HBCUs: The First Patrons of African-American Art

HBCUs: The First Patrons of African-American Art

by Yvonne Bynoe

“The HBCUs have not been given the credit they are due. When nobody else was out there championing these [Black] artists, HBCUs were there, claiming them, showcasing them, putting them up on walls, teaching about them” — Artist and art historian, David C. Driskell, from the HBO documentary, “Black Art: In the Absence of Light”

Too often the history of Black people is centered on the actions of White people and the chronicling of African-American art history is no exception. As we witness record breaking sales for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s paintings, and African-American and African artists selling works for six figures and being acquired by museums, we must remember that the foundation for these achievements are Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) not White art collectors, New York galleries, or the major auction houses.

The oldest HBCU in the United States is Cheyney University, founded in 1837 in Pennsylvania by Quaker philanthropist Richard Humphreys. In 1865, Congress enacted the Freedmen’s Bureau, which led to the federal chartering of institutions of higher education for newly emancipated Blacks. The early focus of HBCUs was on training Black people to become teachers, farmers, and ministers.

Until the 1960s, colleges, art schools and galleries in the United States routinely rejected African-American applicants solely on the basis of their race. Legal segregation forced HBCUs to create opportunities for Black artists to be trained as well as to have their work exhibited and acquired. In the 2021 HBO documentary, “Black Art: In the Absence of Light,” Harvard University professor, Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, underscores the importance of HBCUs to art history, stating:

“Without the work of Historically Black Colleges and Universities we wouldn’t have a repository of African-American art that we can draw on.”

David Driskell Self-portrait (1953)

“Black Art: In the Absence of Light” was inspired by David C. Driskell’s (1931-2020) groundbreaking 1976 exhibition, “Two Centuries of Black American Art.” Driskell’s exhibition was pivotal to correcting the narrative of American art history. The exhibition exposed the nation to several generations of African-American artists who had been systematically excluded from the American art canon. Moreover, Driskell’s exhibition allowed a younger generation of African-Americans to envision themselves as artists, curators, art historians and museum directors. Driskell was a graduate of Howard University, an HBCU.

To be accurate, there were White Freedmen’s Bureau officials, White philanthropists and White art patrons present in both the establishment of HBCUs and in the history of African-American art. These participants had an array of social, religious, and political agendas that are beyond the scope of this article. It suffices to say that, generally, their views of Black people and Black artists were, at best, paternalistic.

What is relevant to this discussion is that the HBCUs used their limited resources to train Black artists; acquire work created by artists of African descent; and provide Black artists with professional guidance and support. HBCUs were the first patrons of African-American art.

While there are numerous HBCUs that made contributions to the history of African-American art and more broadly, American art, there are three that figure prominently:

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute*
(1868, Hampton, VA)
Howard University
(1867, Washington, DC)
Atlanta University**
(1865, Atlanta, GA)

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute Museum, now known as Hampton University Museum was the first HBCU to collect African-American art with its acquisition in 1894 of the oil paintings “The Banjo Lesson” and “Lion’s Head” by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). Tanner had emigrated to Paris, France to escape racism in the United States and he became the first African-American artist to receive international acclaim.

Banjo lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner

The African-American art holdings of Hampton University Museum increased in 1967 when the Harmon Foundation gave the museum numerous works by Harlem Renaissance artists. In 1984, the Hampton University Museum acquired the Countee and Ida Cullen collection. Countee Cullen was a leading Harlem Renaissance poet who financially supported his friends by purchasing their artworks. The Cullen collection includes work by Augusta Savage, Palmer Hayden, and Hale Woodruff. The museum’s art collection also includes works by Elizabeth Catlett, John T. Biggers, and Samella Lewis.

The Hampton University Museum also has the oldest collection of Kuba related material in the world. By the 1870s, the school had established an African studies program and would acquire pieces from various African cultures over the next four decades. In 1911, the Hampton University Museum acquired the William H. Sheppard Collection of African Art.

