Brandan Odums’ murals are unusual because they tend to be off-limits to the public. One of the few muralists to reclaim dilapidated and abandoned building spaces as canvasses after Hurricane Katrina, Odums created a series of graffiti murals that aimed to inspire and provoke audiences. Although conscious of legal repercussions, Odums believed he had “a responsibility to influence people. If I see there’s a problem with a property that’s been sitting there for eight years, then I’m going to solve it within my own brain.” Turning a site of neglect into a site of pride, Odums used the Florida Housing Development in the Ninth Ward as his canvas for #projectbe, filling it wall-to-wall with portraits and quotations from figures that include the antislavery leader Frederick Douglass, Huey P. Newton, Nina Simone and James Baldwin. His artwork was deemed illegal due to his trespassing on private property. It was only seen in person by handful of visitors. After #projectbe ended, Odums embarked on a larger project at Degaulle Manor – a 360-unit apartment block. After speaking with the owner of the property, Odums was granted permission to temporarily use the building and invite the public. This project was called Exhibit BE. Around 35 street artists assisted and turned the abandoned building into one of the largest street exhibitions in the south, with 30,000 people visiting Exhibit BE in three months. The second mural of Douglass is from this exhibition.
During the Civil Rights Movement, African American activists held rallies and conventions at the Church of the Advocate. But people started to notice the absence of black figures from the church artwork. Father Washington remembered: “there were people who came into the church, and as they looked around they saw nothing and no one, including the figures in the stained glass windows, with whom they could identify. Everything they looked at was white, white, white. ‘How can we look at this white image for our liberation when it is our experience that it is the white man who is our oppressor?’" Upon hearing these questions, Father Washington realised that “we could see the black experience revealed and defined in religious terms, and find parallel situations in what we read in the Old Testament every Sunday.” He commissioned a series of murals for the side of the church, painted by Walter Edmonds and Richard Watson, that show parallels between the experiences endured by Hebrew slaves in Egypt and those suffered by African slaves in America.
In 1938 the Talladega College President Buell Gallagher commissioned the muralist Hale Woodruff to paint a series of six murals about the transition from slavery to freedom. These murals were to be displayed in the Savery Library. Installed in 1939, on the centennial of the Amistad slave ship uprising, the first three mural panels depicted scenes of the mutiny: The Mutiny Aboard the Amistad (depicting the 53 Africans kidnapped from Sierra Leone to be sold into Spanish slave trade, and the uprising of Senbeh Pieh, also known as Cinque); The Trial of the Amistad Captives (depicting the first civil rights case in America) and The Repatriation of the Free Captives (depicting the repatriated slaves on the shores of Africa). The remaining three panels of the series are titled The Underground Railroad; Opening Day at Talladega College, and The Building of Savery Library. During an interview with Al Murray in 1968, Woodruff remembered: “Out of this mutiny people like Josiah Willard Gibbs, the Baldwins, Tappan and so forth, formed what was called the American Missionary Association (AMA). That was about 1840. It was out of the efforts of this organization that many of the Negro schools in the South were founded – LeMonye, Talladega, and so forth. So this mural was a gesture of appreciation on the part of Talladega for the AMA. The mural was also painted in honor of the slaves and their mutiny and their final freedom.”
Pontella Mason is one of Baltimore’s unsung visual artists. He has created murals for the Anacostia Community Museum, former President Jimmy Carter, and several other public organisations. His murals depict African American life and the diaspora. In 1999, he created the extensive mural Ancestral Roots, which depicts the antislavery heroes Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass, as well as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, Shirley Chisholm, and Marcus Garvey.
Two years prior to the Texas Centennial Exposition, Aaron Douglas created a four-part mural series titled Aspects of Negro Life, to be housed in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, the Schomburg Center. The various panels portray black history from slavery through to present. The various panels are titled, The Negro in an African Setting, From Slavery Through Reconstruction, Song of the Towers, and An Idyll of the Deep South, and depict the breaking of chains, the idea of self-emancipation, liberation, and the celebration of African culture.
