Chapter two of American Memory acknowledges moments involving the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the struggle for freedom throughout much of the twentieth century during the Great Migration and the civil rights movement. Domestic terrorists—then as today—created hostile environments and committed outright violence to intimidate civilian populations and influence governmental policy; activists, again like today, boycotted businesses and protested laws that were segregationist and otherwise marginalized Black people. More than passing incidents, these historical episodes reflect ongoing social injustices, ones that artists have addressed in multiple ways over time. The works of art in this gallery document, condemn, and, in some cases, turn on their heads these significant moments.
The works here also highlight occasions in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s history of collecting. Jose Clemente Orozco’s The Lynching, for example, was the first work by a Mexican artist to enter the Museum’s collection and was acquired when lynching was on the rise during the 1920s and 1930s. On the other hand, the Museum acquired Eugene Omar Goldbeck’s panoramic photograph of the Dallas Ku Klux Klan as part of a group of the artist’s works as late as 1990, an unusual addition given the subject, timing, and circumstances of the gift.
Listen to a conversation between Kantara Souffrant, Curator of Community Dialogue, and Milwaukee artists Portia Cobbs, Rhonda Hayes, writer, and publisher Nakeysha Roberts Washington, and curator, gallery owner, and artist Fatima Laster as they discuss portraits, representations of anti-Black violence, and the responsibility museums, galleries, and cultural centers must take when they present images of anti-Black violence.
Born in San Antonio in 1892, Eugene Omar Goldbeck discovered his love for photography while a youth, selling images to local newspapers before he even graduated from high school; by 1910, he had traveled as far afield as Alaska and South America, taking photographs and selling them to the highest bidder. Around this time, Goldbeck began experimenting with the panoramic format, specializing in martial festivals, pageants, and parades. During the 1920s, he established a national photo service, eventually supplying not only photographs but also newsreels and moving pictures of the armed services, which earned him the moniker the “unofficial photographer of America's military.”
Pictured here is the Dallas chapter of the Ku Klux Klan’s drum and bugle corps attending a Fred Beebe rodeo in San Antonio, Texas. For this view, Goldbeck employed the panoramic format for which he had become so well known by the mid-1920s. The expansive vista allowed for the arrangement of the figures in two neat rows that stretch across an uninterrupted horizon. The Klansmen are in the front row; the rodeo participants, in the second. The image, in showing the KKK at the state-authorized family event, where the Klan banner was raised alongside the American flag, normalizes the KKK’s presence and, by extension, its racist, terrorist activities.
This particular rodeo was a popular touring rodeo billed as the “World Series” of such events; it was presented by Fred Beebe, a horse wrangler and member of the State Mounted Police in New Mexico. During the 1920s, partly motivated by African Americans moving to northern cities (the Great Migration), renewed interest in the country’s colonial past, and popular attention through films such as Birth of a Nation (1915), the KKK launched a massive, countrywide recruiting campaign. Klan membership ballooned, with national estimates of around three to eight million members. The KKK was so entrenched in Texas civic life that seeing the Klansmen featured so prominently at this popular event, while alarming, is not surprising. The KKK, in fact, heavily promoted the event in the pages of its newspaper The American Forum, and it was Dallas city officials who paid for a special train to send the Dallas chapter to San Antonio.
This photograph is one of a series of five by Goldbeck donated to the Museum in 1990. In many ways, all five photographs are typical of Goldbeck’s output: they are panoramic in format, emphasize reportage and place, and have subjects ranging from the United States’ military to Ecuadorian monuments. The credit line, “in memory of Dana Feitler,” is what is most unusual. Originally from Wisconsin, Dana Feitler was murdered by three men in Chicago in 1989. One of the men convicted, Lee Harris, is now serving 90 years in prison for the crime. Reports suggest, however, that Harris was framed by the notoriously racist Chicago Police Department and, potentially, Jon Burge, a police commander convicted of torturing numerous people in order to coerce false confessions. Given these circumstances, the tribute, combined with the photograph’s subject matter, lends the already alarming image an ominous vigilante quality.
The artistic talent of Loïs Mailou Jones was recognized at an early age. She received a wide range of encouragement, including scholarships to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in her native Boston, and after graduating with honors, she assumed teaching was a likely next step. But, in what was the first of several rejections in an openly racist society, she was told to go south and help “her people.”
