Elevation from Within: The Study of Art at Historically Black Colleges and Universities
“No man or community of men can elevate another. Elevation must come from within.”
~Bishop Benjamin Tucker Tanner (1835–1923)
In the wake of the Civil War, African Americans sought and fought for the education they had long been denied. From elementary lessons to advanced academics, standardized instruction was largely provided by white teachers in schools operated by white philanthropic organizations. Available public education offerings, especially at secondary and college levels, were unequivocally separate, but never equal.
Following passage of the Second Morrill Act in 1890, land-grant institutions for black students were established in each of the Southern states. The African Methodist Episcopal Church had also begun to open black colleges—schools where African American intellectuals served as administrators and faculty members, schools that offered their student bodies an “unapologetic black space.” The handful of antebellum black institutions grew to over ninety by 1900; in the 1930s, the number of campuses peaked at 121. As the twentieth century progressed and court decisions secured scholastic opportunities for African Americans, approximately seventy-five percent of all black students attending college in the United States were enrolled at historically black colleges and universities—defined as those established before 1964.
Booker T. Washington’s early emphasis on vocational training eventually gave way to more robust curriculums in the liberal arts and laboratory sciences. In HBCU classrooms and studios, fine arts departments nurtured gifted African Americans eager to articulate their individual genius, as well as their shared cultural heritage. Elevation from Within pays homage to HBCU alumni and professors whose educational backgrounds chronicle a vital chapter of American history and whose aesthetic achievements enrich this nation’s art.
Elevation from Within is curated by Leo Twiggs. A native of St. Stephen, South Carolina, Dr. Twiggs is a summa cum laude graduate of Claflin University (1956), where he now holds the position of Distinguished Artist in Residence. With no state-sponsored graduate program available to black South Carolinians at mid-century, Twiggs received his master’s degree from New York University (1964). In 1970, Leo Twiggs became the first African American to earn a doctorate in art education from the University of Georgia. As a professor at South Carolina State University from 1972 to 1998, he taught generations of aspiring artists and established the college’s museum. This current project marks the second collaboration between the celebrated artist and the Johnson Collection, which sponsored the 2016-2017 tour of Twiggs’ powerful Requiem for Mother Emanuel exhibition.
Several events will be held in the coming months to engage the community with this exhibition and the larger topic of African American art. On Thursday, February 28, the collection’s sixth annual public lecture series, Voices in American Art, takes place at Chapman Cultural Center. Dr. Tuliza Fleming, Curator of American Art at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), Smithsonian Institution, will deliver the keynote address, titled “Visual Art and the American Experience,’ at 7:00pm. As always, the public is invited to attend the free lecture, and no reservations are required. A special invitation is extended to all HBCU alumni and friends for a reception at the March 21 ArtWalk at TJC Gallery. As a capstone to the exhibition’s presentation, Dr. Leo Twiggs will offer a gallery talk and personal reflections during the April ArtWalk, scheduled for the evening of April 18.
Hailed by The Magazine Antiques with staging a “quiet art historical revolution” and expanding “the meaning of regional,” the Johnson Collection offers an extensive survey of artistic activity in the American South from the late eighteenth century to the present day. In May 2016, the collection received the Governor’s Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Award for the Arts, South Carolina’s highest honor in the field. Located at 154 West Main Street in the heart of Spartanburg’s downtown, TJC Gallery features rotating selections from the collection’s holdings. These curated exhibitions are open to the public without charge on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 12pm to 4pm as well as the first Saturday of the month from 12pm to 4pm. In addition, TJC Gallery is pleased to participate in the city’s ArtWalk series, held on the third Thursday of each month from 5pm to 8pm.