Sitting towards the back of the nave in DeForest Chapel, your head just races through the profound importance of what this place means to the community here and in the broader context of American history and culture. More than simply a spiritual sanctuary or place of worship, the Chapel is a hub to strengthen social bonds; a platform for the expression of cultural expression, gospel music, and spirituals; a haven for Black intellectuals in search of education and empowerment, an amphitheater so steeped in deep historical roots, that it hosted countless vital moments in the Civil Rights Movement. On this most recent visit, what was to be a quick stop as part of a larger drive to Memphis, I had the Chapel to myself. What was supposed to be a quick stop to take some notes, a return to see one of the great works of art meets architecture in the country, instead stretched until a group of young musicians arrived for practice in the chancel. They walked on the same stage that hosted W. E. B. DuBois as a visiting speaker and where, on June 1, 1959, Dr. Martin Luther King delivered the commencement address.
DeForest Chapel is an essential structure on the campus of Talladega College, a historically Black liberal arts college with a rich history dating back to the period following the American Civil War. Talladega College was founded in 1867 by two former slaves, William Savery, and Thomas Tarrant, with the support of the American Missionary Association (AMA) after the 1865 Freedmen’s Convention held in Mobile. Their primary purpose was to provide education to newly freed African Americans. The college began as a school in a small church and initially offered primary and secondary education. From the very beginning, they emphasized the crucial role of biblical studies and the training of ministers, with courses being offered as early as 1868. Given the absence of educational institutions for Black students in the nine neighboring counties of Talladega, the inaugural students faced the dual challenge of acquiring literacy and cultivating the ability to impart these newly acquired skills to their peers.
Since its construction in 1903, DeForest Chapel was expressly envisioned as the center of the college’s religious life. The building is Romanesque, a two-story arcuated brick with cast stone around the outside and a big gable roof. I returned to this historic place to spend more time with a part of the Chapel that arrived much later, during its renovation in 1996. When news of the renovation went public in 1993, an old Talladega College painting professor emerged with a proposal to design the new stained-glass windows. By this time, the artist, art historian, and curator David C. Driskell had already cemented his iconic status for the crucial part he played in garnering acknowledgment for African American art and its significance within the broader narrative of art in the United States and worldwide.
In 1955, Driskell finished his bachelor’s degree in art from Howard University and took up a teaching position at Talladega College. His time there wasn’t easy. It was during this time that the brutal lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till occurred in Mississippi. Following a demonstration led by members of the campus, calling for integration, the Ku Klux Klan initiated a campaign of terror, which even involved gunfire aimed at the college. Disheartened by the inhumanity he witnessed, Driskell distanced himself from creating works with explicit protest themes and turned to the portrayal of pine trees. This shift served as a form of distraction and respite from the distressing realities of his surroundings.
In 1996, Driskell’s Heritage Windows filled DeForest Chapel. I cannot speak to them back then, but I can say that when I arrived at 8 a.m. on a dreary September day, there was the worry that the windows would sing that day. Did they require the brightest of suns? Then I stepped inside. Immediately, I was hit with this multisensory experience of the visual, emotional, and spiritual all firing at once. The radiant colors and intricate designs of the windows offer a profound connection to the divine, the past, and the artistic heritage of a culture. Driskell designed 65 windows for the Chapel, each stained glass wall holding cultural and symbolic significance.
A set of three windows near the entrance was split between the top of the windows, which displayed items emblematic of the region’s agricultural heritage and have played essential roles in its economic and cultural development (pokeberry, peaches, peanuts, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, and cotton) alongside masks depicting ethnic groups or cultures from different regions of West and Central Africa (Mende (Sierra Leone), Gabon Kota, Benin (Nigeria), Ghana Ashanti, Dan (Liberia), and Baule (Cote d’Ivoire)).
The largest bank of windows, 6 across, portrayed prominent figures in African American history who have made significant contributions to civil rights, social justice, education, the arts, and sports: Mary McLeod Bethune, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Marian Anderson, Bill Cosby, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Jackie Robinson, W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. Though these figures had different backgrounds, approaches, and areas of expertise, these individuals collectively played significant roles in the fight against various forms of oppression. Many were strong proponents of education and dedicated their efforts to improving educational opportunities for Black folks.
The last bank of windows marks the academic disciplines and extracurricular activities that makeup school life at Talladega: Social Studies, Literature, Science, Athletics, Music, Engineering, Drama, and History. All the windows are interspersed with designs that would feel at home in Driskell’s nature paintings. Botanical beauties, lush and vibrant vines, are climbing towards bold and vivid flowers.
I used to frequently refer to going to Dia Beacon or the Chinati Foundation in Marfa as being similar to the experience of going to church. But sitting here in the sanctuary in silent appreciation of Driskell’s windows, I now know how silly that was. This is a place of beauty and transcendence, a place to be transported to a different emotional or mental state. But sitting in a pew staring up at art illuminated by the warm glow of the sun, you remember this is a place with real history, a sacred space filled with a sense of transcendence and spirituality. No, visiting DeForest Chapel is not like visiting an art museum, but it is one of the most extraordinary spaces to experience a work of art that I could imagine.