Black History via Street Art

We have a collection of personal photographs of iconic Black Americans that were found in street art pieces around the United States as well as Paris, France. Some of these historical figures are well-known, and some a bit more obscure, in which case we've done a little research in order to better understand the reasons why these "portraits" were made as public murals.


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This street art mural of Maya Angelou was found in Newark (NJ), and contains the slogan: "We May Encounter Many Defeats, But We Must Not Be Defeated." This is a slight variation on a quote by Angelou, substituting "we" for the original "you." Angelou's original quote continues with this: "In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it." The mural was painted by artist Danielle Mastrion.

Most of you will have a basic knowledge of Maya Angelou (1928-2014), but for those who don't, a general introduction would include that she was an American poet, author, and civil rights activist. To learn more about the legacy of Maya Angelou, check out the official website here.

street art mural featuring Maya Angelou in Newark

This mural below by artist Ernest Shaw Jr. is titled "Legacy" (2014) and features Malcolm X., James Baldwin, and Nina Simone, and is located on the side of a building at 401 Lafayette Street in the Station North neighborhood of Baltimore (MD). The artist has been a teacher in Baltimore city schools for over 15 years and has made it a mission to mentor inner-city youth in artistic ways. Shaw chose these three civil rights icons because "... Malcolm X touched me in my 20's; Baldwin in my 30's. Now in my 40s, as I am watching my daughter grow into womanhood, it's Nina Simone," due to Simone being a singer/songwriter who used her music as a vehicle for activism.

street art mural in Baltimore featuring Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Nina Simone by artist Ernest Shaw Jr.

We saw this smaller-scale street art mural in Troy (NY), featuring Henry Highland Garnet. We have to admit, we're not familiar with Mr. Garnet, so here's where a little research was necessary to better understand the reason for this public art.

Henry Highland Garnet (1815 – 1882) was an African-American abolitionist, minister, educator and orator. He was born as a slave in Kent County, Maryland, but his family escaped to New York when he was about 9 years old. He attended several schools and eventually graduated from the Oneida Theological Institute in Whitesboro, NY, near Utica. In 1839, Garnet moved east with his family to Troy, New York, and in 1842, Garnet became pastor of the Liberty Street Presbyterian church, which explains the presence of this art work in Troy.

In August of 1843, Garnet traveled to Buffalo, New York for the "National Negro Convention," where he gave an inspirational speech that came to be known as the "Call to Rebellion." In this speech, Garnet encouraged slaves to turn against their masters. He said, "Neither god, nor angels, or just men, command you to suffer for a single moment. Therefore it is your solemn and imperative duty to use every means, both moral, intellectual, and physical that promises success." However, despite the obvious opposition to slavery, Garnet's suggestion of rebellion was considered a radical idea at the time, and the delegates at the convention refused to endorse Garnet's speech after taking a vote on the matter.

Garnet and his family later moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as pastor of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church. On February 12, 1865, while in Washington, Garnet made history when he was chosen by President Abraham Lincoln to give a sermon before the House of Representatives — making him the first black speaker to do so.

In 1881, President James A. Garfield appointed Garnet to serve as ambassador to Liberia, which gave him a chance to achieve his lifelong dream to travel to Africa. Unfortunately, his time in Africa was cut short, as Garnet died on February 13, 1882, only a few months after his arrival.

street art in Troy New York featuring Henry Highland Garnet

We had mentioned seeing street art featuring iconic Black Americans while on a visit to Paris, France, in 2012. We have two found street art pieces below, a stencil graffiti piece featuring Martin Luther King Jr., who is for some odd reason positioned between two versions of Little Red Riding Hood! And below right, we have a partially-torn wheatpasted image of Nina Simone. Both of these images were seen in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris.

street art in Paris France featuring Martin Luther King Jr. and Nina Simone




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