Wednesday, April 20, 2016

"Liberty on Church Street"

By Diana Gordon
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

This vibrant painting by Maizelle Brown hangs in our World War II gallery. The artist, a Hampton Roads local and lifelong Norfolk resident, often illustrates African-American history and culture in her artwork. This particular piece, Liberty, portrays visual information about the struggles of those facing segregation in our local area during World War II. Maizelle uses a thicker acrylic paint as her medium to express African-American experiences on Church Street, one of busy areas in segregated Norfolk. Church Street was where much of the African-American community's shopping, entertainment, and restaurants were located during the war years. This was the only area locally where African-American Sailors could enjoy the night life of Norfolk. 

Brown's choice of acrylic paint and use of lines expresses the wonders of a night out on-the-town. The rich bolder tones of the paint give the mood of an exciting nightlife: lights, movement, bustle, and action. The vibrant colors of yellow, green, blue, and even white add to the excitement. The acrylic paint allows for less defined lines and quicker brush strokes which gives the appearance of activity and movement. Church Street is illustrated as teeming with civilians and Sailors. The artist strategically forms lines, leading the viewer's eyes from the crisp faces in the foreground to the less distinct movements of people in the background. In addition, the lines of the buildings frame the blurred motion of those disappearing from the scene into the night. 

Although the artist paints a bold and colorful painting about night life on Church Street, she also includes a darker part of local history: segregation. Segregation practices grew even with the increase of African-Americans in the military. The number of black Sailors increased drastically during World War II, thanks to the expanding roles made available for African Americans in the armed services. Prior to the war, black sailors were limited to being mess attendants. It took pressure from organizations such as the NAACP to lead President Franklin Roosevelt to pledge that blacks could enlist in the military according to the percentage of their population. Although the true percentage was never actually met, numbers of African-American service members grew drastically across all military branches. 
African-Americans enjoying some night life. The man dancing is a Steward 1st Class. This was likely taken at the Smith Street USO (right off of Church Street). (Courtesy of the Sargeant Memorial Collection, Slover Library, Norfolk VA)
The artwork might seem energetic due to the medium and color choice, but a second look will express the segregation issue faced by many cities around the country during this time. The piece highlights that even during wartime, when the nation was united against common enemies, it was still divided by racial issues. Progress had been made, but there was still work to do. 

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