The J. Eugene Grigsby Jr. Papers, which document the life and career of this prominent and influential Black artist and scholar, provide an exciting addition to ASU’s growing collection of primary source materials representing the rich history of the Black community in Central Arizona.
Jefferson Eugene Grigsby Jr. was born to Jefferson Eugene and Perry Lyon (Dixon) Grigsby in Charlotte, North Carolina on October 17, 1918. He discovered his love of painting at the age of nine after his family moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He completed his undergraduate studies at Morehouse College, where he met his longtime mentor Hale Woodruff.
After earning his B.A. in 1938, he went on to complete his M.A. (1940) at Ohio State University and his Ph.D. (1963) at New York University. Grigsby’s artistic style became more abstract over the course of his career.
In 1942, Grigsby volunteered to serve in World War II and became a master sergeant in the 573rd Ordnance Ammunition Company. He married Rosalyn Thomasena “Tommy” Marshall (1919-2008) in 1943 and the couple relocated to Phoenix in 1946 when Eugene Grigsby was invited to teach art at Carver High School. After Carver High School closed due to desegregation, Grigsby taught at Phoenix Union High School before coming to Arizona State University in 1966 at the urging of his friend and former student Rip Woods. Eugene and Tommy Grigsby had two sons, Eugene III and Marshall. Eugene Grigsby died in Phoenix, Arizona on June 9, 2013.
In 2019, ASU’s School of Art contacted University Archives to express their interest in transferring materials (primarily 35mm color slides) created by Dr. Grigsby that had been stored on the Tempe campus after his retirement. Grigsby had organized these slides by topic, often using tinfoil boxes with dividers made of scrap paper to hold them. In other cases, Grigsby assembled a curated selection of slides organized using a slide carousel and apparently intended for presentation during a class or event. Archivists have rehoused these slides using archival slide pages in order to facilitate their long-term preservation.
The collection can be roughly organized into three major categories. The first section encompasses Grigsby’s research activity. His major research interest was African art and particularly masks, which were the subject of his doctoral dissertation titled African and Indian Masks. He also researched Black artists and African, African-American, and Indigenous art and artistic styles on the African, North American, and South American continents extensively.
The collection’s second major segment houses images documenting Grigsby’s teaching career and focuses on his time at Phoenix Union High School and at ASU, where he was one of the first Black faculty in the College of Fine Arts.
Grigsby’s teaching at ASU focused on art education and particularly Art 480, which was usually offered as “Art in the High School.” He also served as the advisor for the Give a Damn Art Teachers (GDAT), a student organization formed in the late 1960s to give students opportunities beyond student teaching to interact with learners from a wide variety of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. GDAT focused on off-campus teaching experiences; workshops for student teachers; seminars with such guest speakers as teachers, parents, principals, members of the business community, and other students; tours; and exhibits by GDAT members and local high school students.
The collection’s final component consists of materials showing Grigsby’s family, including numerous images of his wife and children as well as more distant relatives. Of particular interest are the set of Christmas cards Grigsby created between the late 1960s and early 2000s. These cards continue a tradition begun by Hale Woodruff and include both a letter describing the Grigsby family’s activities and accomplishments during the year as well as an unique print created by Eugene Grigsby. Because Grigsby printed each of these cards individually, no two are the same.
The J. Eugene Grigsby Papers are currently being arranged and described. Once this work is complete, a full finding aid will be posted on Arizona Archives Online and the collection will be available for research. If you would like to learn more about the newly created Black Collections at ASU Library please contact its curator Jessica Salow at Jessica.Salow@asu.edu.
--Elizabeth Dunham, Associate Archivist (Specialized Resources Description & Processing) and Jessica Salow, Assistant Archivist (Black Collections)