Highlights from the National Portrait Gallery Collection
The National Portrait Gallery’s collection is home to more than 1,000 portraits of African American history-makers. From eighteenth-century poet Phillis Wheatley to former First Lady Michelle Obama, discover portraits of African Americans whose lives and achievements have contributed to the history and development of our nation.
Phillis Wheatley was the first African American to publish a book and the first American woman to earn a living from her writing, no small feat considering that she came to the colonies as a slave. Although most slaves had no opportunity for an education, within two years of Wheatley's purchase in 1761, she had learned to read and begun to write poetry. Her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), published in London, drew the praise of Washington, Franklin, and Voltaire and helped Wheatley gain her freedom. The frontispiece engraving emphasized Wheatley’s demure appearance and creative intelligence.
Frederick Douglass became the first nationally known African American in U.S. history by turning his life into a testimony on the evils of slavery and the redemptive power of freedom. He had escaped from slavery in 1838 and subsequently became a powerful witness for abolitionism, speaking, writing, and organizing on behalf of the movement; he also founded a newspaper, the North Star. Douglass's charisma derived from his ability to present himself as the author of his own destiny at a time when white America could barely conceive of the black man as a thinking and feeling human being. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is not only gripping nonfiction account of one man's struggle for freedom; it is also one of the greatest American autobiographies. This powerful portrait shows Douglass as he grew in prominence during the 1840s.
In March 1863, a man known only as Gordon escaped from slavery on a Louisiana plantation and after a harrowing journey found safety among Union soldiers encamped at Baton Rouge. Before enlisting in a Black regiment, he was examined by military doctors, who discovered horrific scarring on his back —the result of a vicious whipping by his former overseer. This photograph documenting Gordon’s condition created a sensation when it reached the public, and quickly became one of the most powerful proofs of slavery’s brutality. Sergeant Gordon was later reported to have fought bravely in the Union assault on Port Hudson, but nothing further is known about his life.
In 1843 ex-slave Isabella Van Wagener obeyed God's personal command to her, changed her name to Sojourner Truth, and became an itinerant preacher. Quickly becoming a major attraction on the revival circuit for the power and ingenuity of her prophetic speeches, she was drawn into abolitionism and entranced antislavery audiences with her personal testimony. Like Frederick Douglass, Truth was a charismatic figure because she was not a victim but a leader. She was also a powerful example of African American womanhood. As she concluded in a compelling oration on women's rights, "I could work as much . . . and bear the lash as well [as a man]-and aren't I a woman?"
Born into slavery as Araminta Ross, Harriet Tubman rebelled against servitude from her earliest years, running away as early as age seven. At fifteen, she defied an overseer and was nearly killed when he gave her a "stunning blow to the head." Although the effects of the blow stayed with her throughout her life, Tubman marshaled her resolve and nurtured her anger. In 1844 she married a freedman, John Tubman, and in 1849 she escaped to Philadelphia, discarding her slave name for her mother’s name, Harriet. Tubman became an active "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, guiding escaping slaves to freedom. She made nineteen recorded trips out of the South and was reputed never to have lost a soul.
The daughter of former slaves, Ida B. Wells sued the Chesapeake, Ohio, and Southwestern Railway in 1883 after being dragged from her seat for refusing to move to a segregated railcar. Her anger over this incident spurred her to begin contributing articles to black-owned newspapers; she became part owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight in 1889. After three black businessmen were lynched in Memphis in 1892, Wells launched what became a four-decade-long anti-lynching crusade. She vigorously investigated other lynchings and published her groundbreaking treatise on the topic, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.
In the face of segregation, disenfranchisement, and considerable racial violence, Booker T. Washington contended that it was unrealistic for African Americans to expect to gain entry into America’s white-collar professions. Instead, he suggested they establish themselves as a skilled laboring class. With that accomplished, racial discrimination would gradually disappear. In 1881 Washington put this theory to the test, becoming the director of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. As the school grew, he became viewed as the nation’s leading spokesman for African Americans. A magnetic speaker and the author of ten books, he attracted many critics, however, who contended that his “get along” philosophy undermined the quest for racial equality.
