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NEWS | Feb. 6, 2024

Black History Month: African Americans & the arts

By Aime Lykins, PSNS & IMF Public Affairs

In September 1915, decades after the thirteenth amendment abolished slavery as an institution within all U.S. states and territories, historian Carter Woodson and Minister Jesse Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, an organization dedicated to researching and promoting the achievements of Black Americans and other peoples of African descent.

In 1926, the group sponsored national Negro History week, an event that inspired schools and communities to organize local celebrations, including the honoring of art created by Black Americans. Thanks to the civil rights movement and increased awareness of Black identity, Negro History Week evolved to Black History Month in 1976.

The Black History Month theme for 2024 is "African Americans and the Arts," which honors and highlights the many positive impacts Black Americans, and people of African descent, have had on visual arts, dance, architecture, literature, music and cultural movements. Although the U.S. was established as a nation in 1776, people of African descent began living in Americas in the 1600’s, bringing their rich traditions and oral histories. For many years, Black artists were shunned by the historical art narrative, but that did not stop them from creating exceptional works of art. Much of Black art is deeply rooted in the identity of its creators.

A notable Black American visual artist is Sam Gilliam. Born in Mississippi, he is considered one of the greatest American color field painters. Gillam’s most famous works include unsupported canvases that hang loosely from gallery walls or ceilings. These structures exist in the intersection of painting and sculpture, demonstrating the fluidity of art forms. Gilliam’s main inspiration came from African American patchwork quilts that he frequently saw in his childhood.

Katherine Dunham is a dancer that many historians have named the most important women of African American dance. Dunham was one of the first modern dance pioneers, combining cultural, grounded dance movements with elements of ballet. Dunham, who was born in Illinois, began her formal study of dance in Chicago where she trained with modern and contemporary ballet pioneers, while simultaneously studying anthropology. In the 1930s, she completed a 10-month study of the dance cultures of the Caribbean. She brought what she learned back to America, developing a new revolutionary aesthetic that merged the rhythms of cultural dances with certain components of ballet.

In 2023, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility established a Black, Indigenous and People of Color Employee Resource Group to aid the workforce in learning more about the culture, traditions and current topics related to People of Color. This includes knowledge sharing, learning and networking. The group meets the first Thursday of the month 1 – 2 p.m. To learn more, email