In the summer of 1929, while traveling from New York back to Topeka to share his recent accomplishments with loved ones, Aaron Douglas received a telegram from Dr. Thomas Elsa Jones, president of Fisk University in Nashville. Dr. Jones wanted to commission a mural cycle in the newly constructed campus library. The subsequent spring, Douglas became an artist-in-residence at Fisk, creating preliminary studies for the murals that would later be painted on canvas and installed directly onto the Erasto Milo Cravath Memorial Library walls.
Fisk University was established in 1866, shortly after the end of the American Civil War. It was one of the first universities in the U.S. to offer a liberal arts education to Black students. With his preparatory sketches, Douglas demonstrated a clear vision for the symbolic narrative he intended for the second-floor reading rooms of the library. Executed in a simplified, abstract style reminiscent of the perspective and proportions found in ancient Egyptian wall paintings, Douglas’s fascination with the contributions of African Americans to labor and industry, as well as the musical richness of Black spirituals, a frequent source of inspiration for him. He depicted the lives, aspirations, and actualities of African Americans to offer a fresh perspective on racial uplift, foster self-recognition, and promote a broader appreciation for the contributions of African Americans to contemporary American culture.
His palette is full of cool lavenders and greens complemented by warm earth tones, while the composition’s unmistakable rhythm contends with an overarching sense of timelessness. Silhouetted figures surrounded by concentric circles— a motif Douglas often employed to evoke sound. Their settings are mythical realms of the imagination. His silhouetted bodies assume a twin function as shadows and representations of the Black body. Their oval faces take inspiration from the slit-eye masks made by the Dan peoples of Côte d’Ivoire. The figures are split between those toiling away, shoveling and carrying large satchels on their backs and heads. Other figures draw upon music, dance, and faith traditions combined with Egyptian and African motifs and cubist and Art Deco designs. But together, they exist below beams of light leading to a familiar star, a clear message of hope. It offers us a chance to “reshape historical memory.”
After many years of water damage, sunlight, and inadequate TLC 2002, Fisk University hired Cunningham-Adams Fine Arts Painting Conservation based in Washington, D.C., to carry out the restoration. 1965, Douglas did some restoration work on the mural cycle, and the university asked him to return in 1969. These preceding restoration efforts brought to light intriguing facets of Douglas’s artwork. Noteworthy findings included end murals that had been concealed by layers of paint and remained unseen for many years. Furthermore, it was revealed that during Douglas’s return to Fisk in 1969 for touch-ups, he had entirely repainted significant portions of the artwork, employing a darker and more somber color palette. To address sections that had been lost, they chose to evoke them using geometric shapes and complementary colors that mirrored Douglas’s artistic style.
In 1937, Douglas revisited Fisk University and toured the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and Dillard University in New Orleans, supported by a one-year fellowship from the Julius Rosenwald Foundation. Under the fellowship, which involved the creation of paintings depicting “interesting people and places” in the southern U.S., he assumed the role of artist-in-residence at all three institutions. This encounter further solidified his commitment to advocating social change among his fellow African Americans. Throughout the Depression, he actively pursued the recognition of Black artists by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The following year, he joined the faculty at Fisk, taking up the position of assistant professor of art education in the spring of 1938. In 1939, he founded the art department and remained the chairman for 29 years until his retirement in 1966.
(Side note: 1949 artist Georgia O’Keefe donated a portion of her and her husband Alfred Stieglitz’s art collection to Fisk mainly because of Douglas’s leadership of the arts on campus. There were numerous American modernists: O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin, and Europeans: Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. O’Keeffe offered the gift because, in contrast to the majority of Southern museums, Fisk University welcomed everyone to view the work without practicing racial segregation).