Millard Owen Sheets
Churches like Ebenezer Baptist played a central role in the black community during the period between the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, as seen in this image from artist Millard Owen Sheets’ series of murals on The Negro’s Contribution in the Social and Cultural Development of America at the Main Interior Building in Washington, D.C. A nationally known artist, Sheets was commissioned to complete the murals [near the end of the Great Depression as part of a WPA endeavour].
Note the central figure in the foreground of the image, whose dress and posture are both evocative of 18th and 19th century depictions of enslaved men used by Anglo-American abolitionists such as the one below. Abolitionists portrayed black slaves as supplicants appealing to White Christians’ sense of justice and equity; yet note the strength and power implied by the muscularity of the bound figure.
Sheets placement of the figure at the center of the painting accentuates the centrality of the slave experience to African American history. At the same time, however, it has the potential to reinforce negative tropes about the passivity of the Black church in the face of racial injustice for Sheet’s kneeling figure echoes both the posture and the physical build of the traditional image, he appears much more passive. The man’s state of undress is also puzzling; his lack of a shirt is inappropriate for the church setting and this contrast forces the viewer to engage with the unsettling history of Black Christianity as both a source of strength for the African American community and as an unintentional restraint on that community’s search for equality.
In contrast to the central figure, the woman in pink to the far right of the composition, stands out against the more sober colored garments of the men around her. She alone of the kneeling figures looks heavenward – perhaps a commentary on the central role of women in sustaining the African-American church.
The woman’s upward face is echoed by the singers in the background, as well as the dramatically extended arm of the preacher, and Sheets thus balances the humility and perhaps even lament of the figures in the foreground with a more hopeful perspective from those in the background.