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5 Stories of Black History In The Fine and Industrial Arts

By Cathy Niland | 2.3.2021

This Black History Month, we collected five stories of inspiring black artists and artisans of the fine and industrial arts. We hope these stories will be a jumping off point for you to dive into further research and inspiration during this month, and after. 

Despite the wide and varied contributions by Black Americans in these fields, US history and popular culture can be negligent in celebrating their impact or value. Please join us in elevating these stories and those of all Black artists, makers, and creators in America. The Crucible is an industrial arts school dedicated to maintaining art access for all and cultivating a safe, welcoming, respectful environment where we honor people, varied life experiences, and craftsmanship. We hope these few examples encourage you to start a creative journey all your own! 

Have a story we have to share? Email us at communications@thecrucible.org.

black history month stories

Works by 19th Century furniture maker Thomas Day on display at the North Carolina Museum of History.

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5 Examples of Black History In The Fine and Industrial Arts

black history month stories
black history month stories

1. The Jackson Blacksmith Shop forged a path in Virginia

Following the Civil War, Henry Jackson, a formerly enslaved individual, began a 10-year-long apprenticeship working under a blacksmith, building trade skills and saving to purchase his own land. By 1880, Jackson had purchased 35 acres of land and built the first blacksmith shop in Goochland County, Virginia.

Three generations of the Jackson family practiced blacksmithing on the property up until the 1970s. Of the three shops built on or near the property, only one is still standing today. Before his death in 1998, third-generation blacksmith George W. Jackson Jr., saw the smithy registered as a National Historic Landmark and today, visitors to the shop can see demonstrations in blacksmithing and historic exhibitions on the craft and the Jackson family.

Where can you learn more?

black history month stories

2. The legacy of ceramic face jugs in the American South

American face jugs or face vessels originated in the Edgefield District of South Carolina in the mid-1800s. They were created by enslaved African and African American potters who had been illegally smuggled to the United States after the practice was abolished. Though the definitive purpose of the jugs is unknown, scholars speculate that they were used in religious and spiritual ceremonies, including in funeral practices. Scholars connect these face jugs to Nkisi, ritual objects that originated in the Congo Basin in Central Africa that were believed to be inhabited by spirits and defend the grave site.

“I think it’s important to learn about face jugs because it’s a story of people who were brought here against their will,” says artist Jim McDowell. Jim McDowell is a working ceramist who pays tribute to the history of face jugs in his own work. He and fellow North Carolina artist Ben Watford have both been making face jugs for years, with Watford speculating he has made nearly 5,000 face jugs throughout his career. Sharing their own art and the history of the vessels with students and community members is an important practice for both.“My jugs represent the scarification, the rite of passage and the struggle of my ancestors,” McDowell told the North Carolina Museum of History. “I tell those stories through my jugs.”

Where can you learn more?

black history month stories
black history month stories
black history month stories

3. Debora Moore, a barrier-breaking glass blower

Historically, professional glass blowing has been a largely white, male-dominated art form. But glass artist Debora Moore has been breaking barriers for women of color in the field for decades. Her work explores the delicacy and intricacies of nature, which she exhibits using an impressive set of diverse glass textures and techniques.

In 2005, Moore made history becoming the first-ever black female artist in residence at Abate Zanetti, an internationally renowned glass blowing center in Murano, Italy. Her work is displayed in a number of collections, including those at the esteemed Corning Museum of Glass and the Crocker Art Museum. She has also been teaching glass blowing since 1992. 

black history month stories
black history month stories

While speaking about her 2015 Northwest African American Museum exhibition “Glass Orchidarium,” she said, “I wanted to share with the African-American community, and I wanted women and young men to know that anything is possible. [Glass] is a very hard medium to deal with, and it’s a very expensive medium, but if you keep working and keep working very hard your dreams can come true.”

Where can you learn more?

black history month stories

4. The Black Rosies’ contributions to war-time industry

During WWII, when men went to fight overseas, women took over two million vacant jobs in nearly every sector. Rosie the Riveter is a famous figure from that time period, but less well known are the “Black Rosies,” a title that belongs to the 600,000 Black women who left domestic and agricultural jobs to become industrial laborers. In these positions, Black Rosies helped build airplanes, tanks, and ships, using skills in welding and machine work.

In addition to helping fight the war abroad, Black Rosies were working to confront inequality at home. Their roles in the new workforce were often challenged by intense racism and sexism, and harassment from male bosses was commonplace. While female workers were frequently paid less than their male counterparts, Black women were paid an even lower wage compared to their white, female coworkers. Still, these industrial employment opportunities gave many women their first chance to buy homes and build generational wealth for their families. Historians have more recently begun to acknowledge the incredible contributions of the Black Rosies.

“The contribution [of Black women] is one which this nation would be unwise to forget or evaluate falsely,” said Kathryn Blood in her 1945 post-war report on the Black Rosies.

Where can you learn more?

black history month stories
black history month stories

5. Black furniture makers fight racism, oppression, and slavery

In the pre-Civil War 19th century south, a number of Black Americans made a name for themselves as skilled furniture makers. Former enslaved individual Henry Boyd faced unrelenting racism in his attempts to become a professional carpenter. Still he managed to break through and built enough business to buy freedom for his brother and sister. Boyd created a prominent furniture manufacturing business in Cincinnati where he was known to assist those traveling the Underground Railroad.

Boyd’s contemporaries include Thomas Day, Pierre Charles Dutreil Barjon, and William Kunze. At one time, Day was the largest furniture maker in North Carolina, while Barjon built a manufacturing and importing business in New Orleans. Kunze, a formerly enslaved individual, created chairs by hand.

Modern-day woodworker Derrick Beard has made it his mission to highlight these 19th-century craftsmen and their unique bodies of work. Over the past few decades, Beard has dedicated much of his time to preserving and finding more 19th century African American furniture. His efforts have produced exhibitions and inclusion of the aforementioned craftsmen’s pieces in multiple museum collections. Beard has also dedicated much of his own work to reproducing these pre-Civil War relics. His hope is that by highlighting craftsmen like Boyd, Day, Barjon, and Kunze, more 19th-century furniture will be discovered.

Where can you learn more?

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