Lilian Thomas Burwell recounts the life story of her aunt, unsung artist and educator Hilda Wilkinson Brown, and the influence she had on Burwell’s own career as an abstract expressionist artist. Their lives, works of art and sources of inspiration are presented against the backdrop of a segregated society where marginalized Black artists created their own venues to exhibit their work.
LILIAN THOMAS BURWELL: Hilda Wilkinson Brown
was my mother'’s oldest sister,
my aunt, my pseudo- mom, my other mom,
the most influential person in being who I am as an artist.
She painted out of pure joy and purpose of her own.
I don'’t understand why she told me that I was the artist
in the family and she wasn'’twhen I thought there was no way
that I could hold a candle to what she was doing.
BURWELL: I never thought I could draw.
I just knew I always wanted to play
with seeing what something would become.
Most of my work,
I'’d say nine-tenths of it, was not pre-planned.
It'’s always done as a dance, as point and counterpoint.
I never start off with an idea or a concept
that this is going to be something.
I allow it to become.
NARRATOR: She was born Lilian Virginia Thomas
on June 7th, 1927, to James Burchett Thomas
and Margaret Elizabeth Wilkinson Thomas.
BURWELL: I was born in Washington, D.C.
because my mother was from a Washington family,
and it was back in the day, in the '’20s,
when very often an expectant mother would go home
to have her baby so that their mother could be of help
to them if the mother could not come to where they were.
So I was born in Freedmen'’s Hospital,
which eventually became part
of Howard University'’s Hospital in Washington.
NARRATOR: Lilian'’s parents were educators
who had met when they were on the faculty
at North Carolina A&T State University
in Greensboro, North Carolina.
BURWELL: My father was teaching photography.
My mother was teaching English
as well as arts and crafts at that school.
NARRATOR: By the time their daughter Lilian was born,
James and Margaret Thomas had left their faculty positions
at North Carolina A&T and moved to Miami, Florida.
Two years later, the Depression hit.
BURWELL: Daddy was wiped out.
Daddy had taught photography
and had opened a photography studio
as part of the house that they purchased in Miami.
When he lost things during the Depression,
I was part of that migration with my family
north to New York, so I grew up in New York City.
Being born in 1927 and the Depression hitting us in 1929,
even though I had parents
who were well educated and highly principled,
we lost just about everymaterial advantage that we had.
They had come from being college teachers
to daddy being a janitor
and mother working in the sweatshops in New York.
But I watched things around me
being constantly made out of nothing,
not from having what we had, but from what we did not have,
learning the advantage of disadvantage.
I went to the Little Red School House,
which was one of the experiments in education
that taught you to think things through
instead of teaching facts to memorize.
They were able to get a scholarship for me
based on the fact that we were of a low income,
so I had that tremendousadvantage growing up in New York
with parents that had gonethrough so many difficult times.
When I first came to Washington, D.C.,
it was because there had been a fire in the apartment house
that we lived in, in New York.
I started my junior year at Dunbar High School
in Washington, D.C.,
which was my first awakening to what segregation meant
because in New York I was not conscious of the separation
even though we lived in neighborhoods
that were separated.
Actually, the segregated high school
was much to my advantage.
The teachers who taught there were some of the best brains
in the country because they had been denied access
in other parts of the country because of racial segregation.
So I had the advantage of some of the best minds
in our race.
It was taken for granted that we had to be twice as good
to be given half the credit, so we were always encouraged
to be the best that we could be and not to be concerned
about other people'’s evaluation of us.
NARRATOR: In 1944, Lilian received a scholarship
to attend Pratt Institute'’s School of Art in New York.
BURWELL: Pratt was considered
the top art school in the country,
and I saw myself as an artist
even though many other people did not.
In that day, for an African American woman,
it was "Negro" then, to go into a field
that didn'’t have any guarantee of survival.
NARRATOR: She credits her aunt, Hilda Wilkinson Brown,
for persuading her parents to allow her to study art.
BURWELL: She said, "Let her study to teach art
"and the students can be the patrons who feed her
"so she can make art."
And with that, her convincing my parents of that,
to allow me that liberty,
is what allowed me to learn to fly.
BURWELL: Hilda and her husband bought my art materials.
They paid for my books.