The William H. Sheppard collection comprises several hundred works gathered by Hampton alumnus William Sheppard between 1890 and 1910 in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sheppard was not only the first Westerner to enter the Kuba Kingdom, he was the first Black American to collect African art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Howard University is a critical player in the history of African-American art because it is the first HBCU with an art department led and controlled by African-Americans. Howard University’s art department impacted generations of Black artists in the U.S. and abroad through its classroom instruction, its professors’ art practices, scholarly work, and its professional mentorship of students.

In addition to David C. Driskell, Howard University graduates include James A. Porter, Alma Thomas, Howard Freeman, and Elizabeth Catlett. Howard University’s legacy within American art history is a testament to the visionary professors in its art department.

In 1921, Harvard University graduate, James V. Herring (1887-1969), was hired as an instructor in Howard University’s department of architecture. A year later, in 1922, Herring fulfilled his true intention and established Howard University’s art department. His first hire in 1926/7 was Howard graduate, James A. Porter, followed by James Lesene Wells in 1929 and Lois Mailou Jones in 1930.

James V. Herring

It is important to place the development of Howard University’s art department into historical context. In 1925, Howard University philosophy professor, Dr. Alain L. Locke, published the anthology, The New Negro: An Interpretation to explain the burgeoning New Negro Movement (1919-1930). The New Negro Movement, promoted Negro artists looking to Africa, rather than to Europe for inspiration and artistic direction. Locke was lauded as the father of the Harlem Renaissance and subsequently, Howard University became “The Mecca” for artists and intellectuals of African descent. Although Herring didn’t share Locke’s views about Negro art, his department nevertheless benefited from Locke’s celebrity.

In 1930, Herring launched an art gallery on Howard University’s campus. The gallery was the first HBCU art gallery founded and curated by African-Americans. Alonzo Aden, a former student of Herring’s, became the gallery’s curator and he retained the position until 1943. In 1950, Nigerian painter and sculptor, Ben Enwonwu, considered by many to be the most influential African artist of the 20th century, had his first solo show in the United States at the Howard University Gallery of Art. James V. Herring served as the chair of Howard University’s art department until he retired in 1953.

Artist and Howard University professor, James A. Porter (1905-1970), is often called the father of African-American art history. Inspired by a brief article he read about 19th century landscape artist, Robert Scott Duncanson, he began researching other forgotten or ignored Negro artists. In 1935, Porter received a fellowship to study medieval architecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, France. He then obtained a stipend from The Rockefeller Foundation to travel to Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, and Italy, “To make a firsthand study of certain collections of African Negro arts and crafts in important museums of ethnography…” His extensive research contributed to his seminal publication, Modern Negro Art in 1943.

Modern Negro Art was the first comprehensive text on African-American art. Porter firmly placed Negro artists who had been erased from history within the American art canon. Modern Negro Art became the benchmark for subsequent scholarship on African-American art history and remains a relevant source. The book has been reprinted 35 times, most recently in 2015 with an introduction by David C. Driskell.

Lois Mailou Jones (1905-1998) taught at Howard University for 47 years while actively painting. During her tenure she taught and mentored among others, David Driskell, who later called her a friend. Her students also included Robert Freeman and Elizabeth Catlett. Jones was also friends with Alma Thomas who participated in Jones’s “Little Paris Salon” for Washington, DC artists.

Beyond Jones’s impressive body of work, her contribution to African-American art history also encompasses her mentorship of artists and her research on Afro Diasporic art. After marrying Haitian graphic artist Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noel in 1952, for the next thirty years, Jones lectured, taught, and painted in Haiti. Jones’s personal connection to Haiti led her to want to explore African art.

In 1968, Howard University sponsored Jones to conduct “The Black Visual Arts,” a three part research project of interviews and photographs from across Haiti, the African continent, and the United States documenting contemporary art of the African diaspora. In 1970, Jones continued her research travelling to 11 African countries and, in 1972, to another nine African countries. Lois shared her impactful work in exhibitions and lectures among her Howard University students and peers.

