Race & Diaspora

Women’s History Month: Honoring Laura Wheeler Waring

todayMarch 28, 2024 7

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By Valerie Harris

Last month New York’s Metropolitan Museum launched an exciting new exhibit of works by artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Among the artists featured is Laura Wheeler Waring, a painter best known for her portraits of prominent African Americans of the mid-20th century. If the name sounds familiar, perhaps its because of the Laura W. Waring elementary school in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood. But that’s only a small part of the artist’s legacy. Laura Wheeler Waring was deeply connected to our city and the surrounding area throughout her creative career. 

Born Laura Wheeler in Hartford, Connecticut on May 26, 1887, Waring began her career as a 20 year-old art instructor at the Institute for Colored Youth, which would become the Cheyney School for Teachers, now Cheyney University. Her position at Cheyney brought her closer to her own educational goal to attend the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where she took classes from 1907 through 1914. In her final year, Waring was awarded the Academy’s coveted Cresson Travelling Scholarship for her work in illustration. The award garned national attention among the black press. Waring was the first African American to be awarded the Cresson scholarship, which allowed her to travel and study in France for the first time. 

Upon her return from Europe, Waring continued teaching at Cheyney, where she would guide students in art and music until 1947. During Waring’s tenure, the Cheyney Singers were considered one of the best choral groups in the area. Meanwhile, Waring also began a long-time career as an illustrator for The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, where her cover art and drawings appeared regularly over a period of twenty-five years. 

Throughout these related occupations, Waring remained devoted to her primary ambition to become a recognized portrait painter. She married Walter Waring, a Philadelphia school teacher in 1927 and set up house on north 43rd Street in West Philly. In 1928, Waring won another career-boosting award, the Harmon Foundation’s First Prize in Fine Arts for her portrait of Anna Washington Derry, a housekeeper at Cheyney. This celebrated portrait, along with other works by Waring, is now part of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. 

Waring continued to exhibit her paintings throughout the 1930s and 40’s, most notably in DC, Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia. In 1944, Waring was the only woman artist to show at the formerly all-male Pyramid Club’s historic invitational art exhibit. 

Although now solidly positioned among Philadelphia’s black elite, Waring remained engaged with the community. She contributed drawings for posters to promote various art and music activities, conducted the Cheyney Singers at fundraising events, participated on numerous educational committees, and served as a judge for youth competitions throughout the city. 

In 1943, Waring received a final career-boosting opportunity when she was invited to show, along with another artist, a series of paintings exhibited as “Portraits of Outstanding Negroes.” Among the luminaries that Waring painted are W.E.B. DuBois, Marian Anderson, and writers, James Weldon Johnson and Jessie Fauset. The paintings, now part of the Smithsonian Museum’s permanent collection, travelled to museums around the country to much acclaim. Today her work resides in numerous private collections.

Laura Wheeler Waring died at her home in Philadelphia on February 3, 1948. Along with many of Philadelphia’s trail-blazing African Americans, Waring is buried at historic Eden Cemetery in Delaware County. 

When the Laura W. Waring School was named in 1957, it was the first Philadelphia public school named to honor an African American woman. 

To learn more about the remarkable life and legacy of Laura Wheeler Waring, visit the laurawheelerwaring.blog online at vharriswrites.com.

Written by: Ashanti Martin

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