The Johnson Collection tells story of Harmon Awards through pioneering Black artists

Here’s an art history question sure to stump even your art history degree holding friends: what were the Harmon Awards?

First, some background.

In the interlude between world wars, a confluence of societal changes spawned unprecedented opportunities for many African Americans. As the country lauded black soldiers’ valuable contributions to victory in World War I, a “great migration” of black Southerners to Northern cities imbued those capitals with a palpable sense of possibility. A renaissance of African American literature, music, and art bloomed in Harlem, quickly spreading to and energizing other urban centers. Despite this progress, significant barriers remained—particularly for African Americans seeking to advance their careers, both critically and commercially, in the field of fine art.

William E. Harmon and the Harmon Awards

During this period, several programs dedicated to supporting and promoting African American artists emerged. The largest and most effective of these was the William E. Harmon Awards for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes, an initiative that recognized excellence in eight fields of endeavor and became best known for its celebration of black visual artists.

This program takes center stage in the Johnson Collection’s first exhibition of 2021, Excellence & Emancipation: African American Artists and the Harmon Foundation, on view through March 6, 2021 at TJC Gallery in Spartanburg, SC.

Administered by the Harmon Foundation in cooperation with the Federal Council of Churches’ Commission on Race Relations, the awards were presented between 1926 and 1930; juried exhibitions of works by African Americans were subsequently mounted—and toured the nation—between 1928 and 1933. Writing for the NAACP’s influential journal “The Crisis in 1927,” the Harmon Awards’ superintendent, African American church leader Dr. George E.Haynes, likened the program to “a new emancipation . . . that will free the Negro from external restrictions and internal inhibitions, thus enabling him to realize himself in the highest achievement.

William H. Johnson, Boats in the Harbor, Kerteminde

”From the outset, the Harmon Awards’ founders described the undertaking as “experimental” and projected a five-year duration. Participation grew annually, as did the caliber of submitted artwork. In his essential 1943 treatise “Modern Negro Art,” artist/art historian James Porter concluded that the Harmon “exhibitions were among the greatest stimuli to the artists of the New Negro Movement. The yearly prize awards prompted intense competition, and as a result some found a fine creative vein.”

The Harmon Awards honorees

Honorees received cash premiums, and some participants were granted stipends to underwrite continued studies or travel abroad; in several instances, Harmon funds sustained artists on the brink of abandoning their practices for more pragmatic pursuits. In addition to introducing African American artists to the general public, these same artists became more aware of their peers’ aesthetic output. In their reach to over fifty cities from coast to coast, traveling exhibitions helped galvanize the establishment of art departments at historically black colleges and universities.

Through the hundreds of paintings, works on paper, and sculpture it spotlighted, the Harmon Foundation provided testimony to the genius of African American artists and to the truth that “black subject matter—the lives, activities, and portraits of African Americans—was a legitimate, valuable, and unique part of American life, worthy of artistic expression and the unique province of black artists.

Beauford Delaney, Abstraction No. 9

Who Was William E. Harmon?

How did a white Midwesterner with no prior experience in the visual arts create one of the nation’s most consequential fine arts initiatives of the early twentieth century? What led William Harmon to create such an influential program in support of African American achievement?

Born in Lebanon, Ohio, in 1862, biographical accounts note that young William was deaf from birth; whether the hearing loss was moderate or profound is difficult to determine. During the Civil War, William’s father had been a member of the Ohio infantry. At war’s end, he remained in the military and served as an officer in the Tenth Cavalry Regiment, a segregated unit of African American men who came to beknown as the “Buffalo Soldiers.” These troops patrolled the Western Territories, monitoring Native Americans, transportation routes, and livestock. Having taken a liking to the boy, soldiers in his father’s unit taught William to ride and hunt.

Harmon hoped to be a physician and enrolled in medical school. His father’s failing finances and subsequent early death destroyed that dream. After his return home, Harmon partnered with his uncle to form a real estate company. That modest concern eventually grew to become one of the most lucrative firms in the nation, due in large part its invention of residential subdivisions, which soon spread from the Midwest to major cities along the Eastern Seaboard. Another reason for the company’s success is attributed to its affordable financing plans, resulting in Harmon’s nickname as the “grandfather of installment buying.”

 Loïs Mailou Jones, Boats at Théoule

Observations of prejudice spur Harmon Awards

Living in New York City, Harmon was distressed by the prejudice and oppression African Americans experienced in segregated housing, education, and medical care, as well as the steep barriers to economic opportunity. A devout Christian, one of his earliest philanthropic efforts focused on the production of religious movies for use in worship services, as well as the building of playgrounds in black neighborhoods.

In 1922, Harmon consolidated his outreach through the establishment of a charitable foundation. In addition to the Distinguished Achievement awards and art exhibition program, the Harmon Foundation instigated or advanced an array of other causes including the College Art Association, the Boy Scouts of America, and the establishment of a pension fund for nurses.

William Harmon did not live to see his foundation’s full impact. Following his death in July 1928, his estate was valued at nearly five million dollars. That same month, the New York Times revealed Harmon as “Jedediah Tingle,” a popular but mysterious benefactor who contributed small and large sums to individuals and causes throughout the city.

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