Elise Forrest Harleston
Photo used with permission of Mae Whitlock Gentry
the fall of 1919, on the eve of the Harlem Renaissance, a young woman traveled
alone by train from
“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.
Forrest Harleston enjoys the distinction of being
Harleston was not only “one of the most popular and influential black painters
of his day,”
he also was involved in the
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
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
Beatrice Forrest was born in
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
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,  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.”
left home for a time, perhaps thinking her absence would provoke a
commitment. She worked as a teacher in
the fall of 1916, a dejected Edwin left home to study embalming in
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
the spring of 1919, he traveled to
did intend to follow through with their plans, and that autumn, Elise boarded a
Elise was still living at the Forrest home at
“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.
the time she left for
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 …”
couple began discussing their impending nuptials in letters between
settled on a September wedding in
“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.”
couple was married in the parsonage of Nazarene Congregational Church in
“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!”
newlyweds spent the rest of their honeymoon at the home of Edwin’s friends in
the early days of their marriage, Elise and Edwin lived in a third-floor
apartment above the Harleston Funeral Home at
had extremely high standards, and he thought the training Elise had gotten in
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.”
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
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. 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.
the summers of 1924 and 1925, Edwin took landscape painting courses at
her husband was in
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
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,
word of “
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.”
spring of 1930 found Edwin in
letter to Edwin thanking him for his help,
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Ball, Edward. The
Sweet Hell Inside (
Correspondence of Edwin and Elise Harleston.
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 (
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 (
Rosenblum, Naomi. A History of Women Photographers (
Severens, Martha R. The
Teal, Harvey S. Partners With the Sun:
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).
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
 Art historian David Driskell, catalog for the exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art.”
She was included in the 1996 “A History of Women Photographers” traveling
exhibition and catalog and the 1993 show “Conflict and Transcendence: African-American
 Forrest family Bible
Avery became a public school in 1947 and closed in 1954. It later reopened as
 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.
 Emile Brunel was a German photographer, sculptor and filmmaker. His photography school was near the corner of 32nd and Broadway.
Elzy was executive secretary of the Urban League’s
was the former pastor of First Congregational Church, which Edwin had attended
while a student in
 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.
 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
Battey, known as “the dean of black photographers,” also trained P.H. Polk at
 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.
 Edwin’s winning entry, “A Colored Grand Army Man,” was based on Elise’s photo of Grand Army of the Republic veteran Smart Chisholm.
 Bennett was a founding member of the all-white Charleston Etchers’ Club.
 Peterkin, a white Southerner who wrote about blacks, won the Pulitzer prize for “Scarlet Sister Mary” in 1929.
 The writer, Baha’i leader Louis G. Gregory, was referring to theologian Emanuel Swedenborg.