Aaron Douglas and Hale Woodruff: African American Art Education, Gallery Work, and Expanded Pedagogy

Article excerpt

This analysis of archival materials discovered at Fisk and Atlanta Universities examines the teaching careers of Aaron Douglas and Hale Woodruff, two African American artists who came to prominence during the New Negro Movement in the 1920s and taught at historically Black1 universities in the 1930s and 1940s. These artists had a profound influence on this era of art education in the segregated South. This research specifically focuses on how Douglas and Woodruff asserted themselves and expanded learning opportunities through networks and exhibition programming that challenged racial subjugation. My findings indicate that the limitations of traditional classroom instruction disallowed their teaching content which focused upon and empowered African Americans to sustain themselves as mainstream artists in the United States. However, their influence and responsibility to a future generation of African American artists serve as pedagogical content that may instill racial pride otherwise absent in the curriculum.

The following sections offer biographical information on Aaron Douglas and Hale Woodruff's early careers, the challenges African American art educators faced in the early 20th century, and the sociopolitical contexts from which Douglas and Woodruff developed as professionals. In the section entitled "Navigating the System: Racism and White Philanthropy," I outline the challenges and triumphs of Douglas and Woodruff as they made strides to gain acceptance by White audiences while still maintaining African American community support. With a focus on expanded pedagogy, the final sections discuss how the seasoned Douglas and Woodruff used their influences and networks to prepare their students to have success in the mainstream despite the hurdles of the segregated South.

The archives at Fisk University Library and at the Robert Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center provided the primary resources for this study. The Aaron Douglas Papers include extensive personal and professional records of Douglas's years at Fisk with a particular focus on his development of the art department and the management of the Stieglitz art collection. The Hale Woodruff Collection at the Robert Woodruff Library consists chiefly of tape-recorded interviews with Woodruff and his former students that were conducted by Winifred Stoelting while In pursuit of her PhD at Emory University In the 1970s. The collection also includes correspondence between Woodruff and Stoelting as well as correspondences and programs revolving around the Atlanta Annual Exhibitions of Negro Paint and Sculpture.

While several aspects of Douglas's and Woodruff's careers merit discussion, for the purposes of this article, I primarily focus on their efforts in the university gallery. Because the impact of racism is critical to this study, I examine these artists who spent their tenures teaching African American students while facing challenges and limitations due to hardships of the racially segregated South (Kirschke, 1995; Stoelting, 1978). Although Douglas and Woodruff are prominent figures in African American art history, their careers also mark the beginning of a legacy of African American art educators. Few studies have critically examined their teaching or the impact of segregation on their careers. In this social-political inquiry of archival materials, I ask the following questions of Douglas's and Woodruff's teaching careers:

1. Could Douglas's and Woodruff's expanded pedagogical approach help prepare students to sustain themselves professionally through teaching, networking, and exhibiting in the mainstream? Did their expanded pedagogies demonstrate the hurdles of reconciling African American and White patrons?

2. What role did Fisk University and Atlanta University galleries play in expanding learning opportunities for African American students in the segregated South? What did these learning experiences offer that could not be attained through traditional classroom instruction? …