Collection Spotlight: Emerson Bell's Study for the Prophet West

By Brandi Simmons

The LSU Museum of Art has two works in its collection by Baton Rouge artist and teacher Emerson Bell that feature Prophet West, a local religious leader known for baptizing followers in the Mississippi River, passing in front of Baton Rouge downtown buildings that were sites of Civil Rights protests.

Take a closer look at the vertical work at the top, with Prophet West in front of the Kress Building in downtown Baton Rouge. Today, the building at the corner of Third and Main Streets is a mixed-use space with residences, restaurants and a temporary branch of the downtown library. But why is this historic landmark significant?

 Emerson Bell (Baton Rouge, LA, 1931–2006),  Study for the Prophet West , ca. 1960, mixed media on paper, Purchased with funds from the Friends of LSU Museum of Art Endowment, LSUMOA2011.6.1

Emerson Bell (Baton Rouge, LA, 1931–2006), Study for the Prophet West, ca. 1960, mixed media on paper, Purchased with funds from the Friends of LSU Museum of Art Endowment, LSUMOA2011.6.1

The Baton Rouge Kress Building was the site of the first Civil Rights sit-in in Baton Rouge. Due to their prominence in many Southern cities, Kress Buildings became a target of the Civil Rights Movement across the country. African Americans were refused service at Kress lunch counters, Baton Rouge being no exception. Seven students from Southern University, a segregated, state-funded historically black college, began the sit-in 57 years ago today, on March 28, 1960. This single event spurred two additional sit-ins the following day, at Sitman’s Drug Store and the Greyhound bus station, and a series of demonstrations. Students involved in the sit-in faced arrest, misdemeanor charges, excessive bail, and expulsion from Southern University.

Baton Rouge's downtown lunch counters were desegregated in 1963.

Learn more about the timeline of this historic sit-in and the demonstration that followed here and here.

Visit the museum's 20th century section of Art in Louisiana to see the piece on display.

(Photos via East Baton Rouge Parish Library Digital Archives)

Brandi Simmons is LSU MOA's communications coordinator.