Profiles: Jessie Housley Holliman

24, February 2011
Muralist Jessie Housley Holliman. Photograph courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri Research Center–St. Louis.

If you have ever gazed in admiration at the 38-foot mural “The Origins of Freemasonry” that spans the lobby of the New Masonic Temple at 3681 Lindell Boulevard in St. Louis, you have seen one of the few true fresco works in Missouri. The enormous mural was created in 1941 by Jessie Housley Holliman (ca. 1905–1984) and was dedicated by then-Senator and Free Mason Harry S. Truman. It is the only surviving mural by Holliman in a St. Louis public building.

Holliman, an accomplished artist, muralist, and art teacher, graduated from Sumner High School in St. Louis in 1925, then went north to earn a degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. Understanding that life as a black woman artist could offer limited opportunities, she went back to St. Louis and enrolled at Stowe Teachers College (known today as Harriet-Stowe State University).

She taught art at Divoll Elementary School for 39 years while continuing to further her own art education. She attended classes at Columbia University in New York and Washington University’s School of Fine Arts. At the time, Washington University did not admit African American students. However, she was allowed to go to art classes as a model.

During the Great Depression, Holliman was able to take advantage of free art classes given by St. Louis artist Joe Jones. Ever enterprising, she earned money as a freelance fashion illustrator.

In the mid-1930s, Holliman took an interest in fresco mural painting, in which the artist uses color on wet plaster. The Urban League commissioned her first mural, “Racial and Industrial Harmony,” for its office building on Delmar Boulevard. That building has since been demolished. Her only other mural in St. Louis was created at Christ’s Fellowship Baptist Church at the corner of Ewing and Washington avenues. That mural was destroyed in a fire in 1971.

—Keri O’Brien, Editor

Sources:

Corbett, Katharine T. In Her Place: A Guide to St. Louis Women's History. St. Louis: Missouri History Society, 1999.

Wright, John A. Discovering African American St. Louis, 2d ed. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society, 2002.