Elise Forrest Harleston

 

 

Photo used with permission of Mae Whitlock Gentry

 

 

 

In the fall of 1919, on the eve of the Harlem Renaissance, a young woman traveled alone by train from South Carolina to New York City to enroll in photography school.  Elise Beatrice Forrest was studying the craft at the urging of her fiancé, artist Edwin Augustus Harleston.  The plan was for them to marry, then establish a portrait and photography studio in Charleston, an audacious dream for African-Americans living in the segregated South at the dawn of the 20th century.

 

“Find out for me, please, every fine point about photographing a drawing and a painting for patent reasons – we may need it someday,” Edwin wrote Elise.

 

            Elise Forrest Harleston enjoys the distinction of being South Carolina’s first African-American female photographer.  She and her husband owned and operated the Harleston Studio at 118 Calhoun Street in Charleston from 1922 until 1931.  Unlike other women who worked in photo studios, she was not merely a lab assistant, office manager or cashier but the person behind the camera.  For a decade, Elise worked as a portraiture photographer, a field dominated by white men in Northern cities.  And though the work she did was unusual, she was overshadowed by her husband in his lifetime[1] and she gave up professional photography after his death.

 

            Edwin Harleston was not only “one of the most popular and influential black painters of his day,”[2] he also was involved in the Charleston branch of the NAACP, the Atlanta University alumni association, the Charleston Civic League, the National Negro Business League and other endeavors.  Still, he was primarily known as “the foremost painter of the Race,” in the words of his mentor and former AU professor W.E.B. DuBois.  He won the NAACP’s Amy Spingarn medal for art and the Harmon Foundation’s Alain Locke Prize for portraiture.  His work has been in several major exhibitions and numerous books.

 

 

Portrait of Elise Forrest Harleston, painted by Edwin Harleston. Used with permission of Mae Gentry Whitlock. For educational use only.

 

 

 

 

Elise’s work, on the other hand, has rarely been exhibited,[3] and it has garnered mention in only a few books. “Like most women, she really sacrificed her own career for her husband’s career and desires,” said art historian M. Akua McDaniel of Spelman College.  “In many ways, they were a team.  And while he recognized her contribution, her contribution was rarely known to the public.”

 

Elise Beatrice Forrest was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on February 4, 1891.[4]  She was the third of seven children of Augustus Howard Brodie Forrest and his wife, Elvira Moorer Forrest.  Her father earned a good living as the head bookkeeper for the city’s lottery, a numbers game owned by whites but operated by blacks.  Consequently, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when most black Charlestonians were poor and uneducated, the Forrest family owned a beautiful two-story home at 97 Morris Street, filled with Victorian furniture, fine china and engraved silver.

 

Elise Forrest was 22 years old when she met Edwin Harleston in 1913.  He was nine years her senior and had been away from home for 13 years, first attending Atlanta University and then studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  Though he aspired to paint, Edwin agreed to return to Charleston to help his father, “Captain” Edwin Gaillard Harleston, with the family funeral business.

 

 The couple met the day Edwin delivered a gift to the Forrest home from his brother, Robert, to her sister Marie.  When Elise answered the door, she saw an extraordinarily handsome man with high cheekbones and coal-black eyes, a man just a few inches taller than her own petite 5-foot frame.  Though their encounter was brief – he delivered the package, tipped his hat and departed -- she was smitten the moment she laid eyes on him, but she would have to wait seven years to become his wife.

 

Elise and Edwin both graduated from Avery Normal Institute, [5] a private school established in 1868 by the American Missionary Association.  The school offered instruction in “plain and fancy needlework” and courses that prepared the female students to become homemakers or schoolteachers.   A picture of Avery’s Class of 1908 shows a pretty, well-dressed Elise, sparkling eyes gazing intently into the camera.

 

In her youth, the gregarious and fun-loving Elise Forrest enjoyed a relatively carefree life.  A family scrapbook filled with snapshots shows her with male and female friends at the beach, having picnics and walking through the woods.  She was popular with the opposite sex, but when she met Edwin Harleston, she became intent on marrying him.  A few months after their first meeting, she wrote this note:  “Had hoped to see you ’ere this.  Our club meets Tuesday night at Mrs. Beaubian and I would like you to be my guest – if it is convenient and agreeable to you.”

