Often called the “father of African American art history,” James Amos Porter pioneered the field with his groundbreaking publication, Modern Negro Art, the first comprehensive text on African American art. Throughout his lengthy career as an artist, art historian, and collector, Porter devoted his professional energies to advancing the appreciation of black art and fostering a new generation of scholars and artists such as Alma Thomas and Elizabeth Catlett.  

The youngest of eight children born to a prominent African Methodist Episcopal minister and schoolteacher in Baltimore, Porter was an excellent student, finishing at the top of his high school class. Having attracted the attention of James Herring, the head of Howard University’s art department, Porter matriculated there in 1923, studying drawing, painting, and art history. Upon his 1927 graduation, with honors, he was promptly hired by his alma mater as an art instructor; over time, his Howard colleagues would include Loïs Mailou Jones and James Wells. Porter continued his academic growth during summer breaks, taking classes at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the Art Students League. While in New York, Porter read a brief account about the nineteenth-century African American painter Robert S. Duncanson. That introduction to an accomplished—but neglected—artist of color spurred him to expand his investigations into other overlooked African American makers. While conducting research at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, he met Dorothy Burnett, a librarian, whom he married in 1929. Dorothy would be an indispensable partner in Porter’s scholarship, working closely with her husband on research projects and later becoming the director of Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center.  

During this time, Porter began submitting his artwork to the Harmon Foundation exhibitions where he received an honorable mention in 1929 and the Arthur Schomberg Portrait Prize in 1933. A fellowship from the Institute of International Education enabled Porter to spend his sabbatical abroad, studying medieval archaeology at the Sorbonne in Paris. While in France, Porter encountered several expatriate West Africans and collections of African art. A travel grant from the Rockefeller Foundation funded additional time in Europe. Upon his return to the United States, Porter pursued a master’s degree in art history at New York University. His abiding interest in African American art history inspired the topic for his graduate thesis, which in turn formed the basis of his landmark text, Modern Negro Art, published in 1943. The book was immediately hailed as an unprecedented, comprehensive, and essential reference on African American art and remains a classic today. Some of Porter’s arguments ran counter to those of other key black intellectuals. For instance, writing in the chapter entitled “New Negro Art,” he eschewed Alain Locke’s position that African American artists should “exploit the ‘racial concept’” and instead believed that African American art must be approached as integral to the broader narrative of American art. Porter also disagreed with W.E.B. Du Bois on the use of abstraction, praising artists who continued to opt for figural representation.

A second sabbatical leave from Howard in 1945–1946 took Porter to the Caribbean, where he collected materials with the goal of introducing Latin American art courses at Howard. Following James Herring’s retirement in 1953, Porter assumed the directorship of the university’s art department and gallery. The gallery flourished under Porter’s aegis; diverse exhibitions were mounted, and the permanent collection’s holdings broadened, partially aided by a Kress Foundation study collection of Renaissance paintings and sculptures. Porter’s final trip abroad—an extended visit to Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Senegal funded by the Washington Evening Star— occurred in 1963–1964. In between collecting art for his African art course and conducting research for a future book on West African architecture, Porter found time to paint. He returned home with twenty-five paintings of African themes which were exhibited in a one-man show at Howard in 1965. Although Porter’s artwork had frequently been imbued with African themes, it was not until this trip to West Africa that his paintings explicitly referenced the continent.

James Porter’s myriad contributions were honored by the National Gallery of Art in 1965, when he was named “one of America’s outstanding men in the arts,” the award presented by Lady Bird Johnson. His legacy continues at Howard University through the annual James A. Porter Colloquium on African American Art. While Porter is more often celebrated for his art historical achievements, he was an accomplished painter and draftsman, as evidenced by his inclusion in major American collections, including the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Howard University, as well as numerous international institutions.