28 paintings highlight famous – and less familiar – figures in Black history

Artist Maggie Keane works on a mural of musical icons Whitney Houston, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin. Keane says it took about five days to complete. Artists: Maggie Keane and CeLyn Evens. (Photo by Victoria Hill/Cronkite News)

Chemists Percy Julian and St. Elmo Brady, and biologist Roger Arliner Young are depicted on a sign at Phoenix College. Artist: Jennifer June White. (Photo by Rachel Stapholz/Cronkite News)

Recording artists Gaynel Hodge, Chuck Berry and Little Richard are depicted outside the First Church UCC Phoenix. (Photo by Rachel Stapholz/Cronkite News)

Civil rights pioneers Ruby Bridges and Dorothy Counts are celebrated with Oliver Brown, who challenged school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, at Phoenix College. Artists: Jennifer June White, @mmelanienicole, and @alisia.malta. (Photo by Rachel Stapholz/Cronkite News)

A mural honoring NASA mathematicians Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan is visible from the street at at Encanto Elementary School. (Photo by Rachel Stapholz/Cronkite News)

The book and film “Hidden Figures” are based on the work of NASA mathematicians Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan. Artists: Jennifer June White, @k.shalae_art and @artthoutiffany. (Photo by Rachel Stapholz/Cronkite News)

Entertainer Celia Cruz, educator Booker T. Washington and political activist Arturo Schomburg are honored in mural at Linda Abril Education Academy. Artists: Jennifer June White, @creation80 and @artthoutiffany. (Photo by Rachel Stapholz/Cronkite News)

Pro basketball stars Brianna Turner, Skylar Diggins-Smith, Chris Paul, Monty Williams and Jevon Carter adorn the west side of Phoenix Suns Arena. Artists: Lucretia Torva, @eliasart31, Melanie Nicole and @alisia.malta. (Photo by Marlee Smith/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Leaders who fought for equity and justice. Entertainers who shifted the sound of music. Inventors who brought water toys and traffic lights to America.

Arizona artists have painted the sweep of Black history at 28 businesses and organizations in downtown and central Phoenix. Malcolm X, Aretha Franklin, Angela Davis and Percy Julian are showcased among many African Americans – some iconic, others less celebrated but all with an impact on American life.

The art tribute represents each day of February’s Black History Month, but the project’s organizer, Gizette Knight, looks to the longevity of inclusion.

“A mural needs to happen because our babies need to see it,” said Knight, the chief executive of Reality Dreams LLC. “They need to see themselves out there. They need to see their culture out there.”

Cecil Abitan drove to central Phoenix just so he could experience the paintings.

“These works of art are aesthetically pleasing, but also have a massive message,” he said. “I think it’s something that young people should really know about, as well as old people like myself. There’s no age to have an appreciation for not only art, but history, especially Black history.”

Highlighting Black accomplishments and leadership dates back to 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson set aside one week in February as Negro History Week, but it has since expanded to all of February. In Arizona and elsewhere, the celebration of Black life in politics, society, education, entertainment and industry has become an annual rite.

The Black achievers art project grew out of Knight’s determination to remain undeterred by rejection.

“Last year, in the summer, I was working with a couple (Phoenix City) council members to bring forth a Black Lives Matter street mural, and unfortunately, the City Council decided to go in another direction.”

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City Manager Ed Zuercher cited city and federal regulations and safety concerns in denying the BLM mural proposal.

Knight said community members still wanted to see Black representation in public art.

“We went to local businesses and we told them what we wanted to do,” Knight said. “They just love the concept and the idea to participate in celebrating Black History Month.”

Barrio Cafe, LoLo’s Chicken and Waffles , Carly’s Bistro and the Nash are among the businesses showcasing the paintings, with some murals on walls and some erected on those properties.

Knight conceived the project, but she credits the artists, who volunteered their time and talents, with making it a reality.

“We have a diverse group of artists from all walks of life and all races,” she said. “People came together and united to make this project happen.”

Painter and illustrator Maggie Keane, whose previous work includes a Prince mural two years ago, pays tribute to music legends in her history mural. She took about five days, using a projector at night and other techniques, to draw music legends Whitney Houston, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin on the wall of the Loc’d Art Hair Lounge at Central Avenue and Portland Street.

“I am always thrilled to be part of projects like this,” she said, adding that Black Americans need to be celebrated for their contribution to society.

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Knight said she wanted to make sure the art showcased the depth of contributions. She was taught about Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and other influential Black leaders when she was growing up. But something was missing.

“We didn’t talk about the people that make life a little bit more comfortable,” Knight said. “I want to give those people recognition and highlight their contributions to society.”

The paintings depict less familiar faces, such as Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker, and Garrett Morgan, who invented the nation’s three-position traffic signal.

“You get to see people that you may not have known contributed to certain things or may not have gotten the accolades that they deserve,” Knight said.

Abitan said he’s glad the paintings provide Arizona residents and visitors with more culture – and representation – to enjoy.

“I think we each have our own little pieces of our identity, and we can’t forget about it,” he said. “That’s what makes America great. It’s not the melting or going away of where you’re from – it’s identifying how you got here.”

Knight said she’s grateful for the support for and appreciation of the project, pointing to a run that Black Men Run Phoenix organized earlier this month to view the paintings.

“What I’m hoping is it’s thought provoking,” Knight said. “I’m hoping that it motivates people to do a little bit more for Black History Month to highlight those figures that paved the way.”

(Data visualization by Luis Torres/Cronkite News)
Victoria Hill vic-toh-ree-a hil (she/her)
News Digital Producer, Phoenix

Victoria Hill expects to graduate in May 2021 with a master’s degree in journalism. She graduated from ASU in August 2020 with a bachelor’s in journalism and minor in film and media studies.

News Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Rachel Stapholz expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Stapholz, who also is studying audio engineering, works for Arizona PBS and is a technology ambassador at the NAB Leadership Foundation. She has interned at 12 News and KJZZ.

Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Marlee Smith expects to graduate in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in organizational leadership. Smith is the social media coordinator for ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

Luis Torres Lew-EEZ Toh-res
News Digital Producer, Phoenix

Luis Torres expects to graduate in May 2021 with a master’s degree. Torres is a senior writer for the digital publication Nice Kicks and an editorial manager for Manor Phoenix, a local boutique.