At Tuskegee University there stands an imposing sculpture by Charles T. Keck memorializing the school’s first leader. The formally dressed standing figure of Booker T. Washington is in the act of lifting the shroud of ignorance from the face of a seated, draped black man, who is revealed holding a book. The pedestal’s inscription reads: “He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.”

The writer of those words might also have added “art” to the ways toward progress, for Washington, along with other leaders of the schools like Tuskegee, Howard, Hampton and Fisk that have come to be called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), collected and commissioned images by and about black people as part of their push to develop black culture. Over the decades, these collections grew into amazing troves of artistic treasure in every medium, and now, thanks to the unprecedented collaborative work of conservators, scholars and curators, museum people and the HCBUs that own these collections, an extremely important exhibition is touring the country. It’s not a blockbuster; it’s actually a watershed cultural event.

To Conserve a Legacy: American Art from Historically Black Colleges and Universities is based on a radical premise: that what we have thought of as the canon of American art is but a single strand of a much heavier twist of cultural expression–that the canon as we have known it is not definitive but exemplary, and that there are other examples to be added if we want a true picture of America. I doubt this will come as a surprise to many black people, but for many whites this exhibition will reveal a parallel universe all unsuspected. Not all the work in this exhibition was made by black artists. There are many pieces by the widely known white practitioners of various strains of modernism. These serve to indicate the scope of the collections from which they were drawn, and to emphasize the similarities as well as the differences in the development of “black” and “white” art in America. But it’s the pieces by black artists that are more important here. This show rips away the invisibility cloak that has separated this parallel artistic world from the more dominant one. Seeing some of this work, I just want to cry for all the years that I’ve been too ignorant to look for it.

The exhibition currently sprawls across Durham because some of the work and one of the curators are from here. North Carolina Central University’s collection is one of six from which work was drawn for conservation and exhibition in this massive project that originated at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center (WACC) in Massachusetts. It grew to include collaborators from institutions throughout the eastern half of the country. WACC wanted to do something to help bring more black people into the conservation profession, and gradually the idea emerged of creating a conservation program tied to an internship program and resulting in an exhibition.

One of the project’s leaders was Jock Reynolds, then director of the Addison Gallery of American Art, who quickly brought in Dr. Richard J. Powell, one of the foremost scholars of African-American art and the chair of the department of art and art history at Duke University. To make a long story short, the thing turned into a whirlwind–and a model for inter-institutional collaboration. In less than four years, the two curators, the conservation center, the six schools, a dozen interns, nine other art-exhibiting institutions and the MIT Press got it together to survey many thousands of artworks, to conserve more than 1,400 pieces, to select 264 for exhibition, to make all the complex arrangements for showing those works in 13 venues and to create a beautiful catalog (unfortunately, though, it has no index)–not to mention the little detail of raising the very considerable amount of money necessary to do all this.

People familiar with Rick Powell’s work will not be surprised at the vivid writing of his catalog essay or at the exhibition’s brilliance, particularly the modernist section. Some viewers may remember Powell’s exhibition from about 12 years back, The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism. We see some of the same ideas brought forth again, with greater maturity. Powell is also an authority on William Henry Johnson, and many of Johnson’s paintings are included in To Conserve a Legacy. They are wonderful, as are his prints. Never heard of Johnson? That’s because he died in obscurity on the other side of that invisibility cloak, and if it weren’t for the energetic Dr. Powell, the last remnants of his reputation would have faded along with his uniquely styled expressive paintings of black people and black life mid-20th century.

To Conserve a Legacy is divided into six thematic and chronological sections, and the first two of these are installed at the NCCU Museum of Art. And never has anything looked so good in there. NCCU owns some choice pieces by important black artists, but the museum’s facility is pitiful–one of the more shameful shortcomings of our state university system–and its budget is incredibly small.

The day this exhibition opened, Director Kenneth Rodgers had been up all the previous night, finishing the installation. He has no staff, you see, except for one registrar. But he was electric with the energy, bouncing among the artworks in the “Forever Free: Emancipation Visualized” and the “First Americans” sections of the exhibitions in his gallery.

