Family History

Last updated July 13, 2020

Family Story

On Monday, February 7, 1876, Charity (Street) Harper died in the county of Halimand, North Cayuga, Ontario, Canada, at the age of 28 years, 10 months, 25 days of childbirth fever.[1]  She left behind her husband, John Harper, and 4 young children:  Frances age 7, John age 4, William age 2, and infant George.  By 1881, the four children were living with Charity’s mother, Lucy Street.[2]  The Canadian census for that year makes no mention of the children’s father.  This young family could easily have disappeared into the dustbin of history, particularly since the family was “colored”.  Fortunately, that was not the case.  And this is William’s story.

Canfield, Halimand County, Ontario

According to Wikipedia, the county of Halimand, Ontario, was opened for general settlement in 1832.  The land comprising Halimand County was surrendered by the Six Nations to the English Crown in an agreement that was signed in 1844.  Cayuga was incorporated in 1859, and became the county seat for Haldimand County.  William’s maternal and paternal grandparents were among the early settlers in the village of Canfield near Cayuga in Halimand County.[3]  Canfield was originally known as “Azoff”, having been named after a town in Russia.  The town was later renamed Canfield after Mr. Canfield who was a carpenter and the first post master in the village.[4]  In 1851 the census records for Cayuga (which would have included the area of Canfield) show less than 140 black residents.  The path of the Underground Railroad ran deep into Ontario, and is likely that some of William’s grandparents were “baggage”[5] on the Underground Railroad (the code word for fugitive slaves carried by the Underground Railroad).  Of the American slaves that escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad the largest group settled in Ontario.[6]  Canfield was a wilderness area that, in the early part of the nineteenth century, provided the gift of obscurity for those who needed it.

William’s Parents [Attach census records]

William A. Harper was born in or near Canfield, on December 27, 1873[7], to Charity (Street) Harper (1847 – 1876)[8] and John Harper (abt. 1847 – 1921[9]).  Both of William’s parents were born in Canada[10].  The map of “North Cayuga Township, Azoff Village From Halimand County 1879, published by H.R. Page and Co. in 1879” shows that the Street and Harper properties, where each his mother and father would have grown up, were located just outside of Canfield, and were separated by a single neighbor. [Attach map]  William’s father is listed in the 1871 census as a farmer.[11]  In 1871, William had three siblings, Frances (abt. 1869 – ?), John Wesley (1871-1914), and George (abt. 1874 – ?).[12]  Charity died when William was just over 2 years old of childbirth fever.  Childbirth fever, also known as childbed fever or puerperal fever was commonplace in the 1800’s.  There is no information regarding the fifth unnamed infant who must have died at birth or shortly thereafter with Charity.

John re-married a year and a half later.  The record of Ontario, Canada, Marriages, shows that on October 4, 1877, John married Maria Laron in the County of Norfolk, Town of Simcoe.[13]  Maria was 21, and John was 30.  John’s parents are listed as John Harper and “Onner Harper’, one of many spellings of his mother’s name.  See discussion below.

Although John re-married, he apparently did not have the care of his young children.  In the 1881 Canadian census, 8 year old William is listed with his three siblings as living with his maternal grandmother, Lucy Street, and several of her children.  Lucy is listed as a widow.  William’s father does not appear on the 1881 census, and his location at that time is unclear.  Given that William and his brother John joined his father some years later in Illinois, it is possible that he may have already immigrated to the U.S.

