In 1933, Aaron Douglas created a mural titled The Founding of Chicago. The mural depicts the role of slaves and free African Americans in the creation of American cities across the country. Standing in the centre of the mural, the Haitian founder of Chicago, Jean-Baptiste Pointe du Sable, surveys the urban environment he helped to construct. Behind du Sable, a shackled woman raises her child to view the towering metropolis. Today the mural is housed at the Spencer Museum of Art, at the University of Kansas.
In spring 1936, as part of the “healing process of the nation” during the aftermath of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas. Although African Americans took part in the exhibition, their designated section of the fair was in the Hall of Negro Life; a separate building isolated from the main path by a row of cedar trees and shrubs. One of the murals on show was Aaron Douglas’s Into Bondage. Douglas’ murals gave African Americans a new identity at the Exposition by drawing on a usable antislavery past to develop an alternative narrative of black history: no longer passive enslaved supplicants, African Americans are empowered liberators. Douglas layered the mural with a guide for potential resistance.
Two years prior to the Texas Centennial Exposition, Aaron Douglas created a four-part mural series titled Aspects of Negro Life, to be housed in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, the Schomburg Center. The various panels portray black history from slavery through to present. The various panels are titled, The Negro in an African Setting, From Slavery Through Reconstruction, Song of the Towers, and An Idyll of the Deep South, and depict the breaking of chains, the idea of self-emancipation, liberation, and the celebration of African culture.
In 1938, Aaron Douglas returned to Fisk University as an assistant professor of Art Education, and it was during his summer there that he, under the aegis of the Treasury Department’s Treasury Relief Arts Projects, created the mural Education of the Colored Man, for the Atlantic City Holmes Village Housing Project in New Jersey. The mural depicts a young Frederick Douglass standing before a small crowd—a civil war solider, a former slave, a sharecropper and a seamstress—who listen to his words. Behind them is a growing metropolis, representing the industrial expansion of the urban north. The art project was funded by the Treasury Relief Arts Project (TRAP) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA).