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Charles Alston's Harlem Hospital Murals: Cultural Politics in Depression Era Harlem

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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In 1936, the Works Progress Administration/Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP, 1935–43) appointed New York City artist Charles Alston (1907–77) to be the first African American to supervise a New Deal mural project. Alston, five other artists, and their assistants designed narrative, celebratory images of Harlem, African-American life, children's fairy tales, and stories for New York's Harlem Hospital. In paired panels exploring the theme of healing, Alston depicted an African past beyond exotic and barbaric stereotypes in Magic in Medicine for the foyer of Harlem Hospital Women's Pavilion, and a racially egalitarian American present in its companion panel Modern Medicine (each 17 × 9 feet) (Figure 1). Initially, white hospital authorities rejected the works on the basis that they “contain too much Negro subject matter,” which would make them unappealing to residents of Harlem. This judgment angered Alston, since his designs were consistent with project guidelines. Because the building was a hospital in Harlem, Alston selected the theme of medicine and depicted black figures in his two panels. Yet the seeming suitability of images that looked like the people who used Harlem Hospital and referred to their collective history met with loud objections from Harlem Hospital's white administration. While it was common for muralists to base their subject matter on the local community and its history, and in fact the WPA/FAP encouraged artists to do so, officials tried to cancel Alston's commission on these very grounds. Their attempt to prevent artistic self-representation in the 1930s followed on the heels of prolonged racist hiring policies at Harlem Hospital. Alston ultimately painted his mural designs as planned; final approval of the murals did not come until 1940.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2001

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Phyllis Jackson, Department of Art History at Pomona College; Kevin Gaines, Department of History, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; Matthew Biro, Department of Art History, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; and Steven Nelson, Department of Art History, UCLA, all provided thoughtful and enthusiastic responses that have greatly strengthened this work. Erika Naginski, Harvard Society Fellows and Department of Architecture, M.I.T., deserves a special thank-you for her help. Greta Berman and Helen Shannon generously answered queries. Earlier versions were presented at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (1996), the Studio Museum in Harlem (1996), and the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History Annual Meeting (1997). Support from the Society for the Preservation of American Modernists underwrote the purchase of photographs; we appreciate their assistance. Diana L. Linden would like to thank Peter W. Ross for his invaluable assistance and support during all phases of this project.

1. For information on the WPA/FAP, see O'Connor, Francis V., Federal Support for the Visual Arts: The New Deal and Now, 2nd ed. (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1971)Google Scholar.

2. The other artists and works were Selma Day, Mother Goose, the children's ward; Vertis Hayes, Pursuit of Happiness, nurses' residence; Elba Lightfoot, Toy Parade, children's surgical ward; Sara Murrell, Jungle Tales, children's ward; and Georgette Seabrooke, Recreation in Harlem, nurses' recreation room (see Berman, Greta, The Lost Years: Mural Painting in New York City Under the WPA/FAP, 1935–1943 [New York: Garland, 1978], 103–6Google Scholar).

3. As art historian Jonathan Harris has noted, most New Deal murals in the adult wings of hospitals were narrative, naturalistic, and didactic, and stressed the triumph of progress and rationalism (Harris, , Federal Art and National Culture: The Politics of Identity in New Deal America [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995], 7679Google Scholar).

4. Greta Berman writes, “As a rule, murals dealt, as did the proposed Harlem Hospital paintings, with the history, endeavors, and community life of a local area. The American Scene was encouraged as subject matter, with the goal of teaching citizens about their own area, instilling pride and appreciation for local history” (The Walls of Harlem,” Arts 52 [10 1977]: 122Google Scholar). It is important to acknowledge the pioneering work of such scholars as Greta Berman for those interested in New Deal arts; see, as well, Helen A. Harrison, Francis V. O'Connor, Karal Ann Marling, Barbara Melosh, and Marlene Park's many articles and books, too numerous to cite here.

5. Although officials granted preliminary approval to Alston's designs in April 1936, they would not grant final approval until March 1940, when debates over Alston's and other muralists' works had been settled. According to Berman, such delays, considering the controversy, were not unusual. We thank Professor Berman for clarifying this matter.