In 1980, on the anniversary of the founding of the Tuskegee Institute, AfriCOBRA member Nelson Stevens created a mural to celebrate the occasion. Although Stevens was commonly an exterior mural painter, he created this mural on the inside of the Tuskegee University Administration Building. The mural contains the images of black history figures such as Booker T. Washington (former president of Tuskegee University), General Chappie James and the Tuskegee airmen of World War II, Cinque, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and George Washington Carver, as well as the antislavery figures Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass. Also included in the image is a phrase made famous by the African scholar John S. Mbiti, “I Am Because We Are.” This mural no longer exists.
In 1990, an unnamed artist completed a mural inside Douglass High School in Baltimore. The mural was in a corridor and depicted black and white scenes of slavery in the background, and a colour version of the abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the foreground.
E Pluribus Unum, “Out of Many, One,” was a mural created by Lewis Lavoie in 2012. Described as a snapshot of America, the mural brings together 50 different stories from American history, celebrating a diverse past. Located in South Jordan City’s central City Hall building, the mural is a collage of narratives such as ‘The Abolitionist Movement,’ ‘the Civil War,’ ‘The Creation of the New Media’ and ‘Westward Expansion’ for example.
In 1938, Aaron Douglas returned to Fisk University as an assistant professor of Art Education, and it was during his summer there that he, under the aegis of the Treasury Department’s Treasury Relief Arts Projects, created the mural Education of the Colored Man, for the Atlantic City Holmes Village Housing Project in New Jersey. The mural depicts a young Frederick Douglass standing before a small crowd—a civil war solider, a former slave, a sharecropper and a seamstress—who listen to his words. Behind them is a growing metropolis, representing the industrial expansion of the urban north. The art project was funded by the Treasury Relief Arts Project (TRAP) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
William Eduardo Scott completed this mural in 1943. The mural depicts a historical meeting during which the abolitionist Frederick Douglass advised President Lincoln to enlist black soldiers into the Union Army during the Civil War. A national competition was held for this mural commission, part of a series installed in the Recorder of the Deeds Building in Washington D.C. Artists were asked to depict episodes from African American history. Out of 300 applicants, seven were selected. Scott was the only African American artist. The subjects of the other panels were Crispus Attucks, Benjamin Banneker, the death of Colonel Shaw at Fort Wagner, slaves building bulwarks from cotton bales at the Battle of New Orleans, Cyrus Tiffany saving Commodore Perry’s life at the Battle of Lake Erie, and Matthew Henson planting the American flag at the North Pole.
In 1933, Cletus Alexander, a student at Dayton Art Institute, submitted designs for a mural titled Frederick Douglass Inspiring the Youth of the Negro Race. Douglass is depicted as a biblical, Moses-like figure with flowing hair and a white beard, wearing traditional red and white robes. Towards the top of the mural are the words from Langston Hughes’ poem, Youth: “We have to-morrow, Bright before us, Like a flame, yesterday a night-gone thing, A sundown name, And dawn today, Broad arch above the road we came, we March!” At the time the mural was painted, it was housed in the MacFarlane Middle School building. After that building was destroyed in 2005, it was removed, restored, and is housed in the Dayton Art Institute.
Wilfred R. Stroud created this seven-panel mural in 1988 to be installed on the first floor of the Tubman Museum. It remains a signature piece in the Museum’s collection today. When the mural was being created, Stroud expained: “The purpose of this mural is to present a visual history of the black man and woman from the earliest times in Africa to the present times in America. The panels focus attention upon the impact of outstanding persons, and events that made a change in the lives and conditions of black people in particular, and the world in general.” Stroud dedicated an entire panel to the topic of slavery. Harriet Tubman stands in the centre, holding a rifle and surrounded by other antislavery leaders: Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass and John Brown.
