David Clyde Driskell (pronounced like Driscol) was born on June 7, 1931, in Eatonton, Ga., southeast of Atlanta. His father, George Washington Driskell, was a minister, and his mother, Mary Cloud Driskell, was a homemaker. His mother, he said, passed on to him a washing pot that had belonged to her grandmother.
“And she said Grandma Leathy would tell her stories about this pot,” Professor Driskell said in an oral history recorded in 2009 for the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art. “This was the pot that her mother used to cover her head to pray in slavery so nobody would hear her praying for freedom.”
When he was 5 the family moved to western North Carolina, where he attended segregated schools. The high school he attended required a 35-mile bus ride each way.
He had received a $90 scholarship to Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., but at the last minute he decided he wanted to go to Howard University in Washington. He arrived three weeks after classes had begun, having not gone through the application process.
“They tried to be firm with me,” he recalled, “and said: ‘School has been in session for three weeks. You can’t just come to college. You have to make an application.’ I insisted on staying. I said, ‘Well, I’m here; give me an application.’”
He started out studying history, but in 1951 he took his first art course, a drawing class. One day a distinguished-looking man dropped in on the class and began admiring a drawing over Professor Driskell’s shoulder. Realizing that Professor Driskell was not one of the regular art students, the man asked him what his major was.
“I said history,” Professor Driskell recalled. “And he looked at my drawing and looked at me and said, ‘You don’t belong over there; you belong here.’”