Edwin Augustus Harleston
with permission of Mae Whitlock Gentry. For educational use only.
Edwin Augustus Harleston was a good son, the
one who felt an obligation to help with the family business despite his own
desire to paint. In a life that spanned less than fifty years, he was a
businessman and a civil rights leader, but in his heart, he was always an
artist, a fine portrait painter. Even as a small child he liked to draw, and
his mother, the descendent of four generations of free African-Americans,
encouraged him to express himself. In his lifetime, however, Harleston was
never a full-time painter. Though he received some limited recognition for his
work, he was never able to support himself through his art.
Born in Charleston in 1882, Edwin Augustus Harleston
was the third of six children of Edwin Galliard and Louisa Moultrie Harleston.
Although his father was a rice planter in Berkeley County,
but earning an adequate living was difficult. After the births of the first two
children, the family moved to Charleston,
hoping to improve their finances. They settled in Edwin Gailliard's family home
on Laurel Street.
The house had been purchased by Edwin Gaillard's own father, a white plantation
owner named William Harleston. Apparently William had a love relationship with
one of his slaves, Kate, but in that day and age a marriage was impossible.
William and Kate had eight children, including Edwin Gailliard, who was born in
1852. William, who never married, bought the house on Laurel Street for Kate
and the children with the proviso that it couldn't be sold until all the heirs
were dead. William's brother, who outlived him, accepted the terms of the will.
Edwin Gailliard purchased a small boat and
set up a produce business, transporting goods on the Cooper River.
From that time on, he was always known as "Captain" or
"Cap." After a few boating accidents, Captain decided to go
into the funeral business, one area where African-Americans did not have to
compete with whites. In 1896, Captain and his brother Robert, who had trained
as a tailor, opened the first Harleston Brothers Funeral Home. Later, Robert
left the business. Although it remained in the family, none of Captain's sons
were really interested. Moultrie, the eldest, refused to work in the funeral
home. After graduating from Lincoln
University, he attended
veterinary school and then dropped out of sight. Robbie, the younger son,
in World War I, and subsequently contracted tuberculosis. His health remained
poor and he did not wish to work in the funeral business. It would be up to the
younger Edwin to carry on the family business instead of following what
he felt was his true calling.
Edwin Augustus, known as "Teddy,"
attended the Morris Street School, later renamed the Charles H. Simonton
School, the first public school for African-Americans in Charleston. It ran
from grades one to nine. Drawing was part of the curriculum, along with math,
reading, and writing. It was thought in that day that drawing would help one
develop good penmanship. Edwin's efforts were not appreciated by his white
teacher, though. When he showed her a picture of a horse she simply said:
"How very nice...maybe someday you'll grow up to become a hostler..."
(McDaniel, 1994). His parents felt that the white teacher didn't take Edwin's
work seriously because he was an African-American.
1897 was a year of sadness and of change for
the Harlestons. Louisa had become ill after her sixth child was stillborn and
was sick for almost a year before she died. With five motherless children and a
living to earn, Captain asked his sister and her husband to move to Charleston from Beaufort
and help him care for his family. That fall, Edwin, now 15, left public school
and began to attend Avery Normal Institute, a private school that offered a
college preparatory program. Edwin was a good enough student to be awarded a
scholarship to pay the tuition. His experience at Avery was a positive one.
Miss Mattie Marsh, an English teacher, took him under her wing. She kept in
touch with him for many years after he graduated. Shortly before she died, she
came to hear him speak and told him she was proud of him.
A well-rounded student, Edwin was active in
chorus and many clubs, but still managed to graduate in 1900 as class
valedictorian. Edwin gave the principal a picture he had done of Lincoln reading the
Emancipation Proclamation, a popular theme. A researcher has speculated that
the picture may have been a copy of another painting, a not-uncommon practise
in that day, but since it was destroyed in a fire in 1945, we shall never know
for sure (McDaniel, 1994).
