Historical Markers
Laura Wheeler Waring Historical Marker
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Laura Wheeler Waring

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
756 N. 43rd St., Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

A woman wearing an emerald green dress sits in a chair.
Jessie Redmon Fauset, by Laura Wheeler Waring, 1945.
The Second World War was both a trying and exciting time for African Americans, for while they continued to experience the indignities and trials of second- class citizenship, their contributions to the war efforts were winning them important advances at home that would help lay the groundwork for victories of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1944, Mary Beattie Brady organized an exhibit of fifty "Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin." Brady was director of the Harmon Foundation, established in 1928 by real estate developer William Harmon to improve social conditions in the nation and especially to honor the achievements of African Americans. (Harmon's father had been a white officer with the Tenth Colored Cavalry in Oklahoma.)

The exhibit toured the United States for an unprecedented ten years, featured forty-two portraits by white artist Betsy Graves Rayneau, and eight by African American artist Laura Wheeler Waring, whose twelve portraits of black women painted in 1929 provided the inspiration for the exhibit. As Tuliza Fleming, the curator of the exhibit's revival in 1997, has noted: "Blacks were believed to be less capable, unintelligent, violent, sex-starved, immoral, and unpredictable," The exhibition "counteracted these myths through the calm, friendly, and dignified portrayal of their subjects." Today, most of the images are in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D. C.
Formal, full length, oil on canvas of Marian Anderson in red dress.
Marian Anderson, by Laura Wheeler Waring, 1944.

Artist Laura Wheeler Waring (1887-1948) had been attempting a similar task throughout her life. Her father, pastor of Hartford, Connecticut's first African- American church, and her mother, an amateur artist, encouraged her talents and sent her to the markerPennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where she studied with Thomas Anschutz and William Merritt Chase. After graduating in 1914, Waring studied in Paris, then returned to the United States in 1918 to become head of the Department of Art and Music at the African-American Cheyney Training School for Teachers (now Cheyney University) in Pennsylvania, a post she held for the rest of her life.

Despite her growing recognition - especially after her works were featured in the Harmon Foundation's 1928 exhibit, the first ever devoted solely to African-American artists - and several trips to Europe, Waring remained dedicated to teaching art to young black Americans. Although she learned about impressionism and modern art in France - she spent an additional two years there in 1924-25 - her own work portrays the lives of African Americans with vivid realism.

In France and on visits to New York, Waring met most of the leading black intellectuals, musicians, and artists of her day. Her friends included black Pennsylvania artist markerHenry Ossawa Tanner and markerMeta Warrick Fuller. She was also close to political activist markerW. E. B. Du Bois, author of the pioneering sociological study The Philadelphia Negro (published in 1899), whose portrait she did for the 1944 exhibition along with that of singer markerMarian Anderson, markerJessie Redmon Fauset, and other prominent African Americans. Waring frequently illustrated the Crisis, the monthly magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which DuBois edited. She too was a strong civil rights activist and member of the Urban League and NAACP, but full-time teaching duties in Pennsylvania prevented her from being more than a sometime visitor to the heady intellectual climate of New York's Harlem Renaissance.

Waring tempered her social agenda in her most important works of art, believing that images of non-threatening African Americans who had made major contributions to American society would win more friends for the cause of civil rights than throwing their racism back in their face. In fact, her 1944 paintings are more conservative in palette and realistic than the rugged, somewhat impressionistic portrayals of unknown black women she executed sixteen years earlier. Waring is best remembered for her educational work and the portraits which displayed the achievements and dignity of her people. Although active in the struggle for civil rights, Waring was no militant. Like Marian Anderson, she used her art to speak for her.
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