ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



When he had no roof under which to sleep,

from the park he conversed with the night

which he thought the mother of colored men.



Missing in Action

Leslie Garland Bolling’s Witness to Humanity and Dignity

By Sandra L. West


By day, he held broom and mop. By evening, knife and saw. By 1926, Leslie Garland Bolling was the earliest African-American woodcarver to receive national recognition in his lifetime.

The first black artist to exhibit at the then-segregated Richmond Academy of Arts (now Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), Bolling helped create a Southern arts school for “colored” youth with federal, W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) funds.

He lived simply, widowed and childless, in a sparse boardinghouse room, and carved over 50 humble, honorable images of black peasant life, brown-wood depictions of an innocent, sweet time that was not without fierce racial pressure, capturing the attention of art historians and arts patrons. Once the darling of the Harmon Foundation during the Harlem Renaissance era, a full century after his birth Bolling’s celebrity is nonexistent. And, most of his passionately-sought-after sculpture is missing in action.

Bolling’s vital statistics mirror memorable, horrific moments in black history. He was born to Clinton and Mary Bolling in Virginia’s Surry County, in the hamlet of Dendron, on August or September 16, 1898, when the Emancipation Proclamation was 35 years young. He entered Virginia Union University in 1919, as “The Red Summer of 1919” raged to destroy $6 million in black businesses and property and thousands of priceless lives. He died in New York in 1955, when the historic Montgomery, Alabama Bus Boycott rolled into action.

His woodcarving and drawing activities began in his native Surry County, where soft, female poplar trees dotted the landscape. As a child he “always loved trees.” His childhood friends noticed and talked about “…the funny little things” he carved. His artistry was not fully realized or polished until after he studied at two black colleges, neither of which had an arts curriculum. In 1916 he attended Hampton Normal and Agricultural  Institute (now Hampton University), which was home, then and now, to black upward mobility, and when there was a fledgling, primitive, arts museum.

 In 1919 – the year horrendous race riots erupted in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Harlem, New York – Bolling began a college preparatory high school course in the Academic Department of  Richmond’s Virginia Union University (VUU). In addition to Latin and Greek, Algebra and Geometry, Biblical Literature and readings in Longfellow’s Evangeline, this small, black, Baptist school offered Manual Training: “… mechanical and freehand drawing, designing, the use of tools in wood and iron work and blacksmith.” This course that Bolling studied for four years may reveal why his woodcarving/sculpture had the level of sophistication that it did.

Bolling graduated from VUU in June 1924, gained employment as a porter at Richmond’s Everett Waddey Company stationary store, and made art. He was an original. Folk art historian Regina Perry wrote in the St. James Guide to Black Artists that, “There is nothing in the history of American art that compares with Bolling’s works. They bear no relationship to the West African tradition of wood carving, and they are as fresh and original as the Negro spirituals that grew out of slave work songs.”

With a simple jackknife, Leslie Bolling re-created the rhythm and piety of black life, even as that life was heavily ordained by a social system that refused to admit to the quality of black humanity or initiative, and offered them no part of the American Dream. He carved “Red Cap,” a porter with baggage. He made twin statuettes of “President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt” and a demure bust of contralto “Marian Anderson,” all in 1940, and made a rare political statement for democracy in “Save America” (1941).

His benchmark creation is a series called Days of the Week. The seven pieces show black people involved in weekly community and domestic tasks. The series includes

“Parson-on-Sunday” (preacher in the pulpit)

“Aunt Monday” (washing clothes)

“Sister Tuesday” (ironing)

“Mama-on-Wednesday” (mending)

“Gossip-on-Thursday” (visiting over the back fence)

“Cousin-on-Friday” (scrubbing the floor)

“Cooking-on-Saturday,” with a turkey going in the oven.

The series documents African-American folk culture and values. Bolling chronicles the time when black people had little in the way of material things and could profess to no evil liberties, but were spiritually solid and adamantly disciplined about never washing on Sunday or ironing only on Tuesday. They cooked the Sunday meal on Saturday because Sunday was spent on their knees in church, praying to the Almighty. “Gossip on Thursday” references the era when domestic servants were given only Thursdays off. This female workforce was known as “Thursdays Girls.”  “Aunt Monday,” a “Negro” washerwoman, was an icon and an image of family stability, so much that Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the “father of black history,” reverently wrote about her in “The Negro Washerwoman, A Vanishing Figure” for the July 1930 edition of The Journal of Negro History.

In addition to woodcarving, the unassuming, bespeckled Bolling was an institution builder. In 1938, he helped to create an arts school for “colored” youth, the Craig House Art Center in the Church Hill section of Richmond. Bolling taught wood carving at the still-standing national landmark. His involvement with Craig House indicates that he was an important artist, that segregated Richmond’s white community valued him as an artist, and that the substantial influence of the Harlem Renaissance spread beyond Chicago and Harlem, going behind and even flourishing behind the “cotton curtain.”