Edwin planned to train as a teacher, and he
went on to college at Atlanta
University. His teachers
there encouraged him to enter public speaking contests - he won second place in
1901 - and in athletics - he joined the football team in 1902 and became a
starter. Although most of the teachers at this African-American college were
white Northerners, there were a few African-Americans on the faculty. Harleston
became interested in sociology, possibly after hearing Dr. W.E.B. DuBois
lecture. Many of DuBois' lectures were about art, and he encouraged the
students to visit art galleries. Edwin, who graduated in 1904, did do some
sketching in college, but this was not his major focus. He received one of two
fellowships granted for graduate study, and returned the following year to
study sociology and chemistry. The next year he applied to Harvard and was
accepted there as a junior. At that time he was thinking of a career in
medicine but he soon changed his mind.
Edwin arrived in Boston in 1906. He was not a stranger to life
in the North, as he had supported himself with summer jobs working on the
Hudson River Day Line. The young man decided that what he really wanted to do
was go to art school, so he enrolled in the Boston
School of the Museum of Fine Arts
where he could study portraiture and studio art. He was the only
African-American in a first year class of 232. Money was a problem, so
Harleston and his roommate, a former classmate, went into business selling
postcards. But he could not earn enough, and in 1907 he dropped out of school
for a year. He found a job on a cargo ship that traveled between Boston and Canada.
With enough money to pay his expenses he returned to school in 1908. This time
he lived in an African-American neighborhood in a community of people who were
willing to speak out against the racism of the day. Here he was exposed to the
burgeoning black organizations and newspapers. Although he concentrated on his
studies and continued to paint, perhaps this exposure influenced the young
artist to later become a civil rights activist.
In 1911, on the recommendation of his
professors Harleston received a scholarship which provided him with free
tuition. It was "his first formal recognition as an artist..."
(McDaniel, 1994). By the end of 1912 he had finished most of his required
classes. He left school at the end of the year. The reasons are not known. His
leaving may have been related to the resignation of a professor under whom he
was studying or he may have left for family reasons. His father needed his help
in his funeral home. In any case, he returned to Charleston, where little opportunity existed
for him to make a living painting portraits. Whites would pay few, if any,
commissions and not many blacks could afford to pay for a portrait. An
African-American would not be able to show his work at most museums. Instead,
he would have to rely on traditional black venues like churches, libraries and
fairs. Publicity would be nearly impossible. Regardless, Edwin had little free
time, as he worked full-time in the funeral home. In 1914 Captain expanded his
business, opening what was now the Harleston and Mickey Funeral Home.
Edwin moved into an apartment on the third
floor. Captain knew his son wanted to paint, and he put in a skylight for him.
But there was no time that first year. The next year, Edwin began to paint
again. In 1916 he did a self-portrait that a researcher describes as
"melancholy" (McDaniel, 1994). It is a picture of the 33 year old
artist in a white shirt and black bow tie. But the funeral business once again
intervened. In 1917 Edwin took a six week course at the Renourd Training School
for Embalmers, a well-known program, completing the course with the second
highest score anyone had ever made on the exam. Since he was now a certified
embalmer, his responsibilities at work increased. He received some offers to do
art work, including an offer to do the illustrations for a book by an
African-American artist.But he had so little time that he was probable unable
to accept this opportunity (McDaniel, 1994).
Harleston was a frustrated man. Hoping he
would get some commissions to paint portraits he contacted an old friend from
college who was now vice president of a life insurance company. He also painted
a portrait of the mother of the company's president from a photo and sent it to
the man as a gift, but did not get a commission from him. The friend, Truman
Gibson, used his contacts to get Harleston a commission to do the portrait of
one of the leaders of the black community in Atlanta. Harleston, always a bit hesitant and
tending to put things off, at first did not reply to the letter, but he finally
did the portrait. This was also during the time when he was getting involved in
the NAACP, 1917, so time may have been even more at a premium for him.
Harleston's work with the NAACP may have
been one of his greatest accomplishments. It may possibly be traced to
his early association with national NAACP founder W.E.B. DuBois. In the
early 1900s no statewide organizations existed to fight racism in South Carolina. Edwin
Harleston became involved with the NAACP, which had operated mostly in the
North, but was then expanding into the South. Its earlier efforts to organize
there had not been successful. The renewed effort, coordinated by Field
Secretary James Weldon Johnson, was to set up a southern district in North Carolina, South Carolina,
The first two NAACP
chapters in South Carolina, Charleston
were organized in 1917. The NAACP recruited twenty-nine African-American
professionals in Charleston
and applied for a charter on February 27 of that year. Harleston was actively
involved in establishing this chapter and became its first president.
