Oliver LaGrone gave his sculpture, Bust of George Washington Carver, to the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg in 1973, not long after moving here from Detroit to teach at Penn State. The work is displayed in the ministerial study; it has a small crack that would likely lead to more damage if it were positioned in a higher traffic location.
George Washington Carver (1864-1942) was an outstanding innovator in the agricultural sciences. He was director of agricultural research at what is now Tuskegee University in Alabama, where he conducted exhaustive experiments with peanuts. The hundreds of industrial uses for peanut crops, as well as for sweet potatoes, soybeans, and pecans, that he developed induced southern farmers to raise other crops in addition to cotton.
That LaGrone would choose Carver as a subject is consistent with the sculptor’s body of work. “To me the artist should put being a great human being before being an artist. Therefore, people, and the society in which they live, are important to me,” LaGrone said in 1975. “I’ve always been torn between history and sociology on one hand and poetry and art on the other.”1
By creating realistic sculptures of accomplished Blacks, LaGrone honored Black contributions to America. “It occurred to me early on that you’re not going to be satisfied until you find a way to combine your art with social commentary,”2 he said later. From 1964 on, he was a life member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His brother Hobart was president of the Albuquerque chapter.
LaGrone’s bronze-patina plaster sculpture had been intended for, and possibly cast in bronze, for the former G.W. Carver School, which served the Oakdale Gardens housing project of Detroit. The development originally focused on providing needed housing during Detroit’s vehicle construction boom for WW II. By 1967, the deteriorating project was being torn down. Racially motivated housing policies and inconsistent integration remained issues.
UCH owns three other LaGrone works: Harriet Tubman (foyer), Ballet to Disco (sanctuary), and Mask (Common Room).
by Cordell Affeldt, ed. Bart Carpenter, The Reporter, July 2023