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Women of the Harlem Renaissance

By Tammi Lawson

In the decade from 1910 to 1920, New York’s Black population rose by 66 percent. African Americans were arriving by the thousands to escape terrorism and persecution in the Jim Crow South. Harlem beckoned the new migrants with an abundant supply of apartments left empty by over-development. Black people wanted jobs, education, and the opportunity to fully realize their citizenship. Harlem was the headquarters of newly formed civil rights organizations dedicated to economic empowerment, equality, and social justice; they assisted new residents with job placement and housing. Harlem also became a Black cultural mecca where creative activity flourished and young Black people were inspired to pursue their dreams of becoming writers, musicians, and performing and visual artists. 


The confluence of Black intellectuals, ingenuity, and opportunity made Harlem the epicenter of political activism and creativity, ushering in an unprecedented Black cultural explosion known as the Harlem Renaissance. It lasted from approximately the end of World War I through the mid 1930s. 

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Augusta Savage working on Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp). Photo: Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library

Though many are familiar with the men whose works are now synonymous with this era, fewer know the women whose works were just as revolutionary. 


Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Augusta Savage, and Selma Burke were formally educated artists whose aesthetic was shaped by the Afrocentrist ethos of the Harlem Renaissance and who exhibited their works in New York during that time. The careers and reach of these women contributed to the shaping of a long Black arts movement before and beyond the formal period known as the Harlem Renaissance.


The sculptor Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller began her career in Philadelphia at the turn of the twentieth century. Although Fuller’s early career predates the Harlem Renaissance, her artistic influence is foundational to many artists identified with that time. She was born in Philadelphia in 1877, and unlike many African Americans of the nineteenth century, Fuller was raised in a successful middle-class family of entrepreneurs who nurtured and encouraged her artistic talents. She studied dance, attended art classes, and frequently visited the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She was one of the few African Americans selected to attend the J. Liberty Tadd Art School in a program for gifted and talented students.


While still a teenager, Fuller exhibited at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. As a result of an honorable mention at the Exposition, she was awarded a scholarship to study at what is now the Philadelphia College of Art. For her senior project she created a thirty-seven-foot bas-relief, Procession of the Arts and Crafts.

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Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, Ethiopia, Sculpture, Painted Plaster, c. 1921.  Photo: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, 220

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Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, In Memory of Mary Turner: As a Silent Protest Against Mob Violence, Sculpture, Painted Plaster, 1919.  Photo: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket, 220

For her senior project she created a thirty-seven-foot bas-relief, Procession of the Arts and Crafts. In 1899 she traveled to Paris to study at the Académie Colarossi and the École des Beaux-Arts. Her career flourished under the influence of the sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder and leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With a readership of 100,000, the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, articulated the organization’s ethos to a wide range of subscribers and exposed them to the work of artists and writers. Fuller first met Du Bois in Paris in 1900 when he was organizing the exhibition on Black American culture at the American Pavilion of the Paris Exposition. To help promote her career, he included her in the exhibition. He believed all art was propaganda that could be used to uplift the Black race, making it the role of the artist to create positive imagery that would inspire and lead to social uplift. World’s fairs allowed the Black community to set the record straight and let global audiences interested in the fair know of their contributions. 

In Paris, Fuller met the sculptor Auguste Rodin, who also became a mentor. Her work became more introspective and emotive, and her style became associated with the Symbolist movement. 

The literary work of Edgar Allan Poe and Sigmund Freud also influenced her use of imagination and ability to create a feeling of unease. She designed works that led the French press to call her “the delicate sculptor of horrors.”

Upon her return from Paris, she once again enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy to study ceramics with the portraitist Charles Gadfly. For the 1907 Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition, Du Bois chose Fuller to create a sculpture to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, making her the first African American woman to receive a federal commission. Unlike Thomas Ball’s Emancipation Memorial sculpture that centers on Abraham Lincoln, with an enslaved person kneeling at his feet, Fuller’s Emancipation Proclamation shows three figures emerging: one is downtrodden, another stands tall and proud, and the last is depicted taking a step forward. 


