Today, November 30th, would have been the 100th birthday of the great photographer and 1942 Rosenwald fellow Gordon Parks. We posted about a centennial exhibition of his work at Manhattan’s Schomburg Center in July of this year. Today’s Lens blog on The New York Times website has an excellent article by Parks scholar Deborah Willis regarding a lesser known part of Parks’ career, his fashion photography.
In the early 1960s, I sat in my mother’s beauty shop in North Philadelphia reading Life magazine and discovered the photographs of Gordon Parks. I wasn’t even a teenager, yet I still remember vividly the effect those photo essays had on my life: over the course of the next decade I read his autobiography, “A Choice of Weapons,” and devoured almost all of his stories in Life.
Some may call his work revolutionary, but according to artist Jacob Lawrence his art simply reflects the culture he knew and the stories he was told growing up. Born in New Jersey, Lawrence grew up in the 1920s, a period when artistic expression was booming amongst African Americans. After moving to Harlem, he was introduced to mentors such as Charles Alston and Augusta Savage who molded him into the dynamic artist that visually portrayed the construction of blackness.
Portrait of Jacob Lawrence, 1941
Photo credit: Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress
During the age of “The New Negro,” a term coined by Alain Locke, Lawrence along with Langston Hughes and Claude McKay was able to expand his talents thanks to the Julius Rosenwald Fund. In Lawrence’s case, the fund enabled him to rent a studio, which led to the further development of his series of paintings entitled The Great Migration, which depicted the journey, struggle, and triumphs of blacks from the South to the North after the Civil War. His depiction of that cultural movement provided a different perspective of a commonly told story capturing moments that people could relate to and understand.
Lawrence was able to complete the series remarkably quickly (all 60 panels were finished in 6 to 8 months of 1941) thanks to the first two of his three consecutive Rosenwald grants in 1940, 1941 and 1942. The Migration Series was recognized fairly quickly as an important work and in December of 1941, it was shown in Edith Halpert’s Downtown Gallery in New York City as part of a pioneering exhibition of “American Negro Art,” possibly the first time a black artist’s work had been displayed in a major New York gallery.
Curators of two modern art museums, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., immediately expressed interest in purchasing the series. It was decided that the collection would be split in half, each museum taking 30 paintings, for a total purchase price of $2,000. MoMA took the even numbered panels based on the input of one of its trustees, Adele Rosenwald Levy. Levy, the daughter of Julius Rosenwald, had fallen in love with panel #46, an image of a staircase, and it was agreed that the paintings be divided so that MoMA would receive that one. The Migration Series remains a prominent feature of both museums’ permanent collection and over the years has been reunited for exhibitions around the country.
Years after his death, Lawrence still provides a platform for untold stories through art. Jacob and his late wife Gwen developed a fellowship at the Seattle Art Museum that funds artistic work from people of color that reflects Lawrence’s ideologies. The Jacob and Gwen Knight Lawrence Foundation houses all of his series including Toussaint L’Ouverture – one of his most notable works. For more information on Jacob Lawrence’s paintings, visit jacobandgwenlawrence.org.
By Ariel Edem and Michael Rose
Elizabeth Catlett, a Rosenwald fellow who passed away earlier this year, serves as the inspiration and a subject of a pop-up exhibition at Washington D.C.’s Contemporary Wing gallery (1250 9th Street NW). Most of the works on display are very current, dealing with the recent Presidential election and the Arab Spring, but five of Catlett’s prints are included as well, some of which date to before Civil Rights. As Contemporary Wing explains on their website, “no treatment of political art today would be complete without acknowledging the recent passing of African American printmaker and sculptor, Elizabeth Catlett, whose famous images Sharecropper and Malcolm X Speaks for Us in the 1960s and 70s, among numerous others, underlie the history of a nation currently deciding whether to re-elect its first African American president.”
On this blog in April we described Catlett’s work under her 1946 and 1947 Rosenwald fellowships, which came at an extremely significant time in her career. The artworks on display at Contemporary Wing were the result of the printmaking phase of her career that she began in Mexico in the 1940s and continued for the rest of her life.
If you’re in the Washington D.C. area make sure to visit Contemporary Wing some time soon – the exhibit lasts only until November 24th. You can find more information on their website.
