Thursday, February 11, 2016

Who are these men? They changed the direction of African American art in American history.

On the left: Alonzo J. Aden. On the right: Prof. James V. Herring. Partners in the Barnett Aden Gallery in Washington, D.C., and partners in life.

And yes, that's First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visiting their gallery/home in 1944. She often attended openings there.

James Vernon Herring was born January 7, 1887, in Clio, South Carolina, to William Culbreth and Alice (Carrol) Herring. His father was a white Jewish merchant, and his mother a dark-skinned African American. His parents never married, and his father may not have acknowledge him. The Herrings were farm laborers, and young James came to loathe his poverty-stricken upbringing so much that he rarely mentioned his parents or family. Herring was sent to Greensboro, North Carolina, were the public schools were much better. He lived with relatives until 1908, when he moved to Washington, D.C. at the age of 21, and attended Howard Academy, a preparatory high school established by Howard University. English instructor Annie R. Barker encouraged his artistic interest and took him to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where he saw his first original oil painting. After winning a Judson Scholarship, Herring traveled to Canada and England in 1914. He then won a scholarship to Syracuse University, where he studied at the Crouse College of Fine Arts. He joined the Thumb Box Society (a group that produced small paintings), and won first prize at the Society's public exhibition in 1915. He also taught for two summers in the department of art at Wilberforce University in Ohio. He had a solo exhibition of his work in 1916, where he sold several paintings, and graduated from Syracuse in 1917 with a Bachelor of Pedagogy in Art degree. In the fall of 1917, Herring was appointed to teach art at Haven Academy in Meridian, Mississippi. A year later, he was appointed education secretary for the YMCA in Mussel Shoals, Alabama, and then Camp Lee, Virginia. Herring spent most of the summer of 1918 traveling throughout the Midwest and South, and in September took a job teaching art at Straight College in New Orleans. He returned to Greensboro to teach art at Bennett College in 1920, and won a teaching position at Howard University in the fall of 1921.

Herring was hired as an architectural drawing instructor in the Department of Architecture (which had only been established in 1919), but almost immediately announced his intent to establish a Department of Art. His plans were met with derision from the administration and faculty, who argued that they were preparing students for the ministry and only needed to teach music. But by the end of 1921, Herring had convinced Dean Harold Hatfield to establish an art department at Howard. Herring stressed a broad knowledge of art, and did not privilege the study of African art as many African American scholars suggested. Alain Leroy Locke, a Howard philosophy professor, openly opposed Herring. (Some suspect that Locke, who was gay, competed with Herring for the attention of young and attractive male students at Howard.)

In 1927, Herring organized an exhibition of Howard student works that toured the Deep South, and the success of this tour led Herring to conceive of an art gallery at the university. The Howard University Gallery of Art was officially established in 1928, and Herring hired Alonzo J. Aden, one of his former students, as its first curator. The Howard Gallery of Art formally opened on April 7, 1930.

Some time in the late 1920s, Herring assisted local painter Alma Thomas in buying a townhouse at 127 Randolph Place NW. Herring, meanwhile, continued to live in a small townhouse at 2201 2nd Street NW.

Alonzo James Aden was born May 6, 1906, in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to Ephraim and Naomi (nee Barnett) Aden. His father was a hotelier, and his mother a school teacher. Alonzo (everyone called him "Lonnie") often claimed that his ancestors were not slaves but had voluntarily emigrated from Africa to the United States (although there is no proof of this). Both his parents were very light-skinned, and Aden had blonde hair into his early 20s and green eyes. Alonzo was sent to Washington, D.C., in 1920 to live with his uncle, James Aden, and his wife Laura. His mother was a noted seamstress in town, and his uncle a porter. Aden graduated from Armstrong High School and studied at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, before returning to D.C. and enrolling at Howard in 1927. He enrolled in the Department of Education to obtain his teaching degree.

In 1929, Aden moved into Herring's home on 2nd Street. Unsurprisingly, Aden developed an interest in art, and Herring hired him as a gallery assistant at the Howard Gallery of Art in 1930. Aden received his Bachelor of Arts in Education in 1933. That same year, Alma Thomas sold her interest in the Randolph Place house to Herring, and Herring added Aden's name as co-owner. Herring and Aden moved into the home in 1934. Herring was 47, and Aden just 28.

Herring and Aden lived a rarified, genteel existence on Randolph Place. They sniffed haughtily at African American folk music and spirituals, and pointedly discriminated against darker-skinned black people. Aden was impeccably dressed at all times in tailored suits with padded shoulders, and loved Russian felt hats and fur-trimmed longcoats. Herring sported a diamond tie clip; in summer, he wore snow-white jacket and in winter he draped a black cape across his shoulders and carried a cane. Bon vivants, they entertained formally several times a week. Each was a skilled gourmet cook, had an exceptionally sharp wit, and was a gifted storyteller.

Aden won a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship and took a leave of absence from his job at Howard University to study museum curation and administration in 1935. He graduated from the Buffalo Museum of Science in February 1936 with a certificate in Visual Education. That spring, he was tapped by the U.S. Department of Commerce to be the curator for the Hall of Negro Life at the Texas Centennial Exposition planned for October of 1936. Aden returned to Howard in 1937, but in 1938 he was named one of 10 recipients of an American Association of Museums travel grant. Aden spent the year traveling to London, Cologne, Berlin, Dresden, Munich, Venice, Florence, Rome, and Brussels. He returned to Howard in 1939, and in 1940 was named curator of the Tanner Hall Art Galleries at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago (the "Negro World's Fair"). His success there (the event drew 250,000 people) led the National Gallery of Art to commission a series of "curatorial lectures" from him in 1941 and 1942.