 

Despite their apparent compatibility, Elise and Edwin had vastly different temperaments.  She was open-hearted and effusive; he was almost stiffly formal and reserved.  She was impatient and quick-tempered; he calmly bided his time to the point of procrastination.  She fell in love with him immediately, then spent years doing her best to get him to propose; when he finally did, he informed her that “we have not been in love that long.”

 

Elise left home for a time, perhaps thinking her absence would provoke a commitment.  She worked as a teacher in rural South Carolina,[6]  rooming with virtual strangers and sweeping away bedbugs at night.  After spending late 1915 in Fowlers, South Carolina, and early 1916 in Cades, South Carolina, Elise decided that the experience was intolerable and soon returned to Charleston and found a job as a seamstress at the Union Millinery & Notion Company.  (Following her marriage to Edwin, she would make his shirts, pants, artist’s smocks and even his underwear.)

 

In the fall of 1916, a dejected Edwin left home to study embalming in New York City.  (His brother Robert had already earned an embalming license, but Robert was ill -- he had contracted tuberculosis while at the Army’s training camp in Iowa – and Captain was coming to rely more and more on Edwin.)  Elise followed her sweetheart to New York, where she found a job at the Howard Orphanage and Industrial School on Long Island.  She spent as many weekends as possible traveling into the city to be with Edwin. 

 

As the couple grew closer, they began to talk about a future together.  Edwin gave Elise a Brownie camera and encouraged her to start using it.  He knew that if she could learn photography, she would be useful to him once he established his studio.  But outside forces threatened their designs.  World War I was raging in Europe, and Edwin wanted to enlist in the Army’s officer training camp for Negro soldiers in Iowa, as his brother Robert had done.  Elise grew nearly hysterical at the thought that Edwin might be drafted, leaving her alone, but for some reason, he was not called to serve.

 

Charleston held the promise of little work for a black portrait painter.  Whites would not hire an African-American artist, and only a small number of blacks could afford the luxury of having a portrait made.  Edwin busied himself painting family members and scenes of Low Country life, and he spent a lot of time away from home trying to drum up business, fulfilling commissions, furthering his education and attending conferences.

 

In the spring of 1919, he traveled to Atlanta to do a full-length portrait of black millionaire Alonzo Herndon,[7] and from there went to Florida for the annual NAACP convention.  While he was on the road, Elise playfully nudged him to propose:  “May I get ready for ‘a trip to the moon’ in September? … Or don’t you want to send me to that school of Photography any more yet again? Or would you rather buy me [an] auto? Ha ha. While I think of it why not bring me one from – (where does Mr. Ford live?).”

 

Edwin did intend to follow through with their plans, and that autumn, Elise boarded a train for New York City, where she enrolled in the E. Brunel School of Photography.[8]  “I am the only woman, there is one other colored, a young man from Wilson, N.C., and a Jap,” she wrote Edwin.  “The others are Jews, Germans and Irish.  They are very polite and today, every one wanted to show me something.  The instructor is a very young man, German, I think.  … He started me at retouching negatives to see if I have an artistic touch.  He didn't say whether I have or not but very encouragingly said it would take practice to develop what he wants.

 

  Elise was still living at the Forrest home at 97 Morris Street, but her family had fallen on hard times – her father had suffered a series of strokes that left him unable to speak.  During the year Elise was away from home, Edwin paid her tuition and her living expenses.  She initially stayed at the YWCA in Harlem, but later moved in with Mr. and Mrs. Robert J. Elzy [9] in Brooklyn.  Elise, for her part, earned a little cash as well.

 

“I had a job to do some Xmas cards for the matron.  Got $6,” she wrote on Dec. 28, 1919.  “I wanted to make some photos of myself for Xmas but this came just at the same time and so prevented my doing so.  I have several small jobs to do next week besides some snaps to develop and print. So you see I’ll have a little to help out with expenses. … I did not tell you that I made 2.50 retouching plates for the main Studio during the Xmas rush.  They gave work to all the advance students.”

 

In addition to financial support, Edwin offered Elise emotional support.  “I’m glad to learn that you’re doing a little work sufficiently good to charge people for it – keep it up,” he wrote.

