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Laura Waring (r) Dr.-Nathan Mossell-and-Sadie Alexander
On this date, we mark the birth of Laura Wheeler Waring in 1887. She was a Black artist.
Born in Hartford, CT., in 1887, Laura Wheeler Waring was the daughter of college-educated Rev. Robert Wheeler, who had for two years been pastor of the Talcott Street Congregational Church, home of Connecticut’s first Black congregation. Originally called the African Religious Society, the members built their church in 1826 and housed fugitive slaves before the end of the American Civil War. The church began operating a public school in 1829, the only place in the city where Black children could learn to read and write. They also learned their African history at a time when most Black children were not taught to read at all.
Flooded in that illustrious past, young Waring flourished from exposure to her people’s culture and history. She graduated from Hartford High School in 1906 and spent the next six years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, graduating in 1914 and getting a scholarship to study in Europe. In 1924, she studied Expressionism and the Romantics at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere, a popular Paris workshop/studio.
In 1928, she was among the artists displayed in the country’s first all-Black art exhibit held by the Harmon Foundation, which 16 years later selected Waring to paint portraits of outstanding Americans. She is best remembered for these portraits, many of them of notable Black people such as W.E.B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson, as well as the lesser-known Anne Washington Derry portrait and one called “Frankie,” also known as “Portrait of a Child.” In a time when African American women were a silent force in American arts, Laura Wheeler Waring quietly set standards for dignity in portraiture. In an era when few Black women attended school, Waring finished high school and college.
In an era when the few women who escaped to Europe often stayed there, Waring returned to America to start an art department in a traditionally Black college. She made several more trips to study in Europe. Still, her main focus on returning home in the late 1920s was to make art education available to Black students at the historically Black Cheyney State Teachers College in Pennsylvania, now Cheyney University. There, she organized and directed both music and art departments until she died in 1948.
The St. James Guide to Black Artists
Edited by Thomas Riggs
Copyright 1997, St. James Press, Detroit, MI