The black slave of white marble is from Howard University. Edmonia Lewis carved him in 1867. Rising from his shackles, he is suffused with a spirit of genteel self-assertion and upward aspiration. So are many other presences in "To Conserve a Legacy: American Art From Historically Black Colleges and Universities" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

The black scientists and engineers busily constructing skyscrapers and spires in a 1944 Aaron Douglas oil "Building More Stately Mansions," from Fisk University, are also reaching for the heights.

Slavery crushed souls. Though the small and ill-equipped colleges for Negroes that opened in the South in the first decades of freedom were largely utilitarian places--where one could learn to plow a field, or iron a starched shirt--the first students to attend them knew that they were climbing to more important things.

"I was dazed at the splendors of Tuskegee," wrote one of them, Mississippi's William H. Holtzclaw. "I saw more activity among Negroes than I had ever seen before in my life. Not only was everybody at work, but every soul seemed to be in earnest. I heard the ringing of the anvil . . ., the music of the carpenters' hammers . . . I began at once a new existence. I made a vow that I would be educated there, or I would die."

When W.E.B. DuBois, the intellectual liberationist, first came upon Tuskegee, the image that occurred to him was that of an Edenic peak, the abode of the Muses. "Amid a wide desert of caste and proscription, amid the heart-hurting slights and jars and vagaries of a deep race-dislike," he wrote in 1903, "lies this green oasis, where hot anger cools, and bitterness of disappointment is sweetened by the springs and breezes of Parnassus."

Had Edmonia Lewis, William Holtzclaw, Aaron Lewis, and W.E.B. DuBois lived long enough to see it, the exhibition at the Corcoran would have gratified them all. It's an admirable effort. The show, a joint endeavor of Richard J. Powell and Jock Reynolds, required lots of thought and time and money. Its overarching mood is one of progress sought and won.

"Progress of the American Negro," a nearly 13-foot oil by Charles White from Howard University, has a characteristic title. Hope brightens this show. But many of its objects, below their cleaned-up surfaces, are gnawed by aching memories of bigotry and poverty and pain.

Being an artist in America has never been easy. Being a black artist in America, especially in the days of enforced segregation, was far harder still. You can't become an artist if there is no art to look at, and there weren't a lot of Titians, or vase-of-flowers still-lifes, or landscapes in gold frames, in the tenements of Harlem or the hovels of the South. You can't make a living painting if you have no place to show, or if you have no access to the supportive troops--the patrons and enthusiasts, scholars and art dealers--on whom the artist's enterprise to a large degree depends.

Historically black colleges and universities did what they could to help, but they couldn't do a lot.

Six have lent their objects to the present exhibition. They are Clark Atlanta University, Fisk University, Hampton University, North Carolina Central University, Tuskegee University and Howard University.

Art, at least at first, was just a fringe activity at many of these schools. Atlanta University was founded in 1865. Clark College was founded in 1869. (These two institutions merged in 1988.) Fisk (1866), Howard (1867), Hampton (1869), Tuskegee (1881), and North Carolina Central (1910) initially taught drawing, much as they did ironing, as a kind of steppingstone. Their students learned more useful skills--how to mend shoes, for example, or press cheese or make windows. Photographs of them doing so are found throughout this show.

Until well into this century buying and collecting art, and matting it correctly, and storing it in safety, remained on the fringe.

Storing art correctly is a complicated business. It takes well-controlled humidity, and boxes of white cotton gloves, and papers that are acid-free, and special racks and wrappings--which most struggling black schools did not have at hand. In consequence what works they owned often suffered grievously. Paintings on canvas that ought to have been stretched were pierced or rolled or folded. The storage rooms available were often well-crammed closets. Watercolors faded, photographs lost their corners, figurines of marble were soiled, scratched or chipped.

Many of these objects--now worth a lot of money--were found to be in dangerous condition. At Clark Atlanta University, Elizabeth Catlett's "Negro Woman" (1956) was splitting into pieces. At Hampton University, two early oils by John Biggers--"Old Man" and "Old Coffee Drinker"--had both been creased and cracked. At Tuskegee University, an important William H. Johnson picture painted on thin plywood, his "Farm Couple at Work" of 1941, had begun to warp and split.

Of the 264 objects on display most required restoration. In "To Conserve a Legacy" the stress is on "conserve."

In preparing their exhibit Powell and Reynolds did more than mount an art show with a nine-venue tour and an illustrated catalogue. They also put together a consortium of specialists, and organized a major rescuing campaign.

