“Black women have been doubly victimized. Belonging as they do to two groups who have traditionally been treated as inferiors by American society – Blacks and women – they have been doubly invisible.” (Gerda Lerner, Black Women in White America: A Documentary History.)
In 1988, during my tenure as director of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the center presented a major exhibition on the life and work of Harlem Renaissance sculptor and cultural arts activist Augusta Savage. It was, to the best of my knowledge, the first and only exhibition ever presented on this seminal figure in African American and American art history. Thirty years later, it is only fitting that the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, the premier museum of art in Jacksonville, has chosen to honor this North Florida native with an exhibition of its own: Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, a commemorative tribute to one of the leading African American artists of the 20th century.
A native of Green Cove Springs, just south of Jacksonville, Augusta Savage was born during a leap year in 1892. She was the seventh of Edward and Cornelia Fells’s fourteen children. Her father – a carpenter, fisherman, and farmer – was also a Methodist minister. He discouraged Augusta’s early interest in art making, viewing her clay sculptures as “graven images,” frowned upon by the Bible. As Savage later exclaimed, he and her mother “practically whipped the art out of me.” (Juanita Marie Holland, “Augusta Christine Savage: A Chronology of Her Art and Life, 1892-1962” in Augusta Savage and the Art Schools of Harlem).
Fortunately for all of us, Augusta Savage persevered and pursued her dream. Throughout her years attending public school in Green Cove Springs and at the State Normal School in Tallahassee, she continued making sculptural works. After moving with her family to West Palm Beach, she found a mentor and sponsor in George Currie, superintendent of the West Palm Beach County Fair. Currie was impressed by the quality of her work and the talent she displayed, and he encouraged her to pursue formal art studies. After a brief stay in Jacksonville, Savage gradually made her way to New York City – specifically Harlem, the city’s Black political and cultural mecca – in 1921.
Like many talented African American Floridians of the late-19th and early-20th centuries – such as James Weldon Johnson, J. Rosamond Johnson, A. Philip Randolph, and Zora Neale Hurston – Savage arrived in New York in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance or, as it was called at the time, the New Negro Movement. That era, which lasted until the mid-1930s, was an explosive period of African American artistic and cultural creativity that marked a new stage of Black consciousness and development. It was fostered by the growth, development, and diversity of the Great Migration of African Americans that was unleashed during World War I. Soon after she arrived in New York, Savage enrolled in the Cooper Union School of Art; by 1923, she had completed the school’s four-year program. She continued her studies at the New York School of Applied Design for Women. A series of Rosenwald Fellowships allowed her to spend two years studying art in Paris, but she eagerly returned to Harlem afterward to rejoin the burgeoning community of Black artists, writers, musicians, and intellectuals who had been congregating there, collectively
creating and experiencing the transformation that was changing Harlem into the cultural capital of Black America.
For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the hegemonic racial ideology in America (and much of the Westernized world) maintained that people of African descent were an ahistorical and cultureless people. Blacks globally were believed to be biologically, socially, and aesthetically deficient as well as culturally and intellectually inferior to Whites; practicing higher-order (read “European”) intellectual and aesthetic pursuits was deemed beyond their inherent capabilities. The fine arts – painting, sculpture, literary pursuits, opera, ballet, and other “classical” forms of artistic expression created and practiced by Europe’s finest, and imitated and revered by White Americans – were declared beyond the reach of those who were darker-hued. The dominant representations of Black people at the time were shaped by that same Eurocentric ideology. Racist stereotypes and caricatures – from black-faced minstrels on the stage and in film, to racially pejorative cartoons and images in books, newspapers, the visual arts, advertising, and other popular media – negatively defined the public image and perception of people of African descent in the United States and around the globe.
This article is in part an excerpt from the forward of Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman that was written by Dr. Howard Dodson, Jr., director emeritus of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The book was published by D Giles Ltd. and is available at the Cummer Shop, and online retailers (ISBN-10: 1911282220, ISBN-13: 978-1911282228).