Millard Owen Sheets, Religion
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 endeavor. Sheets, a white man and thus, not painting from within African American culture, was nevertheless highly sympathetic to the long arc black history in the United States.
Note the central figure in the foreground of the image, whose dress and posture evoke the 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 a shirtless, muscular 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. Although Sheets’ kneeling figure echoes both the posture and the physical build of the traditional image, he appears much more passive and patient.
Since the man’s lack of a shirt is inappropriate for the church setting, the viewer may be at first puzzled, then reminded of the slave image, and thus forced to engage with the unsettling history of Black Christianity as both a source of strength for the African American community and an unwanted restraint on their search for equality. At the same time, the Christian viewer might see the young shirtless figure as a new believer, about to assume the clothing of righteousness (Ephesians 4:24). His muscularity displays the strength he will bring to his new Christian identity. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Black Church’s stance of patient, nonviolent resistance would become a means to convict the White conscience, turning it toward justice.
In contrast to the central figure, the woman to the far right of the composition—alone of the kneeling figures—looks heavenward. Her pink dress stands out against the more sober colored garments of the men around her. Perhaps this figure points to the central, powerful role of women in sustaining the African-American church.
The woman’s upward-turned face, echoed by the lifted faces of the singers in the background and the dramatically extended arm of the preacher, contrast with the faces of those kneeling in prayer. Their faces are downward-turned and hidden behind hands, suggesting lament over sin, as well as humility before a God whose majesty may be frightening to behold. The submissive posture of the figures in the foreground contrasts with the hopeful, assertive posture of those in the background.