Ethiopian artist Mekbib Gebertsadik put the abolitionist Frederick Douglass alongside President Lincoln, the abolitionist John Brown, Malcolm X, President Obama and Michelle Obama. Titling the mural From Menelik I to Obama, Gebertsadik also placeed Douglass on a timeline of diasporic history that starts with Menelik I, the first Solomonic Emperor of Ethiopia in 950 BC, to President Barack Obama, the first African American president. The mural is a few blocks away from the White House at the Gospel Rescue Ministries homeless shelter, acting as a symbol of hope for those passing through. “Primarily, the clients we serve are African American and [the mural is] an inspiration to our clients of being able to dream” explains Earl Murray, Associate Director for Development and Marketing for Gospel Rescue Ministries.
In spring 1936, as part of the “healing process of the nation” during the aftermath of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas. Although African Americans took part in the exhibition, their designated section of the fair was in the Hall of Negro Life; a separate building isolated from the main path by a row of cedar trees and shrubs. One of the murals on show was Aaron Douglas’s Into Bondage. Douglas’ murals gave African Americans a new identity at the Exposition by drawing on a usable antislavery past to develop an alternative narrative of black history: no longer passive enslaved supplicants, African Americans are empowered liberators. Douglas layered the mural with a guide for potential resistance.
In 1990, muralist Maurice Myron Jenkins created an alternative version of Leonardo da Vinci’s 1494 fresco The Last Supper. The 30 by 19 foot mural depicts the last supper with a black Christ and 12 historical black figures as the prophets. Jenkins chose the Union Temple Baptist Church in Anacostia, Washington D.C. as his canvas because of its role in black history all the way back to its affiliation with Anacostia-resident Frederick Douglass in the 19th century.The mural includes the antislavery figures of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, as well as Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Mary McLeod Bethune, Nelson Mandela, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois.
In 1972, artist LeRoy Foster created this mural for the Douglass Branch of the Detroit Public Library. The mural depicts a meeting between Frederick Douglass and John Brown that took place on March 12, 1859, seven months before Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The mural contains three likenesses of Douglass in various stages of his life – the most prominent being the shirtless figure in the centre of the mural. The second largest figure of Douglass portrays him with the leonine, statesmen persona that he embodied later in his life. Finally, the smallest Douglass likeness is the seated figure speaking with John Brown. This small scene marks a pivotal moment in Douglass' life. In 1859 he had to make the decision between fighting with Brown (embodying the chain-breaking version of himself in the mural), or surviving to become a political leader. Choosing not to take up arms at Harper's Ferry, an attack that led to the execution of Brown for treason, Douglass chose the elder statesman person - and lived to 1895.
In 1999, artist Christopher Wynter created a mosaic installation at the Cathedral Parkway subway station in Harlem. He explained that the 3-part mosaic series titled Migrations “present the ideas of uprooting, migration, and progress in symbolic form." The installation features Frederick Douglass and was placed in the subway station that runs underneath Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
In 1933, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted a 21-panel mural titled Portraits of America. Created for New York City’s New Workers School, the mural focused on issues of racial inequality and depicted the antislavery figures Frederick Douglass and John Brown, as well as shackled slaves - seen here in panel five of the mural. Rivera believed art was a weapon in the class struggle and frequently produced murals about revolution. Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco were the pioneers of the Mexican mural movement, and influenced mid-century African American muralists Hale Woodruff, John Biggers and Charles White.
In 1976, the Mexican muralist Manuel Martinez created a mural at Auraria College titled Races of the Student Population. It depicts the antislavery leader Frederick Douglass alongside figures of the Black Power Movement including Bobby Seale, and figures and symbols of the African diaspora.
In 2011, Chicago-based muralist Lavernon Spivey painted a mural with Howard University students at the Saint Sabina Catholic Church in Chicago’s southside. The mural depicts African American heroes both local and national, past and present, including the antislavery figures Frederick Douglass Harriet Tubman, and also Mae C. Jemison, Barack Obama, Harold Washington, Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Jackson, Michelle Obama, Rosa Parks and Shirley Chisholm. The mural also includes a passage form John 14:27 that reads, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you not as the world giveth, give I unto you, let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”