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  • Filling in the Gaps:  The Art of Murphy Darden

    Filling in the Gaps: The Art of Murphy Darden

About the Exhibit

An online-only presentation of the artwork of Murphy Darden.
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Type: Online
Murphy Darden

For the past several decades, Kalamazoo resident and nonagenarian Murphy Darden has indulged his passion for teaching others about histories which have long been ignored in classrooms and in public discourse. He has accomplished this through the amassment of endless artifacts, images and historic documents chronicling the achievements of African Americans. From America’s Black cowboys and astronauts to its first female millionaire, his collections also recount local events, individuals and landmarks that would otherwise have been lost to time.

However, not all history can be adequately represented through the artifacts which bear witness to events. Sometimes, the richest and most complicated stories are better interpreted through artistic expression. It was in these situations, where parts of the story were missing, that Darden created hundreds of artworks to fill in the gaps.

A Broader History of Kalamazoo

Many of the local people, places and events portrayed here are scarcely documented elsewhere. The artist hopes future generations will understand the important contributions of African Americans to the history of Kalamazoo.

  • Deborah and Enoch Harris

    Deborah and Enoch Harris, painting on canvas

    Deborah and Enoch Harris were among the first documented black settlers in Kalamazoo County. They arrived in Oshtemo Township around 1830, and created the first apple orchard in the area. By 2000, their original homestead had fallen into disrepair. A local fire department received permission to burn the house for training.
  • Enoch and Deborah Harris, scale model

    Enoch and Deborah Harris, scale model

    The destruction of the home deeply affected Darden, who revered the family and the structure that stood as evidence of their accomplishments. The Jim Crow practice of burning black churches, homes, crosses and entire communities is well known to the artist.

  • Van Avery Drugstore Boycott

    Van Avery Drugstore Boycott, June 17, 1963, painting on panel

    Although the Northside drugstore existed in and served a predominately African American neighborhood, it had never hired staff people of color. The boycott and demonstrations persisted for several months until an African American was finally hired. Darden recalled the event and recreated it from a newspaper image.
  • North Burdick Grocery & Market

    North Burdick Grocery & Market, mixed media scale model

    On February 3, 1948, the North Burdick Grocery & Market, or “Stinson’s Store,” opened as the first business owned by African Americans. It sold vegetables, grown on the property in a garden by founders Willie and Lucile Stinson.
  • North Burdick Grocery & Country Market, historic phot

    North Burdick Grocery & Country Market, historic photo

    As a resident of the neighborhood, Darden remembers the store and although the building still stands he wanted to portray it as it was.
  • The Bombardiers, mixed media

    The Bombardiers, mixed media

    Local Black leader Arthur Washington formed the Bombardiers Drum and Marching Corps in 1961. For more than thirty years, the group performed in parades and at events.
  • Drum and Baton

    Drum and Baton, artifact

    Darden recalled that drivers of antique cars would complain about the procession order if they were driving behind the Bombardiers. Crowds would cheer the group to stop and dance, slowing the procession and making the engines on the antique cars run hot.
  • The Pacific Club, scale model

    The Pacific Club, scale model

    Built and managed by Council Hawes, the exclusive and glamourous Pacific Club flourished in the 1950s and 60s as a members-only establishment. Clients signed an anti-bias pledge upon joining to “promote integrity and good faith, the application of just and equitable principles between Americans of different racial stock and creeds.”
  • Pacific Club dining ware

    Pacific Club dining ware, artifact

    Kalamazoo was a dry county at the time, but, in 1951, Council Hawes was the first person to successfully apply to the state of Michigan for a license to serve alcohol to club members.

    Civil Rights Heroes

    Often referred to as Jim Crow, a racial caste system existed in America during the century after the Civil War. As someone who lived through the cruelties of this period, Murphy Darden recognizes and celebrates African Americans who elevated people of color through their bravery.

