by Wes Watson
Tucked away, out of sight and mind save for the few who go looking for it and the Hampton University students who climb the steps to a second-floor classroom at Clarke Hall, is an 18-by-12-foot milestone along the road of American art history: Charles White’s The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America.
Painted in 1943 over the course of three months, the egg tempera mural was part of a series celebrating African American historical figures and highlighting the black community’s struggle for equality in all facets of life. Notable figures stand out in the piece: Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver,
At a time when representation of African Americans in art was either nonexistent or stereotypical, White sought to correct the narrative; his subjects drawn in exaggerated forms to emphasize their strength. Large, powerful hands were a common motif. He said he chose mural work because it made his art available to anyone who wanted to read its message.
White died in 1979, but not before becoming a teacher and mentor to a new crop of young African American artists. While no longer a household name, he was among the first to recognize and fight against a lack of black representation in American art and history.
Renowned artist John T. Biggers, a freshman when White came to Hampton more than 75 years ago, was enlisted to help with White’s mural. “Once in a lifetime, you might be able to witness a great commission like this one,” Biggers told the Daily Press in 1981.
“We watched the birthing of his work.”