Edwin Augustus Harleston



Photo used 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, attended Officers Candidates School 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, Virginia, Florida and Georgia. The first two NAACP chapters in South Carolina, Charleston and Columbia, 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 trained there.

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 speak.

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 University.

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" (McDaniel, 1994).

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 Slave Mart 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 in Charleston 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.

Carol Sears Botsch, U.S.C. Aiken

[email protected]


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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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Zetrouer, Scott. Telephone interview. June 29, 1999.

Research for this project was supported by a Faculty Exchange grant from the University of South Carolina.

Posted 8/03/1999; last updated 11/7/2006
The University of South Carolina-Aiken
e-mail [email protected]