Nancy Elizabeth Prophet was born on March 19, 1890, in Warwick, Rhode Island, to an African American mother and a father who hailed from the Narragansett Tribe.
She grew up in Providence, her family eventually landing on Mitchell Street where her father engaged in farm work while her mother found employment as a private cook.
Two of her siblings died young, leaving her with two remaining brothers – William, the oldest, and Walter, the youngest. William helped support the family by working as a hotel chef while Nancy did stenography work in a law office. However, this lifestyle of simply getting by didn’t appeal to her. She had dreams.
Artistically talented from a very young age, she wanted to pursue something greater than whatever it took to make ends meet. Being poor, black and female didn’t exactly bring dreams into reach.
With the money she earned from her stenography job, she enrolled herself in art classes at the Rhode Island School of Design. Four years later, she became the first African American student to graduate from the school.
To her dismay, talent and a degree did little to bolster her career. She and her new husband, real estate dealer Francis Ford, took up housekeeping on Benefit Street in Providence with her now-widowed father. Unable to secure work in the art field and constantly rejected for gallery exhibitions, she finally decided to move to Paris and study sculpting.
Her sculptures over the next decade included mostly carved busts such as “Negro Head,” “Discontent” and “Silence.” Along with larger, full-bodied statues such as “Le Pelerin” and “Prayer,” Prophet’s growing collection of works finally began earning her an interested following. She won her first award for sculpture in France, the Harmon Foundation Prize, before boarding the “Lafayette” and sailing out of Le Havre, returning to the United States in May of 1932.
That same year, she won a Best in Show award from the Newport Art Association and went on to receive invitations to exhibit her work in Rhode Island, New York and Pennsylvania.
Then the fanfare died down. Now separated from her husband, she decided to relocate to Atlanta, Georgia, and take a position teaching at Spelman College, a liberal arts school for women. About a decade later, she returned to Rhode Island once more. Her art was exhibited at Providence Public Library, but she still could not support herself on her talents and was forced to go back into domestic drudgery.
Struggling to make ends meet, she died at her home in Providence on Dec. 18, 1960. She was laid to rest in Mount Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Pawtucket.
After her death, one of her carved wooden busts sold at a Providence estate sale for $35,000. In perfect irony, the work of a late starving artist became affordable only to the rich.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.