 

            By the time she left for New York, Elise had been in love with Edwin for a very long time and was eager for him to propose marriage.  Three years earlier, she had watched her younger sister, Marie, march down the aisle with his brother, Robert.  And in the intervening time, Marie had given birth to two children.

 

            In a letter written New Year’s Day 1920, Edwin finally proposed. “Today I had occasion to look through a batch of my mother’s old papers and letters and found some documents.  One is the bill of sale delivered to my great-great-grandmother in 1804 when she bought herself and Flora, her little daughter, from slavery – brave woman. The other is the deed of emancipation and manumission which she presented to her daughter Flora in 1820 that this daughter might marry then as a ‘free person of color’ not being owned even by her mother. That was a hundred years ago.  Nineteen hundred and twenty must be our year.  … Of course I love you; of course I want you, of course we will marry, and of course it will be this year …”

 

            The couple began discussing their impending nuptials in letters between New York and Charleston.  Elise wrote that “it would please me much to have you come here for me and have done with it with as little fuss as possible. … There have been dreams of white satin and floating veils, flowers, music etc., etc. etc. But I've had to come down out of the clouds very often that I'm quite used to it.”

 

            They settled on a September wedding in New York, and as that date neared, Elise jokingly wrote to Edwin:  What do you think of this for the reception and announcement cards?

 

            “Mr. And Mrs. A.H. Forrest Announce The Marriage of Their old Maid daughter Elise Beatrice To Mr. Edwin Augustus Harleston Sept 15th, 1920.  One year after she went away to stay three months.”

 

            The couple was married in the parsonage of Nazarene Congregational Church in Brooklyn by the Rev. Henry Hugh Proctor. [10]  They spent the first part of their honeymoon on a cruise, an event Elise chronicled in her journal: “Five days of married life; five days of bliss; five days stolen from eternity. …  Our night was spent on the Metropolitan S.S. Calvin Auston,[11] Room 11.  We stayed on deck until about 7 p.m., when we went in search of a bite.  We had mackerel, eggs, potatoes, bread and tea.  Then we went up to our room. …

            “Shall I ever forget the sensations experienced when I realized that I was in the arms of the one and only man on earth?  Shall I ever forget how, before he came to bed, he knelt beside the bed, gathered me in his arms and prayed God’s blessing on our union?  Shall I forget the peace which stole over me when he finished his prayer and laid down beside me, all the while speaking in terms of endearment to allay my fears and help make a difficult situation easy.

            “He is wonderful!  He is worthy of all I’ve gone through in waiting for him.  … He is the soul of honor, and he is my husband!”

 

            The newlyweds spent the rest of their honeymoon at the home of Edwin’s friends in Canton, Massachusetts.  Once back in Charleston, they became parents immediately.  Marie and Robert, both stricken with tuberculosis, had sent their two daughters to live with relatives, in hopes the girls would not catch the disease. [12]  Edwin and another bachelor brother had been surrogate fathers to the older child, Gussie, since she was 2 years old.  In marrying Edwin, Elise accepted the responsibility of becoming Gussie’s mother.  The arrangement became permanent when Marie died four months after Elise’s wedding.

 

            During the early days of their marriage, Elise and Edwin lived in a third-floor apartment above the Harleston Funeral Home at 121 Calhoun Street.  To make ends meet, they both worked in the funeral business, answering the telephone, greeting mourners, ordering supplies and doing whatever else was needed.  Edwin’s father, “Captain” Harleston, did not pay Elise and Edwin a salary but instead doled out small sums as he saw fit.  Understandably, the couple was eager to have a place of their own, where Edwin could paint and Elise could take pictures. 

 

            Edwin had extremely high standards, and he thought the training Elise had gotten in New York was merely adequate.  She needed to elevate her artistry, he believed, by getting the kind of advanced education available only at Tuskegee Institute under the tutelage of Cornelius M. Battey,[13]  head of the school’s photography division.  While in Atlanta for an exhibit at the Butler Street YMCA, Edwin traveled to Alabama to see Battey, then wrote Elise: “He says he will be ready to receive you … about the first of October, as before that time he will have so many beginners that it might hamper both of you. ... So you must plan to fill this engagement for it is a rare opportunity. Tuskegee is a great place, but all else there is as dross compared to this artist and his equipment.”

