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Jeff Donaldson

Jeff Donaldson is an African American artist, art historian, and critic who has helped to articulate the philosophy and aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement in the United States. Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, a black college town, in 1937, Donaldson was three when his older brother started drawing. This encouraged him to start drawing cartoons and comic books as well.

Donaldson's love of the arts continued, and upon enrolling in the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, he established the school's first arts major. Here, his lifelong interest in Afrocentric art was nurtured under the tutelage of John Howard, who mentored under the great Harlem Renaissance artist Hale Woodruff. After graduating with a Masters Degree in Fine Arts from the Institute of Design of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, Donaldson obtained a Ph.D. in African and African American Art History from Northwestern University.

Through his involvement with the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), a group Donaldson helped form in Chicago, he organized the visual arts workshop that painted the Wall of Respect in 1967. The mural celebrated significant African Americans and set in motion a movement of outdoor murals painted in United States cities throughout the 1970s. Along with Wadsorth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and other African American artists, Donaldson founded AfriCobra (an acronym for African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) in Chicago in 1968. AfriCobra established its objectives in developing a new African American aesthetics as well as its commitment to the principles of social responsibility, involvement of artists in their local communities, and promotion of pride in Black self-identity.

As a painter, Donaldson has participated in over 200 group and solo exhibitions in galleries and museums in Africa, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, and the United States. He has written numerous critical essays and has served as the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Howard University. Donaldson also served as Vice President of the Board of Directors of The Barnes Foundation and was on the Board of Directors of the National Center for Afro-American Artists.

Jeff Donaldson passed away on February 29, 2004 at the age of 71.

Accession Number

A2001.023

Sex

Male

Archival Photo 1
Interview Date

4/23/2001

Last Name

Donaldson

Maker Category
Middle Name

Richardson

Occupation
Schools

Merrill Junior High School

Merrill High School

University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff

Illinois Institute of Technology

Northwestern University

Search Occupation Category
Archival Photo 2
First Name

Jeff

Birth City, State, Country

Pine Bluff

HM ID

DON01

Favorite Season

All Seasons Except Winter

State

Arkansas

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

District of Columbia

Interview Description
Birth Date

12/15/1932

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Washington

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Peas (Black-Eyed)

Death Date

2/29/2004

Short Description

Painter Jeff Donaldson (1932 - 2004 ) was one of the founders of the artists' group AFRI-COBRA. Donaldson helped articulate the Black Arts Movement in the United States. His influential work as a muralist began with Wall of Respect, a 1967 project in Chicago.

Employment

Marshall High School Art Dept

Northeastern Illinois State University

Northwestern University

Howard University College of Fine Arts

Favorite Color

All Colors

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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating for the Jeff Donaldson interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Jeff Donaldson identifies five favorite things

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Jeff Donaldson talks about his mother's background and the family's pride

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Jeff Donaldson shares his mother's "mythology" about his father who died when he was four

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Jeff Donaldson tells stories about his legendary grandfather, John Donaldson

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Jeff Donaldson identifies his siblings and talks about his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Jeff Donaldson shares childhood memories of Pine Bluff, Arkansas

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Jeff Donaldson discusses himself as a student

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Jeff Donaldson recalls creating his own comic books as a child

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Jeff Donaldson discusses an influential teacher and the limits of black ambition

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Jeff Donaldson recalls choosing to study art at Arkansas A. M. and N. and the creation of an art major there

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Jeff Donaldson talks about schools in Pine Bluff and his drawing in high school

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Jeff Donaldson relates the migration of his family while he remained in Arkansas for college

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Jeff Donaldson describes his social life at Arkansas AM&N

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Jeff Donaldson discusses segregated black schools teaching black history and pride

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Jeff Donaldson discusses the influence of his mentor John Howard

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Jeff Donaldson talks about his mother's activism

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Jeff Donaldson talks about the black artists Hale Woodruff, Elizabeth Prophet and his mentor John Howard

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Jeff Donaldson recalls studying philosophy with George G. M. James at Arkansas AM&N College

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Jeff Donaldson credits weaving instructor Ivy Foster with teaching him discipline

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Jeff Donaldson shares observations from teaching in Mississippi in the late 1950s

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Jeff Donaldson discusses his time in the Army in Virginia and France

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Jeff Donaldson relates experiences with art, American expatriates and Africans while serving in France

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Jeff Donaldson describes studying design at Illinois Institute of Technology

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Jeff Donaldson identifies Chicago artists in OBAC, a black artistic movement

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Jeff Donaldson discusses the Wall of Respect, FBI disruption of OBAC and the mural movement

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Jeff Donaldson discusses the forming of AFRICOBRA and FBI tactics to create conflict in black activist groups

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Jeff Donaldson talks about AFRICOBRA

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Jeff Donaldson talks about AFRICOBRA's meetings and preparation for FESTAC '77

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Jeff Donaldson discusses the relevance of the critical art movements

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Jeff Donaldson talks about the connection between the black arts and black power movements