A number of years passed before black
leaders would gather to set up a state organization. Although the two chapters
only had 75 members altogether in the beginning and had limited effectiveness,
their existence was "symbolically important" (Newby, 1973). South Carolina's
African-American community knew that someone was working on their behalf. In
1918 two other chapters were organized and in 1920 another four.
While the organization did not in that day
challenge the system of segregation, it worked to bring about change and to
improve the lives of African-Americans. Harleston and the NAACP worked for
greater participation by African-Americans in the war effort. Until May of
1917, when Congress passed the Selective Service Act, the military accepted
only a few African-Americans. After passage of this law African-Americans
joined in large numbers. By June of 1917 African-Americans comprised 52.9% of
all South Carolina
men joining the military. A researcher speculates that Harleston may have also
been involved in the NAACP's effort to have a training camp established for
black officers (McDaniel, 1994). The military set up a camp in Iowa but closed it after
one year due to public opposition. Harleston's brother was one of the men who
Harleston himself was quite active during
the war years even though he did not serve in the military. He received a draft
notice in 1918; however, we do not know why he was not inducted. Perhaps it was
because of his family and civic responsibilities (McDaniel, 1994). He used his
creative talents to write, direct and act in a two act play entitled "The
War Cross." The Atlanta University Club sponsored its performance in
August 1918. The play is the story of an African-American soldier who is
awarded a medal for his efforts in the war. The play was warmly received in the
black community. Harleston did paintings about the African-American role in
the war. These paintings showed the sacrifices and patriotism of
African-Americans in the war effort. One called "The Gas Attack"
shows African-American soldiers during a chlorine gas attack. The YMCA National
War Work Council also asked him to help with its educational program for
African-American soldiers in France.
However he never went overseas. Again, the reasons are not known.
After the war the NAACP turned its attention
to other issues. Another important issue of the day concerned the schools. At
that time the teachers in the black schools in Charleston were all whites, many of whom held
racist views (Newby, 1973). This was a thorn in the side of many
African-Americans, but the issue could not be addressed while World War I was
still underway. In 1919 the Charleston NAACP sent a petition to the local
school board asking for black teachers for black schools. Harleston signed it
as president. The school board turned them down. Next, the Charleston chapter called a meeting to
petition state elected officials. They obtained signatures from over five
thousand black families, a substantial majority of the African-Americans in Charleston. One
persuasive member of their committee, Thomas Miller, also had some contacts in
the state legislature. The legislators agreed to a change in school policy and
subsequently black students in Charleston
had black teachers. The establishment did not perceive the new policy as
rocking the boat. Rather it shored up segregation. But to African-Americans it
was a victory and they applauded Harleston for his part. He received a letter
from DuBois, who asked him to write an article, as well as many invitations to
But what Harleston really wanted to do was
to paint. He received requests, but he had little time because he had to earn a
living. He did some painting. In 1918 he painted the Dean of Atlanta
University. He also painted his sister, his brother, and some friends. In 1919
he painted a portrait of the president of Atlanta Mutual Insurance Company.
These portraits seemed to be good opportunities to get some exposure for his
work, but to his disappointment, other jobs were not forthcoming. To become
financially independent, he needed to earn money for his portraits.
Meanwhile, Harleston was involved in a
long-term romance that would also affect his artistic career. Around 1913 he
met Elise Forrest, who he called
"Little Liza," through his brother, who was courting her sister.
Edwin's brother and Elise's sister married, and Elise wanted to marry Edwin.
But Harleston was a man who sometimes hesitated to make a commitment. He
courted Elise for seven years before they married. Seeing Edwin's
reluctance, in 1916 Elise moved to New
York to take a job. The two kept in touch. Harleston
wanted Elise to train as a photographer so they could work together. He even
offered to pay for her training. She agreed and in 1919 went to photography
school in New York.
She was the only woman there and one of only two African-Americans. The study
of photography did not capture her interest for very long. She may have given
up hope of a marriage, for she wrote him finally that she was not going to
return to Charleston.