In 1903 William Edward Burghardt Du Bois famously declared that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” He uttered this prophetic statement understanding, perhaps better than anyone, the social and political standing of African Americans at the beginning of the new century. A Ph.D. recipient from Harvard and an author of more than twenty books, he was also an activist and helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910. Du Bois came to oppose the policy of political conservatism and racial accommodation favored by Booker T. Washington, insisting that African Americans receive full civil and political rights.
One of the most successful African American entrepreneurs of the early twentieth century, Madam C. J. Walker created a line of phenomenally popular hair care and beauty products that fueled a business empire. In 1905 she began marketing her products and beauty regimen to the Black community. During a troubled period in the history of race relations in America, Walker built a lucrative enterprise that employed thousands who served as her agents or manufactured her beauty aids. By the time of her death, she was reputed to be the first female African American millionaire.
This portrait by famed African American photographer Addison N. Scurlock became Walker’s trademark image. It was featured on packaging for her products and used extensively in her advertising.
Arguably the most brilliant African American scientist of his generation, Ernest Everett Just graduated magna cum laude from Dartmouth College, earned his doctorate in zoology from the University of Chicago, and joined the faculty of Howard University in D.C. His greatest distinction was attained as a marine researcher; his studies in cellular physiology and experimental embryology –conducted principally at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts– yielded a host of groundbreaking discoveries and theories. Because of entrenched racial prejudice, Just was never able to fully join the American scientific community, despite the obvious significance of his research. But European scientists welcomed him; supported by funding from various foundations, he spent much of his later career conducting research abroad.
Among poets, Langston Hughes was a trailblazer, not only for Black writers but also for his ability to force his way into mainstream American literature. Although white intellectuals projected their racial fantasies and preconceptions onto African Americans, Hughes focused on a deep commitment to African American history, treating the subject with the framework of modernist poetry. As would be the case throughout the century, a marginal or excluded group would reinvigorate American culture because their doubleness —the sense of being "in" but not completely "of" American society— worked to their advantage as artists. The story of twentieth-century culture is sometimes best told through the eyes of those whom the culture most disdained: women, gays and lesbians, and African Americans.
From her beginnings in vaudeville, Josephine Baker exhibited a verve and sensuality that stood out even in a chorus line. Having grown up in poverty in St. Louis, she seized the opportunity in 1925 to travel to Paris in the Harlem music and dance ensemble La Revue Nègre. With a reputation for daring outfits and a performance style that was at once erotic and comic, Baker became a star. Ernest Hemingway, who regularly frequented the Club Joséphine, where Baker served as "hostess," called her "the most sensational woman anyone ever saw . . . or ever will." After the outbreak of World War II, Baker threw herself behind the Allied cause, working with refugees and performing for the troops. In later years she became a vocal civil rights proponent, insisting on integrated audiences wherever she performed.
Born into slavery, George Washington Carver overcame the obstacles of slender means and racial discrimination to seek an education. His lifelong goal to help poor black farmers trapped in sharecropping pervaded his work at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, where he was director of agricultural teaching and research for nearly forty years. Carver's laboratory investigations led to the discovery of more than 450 new commercial products-ranging from margarine to library paste-that could be extracted from previously untapped sources such as the peanut and sweet potato. He demonstrated for southern farmers the wisdom of diversifying crops, instead of relying mainly on the soil-exhausting crop of cotton.
This poster, designed by an Office of War Information art director, David Stone Martin, was one of several inspirational posters aimed at the black community. At the outbreak of World War II, the armed services practiced rigid discrimination against African Americans that included a stubborn reluctance to acknowledge Black capabilities. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Dorie Miller braved enemy fire to carry a wounded officer to safety and, although not trained for combat, manned an antiaircraft gun, possibly downing at least one enemy plane. He eventually received a Navy Cross, but only after intense pressure by the Black press. Miller was killed on an aircraft carrier that sank in the Pacific in November 1943.