My parents were justrecovering from the Depression,
so they gave that very monetary backing.
I barely realized it at that time
but I don'’t know what I would'’ve done without it.
NARRATOR: Native Washingtonian
Hilda Wilkinson Brown
was born Hilda Rue Wilkinson in 1894.
Hilda attended Washington D.C.'’s racially segregated
public schools, graduating from M Street High School,
the first African American public high school
in the nation.
She pursued art studies at The Cooper Union School of Art
and the National Academy of Design in New York.
Hilda'’s earliest drawings can be found
beginning in 1918 in "The Crisis,"
the official magazine of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People.
(Narrator reads letter aloud)
(typewriter sound effect)
Launched in 1910 and still published today,
"The Crisis" was first edited by one of the founders
of the NAACP,
scholar, writer, and civilrights activist, W.E.B. Du Bois.
"The Crisis" published articles and essays
about racial and social injustice,
the achievements of African Americans,
Black culture, and history.
Under the direction of literary editor,
Jessie Redmon Fauset,
"The Crisis" also featured fictional work and poetry.
Hilda was one of several artists who illustrated
the magazine'’s covers, short stories, poems, and articles.
In 1920, W.E.B. Du Bois launched "The Brownies'’ Book,"
the first magazine of its kind
for African American children.
Du Bois wanted to instill in young African Americans
a sense of racial identity and self-esteem.
The magazine'’s inside cover proclaimed,
"This is the '’Brownies' Book,'’
"A monthly magazine for the children of the sun,
"designed for all children, but especially for ours."
"The Brownies'’ Book" included biographies
of accomplished African Americans,
photos featuring Black children, folk tales and fairy tales,
poems, songs, games, and illustrations.
As one of the primary illustrators
of "The Brownies'’ Book,"
Hilda created the artwork for many of the magazine'’s covers
and its short stories.
Among the contributors to "The Brownies'’ Book"
was 19-year-old poet and writer, Langston Hughes,
whose poems and short stories
were published in the magazine.
Although "The Brownies'’ Book" ceased publication
after two years due to financial difficulties,
it became an important venue for showcasing the work
of African American writers and artists,
and opened the door for the development
of African American children'’s literature.
In 1923, Hilda joined the art faculty
of Miner Normal School, renamed Miner Teachers College
in 1929 after it became afour-year teaching institution.
KIMBERLY SPRINGLE: Washington, D.C. was a segregated city
in facilities and in public education,
so Miner Teachers College
was the teachers college for African American students,
whereas Wilson Teachers College was the school
where white students attended to pursue teaching.
NARRATOR: During her 38-year teaching career,
Hilda taught a wide range of art classes,
served as chairperson of the art department,
and created set and costume designs
for the school'’s theater productions.
While teaching at Miner, she received her Bachelor'’s degree
from Howard University in Washington, D.C.
and her Master of Arts degree from Columbia University
in New York.
In 1934, Hilda and her husband, physician Schley Brown,
made their home at Third andRhode Island Avenue, Northwest,
in Washington, D.C.'’s LeDroit Park neighborhood.
MAYBELLE TAYLOR BENNETT: LeDroit Park is located
just to the south of Howard University.
If you find Howard University, you will find LeDroit Park.
LeDroit Park was established in 1873.
It was intended to be exclusive, exclusively white,
and it was intended to have a very bucolic aura about it.
NARRATOR: A wooden fence separated LeDroit Park
from the predominantly African American community
of Howard Town.
After protests by African Americans,
the fence was eventually torn down.
BENNETT: African Americans started moving into
we believe in about 1893.
This was a community where you had
everything from military brass, to educators,
to judges and artists and scientists.
Here you had people who were accomplished
and who reinforced the accomplishments of each other.
NARRATOR: Across the street from Hilda'’s house
was the Elks Lodge, which hosted music concerts,
bridge clubs, teas, and parties.
LeDroit Park was also home to Griffith Stadium,
where crowds cheered
the Washington Senators baseball team,
the Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues,
and the Washington Redskins football team.
BURWELL: Hilda'’s paintings were mostly of LeDroit Park.
She did a painting that was the back of Griffith Stadium.
You could see the lights as they looked at night
coming out of people'’s windows and then beyond that,
you could see the bright lights from the stadium itself
where games were being taken place.
