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Thelma Johnson Streat

Thelma Johnson Streat (August 12, 1911 – May 1959) was an African American artist, dancer, and educator, who gained prominence in the 1940s for her art, performance and work to foster inter-cultural understanding and appreciation.


Honors & Accomplishments

  • Gained national recognition at age 17, when her painting titled “A Priest” won honorable mention at the Harmon Foundation exhibit in New York City. (1929)
  • First African-American woman to have a painting exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. (1942)
  • Headed the Children’s Education Project to introduce American kids to the contributions of African Americans through a series of colorful murals.
  • Was threatened by the KKK for exhibiting a painting honoring a Black American sailor’s sacrifice.
  • Performed a dance recital at Buckingham Palace for the King and Queen of England. (1950)
  • First American woman to have her own television program in France. (1949)
  • Worked with Mexican muralist Diego Rivera on his Pan American Unity mural in San Francisco in 1939.
  • By 1947, one of only four African American abstract painters to have had solo shows in New York. The other three were Romare Bearden, Rose Piper, and Norman Lewis.

The Painter, Illustrator, Muralist & Textile Designer

The work of Thelma Johnson Streat is in my opinion one of the most interesting manifestations in this country at the present. It is extremely evolved and sophisticated enough to reconquer the grace and purity of African and American art.
Artist Diego Rivera

Ms. Streat was a talented artist, seeking to express herself through a multitude of creative avenues, including oil and watercolor paintings, pen and ink drawings, charcoal sketches, mixed media murals, and textile design.

Her paintings have appeared in exhibits at such prestigious museums and galleries as:

Her most famous painting, “Rabbit Man,” is part of the MoMA’s permanent collection.

World personalities who have owned Ms. Streat’s work include actor Vincent Price, singer Roland Hayes, artist Diego Rivera, actress Fanny Brice, dancer Katherine Dunham, and actress Paulette Goddard.

The Dancer, Singer, Folklorist

In addition to being a prolific artist, Ms. Streat traveled to Haiti, Mexico and Canada to study the traditional dance and culture of indigenous people.

She realized that prejudice and bigotry are learned and usually during childhood. So, throughout the 1940s and 50s, she tirelessly performed dances, songs, and folk tales from many cultures to thousands of youngsters across Europe, Canada, Mexico, and the United States in an effort to introduce them to the beauty and value of all cultures.

The Teacher, Activist & Visionary

With her second husband, John Edgar Kline, Ms. Streat founded Children’s City near Honolulu to introduce children to art and to the value of cultural diversity.

Ms. Streat’s portraits present men, women, girls, and boys of every color, age, shape, and size with dignity.

Her work was sometimes controversial. The Los Angeles Times reported that Ms. Streat was threatened by the klan for her painting called “Death of a Negro Sailor,” portraying an African American sailor dying after risking his life abroad to protect the democratic rights he was denied at home.

The threat only made Ms. Streat believe that a program showing, not only the Negro’s tribulations, but also the Negro’s contributions to the nation’s wealth was needed . . . and so, she initiated a visual education program called “The Negro in History.”

Through a series of murals depicting the contributions of people of African descent, panels showed black Americans in industry, agriculture, medicine, science, meat packing, and transportation. There was even a panel on the contributions of black women. (Remember this was back in 1947.)

Ms. Streat’s work often portrayed important figures in history. Along with images of well-known Americans like Frank Lloyd Wright, she painted a series of portraits of famous people of African ancestry, including concert singer Marian Anderson, singer/actor/activist Paul Robeson, Toussaint L’Overture, and Harriet Tubman, etc.

Ms. Streat’s impact on contemporary American art is still being researched and assessed. As a pioneer in modern African American art, her work influenced and was influenced by Jacob Lawrence, Sargent Johnson, Romare Bearden, William H. Johnson, and the other artistic leaders of her time. Her ability to integrate dance, song and folklore from a variety of cultures into a presentation package and utilize it to educate and inspire an appreciation across ethnic lines was revolutionary for her time.

Quick Facts

Born: Thelma Johnson in Yakima, Washington in 1911

Early: She started painting at 9 year of age. Grew up in Boise, Idaho, Pendleton, Oregon and Portland, Oregon Graduated from Washington High School, Portland, Oregon

Married: Romaine Streat in Portland in 1935. (kept the name Streat after their divorce)

Talents: painting, textile design, book illustration, interpretive and ethnic dance, singing, folklore, teaching art and multi-culturalism.

Died: May 1959 in Los Angeles, California




  • Who Was Who In American Art, 1898-1947.

Edited by Peter Hastings Falk. Sound View Press, Connecticut, 1985. p. 602.

  • Afro-American Artists: A Bio-Bibliographical Directory. Trustees of the Boston Public Library, Boston, 1973. p. 270.
  • African-American Art by Sharon F. Patton. Oxford University Press, 1998, New York. P. 161
  • Dictionary Catalog of the Dance Collection. The New York Public Library. Volume 9. 1974. p. 6129
  • Museum of Modern Art: Library Inventory List, Part iv. (S-Z). 1984. p. 318.
  • Abstract Expressionism: Other Politicsby Ann Eden Gibson, Yale University Press, 1999
  • Oregon Painters: The First Hundred Years, 1859-1959

by Ginny Allen & Jody Klevit, 1999, Oregon Historical Society.

  • Reference Library of Black America. Volume 4. New York University, 1971. p. 93.
  • The Negro Almanac: A Reference Work on the African-American. Edited & compiled by Harry A. Ploski and James Williams. The Black Artist. p. 1076.
  • The Negro Handbook. Editors of Ebony. Johnson Publishing Co., Chicago, 1966. p. 355.


  • “American Art,” Smithsonian Institution. Summer 2005.
  • "African-American Abstraction,' an Exploration," The New York Times. Jun 28, 1991.
  • "Treasures from Reed's Collection," Reed College Magazine. By Aaron Jones. Reed College, Portland, May 1998.
  • Obituary—Mrs. John Edgar. Oregon Journal. May 14, 1959. p. 11.
  • Obituary—Famed Painter-Dancer Dies After Heart Attack. The Oregonian. May 24, 1959.
  • "Famed Painter-Dancer is Eulogized in Los Angeles," Baltimore Afro-American. Jun. 6, 1959. p. 15
  • "Couple from Hawaii Show Folklore Paintings, Curios," Bellingham Herald. May 16, 1958.
  • "Hills Folklore Collected By Husband-Wife Team," Rapid City, S.D. Daily Journal. June 18, 1958.
  • "Visiting Hawaii Child Welfare Leaders See Folklore as Link for All Children," Sioux City Sentinel. Sept. 18, 1958. A-3.
  • "The Londoner's Diary: Two Yellow Moons," Evening Standard, UK. March 7, 1950.
  • The News That's Going Around, The Irish Press. Ireland. May 6, 1950.
  • "Art and Artists: Thelma Johnson Streat at S.F. Museum of Art," Oakland Tribune. March 17, 1946.


  • Letter to Marian Anderson (dated Dec. 19, 1938). Special Collections (Marian Anderson archives), Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, University of Pennsylvania.
  • Photographs, personal applications and letters of reference. The Harmon Collection (The Harmon Foundation). National Archives.

External links


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