NC artist James McMillan captured historic struggles — and Greensboro’s place in them

GREENSBORO —  The year was 1947. A young artist was working on a mural at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine when the president of Bennett College called to ask him to head the school’s art department.

James McMillan

James McMillan in 2008.

“I had to come down from a scaffold to take the call,” James Carroll McMillan once recalled. “That sparked a real history in terms of my academic career — starting the art program there.”

McMillan, also a co-founder and the first president of the African American Atelier in the Greensboro Cultural Center, died Sept. 1 at the age of 96. A public viewing will be held on Friday from noon until 7 p.m. at Serenity Funeral Home, with a private celebration of his life at a later date. He is survived by his grandchildren.

His work can be found at The Weatherspoon Art Museum and Bennett College among other places — including Greensboro’s McGirt-Horton Branch Library, where his portrait of building namesake James Ephraim McGirt hangs. 

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McMillian grew up in Sanford, the son of teachers and a father who was also a Presbyterian minister. He was valedictorian when he graduated from high school — at age 15. He has said that he knew education was a means for achievement, and he enrolled at Howard University while living with an uncle. It was there while pursuing a bachelor of arts degree that he was drafted into World War II. 

James McMillan

James McMillan painted this oil on canvas titled “James Ephraim McGirt (1874-1930).”

After serving in the Navy from 1943 to 1946, he returned to Howard to finish his degree.

In 1947, the year he graduated, he got the call from Bennett’s president and became the founding chair of the art department. He would return to the college several times over a long academic career.

He pursued his master of fine arts in sculpture at Catholic University and later studied art at the Academie Julien in Paris during the 1950s, where he met and encountered some of the era’s great Black artists, such as “Native Son” author Richard Wright.

While many of the Black expatriates he encountered remained overseas rather than return to segregated America, he wanted to be a part of the solution at home.

“The love of the arts and being in Paris was wonderful,” McMillan told the News & Record in 1996. “But it dawned on me that this couldn’t go on forever, that sooner or later we would have to go back home. That we couldn’t always hide out.

“It made me wonder if we were always going to be the escapists. Was that the solution — going to some other place?’

“I felt I had to go back, and if there was anything that could be done, I had to be a part of it.”

At Bennett he often joined his students on protest lines and was arrested several times.

He used his art to convey a global vision that included the Depression, war and the civil rights movement.

A small ink drawing from 1959 juxtaposes a billboard with the slogan “Building a Better Greensboro” next to to a ramshackle house and an old truck.

“James McMillan’s artistic gifts have provided us with a visual memory of those historic struggles,” former Bennett President Julianne Malveaux wrote in the introduction to his art catalogue in 2011.

In 1969, he became the head of the art department at Guilford College — the first Black, full-time professor and department head.

“The students were great,” once said McMillan, who held the position until 1988. “I found this place, really, an ideal place to be as a college professor. There is a great respect for the arts here, and for Afro-Americans. That’s part of the Quaker tradition.”

James McMillan

Founding member Eva Hamlin Miller cuts the ribbon with Alma Adams (left), James McMillan (back left), and others during the 1991 grand opening of the African American Atelier located in the Greensboro Cultural Center. 

McMillian later helped found the African American Atelier in 1991 under the guiding vision of prominent artist and arts supporter Eva Hamlin Miller, an A&T art professor who held exhibitions in the basement of her home or in the Bennett Street building where her husband used to have his dental offices. The nonprofit art gallery quickly expanded its purpose to promoting the arts in Guilford County, including programs designed for schoolchildren. 

Contact Nancy McLaughlin at nancy.mclaughlin@greensboro.com or 336-373-7049 and follow @nmclaughlinNR on Twitter.

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