On paper, the New Deal programs enacted to ease the economic sufferings of the Depression were open to everyone, but racial discrimination often kept African Americans from sharing in their full benefits. A Black educator and founder of Bethune-Cookman College, Mary McLeod Bethune was determined to correct that inequity. As an official in the National Youth Administration, she proved remarkably effective at ensuring that Blacks could access its employment programs. In 1936 she was the chief organizer of a group of Washington-based African American leaders known as the "Black cabinet," whose self-appointed mission was to maintain steady pressure on the federal government to create better job opportunities for Blacks.
Bethune had no physical need for the cane she holds in her portrait. She used it, she said, to give herself "swank."
Civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph waged a lifelong battle for the economic empowerment of African Americans. In 1925 he accepted the challenge of organizing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters-the first Black labor union chartered by the American Federation of Labor. Continuing his advocacy for African American workers, Randolph successfully pressured President Franklin Roosevelt to mandate an end to discriminatory practices by government contractors excluding Blacks from defense industry jobs. Following World War II, Randolph led the effort to desegregate the nation's armed forces and waged a civil disobedience campaign against the draft until President Harry Truman ordered an end to segregation in the military in 1948. Randolph crowned his career in 1963 by helping to organize the celebrated March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
American boxing great Joe Louis began his pro career in 1934 and quickly eliminated a series of opponents with his devastating knockout punch. In 1938, Louis faced off against German Champion Max Schmeling: Adolf Hitler’s champion of Aryan supremacy. Louis was among the first African American boxers to win the enthusiastic support of Black and White Americans alike, and was embraced as democracy’s standard-bearer. Louis struck like lightning when the fight began. Staggering Schmeling with a sequence of tremendous blows, Louis took only 124 seconds to claim one of the sweetest victories in boxing history. As reporter Heywood Broun rightly observed, Louis had “exploded the Nordic myth with a boxing glove.”
A trumpet virtuoso with a wide smile and an ebullient personality, Louis Armstrong was a jazz pioneer who helped to transform that musical genre into an international phenomenon. In the process, he became one of the most beloved American entertainers of the twentieth century. Raised in New Orleans, Armstrong moved to Chicago in 1922 to join King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Several years later he formed his own band, billed himself as the "World’s Greatest Trumpet Player," and helped to develop the jazz style popularly known as swing. His technical prowess, rhythmic ingenuity, memorable improvisations, and lively "scat" singing made Armstrong a standout. A consummate performer first and foremost, Armstrong modestly declared, "I never tried to prove nothing, just always wanted to give a good show."
Hailed as the “First Lady of Song,” Ella Fitzgerald topped DownBeat magazine’s annual readers’ poll as the best female vocalist for seventeen consecutive years (1953–70). She was just a teenager when her victory in an amateur contest at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater led to the opportunity to sing with Chick Webb’s orchestra in 1935. After Webb’s death in 1939, she led his orchestra for three years before launching a highly successful solo career. With a supple voice that spanned three octaves, as well as an immense talent for improvisational “scat” singing, Fitzgerald built a wide-ranging repertoire encompassing jazz and popular song. Her long and fruitful association with jazz impresario Norman Granz resulted in the legendary series of “songbook” recordings that marked Fitzgerald as one of the greatest interpreters of American popular music.
In 1947 Jackie Robinson transformed professional sports by becoming the first African American player in major league baseball. A trailblazer for equal opportunity, Robinson endured torrents of abuse in his first season with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Some of his own teammates mounted an abortive effort to have him dropped from the roster, while opponents and spectators alike taunted, heckled, and harassed him. Robinson steeled himself and responded with electrifying play that carried the Dodgers to a National League championship and earned him honors as Rookie of the Year. Robinson paved the way for other Black major leaguers, and remained a staunch advocate for civil rights even after retiring from the game.
Arturo Toscanini said that Marian Anderson had a voice that came along "once in a hundred years." When one of Anderson's teachers first heard her sing, the magnitude of her talent moved him to tears. Because she was Black, however, her initial prospects as a concert singer in the United States were sharply limited, and her early professional triumphs took place mostly in Europe. The magnitude of her musical gifts ultimately won her recognition in the US as well, but despite that acclaim, in 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution banned her from performing at its Constitution Hall. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt ultimately intervened and organized a Anderson's concert at the Lincoln Memorial instead. The affair generated great sympathy for Anderson and became a defining moment in America's civil rights movement.
