By 1934 the economic destruction wreaked by the Great Depression had put between eleven and fifteen million people out of work. Ten thousand of these jobless citizens were artists. A year earlier, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the newly elected president, had signed into legislation the Federal Emergency Relief Act. Based on a system of work relief, this project's primary objective was simply to get people back to work, artists included. The government had no particular commitment to the arts, but it realized that artists "have to eat like other people."2 New Deal employment projects, however, didn't just put food on the artist's table. Through an innovative set of programs, the government set the scene for a richly productive era in American art. In 1935 Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (later the Work Projects Administration) or WPA. Its purpose was to create all kinds of jobs at every level of the skill ladder, preserving professional and technical skills while helping individuals maintain their self-respect. Artists in the program were paid $15 to $90 a month for a wide variety of assignments. Work-relief programs functioned under this basic design from 1935 to 1939 when the WPA was renamed the Work Projects Administration and placed under the supervision of the Federal Art Project (FAP). The WPA/FAP lasted until 1943, when productivity and employment soared as the country marshaled its resources to fight World War II.
From 1935 to 1943 the WPA/FAP had four major areas of activity: the creation of art, art education, art as applied to community service, and technical and archaeological research. The most prolific divisions were those responsible for easel painting, murals, sculpture, and fine prints.
"Black Printmakers and the WPA" specifically addresses the area of fine prints and the community art centers where they were made. There, art education and community service combined to give significant numbers of Black artists the rare opportunity to be supported in their chosen line of work, to gain new avenues for expression, and to have contact with white artists, which under other circumstances would not have occurred.
The Black printmaker has only a few recorded historical antecedents. While there is documentation showing that Black printmakers were active in this country as early as 1724, the anonymity of the slave makes it almost impossible to trace individual achievements. We know that the only known portrait of the slave poet Phyllis Wheatley was engraved by Scipio Moorehead, a Boston slave, in 1773.3 Half a century later, three slaves, a father and his two sons, are known to have been active in the Boston printing shop of one Thomas Fleet, who had come to Massachusetts from England in 1821 to escape religious persecution.4 Only the two sons are identified by name—Caesar and Pompey—but all three men were said to have been "bred to press." These artisan slaves were trained in Fleet's shop to set type and to do woodblock engraving. According to Fleet, the father was an exceptional artist "who cut on wooden blocks, all the pictures which decorated the ballads and small books of his master."5
Patrick Reason (1817-c.1850), known to have been an engraver, draftsman, and lithographer, apprenticed as a youth to an engraver in New York. And Grafton Tyler Brown (1841-1918) owned and operated his own lithography firm in Oakland, California.
During the first three decades of the twentieth century, Blacks who followed this profession found outlets for their work in magazines, newspapers, journals, and other popular publications. Access for Black artists was primarily limited to the pages of publications that focused on issues of race relations and their sociopolitical ramifications. Magazines such as...