6. See Hunter, Gary J., ‘“Don't Buy from Where You Can't Work’: Black Urban Boycott Movements During the Depression, 1929–1941” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1977)Google Scholar; and Muraskin, William, “The Harlem Boycott of 1934: Black Nationalism and the Rise of Labor-Union Consciousness,” Labor History 13 (Summer 1972)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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8. Coker, Gylbert Garvin, “Charles Alston: The Legacy,” in Charles Alston, 10Google Scholar. For background on the Harlem Renaissance and the Depression in Harlem, see Lewis, David Levering, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981)Google Scholar; Greene, Larry A., “Harlem, the Depression Years: Leadership and Social Conditions,” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History 17 (07 1993): 35, 45Google Scholar; and Hutchinson, George, The Harlem Renaissance in Black and White (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995)Google Scholar.

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10. Donaldson, Jeff Richardson, “Generation ‘306’ — Harlem, New York” (Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1974), 126–28Google Scholar. In Donaldson's opinion, Alston's chief contribution was as an educator rather than as an artist (132).

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12. Powell, Richard J., “Re/Birth of a Nation,” in Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance, exh. cat., ed. Powell, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 19Google Scholar.

13. For Alston's remembrances of speaking with Rivera, see Charles Alston interview with Albert Murray, October 19, 1968, transcript in Charles Alston Papers, Reel 4223, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution (hereafter, AAA), 6; quoted in LeFalle-Collins, Lizette, “African-American Modernists and the Mexican Muralist School,” in In the Spirit of Resistance, exh. cat. (New York: American Federation of Arts, 1996), 35Google Scholar.

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15. For information on the exhibitions, see Park, Marlene, “Lynching and An-tilynching: Art and Politics in the 1930s,” in Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies 18 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993): 311–65Google Scholar. See also Solomon, Mark, The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African-Americans, 1917–1936 (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1998), 281, 371 fn. 73Google Scholar.

16. For an insightful discussion of Alston's image, see Langa, Helen, “Two An-tilynching Art Exhibitions: Politicized Viewpoints, Racial Perspectives, Gendered Constraints,” American Art 13 (Spring 1999): 2426CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17. For background on Alain Locke, his writings and the New Negro, see Locke, , “The New Negro,” in The New Negro, ed. Locke, (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925), 7Google Scholar; Powell, “Re/Birth of a Nation,” 19; and Wright, Beryl J., “The Harmon Foundation in Context,” in Against the Odds: African-American Artists and the Harmon Foundation, exh. cat., ed. Reynolds, Gary A. and Wright, (Newark, N.J.: Newark Museum), 20Google Scholar. Art historian Helen Shannon has suggested that the collection Locke was installing was, most probably, the Bondiau-Theater Arts Collection of Primitive African Art, which Locke hoped would become the foundation of the Harlem Museum of African Art (letter to authors, January 28, 1998). We thank her for sharing this information with us.

18. Marcus Garvey, leader of the UNIA, mounted an exhibition of African art and craft during the 1920s, which according to Donaldson was a revelation to black Americans (Donaldson, “Generation ‘306,’” 7). Claude McKay recalled Garvey in relation to the term New Negro: “[T]he vivid paintings of the Black Christ and Black Virgin of the African Orthodox Church (founded by Garvey) were startling omens of the Negro Renaissance movement of the 1920s. The flowering of Harlem's creative life came in the Garvey era. The anthology, The New Negro, which announced the debut of the Renaissance writers, was printed in 1925. If Marcus Garvey did not originate the phrase, New Negro, he at least made it popular” (McKay, , Harlem: Negro Metropolis [New York: Dutton, 1940], 177Google Scholar).

19. Alain Locke writes that the ancestral legacy “but for its revival through European Modernism would have been helplessly lost as an active art influence” (Locke, , Negro Art: Past and Present [Washington, D.C.: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1936], 93Google Scholar). Locke made it clear that modernism owed a great debt to African art, which had “become the cornerstone of a new and more universal aesthetic, that has all but revolutionized the theory of art and considerably modified its practice” (Locke, , “A Note on African Art,” Opportunity 2 [05 1924]: 136Google Scholar).

20. See Reynolds and Wright, Against the Odds. Scholar James A. Porter, unlike Locke, faulted the Harmon Foundation for its heavy-handed concentration on racial feeling and concept (see Wright, “Harmon Foundation,” 20; and Porter, , Modern Negro Art [New York: Dryden, 1943], 107Google Scholar).