What happened to William’s older sister and younger brother, Frances and George, is unknown. They have not been found in the subsequent Canadian census in Cayuga, nor are they listed in available death records for Cayuga.  Similarly, no mention of either has been found in any census survey in Illinois, where their father and brothers migrated.   Moreover, neither are mentioned in any article about William, nor are they listed in his obituary, William’s father and brother John being noted as his only surviving relatives.  A possible reference to George is found in the Decatur, Illinois city directory of 1893, the year of John’s marriage in Decatur, which records a “Harper George (col’d), lab 467 W. Main”.  Additional research is needed to determine whether this is in fact brother George.  Similarly, a possible reference to Frances may be contained in an article entitled “Praise Work of Negro Artist from Decatur” in the Decatur Daily Review, dated November 25, 1927, which references Harper’s “sister” who worked as a maid for the mother of A. F. Wilson (Mrs. Harry Haines, formerly Mary Judy Wilson) in Decatur.  Given that neither census records nor newspaper articles of the time from Decatur mention a Frances Harper, and given certain other inaccuracies relative to Harper in the article, it may be that the maid discussed was in fact Harper’s sister-in-law Eliza.  Again, additional research is required to determine the identity of this “sister”.  [Continue research.]

William’s Maternal Grandparents [Attach Street Escape Account, Street Family Record, and property map]

Charity (Street) Harper’s parents were Lucy (Canada) Street (1814 – ?) and Stepney (also Stephana, Stephen) Street (1808 – 1879).[14]  They were married May 4, 1833, shortly after arriving in Canada.[15]  A written account survives, believed to have been given by Henrietta Street, the eldest daughter of Lucy and Stepney, describing her parents’ early lives in West Virginia and their escape to Canada.[16]  A copy of that account can be found in theHaldimand County Museum Archive, Edinburgh Square Heritage & Cultural Centre.  According to that account, Lucy was born in Parkers Burgh, West Virginia, and was owned by a family named “Beckweth”.  Regarding the Beckweth family, Henrietta stated:

“Mother often said that they were not treated like slaves, but she could not bear the thought of not belonging to herself, especially, we Three Children.  Our names were, as follows:  Henrietta Street, Ellen Elizabeth, and Andrew Clark…The lady was Miss. Jane Beckweth, Miss Mary and Mandy and Penelophy Beckweth and Two sons, Barnes and Albert, they were all very kind, but that did not suffice.” 

Lucy’s parents are listed as Arion Keneday and Milla Canada.  [More information?]

Stepney belonged to another individual, and lived about seven miles away from Lucy.  According to the account,

“His Master was about to sell him when he ran away, travelling under the name of Frank Hammond, fought his way out of the hands of the oppressor and fled to the Land of Freedom, landing in Canada, at Windsor.  Father left his Master’s about six weeks before Mother and three children followed him, her two Brothers and a fellow servant named Nero Bansom, he being so white in complexion that he could venture out to the near houses to seek aid while we lay in a hiding place while he found friends until we arrived in Astibula.” 

In Astibula[17] they boarded a schooner, landing in Point Abino, Canada.  Point Abino is located just west of Buffalo, N.Y.

According to Henrietta, they:

“settled in the neighbourhood of Bertie, then Mother advertised for Father and he came at once.  In a short time, the family moved to a farm near St. Catherines owned by one Peter Smith.  There they were converted and baptized by Elder Christian of Toronto and became members of the Zion Church in St. Catherines, so in time they moved to Grand River with the intention of making a home there, and there they found the same God that had brought them from the land of boundage and in that humble cabin they erected an altar to the Almighty God to whom they served with Four others, John Taylor, Rosana Allan, Robert Bailey and Kisie Allan.  Then at the age of Nineteen, Mother and Father were married, he was Twenty-six years old.” 

By 1851, Lucy and Stepney were living in the Township of North Cayuga with their nine children:  Henrietta, Ellen, Andrew, Eliza, George, William, Charity (William’s mother), Emelia, and David.  The 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia reports Stepney as a farmer, shows the family as Baptist, and notes their dwelling as a one story log cabin. They are marked as “Colored persons – Negroes” [18].  According to an article in the Hamilton Spectator[19], Lucy and Stepney were among the first black settlers in Cayuga.  Stepney and Lucy went on to have three more children Martha, Josephine, and Sarah (who died at birth), for a total of thirteen.[20]

Charity’s family seems to have been a family of some standing.  According to the 1861 Agricultural Census of Canada, Charity’s father, Stephey Street, owned 141 acres of land of which 35 acres were under crops, 5 acres were under pasture, and one acre was under “orchard or garden”.  The balance was “under wood or wild”.[21]  The value of the total acreage was placed at $3000, not an inconsequential amount at that time.  This property is located just outside (southwest) of Canfield, and is listed on the map of “North Cayuga Township, Azoff Village From Halimand County 1879, published by H.R. Page and Co. in 1879” with the name “Stepheney Street”.

