In 1915, Van Wyck Brooks America's Coming of Age first spoke of the concept of a "usable past" for the United States (Marling, 72). For many Americans in the 30s, history provided a firm ground to stand on during the decades' profound economic, governmental, and technological changes. Reconstructions of history "became the favorite subject matter of artists commissioned to paint post-office and courthouse murals by the Section of Fine Arts" (Marling, 38). Such reconstructions both helped to define an American experience as well as pointed the way toward renewed prosperity in the future. They also detracted attention from the present, frighteningly unstable, moment.

Boardman Robinson, The History of Trade (1929-30)

Presumably the first of these murals was Boardman Robinson's The History of Trade, commissioned by Kaufmann Department Store in Pittsburgh and begun in 1929, before the Crash, but unveiled to the public in 1930 (Marling, 35). Robinson, as others would do in his wake, chose to depict the past as a "smooth, unbroken flow of events," suggesting not only that the Kaufmann shopper could take part in the continuation of this cycle, but also that "the sequence can and will continue ad infinitum," providing stability for one undeniably American pastime, commerce. Murals like Discovery for the USPO in Kellogg, Idaho (Marling, 182) and Founding and Subsequent Development of Robstown, Texas (Park and Markowitz, Democratic, 30) likewise emphasized a prosperous past that would undoubtedly give rise to a prosperous future.


Alice Reynolds, Founding and Subsequent Development of Robstown, Texas

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Though the New Negro movement had largely been focused on breaking with the past, Douglas also saw worth in creating historical continuity between past and present, and in pointing toward a future that followed a similar path (Huggins, 59). The stable ground he offered, however, was one of perpetual struggle, not of prosperity. Democracy and freedom were ideals constantly being usurped by fascism and surfdom of one sort or another. Conflict and negotiation characterized each age, whether it be represented in a slave working toward mental and spiritual freedom while still physically shackled, Lincoln and Douglass orating for abolition, or black leaders in the Reconstruction-era South urging freedmen to deposit their ballots in a box (Kirschke, "Depression," 24). The idea that history must be learned and remembered to see and understand present conditions was especially important for African Americans, who had little accurate knowledge about their past or heritage: "the racial past was distant, hazy and impossible to know" and family could seldom be traced more than two generations back (Huggins, 61). Douglas' historical narratives were straightforward and easily readable for "as a teacher and an artist, he recognized the potential which murals had to educate the public. His large scale and dynamic patterns could attract the casual viewer who would then walk away knowing more of African-American history" (Wardlaw, 64). Douglas used facts and images that would have been familiar to his audience, but had not been placed within such a perspective before.

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Douglas mined the past for useful memories that he saw as contributing to contemporary consciousness and depicted them in his murals in the 30s. In his series for Fisk University, painted in 1930, Douglas begins with a vision of Africa, including a group of men going down into Egypt and a group of hunters and warriors accompanied by a fetish and tom-tom player. Douglas commented at the time that "the 'war dance,' which inspired conflicts between tribes, 'was a boon to the slavers, who after the battle often made off with both the victor and the vanquished.'" Farther west in the image, "a long line of slaves [is shown] chained together to march down to the sea" (Kirschke, Douglas, 112). Douglas continues the story in the next panel, showing these slaves landing on the shores of the U.S. and being sold. While Douglas was not alone in displaying Africans on their own continent or the enslaved community in the U.S., he deliberately chose this topic to emphasize the rich culture blacks had in Africa before their forced migration to the U.S. The mural series, rather than displaying specific, separate moments in history, highlights the chain of events that led to slavery, then to the founding of Fisk University, and finally to the success of the institution through the Jubilee Singers, who raised money for Fisk and raised consciousness and appreciation for African-American culture by singing spirituals, first in the U.S. and then in Europe. Although he created this mural for a specific institution, Fisk's history paralleled that of many Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The Jubilee Singers, in particular, set a precedent for fund-raising at these dreadfully underresourced institutions.

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Slavery seems an obvious point of reference now—Douglas told its story in six of the seven murals and mural series he painted. At the time, however, slavery was either seen as something the black community should look past, to create a new image of themselves, or slaves were depicted stereotypically (primarily by whites), generally in leisure scenes. According to Nathan Huggins, "things reminiscent of the former condition—unskilled field labor, enthusiastic religion—were to be denied" (62). Douglas' murals are the first to "place the painful chapter of slavery within a broader context of black history" (Wardlaw, 63). Like writer Jean Toomer, Douglas felt that, in part, the "answer to the quest for [African-American] identity . . . is to find one's roots in the homeland, the South, and to claim it as one's own" (Huggins, 186). Douglas' depictions of slaves and plantation workers gave his public a "radical way of looking at something old and familiar: a view infused with respect, awe and (as Toomer and others implied) a modern 'ancestorism'" (Powell, "Re/Birth," 25). Distilling black history into symbolic motifs and figures, Douglas used the mural form to create continuity with a past lost or difficult to look upon.

