. Oil on canvas, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco

Aspiration (above) was the final panel of the mural cycle and the tones and tenor are much more hopeful.  The five-pointed star represents Texas as the “Lone Star State” due to the celebration being about Texas’ independence from Mexico in 1836.  Jesse  O. Thomas chronicled Alonzo Aden’s description of the mural saying that the three figures indicate Negro aspiration: “They have arisen above other Negroes who apparently are still in chains.  As they are released from the machine-like state which has been the role of the Negro, it is less difficult for them to enter fields where mentality is a dominant factor.”  Due to the scarcity of materials regarding the mural series, we may never know the exact meaning the artist had in his mind.

The paintings were of such high quality than many people, especially white visitors, could not believe they were created by an African American artist.  This prompted the exposition organizers to add the following to the caption or label of the murals: “ ‘These murals were painted by a Negro, Aaron Douglass [sic] of New York City.’ ”  The noted African American historian, civil rights leader, and author, W.E.B. Du Bois was responsible for a pamphlet titled “What the Negro Has Done for the United States and Texas.”  None other than Aaron Douglas was selected to design the cover (below).  It is possible that this image is a reproduction of the missing second mural from the lobby of the Hall as Aden described the mural as containing a “cabin, in the midst of the towers.”  He said it was “ ‘the symbol of Negro evolution from a crude primitive pioneer life to the complicated existence in the great urban centers.’ ”  But, I also wonder: are the two figures on the right of the composition mouthing the words of the African American national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson first as a poem to celebrate the birthday of the great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln (Douglas illustrated Johnson’s “God’s Trombones”)?  It seems there may also be another association with Lincoln given the presence of the Log Cabin in the arch.  If only a color version were available in larger format!

“What the Negro Has Done for the United States and Texas” by W.E.B. Du Bois

“What the Negro Has Done for the United States and Texas” by W.E.B. Du Bois

A detailed account of the Negro hall of the Texas Centennial was written by Jesse O. Thomas, “General Manager of Negro Participation,” in his 1938 book Negro participation [sic] in the Texas Centennial Exposition.  It is an invaluable resource in providing a first-hand account of everything that transpired at Fair Park and includes a detailed history including statistics and charts that recorded the living conditions and standards of the country’s black citizens at the time.  This book even contains reprints of the speeches that were presented on 19 June, 1936, at the grand opening of the Hall of Negro Life.  Although the Dallas press was totally negative in its initial accounts, according to Thomas, both races worked to eliminate the racism that first was apparent, and Texas’s and the nation’s presses initiated a more positive account of the event.  On 10 September, 1936, Claude C. Tedford of The Associated Press, wrote, “ ‘Occupying the full end of the right wing of the Hall of Negro Life, the art section, with the exception of the main lobby, is without doubt the most beautiful part of the building.”  About Douglas’ murals, Tedford noted,

Perhaps no other artist is as well represented at this exhibition as Aaron Douglas of New York.  As you enter the main lobby of the Hall of Negro Life, you will pause and take note of the four delicate murals by Mr. Douglas.  They depict certain stages in the development of, or the progress of the Negro in America, with one bringing in a Texas theme—Esta vanico, Negro explorer who often scouted far ahead of the main party of Spaniards, early explorers of this land now called Texas. 

Tedford also noted that the Hall of Negro Life presented white visitors with a more positive impression of blacks in Texas saying, “All of them went away with a higher appreciation of the Negro’s contribution to American Culture and with a more tolerant attitude toward the Negro’s efforts.” Aaron Douglas paved the way for a greater appreciation of the black arts in many ways.  He responded to the call of philosopher/author Alain Locke who advocated that visual artists look to Africa for inspiration.  Douglas did this but in his own particular style.  He is credited with marrying African themes to a modernist aesthetic combining Art Deco’s geometric sensibility with Cubism and Orphism, and humanism with Christianity.  Though he taught at Fisk University from 1937 until he retired in 1966, Douglas is considered by many the “father” of the Harlem Renaissance. There was some disgruntlement among Texas artists with the Texas Centennial Committee because all mural commissions were awarded to out-of-state artists.  Perhaps this is why Douglas’ murals are so little-known or perhaps the contributions of negro artists have been over-looked for reasons other than state pride.  Though scholars of African American art always mention Douglas’ Schomburg Center mural series, it is a rare occasion when one hears about the Hall of Negro Life murals.

Bibliography

Abbott, Janet Gail.  “The Barnett Aden Gallery: A Home for Diversity in a Segregated City.”  PhD Dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University, 2008.

Britton, Crystal A.  African American Art: The Long Struggle.  New York: Todtri Productions, Ltd., 1996.

Driskell, David D.  Two Centuries of Black American Art.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976.

Dubois, W.E.B.  “”What the Negro Has Done for the United States and Texas,” 1936.

Earle, Susan, Ed.  Aaron Douglas: African American Modernist.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007.

John Morán González, Border Renaissance: The Texas Centennial and the Emergence of Mexican American Literature.  Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009.

Kirschke, Amy Helene.  Aaron Douglas: Art, Race, and the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

Prigoff, James and Robin J. Dunitz, Walls of Heritage/Walls of Pride: African American Murals.  San Francisco CA: Pomegranate, 2000.

Thomas, Jesse O.  Negro participation [sic] in the Texas Centennial Exposition.  Boston, MA: Christopher Publishing House, 1938.

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About Marianne Woods

Marianne Berger Woods swore she would never move West of the Mississippi River again (after having lived in Missouri, Wisconsin, and Kansas) but in 2002 she accepted a one year position in the Art department at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin (UTPB). She has been there ever since except for a Fulbright teaching Fellowship (2009) in Moscow, Russia. Woods is the token Art Historian in her department and teaches everything from cave paintings to twenty-first century art. Her area of expertise is American Art -- especially the work of twentieth century women. She teaches an online course in African American Art and has been interested in the amazing work done by the black population in the United States “against all odds.”
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One Comment

  1. Most excellent article. Thank you for sharing this little known history of one of my favorite artists and the Father of “so called” African American art. In my mind he is the preeminent and in fact, definitive visual voice of the “Harlem Renaissance ” and along with Henry Ossawa Tanner should be required reading for every artist worthy of their salt.

    Continued success

    Christopher Marion Thomas
    http://www.studiocmt.com

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