GREENSBORO — It 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 him asking him to head the school’s art department .
“I had to get off scaffolding to take the call,” recalls James Carroll McMillan. “It sparked a real story in terms of my college career – starting the art program there.”
McMillan, also co-founder and first president of the Greensboro Cultural Center’s African American Atelier, died Sept. 1 at age 96. He is survived by his grandchildren.
His work can be found at the Weatherspoon Art Museum and Bennett College, among others, including the McGirt-Horton Branch Library in Greensboro, where his portrait of the building’s namesake, James Ephraim McGirt, hangs.
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He was one of 10 artists in GreenHill’s inaugural exhibition at the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts.
McMillan 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 – aged 15. He said he knew education was a way to success, and he enrolled at Howard University while living with an uncle. It was there, while pursuing a Bachelor of Arts, that he was drafted into World War II.
After serving in the Navy from 1943 to 1946, he returned to Howard to complete his education.
In 1947, the year he graduated, he got the call from Bennett’s president and became the founding chairman of the art department. He would return to college several times during a long university career.
He pursued his Masters of Fine Arts in sculpture at the Catholic University and later studied art at the Académie Julien in Paris in the 1950s, where he met and met some of the great black artists of the time. , such as “Native Son” author Richard Wright.
While many black expats he met stayed abroad rather than returning to a segregated America, he wanted to be part of the solution back 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 it couldn’t go on forever, that sooner or later we had to go home That we couldn’t always hide.
“It made me wonder if we were still going to be the escapees. Was that the solution – go somewhere else?
“I felt like I had to go back, and if there was something that could be done, I had to be part of it.”
At Bennett, he often joined his students on protest lines and was repeatedly arrested.
He used his art to convey a global vision that included 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 a dilapidated house and an old truck.
“James McMillan’s artistic gifts have provided us with a visual memory of these historic struggles,” former Bennett president Julianne Malveaux wrote in the introduction to her art catalog in 2011.
In 1969 he became head of the art department at Guilford College – the first full-time black professor and head of department.
“The students were great,” said McMillan, who held the position until 1988. “I found this place, really, a great place to be a college professor. There’s a great respect for the arts here, and for African Americans. It’s part of the Quaker tradition.
McMillan 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 teacher who held exhibits in the basement of her home or in the Bennett Street building where her husband used to have his dental offices. The non-profit art gallery quickly expanded its focus to promoting the arts in Guilford County, including programs designed for schoolchildren.