YOUNGSTOWN – The return of a restored oil painting to Old Fort Niagara has revived an interest in a Western New York treasure – the African-American artist who painted it as a precursor to the stunning 1939 mural he also created for the fort.
Hubert H. Crawford, who was born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 1910, is described as a “kind of Renaissance man” by Robert Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara.
“He was an artist and did many things, even designing his own yacht,” Emerson said. “He was well known in the 1930s but is forgotten today.”
Emerson aims to change that. He hopes to soon exhibit Crawford’s 38-inch-by-47-inch oil on canvas “study,” which was painstakingly restored by the staff at SUNY Buffalo State’s Art Conservation Department. The painting would be displayed in the Officers Club, where Crawford’s moving wall mural soars to the peaked ceiling over the fireplace on the western end of the lounge.
Emerson said the fort purchased the study in 2009 from Crawford’s daughter-in-law, Myrtle Crawford, who found it “ripped and stained, with the paint falling off.”
“It really belongs back here,” he said.
Emerson turned to research done by a former Niagara County historian, the late David Dickinson, to learn more about Humphrey.
Dickinson had discovered that Crawford moved with his family to Buffalo at age 7. As a high school student, he enrolled in a Saturday morning painting class at the Albright Art Gallery and was awarded a one-year scholarship to study art. He continued his education at the Albright Art School, where he graduated in 1932.
He married Vera Jane Patterson and filled their home with custom-designed furniture while also designing a pleasure yacht built to his specifications, which he used for cruises along Lake Erie and the Niagara River.
Crawford was a member of the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church and Michigan Avenue YMCA, and active in the NAACP.
The peak of his career appears to be the 1930s, when he did quite a bit of freelance and commissioned portrait work, becoming one of Buffalo’s leading illustrators. He also dabbled in industrial design, graphic arts, technical illustration and cartooning and was a professor at the University of Buffalo.
Among his commissions were exterior and interior murals at Buffalo’s Club Moonglow, the city’s first African-American nightclub, which featured top musicians of the era.
He also was selected by leaders of Buffalo’s African-American community to design the Buffalo exhibit at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940. His depicted African-Americans in Buffalo in the 75 years following President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
And Crawford was selected by the U.S. Army and commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department to paint the Cantigny mural in the Fort Niagara Officers Club, which was completed between June 1938 and October 1940.
Tragically, in late 1940, Crawford fell from a third-story window in his home and suffered brain damage, which impaired him for the rest of his life. He lived at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center until 1978 and died near relatives around Utica on Jan. 11, 1985.
The fort staff believes Crawford created the smaller study to pitch his idea to the fort for his mural, because it depicts an exact scene found in the wall mural. They also think this was the first of four murals painted over the years in the Officers Club by various artists.
The Officers Club also has an interesting history.
The former Officers Club burned in the winter of 1936, when the 28th U.S. Infantry Unit of the First Division of the American Expeditionary Force was stationed at the fort. The club lost everything in the fire – all trophies, colors and mementos, Emerson said.
When the new Officers Club was built in 1938, the 28th Infantry wanted to make it its own by commissioning a mural illustrating how it seized the Town of Cantigny, France, in May 1918, the first All-American victory in World War I. The capture was also important because Cantigny’s elevation made it an excellent observation post.
Crawford’s mural depicts American soldiers overpowering anguished German combatants against the backdrop of the burning remains of the hilltop town. The capture of that town earned the unit the name “Lions of Cantigny.”
Crawford painted the mural in rich hues of brown, green and blue, as opposed to the smaller “study,” which is a darker rendering in mostly beiges and browns, focusing on the close-up of an American soldier stabbing a German with his bayonet, with another American soldier on the attack in profile behind him.
Despite the somber cast of the painting, Emerson pointed to a “folksy touch” off to the left side of the canvas, where Crawford apparently painted, in small letters, “Done with my own little hands … I done it.”
Emerson hopes the smaller painting also will find a permanent home in the Officers Club.
“Our long-term plans are to create a museum about the new Fort Niagara in the Officers Club, focusing on World War I and World War II and the role of the fort in those conflicts,” he explained.
Until then, Emerson hopes to be able to temporarily display Crawford’s restored painting in a side room of the club, where the staff has been gathering artifacts associated with the fort during the two world wars. The state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation has put a new roof on the building and Old Fort Niagara helped pay for a new furnace and maintains the building.
“Our Officers Club is open during special events in the summer, and people can walk through and see the murals,” Emerson said. “We are collecting things all of the time related to this building.”
Nodding to Crawford’s restored painting, Emerson added, “You have to grab this stuff while you can – while it’s here.”