When Eugene Landry painted this portrait of a young African-American schoolboy in 1962, the fight to desegregate the public education system was in full swing. Seven years after Brown v Board of Education, the battle raged on. While news headlines shouted of riotous mobs and integration troubles, Gene put a human face on the issue with his paintbrush.

Two years later the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It prohibited unfair voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodation. The legislation was proposed by President Kennedy 1963 but opposed by a Senate filibuster. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, President Johnson pushed the bill forward. It was signed into law on July 2, 1964.

Eddie Smith, May 31, 1962

The second of three portraits from this era is of a young man named Eddie Smith. His front-faced stare creates a powerful presence.The camouflage-green shirt he wears alludes to the very real likelihood of impending military service.

“The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of African-Americans ever to serve in an American war. There was a marked turnaround from the attitude in previous wars that black men were not fit for combat – during the Vietnam War African-Americans faced a much greater chance of being on the front-line, and consequently a much higher casualty rate. In 1965 alone African-Americans represented almost 25 percent of those killed in action.”-The History Detectives PBS

October 1963

The final portrait is loose with a lot of unpainted canvas. Landry’s model is cool, dignified and self-contained. The sketchy quality of the outlying brushwork forces the focus to the model’s face. He appears to be about the same age as Eddie Smith, but there is no name or artist signature, only a date on the back of the canvas board. Gene painted this portrait, like the preceding two, in Seattle. He lived in a racially mixed section of the city, and all of these models may have been his neighbors or friends. Today they would be in their 70s or early 80s.

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