In late August 1963, more than 200,000 activists filled the National Mall for the historic civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This summer, the Department of the Interior Museum will fill its walls with a collection of one artist’s response to the day’s events.
Opening Friday, “Witness to History: The March on Washington” is the never-before-seen 10-part series of paintings by David Granahan, who was a lifelong artist and Department of Agriculture employee. Granahan, who died in 1981, took off from work on the day of the march with his drawing book in hand to record what he saw in ink and watercolor, from a cluster of protesters gathered around the Washington Monument to a woman taking a rest in the shade.
“My father was very into the civil rights movement,” recalled Peter Granahan, one of the artist’s three sons. “He went down there to really participate, to be there, but he was also there to take sketches of the day … he took his jug of water and went painting like he normally would do on any trip.”
Granahan was born in Minnesota in 1910 and attended the Minneapolis School of Art, where upon graduation he opened a studio in the city with his wife. During the Great Depression, he found ways to continue painting by producing three New Deal arts murals for Minnesota post offices. He was hired by the USDA in Washington, D.C., to work in the exhibits department in 1938.
Deborah Wurdinger, the museum’s technician and curator of the show, explained that Granahan’s position at the USDA involved putting together traveling exhibits to promote U.S. agriculture products in other regions of the world, particularly Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Central America. He also was the director of the graphic arts program at the USDA Graduate School, where he taught night classes for 20 years.
“This was another artistic outlet for him,” Wurdinger said.
The “Witness to History” collection, which Peter Granahan says is the largest series he ever saw his father produce, was first brought to Wurdinger’s attention by the Granahan family. Nancy Granahan, a member of the family by her marriage to another son, James, said the decision to introduce the artist’s work to the Interior Museum was partially because “our house is so full of artwork from the Granahans, there was nowhere to display [the series]. It was just a pity to let it sit somewhere.”
In the exhibition space, which was suggested to the Granahans by a friend, Wurdinger places the paintings alongside historical information about the March on Washington and its significance, giving the artwork elevated meaning. Some paintings, however, stand alone to tell the viewer something about the historic event. In one piece, people march past the White House; there must have been so many people, so tightly packed together, that David Granahan painted the scene with no suggestion of space in which they might be able to move.
In another painting, Granahan depicts a grouping of white tents, one with the Red Cross emblem on it. Wurdinger explained that there were limited resources for accommodating out-of-town march attendees because there were so many of them and also because of segregation laws at the time. Therefore, march organizers needed to provide everything attendees might need during the day, including medical assistance, food, water and toilets.
Hunter Hollins, coordinator of museum services at the Interior Museum, noted at the show’s preview that Granahan’s second interest besides making art was the civil rights movement. With this series, it is profound to consider how the artist found a way to bring his two passions together, not only as a gift to the artistic community but also as a memorial to the struggle for social justice.
“Witness to History: The March on Washington” opens Friday and runs through Sept. 28 at the Interior Museum, 1849 C St. NW. Admission is free. For hours and more information, visit www.doi.gov/interiormuseum.