Spurred on, the 38 year old Harleston wrote to Elise's mother asking for
permission to marry her. The marriage took place on September 15, 1920 in Brooklyn, New
York. Around this time he painted her portrait. The
Harlestons planned to open a business together, doing painting and photography,
but Elise still had a long way to go. Harleston was determined that she would
become a photographer. He sent her to study with a famous African-American
photographer at Tuskegee,
Cornelius Battey. She tried hard, but was not too successful, writing Edwin to
say she wanted to return to Charleston.
He persuaded her to remain until the semester was over.
Meanwhile, Edwin was trying to show his work
and sought commissions. In May of 1921 he showed his work at the National Negro
Business League Conference in Atlanta,
with his work wedged between a booth selling toilet articles and another
selling the possessions of George Washington Carver. His work was well-received
but no jobs were forthcoming. Next, he sent out letters to prominent
African-Americans in Atlanta.
Again, there were no commissions. Harleston did not have much time to paint
that year or the next, with work obligations and his activities with the NAACP.
He painted mostly family, including his niece, Gussie (Edwina) who was four and
now lived with the couple. Her parents had both developed tuberculosis and her
mother had died. The Harlestons had no children of their own, and raised this
niece as their own child.
The Harlestons proceeded with their plans to
build a studio, the only one of its kind in South Carolina for African-Americans. It was
completed in 1922, across the street from the funeral home where Elise would
spend so much of her time working in the years to come while Edwin traveled. In
addition to facilities to store and display photographs and paintings, the
studio contained a place for storing caskets. In 1923 a friend arranged for
Edwin to be invited to participate in an African-American art exhibit in New York. It was held in
Harlem, then a center of black culture. In the
1920s, black writing, art and music flowered, giving rise to what became known
as the Harlem Renaissance, or the New Negro Movement after the 1925 anthology
by that name published by Howard University Professor Alain Locke. It was an
exciting time for African-Americans, who created a mature body of work that
examined black life and culture with pride. Harleston selected his best work.
Included was a piece that represented his earliest collaboration with Elise.
She had photographed an elderly man, and he had painted a portrait from the
photo. The work was well received and he received a letter with a list of names
of possible clients. Harleston sent out letters seeking commissions and
contacted a number of possible venues for future exhibitions. The editor of the
Urban League's publication, Opportunity,
was planning a story about Harleston. Despite the good reviews, there was no
local press coverage in New York.
When Harleston was invited to exhibit in Washington,
D.C., he pulled his work out of the New York art show, bringing it back after the show in Washington was over. He
realized that people would not buy his work or give him commissions if they did
not hear about him or see his paintings. Harleston was under much stress during
this period, so much that he became physically ill and had to be hospitalized
for surgery for stomach problems. Money was a constant problem. He could not
even send his wife the money to pay for their household expenses. She had
remained in Charleston
to run the funeral home, as she would do during all the years when he traveled,
showing his work, painting, and lecturing. He wrote her a sad letter vowing
that this would be their "last poor Christmas" (McDaniel, 1994).
His vow seemed to be coming true, for 1924
was a better year for the Harlestons. The article in Opportunity
referred to him as "a man of...genius" (McDaniel, 1994), leading to a
number of inquiries about his work. A Chicago
realtor purchased the painting that appeared on the cover of the magazine and
had a promotional brochure printed up. Harleston decided that he would have
better luck if he moved North. So he went to Washington to see if he could get a teaching
job there. He did not have the necessary background, so he went to Chicago in the summer of
1924 to study outdoor painting, hoping to gain the needed skills for the
teaching job. That summer he was commissioned to paint the portrait of a
prominent white businessman. After he completed that job he learned that Dr.
DuBois had recommended his selection to paint a portrait of philanthropist
Pierre DuPont. Appreciative black teachers whom Dupont had helped commissioned
the portrait. Next, through a friend he received a commission to paint the
former president of Atlanta
Despite all of this, Harleston was not
earning enough to support his family. Business was not good at the funeral
home. He was gone so often that his marriage was strained. But he continued to
paint. He received a commission to paint the portrait of the founder of a New York music school,
again through DuBois. This one would have to be done from a photo, as the
gentleman was dead. Other disappointments soon followed. The Republican
National Committee was seeking black votes, and apparently they considered
hiring Harleston to paint a portrait of President Coolidge that would hang at a
black university. One committee member even referred to Harleston as the best
African-American portrait painter in the U.S. Harleston wanted the commission,
and he visited the National Gallery while in Washington to review the portraits of whites
there. He wanted to be sure he had the skin tones right. But the commission did
not come (Severens, 1998).