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Jeff Donaldson describes Chicago as a tough, energetic, creative place

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Jeff Donaldson talks about getting the first PhD in African American art history

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Jeff Donaldson discusses the current AFRICOBRA members

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Jeff Donaldson argues for honoring slave insurrection leaders

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Jeff Donaldson compares violent and nonviolent means in the struggle

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Jeff Donaldson tells of encounters with government agents and intimidation

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Jeff Donaldson discusses AFRICOBRA's relations with the U.S. State Department over FESTAC

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Jeff Donaldson details his experiences at FESTAC in Nigeria

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Jeff Donaldson discusses modern Nigeria and its rich history

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Jeff Donaldson talks about his years at Howard University

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Jeff Donaldson discusses the sense of oneness he found between Africa and the diaspora

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Jeff Donaldson analyzes the closeness between American blacks and whites

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Jeff Donaldson comments on American impatience

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Jeff Donaldson talks about his experiences as an instructor at Howard University

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Jeff Donaldson recalls actors who graduated from Howard University

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Jeff Donaldson comments on why he left Howard University after many years

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Jeff Donaldson talks about famous musicians at Howard University

Tape: 6 Story: 11 - Jeff Donaldson discusses his thoughts on Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Jeff Donaldson discusses the evolution of his painting style

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Jeff Donaldson talks about his artwork and other contemporary African American artists in Chicago

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Jeff Donaldson gives advice to the African American artist and comments how he sees himself in that role

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Jeff Donaldson discusses his hopes for the African American community

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Jeff Donaldson comments on his belief in reparations

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Jeff Donaldson talks about his legacy and how he would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