In 2020, Patricia Turner Walters, the widow of renowned Howard University political science professor, Ronald W. Walters, gifted their collection of 152 works by African-American artists to Howard University. The collection is valued at more than $2.5 million dollars and includes paintings by Robert S. Duncanson, Edward M. Bannister, Grafton Tyler Brown, Aaron Douglas, Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Kehinde Wiley, Barkley Hendricks, and Kerry James Marshall.

Howard University’s art collection consists of more than 4500 works.

In 1931, celebrated artist and printmaker Hale A. Woodruff (1900-1980) established an art program at Atlanta University, now known as Clark-Atlanta University. Woodruff hired celebrated artist Nancy Elizabeth Prophet (1890-1960) to teach sculpture. Woodruff’s art department was essentially a one-man operation yet its scope and influence extended far beyond the Atlanta University campus.

Hale A. Woodruff

Three years prior, in 1928, Woodruff had gained national recognition when he entered a painting in the Harmon Foundation exhibition and won an award of one hundred dollars. Woodruff’s experience as an artist whose career had been propelled by participating in several exhibitions set the tone for his leadership of Atlanta University’s art department. In 1932, he started an annual student exhibition in the Atlanta University library.

By the mid-1930s, Atlanta University was regarded by many as the leading institution in the American South for Negroes to study art. In the late 1930s to early 1940s, the stature of Atlanta University’s art department rose as a result of Woodruff’s increased fame. Between 1939 and 1940, Woodruff painted his best-known and most widely acclaimed works, the three Amistad murals in the Savery Library at Talladega College, an HBCU in Alabama.

By 1942, Woodruff was regarded as both an important Negro artist and a distinguished Negro art department chairman. Woodruff again drew on his experience as a participant in the Harmon Foundation’s exhibition and, in 1942, instituted The Atlanta University Annual Exhibitions of Paintings, Sculpture, and Prints by Negro Artists in America. The national juried exhibition came to be known as the “Atlanta Annual.”

The Atlanta Annual was the first exhibition of its kind sponsored by an HBCU. Not only did this forum give Negro artists from across the country a venue to exhibit their work, it also provided Atlanta University students and local Negro residents with the opportunity to view fine art produced by Negro artists.

The Harmon Foundation provided monetary awards to the winners of the Atlanta Annual. However, as the Atlanta Annual gained popularity, Woodruff became concerned about encouraging young artists at the expense of compromising the exhibition’s high standards. Consequently, Woodruff suggested to the Harmon Foundation that less experienced entrants with artistic potential be given scholarships to further their training instead of monetary awards. The Atlanta Annual also allowed Woodruff to financially support talented Negro artists through purchase awards which also enlarged Atlanta University’s art holdings.

Woodruff endured blatantly racist critiques of the art exhibited at the Atlanta Annual. In reviewing the 1945 Atlanta Annual, Time magazine used the words “primitive,” “savage” and “influenced by voodoo” to describe the art. These assessments were a precursor to the dismissive reviews Driskell’s 1976 exhibition received from some White art critics more than 30 years later.

Woodruff left Atlanta University in 1946 for a teaching position at New York University. New York University offered Woodruff an annual salary increase of $1,000, approximately $14,000 in today’s dollars. New York City also provided Woodruff with more avenues for his professional growth.

The Atlanta Annual continued into 1970. Nine hundred artists participated and 291 works were acquired by Atlanta University through exhibit purchase awards. Clark-Atlanta University’s African-American art holdings are only rivalled by Hampton University and Howard University.

HBCUs continue to champion artists of African descent and racial equity in the art world.

In 1996, the all-women’s Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia opened the first museum in the country dedicated to art by and about women of the African diaspora. In 2020, art collector and businessman George Wells donated 8 works by contemporary African-American artists valued at $1 million to Morehouse College, his alma mater. Morehouse didn’t have a permanent art collection. Wells, a 2000 graduate, stated that his gift will help Morehouse educate more people about contemporary art which will assist in diversifying the art world. Morehouse College is an all-male HBCU in Atlanta, GA, whose most famous alumnus is Civil Rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


* In 1984 Hampton Institute, as it was then known, was raised to university status and renamed Hampton University.

**Atlanta University consolidated with Clark College (1869) in 1988 forming Clark-Atlanta University.

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