If the painting that hangs on the wall behind Washington Post syndicated columnist and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eugene Robinson during his interviews on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” looks familiar to people affiliated with Claflin University, there is a good reason.
“Alonzo Smith, Black Mason Building Claflin,” is the title of the portrait that was donated to Claflin by Robinson and his wife, Avis Collins Robinson, who painted the portrait. The presentation was made during an unveiling ceremony in 2016. The actual 8 ft. x 5 ft. portrait covers the wall in the hallway near the Office of the President and the Board Room in Tingley Memorial Hall.
Collins Robinson's inspiration for the painting was a photograph of Smith and a crew of students laying brick for the foundation of a campus building. Smith was Mr. Robinson's great uncle. It is believed the photograph was taken circa 1910 and 1920 when Claflin offered a course in masonry. Several brick structures on the Claflin campus, including Tingley Memorial and Ministers’ halls, are located in the University’s Historic District as designated by the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. The colorful images of the students with their solemn and purposeful expressions pay tribute to the generation of Black Americans who persevered in spite of the indignities of the Jim Crow era.
“Morning Joe” viewers have expressed their curiosity and interest about the portrait on social media. Their posts have resulted in telephone calls and emails to Claflin inquiring how to purchase reproductions of the portrait.
The painting highlights two extraordinary legacies rooted in Orangeburg, S.C., that have been intrinsically connected longer than anyone can recall. One is the proud legacy of Claflin University, founded in 1869 as the first college/university in South Carolina to open its doors to all students regardless of race, class or gender. Claflin has transcended its modest beginnings and is now recognized as one of the nation’s premier liberal arts universities.
Mr. Robinson is a native of Orangeburg and his mother, the late Louisa S. Robinson, worked at Claflin for more than 45 years. For more than three decades, she was the university’s head librarian. His father, Harold, was also employed at Claflin before he opened an office of the Social Security Administration in Orangeburg. Robinson's sister, Ellen (Ricoma), has been an adjunct professor in Claflin's School of Business.
Collins Robinson's use of water-based paint and fabric adds to the inimitability of the artwork. At the time of the presentation, the portrait had an appraised value of $100,000.