Delilah W. Pierce, born in 1904, 34 years after the American Industrial Revolution (1820-1870), was an African American artist and Washington, DC native who, through her body of work, helped to expand western thought about what African American art and subject matter was at the time. Delilah captured what was beautiful, simple, and innocent in the world. Her usage of figurative to abstract subject matter was inspired by her ability to see prosperity and opportunity during Jim Crow and mass lynching. Art critic Judith Means agrees:
“The way she perceives the world, with joy and optimism, and the stunning clarity of her finely-developed aesthetic sense are integral not only to her character but also to the vivid visual textures of her work.”
To add more context to Delilah W. Pierce one has to understand the environment that surrounded her from birth to her formidable young adult and adult years. The child of a service worker and home maker, Delilah grew up in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC not too far from the famous U Street corridor – which was at the time the center of African American culture and society. Delilah W. Pierce consumed the successes of African American’s who freed themselves through education, much like what Booker T. Washington wrote about during his life. When Delilah was born America was experiencing a great societal shift that included:
- Transportation expansion with the Rail Road entering Washington, DC.
- Effective harnessing of electricity.
- Improvements in American refining processes and production.
- Utilization of spinning and weaving machines operated by waterpower.
America was moving away from a hand and home production society to a machine factory society. Delilah was born 3 years before the first photographs were taken. She was age 3 by the time DC’s Union Station opened, which helped to connect a rather fragmented society through advanced rail transportation.
Life in Washington, DC was marked by change and opportunity, however it was also surrounded by hate and segregation. Washington, DC was a unique city for African American’s during Delilah’s upbringing. African American’s had schools, strong middle class neighborhoods, and the ability to work in professional offices – Though they were segregated. Also, African American’s had equal pay enforced by the federal government, where for example a Black teacher and a White teacher made the same salary. However, like many cities in America the tensions between races did reach a boiling point. By the time Delilah was 15 an event known as Red Summer of 1919 occurred in Washington, DC where Whites, including servicemen, attacked Blacks in one of the most violent civil battles in the history of that city. Red Summer occurred because someone, a White person, accused a Black man of rape. In retaliation, White men targeted and beat Black people and the city fell into disorder. However, Blacks fought back. The federal government called in the troops, closed saloons and theaters to regain order. In the end 15 people were killed (10 Whites and 5 Blacks) and 100 people were severely wounded. The NAACP protested the event.
From birth Delilah grew up surrounded by national grassroots activism marked by the Labor Union battles, the fight for housing fairness, and the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Yet, the experience of such challenges did not taint or restrain her spirit. Inspired by the concept of freedom and equity, her art reflects an expansion of traditional African American heritage art. Different from that which was created by artist and friend Charles White. In many ways she liberated herself by capturing the beauty of the New England and European coastal landscapes. As seen in her famous painting Rocks By The Shore, 1988 (Above-Left), Delilah captured the natural and raw beauty of the coastal landscape. For her, New England’s natural beauty and rustic landscape typified what true equality, freedom, and fairness was all about. To Delilah New England was not only a northern American location, it was a place where African Americans could enjoy and exhale from the ugliness of the American south.
Nothing captured more the detail and free fluidity of nature’s uncorrupted beauty as did her abstract art. Delilah’s abstract art seemed to focus on the specific beauty of nature, very much in the way Ralph Waldo Emerson captured the beauty of living simply among nature in Walden Pond – Which was a book she had in her library with original binding. Her painting Nebula VII (Above Right) is a great example of her abstract work.
Delilah was inspired by artists of all nationalities. However, fellow African American painters and friends Lois Mailou Jones and Alma Thomas helped on one hand create a narrative for Black art which addressed African American heritage and the struggle for economic and civil rights. While on the other hand, expressed the liberations and observations of the natural world, all the way down to the most abstract detail. Alma in particular wanted to focus on the beauty of the natural world. Delilah W. Pierce was very much motivated by that and they created bodies work in that vein. Delilah was an artist who captured her view of the natural world through the usage of vibrant colors and a keen sense of visual perspective. This was the world through the eyes of an African American urbanite who found freedom, comfort, and solace through rich exterior landscapes and coastal scenes, as well as the abstract images that lay within.
Delilah W. Pierce lived her life as an educator, artist and curator. After graduating from Miner Teachers College and Howard University (BS), and Teachers College-Columbia University (MA), Delilah went on to earn the Agnes-Meyer Fellowship (Europe, Middle East and Africa study), where she traveled and was influenced by the cultures and landscapes of London, Paris, Holland, Rome, Greece, Lebanon, the Holy Land, the River Jordan, Cairo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, and Dakar. Delilah worked with both the United Nations and the US Department of State. For example, Delilah traveled part of a delegation to Ethiopia to encourage Emperor Haile Selassie to allow Eritrea to have equal rights. In later years, Representative Walter E. Fauntroy (D-DC) spoke on the floor of the House during Extensions Of Remarks about Delilah:
The realities of an American of part African ancestry visiting Africa was significant for it not only represented links to ethnicity in a historical sense, it provided for Pierce an opportunity to become one of a handful of African-American artists to travel to Africa and to do so before it became popular in the late 1960’s.
Delilah was a member of the Smith-Mason Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, as well as, the Old Sculpin Gallery and Cousen Rose Gallery in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
Her work is among the permanent collections in the prestigious Smithsonian Museum of American Art, University of District of Columbia, Howard University Gallery of Art, Evans Tibbs Collection, Barnett-Aden Collection, Smith-Mason Gallery of Art, and Bowie State College.
Representative John Conyers, Jr (D-MI) spoke on the House saying:
One of Delilah’s last achievements was an honorary doctorate from the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, DC (DHL).
You can learn more about Delilah W. Pierce and her impact on visual arts, women, and people of color by clicking the following: https://delilahwpierce.com/community-impact/.