Did Julius Rosenwald make it his last philanthropic act to fund the investigation of notorious Chicago gangster Al Capone? Although he never spoke about it publicly before his death in 1932, Rosenwald was allegedly a member of the “Secret Six,” an organization of wealthy businessmen who, when faced with the inability of the police and courts to stop organized crime in Chicago, took matters into their own hands and funded a private investigation of the Chicago “Outfit.”
The impetus for the formation of the Secret Six came in 1930 when Philip Meagher, construction superintendent for the new Chicago Lying-In Hospital was gunned down in broad daylight by two gangsters at the construction site. The new hospital was being built on the University of Chicago campus thanks to a large donation by Julius Rosenwald, who was also a benefactor of the hospital at its previous location. While receiving treatment for his wounds, Meagher told the police the shooting was due to “labor trouble,” as the construction company Meagher worked for had chosen to use non-union workers.
A postcard of the completed Lying-In Hospital, date unknown
Shortly after this event, Colonel Robert Isham Randolph, president of the Chicago Association of Commerce, told the press that the CAC was taking an interest in the case because violence was increasingly moving from the criminal underworld of alcohol bootlegging into the world of legitimate business. Randolph formed a subcommittee of the CAC to combat organized crime and when he wouldn’t reveal its members to the press, one newspaperman dubbed them the “Secret Six.” In April of 1930 (two months after the shooting of Philip Meagher) Randolph was quoted by the Chicago Daily Tribune, describing the purpose of the Secret Six:
“We want it understood that we have not taken over the city from its constituted authorities. We are not vigilantes and we are not adopting extra-legal methods. The law enforcing agencies were scattered and there was an apparent lack of coordination between them. We feel that we have brought about a coordination of police, prosecutors, and Criminal court judges. We have done more—we have set up a real secret service for the prosecutors—something they would have been unable to do themselves.” (Chicago Daily Tribune, Apr 15, 1930)
Specifically, it seems that the Secret Six funded private investigators, began a protection and relocation program for state’s witnesses and supported an income tax investigation (tax evasion was what Capone was ultimately convicted for). This six man anti-crime organization was necessarily secret: in this time of bribed law enforcement and bold intimidation of civil servants by gangsters, it was important that anyone wishing to stand up against organized crime remain anonymous. It should come as no surprise, then, that Rosenwald never claimed membership in the Secret Six, especially because he passed away shortly after Capone’s conviction. Randolph, in his 1932 eulogy for Rosenwald addressed to the Chicago Association of Commerce, expressed gratitude for Rosenwald’s financial support of the Secret Six, calling him “the most human of men” and praising his “wise” philanthropy.
Mugshot of Capone taken June 17th, 1931 by the United States Department of Justice
The Secret Six’s role in bringing down Al Capone and other racketeers has been overshadowed by the more heavily dramatized story of Eliot Ness and the “Untouchables,” but their financial support of crime fighting efforts was crucial to Capone’s conviction. At the time, the Secret Six were well known nationally. Their work was discussed in many newspaper articles and the story was the subject of a pre-Code gangster film in 1931 named The Secret Six, about the rise and fall of a bootlegger named Slaughterhouse Scorpio (a character loosely adapted from Capone). Although it’s less well known than other pre-Code classics like Little Caesar and The Public Enemy (though it was released within a few months of them) it’s no less exciting and fast-paced. It also serves as a revealing document of the popular perception of Prohibition-era gangsters (and those who worked to bring them to justice) made during a time when alcohol bootlegging and the attendant violence was still very much a reality in cities like Chicago.
In a humorous touch, the Secret Six don black masks before meeting members of the press in the 1931 film, The Secret Six
By Michael Rose
On October 25th, Aviva Kempner presented the work in progress version of The Rosenwald Schools to an audience at the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History on UNC’s Chapel Hill campus. Joseph Jordan, director of the Stone Center, introduced Aviva and Angelo Franceschina. Angelo, who has worked to restore Rosenwald schools, participated in the Q&A with Aviva.
Aviva Kempner with Angelo Franceschina, Joseph Jordan
Before she left the next day, Aviva visited an art gallery on North Carolina Central University’s campus in Durham. An exhibit at the university’s art museum, the subject of a blog post a couple weeks ago, contains a large number of artworks by Rosenwald fellow Charles White, including the haunting print below that Aviva snapped a picture of. The artworks on display at NCCU were loaned by the art collector Arthur Primas, better known as the manager of Tyler Perry.
“J’Accuse #6” on display at NCCU’s temporary exhibit: “Heroes: Gone But Not Forgotten, the Art of Charles White”
Photo credit: Aviva Kempner