A Class at the Harlem Community Art Center Funded by the Federal Arts Project
Tensions have been brewing at George Washington High School in San Francisco over a series of murals that tell a less than heroic story about America’s first president. Completed in 1936 by a left-wing immigrant painter, Victor Arnautoff, the murals have prompted discomfort among students and parents. Their objections focus not on the mural’s critique of Washington but on its inclusion of a dead Native American and African American slaves. Although Arnautoff apparently intended to expose Washington’s racist practices – his ownership of slaves, his role in killing Native people – the mural also shows people of color in positions associated with servitude and violence. Given that, it’s not hard to imagine the uneasiness students of color might feel as they walk, everyday, past these paintings. A committee recently recommended painting over the offending frescoes.
Members of the George Washington High School community should have the ultimate say in the types of images chosen to represent their school. But there’s also a backstory to these murals – and other art works like it – that could easily be obscured in this discussion. A recent New York Times article puts the San Francisco dispute in the context of the many controversies currently swirling over “historical representations in public art”, including protests about “Confederate statues and monuments” that have recently “been dismantled”. While it’s true that Confederate monuments were placed in public spaces – like city parks and courthouse squares – and so might be considered a type of “public art”, the George Washington High School murals are a different order of “public art” altogether. Both were placed in public spaces but only one took shape as a result of public funding.
The San Francisco murals sprang from a broad government-funded arts initiative, part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which made possible the creation of thousands of art projects around the United States in the 1930s. Part of the Works Progress Administration, these arts initiatives included numerous dramatic performances organized by the Federal Theatre Project; countless posters and murals created by the Federal Art Project; and the mammoth American Guide series as well as oral histories of black and white Americans done under the auspices of the Federal Writers Project. Significantly, these projects offered employment to artists, writers, dramatists, and musicians hit hard by the economic circumstances of the Great Depression.
An undated photo of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Campobello Island, off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada. | AP Photo
On this day in 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his Warm Springs, Ga. retreat. He was 63. Roosevelt’s death in the final months of World War II was met with shock and grief throughout the Western world.
Roosevelt had been president for more than 12 years, longer than any other person. He led the country through some of its deepest domestic and foreign crises to the impending defeat of Nazi Germany and within sight of Japan’s surrender.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had spent many weeks in the White House shaping Allied strategy with Roosevelt, described his feelings on learning of his death as having “been struck a physical blow.”
When he was stricken, Roosevelt was in the living room with Lucy Mercer, with whom he had resumed an affair; two cousins; his dog, Fala; and Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who was painting his portrait.
As the Great Depression raged, scientists Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering developed the first effective pertussis vaccine on a shoestring budget.
After a long day in the laboratory in 1932, Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering walked out into the chilly Michigan evening with specially prepared petri dishes, called cough plates, in tow. The two scientists were on a mission to collect bacteria in the wild: one by one, they visited families ravaged by whooping cough, the deadliest childhood disease of their time. By the dim light of kerosene lamps they asked sick children to cough onto each plate, dimpling the agar gel with tiny specks of the bacteria Bordetella pertussis.
As they collected their research samples from “whooping, vomiting, strangling children,” Kendrick and Eldering, both former school teachers who lived together in Grand Rapids, “listened to sad stories told by desperate fathers who could find no work,” Eldering later recalled. “We learned about the disease and the Depression at the same time.”
Using cultures from the suffering children that they “saved and studied in every possible way,” the pair created the first effective vaccine for whooping cough after years of toiling in their lab, growing and identifying pertussis strains from cough plates. Developed at a time when scientific funding was so scarce that lab mice were considered a luxury, the vaccine would go on to prevent thousands of children each year from succumbing to the disease.
In the 1940s, Kendrick and Eldering’s lab also developed the vaccine that most people receive today, called…
Marian Anderson at her defining moment, Easter 1939. Photograph by Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images
One of the pitfalls of living in a city so well stocked with Historical Characters of Great Import (HCGIs) is that many compelling figures fade into the collective shadow of white guys in breeches. Case in point: When the U.S. Treasury announced three years ago that Marian Anderson would appear on the new $5 bill, the typical response — particularly among younger Philadelphians — was a resounding “Wait, who?”
Born in South Philly in 1897, Anderson was the 20th century’s Beyoncé, an opera superstar who sold out concerts around the globe, entertained presidents and kings, and brought audiences to tears singing Verdi and Schubert along with black spirituals. Her warm, clear contralto was famously described by conductor Arturo Toscanini as a voice heard “once in a hundred years.”
Though she rose to fame in (and despite) Jim Crow America, Anderson rarely discussed the indignities of racism that she endured. But 80 years ago this month, the course of history was permanently altered. After the Daughters of the American Revolution refused Anderson the stage at Washington, D.C.’s segregated Constitution Hall, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped arrange for her to sing instead at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939 — turning the world’s most famous singer into a civil rights icon.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Marian Anderson in Japan, May 22, 1953.
As the curtain closes on Boheme NJ’s production of Guiseppe Verdi’s “Aida” with the final notes, images and sounds still fresh, this column and day honors the memory and life of opera singer Marian Anderson.
Exactly eighty years ago, on Easter Sunday April 9, 1939, Ms. Anderson, a world-renowned contralto, graced more than 75,000 fans with a concert delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Anderson had hoped to sing inside Constitution Hall but a “white-artist-only” clause supported by the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), denied the talented black songbird entry.
Anderson biographer Allan Keiler noted, “They refused to allow her use of the hall because she was black and because there was a white-artist-only clause printed in every contract issued by the DAR.”
Still, a radio listening audience allegedly reached millions as Anderson offered classical selections, Negro spirituals and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee”, an eloquent rebuttal to the DAR racism, bigotry and discrimination. Anderson had supportive voices, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Roosevelt penned an abrupt letter that left no doubt about where she stood on this social matter.