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Laura Wheeler Waring’s curriculum vitae would be impressive at any point in time, but is especially remarkable for a female African American at the dawn of the twentieth century. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, her father was a Presbyterian minister who pastored the state’s first all-black church—a congregation that had once been active in the Underground Railroad. Her mother, a graduate of Oberlin College, was a teacher and amateur artist who prioritized education. At Hartford Public High School—the second oldest public high school in the country—Laura’s talent for art inspired her to pursue a career as a painter. In order to raise money for post-secondary tuition, she accepted a part-time job as a drawing instructor at the school now known as Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the nation’s oldest historically black college and university. By 1908, she was able to enroll at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and upon graduation in 1914 became the first African American to receive the prestigious William Emlen Cresson Memorial Traveling Scholarship.

The Cresson award funded the artist’s inaugural sojourn abroad, which included travel and concentrated study in Paris at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, as well as long hours at the Louvre Museum. Of her time in the renowned museum, Waring noted in a journal that she “thought again and again how little of the beauty of really great pictures is revealed in the reproduction which we see and how freely and with what ease the great masters paint.” When the advent of World War I forced her premature return to the United States in the autumn of 1914, Waring resumed her position at Cheyney University. During her almost forty-year tenure at the institution, Waring developed both the art and music departments, and conducted the Cheyney Choir from 1921­­­ to 1934. During two summers, 1918 and 1920, Waring taught—and perhaps took—summer school classes at both Harvard University and Columbia University. On a 1924–1925 sabbatical leave from Cheyney, she went back to Paris and studied again at the académie. While abroad, she painted several landscapes and still lifes, but her real forte was portraiture.

In 1927, the artist married Walter E. Waring, a professor at nearby Lincoln University, and that same year was included in a landmark exhibition hosted by the Harmon Foundation, which had been established to nurture the talents of African American artists, among other initiatives. She was awarded a gold medal and four hundred dollars for her sensitive portrait of Anna Washington Derry, now owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum. (Other artists honored with William E. Harmon Awards for Distinguished Achievements Among Negroes in the category of  fine arts include Palmer Hayden, Hale Woodruff, William Scott, William Henry Johnson, James Wells, Edwin Harleston, Loïs Mailou Jones, William Cooper, William Artis, and James Porter.) On a delayed honeymoon trip to Paris in 1929, Waring saw the canvas on exhibit at les galleries du Luxembourg. Waring was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and frequently provided illustrations for the organization’s publication, The Crisis, and for its series of children’s books. In 1944, the Harmon Foundation commissioned her to paint a series of portraits for a traveling exhibition called Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin; her selection based in large part on her “ability to capture the nuances of the African-American psyche on canvas, through the use of discursive brushwork and carefully selected, often sumptuous color.” Among her sitters were such influential individuals as Marian Anderson, W. E. B. DuBois, and James Weldon Johnson.

The Johnson Collection’s portrait of James Johnson is nearly identical to another Waring portrayal of the distinguished writer and civil rights activist in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery. A native of Florida, Johnson penned the poem which became the lyrics to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” once set to music by his composer brother. The hymn was adopted by the NAACP as the “black national anthem” in 1919, an appellation that endures to the present day.