In the summer of 1925, Harleston returned to
the Art Institute of Chicago for further study. Financial problems continued to
plague him. He told his wife to make a list of all his work so he could frame
and sell it. In the midst of all this, he received a piece of good news. He had
won a $75 award, first prize in the new Spingarn Competition of the NAACP. The
prize was awarded for his drawing entitled "A Colored Grand Army Man,"
based on a photo taken by Elise. He received some publicity from black
newspapers and even some recognition from whites for this. Harleston sent Elise
a letter applauding her role, telling her to "remember it is not mine, it
is ours" (McDaniel, 1994). It was a good summer until he received a notice
that it was time to renew his mortician's license. He had to stop painting to
study for the exam, passing it in September. In November of 1925 Harleston
returned to New York
to visit the exhibitions and seek commissions. Although Alain Locke mentioned
him in an article that appeared in his collection, The New Negro, he did
not have any success, so he returned to Charleston
and the funeral home. He remained there for some months,working in the funeral
home, but made some speeches and exhibited some of his work locally.
In March of 1926, Harleston received a visit
from Charleston Mayor Thomas Stoney and Mrs. Clelia P. McGowan, Chair of the
South Carolina Inter-Racial Commission, a biracial organization.
Harleston must have thought this was going to be his big break. Mrs. McGowan
was looking for artwork that could be submitted to the Harmon Foundation for
its First Annual Award for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes. The Harmon
Awards were established by William Harmon to recognize achievement by
African-Americans in seven different fields, including fine arts, in addition
to an eighth award in race relations open to both blacks and whites (Haynes,
"The Harmon Awards"). The mayor was so impressed by Harleston's
work that he contacted the Charleston
Museum about showing his
paintings. At this time, for an African-American to exhibit at a white museum
in the South was unheard of. The director of the museum, a northerner, agreed,
and they planned an exhibit. However, when the local white art community
learned of these plans, they expressed their opposition and the museum decided
to cancel the exhibit. Unfortunately, Harleston did not receive the letter with
this information. After he contacted the museum director concerning the plans
for the exhibit, she sent a second letter. Harleston was "devasted"
In the midst of this turmoil, Harleston
received a little good news. He had been nominated for a Harmon award. William
Harmon and his wife came to the Harlestons' studio during a trip to South Carolina and
looked at his work. They liked it. But Harleston did not win the award. A
researcher suggests that his work may not have been "race conscious"
enough in the age of the New Negro or modern enough (McDaniel, 1994). Despite
Harmon's enthusiasm, Harleston's work received only faint praise from
others on the committee (Reynolds and Wright, 1989). He turned down invitations
to compete in 1927 and 1928.
Despite all these setbacks and
disappointments, Harleston busied himself with his work and his civic
activities. He was active in many organizations in addition to the NAACP. These
included the South Carolina Inter-Racial Commission, the YMCA, and Avery
Institute. He was the president of the local Funeral Directors' Association.
His family was starting a new funeral home in Florida, and he was called on to help. In
1927, he exhibited some of his work, but he did not paint. In 1928 he found
time to paint a portrait of DuBose's daughter, a gift, and to lecture at Claflin College. He must have been an excellent
speaker. The college offered him a job teaching art history and European
history. He turned them down.
In 1929 he received a personal note inviting
him to compete in the Harmon competition. He started to paint again but
received only small commissions. The funeral home was not prospering and
finances were very tight. It was the beginning of the Depression. Harleston
looked for opportunities to speak and lecture about painting at black colleges,
but the schools could not afford to pay for that. Once again, he turned to his
friends, but no commissions were forthcoming. Asked to contribute to a memorial
fund in 1930, he gave a drawing instead. He could not afford a monetary contribution.
He hoped his work would be reproduced, but it was not. Harleston continued to
travel, giving a presentation at a conference in North
Carolina and then heading to New York to seek commissions.
