The greatness in our midst
By Stuart Eisenberg
Not every Hyattsville resident has been the subject of a scholarly biography, been awarded the National Humanities Medal, had an academic center named in their honor at University of Maryland, or had their work sought by art collections, including presidential collections, throughout the world. But this is the level of achievement we’re addressing when we write about the recently deceased Professor David Driskell, who was a world-famous artist, art historian and scholar, a compassionate and generous teacher, and a visionary art collector. And more importantly, he was husband to Thelma, father to Daviryne and Daphne, a grandfather, and a great-grandfather, and he called Hyattsville home for 44 years. His passing is a stunning loss to his family, to the great body of students he taught and nurtured, to this Hyattsville community he graced, to the art world he illuminated, and to the world at large that his scholarship helps to more rightly order.
There is no shortage of eulogies, learned articles and obituaries in the press: The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, and the Los Angeles Times to name a few. These papers, and countless other sources, demonstrate the significance of Dr. Driskell’s scholarly and curatorial work in placing African American art at the forefront of mainstream of American culture. An accomplishment that cannot be overstated.
But what will be understated in those accounts is his lovely, neighborly presence, how it helped make Hyattsville the wondrous community that it is. He made his mark on us, his neighbors, with his daily walks with his dog Prince and his excursions to our yards and gardens with his grandchildren in tow. We’ll miss the homemade sweet potato pies that he and Thelma shared, year after year, at the Hyattsville Preservation Association picnics (and the extra one they always brought for the picnic’s host family to enjoy later). How you make a mark in a community is how you relate to your neighbors. And he related so beautifully.
In 2002, Dr. Driskell facilitated the jury selecting an artist for the Centennial Park mural project. Despite his eminent stature in the art world, Driskell cheerfully lent his expertise to our local group, leading us through options and coaching us on important considerations we needed to address. And ever so gently, we landed upon D.C.-based African American muralist, Jerome Johnson, whose folksy style was, at first pass, not quite appreciated as it should have been.
The Driskell family’s home, the Harriet Ralston House, a Prince George’s County designated historic site, was twice shared on the Hyattsville Historic House Tour. The home seems to overlook the rest of the Gateway Arts District and is graced by Dr. Driskell’s light-infused studio. The home’s lovely garden features a blue bottle tree: a taste of the southern folk tradition that Dr. Driskell brought from a childhood in the North Carolina hills, where he was raised. Neighbor Ann Barrett remembered that Driskell told her that “his grandmother would ask him to draw the plants and herbs growing” around the hills of their rural home there.
Local artist Robert Croslin had the opportunity to craft Dr. Driskell a 14-carat gold bracelet, which commemorated his work on a project involving the Amistad slave ship rebellion. Croslin said he designed the bracelet knowing that Dr. Driskell wished to keep mindful of this captivating historic saga.
In 2006, while the new elementary school was under construction, Mayor Bill Gardiner advocated for naming it after Dr. Driskell, but was unaware of the school board’s requirement that the namesake be deceased. Instead, Gardiner presided over the dedication of the David C. Driskell Media Center at Rosa L. Parks Elementary School, a most fitting tribute to Driskell’s passion for discovery and scholarship, and to the powerful role of art in framing our understanding of the past and what has yet to pass.