1$4

DAStory

5$1

DATitle
Jeff Donaldson tells stories about his legendary grandfather, John Donaldson
Jeff Donaldson discusses the Wall of Respect, FBI disruption of OBAC and the mural movement
Transcript
What do you know about his family? Did you have much inter--much interaction?$$(Simultaneously) Oh yes, indeed.$$Okay.$$He [Jeff Donaldson's father, Sidney Frank Donaldson] had nineteen brothers and sisters. And my grandfather, a legendary farmer and, and I guess, sire. He married two women. He had four children by my father's mother. And then he had subsequently sixteen by a second wife after his first wife died. But he was a legendary figure in, in Alabama and Arkansas. I'll give you one little anecdote. In the South--or I guess in any farm country they have a tradition of laying by one-half of the land. That is they don't cultivate one-half of the land during one planting season so that the land can rest and rejuvenate itself. So they have to clear the new land each year. And he would wait until everybody had assembled with their horses and their tractors, tractors and chains to pull up the roots after the trees had been cut. And then he would go out there, take off his shirt, and pull up one of the stumps with his bare hands. Another time he was said to have gone into the woods--always with people around, and taunted and challenged a bear to charge him. And he had two daggers in his hands. And when the bear charged, he raised his arms so that the bear could hug him and then he comes down on both sides with the knife. And he never had to go back to the farm to work at all during any of those seasons after doing those kinds of things.$$And his name?$$John.$$John Donaldson.$$He was quite a man. He was born in slavery. And--I guess he was maybe enslaved for about fifteen years. This is not a great grandfather. This is my grandfather. My dad was about 50, 51, 52 years old when I was born. But he was able to convince the man that had bought him away from the original family that was a King Plantation from the Carolinas--he was able to convince the guy who bought him whose name was Donaldson to bring his mother and his sisters into that slave family. Later on, one of his sisters was assaulted and he and his brother took care of that guy, to the extent that he would never do that again. And the guy who had been his "owner"--quote, unquote--helped him to get out of Ar-- Alabama. He and his brother. And they ended up in Arkansas. And his brother became a physician. Changed his name and became, became a physician. But my grandfather didn't change his name and remained a farmer, kept the same name. He was a pretty tough guy.$People in the A.A.C.M. [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] were very, very close to the group that--well, first of all, let me explain about OBAC [Organization of Black American Culture]. We had a meeting at the Lincoln Center in which I introduced the idea of a Visual Art Workshop and invited photographers and artists to come. And that's was the group. The OBAC Visual Art Workshop that began meeting. We--my idea was to start a school of art. To bring together all these artists, see what we all shared in terms of the visualization and try to see if we can use those things that we had in common. And create something that was distinctly ours, that-- a school, a style. And the only thing really we could agree on was the fact that we wanted to use our talents in the interests of the movement. So the Wall of Respect project became an ideal project, I thought would bring the group together and perhaps we could after that establish a, a movement or a school. But I did not anticipate what went on in 1967 in Chicago when the FBI started something called COINTELPRO. We--You know, that was a guerri--guerilla mural--mural. In other words we didn't ask permission to paint the building. The building was owned by a guy who didn't live in the neighborhood, who didn't come in the neighborhood. So we just commandeered it. And painted it. He came by after we started it because, you know, there was a great deal of publicity generated in the local press. And it went from there to the 'Washington Post', 'New York Times' and even stories in 'Der Spiegel' in Germany and all kinds--all over the world, actually. It became bigger than anything any of us had ever envisioned. People were coming from every place to look. And at that time, 1967, J. Edgar Hoover began something called COINTELPRO. Counter Intelligence Propaganda. And they invaded groups like Students of the Democratic Society [Students for a Democratic Society], the white group, the Weathermen, and they also infiltrated all the black groups that they could infiltrate. And the idea was to use an old communist trick--to get into a group, create dissension within group, and let them destroy each other. And that's what happened to the OBAC Visual Art Workshop. We imploded after that wall was completed. What started out as a extreme camaraderie and fraternity and brotherhood and sisterhood turned into meetings where we were all packing hate. Because we would get letters purporting to, to identify people as spies, as informants and stuff, and "The next time you get up on that scaffold to paint, you'll be shot down." And all kinds of things. One guy showed up with a new car. And everybody was then given the impression that he had taken a big chunk of money from Sammy Davis, Jr. because Sammy Davis, Jr. was gonna do a commercial in front of the wall to promote Robert Kennedy's candidacy for president. So that was another thing. So ultimately the Organization of Black American Culture Visual Art Workshop imploded. Because we had all kinds of people coming to the meetings and expressing all kinds of weird things--people who were not involved with the wall at all. But what happened was after that, over the next three or four years, more than 1200 of these murals were done in every major city in the country. Particularly in the North, in the East and in the West. And a few in the South. And it has spread even into other areas of the world. For example the Europeans give us credit for having started the street mural thing that encourages revolution and, and, and retribution, not revenge. And celebrating. Actually ours was just a celebration of the greatness of black people. It was a Negro history mural really. But the fact that it was done outside on a two story building 60 feet long and 30 feet high made Mayor [Richard J.] Daley and the powers that be in, in Chicago very uncomfortable. And [Congressman] Ralph Metcalfe chose the Wall of Respect, you know, to announce his break with the re--[Chicago] Democratic machine. Shortly after that, that whole area was condemned and that building was torn down that had the Wall of Respect on it. And of course the neighborhood was in a tizzy over that. And so the city promised that they would build a recreational center or something there and do all kinds of things on that site. And as of today [2001] that's a vacant spot at 47th [sic, 43rd] and Langley in Chicago. There's a little plaque that's almost overgrown with weeds talking about that's where the Wall of Respect was.$$So can you talk about--a little bit about--'cause it is a high I'm sure--$$(Simultaneously) Oh yeah.$$(Simultaneously)--in the group when you were doing it.$$(Simultaneously) Yeah.$$And can you talk about that?$$Yeah. Haki [Madhubuti, formerly Don L. Lee] and the poets from OBAC would come out and recite. Gwen [Gwendolyn] Brooks wrote a poem about the wall. She recited at the wall. The A.ACM would play. Darlene Blackburn and her group would dance. Kuumba [Theatre Company] would come out and emote. We had crowds like people going to a rock show watching us paint. There's a picture in 'Ebony'--I'll show you when we're finished--that shows you the kind of, of, of crowd that came out daily to see what was going on. Now it's ironic that when we went to this site, the only thing on that wall was a gang tag identifying that it's a gang's turf. That gang never left. And they never disturbed us working. As a matter of fact, we were able to leave our scaffold up, our paints and our brushes and everything in situ on the spot overnight. Nobody ever touched any paint. Nobody ever touched a ladder. Nobody touched the scaffold, anything. And when the project was completed, the gang started to extort money from people to come and look at the wall. Even the photographers who came to take pictures of the, the wall that they had the pictures on. It actually Nishi- Nitchi, Nitshi, what's the German uh--$$Ni--Ni--$$[Friedrich Wilhelm] Nietzsche$$Right Nietzsche.$$Said there's nothing more uncontrollable than something new coming into the world. And that people who--I'm paraphrasing. But people who bring something new into the world should be aware of the fact that they don't control the consequences of that. So that Wall of Respect was a great thing that happened. And people all over the world plugged into it. Particularly groups that had a gripe. But on the home turf where it really went down it destroyed a neighborhood. Now I don't know where those people went. But they, they cleared that area out. And if you go there now, they still haven't rebuilt it. It's almost like the land is scorched earth, you know? And what happened after that was really bizarre because all the--just about all the people that I've been mentioning were offered jobs some place else. All the whole AACM went to New York. The group that's there now is the second or third generation of AACM. I was offered a job here at Howard [University] and when I got here, I got a call from somebody who didn't identify themselves who said, "Are you satisfied now? And will you keep your big mouth shut? (pause) Do you like your job? You're making a lot of money? You got a good position?"$$Hmm. That's very interesting. Hmm! You hear these things--$$Oh! It's, it's, it's absolutely true. And it wasn't just--They were equal opportunity oppressors.$$(Simultaneously) Right, it's true.$$They got everybody.$$Right. Right. So now--so you came--But you came here [to Washington, D.C.]--$$In '70 [1970].