The red clay in Florida

Augusta Savage with one of her clay animal sculptures. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Augusta Savage learned both art and adversity at a very early age. As a child growing up in Green Cove Springs, Florida in the 1890s, she taught herself to sculpt using the red clay of the local brickyard. “From the time I can first recall the rain falling on the red clay in Florida, I wanted to make things,” she said. “When my brothers and sisters were making mud pies, I would be making ducks and chickens with the mud.” However, Savage’s father, a farmer and Methodist minister, considered her clay figures sinful “graven images.” “My father licked me four or five times a week, and almost whipped all the art out of me,” she said.

The art never did leave Savage, but the tension between her irrepressible urge to create and external pressures that repeatedly conspired against her artistic growth would echo through the rest of her life. In 1939, Savage put her experience with repression and resilience to use in her most remarkable work: the lost 16 foot masterpiece known as “The Harp,” or as she evidently preferred, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Fire’s Gonna Burn My Soul: Savage in Florida and Harlem

Savage in 1938 with her work Realization. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Savage married at 15 and experienced both motherhood and widowhood within the next few years. A move to West Palm Beach with her family in 1915 took her away from accessible clay for four years until a local sculptor’s gift of materials allowed her to resume her art. Her pieces earned rave reviews at the Palm Beach County Fair in 1919, and she decided to pursue art full time.

In 1920 Savage relocated to Jacksonville, where she hoped to sell sculptures to wealthy African Americans. Her plans failed to pan out. “I hoped to ‘do’ the busts of all of our rich colored people there and so make enough money to finance my art career,” she said. “I am thankful to say that the said rich folks refused to be ‘done’ and I was almost stranded.”

James Weldon Johnson at his writing desk.

In Jacksonville, Savage made a connection that would ultimately have a major impact on her art. According to the book Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, it was here that she met James Weldon Johnson, who with his brother J. Rosamond Johnson wrote Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, the hymn that inspired Savage’s most famous creation. Johnson would have been visiting his hometown, having long since left for Harlem. In 1921 Savage joined him and thousands of other Black Floridians in a migration to New York to further her career.

In New York, Savage experienced both successes and setbacks in her progress as an artist of the Harlem Renaissance. She studied at the prestigious Cooper Union and gained renown for her work, particularly her busts of Black New Yorkers. However, she was repeatedly denied opportunities on account of her race, and her often public fights for civil rights discomfited some whites in New York’s art scene.

Savage (front row, third from left) and the teachers of the Harlem Community Art Center, circa 1937. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Through it all, Savage dedicated herself to cultivating other artists, even at the expense of her own output. She gave lessons and hosted artists’ parties at her small apartment; of one such gathering, the poet Richard Bruce Nugent wrote, “now to Augusta’s party … fy-ah’s gonna burn ma soul.” She was especially devoted to teaching children and young artists, and was named the first head of the Harlem Community Art Center in 1937. Several of her students went on to nationally prominent art careers, including Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden and Norman Lewis.

Next page: Sing a Song: A masterwork is born