21. Not all patrons of black artists were pleased with Locke's advice that African-American artists incorporate stylistic elements of African art into their work. Mary Beattie Brady, an official and later director of the Harmon Foundation, believed Locke dangerously approached advocating a form of racial art and black nationalism, which would unacceptably move black artists away from the American artistic mainstream. However, she chose not to confront Locke about his theories.

22. Locke, Alain, The Negro in Art (Washington, D.C.: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1940), 10Google Scholar.

23. Powell, Richard J., Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century (London: Thames and Hudson, 1997), 4950Google Scholar.

24. Driskell, David, Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800–1950, exh. cat. (San Francisco: Art Museum Association of America, 1985), 57Google Scholar.

25. O'Connor, Francis V., Art for the Millions (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973), 1819Google Scholar.

26. Homberger, Eric, “The John Reed Club,” in Encyclopedia of the American Left, ed. Jo Buhle, Mari, Buhle, Paul, and Georgakas, Dan (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 649–50Google Scholar.

27. Tyler, Francine, “Artists Respond to the Great Depression and the Threat of Fascism: The New York Artists' Union and its Magazine Art Front (1934–37)” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1991), 48Google Scholar. See, for example, Harlem Artists' Guild: A Statement,” Art Front 2 (0708 1936): 45Google Scholar; Bennett, Gwendolyn, “The Harlem Artists Guild,” Art Front 3 (05 1937): 20Google Scholar; Porter, James A., “The Negro Artist and Racial Bias,” Art Front 3 (0607 1937): 89Google Scholar; and Claude McKay, “Negroes of New York: The Harlem Artists' Guild,” WPA Writers Project, Schomburg Center, New York.

28. Miller, James A., Harlem: The Vision of Morgan and Marvin Smith, exh. cat. (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1998)Google Scholar. Morgan Smith served as an assistant on the Harlem Hospital project.

29. Scott, William B. and Rutkoff, Peter M., New York Modern: The Arts and the City (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 256–59Google Scholar.

30. The other apartment was occupied soon thereafter by Henry “Mike” Ban-narn, art teacher and sculptor, who had migrated from Minneapolis with Gordon Parks and would later achieve fame in the field of photography and cinema (see Donaldson, “Generation, ‘306,’” 108, 109).

31. Charles Alston interviewed by Camille Billops, January 27, 1975, tape 1, side 1, Hatch-Billops Collection, New York City. Such well-known white artists like William Saroyan, John Barrymore, Benny Goodman, and Bing Crosby came by.

32. Bennett, Gwendolyn, Art Front 3 (05 1937): 20, and 2 (0708 1936): 45Google Scholar; and Bearden, and Henderson, , History of African-American Artists, 238, 500Google Scholar. The guild quickly grew to almost ninety members by 1937.

33. Carlton-Smith, Kimn, “A New Deal for Women: Women Artists and the Federal Art Project, 1935–1939” (Ph.D. diss., Rutgers University, 1990), 207Google Scholar; Donaldson, “Generation ‘306,’” 96; and Bearden, and Henderson, , History of African-American Artists, 238Google Scholar. For information on women artists and administrators in Harlem, see Carlton-Smith, “New Deal for Women,” 181–238.

34. Ann Stewart, Ruth, New York / Chicago: WPA and the Black Artist, exh. cat. (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 1978), 3Google Scholar.

35. See Baigell, Matthew and Williams, Julia, eds., Artists Against War and Fascism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986), 7884Google Scholar.

36. Donaldson, “Generation ‘306,’” 90–100.

37. We thank Dana Rush, Department of Art History, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, for sharing the writings of V. Y. Mudimbe on the constructed notion of Africa and Africa as an imaged/imagined construct, as well as her expertise in identifying Alston's quotations of African art work.

38. Locke, , Negro Art, 110Google Scholar.

39. The Fang sculpture is a reliquary guardian box. Bones and skulls from the deceased ancestor would be placed in a box, with a statue on top, for communal veneration and benefit. Alston depicts a 19th-century statue most likely from a New York collection.

40. Samella Lewis locates the debut of Alston's “unique figurative cubist style” within these federal murals (see her Art: African American [New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978], 110Google Scholar).

