Jacob Lawrence, No. 20 John Brown held Harpers Ferry for 12 hours. His defeat was a few hours off, 1978

June 21, 2024


Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) was one of the most significant visual artists to emerge out of Harlem, New York, during the 1930s and 40s. Lawrence was part of a younger generation of creatives whose talents had been nurtured by the likes of Alain Locke, Augusta Savage, Charles Alston, and other Harlem Renaissance figures, all of whom called for justice, equity, and community in the arts and letters. For these Black artists and intellectuals, the legacies of slavery and entrenched racism overshadowed America’s postwar prosperity, complicating notions of change and social optimism; artists such as Lawrence viewed art as an amplifier through which Black histories and subjectivities could grow, reverberate, and transfer energy to the surrounding masses and galvanize them into positive social action.

After dropping out of high school, Lawrence variously attended the Harlem Art Workshop, the Harlem Community Art Center, and the progressive American Artists School where he honed his skills as a painter and secured employment through the federal Works Progress Administration with the help of his teachers. After several professional successes, he completed The Legend of John Brown in 1941—a series of 22 gouache paintings—which illustrate the life and activism of controversial white abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859). The earliest panels depict Brown’s moral stance and his hopes for a nonviolent abolition of slavery; as the panels progress, so too does Brown’s intensity as he plans a raid against a U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

As the title suggests, No. 20 John Brown held Harpers Ferry for 12 hours. His defeat was a few hours off captures a victory; a mixed-race group of fighters (only 21 according to historical records) successfully claimed the weapons building, yet the threat of a federal military response looms in the distance. The men—their forms elongated and simplified—stand with legs apart and peer over the wall of the arsenal, bayonet rifles, extra ammunition, and knives at the ready. The scene’s perspective is flattened, yet there is a sense of dynamism in the contrasting fields of color and angular lean of bodies. The tension in the scene is palpable, in part because the viewer is involved in the struggle; only two faces are shown in profile and the rest face away, implying that we are fighting for liberation alongside Brown and his men. The color palette is subdued, yet the choice combination of red, green, and black (especially between the two left-most figures) could signify the Pan-African flag and further the call for Black liberation. Compared to the other panels, Brown is less immediately identifiable, though the graying hair of the figure at the left edge matches that of Brown’s hair in other scenes, as does the cross iconography (albeit here the cross seems to be a weapon slung across Brown’s back). Lawrence’s series ends with Brown’s capture and execution, but the legacy of the Harpers Ferry raid lives on as a major catalyst for the American Civil War and the eventual abolition of slavery.

The Legend of John Brown series was originally painted by Lawrence in 1941. Each work is housed in the permanent collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, however they are too fragile for public view. In 1977, the DIA collaborated with Lawrence to recreate the series as a portfolio of silkscreen prints; 60 sets were commissioned, and Wayne State University acquired one in 1994. Since 1997, the print series has been displayed on the second floor of the David Adamany Undergraduate Library on campus.


Written by Sarah Teppen

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