In addition to Du Bois’s influence, Fuller’s politically active family and Dr. Alain Locke, Rhodes Scholar and Harvard-educated philosopher, informed her work. Locke called on African American artists to look to Africa to create positive imagery, believing that exposure to African art would encourage them to reclaim their cultural heritage. He contended that this would create a new style with the same impact Modernism had on European avant-garde artists, and he understood that the visual arts were a potent vehicle to counter derogatory stereotypes of Black people. With these influences, Fuller’s art became increasingly more culturally representative and political. In 1919 she sculpted an homage to Mary Turner titled Mary Turner (A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence). The previous year, a distraught and pregnant Turner had tried to stop the lynching of her husband. The white mob hung her by her feet, cut her baby from her womb, and stomped on it. These vicious deaths galvanized the African American community nationwide and set off a series of silent protests led in New York City by Marcus Garvey and the organization that he founded, the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). Through the use of closed form, a bowed head, and a face obscured by shadow, Fuller rendered the figure of Turner fittingly mute—a metaphor for the silent UNIA march, and for the silencing of her people by means of mass murder and brutality.

Her most recognizable work, Ethiopia Awakening (The Awakening of Ethiopia), has been on display at various times at the 135th Street branch library in Harlem, (now Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.) The life-size bronze depicts a female mummy with her wrappings unwinding, as if coming out of bondage, the face of Ethiopia tilted slightly upward, symbolizing that African Americans have awoken from their slumber and are ready to move forward. 


In the 1920s Fuller continued to be a cultural force, participating as both a juror and an exhibitor in the Harmon Foundation’s periodic juried exhibitions, from 1927 through 1935, at the 135th Street branch library. Founded in 1922 by the philanthropist William E. Harmon, the foundation fostered appreciation and created awareness of African American artists and their work. The Harmon Foundation’s exhibitions traveled the United States, giving national exposure to African American artists who otherwise would not have had a venue to exhibit. The artists won cash prizes and medals in such categories as painting, sculpture, and drawing. Today, Fuller’s sculptures are recognized as possessing deliberate Afrocentric and political qualities that embody the Harlem Renaissance philosophy of the New Negro: the concept that one would stand up, be outspoken, demand equality, and combat negative stereotypes of Black people.

One of the most influential and important artists of the Harlem Renaissance was the sculptor, arts administrator, and cultural activist Augusta Savage. She was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida, in 1892, the seventh of fourteen children. An artistic child, she began making sculpture from natural materials around her, such as abundant red clay. Unlike Fuller, Augusta Savage was discouraged and severely disciplined for making “graven images” that her evangelical father considered sinful.

Perhaps to get away from her parents, as a teenager she married and started a family. The marriage was cut short by her husband’s sudden death, which forced Augusta to move back home. In high school her talent was rewarded when she was offered a salary to teach clay modeling. After remarrying, she began studies at Tallahassee State Normal School (now Florida A&M University).


In 1919 Savage’s sculptures were exhibited at the West Palm Beach County Fair, where she won a blue ribbon. Impressed by her talent, the fair’s superintendent, George Graham Currie, gave her a letter of introduction to his friend, the noted frontier sculptor Solon Borglum, and encouraged her to move to New York City to pursue her dream of studying art. Divorced, she arrived in New York in 1921 with the letter and less than five dollars. Since the artist was talented but broke, Borglum suggested she enroll in Cooper Union, the merit-based institution, where her talent propelled her through the undergraduate program in only three years. 


Degree in hand and living in Harlem, Savage was surrounded by writers and poets, among them Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Claude McKay. For artists, New York was a desirable place where their work could easily be created and seen. But it was in Harlem, a city within a city, that African American artists could congregate as a community, a circle of creatives working toward affirming themselves as a viable group of artists and scholars.  Savage began to receive commissions to create busts of prominent African American figures, including Du Bois, Garvey, and the diplomat and writer James Weldon Johnson. 


