Edwin Harleston family papers open to researchers and the public

Published 12-18-2012

"Portrait of Elise Forrest" painted by Edwin Harleston, ca. 1920, before they were married. Image courtesy MARBL.
The family papers of artist and civil rights activist Edwin Harleston are fully processed and open to researchers and the public at Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL), located in the Robert W. Woodruff Library.

The Harleston papers join the rapidly expanding collections at MARBL from artists, art historians, and art collectors such as Amalia Amaki, Benny Andrews, John Biggers, Camille Billops, Cedric Dover, Paul Jones, Samella Lewis and James A. Porter.

“Edwin Harleston’s papers are interesting not only because he was an important and understudied artist but because he was very much involved in politics, and he was an African American businessman,” says Randall Burkett, curator of MARBL’s African American Collections. “It’s not atypical at all that people involved in one aspect of African American culture are involved in multiple aspects – Harleston was active in the NAACP, he was a businessman and owned a funeral home, and he was an artist.”

The Harleston collection consists of the papers of Edwin (1882-1931), an African American portrait painter and sketch artist, and his wife, Elise (1891-1970), one of the first female African American photographers. Among its correspondence are letters between Edwin and W.E.B. Du Bois, his mentor and professor during his time at Atlanta University, and personal letters between Edwin and Elise. Other materials in the collection include duplicates and slides of some of Edwin’s portraits and drawings, as well as sketchbooks and loose sketches; Edwin’s notes and manuscripts for his traveling lecture series created during the Depression when portrait commissions were scarce, and other personal and business-related material.

Also included are the papers and research files of the Harlestons’ niece Edwina Harleston Whitlock (1916-2002), raised by the couple, who researched her family’s history extensively. Her files include an unpublished biography, family photographs and interview transcripts from Edward Ball’s biography on Harleston, “The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the Segregated South.”

Mae Whitlock Gentry, a former staff writer and editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, donated the papers to MARBL in November 2010. She is the great-niece of Edwin and Elise Harleston and Edwina’s daughter.

Gentry says she considered other institutions in the Harlestons’ native South Carolina as well as New York City and Atlanta, but decided on Emory for several reasons – including recommendations from others who have placed their collections with MARBL, such as Camille Billops, an artist and collector of African American cultural materials.

“I felt Emory would be the best steward of the collections,” Gentry said. “I chose Emory because I knew they would process and maintain the collection, and make it accessible to researchers.” She also was very aware of the scope of MARBL’s African American Collections, due to her friendship with Burkett. “He’s built a wonderful repository of historical documents that really capture the African American experience,” she says.

Broad appeal for researchers

The Harlestons opened their own photography and portrait studio in Charleston in 1922, with Elise often taking photographs from which Edwin painted his portraits. At the same time, Edwin also worked in the family’s funeral home business to support his family. He had earned a BA at Atlanta University in 1904, and studied at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from 1905 to 1913.

Born one generation out of slavery and of mixed race heritage, Harleston was partly influenced as an artist by the grand portraits such as those hanging over the mantels in the homes of wealthy white people, Gentry says. Harleston wanted to create the same type of portraits depicting African Americans; up to that point, their portraits overwhelmingly had been caricatures of mammies or the stereotypes later common in marketing such as Aunt Jemima and Old Black Joe, she says. Harleston painted the portraits of wealthy black businessmen, including Jesse Binga, a black banker in Chicago, and Alonzo Herndon, the first black millionaire in Atlanta. But he also created paintings and drawings of other African Americans in all walks of life.

“That was a major driving force for him,” Gentry says. “He wanted to show African Americans of all types, but in a realistic and dignified manner. I think that is another reason his life and his work are significant.”

Elise did the same thing, Gentry says: “She took a lot of photos, particularly of African American women who were dressed in the latest fashions or furs and jewelry. They were not the people you would see in mass popular culture.”

Some of Harleston’s most well-known works include the paintings “Boone Hall Plantation,” “The Old Servant” (which won the prestigious Harmon Award), “Portrait of Aaron Douglas,” and “The Honey Man.”

As an activist, Harleston was involved in the NAACP, the South Carolina Interracial Commission and the Avery Institute. He co-founded the NAACP’s Charleston branch in 1917 and became its first president. He also produced art depicting the involvement of African Americans in World War I, including his play “The War Cross” and his painting “The Gas Attack.”

MARBL will hold a symposium based on the collection in fall 2013. Panelists will be announced prior to the event.

To view the collection, visit the “
Using MARBL” page for more information and to request materials.