While Jones had studied fashion and textile design at school, and had initially planned to pursue that path, she realized that to be considered an important artist, she had to work in oils. Textile design nonetheless remained an integral part of her working methods: “As a painter, I am very dependent on design,” Jones once said. “Being basically a designer, I am always weaving together my research and my feelings.” Jones’s artistic style evolved continuously over the course of her distinguished career, and was informed by her extensive travels in Europe, Africa, and Haiti; her immense love of her culture; and her teaching. (Teaching, in the end, was to be a step on her journey: she taught for more than forty-five years at Howard University in Washington, DC.) The summers Jones spent in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, however, had perhaps the most profound effect on her early development as an artist. During these visits, Jones immersed herself in the art and theories of the Harlem Renaissance, and she was particularly influenced by her friendship with painter Aaron Douglas (1899–1979); their art shares an affinity for stories and symbols of Black liberation.
In The Ascent of Ethiopia, from a majestic pharaoh, silhouetted figures rise from pyramids at the base of the painting and climb toward a cityscape, where Black creativity—a triad of art, drama, and music—flourishes. Jones’s composition links people of African descent with their historical past and cultural present through rich color, geometry, and iconography that suggest the rhythms and improvisation of the Jazz Age.
Ideas about primitivism, assimilation, and erasure in relation to African Americans at the time Loïs Mailou Jones made the painting are supplanted here by her promotion of a globalized Pan-African identity, popularized by political activist Marcus Garvey’s “Back to Africa” movement.
At the hill’s peak, representations of art, drama, and music reference the Harlem Renaissance, a revival of African American arts and cultural expression in New York City from 1918 through the 1930s. The Harlem Renaissance emerged amid the Great Migration, when African Americans moved to northern cities, including Harlem, in search of new opportunities and relief from the Jim Crow South. Jones’s composition highlights the creative culture of African Americans and their resilience as they march toward a more equitable future.
José Clemente Orozco’s lithograph depicts a mass lynching event. Four burnt corpses dangle from the branches of leafless trees as a violent white fire rages beneath the contorted bodies. These bodies are nameless; their faces, smashed in and erased. White supremacists slashed their lives for having Black skin.
While not picturing the white perpetrators, The Lynching transparently shows racial terrorism. During the 1930s, as it fought to gain support for a federal law against lynching, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), along with the American Communist Party, included Orozco’s work in its exhibitions on racial violence to highlight the injustice. The NAACP first started drawing attention to the crisis of lynching through studies and photo essays, often featuring graphic imagery, beginning in 1916.
Orozco created this work for the portfolio American Scene No. 1: A Comment upon American Life by America’s Leading Artists. For the second American Scene portfolio, American artist John Steuart Curry produced a lithograph titled Manhunt (also in the Museum’s collection), which depicts a lynch mob hunting its prey. (See a picture of this work below.) The image hearkens back to Orozco’s gruesome scene, providing what could be the precursor to The Lynching’s tragic end.
That the Milwaukee Art Museum acquired its print of The Lynching, along with a lithograph by Diego Rivera—the first works by Mexican artists to enter the collection—when it did, in 1934, is notable. Rivera, like Orozco, did not shy away from addressing challenging subject matter in his work. His Man at the Crossroads mural at the Rockefeller Center, for which he had been commissioned, was at the time, at the center of a controversy that resulted in its removal (or, as a fresco, destruction) because of its references to Communism.
American, b. 1969
Kara Walker’s Li’l Patch of Woods depicts Civil War soldiers crossing paths with a Black child giving birth to a baby in a small forest. The child, who makes eye contact with the soldiers, spreads her genitalia open for the men to witness her infant peering out from between her legs. Untitled depicts a bare-chested white man (in this case, the nineteenth-century abolitionist and religious zealot John Brown) with a noose wrapped around his neck. As a soldier observes in the background, a Black woman lifts an infant’s genitalia to the man’s lips while simultaneously stepping down on a white child. Walker’s two prints reimagine grotesque, open-ended scenarios rooted in racist American mythology and confront us with the violence, molestation, and racial terrorism that generations of enslaved and emancipated Black and African American populations have experienced.
The old-time imagery and scandalous narratives that Walker created challenges our understanding of history and its validity in establishing common stories. Her works alter the conventional idea of historical events through an act of revisionism. Orozco’s lithograph is an example of sensationalized Black anguish and puts an act of terror on display.