Stepney last appears in the 1871 Canadian Census.  By the 1881 Canadian Census, Lucy is listed as a widow.

Religion played an important role in the Street lives.  The Streets held church services initially in their log cabin, but by 1857 Stepney and Lucy had donated land for the construction of a log chapel to serve specifically as the church.  The church became part of the Niagara Baptist Association, and welcomed non-blacks into the congregation.  The Streets later donated land for a brick and mortar church to replace the log chapel which opened in 1882. [22]  Stepney died before the building was completed, but Lucy was present for the opening.  Cemetery plots for Lucy and Stepney and other Street family members can be found at the site of the old church, which is now a private residence.[23]  Given that William and his siblings were living with Lucy in 1881, it may well be that he was present for the opening of this church which formed such an integral part of his grandparents’ lives.

[Information on Charity’s siblings?  See marriages on Street Family Record.]

William’s Paternal Grandparents

Searching the Canadian records in Cayuga, the only John Harper of the approximate right age to be William’s father appears in the 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.  That census shows a “John Harper”, age 6, which would mean a birth date of approximately 1845.  It is probably reasonable to assume that this John is William’s father allowing for the discrepancies in reporting created by birthdays falling early in the year vs. late in the year as relates to the timing of any given census.  

John’s father (William’s grandfather) had the same name, and is listed in that 1851 census as John Harper. age 45 (abt.1806 – ?).  That census record notes that he was born in the U.S.  (To avoid confusion, John’s father is hereinafter referred to as “Grandpa John”).  John’s siblings are listed as:  James age 10, Anne D. age 4, and Henry A. age 2, all born in Canada.  Grandpa John and the four children are marked in the 1851 census as “Colored persons – Negroes”.  John’s mother, however, was not so marked.  She is listed as Honour, age 34, and born in England (abt. 1817).  In other words, she was most likely white.[24]  Given the birth year of their eldest child James (about 1841), Grandpa John and Honour were together in Canada at least by 1841.  The family religion is listed as “Methodist African E”, and their home is noted as a one-story log cabin.[25]  John and Honour would have two more children, Zach (or Zachariah) and Owen, for a total of 6 children.

[Information on how each Honour and John got to Canada?]

By the time of the 1861 Census of Canada, Grandpa John is listed as a 58 year old widower.  The census lists the following children living with Grandpa John:  Henry age 9, Zach age 7, and Owen age 3.  Owen’s age means that Honour died sometime after 1858 when Owen was born, but before 1861.  John, who would have been 14 of 15 at the time, does not appear in that census.

James, John’s older brother, likewise does not appear in the 1861 census, but a marriage record exists recording his marriage on December 1863, to Hannah L. Smith.[26]  His parents are listed as “John Harper” and “Hannah Clothyer”. This is the first appearance of Honour’s maiden name in the records.  Honour’s name is alternatively written in Canadian records related to the family as “Onner”[27], “Honor”[28], “Hannah Clothyer”[29], “Honor Clothier” [30], and “Hannah Harper”[31]  James would go on to serve as a private for the Union in the U.S. Civil War (see section regarding James below).

The 1861 Agricultural Census for Grandpa John indicates that he owned 100 acres, of which 22 were “under crops”, 8 were “under pasture”, and 70 were “under wood or wild”.  The value of the total acreage was placed at $1,000.[32]  This property is located just outside (southwest) of Canfield, and is listed on the map of “North Cayuga Township, Azoff Village From Halimand County 1879, published by H.R. Page and Co. in 1879” with the name “J. Harper”.  Grandpa John does not appear in the 1871 census.