James A. Porter created the foundation for the field of African American art history and championed African American artists, including those from the Caribbean. His influential book Modern Negro Art (1943) was the first to place the contributions of African American artists in the context of the history of modernism, and Porter’s own art was exhibited at major institutions, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. Here, he presents himself in his studio in front of an image of Howard Hall, one of the oldest buildings on Howard’s campus where he served as chair of the art department and director of the art gallery.
Thurgood Marshall played a major role in the 1940s and 1950s as a leader in the struggle to end racial discrimination in the United States. From 1938 to 1961, he served as chief staff lawyer for the NAACP. Marshall devoted much effort to tailoring arguments that led the Supreme Court to its unanimous 1954 Brown v. the Board of Education of the City of Topeka decision, which ruled segregation of public schools by race to be unconstitutional. But he realized the struggle was not over. At a party celebrating the Brown decision, Marshall warned his colleagues, "I don't want any of you to fool yourselves, it's just begun; the fight has just begun." He went on to become the first African American Supreme Court justice, nominated by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.
A man constantly on the move, Martin Luther King was most often photographed in action by those covering the events of the civil-rights movement. This likeness by renowned portraitist Yousuf Karsh is a different kind of image—a formal portrait that utilizes pose and lighting rather than environment to identify King as a leader and a visionary. Karsh made the photograph in August 1962, when King returned to Atlanta following the prolonged and dispiriting struggle for desegregation in Albany, Georgia. Recalling the circumstances of that sitting, Karsh noted, "Nowhere could [King] relax when constantly beset by friends and aides wishing him well, commiserating on his difficulties, congratulating him on his return, and planning new strategy."
After his father died and his mother was committed to a mental hospital, Malcolm Little, as he was then known, was imprisoned in 1946. There, his exposure to Nation of Islam teachings led to his rehabilitation, and later to his ordination as Minister Malcolm X. His spellbinding oratory quickly gained him national attention as he declared all whites "devils" and urged blacks to form a separate state and win their freedom "by any means necessary." Malcolm X dismissed Martin Luther King's strategy of nonviolence as ineffectual, but in 1964 he broke off from the Nation of Islam, rejecting its racialist ideology after a pilgrimage to Mecca, in which he viewed Muslims of all colors worshiping together. He was assassinated on February 21, 1965.
Tommie Smith won gold in the 200-meter sprint at the 1968 Olympic Summer Games in Mexico City, but he and John Carlos, who won bronze in the event, are best known for their gesture of protest during the medal ceremony. As the Star Spangled Banner played and two American flags were raised, Smith and Carlos stood on the victory platform with their black-gloved fists lifted in the air and their heads bowed down.
Smith was a multiple national and world record holder in the 200 meters, and like Carlos and other African American athletes, he had a growing political consciousness, especially on issues of race. While his career as an athlete eventually faded, he went on to become a teacher and a track coach and has continued to be involved in social causes.
From his gold medal at the 1960 Olympics through his epic fights with George Foreman and Joe Frazier to his late-life battle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali never left the public eye in a tumultuous, controversial, and electrifying life as a boxer and spokesman of conscience. Brash and outspoken, he created a new model for the African American athlete in the 1960s. His conversion to the Muslim faith and opposition to the Vietnam War made him a lightning rod for criticism, exposing the cultural fault lines of that decade. Stripped of the heavyweight title, he was vindicated in the courts and regained his title in 1974. Post-boxing, he involved himself in global social and humanitarian causes that showed a commitment and compassion that made him a uniquely historic and beloved figure.
“Unbought and unbossed,” Shirley Chisholm was a strident voice for the underrepresented. She began her professional career as a teacher in New York City but quickly turned to public service, serving in the state’s General Assembly from 1964 to 1968. In the latter year, she became the first black woman elected to the United States Congress. There she became an outspoken advocate for civil rights, and protested against the Vietnam War. A co-founder of the National Organization for Women, Chisholm also was an ardent supporter of women’s issues.
