Black artists in Philly flourished during the Great Depression | Philly History

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“Heave!,” by Dox Thrash, print (undated), WPA posters collection.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal reshaped more than the United States’ economy; the ambitious program also nurtured visionary artists as part of the Roosevelt administration’s goal of restoring and improving U.S. citizens’ quality of life.

Following complications in the courts relating to his first wave of policies (and amidst seemingly intractable mass poverty and unemployment), FDR rolled out what has since become known as the “Second New Deal” in 1935, which included the establishment of the Works Progress Administration. The WPA’s primary goal was to generate employment opportunities.

By the time the agency ended, it had supplied 8.5 million people with jobs. By working hand-in-hand with state and local governments, the WPA produced wages for laborers and upgraded the nation’s infrastructure. Philadelphia benefited enormously from these initiatives: WPA funding helped build a train route across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge (then called the Delaware River Bridge); in 1936, the agency paid for large-scale beautification efforts at City Hall; a host of buildings around the city that exist to this day popped up thanks to WPA aid, from stations and shelters in Wissahickon Park to the Fairmount Post Office annex on 19th Street.

The WPA also funded original artistic works by supporting thousands of artists representing a variety of mediums, including theater, literature, music, and visual art. The agency did not allocate funding in a completely equitable fashion, though it did provide an unprecedented avenue for African American artists to establish their voices and achieve a hitherto unknown degree of prominence. Philly’s Dox Thrash ranks among the most influential black artists to emerge from this movement.

Camera icon Historical Society of Pennsylvania
“Sunday Morning,” by Dox Thrash, print (undated), WPA posters collection.

Thrash was born on March 22, 1893, in Griffin, Ga. He left home at a young age, traveling through the Midwest and working in vaudeville acts. He eventually ended up in Chicago, overcoming endemic prejudice and landing a spot as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Conflict overseas interrupted his studies. Thrash fought in World War I as part of the 92nd Infantry Division. Incredibly, he made it through unscathed until the final day of the war, when he was injured in a gas attack.

He survived, and — upon returning to the United States — finished his studies and traveled the country, eventually relocating to Philadelphia permanently in 1925. Philly’s African American art scene slowly took to Thrash’s style, and he in turn drew influence from the city’s arts community. By the end of the 1920s, Thrash had picked up printmaking through his friendship with West Philly print shop owner Samuel Reading, setting the course for his artistic career.

Over the next decade, Thrash developed an experimental printmaking style as the Great Depression wore on. In 1937, he joined the WPA-funded Fine Print Workshop, which accepted black artists. In addition to Thrash, the workshop helped cultivate the talents of African American printmakers Claude Clark and Raymond Steth. In conjunction with Steth, Thrash invented the carborundum print process at the workshop, a difficult methodology that permitted astonishing amounts of fine graphic detail.

The country’s art community began to take notice. Alain Locke — the intellectual figurehead of the Harlem Renaissance — featured Thrash’s work at groundbreaking exhibitions in Baltimore, Chicago, and New York City. The curators of the Philadelphia Museum of Art began collecting his works and Howard University granted him a solo exhibition.

In an era when crude caricatures of black people circulated in mass-media publications, Thrash’s work featured ennobling and beautiful depictions of African Americans, dovetailing with the ethos of the Harlem Renaissance and countering the often racist portrayals of the black community in popular culture. His sympathetic portraits of black people drew from both his youth in the rural South and his working-class life in an urban metropolis, celebrating the resilience and closeness of Southern families on one hand and the feats and technical prowess of industrial workers on the other.

Thrash passed away on April 19, 1965. As a veteran, he is interred at the U.S. National Cemetery in Beverly, N.J.

Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.