Elevation from Within: The Study of Art at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

TJC Gallery, Spartanburg, South Carolina
Feb 20, 2019 – May 10, 2019

In the wake of the Civil War, African Americans—enslaved and freed, in the South and the North—sought and fought for the education they had long been denied. From elementary lessons to advanced academics, standardized instruction was largely provided by white teachers in schools operated by white philanthropic organizations, such as the American Missionary Association. Available public education offerings, especially at secondary and college levels, were unequivocally separate, but never equal. 

Following passage of the Second Morrill Act in 1890, land-grant institutions for black students were established in each of the Southern states. The African Methodist Episcopal Church had also begun to open black colleges—schools where African American intellectuals served as administrators and faculty members, schools that offered their student bodies an “unapologetic black space.” The handful of antebellum black colleges and universities—Cheyney University (Pennsylvania, 1837), Lincoln University (Pennsylvania, 1854), and Wilberforce University (Ohio, 1856)—grew to over ninety institutions by 1900; in the 1930s, the number of campuses peaked at 121. As the twentieth century progressed and court decisions secured scholastic opportunities for African Americans, approximately seventy-five percent of all black students attending college in the United States were enrolled at historically black colleges and universities—defined as those established before 1964.

Booker T. Washington’s early emphasis on vocational training eventually gave way to more robust curriculums in the liberal arts and laboratory sciences. In HBCU classrooms and studios, fine arts departments nurtured gifted African Americans eager to articulate their individual genius, as well as their shared cultural heritage. Elevation from Within includes paintings, prints, drawings, and sculpture by artists whose aesthetic contributions have influenced twentieth-century American art, including John Biggers, Beverly Buchanan, Elizabeth Catlett, Claude Clark, William CooperAaron Douglas, Eugene Grigsby, James Herring, Wadsworth Jarrell, Fred Jones, Gwendolyn Knight, Virginia Kiah, Hughie Lee-Smith, Samella Lewis, James McMillan, Robert Neal, Hayward Oubre, William Pajaud, James Porter, Arthur Rose, William ScottAlma Thomas, Mildred ThompsonLeo Twiggs, Albert Wells, James WellsCharles White, Ellis Wilson, Winston Wingo, and Hale Woodruff.

Elevation from Within is curated by Leo Twiggs. A native of St. Stephen, South Carolina, Dr. Twiggs is a summa cum laude graduate of Claflin University (1956), where he now holds the position of Distinguished Artist in Residence. With no state-sponsored graduate program available to black South Carolinians at mid-century, Twiggs received his master’s degree from New York University (1964). In 1970, Leo Twiggs became the first African American to earn a doctorate in art education from the University of Georgia. As a professor at South Carolina State University from 1972 to 1998, he taught generations of aspiring artists and established the college’s museum. This current project marks the second collaboration between the celebrated artist and the Johnson Collection, which sponsored the 2016-2017 tour of Twiggs’ powerful Requiem for Mother Emanuel exhibition.