She could look out the front window across the street,
which was the corner of Third and Rhode Island,
and she painted that painting.
And she could look up the side street,
which led up to the circle on Logan Circle.
And across the street from the old Elks home,
that was another painting.
There'’s a painting she did looking out of the window
in the ceramics studio where she taught
and you could see the buildings
that she passed on her way home.
I can almost see her coming home from teaching at Miner,
the whole path that she took on her way home.
Langston Hughes was one of the many people
that lived in the neighborhood of LeDroit Park.
He only lived there a short period of time.
He lived with relatives.
There'’s nothing for me to do but assume that the young man
studying is Langston Hughes because it looks like him
and that'’s one of the portraits
that I really love that she did.
Hilda was extremely family oriented.
She never had children of her own,
so all of her sisters'’ and her brother'’s children
were her children.
She painted portraits of them.
She painted a portrait of the girl
that she had that came every day and cooked for them
and cleaned the house.
She never stopped admiring the dignity
and the expertise of the people who worked for her.
NARRATOR: Hilda'’s painting, "Ada,"
was one of 97 works by Black artists
exhibited in the Hall of Negro Life
during the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition
in Dallas, Texas.
A committee of African American businessmen
and civic leaders had successfully lobbied
the federal government,
under the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt,
to provide funding for the hall.
More than 400,000 peoplevisited the Hall of Negro Life,
which was the first official recognition
of African American achievements
at a world'’s fair in the United States.
Three years later, Hilda'’s linoleum block prints
illustrated the pages
of sociologist E. Franklin Frazier'’s book,
"The Negro Family in the United States."
This seminal book examined the historical conditions
that influenced the development
of the African American family.
In 1940, Hilda'’s painting, "Still Life With Tulips,"
was exhibited at the Howard University Gallery of Art,
where a visitor wasphotographed admiring the work.
DAVID DRISKELL: I was a student, I guess one would say curator,
actually, in training at the Barnett Aden Gallery
from 1952 until I graduatedfrom Howard University in 1955.
Professor Hilda Wilkinson Brown
was actually one of the artists who exhibited there
from time to time,
but I would see her at almost every opening.
The Barnett Aden Gallery was the one institution
in Washington, D.C. where African American artists
could exhibit their works.
It was really, still, a highly segregated city
and artists of color really had a hard time
showing their work anyplace
other than the African American schools.
The Barnett Aden Gallery waslocated in a private residence,
just south of LeDroit Park.
It was founded in 1943 by Alonzo Aden and James Herring.
James Herring, at that time,
was the chairman of the artdepartment at Howard University.
Alonzo Aden had been a curator at Howard University,
that was his first assignment,
and it became an importantplace for artists of all colors
to meet, not just African American artists,
but it was principally for African American artists
to exhibit their works.
It was there that I first saw Hilda'’s work
along with Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden,
Norman Lewis, Lois Jones, James Porter.
BURWELL: Uncle Schley built a cottage for Hilda
on Oak Bluffs, which was part of Martha'’s Vineyard,
where every summer, when school was out,
she headed to Oak Bluffs.
It was very well known as an escape place
for more privileged African Americans
who weren'’t accepted other places.
DRISKELL: I think in one phase of her work,
particularly when she went for the summer excursions
or living up at Martha'’s Vineyard,
there may have been more of a freedom in her work,
a kind of replenishing of ideas,
a redefinition of subject matter.
NARRATOR: After two years at Pratt Institute,
Lilian married at the age of 19.
She gave birth to her daughter, also named Lilian,
whom she raised as a single mother
after separating from her husband 12 years later.
BURWELL: I was earning my living by doing graphics
and publication design, nothing really, really creative.
I had not really been painting in any serious manner at all.
At first, my work was a little bit figurative
or an attempt at some kind of figurative thing
where I saw figures as part of a broader design.
NARRATOR: A class with artist Benjamin Abramowitz
changed the course of Lilian'’s painting style.
BURWELL: The analogy I always make is that Ben opened up
a hole into Alice'’s wonderland through which I fell
and I stopped thinking in terms of what I saw
with simply making a statement
and responding to that statement
and letting it build and build and build,
which is another way of
expressing abstract expressionism.
