Last September marked the 50 year anniversary of Guilford College’s integration of black undergraduate students and the beginning of a yearlong celebration of African American achievement, honoring the first students, faculty, and staff who contributed to this landmark of social progress and change. Among these individuals is a man named James C. McMillan. In 1967, Guilford College hired McMillan as the first African American to teach at the college. He later became the first African American to have a full time teaching job, be awarded tenure, and head the art department in the college’s history. Not to mention, he’s a phenomenal painter, draftsmen, printmaker, and sculptor.
One of the more crisp and precise contè crayon drawing entitled, Windsor Composite, depicts a tall figure in overalls, resting on a crutch outside of a weathered farmhouse. I recognized this drawing from an exhibition in the Greensboro cultural center a few years ago, and remembered the image as one concrete scene, when it is in fact at least four scenes compiled into one cohesive image.
While his personal history and achievements are definitely factors in his artwork, McMillan doesn’t strictly depict a literal interpretation of the African American struggle. In fact, a selection of particularly stunning felt pen drawings depict a Parisian cityscape, in a distinctly Parisian style similar to early Van Gogh drawings. Yet, it is important to look at his work contextually, especially in relation to space it occupies. Guilford college is an institution that prides itself on fostering diversity within the student body and the faculty, yet was once a school that followed the norms of segregation. While I don’t find it productive to dwell on previous injustices, I do think that we can learn from the work that racial struggle produces, especially in the realm of fine art.
You can see McMillan’s drawings, prints, paintings, and sculptures in our own Hege Library, outside the main gallery.
Also, for all you art majors out there, here’s a pic of McMillan seated with Roy Nydorf and Adele Wayman back in the day (haha):