Black History Month Musings: Augusta Savage

Langston. Martin. Rosa. Harriet. Malcolm. And sometimes Marcus. These names are the fundamentals of our Black History Month vocabulary. Instead of shining another light on these commonly known – though admittedly often misunderstood – black historical figures, Saint Heron would like to take you on a journey each week this month exploring Black creatives who don’t often get called upon this time of year. Yet, each of them were influential in depicting, progressing, and creatively inspiring black people in America and abroad.

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Many people are familiar with Jacob Lawrence, the painter who became the first African American artist featured in the Museum of Modern Art and who has been proclaimed “one of the most important African American artists of the twentieth century.” However, he may have never reached such prominence if not for Augusta Savage.

As a sculptor and a leading artist of the Harlem Renaissance, Augusta’s activism was also what catalyzed her creative endeavors. She had fight. She had to fight through an abusive father who prohibited her art. When the racist, American members of a scholarship selection committee revoked a fellowship that they initially awarded her to study in France when they found out she was black, Augusta fought yet again. Her persistence paid off.

Upon alerting local New York City media of her predicament, the Florida native attracted the attention of W.E.B DuBois. The esteemed intellectual and founder of The Crisis subsequently reported and investigated the matter on her behalf. Though the committee never changed its mind, the coverage of her challenges made her more visible among Harlem’s artists’ community. Her reputation grew as a portrait sculptor, which included her famous work of DuBois and Marcus Garvey. Augusta ultimately found her way to Europe, as she was provided several awards to study abroad and exhibit her work.

Augusta’s trademark activism was not for her benefit alone. When she returned to the states after her studies, she established the Savage Studio of Arts and Crafts in Harlem. Among her pupils who frequented the studio was Jacob Lawrence, who recalls that Augusta was “influential in making him a professional” and that she was dedicated to the rising movement of black nationalism and black consciousness. This dedication was evident in her unwavering support of other black artists. As she tells T.R. Poston in Metropolitan Magazine, “I have created nothing really beautiful, really lasting, but if I can inspire one of these youngsters to develop the talent I know they possess, then my monument will be in their work.”

Continuing to produce art of her own, the fearless talent was commissioned to create a sculpture symbolizing African Americans’ musical traditions for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Her creation, “The Harp”, was inspired by the black American staple “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing “ and received considerable acclaim.

Though later challenges led her to become more reclusive, Augusta had been known as a champion for blackness and for the art of young, black creatives for most of her adult life. As black people across the diaspora have shown time and time again, we often achieve even greater things in the face of adversity. She turned an unjustified rejection into a turning point in her career, and went on to become one of the leading artists of her generation.

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