The works are beautifully arranged, and the view from the door is stunning. The first thing you see is Edmonia Lewis’ white marble sculpture, “Forever Free.” Lewis was part black, part Ojibwa, but she worked in a neo-classical style. (In fact, she spent much time in Rome.) Scholars have made a lot of the Europeanization of the features in the man and woman here celebrating the breaking of slavery’s bonds, and of the submissive pose of the woman, and some oddnesses of scale and proportion. It is much easier to think about that stuff when you are looking at a slide. In person, this sculpture is just beautiful. Be sure to look at the back of the figures. Beyond this work, on the wall, the marble’s cool whiteness is echoed by a daring combination of paintings in blues and whites: Charles Demuth’s large “Calla Lilies” and Georgia O’Keeffe’s much smaller “Flying Backbone.” Altogether, this is a memorable visual.

Many other fine works fill the gallery. The section on “The First Americans” is fascinating, highlighting as it does the work of Hampton Institute in educating all people of color. Check out Frances Benjamin Johnston’s “The Hampton Albums: Class in American History,” from 1899-1900. In this photograph, a group of black and Indian students in restrained contemporary clothing looks at an Indian man in traditional clothing and feather headdress who stands on a low plinth. Behind him is a stuffed eagle. And we thought we knew how to be ironic.

The exhibition’s third section is on view at the Center for Documentary Studies. “Training the Head, the Hand and the Heart” focuses on the early work of the black schools, and although it does include some paintings of related subjects, most works here are photographs taken at Tuskegee and Hampton, as well as some digital reproductions of fragile cyanotypes showing aspects of black life at the turn of the 20th century. Outstanding are two of the photographs by Cornelius Marion Battey, one showing senior girls making chairs and the other, young men in the carpentry shop. In both, the students work in a large light-flooded space, with people and objects arranged very rhythmically, yet the subjects seem unaware of the camera. In each case, the scene is framed like a stage set by an arch that is part of the building. At the top, almost pushing out of the picture plane, flutter a pair of American flags.

The remainder of the exhibition hangs at DUMA, filling the main gallery, flowing up the stairs and into the north gallery. Nat Werner’s “Lynching,” a large, smoothly finished wood sculpture, and a brutally beautiful depiction of this horror, stands in the main gallery. This work would jackhammer both emotion and reason anywhere you saw it, but separated so far from Edmonia Lewis’ optimistic “Forever Free,” it does not have quite the impact possible.

Upstairs are my two favorite pieces in the show. Edward Bruce’s “Portrait of William Friday,” from 1934 is a symphony of browns. A powerfully built black man sits slightly turned from the viewer, his arms crossed over his stomach, his well-muscled shoulders revealed by his white undershirt. The background is shades of warm brown; he is shades of warm brown, his pants are khaki. His black hair, moustache and eyebrows underscore the elegant modeling of his head, while the coral color of his fingernails draws attention to the strength of his hands, and the gleaming white of his eyes to his unflinching gaze.

If Bruce’s portrait is a symphony, then Lois Mailou Jones’ “Jennie” is a rhapsody. At once a portrait, a still life and a genre scene, “Jennie” demonstrates Jones’ adventuresomeness with and extraordinary control of color. Dressed in glorious yellows and oranges that also glow in her dark skin, Jennie is as dignified as a queen as she stands in the kitchen scaling fish. The whole painting is rich in color effects both subtle and bold: It is a great American painting. “Jennie” and hundreds of other images are now part of a cultural spectrum that can at last be shared across the color line. The legacy that has been conserved belongs to us all. EndBlock

Related events: Nov. 5, 3-5 p.m., “Legacy of the Image,” photo conservation seminar at CDS. Nov. 8, 6-8 p.m., Rick Powell will lecture on the exhibition at DUMA. Nov. 12, 2 p.m., Kenneth Rodgers will lecture on Edmonia Lewis at NCCU Museum of Art.