Little Known Black History Fact: Thelma Johnson Streat

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  • Thelma Streat was a favorite black artist among First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the King and Queen of England, actor Vincent Price and dancer Katherine Dunham. In 1947, only four African American artists were known to have solo showings of their artwork in New York City. They were Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Rose Piper and Thelma Johnson Streat.

    Born in Yakima, Washington, Streat received training from top west coast art schools in the 1930’s. She began painting at age seven. Not only was she an accomplished artist, but Streat was also a talented singer and modern dancer. She was known to combine her talents when presenting her works of art. When Streat joined the Works Progress Administration in the 1940’s, she began painting the black struggle, which angered the KKK. She received death threats when she pained ‘Death of a Negro Sailor’ which had a political undertone. ‘Death of a Negro Sailor’ envisioned a black sailor dying after risking his life abroad to protect the democratic rights he was denied at home. The piece had been on display in Hollywood in 1943.

    Streat’s most famous piece was called “Rabbit Man,” which was picked up by the Museum of Modern Art in 1942, making her the first black woman to hold such an honor. As for her interpretive dance, she learned from island natives after traveling abroad and studying with the Haida Indians. Streat was requested for a dance performance by Buckingham Palace in 1950.  While briefly living in France, she became the first black woman to have her own television show, which showcased her talent, in 1949.

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