In 1943, the artist Charles White selected an interior wall of Hampton University’s Wainwright Auditorium as the site for his mural The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America (as seen above). Measuring 12 by 17 feet, the egg tempera painting depicts the interlaced, life-sized figures of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Paul Robeson, and Marian Anderson, among others. In a 1965 interview with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, White explained, “The object was to take the contributions both through physical revolt of fighting for the abolition of slavery, and also the contributions that had been made in the sciences as well as the arts, as well as the politics. So to cover the contribution to many facets of American life, just what was the key to this whole struggle.”
Born in 1918 on Chicago’s South Side, White had immersed himself in art and history from an early age. His parents’ only affordable childcare options were the neighborhood public library and the Art Institute of Chicago’s free galleries, where he spent many unsupervised hours. An outspoken and rebellious student, White struggled in high school and preferred working as a sign painter. Alain Locke’s anthology The New Negro and works by other Harlem Renaissance creators anchored his self-directed education.
A full scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and subsequent WPA fellowships propelled White’s prodigious talent, leading to gallery shows, teaching jobs, grants, residencies, and associations with fellow luminaries Robeson, Harry Belafonte, Gordon Parks, Elizabeth Catlett, and Jacob Lawrence. As a draftsman, printmaker, and painter, White’s style of Social Realism expresses what he called the three key human aspirations: truth, beauty, and dignity. He proclaimed that art was his best weapon in the fight against oppressive forces, and that art must be an integral part of any struggle.
White received a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942, and the mural at Hampton (an HBCU in Hampton, Virginia) is part of the work he did under that program. Eighty years later, exposure to human activity—and the elements—have damaged the painting and its substrate. Restoration efforts in 1982 and 1991 addressed early signs of deterioration. But a recent assessment by conservator Mark Lewis attributes further blistering, flaking, and delamination to the persistent problem of moisture absorption by the wall’s plaster. Last year, Hampton University was awarded a $75,000 grant from the National Trust’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, earmarked for capital improvements that will aid the conservation of White’s mural.
Vanessa Thaxton-Ward is the director of the Hampton University Museum, which includes the mural as part of its 9,000-piece collection. “The important thing about this particular grant is that we’re able to use it to improve the conditions of the building,” she says. “Conservation grants have limited value if we’re not able to address infrastructure. So we’re getting bids on systems that will monitor the atmospheric conditions of the space. We need to get the HVAC system straight.”
An alumna of Hampton’s museum and archival studies graduate program, Thaxton-Ward highlights White’s mural as a particular point of interest on the campus. “For me, the mural is timeless,” she says. “White wanted to show African Americans in a positive light. His command of these beautiful, large images creates a sense of pride and belonging. It gives our students a sense of self. I don’t see the mural ever becoming old or irrelevant. That’s why it’s so important that we preserve it. Not just for African Americans, but for everyone.”