Black Cultural Development in Pennsylvania Since 1900

Black History and Culture is a special edition of 15 features devoted to the history and heritage of African Americans in Pennsylvania, from the American Revolution to World War II, published December 1977.

The cultural history of Blacks in America is varied and diverse. At the same time, it is deeply inter­woven into the whole of America’s cultural fabric. Yet, the significant cultural contributions of Black Amer­icans have been overlooked. Because of this omission, it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that the art of Afro-Americans began to receive the recognition it so rightfully deserved. Previously, white Americans judged the work of Black artists harshly and these biases pre­cluded the recognition and appreciation of their originality and creativity.

 

I

The last decade of the nineteenth century had been a period of unprecedented opportunity for Blacks to develop and exercise their talents. Despite racial barriers, seeds had been sown that would grow to fruition in the twentieth century. When the new century opened, talented Afro-Americans had already begun to reveal many facets of their culture. The productions of the sculptress Edmonia Lewis (1849-1891), novelist Charles W. Chestnut (1858-1932), the artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), and the poet Paul L. Dunbar (1872-1906) had reflected the con­tributions of Blacks in America. Their work helped lay the foundation for the Black artist to take his place in the cultural development of the United States. By 1915, Black artists had gravitated to cultural centers of the country, where they directed their energies and skills to the creation of artistic objects and literary productions that would be subsequently viewed as being an integral part of the American cultural mainstream, yet showed distinct Afro-American cultural features. In 1915, W.E.B. DuBois, the foremost Afro-American social-cultural historian and literary critic of his time, urged Black artists to show the emotional wealth and dramatic strength of their race through their novels, plays and other forms of art.

Essentially, DuBois called for the establishment of an Afro-American aesthetic; one that would cause Blacks to be proud of themselves and their cultural heritage. This aesthetic gave the fullest possible expression to their original styles of life: the rhythms, images, sensibilities, and musical patterns; and the forms of language and idiom which Black people developed as part of their experience in Africa and the Western world.

The development of an Afro-American aesthetic was clearly evident by the 1920’s. The surge of interest in Black art gave hope and inspiration to Black expression in many fields. In Pennsylvania the development of Blacks in the arts was marked. In the field of literature there was Alain Locke, Ed Bullins, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Angelina Grimke; Marian Anderson, Ethel Waters and Thomas J. Anderson in music; Henry O. Tanner and Horace Pippin in painting; and Edmonia Lewis, Meta W. Fuller, May H. Jackson and Selma Burke in sculpture.

 

II

One of the earliest aspects of Black culture to be noticed by white Americans was music. The haunting religious and folk melodies of slaves were admired for decades for their uniqueness and allure. Yet, over the years, there was little or no opportunity for Blacks to develop their musical talents, except in their churches. Notable among Pennsyl­vanians to come from this tradition was the gifted Marian Anderson. Born in 1902, “The Lady from Philadelphia” became the world’s leading contralto in the twentieth century and the best-known Black singer in the history of music. Marian Anderson developed her basic talents in her church, where they were early discovered. Her church set up a trust fund to pay for advanced study with the Italian voice teacher, Giuseppe Boghetti. Although the next ten years saw her develop her profound talents – winning prizes and giving recitals – it was in 1935 in Salzburg that her future was decided. In a recital where the most eminent musicians in the world had gathered, she stunned the audience with her brilliant voice. The great Toscanini, who was in the audience, commented: “A voice such as this comes once in a hundred years.”

During the same period that Marian Anderson was gaining a world-wide reputation, another great lady of music was achieving a national reputation in other areas of music pioneered by Black Americans. Ethel Waters, born in Chester in 1900, was one of Pennsylvania’s most formidable contributors to the jazz and blues eras. A woman of deep religious piety, she rose to fame during the era of jazz. She began singing in Philadelphia nightclubs at the age of fourteen and received her first real break when she debuted at the Lincoln Theater in Baltimore as “Sweet Mama Stringbean,” in which she sang “The St. Louis Blues.” She became an overnight success with her songs of sadness, much of which was born out of a very sorrowful youth, of which she years later com­mented: “I was never a child. My mother didn’t want me, and no one understood me. I was always an outsider.”

She moved on to the theater in 1924 when she de­buted in “Plantation Revue of 1924.” An illustrious career on stage and screen followed that spanned sixty years. The two highlights of her career came with her academy­-award nomination for her role of “Pinky,” the grandmother of a Black girl passing for white. Her renditions of “Stormy Weather” and “Am I Blue” are classics, as are many of her film performances. America lost much when she died just a few months ago.

Pennsylvanians can also be very proud of Thomas J. Anderson (1928-). well-known musician who was born in Coatesville, the son of teachers whose mother was also a musician. As a teenager, he toured with jazz orchestras, from whom he absorbed the jazz tradition, infusing it with primitive avant-garde styles. Since his formal study. he has gone on to an illustrious career, highlighted by his masterpieces, “Chamber Symphony” (1968); “Squares” (1965); and “Personals” (1966), a cantata for narrator, chorus, and brass ensemble. Anderson’s music vividly illustrates the Black musicians’ diversity and uniqueness in music traditions. His piece, “In Memoriam of Zach Walker” (a Black man lynched in Coatesville in 1911). was strongly influenced by jazz and avant-garde music and based on a twelve-bar blues structure.

