A little over a century ago, on a large plantation near Morven, Georgia, Black farmworker Hayes Turner was arrested and later convicted by an all-white jury for threatening the farm’s white owner, Hampton Smith. The abusive Smith regularly beat his workers, among them Mary Turner, Hayes’ pregnant wife and mother of their two children. After another abused worker retaliated by murdering Smith and his wife before going into hiding, an angry mob accosted Hayes during his transfer to prison and lynched him near the Okapiloo River. Distraught, and eight months pregnant, Mary publicly protested before the massive white mob tracked her down by the Little River, separating Brooks and Lowndes counties, and committed one of the most horrific lynchings in American history. Though the lynching of Turner, her husband, and others by the same mob gained national attention and facilitated the NAACP push for Congress to pass anti-lynching legislation, no one was ever charged. In 2010, a Mary Turner and the Lynching Rampage memorial was placed near the site of her murder.
However, within a year of her death, another Black woman had already memorialized Turner with her 1919 sculpture, “Mary Turner: A Silent Protest against Mob Violence.” Regarded one of the earliest three-dimensional works of art to address the subject of lynching, Meta Warrick Fuller’s statuette celebrates Turner’s eternal life as the slain mother rises with child from an abstracted mob, bearing no trace of torture.
Fuller was a pioneer in more ways than one. Born in Philadelphia in 1877 to a family of means, her 1914 sculpture “Ethiopia Awakening” was widely considered the first Pan-African American work of art and a tonal predecessor of the Harlem Renaissance. The piece depicts a woman wearing an ancient Egyptian headdress with her lower half wrapped like a mummy. At the time of the sculpture, Ethiopia was both a generalized term for Africa and the only African nation that had successfully maintained its independence against European imperialists. Of the piece, and of African Americans in general, Fuller wrote, “Here was a group who had once made history and now after a long sleep was awaking, gradually unwinding the bandage of its mummied past and looking out on life again, expectant but unafraid and with at least a graceful gesture.”
Fuller was also expectant and unafraid. A talented and artistic child, she won a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Museum and School for Industrial Art as a teen before leaving Philly for Paris. There, upon being denied entry to a women’s youth hostel for students because of her race, Fuller was introduced to American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and, with his help, began studying drawing, visiting museums, and attending lectures at Académie des Beaux-Arts. Also in Paris, Fuller forged relationships with the likes of Thomas J. Calloway, Alonzo Herndon, and W.E.B. DuBois while finding a mentor in French sculptor Augustin Rodin who, reportedly, challenged Fuller to be more daring with her art. Consistently, her work shifted from decorative to darker pieces reflecting the harsh realities of turn-of-the-century African American life as represented by her Parisian gallery standards, “The Wretched” and “The Impenitent Thief.”
Widely acclaimed in French society, Fuller returned to Philadelphia in 1903 only to be snubbed by members of the city’s arts circle because of her race. Nonetheless, she resumed her passion and began exhibiting at major events and venues like the Boston Public Library. In 1907, Fuller became the first African American woman to receive a U.S. government commission for her series of tableaux depicting African American historical events for the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition in Norfolk, Virginia. Despite racism and sexism—and a mysterious 1910 warehouse fire that destroyed her tools and her artwork from France—Fuller ultimately forged a 70-year career and legacy as a pioneering sculptor, artist and poet focused on advancing images of African Americans and women.
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