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Celebrating Women of the Harlem Renaissance

March 25, 2024

Our current exhibition Silhouettes: Image and Word in the Harlem Renaissance (November 17, 2023–June 23, 2024) highlights many female artists and writers who played key roles in shaping the movement. Yet despite their profound contributions, many of them remain overlooked today.

In recognition of Women's History Month, interpretation intern Karamot Adeola (FIU Class of 2025) delved into the lives of five remarkable figures—leaders in fields ranging from the performing, visual, and literary arts to business—who are either the authors or subjects of objects featured in the show. Read on for short biographies outlining the lives, careers, and legacies of Marian Anderson, Syvilla Fort, Zora Neale Hurston, Laura Wheeler Waring, and Sara Spencer Washington, and visit Silhouettes to spot historical works speaking to their cultural impact.

Interested in learning more? Mark your calendars for a talk by Dr. Jeffreen M. Hayes on June 7, 2024: There Is No Harlem Renaissance without Black Women.

– The Wolfsonian

Painting, Marian Anderson, c. 1943. Aaron Douglas, artist. New York City. Family of Aaron Douglas: Wilson A. and Deborah F. Copeland, Detroit; Lauren F. C. N'Namdi, Miami | Courtesy of N'Namdi Contemporary Fine Art. © 2024 Heirs of Aaron Douglas / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

Marian Anderson

Marian Anderson (1897–1993) was a singer, musician, and activist. Her career began in her youth as she traveled from church to church across Philadelphia to perform. Once she graduated high school, she applied to a local music school but was denied due to her race. This moment foreshadowed one of the biggest of Anderson's career, 24 years later—her 1939 Lincoln Memorial performance, a watershed event in the fight for racial equality.

After making a name for herself with tours across the U.S., Europe, and Latin America, Anderson planned to perform at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., but she was not permitted to perform due to the venue's "whites only" rule. Anderson's rejection outraged the public and musicians across color lines. When protests reached the White House, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt took immediate action, not only resigning from the DAR, but also advocating for Anderson to perform at the Lincoln Memorial. Her iconic performance was viewed by over 75,000 people and heard by millions of radio listeners.

Painting, Untitled [Nude Study of Syvilla Fort], c. 1936. Ebba Rapp, artist. Seattle, Washington. The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 2021.4.35.

Syvilla Fort

Syvilla Fort (1917–1975), called a "pioneer in Black Dance" by The New York Times, was a dancer and choreographer who inspired and influenced generations. Fort's love for ballet started at a young age, when she began teaching the principles of dance to herself and other children after being denied admission to ballet schools due to her race. Later, she became the first Black student to attend the Cornish School (now the Cornish College of the Arts).

Fort told stories through movement. Her professional dancing career began in Los Angeles but took her to other creative hubs like Chicago and New York. After an injury in 1945, she pivoted to teaching ballet, modern dance, and tap full-time and opened a studio that promoted her signature Afro-modern technique. The studio's success even drew in young actors from the "Golden Age of Hollywood," including Marlon Brando, Eartha Kitt, and James Dean.

Fort might also be the muse behind one of the country's most recognizable landmarks: Seattle's Space Needle. Architect Victor Steinbrueck based the structure's design on artist David Lemon's sculpture The Feminine One, which depicts a body, presumably a dancer, in motion. At the time of Lemon's creation, Seattle native Syvilla Fort was a prominent dancer in the area.

Drawing, Miss Zora Neale Hurston, c. 1925. Winold Reiss, artist. New York City. Graphite, pastel, and Conté crayon on Whatman board. Courtesy of Fisk University Galleries, Nashville, Tennessee.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) was an anthropologist and literary giant, perhaps best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. In both her research and writing, Hurston's work centered Black stories, experiences, and culture, both in the American South and in the African diaspora.

As a young adult, Hurston attended Howard University to pursue an associate's degree. Her legacy at the institution is still felt to this day as she was the co-founder of The Hilltop, the nation's oldest still-running Black collegiate newspaper. Though Hurston was posthumously celebrated for her contributions to literature, during her life she was often underpaid and remained in poverty for much of her career and up until her death in 1960.

Fun fact: During Zora Neale Hurston's time in New York City, she met and befriended Langston Hughes, a fellow author and social activist. In 1930, Hurston and Hughes wound up professionally collaborating on a comedic play, Mule Bone, but the project stalled and was never completed due to speculation of a feud between its two co-creators.

Magazine cover
Magazine, The Crisis, April 1927. Laura Wheeler Waring, cover illustrator. Crisis Publishing Company, Inc. New York City, publisher. The Wolfsonian–FIU, Gift of Historical Design, XC2019.02.1.39.

Laura Wheeler Waring

Laura Wheeler Waring (1887–1948) was a painter, illustrator, and educator. Waring began her career producing landscapes and still lifes but is well known for her portraiture of influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founder W. E. B. Du Bois and singer Marian Anderson. In 1928, she participated in a groundbreaking exhibition of works by Black artists organized by the Harmon Foundation—an opportunity that helped put Waring on the map.

In addition to her portraiture, Waring was an accomplished illustrator commissioned to create work for Harlem Renaissance writers such as poet Jessie Redmon Fauset and author James Weldon Johnson. In her illustrations, she represented Black figures in various ways that were unusual at the time: as dignified figures overcoming hardship, or as elegant silhouettes. Some of these images were reproduced on covers of the NAACP's official publication, The Crisis—which has been in print for over 100 years!

Photograph, Sara Spencer Washington, 1926. James Van Der Zee, photographer. New York City. Collection of Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida, Purchase, R. H. Norton Trust. © James Van Der Zee Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sara Spencer Washington

Sara Spencer Washington (1889–1953), dubbed Madame Washington, was a formative figure for today's Black hair and beauty industry. After observing a need for Black cosmetics in the market, the Atlantic City businesswoman, philanthropist, and activist founded Apex News & Hair Company in 1919, kicking off a beauty empire that grew to include a publishing house, a drug company, laboratories, and beauty colleges. Following in the footsteps of Madam C. J. Walker, America's first female self-made millionaire, Washington broke barriers to become one of the richest Black women of her day.

Washington's success as an entrepreneur led her to be named "Most Distinguished Businesswoman" at the New York World's Fair in 1939. Throughout her career, she never lost her dedication to assisting others and to her community—beyond her cosmetics company, Washington donated coal to those in need during the Great Depression and she founded Apex Rest (a nursing home) as well as Apex Golf Club (one of the first Black-owned golf courses in the country, providing African American golfers a place to play and socialize).