Marian Anderson, Ethel Waters, and Thomas J. An­derson made significant contributions to American music, but they represent but a portion of the large group of Black Pennsylvanians who contributed to American music. The list is long and illustrious and includes such individuals as James A. Bland (1854-1911). who wrote the celebrated “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”; imminent baritone, composer, and arranger Harry T. Burleigh ( 1866-1949); Bill Bailey, the hand-picked successor to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; Walter Gould (“The One-leg Shadow”). who wrote rags before Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf” rag was published; Charles Luckeyeth Roberts, who played rag­time for Main Line Philadelphians during the 1920’s; Samuel Evans, first Black impresario and concert manager of the Academy of Music; and conductor James Depriest.

In jazz, the list is nothing short of incredible, with such individuals as: Grover Washington, Bill Dogett, Ray Bryant, Norman Connors, Jimmy Smith, Art Blakely, Billy Eckstine, Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, Joe Williams, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and the Mills Brothers.

 

III

In the visual arts, Black Pennsylvanians have made great contributions to American culture. Development of Blacks in painting and sculpture have guaranteed to posterity such artists as Allen Freelon and Henry Ossawa Tanner, and the recently discovered work of John Chaplin, who lived and worked (mostly on cardboard and wood) in Hunting­don County during the last three-quarters of the nineteenth century. Edmonia Lewis, Meta Warrick Fuller, May Howard Jackson, and Dr. Selma Burke worked in sculpture.

In the later 1920’s, many Black artists turned toward realism and folk portraiture. Regionalists increasingly focused on Black material, emphasizing its uniquenesses. Horace Pippin was one of Pennsylvania’s contributors to that movement. Pippin was born in Chester in 1888. He left school at the age of fourteen and worked as a field­-hand before enlisting in the Army. During World War I he was wounded in the arm, leaving it partially paralyzed. After the war, he worked at menial jobs and became a junk dealer. Shortly thereafter he began to paint. It was very difficult for him. “He would clasp the brush in his deadened right hand. then use his left arm to push his hand and brush across the surface of the canvas.” The first painting he did took three years to complete and received more than one hundred coats of paint.

His early paintings were concerned with service life because, as Pippin commented, the war “brought out all of the art in me.” Paintings such as “The Barracks” and “The End of the War: Starting Home” illustrate the keen sight of mind that pointed up morals in his work. They were followed by such famous works as “Amish Letter Writer.” But Pippin was at his best when he focused on everyday Black life (“Domino Players” for instance) – that which he knew so well. Family scenes, childhood heroes (a portrait of Marian Anderson). and religious sub­jects took on significance in his gifted hand. Pippin’s imagination primarily led him the way of folk art; he was a painter of people, life, and realities.

Religion held much of the interest of another Black Pennsylvania painter, Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). A predecessor of Pippin, Tanner was a trained artist. He was born in Pittsburgh, the son of a Bishop of the A.M.E. church. Tanner was early interested in the ministry, but art was his real love. He was a student of J. P. Laurens and studied under Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Tanner sought escape from the prejudices of his countrymen by going to Paris, where he studied with Benjamin Constant.

His early work was mostly concerned with folk types. Such works as “The Banjo Lesson” showed “a capacity that, had it developed, would have made Tanner the founder of a racial school of American Negro Art.” But his interests quickly shifted, in Paris, to religious subjects. “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” won him honorable mention in the Paris Salon of 1896 and his “Resurrection of Lazarus,” purchased by the French Government, now hangs in the Luxembourg Gallery Collection. Another of Tanner’s most famous paintings, “The Annunciation,” hangs in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The stark barrenness of the room, coupled with a pervasive innocence and sense of conviction in the young girl is captivating.

The legacy of painters such as Chaplin, Tanner, and Pippin have been admirably carried on by a new group of very talented artists that includes among others Paul Keen, Jr., Humbert L. Howard, Henry P. Jones, Elvise Bishop, Charlotte White, and Thaddeus G. Mosely, as well as portrait painters Charles C. Dawson and Edward Stidum. Each has developed his own unique talents and established himself in the world of art.

 

IV

Such artists as Edmonia Lewis, Meta Warrick Fuller, May Howard Jackson, and Pennsylvania’s grand lady of creativity, Dr. Selma Burke, have helped make sculpture one of Pennsylvania’s formidable contributions to Amer­ica.

If Marian Anderson was Pennsylvania’s “lady of music,” then Dr. Burke is its “lady of sculpture.” But more than that, she has been, for decades (since 1948), the driving force behind many of Pennsylvania’s festivals of the fine arts. The creator of the Roosevelt bust on the dime, Dr. Burke works in wood, stone, clay, and bronze. And while Pennsylvania was not her birthplace, it has become her “adopted” state.

