African Americans in Capitol Artwork

By Erin Michaela Bendiner, USCHS Volunteer

As visitors enter the U.S. Capitol, they can be overwhelmed by a sense of history that is brought alive by the unique collection of artwork highlighting the intersection of American history and art. The Capitol collection of paintings, sculptures and murals depicts historical events and people throughout more than 200 years of American history. Though underrepresented, especially in artwork commissioned before the Civil War, African Americans have gained a more prominent presence in twentieth-century artistic tributes to events and leaders.

To honor the slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., sculptor John Wilson created a slightly more than twice life-size bronze bust, which was installed in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on January 16, 1986, in commemoration of King’s birthday. The full head-and-torso bust portrays King in suit and tie. With a somber gray patina that is an almost steel-like hue, the sculpture stands apart visually from the white marble busts of other important American leaders represented in the Rotunda. The artist’s decision to slightly bow King’s head gives viewers a feeling of solemnity as well as an uncanny sense that the sculpture can make eye contact with those walking past. Because the bust is bronze, viewers get a realistic sense of shadows falling on King’s face depending on the time of day and the angle of view. Sitting atop an octagonal base of black granite, the sculpture conveys solidity. The sculptor accurately depicts King’s appearance in the 1960s, including closely cropped hair, broad forehead, and wide-set almond-shaped eyes. Embodying the dignity and spirituality of its subject, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sculpture contributes to the American history on display in the Rotunda.

While touring the Brumidi Corridors on the first floor of the Senate wing, visitors may catch a glimpse of The Challenger Crew, a mural of the seven members who were aboard the ill-fated space shuttle that exploded soon after launch, killing all seven. Among the crew was Ronald E. McNair (1950-1986), an African-American astronaut who joined NASA in 1978 after receiving his doctorate in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The mural, painted by Charles Schmidt a year after the shuttle exploded, is tucked in an alcove just above the Hugh Scott Room (S-120) near the north entrance of the Capitol. The artist chose to center the image on Christa McAuliffe, who was the first teacher in space, with the other crew members surrounding her. To the viewer’s right of McAuliffe stands McNair with helmet in hand. He looks out beyond the painted frame of the oil-on-canvas mural. The painter depicts McNair with medium skin tone, cropped curly hair, and mustache. Outfitted in light blue NASA uniforms, McNair and the rest of the crew are grouped on the grayish-brown tarp near the launch area. Behind them, the early morning light emphasizes the high streaky clouds in the blue sky above Cape Kennedy. The shuttle stands in the background near its scaffolding, reminding viewers of the tragic events that unfolded in late January 1986.

The Capitol artwork collection also includes portraits of African-American House Committee chairmen in the twentieth century, such as William L. Dawson (D-MI), Ronald V. Dellums (D-IL), Charles C. Diggs (D-MI), Gus Hawkins (D-CA) and Parren Mitchell (D-MD). There are only a handful of portrayals of African Americans as participants in American history before the twentieth century in the Capitol collection of artwork. An allegorical painting completed in late November 1862 by Emanuel Leutze, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, located in the west stairway of the House wing, features a young African-American boy holding a mule near the center of the composition. The figure, identified in the artist’s notes as a freedman, was not included in Leutze’s preliminary sketches. Many viewers at the time of installation believed the African American symbolized hope for the continuation of the United States during the Civil War. Some modern scholars think it is no coincidence that Leutze included the African American only after emancipation began to emerge as a Union war aim in mid-1862.

Another Capitol painting highlights African-American participation in historical events. Based on factual reports, William H. Powell’s The Battle of Lake Erie, 1813, painted in 1873 and hanging in the east stairway of the Senate wing, depicts the diversity of the crew by including an African-American sailor.

In 1871, Constantino Brumidi painted a fresco mural of The Boston Massacre, 1770 on the north wall of what is now the Senate Appropriations Committee Room (S-128). The mural features the African-American rebel hero Crispus Attucks, who was the first casualty of the American Revolution. A century after Brumidi’s mural, Allyn Cox painted murals in the House wing of the Capitol in the 1970s and 1980s that chronicled events in American history, including Civil Rights Bill Passes, 1866, as well as vignettes such as “The Cotton Gin,” “Emancipation Proclamation,” and “The First Black Congressman,” which all featured African Americans.

Though references to African Americans are not abundant, visitors can still find meaningful depictions of African Americans as participants in American history as well as historical figures in the art collection of the United States Capitol.


Originally Published: 2000


Further Reading:

African-American Almanac, 6th Ed. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1994.

The American Story in Art: The Murals of Allyn Cox in the U.S. Capitol. Washington, DC: National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution and United States Capitol Historical Society, 1986.

Fairman, Charles E. Art and Artists of the Capitol of the United States of America. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1927.

Fryd, Vivien Green. Art and Empire: The Politics of Ethnicity in the United States Capitol, 1815-1860. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.