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John Biggers papers

Identifier: Manuscript Collection No. 1179

Scope and Content Note

The collection consists of the papers of John Biggers from 1950-2001. The papers include correspondence, photographs, printed material, professional materials, subject files, printed material, writings, and audiovisual material. The materials document his entire professional career, starting with his work at Hampton Institute, but the bulk of the material relates to his work at Texas Southern University. Correspondence includes Biggers' personal and professional correspondence with friends, colleagues, and former students especially documenting his relationship with mentor, Viktor Lowenfeld (1903-1960); his work as founder and dean of the Art Department at Texas Southern University; and his work as a muralist. The photographs and slides consist primarily of images Biggers used while researching and composing his murals, in addition to extensive documentation of his in-progress and finished works. Also included are photographs of events he attended or that were held in his honor and people involved in his life including friends, family, and collegues.

Printed material contains information about or collected by John Biggers. Included are calendars, clippings, newsletters and annual reports, pamphlets and programs, periodicals, and promotional materials that highlight Biggers' life and work. Biggers' work as an artist and as an educator is further documented by his professional material. Documents relating to John Biggers' work as an artist and arts advocate include planning and promotional material from a number of public exhibitions of Biggers' work as well as handwritten research notes on African art; financial documents about loans and sales of his work; artwork and sketches by Biggers and other artists; as well as a significant amount of material from Biggers' tenure as the head of the Art Department at Texas Southern University in Houston. Subject files contain materials on topics such as community projects as well as other professional endeavors such as invitations for speaking and art project opportunities.

Writings contain works by both by John Biggers and by others including Olive Theisen. The writings by Biggers consist of notes and typescript corrections of two of Biggers' books, Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa (1979) and Black Art in Houston: The Texas Southern University Experience (1978). Also included in Biggers' writings are shorter works such as lectures, abstracts, and eulogies. Writings by others consist of longer works written about Biggers and his artwork, as well as unpublished essays and typescripts collected and read by Biggers. Of particular note are three typescript editions of Olive Theisen's The Murals of John Thomas Biggers: American Muralist, African-American Artist, an extensive collection and analysis of Biggers' murals. In later published editions, Biggers is listed as a co-author of the work; in this finding aid, all drafts are described under Theisen for continuity. Also included in writings is a typescript for Tales of Aunt Dicy, an annotated collection of Biggers' drawings of folk tales, as well as other shorter essays on Biggers, including John Biggers: American Muralist. There are also manuscripts of collected poetry, short stories, student essays, lectures, and an unidentified typescript on the Texas State University Arts Center. Audiovisual material consists of audiocassettes and VHS tapes of exhibits and commencement ceremonies as well as recordings on topics of interest to Biggers such as intrasound and animal rights.


  • 1950-2001

Language of Materials

Materials entirely in English.

Restrictions on Access

Special restrictions apply: Use copies have not been made for audiovisual material in this collection. Researchers must contact the Rose Library at least two weeks in advance for access to these items. Collection restrictions, copyright limitations, or technical complications may hinder the Rose Library's ability to provide access to audiovisual material.

Collection stored off-site. Researchers must contact the Rose Library in advance to access this collection.

Terms Governing Use and Reproduction

All requests subject to limitations noted in departmental policies on reproduction.

Biographical Note

John Thomas Biggers (1924-2001), African American artist, author, and educator, was born on April 13, 1924 to Paul and Cora Biggers in Gastonia, North Carolina, the youngest of seven children. He attended Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Hampton, Virginia and started taking art classes under the tutelage of Viktor Lowenfeld, but was drafted into the US Navy in 1943 and served until December 1945. Also in 1943, Biggers was featured in the exhibit Young Negro Art at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Biggers returned to Hampton in 1946 for one semester, and when Lowenfeld moved to Pennsylvania State University (State College, Pennsylvania) in mid-1946, Biggers followed him to study in the art department there, receiving a Bachelor of Science in January 1948 and a Master of Science in September 1948. On December 27, 1948, Biggers married Hazel Hales, whom he had met at Hampton in 1942. Biggers received a doctoral degree in 1954 from Pennsylvania State University with a thesis entitled The Negro Woman in American Life and Education.