His work did not go unrecognized or unheralded. He attracted the attention of The William Cox Gallery in New York; the Harmon Foundation; Howard University art historian, critic and professor James Amos Porter; Howard University art professor James V. Herring; and arts patron Carl Van Vechten. The Fifth Avenue gallery represented the sculptor until his death.

Bolling won many prizes from the Harmon Foundation, the 1922-1967 organization designed to sponsor and nurture the works of African-American artists. Porter and Herring secured important exhibitions for him throughout the country, notably the Exhibition of Works by Negro Artists at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where he showed “The Boxer,” and the 1934 exhibition at the National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, sponsored by the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History where “Salome, The Dancer” was on display. Van Vechten gave him a one-man show in 1928, in 1937 Cox Gallery sponsored him in a program entitled “Whittling Works of Leslie Garland Bolling,” and he won a prize in 1942 sponsored by Science & Mechanic Magazine.

His technique was as simple and uncluttered as his rented room. A block of wood. Carvings between twelve and twenty-four inches high. Slow, sure. Work filled with expressions and moods.

Bolling did not sand his sculpture until the tool marks are lost. Most woodworkers during the 1930s did this during the national revival of whittling and woodcarving, but Bolling just applied a light wax, allowing life to breathe through.

Of his approximately 51 pieces, almost all appear to be lost. Perry wrote, “Most of the museums and galleries that are recorded as having exhibited or purchased his works during the 1930s have no record of their existence or list them as lost. Thus, attempts to locate Bolling’s wood carvings have, except for a few cases, been unsuccessful.” Some images were sold to European patrons, courtesy of Van Vechten’s involvement. “Cousin-on-Friday” is at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “Woman’s Head” is at Yale. Bolling’s sculptures commanded $20 to $200 per piece, though today, they are priceless and would demand much, much more.

As the work vanished, so did his notoriety. It is not clear exactly when Bolling moved to New York – possibly right after World War II – though he did exhibit at the State Teachers College in Indiana, Pennsylvania in 1950. He possibly resided in Harlem. He died in New York on September 27, 1955. He was brought back home to Virginia, funeralized at A.D. Price Funeral Home in Richmond’s historic Jackson Ward and buried in Woodland Cemetery. He did not live a long time, but in that time he thoughtfully placed his people’s humanity and dignity on the map for all to witness.

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Additional Reference Sources

Design and Figure Carving by E.J. Tangarman (New York: Dover Publications, 1964). This popular art book includes several photos of the “Days of the Week” series and “Red Cap.”

Against the Odds: The Artists of the Harlem Renaissance. This book about the Harmon Foundation includes one photo of Bolling’s work.

Exhibition of Productions by Negro Artists (New York, Harmon Foundation, 1933).

Negro Artists: An Illustrated Review of Their Achievements (New York: Harmon Foundation, 1935).

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Leslie Garland Bolling’s genius and the genius of similarly situated black artists who wrestle with institutional racism is recalled in a poem, “Negro Johnson,” written by Otto-Raul Gonzalez, translated by Rachel Loughridge and published in Phylon (1943).

Negro Johnson

By Otto-Raul Gonzalez

Negro Johnson is a sculptor.

Lank dogs of poverty bit him in Harlem.

But his dreams were never shipwrecked

in the waters of renunciation.

He was porter, elevator boy, messenger,

telephone operator, model,

dishwasher in a hotel.

When he had no roof under which to sleep,

from the park he conversed with the night

which he thought the mother of colored men.

Hunger and cold. Two edges of the blade

that scraped his dark skin.

Negro Johnson never ran away.

In winter he sculptured with snow,

and his longing, vaporous dreams

were living forms, pure reality,

but only for minutes …

because an iconoclastic sun

dissolved his material

Negro Johnson received his pay

and a fine piece of marble he bought.

See him, one possessed, fingers and chisel;

in the dark garret

he is cutting a Saint Michael.

In the big city of New York

his sculpture he took to exhibit.

Negro Johnson smiles. And in the night

of his colored face

thirty-two stars shine

with satisfaction.

The dream, the dream has won;

on his chest they placed

a great medal of gold

in the great exposition.

He smiles. He smiles.

Now everyone knows that

Negro Johnson is a sculptor.

He was a porter, elevator boy, messenger,

telephone operator, model,

dishwasher in a hotel,

but always and above all,

Negro Johnson was a sculptor.