    Learn more about the Rosa Parks Bus

    • Selma to Montgomery March, mixed media

      Selma to Montgomery March, mixed media

      The Selma to Montgomery political marches occurred March 21–25, 1965. Led by Martin Luther King, Jr., they were the culminating events of several tumultuous weeks between protesters and law enforcement. As many as 25,000 people participated, directly leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Darden depicts here John Lewis with demonstrators walking, two by two, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
    • Historic Photo of Selma to Montgomery March

      Historic Photo of Selma to Montgomery March

      At the east end of the bridge, the demonstrators encountered state troopers with tear gas, clubs, and bullwhips. More than fifty marchers, including Lewis, were hospitalized.
    • Rosa Parks, mixed media relief

      Rosa Parks, mixed media relief

      On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks left her job at a department store in Montgomery, Alabama. As she rode the bus home, the driver stopped and told the first row of Black passengers to get up to make room for white passengers. Others heeded the request, but Rosa refused. She was arrested for her refusal to give up her seat. A bus boycott was organized in support of Rosa Parks.
    • Montgomery Bus, mixed media scale model

      Montgomery Bus, mixed media scale model

      The bus on which the event took place, is owned by the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
    • Letter from Birmingham Jail, mixed media relief

      Letter from Birmingham Jail, mixed media relief

      Martin Luther King, Jr., led civil disobedience against the businesses in downtown Birmingham in April 1963 and was subsequently put in jail. From his cell, King wrote a letter explaining why, an “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It was a phrase that he would repeat many times, and it became one of the key rallying statements of the Civil Rights Movement.

    • Madam C. J. Walker, mixed media relief

      Madam C. J. Walker, mixed media relief

      Depicted driving a car in 1911, she is the first African American female millionaire. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Louisiana, Madam C. J. Walker made her fortune marketing beauty and hair products, including hair growth treatments and straightening creams (of which Darden has a large historic collection). Walker’s widespread influence extended beyond cosmetology.
    • Madam C.J. Walker, historic photograph

      Madam C.J. Walker, historic photograph

      Walker played a key role in black internationalist movements and was committed to ending racism, colonialism, and imperialism. A television series about her life will debut in 2020.
    • Dorie Miller

      Dorie Miller

      Doris “Dorie” Miller enlisted in the Navy in 1939. As an African American, he was assigned to the mess hall, stationed later in Honolulu. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Miller made his way from below deck to the ship’s bridge, where he pulled crewmates to safety under heavy enemy fire. He then took a 50-caliber anti-aircraft gun and began firing. Although he had no previous training in operating the weapon, he managed to shoot down as many as six Japanese aircrafts.

      A Powerful Perspective

      Darden attended all-black schools in Aberdeen, Mississippi, where history and geography textbooks had lessons based on the assertion of white supremacy. As an adult, he developed his knowledge of a more accurate version of American history. Combining his personal memories with intense study of written records, photographs, and objects, Murphy Darden has developed a perspective as an artist that is both powerful and provocative.
      • Warning

        Warning

        Some images in this gallery depict violent crimes against African Americans and may not be suitable for some viewers.

      • Early Negro Baptism Down South, mixed media

        Early Negro Baptism Down South, mixed media

        The figures move in and out of the water by moving a tab on the bottom of the artwork. Outdoor baptisms were once common in the rivers of the South. People would gather on a Sunday morning at a lake or river and pray, sing, and baptize those seeking salvation. Darden recalls vividly his own childhood baptism in Mississippi.
      • Marks of Punishment, mixed media relief

        Marks of Punishment, mixed media relief

        The three-dimensional piece is based on an illustration published in Harper's Weekly in 1866. (continued in next slide)
      • Marks of Punishment, Harper's Weekly

        Marks of Punishment, Harper's Weekly

        According to the article, “Marks of punishment inflicted upon a colored servant in Richmond, VA; shows the back of woman with burn marks. The victim was thirteen years old when she upset her mistress. She was locked in a room by herself for over a week, during which time the mistress repeatedly burned her back.”
      • Gordon, mixed media relief

        Gordon, mixed media relief

        This artwork is based on an early photograph of a runaway enslaved man named Gordon exposing his scarred back. Gordon had received a severe whipping in the fall of 1862, which left him with horrible welts on much of the surface of his back. (continued in next slide)
      • Gordon, Harper's Weekly