Aden resigned from Howard in 1943. The reasons are unclear, but most of his professional associates later suggested that he had engaged in a sexual indiscretion of some kind. Had he discussed his homosexual relationship with Herring in public? Did he have a dalliance with a student or other professor that became known? Had he engaged in a sex act in public? No one knows.

On October 16, 1943, Aden and Herring opened the Barnett Aden Gallery at their home on Randolph Place. The gallery was named for Aden's mother, Naomi Barnett Aden. Over the next 25 years, the Barnett Aden Gallery held nearly 200 exhibitions (six to eight new exhibitions a year) showcasing the work of as many as 400 artists. It was one of the first black-owned art galleries in the nation, and one of the first art galleries in Washington, D.C.

Alonzo Aden was the director of the gallery, which occupied the first floor of their home and was intermingled with their possessions. Aden, like Herring, did not focus primarily on African American art – even though historians often discuss the collection in those terms. Instead, Aden sought to display the work of talented artists without regard to race, gender, ethnicity, or national origin. This philosophy did away with the racially segregated art exhibitions so common at the time, and provided a space for African American artists to mingle professionally and socially with white artists.

Only about 25 percent of the works exhibited at the Barnett Aden Gallery were by African Americans. About 40 percent of the shows were solo exhibitions, but these were evenly divided between black and non-black artists. About a third of the solo exhibitions featured women. Nearly all the works exhibited at the Barnett Aden were by contemporary rather than dead artists, and nearly all the works were by Americans (rather than international artists).

Today, museum professionals are surprised by the large number of upper-echelon artists who exhibited at the Barnett Aden Gallery. These same artists showed their work at the Corcoran, the Phillips, the Franz Bader Gallery, the Dupont Theater Gallery, the Watkins Gallery at American University, and the Jefferson Place Gallery.

The Barnett Aden Gallery never advertised its openings, and never advertised works of art for sale. It relied completely on word of mouth and networking among artists to promote itself. There was no sign in front of the house, merely a small plaque next to the front door. The gallery never made money; all exhibition sales income went back to the artists. (Herring taught at Howard University, and Aden held several government day jobs.)

New exhibits always opened on a Saturday night, with a cocktail party to celebrate. On the second floor, Aden and Herring established a "print room", where they established and swiftly grew a collection of prints by well-known American and European artists. Works of art in all media (painting, sculpture, textiles, ceramics) remained on view in the house at all times.

When the Barnett Aden Gallery opened in 1943, Washington, D.C., had almost no art galleries. One was the Whyte Bookstore and Gallery, located at 1520 Connecticut Avenue NW. It opened in 1938. Another was the G Place Gallery, established by Caresse Crosby in 1942 and located at 916 G Place NW. (Crosby's friend, David Porter, opened the David Porter Gallery on the second floor of G Place in 1943.) But these galleries catered only to white artists and white patrons. The Barnett Aden Gallery changed all that by providing an inclusive space for artists of all races to meet and socialize. This proved such a spark to the local art community that in 1945 William Calfee, chairman of the Department of Art at American University, opened the C. Law Watkins Memorial Gallery at AU and began publishing a small arts journal, "The Right Angle". By the early 1950s, the AU art department was regarded in many quarters as "the" avant-garde art department in the nation.

Alonzo Aden died suddenly of a heart attack at his home on October 13, 1961. His funeral was held at Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel at Howard University. It is not clear where he was buried.

The frequency of new exhibits at the Barnett Aden Gallery declined after Aden's death. Herring was 74 at the time of his partner's passing, and he was no longer able to provide the kind of energy the gallery required.

James V. Herring died of a heart attack at his home on May 29, 1969. His funeral was held at Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel at Howard University. It is not clear where he was buried. His home was sold to pay his bills.

After Herring's death, the artworks still held by the Barnett Aden Gallery were bequeathed to three people. Herring's friend, artist Adolphus Ealey, inherited most of the collection, including all its ceramics, oil paintings, watercolor paintings, and mixed-media works. Herring's books, graphic arts, and prints went to Dr. Felton J. Earls (still alive, and a noted professor of social medicine at Harvard University), while the sculpture went to Dr. Cecil Marquez (a doctor of internal medicine living in Harlem).

Ealey radically altered the Barnett Aden collection, adding a large number of works by black artists. Ealey spent most of the next several decades telling everyone that the Barnett Aden collection was primarily an African American art collection.

Ealey spent years trying to find a home for the Barnett Aden collection – which remained almost completely intact (albeit with additions). But he could never find anyone willing to pay for it, and in 1991 he sold the collection to the Florida Endowment Fund for Higher Education. It was displayed at the Tampa Museum of African American Art. The Tampa museum went bankrupt, and in 1998 BET founder Robert L. Johnson purchased the collection.

Johnson stored the Barnett Aden collection in D.C., and in 2016 announced that major portions of the collection would be donated to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.


  1. Terrific article! I am writing a biography of the artist, Laura Wheeler Waring. Nice to see this kind of scholarship about people whose lives/work intersected with hers.

  2. Thank you! These two are pioneers in art, and in the D.C. art scene. Yet, they're almost completely unknown. Herring at least is recognized on the campus of Howard University, although I doubt most students know much about him except that "he was a respected art professor" (which anyone could guess, since his name is on the art gallery).

  3. Great story, but a lot of what happened with the collection in the 1970's and 1980's has not been told. Also the collection was sold to the Florida Endowment in 1989 and not 1991.