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Civil Rights & Black History

 

"Sculpture is not a self-declaration but a voice of and for my people—over all, a rich fabric; under all, the dynamism of the African American people."


Richard Hunt

"At age 19, [Hunt] attended the 1955 funeral of Emmett Till and identified that as a turning point for his artistic life. Before long, he would devote himself to civil rights and creating art that expressed the critical need for human freedom and social justice."

 

- National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)

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1956

 

Richard Hunt was just a teenager when Emmett Till was brutally murdered in 1955. The experience of attending Till's open-casket funeral had a profound impact on the trajectory of Hunt's work.

Two pieces in particular were created soon after Till's death, in 1956, including Hero's Head and Prometheus, that are Hunt's direct reflections on Till's death.

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March 16, 1960

Richard Hunt was the first known African American to peacefully desegregate Woolworth's in San Antonio, Texas by eating at the lunch counter on March 16, 1960. Vince Michael, who is on a campaign to save the Woolworth's building, describes the event in detail in his blog.

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1967-1969

Initially titled The Chase, the primary inspiration of the work was the myth of Diana and Actaeon from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but Hunt has also suggested that the graphic images widely published of police officers and their dogs violently pursuing civil rights activists in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 had also been on his mind. He states, “In my early work, I took inspiration from classical mythology. After watching demonstrators in Birmingham attacked by dogs, I reflected on the story of Actaeon who, condemned by the goddess Diana, was pursued, and killed by hounds. Both versions of my work titled The Chase were explorations of this theme of pursuit. For my first major public commission Play, I returned to the

images of Birmingham.” (excerpt from Richard Hunt: Monumental, 2023)

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John Jones

1968

Hunt’s John Jones (1968) was on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 1968 before being installed on the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. The work, now in the collection of the DuSable Museum of African American History, memorializes the abolitionist John Jones (1817–1879), the first African American elected to public office in the state of Illinois. "The forms of the sculpture symbolize the kind of struggle [John Jones] had, and how difficult it was for him as a Negro. I used the form like a block growing out of his foot to show the weight he had to bear as a Negro as he climbed. And the other block growing out of his shoulder to show how his burden held him down at the same time he was trying to climb," says Richard Hunt.

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1975

Hunt’s reflections on King’s contributions informed From Here to There, for the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Service Center on Chicago’s South Side.

 

Two 7-foot-high welded bronze sculptures, each atop a brick pedestal that more than doubled their height, stood about 30 feet apart at the rear of the building. These sculpture elements not only occupy but also bridge space, encouraging viewers to draw spatial and conceptual connections–not just a here and a there but a here to a there. As Hunt explained in publicity materials, by creating a gulf between two fixed points, he was inviting viewers to consider the legacy of the Center’s namesake: “how King’s movement got started, how far it has gotten, and how far it didn’t go…”  (excerpt from Richard Hunt: Monumental, 2023)

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1977

The sculpture elicits a wide range of formal associations and has been read as a range of mountains or pyramids, a recumbent sphinx connecting Memphis to Egypt, or a garbage truck referencing the two sanitation workers who were crushed to death in the truck’s trash compactor that set off the sanitation workers’ strike. According to Hunt, “One of the early models had ... paddle wheels, references to boats on the Mississippi. Part of incorporating them into it had to do with the idea of trying to move the mountain form: energize this sort of solid unmoving thing, which was like the institution of segregation.”13 Even Hunt’s choice of Cor-Ten Steel resonates with meaning. Cor-Ten Steel is named for its corrosion resistance (Cor) and high tensile strength (Ten) properties. The metal develops a rich brownish-red protective surface when exposed to moisture and oxygen, enforcing the earthy nature of Hunt’s mountain and the resilience of the metal, a metaphor for King’s enduring message of deliverance to the promised land.

 

In 2018, I Have Been to the Mountain became the centerpiece of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Reflection Park. Appropriately, this site in Memphis lies only blocks away from the Mason Temple, where King delivered his final speech, and the Lorraine Motel, where the civil rights leader was assassinated (and in 1991 was rededicated as The National Civil Rights Museum). (excerpt from Richard Hunt: Monumental, 2023)

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1977

Hunt's Jacob’s Ladder, an ambitious two-part welded-bronze sculpture, is installed at Carter G. Woodson Regional Library on Chicago’s South Side. The library’s namesake, the historian Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950), was the creator of Negro History Week, which evolved into African American History Month, now celebrated every February.

