A picture of a silhouette with a general uniform and hat on.

Jacob Lawrence, General Toussaint L’Ouverture, Statesman and military genius, esteemed by Spanish, featured by the English, dreaded by the French, hated by the planters, and revered by the Blacks, The Life of Toussaint L’Ouevture: # 20 : © 2023 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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Amistad Research Center’s The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture by Jacob Lawrence, a project of the American Missionary Association (AMA) Art Initiative

December 6, 2023

With a mission to work collaboratively with organizations with the aim of expanding narratives of American art around the globe, the Terra Foundation for American Art has committed to partnering, over the next five years, with six institutions either founded by or affiliated with the American Missionary Association of New York (AMA). The inaugural launch of this five-year initiative focuses on the American art collection at the Amistad Research Center (ARC), based in New Orleans, Louisiana. A three-year grant totaling $1 million to ARC is intended to support a research project that will preserve, interpret, and exhibit a series of original paintings by Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) devoted to Toussaint L’Ouverture (1743–1803). The series chronicles events surrounding the Haitian Revolution (Révolution Haïtienne) of 1791 led by L’Ouverture.

In partnership with the Amistad Research Center, this initiative brings into focus the AMA’s twentieth-century endeavors to use art as a tool to advance race relations. Leveraging art in this way satisfies one of the foundation’s strategic goals: to support local and global connections between institutions, contributing to their sustainability while elevating understandings of historic American art.

American Missionary Association and the Amistad Research Center

The AMA was an integrated nineteenth-century anti-slavery society. Its origin is deeply rooted in the Amistad incident of 1839. Portuguese human hunters abducted a large group of Africans from Sierra Leone and shipped them to Havana, Cuba, which violated all treaties then in existence. Two Spanish plantation owners, Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz, captured fifty-three Africans and put them aboard the Cuban schooner La Amistad to ship them to a plantation elsewhere in the Caribbean. On July 1, 1839, the Africans, led by Sengbe Pieh (also known as Joseph Cinque), seized the ship, killed its captain and cook, and ordered Montes and Ruiz to sail back to Africa. The American artist Hale A. Woodruff (1900–1980) has masterfully depicted this dramatic event on three mural paintings, which are to be housed in the newly constructed Savery Library at Talladega College in Alabama.

The ARC plays a central position in this larger initiative because of its deep archival holdings of original historic documents from the AMA’s former New York City offices and from the archives of the Race Relations Institute (RRI), an institute supported by the AMA. Founded in 1966, the ARC was a unit of the RRI, which was located on the campus of Fisk University, an AMA-supported institution located in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1969, the ARC moved to New Orleans and was located on the campus of Dillard University, a liberal arts university with strong historical ties to the AMA. In 1987, the ARC relocated to Tulane University, where it continues to operate as an independent repository of historical records. The Center’s extensive American art collection, the core collection gifted by the AMA, ranges from works made in the 1790s up to the present and includes more than eight hundred works of art by fifty-four American artists.

Jacob Lawrence, The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the Harmon Foundation

One of the tremendous artistic legacies of the AMA is its professional relationship with former Harmon Foundation director Mary Beattie Brady as well as the American artist-scholar David C. Driskell. The Harmon Foundation was established in 1921 by developer and philanthropist William E. Harmon (1862–1928). In 1927, Brady introduced and began directing the foundation’s annual Exhibition of the Work of Negro Artists. This exhibition series offered African American artists the first serious venue for exhibition available exclusively for their work. These exhibitions gained national attention when they were toured to art museums, colleges, and public libraries around the country. During this time Brady formed significant relationships with many artists, among them the young Jacob Lawrence (American, 1917–2000).

Portrait photograph of Jacob Lawrence

Portrait of Jacob Lawrence: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, LC-USZ62-95743

In 1938 Lawrence, aged 21, completed a series of forty-one paintings that chronicle the rise and death of freedom fighter Toussaint L’Ouverture as he labored to liberate Saint-Domingue from the oppressive, colonizing forces of Spain, France, and Great Britain. Marked by bright colors, dynamic patterns, and easily readable narrative images, the paintings make up Lawrence’s first series. In 1939, the series was shown in its entirety at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Howard University professor Alain Locke hailed The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture series as “one of the most important” and “symbolic” works of its time.1 With the assistance of Locke, Brady, and Lawrence’s art dealer, Edith Gregor Halpert, the young artist received considerable critical attention and launched his career on a national stage. After the Baltimore showing, Brady directed the acquisition of the Toussaint series by the Harmon Foundation. Brady also encouraged the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., to acquire Lawrence’s The Migration of the American Negro, 1940–41, a series of sixty paintings with accompanying captions that narrate the story of the vast migration of African Americans moving in larger numbers from the rural American South to the urban North and the newly developed Western regions of the United States.

After the Harmon Foundation ceased operations in 1967, it began dispersing its considerable art collection among several institutions in order to foster intercultural, interracial, and international understanding through art. These institutions included the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and, most significantly, the AMA. By the late 1960s, the AMA became known as the United Board of Homeland Missions of the United Church of Christ (UBHM). UBHM agents Grant Spradling and Jay Buell transferred 250 works, including the Toussaint series, to the ARC. Mary Brady requested that David C. Driskell be appointed curator of those gifted works at the ARC, and the position was supported financially by UBHM.

Through this multi-year research project, ARC will undertake the conservation work necessary to preserve and exhibit the Toussaint series. In turn, ARC and the Terra Foundation will focus on deep research into the series within the context of historical and geopolitical events that occurred both before and after the conceptualization and exhibition of the paintings. These efforts will expand narratives of American art, deepen the legacy of an American artist, and elevate, to audiences around the globe, the leadership of a world hero whose story has been hidden in plain sight.

For all foundation grants awarded, please see the grants database. For information about additional grants awarded this fall, please see the grants awarded and Art Design Chicago grants awarded.


1. Gary A. Reynolds, Against the Odds: African American Artists and the Harmon Foundation (Hacker Art Books, 1989).

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