Born in 1937, Emma Amos was from an old Atlanta family. Her grandfather, Moses, was the first of his siblings to be born free from slavery in 1866. At age 10, he walked 118 miles alone to Atlanta in search of work. In 1914 he was registered as the first African American pharmacist in the state. By 1922 he and Emma’s father, Miles, opened the Amos Drug Store on the West Side of town. Near to the Atlanta University Center (AUC) of historically Black colleges and universities, the shop became a hub for Black educators, intellectuals, civil rights activists, and literary stars (such as W.E.B Du Bois, Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays, Zora Neale Hurston visited, as would Martin Luther King, Jr.). Growing up around the store would be a lifelong influence on Emma’s career.
Of course, the other ugly side of her upbringing in Georgia would remain with her. When she was eight, the Ku Klux Klan’s second era resumed burning crosses atop Stone Mountain. There were said to be 20,000 Klansmen in attendance. At 11, she began taking art lessons at Morris Brown College and was identified as a child prodigy. A family friend arranged for her to be given a unique, after-hours tour of the High Museum of Art, as they were not open for Black visitors.
By 1964 Amos was studying art education at New York University when the muralist Hale Woodruff extended an invitation to join Spiral. This all-African-American artist group included Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Charles Alston, Richard Mayhew, Woodruff, and Bill Majors. Out of the group’s 15 members, Amos was the lone emerging artist and the sole woman amongst these heavy hitters and was guarded about joining. Even in this collective formed to consider the ethical and aesthetic role of Black artists working in the civil rights movement, there were still class, gender, and power disparities. She concluded that Black or white it’s a man’s (art) world. Her unflinching art and heartfelt political statements will forever be inseparable from here on out.
In 2021 Shawnya Harris curated the brilliant retrospective Emma Amos: Color Odyssey, one of the most meaningful exhibitions I’ve ever seen. During the pandemic, I made several trips to Athens, Ga, to see it at the Georgia Museum of Art, each time left some room to get back to Atlanta to visit Ralph David Abernathy Plaza. Created as part of the cities’ 1996 Olympics’ public art program, Ammos created this memorial in honor of Rev. Ralph David Abernathy Sr. Abernathy Sr. was a critical Civil Rights figure, co-organizing the Montgomery bus boycotts, co-founding the South Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and serving as a mentor to Martin Luthor King Jr. His life took a turn after being canceled after his much-maligned autobiography, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down, which spoke elegantly about the movement, chronicling victories and bitter defeats but also notably illuminated Dr. King’s alleged marital infidelity. He faded from public view. With her installation, We Will Not Forget, Ammos asks us to forgive. She asks us not to overlook the many political battles, boycotts, protests, sermons, and the strength these two great men took from each other in breaking down the barriers of racial injustice. The concrete couch with an intricate mosaic draped around it like an ever-expanding quilt. The majestic bronze pulpit chair and lectern from his life as a pastor. There is a wall crumpling to the ground, symbolizing the many obstacles he and Dr. King took down together. And each of these components is connected via pathways of mosaics that bring together moments from Ralph David Abernathy’s life.