Artist Aaron Douglas

Aaron Douglas
Aaron Douglas

Artist Aaron Douglas’s 1979 New York Times obituary describes his former Harlem address, 409 Edgecombe Avenue, as having been one of New York’s most prestigious gathering places. It was here that Douglas and his wife, Alta, hosted the luminaries of 20th Century African American culture. Douglas was a central figure in the movement of black artists, writers, scholars, and philosophers known as the Harlem Renaissance, and surrounded by such giants as Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. DuBois, he became what art historian David Driskell has called him: "The father of Black American art."

But before Douglas garnered international acclaim for his artwork, he spent several years playing host to budding young artists in a Kansas City, Missouri classroom. Douglas, who was born in Topeka in 1899, received a bachelor of arts from the University of Nebraska in 1922. The next two years found him working as an art instructor at Lincoln High School, and yearbooks of that era held in the Missouri Valley Special Collections of the Kansas City Public Library serve to document his time there.

The Lincolnians of the school years 1923-24 and 1924-25 contain a faculty photograph and listing of Douglas as an art instructor.

Lincolnian Cover 1924
Cover 1924
Lincolnian Cover 1925
Cover 1925

Additionally, both yearbooks contain group portraits of the Lincoln High School Art Club. Douglas, who also appears in these group shots, sponsored and led the club during both of his years at Lincoln.

Art Club 1923-24
Art Club 1923-24

Art Club 1924-25
Art Club 1924-25

The 1923-24 Lincolnian also includes a two-page spread of Art Club members in caricature, complete with names and captions, drawn by one of Douglas’s more whimsical students, “Universal Star Cartoonist, Columbus Ewell.” Ewell’s lampooning pen does not spare “Mr. A. Douglas, Teacher of Art,” depicted in a vain search for art supplies that have been borrowed by his students.

Aaron Douglas Caricature
Aaron Douglas Caricature
Aaron Douglas Caricature Closeup
Aaron Douglas Caricature Closeup

Whatever the joys and frustrations of teaching high school art in the Midwest, Douglas soon heeded a call to relocate to the cultural hub that was Harlem in the summer of 1925. From there he traveled to Paris, honing his skills and further developing his artistic vision. When he returned to Harlem, he became one of the first African American artists to draw on the heritage of African art and iconography to create paintings, illustrations and murals reflecting the black experience in the United States.

Douglas’s illustrations appeared regularly in The Crisis and other national magazines, as well as books authored by Langston Hughes, James Weldon Jones, and Countee Cullen. Among his major works are four canvases in the Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library, and murals in the Fisk University Library and Harlem YMCA.

In 1937, after receiving a master of fine arts from Columbia University, Douglas joined the faculty of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, eventually heading up the art department there until he retired in 1966. Douglas died in Nashville in 1979. Today, the third floor of the Fisk University Library is home to the Aaron Douglas Gallery.

A retrospective exhibition of Douglas’s work was held at Fisk University in 1971; at that time, 1000 exhibition catalogues were printed by the Fisk University Department of Art, one of which (#247) is held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library. Like the Lincoln High School yearbooks, this document reminds us of the importance of a local historical figure during the nationwide celebration of Black History Month.

Sources:
"Aaron Douglas, Painter, at 79," New York Times, February 22, 1979.
"Aaron Douglas," Kansas Heritage, Autumn, 2005.
Retrospective Exhibition: Paintings by Aaron Douglas, March 21-April 15, 1971, Fisk University Department of Art, 1971.

Online Sources and Links for Further Information about Aaron Douglas:
Aaron Douglas - Harlem 1900-1940 exhibit
Aaron Douglas - University of Nebraska-Lincoln Distinguished Alumni
Aaron Douglas: A Kansas Portrait
Fisk University
Countee Cullen Branch of the New York Public Library

Article written by Dan Coleman, Special Collections.