Oh Freedom! William H. Johnson

Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through American Art
William H. Johnson Marian Anderson

Left: William H. Johnson (1901–1970), Marian Anderson #1, about 1939, tempera, pencil, and metallic gold paint on paper, 37 5/8 x 20 5/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.318R

Right: William H. Johnson (1901–1970), Marian Anderson, about 1945, oil on paperboard, 35 5/8 x 28 7/8 in., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1967.59.657

Student Questions

1. What is Marian Anderson doing in the painting on the left? Where is she?

2. How many liknesses of Anderson can you find in the painting on the right? Can you identify the flags and landmarks? What might they mean?

3. What do these artworks tell us about Marian Anderson?

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About This Artwork

Painter William H. Johnson twice depicted what was a watershed moment in American social, political, and artistic history: singer Marian Anderson's concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939. Earlier that year, the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) denied Anderson, a world renowned opera singer, the opportunity to perform at their concert hall in Washington, D.C., because of the color of her skin. The story of the DAR's refusal appeared in local, national, and international newspapers, causing debate and outrage. Washington civil rights activists, including lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston, organized a formal protest. Ultimately, they convinced members of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administration to help arrange a free public concert featuring Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial, a site chosen because it would recall slavery, the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln's support for black freedom. On April 9th of that year, around the anniversary of Lincoln's Good Friday assassination, she performed before seventy-five thousand people assembled on the National Mall, and the radio broadcast reached millions. In 1956, Ms. Anderson reflected on her decision to perform: "I said yes, but the yes did not come easily or quickly .... As I thought further, I could see that my significance as an individual was small in this affair. I had become, whether I like it or not, a symbol, representing my people."

Having resettled in the United States less than a year prior, after spending much of the 1920s and 1930s in Europe, artist William H. Johnson immersed himself in predominantly African American subjects and adopted a consciously naive painting style. Based in New York and working for the Harlem Community Art Center, Johnson used newspaper photographs as sources for the 1939 painting, which emphasizes the presence of Lincoln, casually reclined behind Anderson. Far from a marble sculpture, Abraham Lincoln seems to be listening and moving his hands to the historic concert. Johnson painted the subject again several years later, focusing on Anderson's global influence and popularity. The European and South American flags and landmarks surrounding the central figure suggest that increasing international attention to segregation often helped to both shame American politicians and encourage them to live up to the nation's founding ideals of liberty and equality.

It is likely that Johnson also recognized parallels between Anderson's career and his own. Like Johnson, Anderson enjoyed greater freedom, opportunity, and success abroad than she experienced in the United States, where both artists saw their professional careers compromised by Jim Crow segregation, prejudice, and racism. Nevertheless, painter and singer both chose to return home to face the struggles of black life and celebrate their culture.

About This Artist

William H. Johnson (born Florence, SC 1901–died Central Islip, NY 1970)

Best known for his folk art–style paintings, William H. Johnson was one of the most prolific American artists of the twentieth century. Born in South Carolina, Johnson later moved to New York, where he studied at the National Academy of Design. He then traveled to Paris in the 1920s, where he met fellow African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner. Johnson lived in Europe for more than a decade, working, traveling, and absorbing a wide variety of cultures and artistic styles. In 1938, on the eve of World War II, he moved back to the United States and began working at the Harlem Community Art Center. Johnson had his first major exhibition in New York in 1941. Instead of reflecting European expressionism, which he had learned abroad, his new work unveiled a style that was consciously naive and built solidly around themes of ordinary African American life. When an art critic asked Johnson why he had changed his style, Johnson said: “It was not a change but a development. In all my years of painting, I have had one absorbing and inspiring idea, and have worked towards it with unyielding zeal: to give—in simple and stark form—the story of the Negro as he has existed.” Devastated by the death of his wife in 1944, Johnson’s career came to an abrupt end. After a brief attempt to build a series of narrative paintings around events and figures in African American history and an abbreviated return to his wife’s homeland of Denmark, Johnson was hospitalized in New York. He spent the last twenty-three years of his life in the hospital and died in obscurity, though people have since come to recognize the importance of his artwork.

Charles Hamilton Houston’s dictaphone

Charles Hamilton Houston’s dictaphone. National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Gift of Charles Hamilton Houston Jr.

After Marian Anderson was barred from Constitution Hall, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston organized the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee, which petitioned the D.C. Board of Education to allow Anderson to sing at a large auditorium in white Central High School (now Cardozo). Under mounting pressure, the board eventually agreed but insisted the performance by a black singer for a mixed-race audience would be a one-time event. The committee rejected this offer and helped make plans to use the Lincoln Memorial. Yet Houston remained committed to combating school segregation. Using this dictaphone to record client testimony, preserve his legal strategies, and dictate letters and legal advice for his clients, Houston became the architect of the NAACP’s legal strategy in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas case.

Marian Anderson Concert, 1939

Scurlock Studio (photographer), Marian Anderson Concert, 1939. Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Photographer Robert Scurlock presented the human side of Marian Anderson’s historic performance at the Lincoln Memorial by documenting the singer’s arrival at Union Station in Washington, D.C., her appearance at the National Mall, her interactions with the audience, and her unforgettable performance. Two selections from Scurlock’s photo series are shown here. To watch a video from Smithsonian Channel of Marian Anderson's historic concert at the Lincoln Memorial click here.

Betsy Graves Reyneau, Marian Anderson, 1955

Betsy Graves Reyneau, Marian Anderson, 1955. Oil on canvas, 60 1/4 x 38 3/8 in. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, NPG.67.76

Many artworks commemorate Marian Anderson’s recital at the Lincoln Memorial as a defining moment in America’s Civil Rights movement. Distinct in many ways from Johnson’s paintings, Betsy Graves Reyneau’s portrait of Anderson presents a realistic likeness. Posed against the Lincoln Memorial, the singer appears monumental, reminding viewers of the event’s importance.