        Gordon, Harper's Weekly

        On July 4, 1863, Harper’s Weekly featured an illustration along with his harrowing story of escape, which transformed Gordon into a symbol of the abolitionist movement.
      • Old House in the Country

        Old House in the Country

        These sketches are based on memories of the artist’s childhood. His mother, Dicy Darden, is portrayed, as well as the house he once lived in. Aberdeen Colored High School is based on an old yearbook photograph. Another sketch features a memory of his mother taking him and his twin brother, Irvin, to see a dead whale that was touring the country by rail.
      • Newspaper image

        Newspaper image

        Newspaper accounts of the whale in larger Mississippi cities mark the date as 1932, when Darden was just 4 years old.
      • Negro Family Representing Five Generations, mixed media shadowbox, historic photograph

        Negro Family Representing Five Generations, mixed media shadowbox, historic photograph

        Darden’s three-dimensional piece is based on a photograph by Timothy O'Sullivan taken in 1862. The original image featured eight African Americans posed in front of a wooden building on J. J. Smith's Plantation in Beaufort, South Carolina, during the American Civil War.

        America’s Forgotten Black Cowboys

        Of the 35,000 cowboys who worked on ranches and rode the trails, about one-third were of African descent. As a child, Murphy Darden was unaware of this fact even though he and his twin brother, Irvin, obsessed over white cowboy heroes they saw at the movies. They pretended to be cowboys and even chased a few cows back to their rightful owner’s pastures when needed. Later in life, Darden discovered black cowboys and began collecting and portraying their stories.
        • The Bull-Dogger, drawing on paper

          The Bull-Dogger, drawing on paper

          Bill Pickett frequently performed in local rodeos and became well known for “bulldogging.” He developed this act based on how bulldogs were sometimes used to help stop a runaway steer. The dog used its teeth to clamp down on the steer’s upper nose and lip, a sensitive area. Pickett decided that if a bulldog could bring down a steer, so could he. (continued in next slide)
        • Bill Picket, historic photo

          Bill Picket, historic photo

          He practiced bulldogging by springing from his horse, wrestling the steer to the ground, then biting and holding the steer’s lip until it became subdued. He became known as “Dusky Demon” after the feat. He died in 1932, eleven days after being struck in the chest and head by a horse. In 1971, he was the first African American inducted into the National Rodeo Hall of Fame.

        • Historic advertisement for a film starring Bill Picket.

          Historic advertisement for a film starring Bill Picket.

        • The Bull-Dogger, mixed media

          The Bull-Dogger, mixed media

          Painting based on photo of Bill Pickett performing his famous bulldogging feat.
        • Herbert Jeffrey, painting on cardboard

          Herbert Jeffrey, painting on cardboard

          Detroit native Herbert Jeffrey was the first African American singing cowboy. His first film was Harlem on the Prairie, considered the first Black Western. Later, Jefferies sang his own songs in The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides the Range.
        • Ben Hodges, mixed media

          Ben Hodges, mixed media

          Hodges, who arrived in Dodge City as part of a cattle drive in 1872, was perhaps one of the most charismatic and colorful cowboys of his day. Part Mexican and part African American, he became a talented forger, conman, and part-time cattle thief. He is said to have swindled or attempted to swindle everyone in Dodge City. Even so, he remained well liked due to his entertaining and jovial nature.
        • Black Cowboy Toy

          Black Cowboy Toy

          This bucking bronco moves up and down as the user turns the crank.
        • Black Cowboy with Horse, mixed media

          Black Cowboy with Horse, mixed media

          A historic photograph of a cowboy and his horse inspired this portrayal of an unidentified man.
        • Black Cowboy with His Horse, historic photograph

          Black Cowboy with His Horse, historic photograph

          Conversations with Darden

          Learn about Darden’s early experiences as an artist.

          Darden discusses his artworks and the Kalamazoo Vegetable and Parchment Company, the Bombardiers Marching Band and the Pacific Inn Club.

          Darden talks about his artworks related to Jim Crow, the impact of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement.

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