William H. Johnson painted his Fighters for Freedom series in the mid-1940s as a tribute to black activists, scientists, teachers, and performers as well as international heads of state working to bring peace to the world. He celebrated their accomplishments even as he acknowledged the realities of racism, violence, and oppression they faced and overcame. Some of his Fighters—Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Marian Anderson, and Mahatma Gandhi—are familiar historical figures; others are less well-known individuals whose determination and sacrifice have been eclipsed over time. The exhibition is drawn entirely from the collection of more than 1,000 works by Johnson given to the Smithsonian American Art Museum by the Harmon Foundation in 1967.
Credit: William H. Johnson, Three Great Abolitionists: A. Lincoln, F. Douglass, J. Brown (detail), ca. 1945. Oil on paperboard, 37 3/8 x 34 1/4 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1983.95.51