Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, is an annual observance of Union soldiers enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation and freeing all remaining American slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865—more than two and one-half years after emancipation had been ordered by President Lincoln!
In Galveston, Texas, the newly freed slaves held large public celebrations, laying the base for future Juneteenth activities. (The word ‘Juneteenth’ resulted from the words ‘June Nineteenth’ being blended in speech). Today Juneteenth is a state holiday or observance in more than half of the U.S. states and there is a campaign for Juneteenth to become a national holiday or observance throughout the nation.
Juneteenth is a great time to honor African American artists from the 19th century whose work inspires us to this day:
One of the earliest significant black fine artists was an African slave, Scipio Moorhead, who was a poet and painter (c. 1773). Owned by Rev. John Moorhead from Boston, and taught to draft and paint by Moorhead’s wife, Sarah (an artist and teacher), Scipio became well known in Boston as an artist. He was commissioned by Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book of poems, to execute her portrait. (Taken from the frontispiece of her book, the image is actually an etching of the original by Moorhead).
Joshua Johnson was a biracial American painter from the Baltimore area (c.1763 – c.1824) who is often viewed as the first person of color to make a living as a painter in the United States. Johnson is known for his naïve paintings of prominent Maryland residents, but his identity as the artist was not discovered until 1939. Enslaved for nearly 20 years, Johnson’s freedom papers from 1782 state that he was the “son of a white man and a black slave woman owned by a William Wheeler, Sr.”
Harriet Powers was an African-American slave, folk artist, and quilt maker from rural Georgia. She used traditional appliqué techniques to record local legends, Bible stories, and astronomical events on her quilts, the second featured image above. Her quilts are considered among the finest examples of nineteenth-century Southern quilting. In recent times, historians have compared her work to textiles of Dahomey, West Africa. Only two of Powers’ quilts are known to have survived: “Bible Quilt” (1886) and “Pictorial Quilt” (1898). Her work is on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Work by other early artists can be viewed in the photo essay “African American Artists before the Twentieth Century” by The Oxford African American Studies Center. (The Center provides students, scholars and librarians with more than 10,000 articles by top scholars in the field):
Also note that the National Gallery of Art collection of American art includes nearly 400 works by African-American artists. Their online tour offers commentary on a selection of twenty-three paintings, works on paper, and sculpture:
The Mispillion Art League thanks these talented Americans for their contributions to the world of art, and wishes everyone a Happy Juneteenth!