Selma Burke, posing with a bronze plaque of the late U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which she completed shortly after his death on April 12, 1945. Photo: National Museum of the U.S.

In 1923 Savage earned a scholarship to study in France at Fontainebleau, but the award was rescinded once the selection committee learned she was Black. Crushed but determined, Savage embarked on an aggressive letter-writing campaign to appeal the committee’s decision. Although she encountered a multitude of setbacks, she continued to exhibit with the Harmon Foundation in New York, in Baltimore, and in Philadelphia at the Sesquicentennial celebration. In keeping with New Negro philosophy encouraged by Alain Locke, Savage created sculptures of neighborhood residents and family members celebrating African American physiognomy, while simultaneously dismantling negative stereotypes of Black people. One of her most notable sculptures was Gamin, a bust of her nephew as a street urchin, sculpted with full lips, a mischievous smile, and a tilted cap. The work won a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship (one of the most important sources of funding for Black visual artists in the 1930s and 40s), and a Carnegie grant, enabling her to study in Paris with Félix Beauneteaux at the Grande Chaumière and with French sculptor Charles Despiau. In Paris she hit her stride, and successfully exhibited A Woman of Martinique, an untitled nude at the Salon d’Automne, and African Figure at the Société des Artistes Français.


Upon her triumphant return to Harlem, Savage established and managed several art schools to share what she had learned in Paris, fulfilling a need for art classes in the community. Students included Jacob Lawrence, Norman Lewis, and Morgan and Marvin Smith. She exhibited Gamin, Laughing Boy, and Woman of Martinique at the Spring Salon, Anderson Gallery, and the Tenth Annual exhibition of the Salons of America, and Realization at the Architectural League. She co-managed the Uptown Art Laboratory and opened her own art school, the Studio of Arts and Crafts. 


Savage collaborated with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Harmon Foundation to open the Harlem Art Workshop in the 135th Street branch library. Her popular classes outgrew that space and moved to a townhouse at 306 West 141st Street, known simply as “306.” It operated like a think tank where noted African American writers and artists gathered to discuss issues and concerns affecting Black communities. Contributing to these robust discussions were the writers Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Countee Cullen. In 1934, she was the first African American elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors (now the National Association of Women Artists). Recognizing the success of her students and the management of her art schools, the WPA’s Federal Art Project (FAP) funded her move to a larger space, allowing her to open and become the Director of the Harlem Community Art Center. The Center enrolled 1,500 students and became the model for WPA art programs nationwide. Savage taught and trained the next generation of leading African American artists, often hiring her former students as teachers. 


In 1935 Savage co-founded the Harlem Artists Guild with the artists Charles Alston and Norman Lewis. The Guild addressed the concerns of Black artists and fought for jobs and assignments in the FAP, which the Artists’ Union—a New York City organization that influenced job assignments in the FAP—had not been extending to Black artists. 


In 1939 Savage opened the first Black-owned and operated commercial art gallery in the United States, the Salon of Contemporary Negro Art, representing established artists including Richmond Barthe, Meta Fuller, Selma Burke, and Beauford Delaney. Her gallery survived for only a season, but she fulfilled yet another dream and contributed to her community. 


Augusta Savage, Gamin, Sculpture, Painted Plaster, c. 1929. Photo: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Benjamin and Olya Margolin

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Selma Burke, untitled portrait head. Photo: Peter A. Juley & Son, Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum

In 1937 she was commissioned to create a sculpture for the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens, New York—the crowning achievement of her career. She created her most notable work, Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp.) The theme was taken from a poem written by James Weldon Johnson that was set to music by his brother, the composer J. Rosamond Johnson, and known as the “Negro National Anthem.” The design of the ambitious 16-foot plaster sculpture took the form of a huge harp “With human figures of varying heights not unlike the strings of a harp. At the front of the composition was a male figure kneeling on one knee with arms extended holding a scroll at each end. On this scroll were the words,  ‘lift every voice and sing.’” Without funds to preserve it, the work was bulldozed during the dismantling of the fair.