41. DuBois, W. E. Burghardt, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), ed. Gates, Henry Louis Jr and Oliver, Terri Hume (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994), 1011Google Scholar.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid. As well, the following are of great importance and interest in further elucidating DuBois's concept of double consciousness, contemporary analogues in psychology and philosophy, and as well, historical antecedents in Emerson: Reed, Adolph L. Jr, W. E. B. Dubois and American Political Thought: Fabianism and the Color Life (New York: Oxford University Press), ch. 7Google Scholar; and Bruce, Dickson D. Jr, “W. E. B. DuBois and the Idea of Double-Consciousness,” in DuBois, , Souls of Black Folk, 236–44Google Scholar.

44. Charles Henry Alston interview by Albert Murray, October 19, 1968, transcript in Reel 4223, Charles Alston Papers, AAA.

45. Lou Block Papers, Roll NDA18, AAA.

46. Charles Alston, CH Exhibit 155 EK, quoted by Berman, “Walls of Harlem,” 100 n. 57.

47. Porter, , Modern Negro Art, 106–7Google Scholar.

48. Huggins, Nathan Irvin, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), 167–68Google Scholar.

49. Lewis, , Art: African American, 112Google Scholar.

50. Patton, Sharon, African-American Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 144Google Scholar.

51. “Creative Negroes: Harlem Has Its Artists Working Under Difficult Conditions,” Literary Digest, no. 122 (08 1, 1936): 2223Google Scholar.

52. Scott, and Rutkoff, , New York Modern, 253Google Scholar.

53. Kiser, Clyde V., “Diminishing Family Income in Harlem: A Possible Cause of the Harlem Riot, Opportunity 13 (06 1935): 171–73Google Scholar.

54. Mayor's Commission on Conditions in Harlem, “The Negro in Harlem: A Report on Social and Economic Conditions Responsible for the Outbreak of March 19, 1935,” 22, 23, and 36, Fiorello LaGuardia Papers, Box 2550, Municipal Archives and Record Center, New York City; and Greene, “Harlem, the Depression Years,” 34.

55. See Amsterdam News, 05 26 and 11 3 and 17, 1934Google Scholar; New York Times, 11 1, 1934Google Scholar; New York Age, 11 17, 1934Google Scholar; Malcolm Jackson, “Sufi Abdul Hamid and the A. S. Beck's Injunction to Stop Picketing Harlem,” WPA Research Paper 1, page 1, Schomburg Center for Research in Black History and Culture, New York City.

56. New York Times, 12 10, 1928, and 10 15, 1934Google Scholar; and Rosen-waike, Ira, Population: History of New York City (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1972), 133, 140, 141Google Scholar.

57. For a contemporary history of Harlem Hospital, its racial policies, and labor disputes, see Lewinski, Edward Henry and Sturges, Gertrude E., Opportunities for the Medical Education of Negroes (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1936), 2324Google Scholar. As well, see Bailey, A. Peter, The Harlem Hospital Story: 100 Years of Struggle Against Illness, Racism, and Genocide (Richmond, Va.: Native Sun, 1991), 27Google Scholar; and Greene, “Harlem,” 38–42.

58. As rumors of graft and neglect of black patients mounted, in the summer of 1921 Mayor John F. Hylan was pressured by Walter White of the NAACP, Alderman George Harris, Ferdinand Q. Morton (civil service commissioner), and others to integrate Harlem Hospital. Very limited concessions were made, and black physicians remained excluded from the staff of visiting physicians and the governing board of the hospital.

59. Walter F. White to Mayor John F. Hylan, July 7, 1921, NAACP Papers, Administrative File, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; NACCP memorandum, “Efforts for Negroes in New York City Hospitals,” May 10, 1935, LaGuardia Papers, Box 2550, Municipal Archives and Records Centers; New York Age, 02 22, 03 22, and 05 23 and 31, 1930Google Scholar; Amsterdam News, 04 2, 1930Google Scholar; and editorial, “Harlem Hospital Situation,” New York Age, 04 12, 1930Google Scholar.

