It is a brave pursuit to challenge the limits of indoctrination. It is a rebellious act to confront the subjective paradox of history even as it claims to be neutral. Scholars, writers, artists, and curators are mark makers; their queries leave indelible imprints in the matrix that constitutes the art historical canon. Little by little, methodically, strategically, they chip away at the intractable constructs that define what history is and whose accomplishments should be venerated as archives preserved for future generations.
For almost fifty years, the scholarship and curatorial endeavors of Leslie King Hammond and Lowery Stokes Sims have challenged significant cultural institutions to reorient history as a broad landscape that situates white accomplishment as a component of, but not a singular contributor to, art history. Collectively and separately, these two women have built a legacy of excellence and diversity at museums and colleges including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Sims was employed for 27 years, the Maryland Institute College of Art, where King Hammond was Graduate Dean and the founding director of the Center for Race and Culture, as well as the Studio Museum of Harlem, the Museum of Arts and Design, the National Gallery of Jamaica, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Queens College, the Cleveland Art Museum, and others.
Their sisterhood started in the 1960s as ambitious, bright-eyed Girl Scouts with dreams as tall as the skyscrapers that surrounded them. Growing up in New York City, both had aspirations to become archaeologists that were seen as too far outside the constructs of caste because the so-called liberal North still upheld many of the subtle (and not so subtle) codes of the Jim Crow South.
To be young, gifted, and Black required grit and an unshakable belief that others’ perceptions about the presumed affliction of being born both Black and female could not thwart their drive to be successful, on their terms, and by any means necessary. Their parents were concerned by their desire to engage in such lofty pursuits.
“My mother put the kibosh on that,” Sims recalls. “She said, ‘You know, you really need to be white and rich to be an archaeologist.’” King Hammond concurs. “My parents thought my career aspirations were truly weird, and they were also scared that I would die in a dusty pit somewhere.”