Texas Originals

John Biggers

April 13, 1924–January 25, 2001

With a bent back and powerful hands, an African American man figures prominently in a large mural in Houston's Blue Triangle YWCA. To his left, Harriet Tubman leads weary slaves to freedom. To his right, Sojourner Truth stands while children march proudly into a schoolhouse.

Dedicated in 1953, this mural—titled The Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education—was a milestone in the career of artist John Biggers. A longtime Houston resident, Biggers found his voice by depicting the heroic survival of his people. He said, "I began to see
art . . . as a responsibility to reflect the spirit and style of the Negro people."

Biggers achieved recognition as an artist for his drawings and sculptures, but he is best known for his murals. These murals form a rich part of Houston’s visual and public landscape at Texas Southern University, the University of Houston, Tom Bass Park, and Christina V. Adair Park.

In 1949, Biggers was named chairman of the art department at the institution that would become Texas Southern University. Over the next thirty-four years Biggers trained the next generation of African American artists and teachers that form a vital part of Biggers's legacy.

John Biggers left behind a body of work that as Maya Angelou stated, "leads us through his expressions into the discovery of ourselves at our most intimate level."

For More about John Biggers

Olive Jensen Theisen, author of Walls That Speak: The Murals of John Thomas Biggers and A Life on Paper: The Drawings and Lithographs of John Thomas Biggers, maintains a website dedicated to his work.

The University Museum at Houston’s Texas Southern University houses a collection of John T. Biggers's works.

The Houston Oral History Project includes the transcript of a 1975 interview with Biggers.

Biggers's papers are at Emory University.

Selected Bibliography

Barr, Alwyn, and Robert A. Calvert, eds. Black Leaders: Texans for Their Times. Denton: Texas State Historical Association, 1990.

Biggers, John Thomas. Ananse: The Web of Life in Africa. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Biggers, John Thomas, and Alvia Jean Wardlaw Short. "Contribution of The Negro Woman to American Life and Education: A Mural." Callaloo 5 (February 1979): 127–134

Biggers, John Thomas, and Carroll Simms. Black Art in Houston: The Texas Southern University Experience. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1978.

Biggers, John Thomas, John Mason Brewer, and Alvia J. Wardlaw. Aunt Dicy Tales: John Biggers' Drawings for the Folktale. Austin: Ransom Center, 1999. Published in conjunction with the exhibition Aunt Dicy Tales: John Biggers' Drawings for the Folktale shown at the Harry Ransom Center.

"John T. Biggers (1924–2001)." The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 31 (Spring 2001): 130.

John Biggers: My America, The 1940s and 1950s: Paintings, Sculpture and Drawings. Foreword by Whitfield Lovell. New York: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, 2004. Published in conjunction with the exhibition John Biggers: My America shown at the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.

Theisen, Olive Jensen. A Life on Paper: The Drawings and Lithographs of John Thomas Biggers. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2006.

Theisen, Olive Jensen. "Two New Murals by John Biggers: Salt Marsh and Nubia, Origins of Business and Commerce." Art Education 54, no. 4 (July 2001): 20–24.

Theisen, Olive Jensen. Walls That Speak: The Murals of John Thomas Biggers. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2010.

Wardlaw, Alvia J. The Art of John Biggers: View from the Upper Room. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995.

Wardlaw, Alvia J. "'Strength, Tears, and Will': John Biggers' Contribution of the Negro Woman to American Life and Education." Callaloo 5 (February 1979): 135–143.

Listen to the audio

Shotgun, Third Ward #1 (1966) by John Biggers. Tempera and oil on canvas. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
John Biggers working on a drawing of two women in his studio, 1979. Photo by Earlie Hudnall, courtesy of Earlie Hudnall.
Song of the Drinking Gourds (1987) by John Biggers. This mural can be seen at Tom Bass Regional Park in Harris County. Image courtesy of Hazel Biggers and Olive Jensen Theisen.
John Biggers, 1998. Image courtesy of Olive Jensen Theisen.