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Aaron Douglas

Aaron Douglas, circa 1930

African American artist and educator.  Born:  May 26, 1899, Topeka.  Married: Alta Mae Sawyer, of Topeka, 1926 (died 1958).  Died:  February 2, 1979, Nashville, Tennessee

Aaron Douglas was the most prominent artist-illustrator of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement of the 1920s during which African Americans developed a unique artistic style.  He has been dubbed "father of African-American art." 

Born in 1899 in Topeka, Kansas, Douglas gained an appreciation for life through various jobs early in his life. He first worked for Skinner's Nursery in Topeka, then at the Union Pacific material yard. After graduation from Topeka High School in 1917, he worked briefly in Detroit in the Cadillac plant.  As a college student, Douglas worked as a waiter. He received a bachelor's of fine arts degree in 1922 from the University of Nebraska; he attended the University of Kansas the following year. Douglas then taught art at Lincoln High School in Kansas City, Missouri, for two years.

Intending to pursue an art career ultimately in Paris, he moved to Harlem in June 1925. He soon won a two year scholarship to study with German illustrator Winold Reiss, who encouraged Douglas to look to his African ancestry for artistic inspiration. He began producing illustrations for NAACP's The Crisis and Opportunity. He later provided illustrations for Harper's and Vanity Fair, as well as several significant books of the day, including James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombone (1927), a 1927 reprint of Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, and Langston Hughes's Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927).

He also created a number of murals in New York City, Chicago, Nashville, Tenn., and Greensboro, N.C.  One mural series, Aspects of Negro Life, was completed in 1934 for the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. The titles of the four murals are: The Negro In An African Setting, An Idyll of the Deep South, From Slavery Through Reconstruction, and Song of the Towers.  He became the first president of the Harlem Artists Guild and challenged the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s to recognize African American artists.

He made it to Paris in 1931 and spent a year there studying classical art before returning to New York City. Douglas was studying at Columbia University Teacher's College in New York in 1939 when Charles S. Johnson, the first African American president of Fisk University, invited him to develop Fisk's art department. Johnson had been one of Douglas's mentors from his early days in Harlem. Douglas joined the Fisk faculty while still attending Columbia, earning a master's degree from there in 1944. He developed the art program at Fisk, becoming the head of the department. His career ended as it had begun--teaching young people. He retired in 1966.

Douglas died February 2, 1979 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Entry: Douglas, Aaron

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: June 2003

Date Modified: February 2022

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.