Biggers commenced a teaching career soon after obtaining his masters degree. In 1949, Biggers accepted a position as an instructor at Alabama State Teachers College in Montgomery, but moved to Houston, Texas, in August to establish and serve as department head of the Art Department at Texas State University for Negroes (later Texas Southern University), where he spent over thirty years of his career. Biggers published a book entitled Black Art in Houston in 1978 with Carroll Simms and Edward Weems. He retired from teaching in 1983.

Biggers' first major works were the egg tempera paintings Dying Soldier (1942), Community Preacher (1943), and U.S. Navy Mural (1945). The current locations of the first two works are unknown, and U.S. Navy Mural is currently disassembled. Biggers followed these works in the late 1940s with the murals, Burial, Sharecroppers, Baptism, Day of the Harvest, and Night of the Poor. The next phase in Biggers' career came with his move to Houston. In the 1950s Biggers produced Harvesters and Gleaners (1952), Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education (1953), History of Education in Morris County, Texas (1955), and History of the International Longshoremen's Local 872 (1957).

In developing his artistic projects, Biggers traveled extensively to learn about the African cultural experience. In 1957, John and Hazel spent six months on a United Nations fellowship traveling in Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, and Dahomey. He published Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa, a book based on these travels, in 1962. A Danforth award in 1969 allowed John and Hazel to spend six months in Egypt, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana. In 1980, Biggers visited Haiti along with other Texas Southern faculty and also visited Amsterdam and Kenya in 1987, and attended the National Conference of Artists meetings in Dakar, Senegal (1984) and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1988). After a United Nations-funded trip to Africa, Biggers began to incorporate more abstract and symbolic images and patterns in his work, starting with the transitional works Web of Life (1960), Red Barn Farm (1960), and Birth from the Sea (1966).

Biggers undertook a number of major mural projects throughout his career and in his later works, increased the scale of abstract iconography and began to incorporate quilted patterns in his murals. He produced a number of murals in Houston buildings, including Family Unity (1974-1978), Quilting Party (1980-1981),Song of the Drinking Gourds (1987), East Texas Patchwork (1987), and a mural honoring Christia V. Adair, one of Houston's most important civil rights leaders.

Biggers returned to Gastonia in 1990, and was commissioned to complete two major mural projects. He completed Ascension and Origins at the Winston-Salem State University library in North Carolina in 1991, and painted House of the Turtle and Tree House at Hampton University that same year. In 1994, he drew the illustrations for Maya Angelou's poem "Our Grandmothers," but suffered from declining health in the late 1990s. John Biggers died in 2001.


31 linear feet (62 boxes) (6 oversized papers boxes and 2 oversized papers folders (OP); 2 oversized bound volumes (OBV); 1 extra-oversized paper (XOP); AV Masters: .25 linear feet (1 box))


Papers of African American mural artist and professor John Biggers including correspondence, photographs, printed materials, professional materials, subject files, writings, and audiovisual materials documenting his work as an artist and educator.

Arrangement Note

Organized into 7 series: (1) Correspondence, (2) Photographs, (3) Printed materials, (4) Professional material, (5) Subject files, (6) Writings, and (7) Audiovisual materials.

Custodial History

Mrs. Biggers is the widow of John Biggers.


Gift of and purchased from Hazel Biggers, 2010.

Appraisal Note

Acquired by Curator of African American Collections, Randall Burkett, as part of the Rose Library's holdings in African American culture and history.


Processed by Laura Starratt, Will Love, and Michael Camp, August 2014

This finding aid may include language that is offensive or harmful. Please refer to the Rose Library's harmful language statement for more information about why such language may appear and ongoing efforts to remediate racist, ableist, sexist, homophobic, euphemistic and other oppressive language. If you are concerned about language used in this finding aid, please contact us at

John Biggers papers, 1950-2001
Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University
August 29, 2014
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Revision Statements

  • July 29, 2015: Finding aid revised to include enhanced metadata tagging.

Repository Details

Part of the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library Repository

540 Asbury Circle
Atlanta Georgia 30322 United States