After building a viable art career, teaching thousands of students, and mentoring several successful artists, Savage faced a string of disappointments. She was replaced as the Director of the Harlem Community Arts Center, and when funding from the FAP ended, so did her support. In the 1940s she moved to Saugerties, New York, where she worked as an assistant to a cancer researcher. Savage continued to sculpt, although she had few commissions, and taught art to children in summer camps.


Another noted artist associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Selma Burke, was born in 1900 in Mooresville, North Carolina. Like many other African American families during the period, hers left the South and settled in Philadelphia. Burke’s father was a well-traveled chef who worked on international ocean liners, and her uncles were missionaries in Africa who sent African art home to her. She grew up with these objects and, as a result, had an appreciation and knowledge of African cultures. Although she grew up surrounded by African art and showed an early talent for art-making, she was encouraged to become a nurse by her mother. After high school, Burke attended Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia (now Drexel College of Medicine), earning a degree in nursing. She gained employment as a private nurse to a wealthy heiress and traveled extensively with her, regularly attending the opera and other cultural events that further exposed her to the arts and privileged circles. 


In 1935 Burke moved to New York to pursue her dream of being a sculptor. She studied with Augusta Savage at the Harlem Community Art Center. She also joined the Harlem Art Guild and in 1936 won a Rosenwald Foundation grant and a scholarship to attend Columbia University. After graduating with her MFA, she traveled to Europe to study with the French sculptor Aristide Maillol and the Viennese ceramicist Michael Powolny. She returned to teach sculpting at the Harlem Community Art Center and began exhibiting her work. Along with Savage and other artists, she showed at the Downtown Gallery, founded by the visionary collector Edith Halpert, on East 51st Street. Burke also became romantically involved with the celebrated Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay, who introduced her to his circle of literary friends including James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes and the playwright Eugene O’Neill. 


Burke excelled at creating portrait busts of famous Americans. Her sculptures of the 1930s are classically-styled figures enlivened by bold, sensuous forms. In 1945 she entered a national contest and won the commission to create a portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the 10-cent coin.

Burke’s design is credited as the model for the engraver John R. Sinnocks’s famed profile that made it onto the dime. The President did sittings for over two years while Burke perfected his image. Her portrait of Roosevelt was displayed at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington. 


In 1949, after McKay’s death, Burke married the architect Herman Kobbe, and they settled in Pennsylvania, where she opened an art school modeled after Augusta Savage’s Harlem Community Art Center. Savage’s mentoring of Burke and exposing her to the Harlem art community were invaluable to her career. 


These three artists—Fuller, Savage, and Burke—faded from public view in the postwar decades. Burke retired to small-town Pennsylvania; Savage moved to upstate New York, and Fuller wound down her career in Massachusetts. Yet today we recognize their prominence in Harlem’s Black cultural renaissance of the early twentieth century: they shaped not only the sculptural mediums in which they worked, but also perceptions of the American artist at home and abroad.

About the Author:

Tammi Lawson is the curator of the Art & Artifacts Division of the Schomburg Center where she manages a collection of 15,000 items that visually document the Black Diaspora. She specializes in the preservation of cultural heritage materials, museum collections, and digital curation.



Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “African American population in selected cities 1900-1920” New York Public Library Digital Collections. 

Unbroken Circle: Exhibition of African-American Artists of the 1930’s and 1940’s (New York, NY: Kenkeleba House, 1986).

Lisa E. Farrington, Creating Their Own Image: the History of African-American Women Artists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 108.

Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 5, Issue 1, Winter 2020. View a digital version of the full journal here.

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