For the longest time, Edwin Harleston’s old letters and figure studies, gouaches and sketchbooks were like paper gypsies traveling the country.
Not only did the collection move from city to city but from family member to family member, who tucked them away in boxes.
“It’s a wonder it has remained intact and in good condition, considering some of the letters date to Edwin’s days as a student at Atlanta University in 1900,” said his great-niece Mae Gentry.
And so in 2009 after moving from Atlanta to southern California, Gentry, a former staff writer and editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, began seriously thinking about where to place the collection she’d inherited from her mother.
She knew the Harleston papers were historically valuable. He was an eminent and early African American artist. He was a remarkable portraitist—his specialty—but he was also a businessman and political activist. In addition to documenting his career, the papers also provide important information about his wife, who was among the earliest African American women photographers.
But who could she count on to properly catalogue and preserve them? Who had the resources to ensure and promote Harleston’s legacy, to make the collection available to scholars?
Gentry’s answer was Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. The gypsies and Gentry could rest.
Randall Burkett, curator of MARBL’s African-American Collections, called the collection extraordinary and said, “We are enormously grateful to Mae Gentry for entrusting the collection to us.”
The Harleston papers, donated in November 2010, are the perfect compliment to the works of artists John Biggers, Camille Billops and Amalia Amaki already at MARBL, said Pellom McDaniels, curator and assistant professor of African-American studies at Emory.
The collection – 26 boxes – includes letters between Harleston and W.E.B. Dubois, his mentor and professor during his time at Atlanta University, and between the artist and his wife, Elise, he said. Other materials include sketch books with Harleston’s plans for murals, calendars that he contributed images to, financial records, marketing materials from his studio and brochures from shows he participated in.
“I get excited every time I come up here and look at the collection,” McDaniels said. “It is another piece to a larger puzzle related to how artists are in some ways the griots in their community and help shape our understanding of why it’s important to voice our concerns about social justice.”
The Harlestons, McDaniels said, opened their photography and portrait studio in Charleston in 1922, with Elise often taking photoraphs from which Edwin painted his portraits. At the same time, Edwin, who graduated in 1904 from Atlanta University and studied at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, worked in the family’s funeral home business to help support his family.
Instead of the mammy caricatures common during that time, Gentry said Harelston wanted to paint dignified portraits of African-Americans like those of whites he’d seen hanging above the mantels of rich white people.
Harleston died in 1931 at age 49 so except for the stories Gentry heard from her mother, Harlestons’s niece Edwina, Gentry never met her great-uncle.
She did get to know his widow, Elise, who lived in Los Angeles, where Gentry grew up, and owned many of her husband’s paintings. When Elise passed away in 1970, Gentry said the collection of letters, sketchbooks and other memorabilia she’d kept of her husband passed on to Edwina.
“Mama spent much of her lifetime sifting through her uncle’s letters and researching her family history in hopes of writing a book,” Gentry said. “Ultimately, at the age of 85, she collaborated with author Edward Ball, winner of the National Book Award for his first book, “Slaves in the Family.” She handed over the documents and provided firsthand recollections of her uncle and the rest of the Harleston family for Ball’s second book, “The Sweet Hell Inside.”
Edwina Whitlock died a year later in November 2002 but after the book was published in 2001, Gentry retrieved the papers from Ball and they remained with her for a decade until she decided to donate them to Emory.
Gentry also inherited Harleston’s paintings and hundreds of Elise’s historic photographs that document the African-American community in early 20th century Charleston, S.C.
“I’m cataloging the photographs and plan to publish some of them in a book about Elise and Edwin,” she said. “When I finish, I’m considering donating them to Emory. I think they belong with the rest of the Harleston family papers and would add to the richness of the collection.”