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  • James V. Herring

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Portrait of James V. Herring by James A. Porter (1923)


Courtesy of the Howard University Gallery of Art

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James Vernon Herring (1887–1969), born in Clio, South Carolina, to an African American mother and a white Jewish father, was an educator and visual artist. To ensure him a good education and protection from white racial violence, his family sent the youthful Herring to live with family members in Washington, DC. There he received his early education at Howard University Academy, which prepared him to enter and successfully graduate from Syracuse University and later to do graduate work at Columbia and Harvard universities. A year after he was appointed to Howard University's architecture faculty, he established the Department of Art at the university in 1921, and the young Alma Thomas became its first graduate, whom Herring would later describe as "opinionated and not less omniscient." According to Adelyn D. Breeskin,

Herring was a person of very high artistic standards, which he pressed on to Alma [Thomas] and which she upheld through her entire professional career. He was, moreover, a man of an exceptionally wide range knowledge about art, modern, as well as, traditional.

Of course, as the founder and chair of Howard's Art Department, Herring mentored other students who studied in the department—e.g., Elizabeth Catlett and James Porter, the first known for her art and the latter for his art history texts as well as his art. James Porter is author of the pioneering Modern Negro Art (1943), for which he has been dubbed "the father of African American art history." I might add that James Herring would also be proud of another graduate of the Howard University department that he founded and developed. The graduate to whom I refer is visual artist and art historian, author of the seminal Two Centuries of Black American Art (1976) and other critical texts, David Driskell, who was honored by the University of Maryland in its establishment of The David Driskell Center in 2001. In other words, James V. Herring's mentorship and legacy were not for naught. He would have been proud today to witness the long lasting nationally acknowledged achievements and recognitions of Elizabeth Catlett, David Driskell, James Porter, Alma Thomas, and many others who are graduates of Howard's Department of Art.

Herring did live to witness the impact of much of his cultural work in the Deep South, which a grant from the Carnegie Foundation sponsored. He established what he called the College Art Service, which, from its founding in 1948 to the late-1960s, enabled students at black colleges and universities in the South to see art exhibitions—indeed their first exposure to visual art by major African American artists. Such an act in the Deep South—like Herring's Washington art exhibitions and his organized discussions of exhibited art of the many artists of diverse races, cultures, nationalities, etc.—was a quiet revolutionary act. It goes without saying that James V. Herring's visionary projects and the positive educational, social, and political impact resulting from them made him one of the most important practical visionaries of the first half of twentieth-century-America. Then, too, Herring's academic and cultural work at Howard and in Washington, DC—as well as his travels and various cultural engagements throughout the South—promoted, encouraged, and advanced the production, study, presentation, and general affirmation of visual art throughout the South, especially at Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

In spite of the superior quality and metaphorical focus of his own paintings, we do not know why his artwork, unlike that of his colleagues at Howard University, is limited in number of pieces. We do know that the time and energy he expended on administrative work in the [End Page 1010] different projects he founded or established did not allow him to spend time creating his own work in his studio. But he did know that he, or someone else among black people (and that someone else never appeared), had to support and promote African American art. His production, promotion, and curatorial work was as...


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