Three African-American Artists That Made History
Part 2 in a 3-part series
In our last BCT blog we profiled some of the most important Black American scientists and inventors. In the second-of-our-three-part series, we are focusing on Black American artists. As in last week’s blog, the hardest part was narrowing the list down as they are so many deserving candidates. However, this week in honor of International Women’s Day, we chose to highlight three female artists who made outstanding contributions in the fields of music, sculpture, and literature.
Marian Anderson (Born Philadelphia 1897, Died April 8, 1993)
Marian Anderson displayed her musical talents at a very young age. She saved money as a child to buy a violin and later a piano and she and her sisters taught themselves how to play. After high school, she began studying opera and was offered a chance to attend Yale but could not afford the tuition. She later received the first musical scholarship given by the Negro Musicians Fund. Members of her church also raised funds for her to study under a voice coach named Giuseppe Boghetti who remained an advisor until his death. In the early 1930s, she had a triumphant tour in Europe where she performed in over 30 concerts. After her critically acclaimed European tour, she returned to America where she performed at Town Hall in New York City and received rave reviews there as well. Later, at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she became the first black artist to be invited to perform at The White House by. In 1954, she was also the first black singer to ever be invited to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She retired from concert tours in 1965 after her farewell tour that included 50 American cities. Her final performance took place in New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Link: https://www.carnegiehall.org. Marian Anderson was an incredible performer who had a vocal range that was almost three octaves, from low D to high C. With a successful career that spanned over 40 years, she is remembered as one of the most critically acclaimed concert singers of all time.
Augusta Savage (Born in Florida in 1892, Died in 1962)
Augusta Savage began creating art as a young child, using some of the natural clay in her childhood town for her early works. Although her father disapproved of her pursuing a career as an artist, she eventually studied at Cooper Union in New York Link: cooper.edu where she excelled at her studies and finished in just three years. After graduating, she began making a name for herself as a portrait sculptress with busts of prominent African Americans such as W.E.B Dubois. By this time, Savage was becoming known as one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance. She later studied in Paris and exhibited her work at the Grand Palais. After returning to the States, she became the first black artist to join what was then known as the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. She was also known for being an advocate for other artists and even lobbied the WPA during the depression in order to secure more work for them. One of her best-known sculptures was the piece that she created for the 1939 New York World's Fair. Inspired by the words of the poem "Lift Every Voice and Sing," by James Weldon Johnson. She created The Harp which was 16 feet tall and reinterpreted the instrument to feature 12 singing African-American youth in graduated heights as its strings. Unfortunately, the piece was destroyed after it was exhibited. Despite her contributions, she was all but forgotten when she died of cancer in 1962. Fortunately, she is now finally being recognized as one of the preeminent artists, activists and arts educators of her time.
Gwendolyn Bennett (Born July 8, 1902 in Texas, died May 30, 1981)
Although born in Texas, Bennett spent part of her childhood in Nevada living on a Native American reservation where her parents were educators. She later settled in Brooklyn where she attended Girls’ High School and became the first African-American member of her school’s student theater and literature group. After studying at Columbia University’s Teacher College and graduating from Pratt Institute, she joined the faculty at Howard University. However, like many black artists of her time, she moved to Paris where she studied at both the Sorbonne and Julian Academy. Bennett was a well-known figure during the Harlem Renaissance after her poetry was published in several prominent publications such as the NAACP magazine called “The Crisis.” One of her most famous works was called, To a Dark Girl, which compared African-American women to queens and encouraged black women to embrace their uniqueness.
She also wrote short stories and many non-fiction works including a column called The Ebony Flute. However, her talent did not stop at literature as she was also an incredibly skilled painter. Unfortunately, most of her works were destroyed by a fire or lost. Bennett later followed in the footsteps of her parents and became an educator when she headed the Harlem Community Art Center and then launched the George Carver Community School. After her first husband, Dr. Alfred Jackson died, she entered into an interracial marriage with fellow educator Richard Crosscup which lasted for 40 years until his death in 1980. Bennett died just a year later but left a permanent legacy as a great American poet, writer, educator, and painter.
In summary, each of these women made tremendous contributions to artistic expression in their own way. While they were all African American, they were also women that were ahead of their time. They were not afraid to take risks and they defied the odds to leave a long-standing legacy in American music, art and literature. And while they are all now recognized as pioneers in their fields, they only represent a very small percentage of the many great Black American artists of the past and present.