Powered by Portfolio: Teen Activist Inspired by Journal Article

Desmond Herzfelder didn’t set out to make history, but he did. On February 1, 2018, the first day of Black History Month, the Massachusetts high school student was on hand as Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke journeyed downstairs in his own department’s building to honor a mural.  There, Mitchell Jamieson’s 1940–1942 An Incident in Contemporary American Life received the first-ever designation as a site in the new African American Civil Rights Network.  With time, this network of monuments will preserve and interpret sites associated with the civil rights movement.  

The New Deal-era mural that Zinke recognized recalled African American contralto Marian Anderson’s stirring 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, an event that historians have identified as a seminal moment in the modern civil rights movement. Yet the painting was not simply a monument to one of the movement’s successes nor a celebration of an accomplished mission, but instead an active instrument in the campaign for social justice of that moment.  It applauded contemporary advocates and activists for the cause.  It looked to the future even more than the past.  It was a call to action; a summons to a commitment to a goal not yet reached.  And it remains that today.

Mural (detail) An Incident in Contemporary American Life by Mitchell Jamieson at the Department of Interior, Washington, D.C.; Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Program from designation ceremony, February 1, 2018

Photo of Marian Anderson from designation ceremony program, February 1, 2018

Marian Anderson mural dedicated. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8b07840

Herzfelder’s campaign to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the 1943 dedication of the mural began with a high school history paper assignment, which led him to Sara Butler’s 2005 article “The Art of Negotiation” for Winterthur Portfolio, a journal of American material culture produced by Winterthur Museum. Herzfelder credits the article as having “inspired me to pursue the celebration in the first place.”  Little did he know what an extended journey it would end up being.  Along the way Herzfelder approached the Interior Department about his plan, pressed forward with an op-ed in The Washington Post, and wrote letters to Zinke, various members of Congress, and Oprah Winfrey, among others.  He was the spark plug who pushed the project forward.  We never know where our work will lead, but we are proud to have played a small role in this effort to honor a brave voice in the civil rights movement. 

Winterthur Portfolio: A Journal of American Material Culture is available for subscription through the University of Chicago Press https://www.jstor.org/journal/wintport . Winterthur members at the Patron level and above receive a 20% subscription discount. To learn more about the journal, subscription information, or submission guidelines, click here.

Post by Sara A. Butler is professor of art and architectural history at Roger Williams University and contributed three articles to the Winterthur Portfolio: “The Art of Negotiation: Federal Arts, Civil Rights, and the Legacy of the Marian Anderson Concert, 1939–43” in 2005; “Groundbreaking in New Deal Washington, D.C.: Art, Patronage, and Race at the Recorder of Deeds Building” in 2011; and “A Plant Hunter’s Legacy: Japanese Trees in a New England Landscape, 1870–1930” in 2016.

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