 

            While Elise was away, Captain built a house across the street from the funeral home for his son, daughter-in-law and grandchild.  In a letter home, Elise gave Edwin numbered instructions on what she wanted done:  Get the floors painted (1), the windows cleaned (2), the shades up (3) and the rugs cut and down.(4)  You could even start moving before I come.  Such as the machine, the living room things.  See about the stove (5), the heaters (6) for the various rooms.  Then of course go right on with the electric fixtures, (7) the shelves (8) for dark room, the built-in closet (9) under the sink.  Some shelves (10) in the corner over the sink in Studio.  Put up the mirror (11) in the reception room.  I think beside the window is a good place.”

 

            Once the building was complete, the couple’s work was displayed in a large glass case on the ground floor, a way to attract potential customers who might be walking along Calhoun Street.

 

            Elise photographed a variety of black Charlestonians, some of them fairly affluent, including a woman wearing a fur-collared coat and pearls, a young boy in a two-piece wool suit, a high school graduate holding her diploma and wearing a class ring.  Elise also took pictures of people whose faces she found interesting, for instance, a poor, elderly black woman who almost certainly was an emancipated slave.  Many of Elise’s surviving gelatin silver prints bear a tiny hole in one corner where Edwin thumb tacked them to his canvas, enabling his subjects to avoid long sittings.

 

            Elise and Edwin were not only occupied with their work, they were also members of Plymouth Congregational Church, where they sang in the choir and participated in other church activities.  And Elise was active in the Phyllis Wheatley Literary and Social Club.[14]  But her life revolved around the Harleston Studio, the Harleston Funeral Home and her family.  In addition to rearing Gussie, it was increasingly falling to Elise and Edwin to help her parents.  Because her father was disabled, Elise sometimes took food or money to her mother, who was also caring for six of her grandchildren.  (Elise’s brother, Tom, was an unemployed alcoholic; his wife was in a mental hospital.)  Concerned about Tom’s only daughter, Elise began lobbying Edwin to take the child.

 

            “Everybody wants Doris. … Gus and I have had her here to spend the day and she behaved beautifully. … I am afraid I want her myself.”

 

            In the summers of 1924 and 1925, Edwin took landscape painting courses at Chicago’s Art Institute in hopes of landing a teaching job in Washington, D.C., that would provide an escape from Charleston and a steady paycheck.  The job, however, never materialized and the couple became resigned to their fate – they would remain in Charleston, working at the funeral home and trying to eke out what little studio business they could.

 

            While her husband was in Chicago in 1924, Elise had a run-in with a former business associate, a man named Smalls, who took advantage of her in Edwin’s absence. “A job came in yesterday – a young lady’s photo,” Elise wrote her husband.  “Mr. Smalls had come last Wednesday and cleaned out.  I had not packed his things but they were assembled.  … He was very nasty.  … I asked him to let me keep the background but he just knocked it down and took it away.  He took the press although I told him you said he must not.  Took my retouching pencil and the lights that were in the printing box and the Kodak printer.  Quarreled over the Hydrometer until I showed him where he had taken it when he went to Orangeburg.  Wants to be paid half the money spent for the curtains at the skylight.”

 

                The couple endured numerous separations during their courtship and marriage, but Edwin consistently reassured Elise that they would ultimately result in success. In late summer of 1924, Elise traveled to Philadelphia to rendezvous with her husband.  They continued to discuss what might become of her brother’s child, and apparently Elise succeeded in persuading Edwin to accept Doris, because the 4-year-old became a permanent part of their family soon after.

 

            By the mid-1920s, a cultural renewal sparked by the city’s white artists and writers known as the Charleston Renaissance was in full swing, but the work Elise and Edwin were doing on Calhoun Street was ignored, for the most part.  After Edwin won the NAACP’s Spingarn art prize,[15] word of “Charleston’s colored artist” spread even in the white community.  “Capt. was stopped on the street this week by Mr. John Bennett[16] who asked if it is his son who is the artist?  Yes?  Where is he?  Does he keep a studio?  Where?  Can I visit it? Yes?  Think shall do so in the near future. Heard he won a prize recently.”  In an aside, she wrote, “We are unable to guess how he knew about the prize. They are noticing slowly.”

