John Thomas Biggers (1924 – 2001)
was an African-American muralist who came to prominence after the Harlem Renaissance and toward the end of World War II. Biggers has worked on creating works critical of racial and economic injustice. He served as the founding chairman of the art department at Houston’s Texas State University for Negroes (now Texas Southern University).
Biggers was born in a shotgun house built by his father in Gastonia, North Carolina. His father Paul was a Baptist preacher, farmer, shoemaker, schoolteacher, and principal of a three-room school. His mother Cora was a housekeeper for white families. The youngest of seven, Biggers was reared in a close knit family that valued creativity and education. When Cora’s husband died in 1937, she took a job in an orphanage for Black children, and John and his brother Joe were sent to Lincoln Academy, an American Missionary Association school in Kings Mountain, North Carolina.
After graduating from Lincoln, Biggers attended Hampton Institute (now Hampton University). Biggers planned to become a plumber (his Hampton application included boiler room drawings), but his life took a dramatic change of course when he took an art class with Viktor Lowenfeld, a Jewish refugee who in 1939 fled from Nazi persecution in Austria before World War II. Lowenfield exposed his students to works by African Americans and was concerned with altering his students’ perceptions toward their African heritage by introducing them to the religious and social context of African art, of which the Hampton Museum had a significant collection.
When Viktor Lowenfeld left Hampton to teach art education at Pennsylvania State University, he persuaded Biggers to follow. In 1946, Biggers enrolled at Pennsylvania State where he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art education in 1948. In that same year, he married Hazel Hales. He earned a doctorate from Pennsylvania State in 1954. He was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree from Hampton University in 1990.
His works can be found at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, primarily in the campus library. The University Museum at Houston’s Texas Southern University houses a collection of John T. Biggers’s works.
In 1950, Biggers won first prize for his painting The Cradle at the annual exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. “Segregationist policies, however, allowed black visitors into the museum only on Thursdays, so he could not attend the show’s opening.” From 1950 to 1956 Biggers painted four murals in African-American communities in Texas, the beginning of his work in murals. He painted many public murals in Houston and elsewhere, including two in 1991 for Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. Most are still in place.