Harleston received an opportunity to work
with Aaron Douglas, nearly a generation his junior and a painter whose work
epitomized the New Negro movement and a "return to African roots"
(Severens, 1998). Douglas had been commissioned to paint murals for a new
library at Fisk University. Harleston wrote to him and was
hired as his assistant for $300. He headed to Nashville, working a grueling schedule and
loving the work. He was learning to paint murals and spending his days
painting. Although Douglas had a very different painting style, the two men
developed a cordial relationship and Harleston painted a portrait of Douglas at
Fisk University. They completed the murals in
October of 1930. Harleston was painting again, and becoming more confident. He
received positive responses to his latest efforts in public speaking. He
decided to enter the Harmon competition again and submitted four paintings. In
February of 1931 he learned that he had won an award of $100 for a painting
entitled "The Old Servant." It was not first prize, but rather
the Locke portrait prize. He received little press coverage. But Harleston went
on the lecture circuit, speaking at black colleges about "The Building of
a Portrait" in the last few months of his life.
In the end, the man who was a loving and
loyal son may have died as a direct result of his own devotion. In April of
1931, Harleston's father died of pneumonia. It is said that Harleston leaned
over and kissed him on the lips after he died. He too, came down with
pneumonia. Deeply depressed, he may have had little resistance to the disease.
He succumbed on May 10, 1931. Ironically, he received the recognition he craved
only after his death. Harleston was praised widely. Alain Locke referred to him
as "a pioneer" for his art work (McDaniel, 1994). A number of
publications ran articles praising his work.
Today some of his work is held by museums in
his native Charleston.
The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston
owns five of Edwin Harleston's paintings, the most recent of which was
purchased in 1997. Archivist Scott Zetrouer described these works as "very
important to the collection" of the museum. One of his paintings is the
portrait of Aaron Douglas. At the time of this writing, only one of these
paintings, “The Honey Man,” was on display, in the first floor
hallway outside of the Renaissance Gallery. Another of his paintings, "The
Charleston Shrimp Man," is owned by the Old
Museum in Charleston.
Certainly Harleston was one of the few
professionally trained African-American portrait painters of his time. He had
better training than many of the white artists who refused to share space with
his work. But in terms of his art, he may have been a man in the wrong place at
the wrong time. In his own time, his art was out of touch in the era of the
"New Negro." Harleston was a realist, a man who wanted to do serious
paintings of African-Americans that would counter the stereotyping and
caricatures of white artists. He wanted to paint in the mainstream. In the
years after his death, his work was often ignored due to the focus on the less
representational modern art. Some saw his work as too "sentimental"
(McDaniel, 1994). Perhaps we have come full circle. Harleston's contributions
both within and outside the world of art, are now recognized.
After his death, Elise gave up her
photography work, moved west, and eventually remarried. The funeral business
continued to be a family enterprise. One of his nephews, Maithlun N. Fleming,
took over the funeral home, selling it when he retired. Known later as the
Harleston-Boags Funeral Home, it was entered on the MOJA Festival's list of
historic sites in 1996, a fitting tribute for the oldest black-owned business
during its 100th anniversary year.
Sadly, some of Harleston's work has been
lost to posterity. Some of his paintings were not stored properly and
deteriorated beyond repair. However, much remains of the work of the man who
was once known as a premier portrait painter of the 1920s, a man who only
wanted to paint.
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Harleston," in Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York:
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Shown by Harmon Awards," The Southern Workman 59 (March 1930), pp.
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Not Part of Boeg's Service." The Post and Courier (February 1,
1996), p. P1.
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Harleston, Portrait Painter 1882-1931 (Atlanta: Emory University, 1994).
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Emphasizes Themes of Race and Healing," The Post and Courier
(February 1, 1996), p. E15.
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black descendant," The Post and Courier (July 16, 1995), p. F2.
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of Blacks in South Carolina
from 1895 to 1968 (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press,
Reynolds, Gary A. and Beryl J. Wright. Against
the Odds: African-American Artists and the Harmon Foundation (Newark, N.J.:
Newark Museum, 1989).
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Severens, Martha R. The Charleston Renaissance (Spartanburg,
S.C.: Saraland Press, 1998).
Zetrouer, Scott. Telephone interview. June
this project was supported by a Faculty Exchange grant from the University of South Carolina.
Posted 8/03/1999; last updated 11/7/2006
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