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In a series done for the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas, Texas, two panels emphasize the influence of slavery on African-American consciousness in the 30s. The Texas Centennial is a typical example not only of the success black Americans found when fighting for a voice in the Depression era but also the racism they continued to face. The 1936 Exposition was the first "World's Fair" that recognized black culture. Douglas' murals were for the Negro Hall of Life, funded by the federal government, which also housed an exhibition of other contemporary African-American artists as well as exhibits on education, medicine, agriculture, business and industry.click for larger imagePossible in large part only through the efforts of black businessmen and political leaders in Dallas, the Hall of Negro Life was the only building that was destroyed immediately after the Centennial closed (other buildings were razed, but only after having another year on view) (Ragsdale, 108). Into Bondage depicts, much as his mural for Fisk did, slaves leaving the shores of Africa for America. Another panel in the series shows the continuing presence of parents, grandparents, and great grandparents unknown and unidentified: the hands of shackled slaves, almost leaf-like, create the foundation of Aspiration.

Detail from Hale Woodruff, Amistad Mutiny (1939)

Although in the federally supported art projects of the 30s, "the distinctive role of blacks in American history . . . [was] downplayed," Douglas was not the only muralist to focus on African-American history in the Depression era (Park and Markowitz, Democratic, 32). Hale Woodruff and painted an important mural depicting the Amistad Mutiny commissioned by Talladega College in 1939, celebrating the legal battle a century before by the group of Africans for what was rightfully theirs—the freedom to return to their homeland. A young John Biggers watched and became a volunteer assistant for Charles White as he painted The Contribution of the American Negro to Democracy at Hampton Institute in 1943, funded by the Rosenwald Foundation.Detail from Charles White, The Contribution of the American Negro to Democracy (1943)The latter mural also blends present in past, dividing up the spatial plane much as Diego Rivera did, and emphasizes "the active protest aganst those anti-democratic forces which have sought to keep a strangle hold upon the common people through economic slavery and social and political frustration" (qtd. in Lefalle-Collins, 39). White chose a much more direct, realist style than Douglas did, focusing on specific figures such as Crispus Attucks, the first casualty of the American Revolution, Peter Salem, a hero of the Battle of Bunker Hill, Nat Turner, who led his famous slave rebellion in 1831, and Paul Robeson, who was not only a master of European and African-American musical forms but also an activist in the 30s (Lefalle-Collins, 39).

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Two historical figures, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, also find their way into Douglas' work in the 30s, but their legacies take precedent over their presence in a particular historical moment. In both cases, other figures (soldiers and scholars as well as freed slaves) seem to emanate out from them symbolically. Tubman, the central figure in Spirits Rising, is less an historic figure and more representative of a symbolic past. Speaking of his use of Douglass to the committee in charge of his mural commission, Douglas emphasized the great orator and man of letters' ability to capture the spirit of his time:

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In my approach to these things the way I have tried to do heretofore is to present the essence of a situation. Not simply this is Frederick Douglass because he has a beard and the particular clothes he wore at that time. That is one thing that can be done but for a mural description, . . . I am not interested in doing that sort of thing. What I want to do is to present the essence of the thing. What I am interested in is not the literal representation. Of course, I am interested in literal representations but not for a mural. It is not the proper thing . . . Take Frederick Douglass—Slavery legislation. It is something that crystallizes to me that particular period for the Negro. (National Archives)

The mural, perhaps also entitled, Education of the Colored Man, was the second of two murals Douglas painted for the federal government. This time, the commission came from the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) but overseen by the Treasury Department, which also ran the Section of Fine Arts' projects. In general, the Section administrators were much more interested in faithful rendering of facts and looked extremely unfavorably on any art smacking of abstraction (Contreras). Perhaps this explains why the Douglass mural is Douglas' most realistically rendered and least abstractly composed.

While many artists chose "safe" subjects from history that seemed closed to public debate, Douglas used his themes to create new possibilities for the future. He did not portray a serene yesterday, nor did he neglect the social realities of the day. In this way, his work found resonance with other leftist artists, especially muralists, working in the 30s.