An insurance firm's auction of African American art betrays its legacy and the community.
I'm not an intellectual. (A friend has removed most of the "ain'ts" and cuss words from this article.) I know something about art, but I'm not powerful or rich. I'm an old man now, tired and with some health issues. So it sometimes amuses me that whenever an African American cultural institution is under attack in this city, folks start phoning me like I'm the hero of "Shaft," as if I could fly out the door and take care of it.
What's got everyone so upset this time is the news that one of the black community's most admired businesses, the 82-year-old Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co., has put up for auction 94 of the works in its important and beloved collection of African American art. Among those on the block this Thursday in New York: sculptures by Elizabeth Catlett, a print by famed painter Jacob Lawrence and drawings by the father of Afro-American art, Charles White. Each one is a priceless work by an acknowledged American master.
The whole idea of the sale has put a knot in my stomach. Golden State Mutual has struggled in recent years, and auctioning this treasure -- for maybe as much as $2 million (chicken feed in the white art world, by the way) -- may provide capital it needs. If it's true, the thought of Golden State Mutual holding out its hand for pennies is almost equally painful.
When I was a boy, in the 1930s and '40s, Golden State Mutual and its proud agents literally did hold out their hands for pennies. In those days, blacks could, if they were lucky, buy burial insurance from white companies, but that was all. White folks were ready to plant us but not protect us. All that changed when Golden State Mutual came along. Black mothers, like my own, saved their pennies for life insurance policies that initially cost less than my shoes. Golden State Mutual grew into the largest black-owned insurance company west of the Mississippi.
The Golden State Mutual insurance man, in his rumpled seersucker suit and little briefcase, was a symbol of the entrepreneurial spirit of the black community. In 1949 (one year after I graduated from Jordan High School in Watts and took my first job as a janitor at the County Museum in Exposition Park), Golden State Mutual finally had enough capital, on the strength of all those mothers' pennies, to expand its business from a one-room office on Central Avenue into a five-story building on the corner of Western and Adams boulevards designed by the renowned black architect, Paul R. Williams. Its three founders -- George A. Beavers, Norman O. Houston and William Nickerson Jr. -- understood that the black community and its capital had made them, and they wanted to give something back.
They commissioned two dynamite artists from the Harlem Renaissance -- Charles Alston and Hale Woodruff -- to create two murals for the lobby of the new building. Under the joint title "The Negro in California History," they together tell the history of black people's struggles and achievements. Also in the lobby were bronze sculptures of the founders, commissioned from another Harlem Renaissance master, Richmond Barthé. The selection of artists like this to engage big themes like this made a hell of a statement.