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1981

Richard Hunt’s Spirit of Freedom is installed in Kansas City, Missouri. At the ceremony, the African American city councilman Bruce R. Watkins states that the sculpture and fountain are “dedicated to the men and women who came here a century ago, as slaves, who felled the trees, built the roads, launched their dreams.”

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1983

In his second major homage to Martin Luther King, Jr., Hunt created the six-foot-tall, welded bronze sculpture From the Sea. The concept behind the sculpture was the sermon that King delivered on May 17, 1956, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Entitled, “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore,” King’s speech commemorated the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s school desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Early in his sermon, King observed that while “the whole history of life is the history of a struggle between good and evil,” good ultimately triumphs. He expounded upon the Biblical story of Moses parting the Red Sea. Through God’s intercession, with the armies of the Pharaoh in pursuit, Moses parted the waters and led the people of Israel across the seabed to safety on the opposite bank. Afterward, the waves of the Red Sea crashed upon and drowned the Pharaoh’s army.

 

Hunt created From the Sea to sculpturally evoke the divine justice detailed in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon. “From the Sea begins as an uprising from which extends and arises natural forms that move outward and upward, with outreach and up-reach, then the descent of a cantilevered construction and the ascendancy of good over evil,” Hunt explained. Originally installed on the shoreline of the lake at McDonald’s headquarters, From the Sea stood both as a powerful early example of corporate social responsibility and a hopeful reminder of the power of perseverance, justice, and equality. (excerpt from Richard Hunt: Monumental, 2023)

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1984

Slowly Toward the North, a sculpture now on view in Crystal Bridges’ North Forest, commemorates the Great Migration, the large movement of Black Americans from the rural South to cities in the North from 1918-1970.

 

The work combines two symbolically significant forms: a train and a push plow. The train form emerges from the steam locomotive’s driving wheels and front-end cowcatcher whose components present themselves prominently in the work. Viewed from the opposing side, the work recalls the forms of stylized handles, handlebars, plowshare and wheel of a push plow cultivator used by Hunt in the South when visiting family. The two primary elements point in opposite directions; the locomotive faces north, an allusion to the mode of transportation that brought many Black southerners to the industrial North. The plow points toward the agrarian South, representing the human labor (rather than animal or machines) used to till the earth.

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1987

Hunt was tasked with designing a sculpture to memorialize the Middle Passage, the most brutal leg of a three-voyage trade that carried enslaved Africans to the Americas. In the first leg of the journey, European merchants sailed to Africa laden with goods: firearms, gunpowder, glass beads, brass, wool, and other cargo. These were traded for enslaved African men, women, and children who had been forcibly abducted from their inland homes to ports along the west and central west African coasts. From there, they were loaded onto ships to make the transatlantic voyage under horrific conditions. Upon arrival in the Americas, the Africans were sold in exchange for New World commodities such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton, which the slave dealers carried back to Europe on the third and final segment of the trade.

 

Hunt would later recollect:

“What interests me is that this was a triangular trade. The same boats that had the germs and excrement of the slaves took their products–cotton, molasses, and rum–back to Europe. From Europe, the slavers took guns, gunpowder, and beads to trade to the chiefs for slaves.” While Hunt “studied slave narratives, court accounts, and slave ownership records....” he was most profoundly influenced by Middle Passage, a poem composed by friend and poet laureate Robert Hayden who characterized the Middle Passage as a “voyage through death to life upon these shores.”

 

Hunt realized Hayden’s “voyage through death” as a journey walking up an incline towards and through the door of no return and into the cavernous belly of a slave ship, its hull split in two and listing at a perilous angle as if run aground or about to sink. For Hunt, “the sculpture reflects the dark and tragic experience of the people kidnapped from their homes, but the symbolic ship prow is broken open to the sky, suggesting future freedom.” The model commissioned has yet to become a fully realized monument.(excerpt from Richard Hunt: Monumental, 2023)

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1989

This public monument was created as a historical marker honoring African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) located blocks from her D.C. home. She was a co-founder of the NAACP, and a civil and women’s rights leader critical to these movements. Bethune was a hero of Hunt’s mother and one of the key figures that Hunt was taught to revere as a child.

