Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice

Media - 1983.95.53 - SAAM-1983.95.53_2 - 142417

William H. Johnson, Crispus Attucks, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1983.95.53

William H. Johnson (1901 – 1970) painted his Fighters for Freedom series in the mid-1940s as a tribute to African American activists, scientists, teachers, and performers as well as international heads of state working to bring peace to the world. He celebrated their accomplishments even as he acknowledged the realities of racism, violence, and oppression they faced and overcame. Some of his Fighters — Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson, and Mahatma Gandhi — are familiar historical figures; others are less well-known individuals whose determination and sacrifice have been eclipsed over time. Johnson elevates their lives, offering historical insights and fresh perspectives. Through their stories he suggests that the pursuit of freedom is an ongoing, interconnected struggle, with moments of both triumph and tragedy, and he invites us to reflect on our own struggles for justice today. In Fighters for Freedom Johnson reminds us that individual achievement and commitment to social justice are at the heart of the American story.

Description

This exhibition is drawn entirely from the collection of more than 1,000 works by William H. Johnson given to the Smithsonian American Art Museum by the Harmon Foundation in 1967. Since that time, SAAM has organized exhibitions and installations of Johnson’s work and pursued an ongoing program of conservation for these fragile paintings.

The exhibition is organized by Virginia Mecklenburg, senior curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Visiting Information

October 13, 2023 February 25, 2024
Open daily, 11:30 a.m.–7 p.m.
Free Admission

Tour Schedule

Gibbes Museum of Art
Charleston, SC
January 21, 2022 August 7, 2022
Albany Museum of Art
Albany, GA
September 1, 2022 December 10, 2022
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
Oklahoma City, OK
February 8, 2023 May 14, 2023
The Rockwell Museum
Corning, NY
June 2, 2023 September 5, 2023
Wichita Art Museum
Wichita, KS
October 7, 2023 January 14, 2024
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Washington, DC
March 8, 2024 September 8, 2024
Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum
Miami, FL
September 28, 2024 January 25, 2025

Credit

Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from Art Bridges, Faye and Robert Davidson, and the Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation.

Color logo that says "Art Bridges"

SAAM Stories

A painting of three men shaking hands
11/02/2020
Explore William H. Johnson’s powerful “Fighters for Freedom” series through the lens of a conservator.
Keara Teeter
Marian Anderson and symbols that surround her life
SAAM educator Phoebe Hillemann reflects on creating resources to spark curiosity for learners of all ages who view William H. Johnson’s Fighters for Freedom series
A photograph of Phoebe Hillemann
Phoebe Hillemann
Teacher Institutes Educator

Explore the Fighters for Freedom

Decode imagery and discover hidden stories in artist William H. Johnson's Fighters for Freedom series. Reflect on connections between the individuals portrayed, from iconic to lesser-known, and how past struggles for justice may relate to the present. 

Media - 1967.59.1146 - SAAM-1967.59.1146_2 - 141130
Who Were the Fighters?

Explore the biographies of the figures William H. Johnson portrayed in eight of his Fighters for Freedom paintings, as well as the artist himself. Close-looking questions, primary source connections, and reflection prompts are included in this Sutori resource.

Media - 1967.59.664 - SAAM-1967.59.664_2 - 142413
Decoding the Paintings

Uncover meaning behind the imagery embedded in William H. Johnson's Fighters for Freedom paintings through this Smithsonian Learning Lab collection. Explore Johnson's visual references and historical source material, and discover little-known figures in Black history.

Online Gallery

Media - 1983.95.53 - SAAM-1983.95.53_2 - 142417
Crispus Attucks
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.1154 - SAAM-1967.59.1154_3 - 142406
Toussaint l’Ouverture, Haiti
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.1146 - SAAM-1967.59.1146_2 - 141130
Harriet Tubman
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.645 - SAAM-1967.59.645_2 - 141189
Underground Railroad
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.649 - SAAM-1967.59.649_2 - 142410
Let My People Free
Dateca. 1945
oil on fiberboard (Bird-Fibre)
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.643 - SAAM-1967.59.643_2 - 141185
Abraham Lincoln
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.664 - SAAM-1967.59.664_2 - 142413
Booker T. Washington Legend
Dateca. 1944-1945
oil on plywood
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.1143 - SAAM-1967.59.1143_2 - 142394
Booker T. Washington Revelation
Dateca. 1945
oil on fiberboard (Upson Board)
Not on view
Media - 1983.95.54 - SAAM-1983.95.54_2 - 142418
Commodore Peary and Henson at the North Pole
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.648 - SAAM-1967.59.648_2 - 142409
Marcus Garvey
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.597 - SAAM-1967.59.597_2 - 142407
Dr. George Washington Carver
Dateca. 1945
oil on plywood
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.1142 - SAAM-1967.59.1142_2 - 141129
Dr. George Washington Carver
Dateca. 1945
oil on cardboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.657 - SAAM-1967.59.657_2 - 141186
Marian Anderson
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.666 - SAAM-1967.59.666_3 - 142414
Paul Robeson’s Relations
Dateca. 1945
oil on hardboard (Masonite)
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.651 - SAAM-1967.59.651_2 - 141133
Historical Scene with Mary McLeod Bethune
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.646 - SAAM-1967.59.646_2 - 141131
Historical Scene
Dateca. 1945
oil on hardboard (Masonite)
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.665 - SAAM-1967.59.665_2 - 141136
Nehru and Gandhi
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.650 - SAAM-1967.59.650_2 - 141132
King Ibn Saud
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.661 - SAAM-1967.59.661_2 - 133417
King Ibn Saud
Dateca. 1944-1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.663 - SAAM-1967.59.663_3 - 141135
Three Allies in Cairo
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.659 - SAAM-1967.59.659_2 - 142412
Historical Scene – WW II
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.644 - SAAM-1967.59.644_2 - 142408
FDR and U.N.
Date1945
oil on plywood
Not on view
Media - 1967.59.655 - SAAM-1967.59.655_2 - 141134
Potsdam Meeting
Dateca. 1945
oil on paperboard
Not on view

Artists

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William H. Johnson
born Florence, SC 1901-died Central Islip, NY 1970

By almost any standard, William H. Johnson (1901–1970) can be considered a major American artist. He produced hundreds of works in a virtuosic, eclectic career that spanned several decades as well as several continents.