 

            The period would bring the highest hope and the deepest despair.  Edwin was asked to paint a portrait of presidential candidate Calvin Coolidge, then told Coolidge was too busy to sit for it.  He was given a chance to be the first black artist to exhibit his work at the Charleston Public Library, but the offer was rescinded at the last minute.  He painted wealthy industrialist Pierre S. DuPont, but the $10,000 commission was never paid by the committee that hired him.

 

            Elise tried to comfort her husband:  “Through it all, I love you.  I repeat, I love you, it is all that keeps me, it is all that constrains me.  When the cruel iron turns in my heart … I think I feel your arms, hear your voice.  I remember sublime moments, and I hold on.”

 

            The spring of 1930 found Edwin in Savannah and Elise complaining about yet another separation:  “Wish you’d come on home.  Since I am missing so many other things it seems I might have the pleasure of your company a little longer than two months at a time.”  But Edwin would vanish again that summer, this time heading to Nashville, Tennessee, where artist Aaron Douglas was working on a mural project at Fisk University.  Edwin assisted Douglas on the project, a back-breaking chore that kept him away from home for three months.

 

            In a letter to Edwin thanking him for his help, Douglas wrote, “I consider your decision to come over and give me a hand last summer was little short of cosmic.  I don’t know I could have made it throughout without your skill, your sound judgment and your helpful, friendly attitude. … I hope you get that award this year.  No one else has any right to it.”

 

            Douglas was referring to the Harmon Award, the most prestigious honor given for African-American achievement in various fields.  Edwin had been passed by in 1927, the first time he entered his work, but this time, he would finally gain the recognition he sought, winning a prize for portraiture.  The years of hard work, it seemed, were finally paying off.

 

            Elise and Edwin Harleston lived and toiled in a provincial Southern town far removed from the cultural movement later known as the Harlem Renaissance, but their little studio came to enjoy a national reputation.  Visitors to Charleston, such as poet Langston Hughes and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Julia Peterkin,[17] felt that a trip to 118 Calhoun Street was a must.  In early 1931, Baha’i leader Louis G. Gregory visited the Harleston Studio and later wrote, “There is so much light and happiness in your home!  How beautiful for husband and wife to be united in pursuit of the ideal in the realm of art as well as other high endeavors!  ‘People who love the same truth are in reality married,’ says Swedenborg. [18] They are companions both in time and eternity.”

           

            Edwin was in the midst of a lecture/demonstration tour of black colleges when Gregory called.  The tour was a hit and brought in much-needed money, but in April of 1931, Edwin received an urgent message from home:  Captain had contracted pneumonia and was dying.  Edwin returned to Charleston in time to say goodbye.  Leaning over his father’s bed, a grief-stricken Edwin kissed Captain on the lips, and within weeks, he too was dead.

 

On May 13, 1931, three days after her husband’s death, Elise buried Edwin next to his father at the Unity and Friendship Society cemetery in Charleston.  The next day, she took a camera to the cemetery and photographed Edwin’s flower-covered, unmarked grave.  They were among the last photographs she took before dismantling their studio.

 

            Within a year of Edwin’s death, Elise married a Baltimore schoolteacher named John J. Wheeler, moved to Baltimore, then to his native Chicago and finally to Southern California.

 

            Elise never spoke of her first husband or her work as a photographer, but for almost 40 years, she saved all of Edwin’s letters and nearly two dozen of her glass-plate negatives, a cache that was discovered after her death.  Widowed for a second time in the 1960s, Elise lived out her retirement years in a two-bedroom bungalow in south Los Angeles and died of a brain aneurysm in 1970 at age 79.

 

 

Editor’s note:  the author is a staff writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the great-niece of Edwin and Elise Harleston.

 

            Mae Whitlock Gentry

maegentry@comcast.net

 

 

 

Sources:

Ball, Edward.  The Sweet Hell Inside (New York. HarperCollins Publishers. 2001).

Correspondence of Edwin and Elise Harleston. 1913-1931 (South Carolina Historical Society and Collection of Mae Whitlock Gentry).

