When wealthy real estate developer William Elmer Harmon founded the Harmon Foundation in 1922, it originally supported causes as varied as playgrounds, biblical films and nursing programs. But it is better known today as one of the first major supporters of African American creativity and ingenuity.
Harmon grew up in the Midwest, where his father was an officer in the 10th Cavalry regiment, a black unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Growing up among the soldiers likely had an impact on his attitudes toward blacks, and in particular, Harmon himself became interested in supporting them after meeting an artist who was unable to sell his paintings because of his race. The Harmon Foundation gained its now well-known focus in 1925 when it began presenting cash awards to blacks for distinguished achievements in eight fields: business, education, fine arts, literature, music, race relations, religious service, and science. Between 1928 and 1933, the Foundation was one of the first to give national recognition to the achievements of African Americans.
It is best known for its impact on African American art of the Harlem renaissance. Only a few years after the first awards were presented, the annual program was receiving such large numbers of high-quality art works that the Harmon Foundation began organizing a corresponding exhibition to provide an opportunity for the candidates to show and sell their work. These awards exhibitions gained even more national attention when they were toured to art museums, colleges, public libraries, and even YMCAs all around the country.
Among the many recipients of the awards were Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Laura Wheeler Waring, Sargent Johnson, and Walter White. Hale Woodruff and Palmer Hayden were the very first recipients of the William E. Harmon Foundation award for Distinguished Achievement among Negroes for fine arts.
The Foundation did face criticism for actually perpetuating racial segregation in its all-black exhibitions and for patriarchal practices, in particular, using mostly white juries. Artist Romare Bearden wrote a scathing opinion article in 1934 in which he accused the Foundation of coddling artists and lowering artistic standards. The Harmon Foundation did later shift its focus from the awards to different avenues of support for black artists. But during its existence, the purpose of the awards was to stimulate creative achievement among and to bring attention to the work being accomplished by African Americans, and it became almost synonymous with Negro visual art.
When the Foundation closed in the 1960s, it dispersed its considerable art collection among several institutions, including the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and brand new National Portrait Gallery. Those conducting research or just simply interested in the artists supported by the Harmon Foundation over the years have a great wealth of information available to them at the Smithsonian Institution. The AA/PG Library has many of the rare original exhibition catalogs from the 1920s prizes, numerous books on the Harmon Foundation and African American artists in general, as well as Art & Artist Files for the Foundation and many of the Harmon winners, in addition to archival material donated to the library when the Foundation closed.
Works consulted include:
Against the odds: African-American artists and the Harmon Foundation / / Gary A. Reynolds and Beryl J. Wright. Newark, N.J.: Newark Museum, 1989.
Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 1996.
Harmon Foundation Art & Artist File, Smithsonian American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery Library, Washington D.C.
Library of Congress Finding Aid for the “Harmon Foundation, inc., records, 1913-1967” collection