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Albert C. Barnes and Social Justice

Committed to racial equality and social justice, Albert C. Barnes believed that education was the cornerstone of a truly democratic society. At his West Philadelphia factory, where many of his employees were African American, Dr. Barnes structured the workday to include seminars on art and philosophy. In 1927, he established a scholarship program to support young black artists, writers, and musicians who wanted to further their education. The beneficiaries included poet and essayist Gwendolyn Bennett; artist and professor Aaron Douglas; violinist David Auld for study at the Julliard school; and composer Frederick Work for training in Europe.

Dr. Barnes was deeply interested in African American culture. In addition to providing financial support, he promoted the value of black art, music, and literature in his own writings and through programs at the Barnes, including an annual performance of African American spirituals by the Bordentown Glee Club. He collected the paintings of Horace Pippin. He was a member of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, founded by the scholar Carter G. Woodson.

In the 1920s, Dr. Barnes was actively involved in the New Negro Movement (better known today as the Harlem Renaissance), collaborating with philosopher Alain Locke and Charles S. Johnson, the scholar and activist, to promote awareness of the artistic value of African art. Johnson expressed his appreciation of Dr. Barnes’s work on behalf of African Americans in a letter from 1927:

I can think of no one who has been more consistent in urging this self-realization [of African Americans] than you. And to remove this from what might possibly be interpreted as merely a gracious remark, I point to that first discovery for America of the vital power of African art, and its preservation to the synthesis of Negro artistic expression in the plastic arts, music and poetry, which has been projected from the Foundation, and is becoming, as you must yourself see, the substantial framework of the new Negro status, and command to respect; to the interpretations of the significance of these various art forms in relation to Negro social status in America, which are contributing, perhaps even more than you realize, to the spiritual emancipation of Negroes; and, finally, to the disposition, more recently manifested, to transform these philosophies into a practical program at the Foundation. I refer to these because they are very real and vital contributions to a cause, and that you may know at least that they are recognized.