Drago, Edmund L.  Initiative, Paternalism and Race Relations: Charleston’s Avery Normal Institute (Athens, Ga. University of Georgia Press. 1990).

Driskell, David C.  Two Centuries of Black American Art (Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Alfred A. Knopf. 1976).

Edwin A. Harleston, Painter of an Era, 1882-1931 (Detroit: Your Heritage House, 1983).

Forrest, James Edmund.  Telephone interview.  April 1, 2005.

Horwitz, Margot F.  A Female Focus: Great Women Photographers (New York.  Franklin Watts. 1996).

McDaniel, Maurine Akua. Telephone interview. November 1996.

McDaniel, Maurine Akua. Edwin Augustus Harleston, Portrait Painter 1882-1931 (Atlanta: Emory University. 1994).

Moutoussamy-Ashe, Jeanne. Viewfinders: Black Women Photographers (New York.  Dodd Mead & Co. 1986).

Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers (New York. Abbeville Press. 1994)

Severens, Martha R. The Charleston Renaissance (Spartanburg, S.C.: Saraland Press. 1998).   

Teal, Harvey S. Partners With the Sun: South Carolina Photographers -- 1840-1940 (Columbia, S.C. University of South Carolina Press. 2001).

Whitlock, Edwina Harleston (born Gussie Louise Harleston). Interviews. October 1994-April 2000.

Willis, Deborah. Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers – 1840 to the Present (New York, W.W. Norton & Co. 2000).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] In 1923, the Simms Blue Book and National Negro Business and Professional Directory featured “The Harleston Painting Studio.”  An accompanying article misspelled Elise’s name and downplayed her role, saying Edwin “equipped and opened the Harleston Studio at Charleston, combining in a most unique way a photograph studio, managed by his wife, Elsie [sic] F. Harleston.”

[2] Art historian David Driskell, catalog for the exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art.”

[3] She was included in the 1996 “A History of Women Photographers” traveling exhibition and catalog and the 1993 show “Conflict and Transcendence: African-American Art in South Carolina.”

[4] Forrest family Bible

[5] Avery became a public school in 1947 and closed in 1954. It later reopened as the Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture and is now part of the College of Charleston.

[6] Charleston law forbade blacks from teaching in the city’s schools. That law was overturned in 1919, partly because of Edwin Harleston’s efforts as president of the Charleston NAACP.

[7] Herndon was born a slave but became a barber and owned a shop that catered to white men. He amassed a fortune as the founder of Atlanta Mutual Insurance Company, later known as Atlanta Life.

[8] Emile Brunel was a German photographer, sculptor and filmmaker. His photography school was near the corner of 32nd and Broadway.

[9] Elzy was executive secretary of the Urban League’s New York branch and a friend of Edwin’s from Atlanta University

[10] Proctor was the former pastor of First Congregational Church, which Edwin had attended while a student in Atlanta.  The only witnesses to the marriage were Edwin’s cousins Rosalie Mickey and Edmund Jenkins, a composer who lived in Europe but happened to be in New York at the time.

[11] The SS Calvin Austin was a single funnel, four-deck passenger ship owned by Eastern Steamship Co. It was in service from 1903 to around 1930.

[12] Marie and Robert’s younger child, Sylvia Elise, became the ward of Edwin and Robert’s younger sister, Eloise, and her husband, the Rev. Daniel J. Jenkins

[13] Battey, known as “the dean of black photographers,” also trained P.H. Polk at Tuskegee

[14] The women’s club -- it used a different spelling than the 18th century poet black Phillis Wheatley, for whom it was named -- was founded by Jeannette Keeble Cox, wife of Avery’s first black president, Benjamin Cox, for the purpose of cultural self-improvement.

[15] Edwin’s winning entry, “A Colored Grand Army Man,” was based on Elise’s photo of Grand Army of the Republic veteran Smart Chisholm.

[16] Bennett was a founding member of the all-white Charleston Etchers’ Club.

[17] Peterkin, a white Southerner who wrote about blacks, won the Pulitzer prize for “Scarlet Sister Mary” in 1929.

[18] The writer, Baha’i leader Louis G. Gregory, was referring to theologian Emanuel Swedenborg.