Booker T. Washington was a great African-American educator, the first president of what would become Tuskegee University, one of the country’s most renowned historically black universities. William H. Johnson chooses to depict Washington not at the height of his fame, but at the very beginning his career in the 1870s, when he taught in the small community of Malden, West Virginia, where he had grown up. Dressed in a suit, Washington is shown lecturing before a blackboard in front a classroom of young people—boys to the left, girls to the right. The rural setting is suggested by a simple log cabin depicted at the left.
Although Johnson paints in what seems to be a simplified, even naïve style, he had in fact arrived at this vocabulary only after traveling in Europe and studying modern art, whose echoes are unmistakable here—as in the nearly abstract pattern of farm implements and musical instruments on the blackboard. Bridging folk art and modernism in an innovative synthesis, Johnson found a new visual language for the experience of Black Americans.