Work, war, and racism

Romare Bearden and the portrayal of mid-century discrimination

Romare Bearden, Factory Workers, 1942, gouache and casein on brown Kraft paper mounted on board, 94.93 × 73.03 cm (Minneapolis Institute of Art). Speakers: Dennis Michael Jon, Minneapolis Institute of Art and Dr. Beth Harris

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Bearden, Factory Workers

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Key points

  • Despite the need for workers as the American defense industry prepared for World War II, persistent racism and discrimination prevented many African Americans from finding jobs.
  • In June 1941, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which sought to prohibit racial discrimination in defense and government hiring. This was the first executive order to address discrimination since the Emancipation Proclamation. The article in Fortune for which this painting served as the frontispiece was likely a direct result of this order. It argued that discriminatory hiring practices were bad for business, bad for the war effort, and bad for society.
  • Romare Bearden, a Social Realist, used his art to highlight the difficulties facing workers and the poor. Prominent in the 1930s and 1940s, Social Realist artists intended to tell stories with their work in order to prompt political and economic change. This painting, published in Fortune magazine, would have conveyed its message of racial injustice to a wide audience.

Go deeper

See this object in the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art

Read the article in Fortune for which this painting was created 

More about Fortune magazine

Learn about racial discrimination and the war effort during World War II

Read about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 Executive Order 8802: Prohibition of Discrimination in the Defense Industry

See a timeline documenting Romare Bearden’s life and career

Who was Henry Luce and how did his magazines (Time, Fortune, and Life) influence popular culture?

More to think about

We often think of the United States during World War II as unified against the Axis Powers of Germany, Italy, and Japan. How does the persistence of racial discrimination against African Americans in the defense industry complicate our understanding of the homefront during WWII?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.