By Ashantè Travis
A production presented by the Virginia Theater Company titled "The Hampton Years" proves that the Hampton Institute students once flocked to in the early 1940s has evolved immensely, and its legacy continues to grow.
Written by Jacqueline Lawton, the play is about the institution's African-American students and a Jewish professor named Viktor Lowenfield, a prominent artist and psychologist. After a Nazi invasion in 1938, Lowenfield fled his native land of Austria and pursued a teaching career at what is now known as Hampton University.
His meaningful contributions led the school through a transformation that shifted the focus on curriculum from trade and manual labor towards liberal arts. This resulted with a more diversified curriculum and the students' significant impact in modern art history.
Lawton's production was originally shown in Washington, D.C. three years ago but has been refined to offer deeper insight into the motivations of its characters. "The Hampton Years" now proves that art served a major purpose in the lives of these students who were illustrating their world during a time of much social change.
Lawton says that certain ideas within the play still resonate today. One of the main themes is promoting diversity in art and providing African Americans a platform to express themselves and to showcase their work.
The characters include students like John Biggers and Samella Sanders Lewis who later became internationally known artists, and Lowenfeld, who essentially founded the art department at Hampton.
"He chose Hampton because he could build something," Lawton says. "He taught students how to be artists, how to be teachers. He started doing the research for his seminal work while there."
But the innovations at Hampton have not come an end.
Alumnus Gloria Pressley, a South Carolina native who arrived at Hampton not long after Lowenfeld, says the instructors that graced the campus decades ago made it a mission to enhance their students' lives in every way possible. "The faculty is still very dedicated to the lives of their students," she said. "And we are still growing in lots of areas."
Hampton University's School of Liberal Arts is the largest school in the university with approximately 1,100 majors across the disciplines. The school is comprised of the Division of Arts and Humanities, which includes the departments of English, Fine & Performing Arts, Modern Foreign Languages, Music, and the program in Humanities, and the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences. This includes the departments of Military Science, Political Science & History, Psychology, and Sociology. The latter department also includes a major in Criminal Justice and Criminology.
A Hampton resident, Pressley was recognized Sunday with a Presidential Citizenship Award at Hampton's 2016 Founder's Day Event. She was a 1956 Hampton graduate.
Alumna Patricia Hollingsworth, who similarly attended Hampton in the 1950s, said, "When I was a student, Hampton was more focused on trade school and for women it was all about homemaking. The curriculum has changed to accommodate today's needs. There are courses now that we had never dreamed of."
Hampton University said Hollingsworth, epitomizes academic excellence and prepares its students for any career path they may wish to explore.
"The Hampton Years" will run through Sunday, Feb. 7.
The writer is a student in the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.