60. White, Walter, A Man Called White: The Autobiography of Walter White (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1948), 64Google Scholar. Although the Rosenwald proposal was eventually dropped, issues of employment and control of a predominantly black environment and management versus an integrated environment continued in the new form of the “Harvards” versus “Howards.” The former term was given to black graduates of white medical schools and the latter to black graduates of black medical schools. Wright, a Harvard graduate, clearly favored black graduates of white medical schools. Of the twenty-seven black physicians on the staff of the hospital in 1934, twenty-three were from white medical schools. This may have reflected the greater faith in white-controlled institutions characteristic of some middle-class integrationists, the reality of the superior financial base of white medical institutions, or both.

61. Lionel Francis, the International President of the nationalistic Universal Negro Improvement Association, charged at the mass meeting that Dr. Wright was prejudiced against West Indian physicians and called for an 80 percent black staff, a proportion equal to the percentage of black patients.

62. Greene, “Harlem,” 41; New York Times, 02 13, 1934, 11 8, 1935, and 01 5, 1936Google Scholar; and Daily Worker, 04 4, 1936Google Scholar.

63. Hine, Darlene Clark, ed., Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (Brooklyn: Carlson, 1993), 1: 731Google Scholar.

64. See Melosh, Barbara, Manhood and Womanhood in New Deal Public Art and Theater (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991)Google Scholar.

65. A similar deception occurred in the Female Medical Clinic at the time of an investigation when five additional doctors were added to the normal complement of only four doctors for an average of 180 patients per day.

66. Bailey, , Harlem Hospital Story, 4753Google Scholar; Mayor's Commission, “The Negro in Harlem,” 91; and Greene, “Harlem,” 348–49. Due to overcrowding at the hospital and overwork of the nurses, the tuberculosis rate among Harlem Hospital nurses was among the highest in the city. Black nurses were denied the practical experiences in communicable-disease nursing at Willard Parker that was standard for nurses from other hospitals. Nor did Harlem Hospital student nurses receive the full program in neurological nursing at Bellevue.

67. New York State Temporary Commission on the Urban Colored Population, Testimony of S. S. Goldwater, Commissioner of New York City Hospitals Department, Public Hearings, 6: 1190, 1195, 1201. Mayor LaGuardia came under increasing criticism from the black community for his failure to issue an executive order that would simply open all hospitals to black medical personnel. The Department of Hospitals Commissioner, Dr. S. S. Goldwater, was often disingenuous when testifying before investigatory commissions on the status of blacks in the city. Goldwater emphasized the increase of black physicians and nurses at Harlem Hospital while ignoring that this was partially the result of the process of exclusion from other city hospitals. The commissioner continued to avoid the explosive issue of minority promotion. Goldwater strongly opposed compelling hospital medical boards to accept black interns and displayed a rather insensitive, flippant attitude at public hearings concerning the persistence of racial discrimination in the hospitals system: “If you put it up to me to avoid race discrimination in the world, then I must say it is beyond me.”

68. Lou Block to Charles Alston, February 13, 1936, Lou Block Papers, Reel NDA18, AAA. Alfred Crimi, a white artist, painted a fresco in the Medical Board Room having white subject matter, which was approved (see Berman, “Walls of Harlem,” 122).

69. Letter from Artists' Union and Harlem Artists' Guild to Audrey McMahon, February 20, 1936, Lou Block Papers, Reel NDA18, AAA.

70. “Harlem Hospital Rejects Murals by Negro WPA Artists,” Daily Worker, 02 24, 1936Google Scholar.

71. Ibid.

72. That Harlem twenty-five years hence would no longer be a predominantly black area ignored the trends and reality of historic and contemporaneous settlement patterns within the city. Furthermore, Harlem Hospital officials were applying criteria that were not specified within WPA/FAP guidelines, namely, to predict future racial demographics.

73. Berman, “Walls of Harlem,” 123; and Lost Years, 100.

74. Charles Alston to Audrey McMahon, n.d., Lou Block Papers, Reel NDA18, AAA.

75. Museum, Anacostia, “Art Changes Things”: An Exhibition on Washington Artist Georgette Seabrooke Powell, 1995, Washington, D.C.Google Scholar; interview with Georgette Seabrooke Powell by Larry A. Greene, February 18, 1997.

76. Charles Alston interviewed by Harlan Phillips, September 28, 1965, 2, Lou Block Papers, Reel 4210, AAA Oral History Collection.

77. Gibson, Ann Eden, Abstract Expressionism: Other Politics (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997), 107–9Google Scholar.

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