Claflin University Receives Gift of Painting from Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Eugene Robinson and wife Avis Collins Robinson

Mar 23, 2016
The painting donated to Claflin University by Washington Post syndicated columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Robinson and his wife Avis Collins Robinson highlights two extraordinary legacies rooted in Orangeburg that have been intrinsically connected longer than anyone can recall.

One is the proud legacy of Claflin University which was founded in 1869 as the first college/university in South Carolina to open its doors to all students regardless of race, class or gender.   Claflin has transcended its modest beginnings and is now recognized as one of the nation’s premier liberal arts universities and for producing graduates who are engaged visionary leaders with global perspectives.

Those with a lengthy association with Claflin and Orangeburg residents know that Eugene and Avis RobinsonMr. Robinson is a native of Orangeburg and his mother, the late Louisa S. Robinson worked at Claflin for more than 45 years.  For more than 31 years, she was the university’s head librarian. She was instrumental in the planning and building of the H.V. Manning Library on campus and after the library was renovated in 2003, a section of its main floor was named in her honor. His father, Harold was also employed at Claflin before he opened an office of the Social Security Administration in Orangeburg.  Robinson's sister Ellen (Ricoma) has been an adjunct professor in Claflin's School of Business and she presently serves as director for the MBA program at South Carolina State.  The Robinson's undeniable legacy as educators, historians, public servants and visionary leaders continues to resonate throughout Orangeburg and beyond.

The portrait, Alonzo Smith, Forman, Black Mason Building Claflin, was unveiled  recently during a special ceremony in Tingley Hall.  Collins Robinson painted the portrait which provides additional confirmation of the connection between Claflin and the Robinson family.  Collins Robinson's inspiration for the painting was a photograph of Smith and a crew of men laying brick for the foundation of a building being built on Claflin's campus.  Smith was Mr. Robinson's great uncle. Claflin President Henry N. Tisdale believes the photograph was possibly taken between 1910 and 1920.

"Claflin was known for brick making during that time so the bricks could have been fired in the kilns by Claflin students," said Tisdale.  "These men could have been laying bricks for Tingley Hall or Ministers Hall.  Both buildings are located in Claflin's Historic District as designated by the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

Collins Robinson’s art pays tribute to the generation of Black Americans who persevered in spite of the indignities of the Jim Crow era who now celebrate the nation’s transformational journey to the election of Barack Obama as the first Black president.   She is not a professionally trained artist. Collins Robinson is a Harvard-educated economist and a former deputy director of the Office of Atmospheric Programs at the Environmental Protection Agency, who took up painting less than a decade ago.

"I am in tears" said Collins Robinson in a text message after hearing of the unveiling. "I am so happy that this artwork is on display at Claflin, the home for so many beautiful, talented and proud black ancestors.” The Robinsons were unable to attend the unveiling due to other commitments.

Collins Robinson has produced other paintings and her subjects include families, laborers, and iconic items from dark days of slavery and Michelle and Barack Obama.  Her commissioned portrait of Abraham Lincoln, which integrates antique quilts and broadcloth with acrylic paint, has been on display in the Ford’s Theatre lobby since February 2009, when the theater reopened for the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. 

"We greatly appreciate the Robinson’s donating this painting to Claflin,” Tisdale said.  “It’s a magnificent piece of art and it tells a story about our history. This painting depicts an important period in Claflin's history. Buildings erected on the campus during this time were designed by William Cooke, a pioneer African-American architect and a Claflin alumnus.  He was also a professor of architectural and mechanical drawing at Claflin,” added Tisdale.

The size of the portrait (8ft. x 5 ft.) is certain to attract the attention of visitors to Tingley Hall, in addition to the colorful images of the men with their solemn and purposeful expressions.  Collins Robinson use of water-based paint and fabric adds to the uniqueness of the artwork which has an estimated value of $100,000.

“It’s a welcomed addition to historic Tingley Hall and Claflin University,” said Marilyn Gibbs Drayton, head librarian at Claflin who worked with Tisdale and the Robinsons to bring the painting to Claflin. “It really does show the connections between Claflin, the Smiths and the Robinson families.”

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