This poster was used in her 1972 run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Although ultimately unsuccessful, Chisholm inspired many with her message about unification, creating national conversations about a place for African Americans and women in the executive branch and as commander in chief.
With a courageous act of civil disobedience, Rosa Parks sparked a challenge to segregation that culminated in one of the seminal victories of the modern civil rights movement. On December 1, 1955, while traveling on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the seamstress was arrested for refusing the driver's demand that she surrender her seat to a white male passenger. When Parks was convicted of violating local segregation laws, Montgomery's African American community launched a massive one-day boycott of the city's bus system. The boycott expanded with the help of Martin Luther King Jr. to last 382 days, ending only after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled bus segregation unconstitutional.
Armed with superb natural talent, a keen competitive spirit, and poise that set him apart from his rivals, Arthur Ashe made his way from the segregated playground courts of his youth to the pinnacle of the tennis world. Rated among the world’s top ten players while still in college, Ashe served an astonishing twenty-six aces in the U.S. Open final to become the first African American man to claim the championship. Ashe went on to record multiple tournament victories, including his memorable triumph over Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in 1975. Following a heart attack that forced his retirement in 1980, Ashe dedicated his energies to humanitarian causes. He became a leader in the fight against AIDS in 1992, after revealing that he had contracted the virus through a transfusion.
Jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding electrified the Grammy Awards in 2011 by winning honors as Best New Artist. She released her first album, Junjo, in 2006. Her fourth release, Radio Music Society, received high critical marks at its release in March 2012. Spalding’s musical roots reflect her cultural diversity—her father is African American; her mother Welsh, Native American, and Hispanic—and she sings in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Sandrine Lee’s photograph shows the musician in an old railroad station in Connecticut. Spalding has emphasized in interviews that music does not only happen in recording studios and concert halls, but also in more intimate, everyday spaces, as captured here.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, retired four-star general Colin L. Powell decided on a military career while at City College of New York. He served in Vietnam, earning a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. A White House Fellowship brought him to the attention of Caspar Weinberger, who made Powell his aide upon becoming President Reagan’s secretary of defense. Powell became national security adviser in 1987 and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1991 and helped plan Operation Desert Storm. There, he enunciated what became known as the “Powell doctrine” of using “decisive force” to maximize success and minimize casualties, a reformulation of strategy resulting from the army’s unhappiness with the way in which the United States fought the Vietnam War. In 2001 President George W. Bush appointed Powell to be the first African American secretary of state.
Norman Francis has been a leader in higher education for over fifty years. From 1968 to 2015, he served as the president of Xavier University in New Orleans, where he became legendary for his commitment to making Xavier, a predominantly African American university, a model institution for underprivileged students. On a national level, Francis has advised eight White House administrations on education and civil rights. President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2006.
Simmie Knox, a prominent portraitist of renowned African Americans, depicted Francis at Xavier University, in front of St. Katharine Drexel Chapel, which was dedicated in 2012 in honor of the university’s founder, a nun, who is remembered For having been a strong advocate for African American and Native American civil rights.
After earning degrees from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Michelle Obama joined Sidley Austin LLP, where she met Barack Obama in 1989. Guided by the desire to improve her community, she left the firm in the to begin a career in public service. She directed community and external affairs for the University of Chicago Medical Center prior to moving to Washington in 2009.
During her husband’s two presidential campaigns, Mrs. Obama delivered poignant speeches that centered on her family’s commitment to serving others and highlighted the importance of her role as a parent. As first lady, she focused on women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, children’s health, and military families.
Barack Obama made history in 2009 by becoming the first African American president. The former Illinois state senator’s election signaled a feeling of hope for the future even as the U.S. was undergoing its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. While working to improve the economy, Obama enacted the Affordable Care Act, extending health benefits to millions of previously uninsured Americans. Overseas, he oversaw the drawdown of American troops in the Middle East—a force reduction that was controversially replaced with an expansion of drone and aviation strikes. Though his mission to kill al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was successful, his pledge to close the Guantanamo prison went unrealized.