Born to laborer parents in Topeka, KS, Aaron Douglas (1899-1979) overcame many obstacles to pursue his passion for art and ideas. He was one of the first African American artists to portray racial themes within the context of modern art, and his pursuit of justice through his paintbrush continues to influence artists today. After earning a BFA degree in 1922 from the University of Nebraska and teaching at Lincoln High School in Kansas city, Douglas migrated to New York in 1925 to join in the cultural flourishing known as the “New Negro Movement” or “Harlem Renaissance.”
The crowd of young artists, writers, musicians, and playwrights in Harlem believed art and creative expression could help bridge the gap between the African American and white worlds. At a time when racism still clearly ruled the day in America, Douglas provided a dignified voice of opposition, insight, and aspiration through his powerful and distinctive imagery
He illustrated articles on political topics including segregation, lynching, and human rights for Crisis and Opportunity magazines, founded by the NAACP and the Urban League. Douglas also collaborated with many writers to illustrate their novels and poems.
He was deeply influenced by traditional African art forms and by modern art and design. He combined modernist forms and African motifs with powerful portrayals of African American life, labor, and history, evoking both the harsh realities of the day and hopes for a better future in several large-scale, impressive public murals
Douglas was impressed by the fact that black people were in charge of things in Harlem and he knew that great things were in store. In many ways, Harlem and modernism were synonymous, and no one captured this powerful pairing, emblematic of the Jazz Age, with the rigor and strength that Aaron Douglas did. Douglas also fervently believed in the power of education as a vehicle for positive change in African American life.
In 1938, he began teaching at historically black Fisk University in Nashville, where he founded the art department. He continued on the Fisk faculty for nearly 30 years, training several new generations of African American artists. Aaron Douglas is now considered the foremost visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance.