The department of art at Howard University yesterday honored David C. Driskell, the painter and historian whose career began there in 1952.

Though he has been given more than 25 one-man shows, Driskell -- the chairman of the art department at the University of Maryland, College Park -- is perhaps best known for "Two Centuries of Black American Art," the huge show that he organized in 1976.

The award for Driskell's "achievements and contributions" was presented by Starmanda Bullock, his counterpart at Howard. She cited Driskell, 49, for undertaking "the awesome responsibility of rewriting the history of American art to include the history of the visual arts of black Americans." In a brief ceremony in the art department's galleries, Driskell was given an engraved silver bowl, a replica of one designated by Paul Revere.

"My career began," Driskell said, "in the temporary building that then stood on this very spot. I'd come out of the hills of North Carolina. I was a history major first, but one day Prof. James Herring told me, 'Driskell, you're in the wrong field. Study art.' In those days students were supposed to obey their teachers. Anyway, I did."

"Morris Louis [the late Washington color painter] was one of my first instructors. His biographies rarely mention it, but he was on Howard's faculty in the early '50s -- he was a quiet, unassuming guy who'd never ask you to change his greatness then. He showed none of it to us. I graduated in 1955. I came back to teach here between 1962 and 1966. This ceremony is like a homecoming. The school has changed a lot since then. Wonderful things are happening here. There is a shared sense of mission at Howard, a cohesiveness, that distinguishes it from other schools of art."

Howard's art department has developed a distinctive identity, and Drieskell's award underlines the university's growing awareness of the signficance of the artists of the "Howard School." When Driskell was a student, many pictures made there seemed to have been based on European prototypes; but today that is rarely so. Much of Driskell's sholarship extends the work of Prof. Herring, who founded the Barnett-Aden Collection here, one of the first major collections to focus on works of art produced by black Americans.

Driskell's pictures are lyrical and brightly colored. Many are abstract. A exhibit surveying 20 years of his was seen recently in College Park and is now touring in Raleigh, at North Carolina State University. Driskell describes his oft-praised scholarship as "an attempt to repair damage, to document the quality of a body of work that should never have been set apart. Yes, black Americans have made a distinguished contribution to the visual culture of this country. And that contribution must be sung as our poetry has been sung."

On Sunday, at Howard's Charter Day ceremonies, the university's board of trustees will present Driskell with another honor, the alumni award for distinguished achievement in art and education.