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February 21, 2024

Mechanics Hall to unveil portraits honoring Black Americans in March

A portrait painting of a woman PHOTO | Courtesy of Dr. John Goldsberry A portrait of 19th century abolitionist Martha Brown. A different portrait, featuring Martha and her husband William, will be among three paintings revealed to the public in March as part of an expansion of Mechanic Hall's gallery.

The portrait gallery at Mechanics Hall in Worcester now includes paintings honoring some of the most prominent Black figures in the 19th century’s abolition and women’s rights movements, with the venue set to unveil the paintings to the public for the first time in March.

The three portraits, which were commissioned in the fall of 2022 and were delivered this year, are set to be revealed during a celebration event on March 14, according to a Wednesday press release issued by Mechanics Hall. The Worcester County Mechanics Association, which owns Mechanics Hall, decided in September 2020 following the police murder of George Floyd and the ensuing racial reckoning to put prominent Black Americans in the Great Hall, which previously only featured white men and women.

The four portrait subjects in the three paintings are:

  • Martha Tulip Lewis Brown, a free woman of African American descent who was the first woman of color to become a member of the Ladies Benevolent Society of the First Unitarian Church in Worcester. Brown helped raise money for freed and fugitive slaves and is believed to have been involved in the Underground Railroad. 
  • William Brown, a prominent Black upholster, carpet maker, and inventor who moved from Boston to Worcester with Martha, his wife, in 1841. Brown operated a business from the Central Exchange Building in downtown Worcester. The portrait of Martha and William was painted by Brenda Zlamany, an artist based in Brooklyn, New York. 
  • Frederick Douglass, widely considered to be one of the most important figures in the abolition movement. Douglass spoke at Mechanics Hall on multiple occasions, including shortly after the venue opened in 1857. The portrait of Douglass was painted by Imo Nse Imeh of Holyoke.
  • Sojourner Truth, a former slave who was born as Isabella Baumfree. Truth was an abolitionist and temperance advocate who is considered to be one of the most influential Black women of the 19th century. Truth’s portrait was painted by Manu Saluja of Long Island. 

“This is a historic moment for Mechanics Hall and our vibrantly diverse community. Many of the world’s most renowned performers take the Great Hall stage every year,” Kathleen Gagne, executive director of Mechanics Hall and co-chair of the Portraits Project, said in the press release. “They and their audiences will now share the hall with – and be inspired by – these striking paintings of Black Americans who lived lives of extraordinary courage. Our community, and especially our children, can look up to the individuals honored in the gallery with pride and hope.”

The event, entitled “Beyond the Frames,” will begin at 5 p.m. with an artist talk that is free and open to the public, followed by a paid gala event with catered dinner, dancing, and two auctions to support the hall’s educational programming and the Worcester Educational Development Foundation. 

Mechanics Hall portrait gallery honors prominent 19th century figures who have ties to the area. The addition of these portraits comes after a 1999 expansion of the gallery, which saw the addition of four portraits honoring prominent women from the era.

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