Historical Markers
Meta V.W. Fuller Historical Marker
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Meta V.W. Fuller

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
254 S. 12th St., Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

When the United States celebrated the three hundredth anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Virginia in 1907, the most beautiful and thought-provoking work of art at the exposition could be found at the Negro Building. Executed by thirty-year-old Philadelphian sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick, it consisted of fourteen dioramas or "Negro Tableaux" illustrating the history of African Americans. Beginning with the landing of the first slaves at Jamestown, it culminated in "Commencement Day," a depiction of a graduation ceremony at Washington, D.C.'s Howard University at which Frederick Douglass, the most prominent nineteenth-century African American, had been the speaker.

Agreeing with her friend W. E. B. DuBois that blacks were capable of the highest achievements and deserving of the best education available to white Americans, Warrick presented her vision of black equality and empowerment to the thousands of visitors who toured the exhibition. Unfortunately, like nearly everything else at such fairs, Warrick's dioramas were destroyed when the exhibition closed, although pictures of them may be found in Giles B. Jackson and D. Webster Davis, The Industrial History of the Negro Race in the United States, published in 1908.
A striking black woman garbed like an ancient Egyptian intended to call attention to the African influence on western civilization
The Awakening of Ethiopia , by Meta Warrick Fuller, c. 1921.

Warrick (known generally by her married name Fuller) was an outstanding example of what an African-American woman could accomplish with a supportive upbringing. Her parents, wealthy hair stylists who owned a flourishing Philadelphia emporium, always encouraged her artistic abilities, taking her to museums and plays when she was a young girl. When she was seventeen, she entered the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (the present University of the Arts); three years later, her sculptures "Crucifixion of Christ in Anguish" and "The Procession of Arts and Crafts" won prizes as the best works produced by the school. She studied for four years in Paris and met Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Auguste Rodin, who encouraged and praised her work. Her guardian and friend was markerHenry Ossawa Tanner, another Pennsylvania African-American artist who lived in Europe where the art world and high society were less racist than in the United States. There, too, she first met DuBois but initially rejected his suggestion that she concentrate on African-American themes.

Returning to Philadelphia in 1903, Fuller failed to find the sales and commissions commensurate with her distinguished record. Beginning with the Jamestown Exposition, Fuller became the first African-American sculptor, and woman sculptor, to specialize in African-American and folk themes. Among her most famous works are "Water Boy," in which a young black boy struggles with a heavy jug; "Ethiopia Awakening," a striking black woman garbed like an ancient Egyptian that calls attention to the African influence on western civilization; and "Mary Turner: A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence," Fuller's sculpture of the victim of a lynching who clutches her unborn child, who was also murdered, to her breast.

Fuller explained "Emancipation Group," a sculpture of a African-American man and woman standing under a tree that she executed in 1913 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, as follows: "I represented the race by a male and a female figure standing under a tree the branches of which are the fingers of Fate grasping at them to draw them back into the fateful clutches of hatred. [There is also] Humanity weeping over her suddenly freed children who, beneath the gnarled fingers of Fate, step forth into the world unafraid." "The Talking Skull," was inspired by a folk tale in which a skull warned a young man that "Tongue brought me here and if you are not careful, Tongue will bring you here." Excited by his discovery, the youth told his village about the discovery, only to be beheaded just before the skull reiterated its warning.
A sculpture of a young man kneeling before a skull.
Talking Skull, by Meta Fuller.

In 1909, Warrick married Dr. Solomon Fuller and settled in Framingham, Massachusetts. There, she joined in the causes of women's suffrage, world peace, and civil rights. Although the community was supportive and relatively free of racism - she added to her accomplishments writing, staging, and set and costuming plays for church, community, and African-American theater in Boston and its environs - neither fate nor her husband were equally kind.

The loss of most of her art work when a Philadelphia warehouse burned in 1910 traumatized her for several years. Her husband's desire for her to be a mother and hostess to the high social set with which he moved prompted her to build and work in a secret studio, which only impressed him because she was able to handle the real estate transaction and manage the property. She was nevertheless a devoted nurse to him during the long illness that preceded his death in 1953, and she continued to work at her sculpture and designs until she died in 1968. Happily, much of her public commissions may still be seen in Framingham.

Unlike the major Pennsylvania African-American artists of the two previous generations, markerRobert Bustill Bowser, who has never received the recognition he deserved, and the celebrated Henry Ossawa Tanner, who lived in France, Meta Fuller came to maturity in the world that saw the birth of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the beginnings of white appreciation of African-American achievements. But she still suffered from prejudice and more than her share of bad luck that saw many of her works destroyed. marker Fuller's powerful works, which anticipated the Harlem Renaissance's celebration of African-American and African culture and strength, are still relatively unknown.
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