Recent visitors to the Washington National Cathedral may have noticed a change with the famous stained-glass windows of the historic structure. Windows that once honored Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson now pay homage to the ongoing resilience and march for racial justice of Black Americans.
Equally as significant, the new racial-justice themed glass-stained windows were designed by world-renowned Black artist Kerry James Marshall, 68. In September, the Now and Forever Windows were installed.
Marshall’s art depicts a gathering of Black American demonstrators holding signs with messages that read “No Foul play,” “Fairness,” “Not,” and “No.” The setting depicts the ongoing march towards justice and equality rather than commemorate a particular historical moment, while acknowledging the enduring efforts of Black people in the fight for civil rights.
“[Works of art] can invite us and anybody who sees them to reflect on the propositions they present, and to imagine oneself as a subject and an author of a never-ending story that has yet to be told,” Marshall said of the windows. “This is what I tried to do, with words, images and colored glass, for right here and right now.”
Marshall’s cathedral windows represent a significant contribution to our culture and art world. The acclaimed artist is known for his paintings that feature figures in the color black, and those figures are present in the windows. He told a magazine in 2016 that “blackness is non-negotiable in these pictures.”
That year he also told WTTW Chicago: “What I want to do is gather the most power and to be able to deliver it with the most intensity. So that’s why I started using the blackness as a primary color.” He added, “Within that blackness there are levels of complexity, they are not just flat black.”
In 2018, Marshall set an auction record for the highest price paid for a workby a living Black American artist when Sean Combs bought his “Past Times” (1997) for $21.1 million at Sotheby’s.
“This is probably the first instance in the history of the art world where a Black person took part in a capital competition and won,” Marshall said of Combs’ acquisition.
Marshall is also an art professor who taught painting at The School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He was featured in the 2017 Time 100 list of the most influential people in the world. In 1997, he was awarded the MacArthur ‘genius’ Fellowship. Marshall’s art has been exhibited around the world and is part of public collections at some of the top museums in the country.
Marshall was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and spent his childhood in Watts area of Los Angeles. At age 13, he was recommended for a summer art class at the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. On through college, he studied under the mentorship of renowned social realist painter Charles White. Since earning an art degree at Otis, he has spent much of his career in Chicago.
In Washington, D.C., discussions to replace the Lee-Jackson windows at the cathedral began in 2016 after a white supremacist in 2015 massacred nine Black members at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The Lee-Jackson windows were removed in 2017 after white supremacists staged a deadly protest against the removal of Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.
During the dedication of the Now and Forever Windows, Randolph Marshall Hollerith, the dean of the cathedral, said the original Lee-Jackson windows installed in 1953) “were offensive” and told a false narrative, extolling two individuals who fought to keep the institution of slavery alive.
Thanks to the masterful work of Kerry James Marshall and forward thinking of cathedral officials, that memorial to two Confederates has been replaced by art that tells the triumphant story of those they once enslaved.