 

Encompassing a visual expression of the long post-slavery struggle to secure an education for African Americans, From the Ground Up is an embodiment of education and freedom. Being armed with education and finding pride in being Black were critical elements of freedom referenced in Bethune’s famous quote, “If our people are to fight their way up out of bondage we must arm them with the sword and the shield and the buckler of pride.”34 Bethune’s sword, powerfully and gracefully executed in bronze, may be seen soaring high in the air extended above the sculpture representing the pride of African Americans fighting for education and freedom. The title recalls Bethune’s focus on building schools ‘from the ground up’ including what would eventually become Bethune- Cookman University, a historically Black university in Daytona Beach, Florida. (excerpt from Richard Hunt: Monumental, 2023)

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1991-96

Flintlock Fantasy or The Promise of Force, is without doubt, the most visually aggressive and viscerally threatening composition of Hunt’s career. Weighing 700 pounds and standing more than seven feet in height, this machine of destruction appears to unleash a barrage of weaponry–suggestive of spears, rocket launchers, and surface-to-air missiles. Hunt began developing this piece in response to the massive air and ground offensive unleashed against Iraq on January 16, 1991, marking the start of the Persian Gulf War. Hunt worked on this sculpture intermittently over the course of five years. The primary form is the hammer of a flintlock firearm. In the eighteenth century, flintlocks produced in Europe and specifically manufactured to trade for enslaved Africans, flooded the continent of Africa. The importation of flintlock muskets during this time has been identified as “the most important technical change in West Africa in slave gathering.” Flintlock Fantasy or The Promise of Force serves as a memorial to the gun-slave cycle and underscores the role of gunpowder technology in growing the transatlantic slave trade and transforming African economies.

 

Flintlock Fantasy or The Promise of Force is a meditation on endless cycles of war. Hunt explained, “Abstract art can communicate beauty as well as a message. Look at Picasso’s strong statement against war with Guernica.” Flintlock Fantasy or The Promise of Force is his most powerful statement against violence, war, and slavery. (excerpt from Richard Hunt: Monumental, 2023)

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2002

Hunt completed Tower of Aspiration, a forty-five-foot-tall work in welded stainless steel, for Springfield Village Park in Augusta, Georgia, to commemorate the achievements and aspirations of free African Americans and enslaved people who, at that site, developed a community dating to pre-Revolutionary times.

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2006

And They Went Down Both into the Water assumes its place as the sister piece to Tower of Aspiration in Springfield Village Park in Augusta, Georgia, across from the historic Springfield Baptist Church. Constructed in 1897, the church is home to the oldest independent African American congregation in the country. The work is inspired by the biblical story of the Ethiopian baptism (Acts 8:27–39), which underscores the ability of Black believers to participate in salvation.

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2016

Richard Hunt's Swing Low, a monumental welded-bronze sculpture, is installed as the centerpiece of the Central Hall of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. 

Hunt sees the arc segments in this hanging piece as a reference to the “swinging motion and wing-like forms” of the “band of angels,” made famous in the beloved Negro spiritual, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. According to the artist, the piece pays homage to Negro spirituals, and “their defining place in early colored religious, social and cultural self-consciousness.” (Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture)

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2021

 

The Light of Truth: Ida B. Wells National Monument is a bronze and marble public sculpture by artist Richard Hunt. Located in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, the sculpture takes its name from a quote by civil rights activist and investigative journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931): "The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them." It was unveiled in 2021 by the Ida B. Wells Commemorative Art Committee.

A feature documentary produced by Rana Segal and Laurie Little weave together the process of the creation of the monument of Ida B. Wells with her history and Richard Hunt’s history. Learn more...

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To be installed in 2025

The Obama Foundation has commissioned a sculpture, Book Bird, for the Obama Presidential Center on the South Side of Chicago. Hunt’s sculpture will be placed in the Library Reading Garden outside of the new Chicago Public Library branch on the Obama Presidential Center campus. Book Bird will depict a bird taking flight from a book to illuminate how reading and learning allows readers to enter new places and fly free. 

 

Hunt's monumental sculpture is based on the Book Bird Award he created, given to notable citizens who have dedicated their lives to the mission of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). Learn more...

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