*   *   *   *   *

Sandra L. West, a member of The Harlem Writers Guild, published a memoir What’s In A Name, Ghana Mae Jane?  in the Spring/Summer 2005 edition of Obsidian III: Literature of the African Diaspora. Co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, the first encyclopedia devoted to the movement, West is a Contributing Writer to Contemporary American Women Poets: An A-Z Guide. West teaches African American Literature at Rutgers University.

Sandra L. West recently published an article about Newark (NJ) Mayor Cory Booker’s Transition Team in Positive Community Magazine (June 2006). She became interested in Bolling when she lived in Richmond and taught at Virginia Union University.


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*   *   *   *   *

Negro Comrades of the Crown

African Americans and the British Empire Fight the U.S. Before Emancipation

By Gerald Horne

Dr. Gerald Horne, professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, said, the American revolt of 1776 against British rule “was basically a successful revolt of racist settlers. It was akin to Rhodesia, in 1965, assuming that Ian Smith and his cabal had triumphed. It was akin to the revolt of the French settlers in Algeria, in the 1950s and 1960s, assuming those French settlers had triumphed.” Dr. Horne explores the racist roots on the American Revolution in his new book, Negroes of the Crown. “It was very difficult to construct a progressive republic in North America after what was basically a racist revolt,” said Horne. “The revolt was motivated in no small part by the fact that abolitionism was growing in London…. This is one of the many reasons more Africans by an order of magnitude fought against the rebels in 1776, than fought alongside them.”In this path-breaking book, Horne rewrites the history of slave resistance by placing it for the first time in the context of military and diplomatic wrangling between Britain and the United States.

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The Warmth of Other Suns

The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

By Isabel Wilkerson

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, a sharecropper’s wife, left Mississippi for Milwaukee in 1937, after her cousin was falsely accused of stealing a white man’s turkeys and was almost beaten to death. In 1945, George Swanson Starling, a citrus picker, fled Florida for Harlem after learning of the grove owners’ plans to give him a “necktie party” (a lynching). Robert Joseph Pershing Foster made his trek from Louisiana to California in 1953, embittered by “the absurdity that he was doing surgery for the United States Army and couldn’t operate in his own home town.” Anchored to these three stories is Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Wilkerson’s magnificent, extensively researched study of the “great migration,” the exodus of six million black Southerners out of the terror of Jim Crow to an “uncertain existence” in the North and Midwest.

Wilkerson deftly incorporates sociological and historical studies into the novelistic narratives of Gladney, Starling, and Pershing settling in new lands, building anew, and often finding that they have not left racism behind. The drama, poignancy, and romance of a classic immigrant saga pervade this book, hold the reader in its grasp, and resonate long after the reading is done.

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Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change

By John Lewis

The Civil Rights Movement gave rise to the protest culture we know today, and the experiences of leaders like Congressman Lewis have never been more relevant. Now, more than ever, this nation needs a strong and moral voice to guide an engaged population through visionary change. Congressman John Lewis was a leader in the American Civil Rights Movement. He was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and played a key role in the struggle to end segregation. Despite more than forty arrests, physical attacks, and serious injuries, John Lewis remained a devoted advocate of the philosophy of nonviolence. He is the author of his autobiography, Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of a Movement, and is the recipient of numerous awards from national and international institutions, including the Lincoln Medal; the John F. Kennedy “Profile in Courage” Lifetime Achievement Award (the only one of its kind ever awarded); the NAACP Spingarn Medal; and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, among many others.

*   *   *   *   *

The New New Deal

The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era

By Michael Grunwald

Time senior correspondent Michael Grunwald tells the secret history of the stimulus bill, the purest distillation of Change We Can Believe In, a microcosm of Obama’s policy successes and political failures. Though it is reviled by the right and rejected by the left, it really is a new New Deal, larger than FDR’s and just as transformative. It prevented an imminent depression, while jump-starting Obama’s long-term agenda. The stimulus is pouring $90 billion into clean energy, reinventing the way America is powered and fueled; it includes unprecedented investments in renewables, efficiency, electric cars, a smarter grid, cleaner coal, and more. It’s carrying health care into the digital era. Its Race to the Top initiative may be the boldest education reform in U.S. history. It produced the biggest middle-class tax cuts in a generation, a broadband initiative reminiscent of rural electrification, and an overhaul of the New Deal’s unemployment insurance system. It’s revamping the way government addresses homelessness, fixes infrastructure, and spends money.

Grunwald reveals how Republicans have obscured these achievements through obstruction and distortion. The stimulus launched a genuine national comeback. It also saved millions of jobs, while creating legacies that could rival the Hoover Dam: the world’s largest wind farm, a new U.S. battery industry, a new high-speed rail network, the world’s highest-speed Internet network.  Its main legacy, like the New Deal’s, will be change.

*   *   *   *   *

The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update 24 June 2012




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