Born in North Carolina in 1900, Dr. Burke began working in riverbed clay at the age of five. The next three decades saw her rise to prominence in the world of sculpture before she received her Ph.D. in Fine Arts from Colum­bia University in 1941. From busts of the late Duke Elling­ton to “The Falling Angel” and ”Woman in Mourning,” Dr. Burke reaches from true aesthetic expression to philo­sophic profundity, always reaching for that which her art demands – dedication, truth, and creative perfection. She smiles when one seeks to “interpret” any of her works, but listens attentively (never disagreeing). for it is interest­ing to her to have individuals seriously contemplate the creative imagination and how it speaks to them. Pennsyl­vania, today, benefits from the Selma Burke Art Center. Presently, three states (New York, Texas, and California) have her work on exhibit, but Pennsylvania has Dr. Burke, whose work was once described as “making words out of stone.”

The fine arts in Pennsylvania will continue to grow and achieve prominence as long as there are talented artists such as Dr. Burke, who seeks to inspire the creativity of future artists by her example. Already, a new generation of Black artists has begun to distinguish itself in the fine arts. The works of James S. Brantley, Barbara Chase Ribound, Reginald Gammon, Charles Searles, Lillian Dorsey, James Gadson, Garnetta L. Lovett, Pheoris West, Clarence Wood, and Barkley Hendricks have come to be widely admired and respected.

 

V

In literature, the contribution of Black Pennsylvanians is also exemplary. There are such individuals as Alain Locke, Jessie Fauset, Emma Dunham Kelley (now recog­nized as the first Black woman to write a novel). Ed Bullins, William Demby, Angelina Grimke, Leslie Hill, Bill Gunn, Kristin Hunter, and W. E. B. DuBois (who, although not a Pennsylvanian, made a significant contribution to sociologi­cal studies while teaching in Philadelphia).

More than any other single writer, Alain Locke was responsible for much of the development of modern Black literature. Born in Philadelphia an only son, Locke did preparatory work at Central High School and the Philadel­phia School of Pedagogy before going on to Harvard, where he graduated in three years (1907-1910). He studied at Oxford after becoming the first Black Rhodes Scholar. After further study (in philosophy) at the Univer­sity of Berlin, Locke took the position of assistant pro­fessor at Howard University (1912). Four years later, he received his Ph.D. from Harvard.

Locke coined the term the “New Negro” in 1925 when he set out to help analyze and give direction to the Black “Renaissance” of the 1920’s. Locke, a literary and drama critic, philosopher, art and music historian, anthropologist, educator, and educational theorist, was for years a prime catalyst and interpreter of Black culture. Such works as The New Negro (1925), The Negro and His Music (1936), Negro Art: Past and Present (1936), and The Negro in Art: A Pictorial Record of the Negro Artist and of the Negro Theme in Art (1940) not only analyzed the cultural progress of Blacks, but put forth the Black artist as his­torically crucial in the development of culture in the United States.

W. E. B. DuBois is noted for his vast intellect and academic achievements, but none of them is any more revered than the historic sociological study he did in Philadelphia while teaching at the University of Pennsyl­vania. The Philadelphia Negro is, to this day, perhaps the finest sociological study produced in the country, a blue­print for such urban studies.

Dramatist Ed Bullins, born in Philadelphia in 1935, is one of the most innovative playwrights Black America has produced in the past five decades. At the same time, he is one of the most forceful spokesmen the Black theater has ever had. He received his first real break in 1968 with the triple presentation of “The Electronic Nigger.” Since then, he has written numerous plays and critical essays, co-founded Black Arts West in San Francisco’s Fillmore District and served as cultural director of the Black House, San Francisco headquarters of the Panther Party. He has lately served in the capacity of resident playwright at the New Lafayette Theater in Harlem, since his return from the West Coast.

The Black Opals literary group is worthy of note for it helped advance the interest of Black literature in the 1920’s, when it flourished under the encouragement of Alain Locke. The group included Jessie Fauset and her brother Huff Fauset.

Whether in drama, with such artists as Ed Bullins, Angelina Grimke, or Bill Gunn; in poetry with Angelina Grimke and Francis Harper (who taught and published her first book of poetry in Philadelphia); or in prose with William Demby, Adrienne Kennedy, or Kristin Hunter, the literary contributions of Blacks in Pennsylvania have come to be widely acknowledged as some of the most significant work in the literary world.

 

Conclusion

Black culture in America grew and prospered during the 1900’s, and Black artists in Pennsylvania contributed much to that growth. The work of artists transcended regional limits and became an integral part of a national phenom­enon. As the Black was not limited by geographical origins, Afro-American art and culture was part of the larger American aesthetic. Historically, the creativity of Black Americans has not always been understood or acknowl­edged. Thus, Black artists today have a major role to play in the removal of such an oversight. They can do this best by continuing the artistic legacy of those who preceded them earlier in the century.

 

Dr. Maurice Shipley received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois where he specialized in Afro-American and 19th­-century American literature. He has taught at the Uni­versity of Illinois and Wabash College and is currently teaching at Temple University. Dr. Shipley has published in various journals, and will shortly publish a series of interviews with three Black women writers.