A dozen student interns, two from each of the exhibit's lending institutions, were given months of training at Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Williamstown, Mass. Two respected art museums, the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and the Studio Museum in Harlem, agreed to organize the show. Various other institutions--from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston to the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University--offered their facilities. In the end the project leaned on major corporations and charitable foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. Putting it together required lots of cash and know-how, for it takes a lot of know-how to raise a lot of cash.

No two people could have been better prepared for such a project than Powell and Reynolds. Powell heads the department of art and art history at Duke University. Reynolds, former director of the Addison Gallery, is director of the Yale University Art Gallery. They're both old D.C. hands.

Reynolds, in his youth, was director of the Washington Project for the Arts. Powell, in his youth, mounted impressive shows there. In 1986 the two of them arranged a retrospective of the prints of Howard's James Lesesne Wells at the WPA. In 1989 they organized there both "From the Potomac to the Anacostia: Art and Ideology in the Washington Area" and "The Blues Aesthetic: Black Culture and Modernism." In 1991 Powell's "Homecoming: The Art and Life of William H. Johnson" opened up the street at the National Museum of American Art. In 1996 his "Rhapsodies in Black: Art of the Harlem Renaissance" was mounted at the Corcoran. These guys know the ropes.

They got $150,000 from the Harry Luce Foundation. They got $250,000 from AT&T, and $250,000 from the Ford Motor Co. The National Endowment provided $125,000. Another $100,000 came from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Whitney family's Greentree Foundation, the LEF Foundation, the Joseph Harrison Jackson Foundation, the Trellis Fund, and KPMG, LLP, and Ford's Ford Division and Lincoln Mercury also were forthcoming. A well-oiled machine produced this handsome show.

It's got some very fine objects. Two of the finest--"Mr. and Mrs. Barton" (1942) and "Anacostia Hills" (1944) are by John N. Robinson of Washington (1912-1994). It's got six Elizabeth Catletts, a pair of Romare Beardens, four Henry O. Tanners, and an intricate and early work by Howard's Skunder Boghossian. It's got unfamiliar screen prints by Roy DeCarava, the exceptional photographer, and a handsome unstretched canvas by Washington's Sam Gilliam, and four bluesy paintings by Archibald J. Motley Jr. It also has on view an exceptional self-portrait by Frederick C. Flemister, whom you've probably never heard of. He studied at Morehouse College and taught briefly at Atlanta. He was born in 1917, and died in 1976. "We had to really struggle," says Powell, "to come up with those dates."

"To Conserve a Legacy" is not a show of black art only. In 1949, urged on by her friend the photographer Carl Van Vechten, the painter Georgia O'Keeffe gave Fisk University 101 works of art--by Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley, George Grosz and Alfred Stieglitz, Charles Demuth and John Marin--and some of these are on display. It's got abstract pictures, too, by the late Josef Albers, which the painter gave to Hampton, and various antique objects of American Indian art.

On first or second wander through this big and varied show, few viewers will be able to decide which artists represented are black, and which are not. The angriest of the objects shown, a carving of a lynching, is by Nat Werner, a man of German ancestry. The gentlest is a very quiet Highland landscape, of a cottage on Loch Lomond, by the African American Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872). There is no law that says that black people have to make "black" art. "Mark what I say," wrote Duncanson. "I have no color on the brain; all I have on the brain is paint."

The show has many heroes--Booker T. Washington, for instance, and George Washington Carver, a scientist portrayed here with a palette in his hand. It also calls to memory the schools' various guiding spirits--Gen. Samuel Chapman Armstrong of Hampton, Hale Woodruff of Atlanta, and Fisk's Charles S. Johnson, and Howard's James. V. Herring. Small seeds they helped plant bloom largely in this show.

Which also has odd gaps. Two of the most gifted and influential artists to ever teach at Howard--the powerful Ed Love, who died too young not long ago, and the meticulous Jeff Donaldson--have no works in this exhibit. You'd think these institutions, Howard in particular, would not rest until they had acquired objects from their hands.

Still, "To Conserve a Legacy" is a useful and good-looking show. Powell and Reynolds have dedicated their project to the late Felrath Hines, who once worked for O'Keeffe, and then was lured to the Smithsonian by the late Joshua C. Taylor, and who ended his career as the Hirshhorn's chief conservator. In its political savvy, its scholarship, and its respect for history, the show feels linked to Washington. It's been handsomely installed here by the Corcoran's Sarah Cash. It will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago, to Clark Atlanta, North Carolina Central, Fisk, Hampton and the Detroit Institute of Arts after closing at the Corcoran on Jan. 31.