ONLY ONE MURAL by Charles White (1918-1979) was painted directly on a wall, rather than canvas. “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America” was created at Hampton Institute (now University) in 1943. Crispus Attucks, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, and Booker T. Washington are all represented in White’s grand vision.

Underscoring the parallels between the fight for democracy and the struggle for freedom and equality, White’s complex composition features historic figures who were advocates of resistance, liberation, and Black pride.

Painted in 1943 with egg tempera on a plaster wall, the massive mural measures 11 x 17 feet. Hampton students Samella Lewis, John Biggers, and Persis Jennings assisted with the project, serving as models, mixing paints, and cracking open eggs for the tempera, according to the university.

Nearly 80 years later, measures are being taken to preserve the mural at the HBCU in Hampton, Va., school. One of White’s earliest public art commissions, “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America” is installed on the second floor of Clarke Hall in Wainwright Auditorium on the back wall of the stage. At the time, the building housed the campus YMCA, a hub of activity where the mural was highly visible.

A $75,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund will support the installation of an HVAC system in the more than century-old building, helping to create and maintain a temperate environment conducive to the mural’s preservation.

“This grant not only preserves the rich heritage of ‘The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America,’ but it ensures that future generations of Hampton University students and campus visitors are able to remember, learn about and honor those who came before them,” Hampton University President William R. Harvey said when the grant was announced.

Vanessa Thaxton-Ward, director of Hampton University Museum and Archives, said “this helps us to gain traction on our goal to protect the mural by creating a museum-like approach. I am willing to continue to work towards gaining financial support for the preservation of this important commentary on American history.”

“This grant not only preserves the rich heritage of ‘The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America,’ but it ensures that future generations of Hampton University students and campus visitors are able to remember, learn about and honor those who came before them.”
— Hampton University President William R. Harvey


THEN: Hampton University’s Clarke Hall in 1910. The building was dedicated in 1913 and 30 years later, Charles White’s mural was installed in the auditorium. | Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

HAMPTON UNIVERSITY is one of 40 Black history sites receiving grants. The Action Fund is distributing more than $3 Million in grants to preserve buildings and support organizations across the United States.

Grants will also help restore Threatt Filling Station in Luther, Okla., which is believed to be the first and only Black-owned gas station on Route 66 and an apartment where Langston Hughes once resided at Karamu House, the African American theater in Cleveland, Ohio, which will provide housing for an emerging artists of color residency program.

Additional recipients include Asbury United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.; the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center in Denver, Colo.; the Purple Room at the Hotel Metropolitan in Paducah, Ky.; Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, Texas; Descendants of Olivewood Cemetery in Houston, Texas; North Carolina African American Heritage Commission in Raleigh, N.C.; National Negro Opera Company in Pittsburgh, Pa.; African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard; California’s African American Museum and Library at Oakland; and the organization Save Harlem Now!

Brent Leggs, executive director of the Action Fund, said, “The recipients of this funding exemplify centuries of African American resilience, activism, and achievement. Some of their stories are known, and some are yet untold. Together they help document the true, complex history of our nation.”

The Action Fund is described as the largest preservation effort focused on the longevity of Black history sites. Since its inception in 2017, the fund has raised nearly $30 million with primary support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Ford Foundation.

This year, the fund nearly doubled after a $20 million contribution from MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett. Additional gifts have come from The William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush, the Chapman Foundation, and an anonymous donation in memory of Ahmaud Arbery. Since July 2018, $7.3 million has been invested in 105 projects.

A MASTER DRAFTSMEN, White was known for his powerful figurative drawings. His “images of dignity” capture the experiences of ordinary African Americans, portray key Black history figures, and document social, cultural, and political change.

Over the course of his career, White completed many mural projects. He painted murals for the Works Progress Administration and after working on the Hampton project, furthered his mural studies in Mexico with Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros, and other members of the Taller de Grafica Popular.

Decades later, the year before his death, the City of Los Angeles commissioned White to create a mural for a public library named for Mary McLeod Bethune. The 1978 mural is a large-scale oil on canvas painting, that remains on view today.

 


NOW: Nearly 80 years after it was installed in Clarke Hall at Hampton University, Charles White’s mural will be housed in more favorable conditions, with the addition of a new HVAC system. | Courtesy Hampton Museum and Archives

 

In the catalog for “Charles White: A Retrospective,” exhibition curator Sarah Kelly Oehler, chair and curator of American art at the Art Institute of Chicago, writes about four murals White executed in the late 1930s and early 1940s, including “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America.” The mural was supported by a 12-month fellowship grant from the Julius Rosenwald Fund. Oehler wrote:

    In his fellowship application White also expressed a desire to paint “numerous easel paintings, touching the vital problems of Negro life and depicting his efforts for economic security and social elevation.” White thus connected history and sociology in his work; as he noted, ‘this contemporary material would be infused with historical data.’ He outlined an itinerary that included five months studying fresco painting at the Escuela Nacional de Pintura y Escultura (National Academy of Painting and Sculpture) “La Esmeralda” in Mexico City, three months traveling in the South for research, and four months at Hampton producing the mural. However, as a draft-eligible man during wartime, White was required to secure permission from the draft board to travel to Mexico, and his request was denied. Instead, he enrolled at the Art Students League in New York and studied mural painting with Harry Sternberg, after which he continued his original course of action.

In addition, White researched the topic of the mural at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and Hampton’s library.

The unveiling of the mural was covered by ARTnews in 1943 and was recently revisited by the outlet in 2018 on the occasion of White’s retrospective. Identifying White as “one of the outstanding Negro artists of this country,” ARTnews reported a round-table discussion of “Art and Democracy Today” coincided with the unveiling.

Describing the mural, ARTnews said: “It depicts his race’s protest against anti-democratic forces as personified in the historical figure of a Colonial Tory shown destroying a 1775 bill prohibiting the import of slaves to America. Here also appear the Negro heroes of the Boston Massacre and of the Civil War and the contemporaries George Washington Carver, scientist; Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Leadbelly, all Negro singers; and Ferdinand Smith, labor unionist. The central foreground shows the Negro family in the more socialized world of today.”

The Rosenwald grant required that White complete a mural at a Black college or university. He chose Hampton. “He selected the Hampton Institute for its progressive educational program and its traditional policy of a bi-racial personnel in all departments,” ARTnews reported.

A few years before the Hampton project, White’s artistic goals appeared in “Negro Art in Chicago,” an article by writer Willard F. Motley, nephew of artist Archibald Motley, that was published in Opportunity – Journal of American Life (January 1940).

“I do know that I want to paint murals of Negro history. That subject has been sadly neglected,” White said. “I feel a definite tie-up between all that has happened to the Negro in the past and the whole thinking and acting of the Negro now. Because the white man does not know the history of the Negro, he misunderstands him.” CT

 

TOP IMAGE: CHARLES WHITE, “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America,” 1943. | Photo by Charles White, Courtesy National Trust

 


Brent Leggs, executive director of the Action Fund, discusses the latest round of grants from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. | Video by National Trust for Historic Preservation

 

BOOKSHELF
The Museum of Modern Art and Art Institute of Chicago co-published a fully illustrated exhibition catalog to accompany “Charles White: A Retrospective.” The publication features contributions by Kerry James Marshall, Kellie Jones, and Deborah Willis. An essay by Sarah Kelly Oehler explores four murals by Charles White, including “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America.” Also consider “Charles White: The Gordon Gift to The University of Texas.”

 

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