I always loved gardening,
watching the whole cyclical process of things as they grow
and all my work started looking like things
that had to do with that unfolding of nature.
Everything was an abstraction of something floral,
of growing, roses that were opening.
Aunt Hilda loved the earth,
planting things and seeing them grow.
That love of the earth is, is in my bones, too.
Her confidence in me was overwhelming
and so I never doubted, whatever I was doing,
I should continue in and not stop.
NARRATOR: Lilian followed in her aunt Hilda'’s footsteps
and taught art in Washington, D.C.'’s public schools.
BURWELL: I'’ve always learned more from my students
than anything I was able to teach them,
but I will take credit for being a good one to unlock doors.
I was teaching at Duke Ellington School of the Arts
from 1975 until 1980,
which is when I retired early to take advantage
of the opportunity to delve completely into my art.
I had taken care of my mother in the last year of her life.
It was just at the time that I had retired from teaching.
When she died, the grief overtook me to such an extent
that nothing came out of me.
In her apartment, she'’d had a large mirror
and I had a very tiny bathroom in this house where I was.
So I took the mirror, put it on the wall in my bathroom.
I got another mirror, put it on the opposite wall and,
of course, that gave you the sense of infinity.
So I said, "Let me cut some wood,"
and gradually, gradually built up this first bathroom
out of wooden shapes until all the walls
that were not mirror were wood.
And I looked at this painting that I couldn'’t solve
and I'’d been cutting the wood for the bathroom.
I simply took a knife and cut out the part of the painting
that did not work.
That was the last flat painting that I did.
All my paintings started to become constructions of wood
over which I stretched canvas and painted.
That'’s what I call the painting as sculpture
or sculptural painting.
At a certain point, I physically could not handle things
that size anymore,
so therefore I started cutting shapes out of plexiglass
where I take small shapes and give it the illusion of space
by taking plexiglass, cutting and shaping it,
putting it in an oven until it'’s malleable,
and letting it curve, and putting it in combination
with the wooden shapes.
Everything I'’ve done in all my art
has always been of an evolutionary nature like that.
It happens out of the circumstances of life,
of my limitations, about my sense there is no limit.
DRISKELL: One of the things that I find very interesting
in Lilian'’s work is the painterly aspect
of what she does in relation to sculpture.
She has jointly constructed a framework
which gives credence to the notion that painting
can be sculpture and sculpture can be painting.
It leaves the wall.
It occupies the floor, and at the same time,
she'’s able to give us a feel for the brushstroke,
and the kind of form that I would say
she all but invented on her own.
BURWELL: As an artist, I think I had to be trained
not to be concerned about how other people reacted,
but to know that the work that I was doing was important
to me because it was allowing me to breathe.
By the time somebody thought that my work was fitting
into some category, I had produced stuff that was beyond
other people'’s expectations.
And there'’s nothing as important as knowing
that you'’re not blowing your trumpet in an empty room,
so of course, exhibiting was always important to me,
but I tried psychologically not to have it affect
whether or not I continued to work.
I think the primary enjoyment that I get out of exhibiting
the work is the opportunity
that I have to connect to other people.
NARRATOR: Hilda Wilkinson Brown died on July 12th, 1981,
at the age of 86.
In 1983, Lilian curated a retrospective of Hilda'’s work
at the Howard University Gallery of Art.
BURWELL: Hilda was not given
her justice as far as showing the work
even though she exhibited
periodically through the decades,
so it was a retrospective that took up the three galleries
there at Howard University and gave her the attention
that I felt was long overdue.
NARRATOR: Many of Hilda'’s works
are now in museum and university collections.
Today, Lilian lives in Highland Beach, Maryland,
founded in 1893 as a summer resort for African Americans.
BURWELL: This was not completely foreign to me
because before Uncle Schley built a summer place
on Oak Bluffs for Aunt Hilda and himself,
she used to come and rent a cottage at Highland Beach.
I was living in New York, but occasionally I could come down
and spend a week with her
and this was quite a grand place to go.
I'’m still trying to find out what'’s gonna come out,
what'’s going to happen,
what is going to occur as a result of this one line.
It'’s an adventure.
It'’s a little scary because I know I ain'’t no spring chicken
no mo'’, but I'll go as long as I can go.