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  • Art MattersHoward University's Department of Art from 1921 to 1971
  • Rebecca VanDiver (bio)

Since its 1867 establishment, Howard University has been an epicenter of Black intellectualism frequently hailed as the "capstone of Negro education." Historian Zachery R. Williams notes that "from 1926 to 1970 [Howard] represented the center of Black intellectual life, and its scholars were heirs to the legacy of W. E. B. DuBois' 'talented tenth'" (Williams 1). The Howard Department of Art is a central yet understudied component of this intellectual nexus. Founded in 1921 by James V. Herring (1887–1969), the Department of Art at Howard University was the first stand-alone studio art department at a historically Black college or university (HBCU). During the 1930s, the department became the center for both the production and study of African American art, combining studio practice with the study of art history (Driskell, African American Visual Aesthetics 5). During the era of segregation, from which not even the nation's capital was immune, Howard University offered Black Washingtonians access to a host of intellectual and cultural offerings that were otherwise unavailable to them. Howard's Department of Art played a key role in promoting the fine arts to the Howard student body and to the larger Washington, DC, community.

In what follows, I survey the department's history during its first fifty years, from its foundation in 1921 through 1971, the year after the untimely death of then-chair James Porter (1905–1970) and the subsequent arrival on campus of artist/art historian Jeff R. Donaldson (1932–2004). Donaldson's entrance marked a substantial and politically charged "period of redefinition" for the department (Morrison, Art in Washington 12). I consider the various human, spatial, and ideological components that coalesced during this fifty-year period, which enabled the idea of African American art history to germinate within the Department of Art. Through this historiography, I seek not only to excavate the central role of Howard's Department of Art in the formations of Black art histories (here African and African American) but also to ponder how one writes about an academic department (here a fine arts department) as a holistic entity responsible for both knowledge and cultural production.

In 1945, a new class titled "Art 133: Negro Art" appeared in the Howard University course catalogue. James A. Porter was listed as the instructor of record for this class, which was billed as "a study of the creative forces of the Negro in the Americas" (Howard University Bulletin, 1945–1947). With its initial offering, Porter's course institutionalized the study of African American art history and foregrounded the Howard University Department of Art as a critical center in the nascent field. "Art 133" was a natural outgrowth of Porter's research. Two years prior, he had published the ten-chapter Modern Negro Art, which, with its coverage of African American visual production from slavery up until the contemporary moment, was the first comprehensive survey of the subject. In the preface to Modern Negro Art, Porter tells readers that "the activity of locating and collecting the facts" for the book had actually begun [End Page 1199]

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Cover of James A. Porter's 1943 Modern Negro Art

[End Page 1200] ten years earlier, when he was both teaching painting at Howard University and pursuing a master's degree in art history at New York University. Porter would become one of the pioneering historians of African American art.

Like his colleagues in the Department of Art, Loïs Mailou Jones and James L. Wells, Porter had diverse, concurrent research and pedagogical commitments. He was a studio art teacher, a budding art historian, and a practicing artist in his own right. In fact, as he began research for Modern Negro Art, Porter was also making art history: in 1933, he won the Harmon Foundation's Schomburg Portrait Prize for his 1932 painting Woman Holding a Jug (see pg. 1114 in this issue). Such varied and simultaneous intellectual and artistic trajectories force us to consider the Howard University Department of Art as staffed with more than just art instructors, but also picture-makers and theorists who influenced...


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