Black history month is a great time to connect or reconnect with people who have made a difference – sometimes in my own life. It’s a chance to learn more about great people I’ve known or known about – people about whom I have always wanted to learn more.
Delilah W. Pierce is one such person. When I was a neophyte librarian at District of Columbia Teachers College Mrs. Pierce was an art teacher. What I knew was that Delilah Pierce was an elegant – classy – soft-spoken lady, a loyal member of Phi Delta Kappa, who had been chosen to join a group of business leaders, educators and clergy to tour Europe and Africa, including Ethiopia, Nigeria and other nations still little known to Americans. What I knew best was that Ms Pierce labored without a proper classroom or adequate supplies to share her love of art. I knew Ms Pierce as a teacher who shared her vision with countless future teachers who attended DCTC, the woefully under-funded public institution that operated under the thumb of the United States Congress….
Ignoring the conditions, Ms Pierce embraced her role as educator with a spirit of hope that she shared generously with students and faculty alike.
It wasn’t until much later that I learned that Delilah Pierce was highly regarded in the world of African American artists – a world as yet unknown to many American art lovers. I discovered Ms Pierce the painter on a stroll down the C&O Canal near Georgetown when I happened upon her studio and gallery. Her paintings were everywhere – magnificent depictions of seacoasts and rural landscapes that reflected New England more than the banks of the Potomac…. For the first time, I saw Delilah Pierce, the artist, a woman highly regarded by colleagues and critics, a woman I had never known in the uniquely dreary setting of DCTC.
Born in 1904 in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC Ms Pierce knew segregation, racial tension, rampant injustice. She also knew activism, including the rise of labor unions, evolving housing patterns, and the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Her biographer writes that “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 for traditional African American heritage art. …In many ways she liberated herself by capturing the beauty of the New England and European coastal landscapes….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.”
One of her biographers writes that “Delilah captured what was beautiful, simple, and innocent in the world.” Art critic Judith Means adds that “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.”
I never really got to know Delilah Pierce, the artist; I knew her as a colleague in the challenge to share the joy of learning and beauty with young people for whom hope was elusive and racial injustice was immediate.
It is delayed joy for me to know that I can visit her work in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Museum of Modern American Art, the Howard University Gallery of Art, the Smith-Mason Gallery of Art and other sites. Of even greater joy is the knowledge that Ms. Pierce’s work is also on display at the University of the District of Columbia, a major institution built on the ashes of DCTC. Before Delilah Pierce’s death in 1992 that institution awarded Miss Pierce an honorary doctorate, a token award for a grand woman who did not hesitate to share her immense talent with some of the District’s most deserving students.
To learn more about Delilah Pierce, the woman and the artist, visit her website. Or find her story on Facebook or twitter. The photographs of her paintings tell the story far better than words.