Teaching in Houston

Harper graduated from the AIC in 1901 with “second honors”.[1]  Following his graduation, Harper accepted a posting with the Houston public schools in Houston, Texas.  At this time, the schools in Houston were divided into white schools and “Colored Schools”.  As a foreshadowing of Harper’s arrival in Houston, the Superintendent of the Independent School District of Houston, W.W. Barnett, wrote in the Annual Report of the Superintendent regarding “The Colored Schools” for the year 1900-1901, that

“During the coming year I hope the Board will be able to secure the services of a thoroughly trained teacher of drawing and writing.”[2] 

On September 4, 1901, the Houston Daily Post announced the appointment of Harper as that drawing and writing instructor for the “Colored Schools”.  Harper was not the first AIC graduate to work for the Houston public schools.  When Harper arrived in Houston, he joined Blanche Williams who was already the “directress” for drawing in the white public schools.  Williams had graduated from the AIC the year before Harper, and she and Harper had shared classes at the AIC.[3]

The Houston City Directory for the years 1902-1903 listed Harper as “Harper, William (c), director of drawing and writing Houston (c) public school, bds 302 [?] Andrews”.[4]  The designation “(c)” depicted race, and “bds” presumably meaning Harper was a boarder at the referenced address.  Records are not available from the individual “Colored Schools” of those years, but it is probably safe to assume that Harper served as the drawing and writing instructor for all of such Houston schools. 

Harper must have impressed Superintendent Barnett because he took the time after Harper’s first year of teaching to write to the Director of the AIC, W.M.R. French, praising Harper’s work.[5]  Barnett’s letter has not survived, but on August 28, 1902, French wrote to Harper,

“I have received a letter from Prof. Barnett expressing his satisfaction with your work.  I am highly pleased to hear of your success.  It was, however, a matter of course with your attainments and habits.  I think you are in a way of doing a great deal of good both professionally and socially.  We hope you may some day pay us a visit.” 

French then went on to discuss the latest happenings at the Institute.  Given the number of students who passed through the Institute, a letter of this nature from the Director is an impressive indication of the esteem with which Harper was held by the Institute.

Harper taught in the Houston public school system for two years.  Although certainly engaged with classes, Harper was nevertheless artistically busy during that time period.  In early 1902, he had three paintings accepted in the annual juried Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, an exhibition jointly managed by the AIC and the Municipal Art League of Chicago.  The catalogue listing was as follows:

“Harper, William A. – Care Wm. Wendt, 224 East Ontario Street, Chicago

93.  The lake in the hills

94.  The green of summer

95.  First sign of autumn”

It is interesting to note that in the catalogue for the 1902 exhibition, Harper’s address for the purposes of the exhibition is listed as that of one of his mentors, William Wendt.  269 paintings from a submission of 629 were selected by the jury for the exhibition.  Charles Francis Browne and William Wendt also had paintings accepted for the exhibition.

An article in the Brush and Pencil, Vol. 9, No. 6 (March 1902), an international art magazine published in Chicago, reproduced Harper’s painting entitled “First Show [Sign] of Autumn”, another rare honor for a young painter. The magazine reviewed the exhibition and noted that:

“Warm praise should be awarded… to William A. Harper for his ‘First Sign of Autumn’ and ‘The Lake in the Hills’, both of which are pleasing landscapes, replete with sentiment….”[6] 

In early 1903, Harper again had two paintings granted entrance to the annual Chicago exhibition.  The catalogue listing was as follows:

            “Harper, William A. – 817 San Felipe Street, Houston, Texas

            90.  Eucalyptus                       $100

            91.  The old mulberry             $100″

239 paintings from a submission of 679 were selected by the jury for the exhibition.  Charles Frances Browne and Worthington E. Haggerman had paintings accepted by the jury.  Haggerman would in 1903 study at the Academie Julian in Paris with Harper.  The catalogue for that exhibition noted that William Wendt had been elected as a member of the jury, but was unable to serve as he was out of the country.  He was in fact painting in Cornwall where Harper would join him in in the summer of 1903.

Lorado Taft, an instructor at the AIC and one of the founders of the Eagle’s Nest, stayed in touch with Harper during his time in Houston, and was invited to lecture in Houston by the Houston Art League in October of 1902.[7]  Twenty-five years later Taft would provide a poignant account of his visit to Houston in a letter to the Chicago Tribune:

“Will Harper was in his time the pride of the Art Institute.  This earnest student, who was obliged to work his way through the school, continually surprised us by the large simplicity of his compositions and the somber richness of his coloring.  Mr. Harper became a superintendent of drawing in the public schools of an important city of the south.  Never shall I forget an evening when I found myself lecturing there.  The great hall was filled below with the beauty and chivalry of the place, while in the dimness of the gallery sat one lone, dark figure – my friend Harper.  The colored teachers had obtained permission to attend, but through some misunderstanding were represented by him alone.  It was a strange feeling that this social exile was perhaps the only one in my audience who completely understood what I was trying to say.”[8]

No further information is available about Harper’s time in Houston.  It is unclear whether he spent the summer between the 1901 and 1902 school years in Houston, but given the oppressive heat of the Houston summers before the advent of air conditioning, it is more than likely that he either joined his father and brother in Decatur, Illinois, or joined Lorado Taft to work again at the Eagle’s Nest.  After the end of the 1902-1903 school year, Harper left Houston for Europe – the ultimate destination for all aspiring artist of the time.


[1] Obituary, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, July 1910, p. 11

[2]Annual Report of the Public Schools of the Independent School District of Houston 1900-1901., p. 51

[3] Ibid, p. 35

[4] Houston City Directory 1902 – 03, p. 118.

[5] Letter from W.M.R. French to Wm. Harper dated August 28, 1902, advising of the favorable report.

[6] “Works of Chicago Artists” by Arthur Anderson Merritt in Brush and Pencil, Vol. 9, No 6 (March 1902), pp 336-346.

[7] Report on meeting of the advisory board of the City Federation, Houston Post, May 18, 1902, p. 33.

[8] Letter from Lorado Taft entitled “The Work of Negro Artists”, Chicago Tribune, November 17, 1927, p. 10.