As if the spelling differences in Honour’s name were not confusing enough, a U.S. Census was taken in Decatur, Illinois in 1920 during the last year of John Harper’s (William’s father) life which introduces a question as to Honour’s place of birth.  That census lists John’s parents as having both been born in Maryland[33].  This may have been correct as to Grandpa John (although no corroborative evidence has been found), but the 1851 Canadian census and at least one subsequent marriage record lists Honour’s place of birth as England.  There is no indication from whom the information in the 1920 census was obtained, but it must have been either from John or his daughter-in-law, Eliza Harper[34], who also lived in Decatur at that time.

Other Family Members – William’s Uncle:  James Nelson Harper [Attach military records]

On March 9, 1865, at the age of 24, William’s uncle James Harper enlisted in the 38th U.S. Colored Infantry as a substitute for George Cummings of Rochester, N.Y, who had been previously drafted.  During the Civil War a draftee who was sufficiently wealthy and could find a willing volunteer could pay that volunteer to enlist in his place. Two legal documents accomplished that substitution:  1) a Declaration of Substitute, and 2) a Substitute Volunteer Enlistment[35]

In the Declaration of Substitute, James is described as a laborer from Haldimand, Canada, having blue eyes, dark hair, dark complexion, and being 5’ 8” tall.  The Substitute Volunteer Enlistment is signed by James, and details his obligations.  James signed on as a private for three years “unless sooner discharged by proper authority”.  He agreed to accept “such bounty, pay, rations, and clothing as are, or may be, established by law for soldiers.”  The Company Muster Roll for March and April 1865 shows under Remarks:  “Recruit amount on check book $662.49 Substitute”, which must have been the amount that Cummings paid James to take his place in the service.  The salary for a Union private was $13.00 per month, for in June of 1864, Congress had granted equal pay to the U.S. Colored troops.[36]  James first posting was in Virginia, where he was “rec’d from Depot” in Varina, Virginia on March 17, 1865

The 38th was organized in Virginia in 1864, and served in Virginia and North Carolina. On April 3, 1865, the 38th occupied Richmond, and continued there through the end of the war and into May.  It is not clear whether James saw any combat since the war officially ended on April 1, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.  At the end of May 1865, the 38th moved to Texas, where it would stay for the balance of its time of service  The unit saw duty in Brownsville and at various points on the Rio Grande, and in Brazos Santiago, Indianola and Galveston.[37].  [From internet – need to cite?]

While in Texas, James would have been witness to an historic Texas event.  When the Civil War ended, General Gordon Granger was given command of the District of Texas.[38]  On June 19, 1865, shortly after the arrival of the 38th in Texas, Granger issued five general orders in Galveston establishing his authority over the state of Texas, including General Order No. 3 which began with[39]:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.  This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

A year later, in 1866, Juneteenth, the celebration of the day that news of the emancipation proclamation (which was actually effective January 1, 1873) was announced in Texas, was celebrated for the first time.[40]

James served just one year in the military.  The Company Muster Roll for the 38th states that James was discharged “by reason of expiration of term of service” on March 8, 1866.  His “Individual Muster-out Roll” states that his muster-out date was March 9, 1986 in Brazos Santiago, Texas, and that he was due U.S. $8.03.  Under “Remarks” it states, “Joined Co. as recruit March 15 1865, served as private to discharge.  He retains his knapsack, haversack, canteen and Gt. Coat.”  Transportation and sustenance were furnished to Galveston, Texas. 

[Insert family tree.]


[1] Ontario, Canada, Deaths and Deaths Overseas, 1869-1947

[2] 1881 Census of Canada

[3] The Blacks of Haldimand County, Young Canada Works, 2005 Summer Research Project for Edinburgh Square Heritage and Cultural Centre, by Tracy Vandervliet Heritage Assistant, Oral Historian, publication of the Halimand Museums.

[4] Courtesy of Sylvia Weaver, Canfield researcher.

[5] Term for fugitive slaves carried the Underground Railroad workers.  “Harriet Tubman Historical Society” – http://www.harriet-tubman.org/underground-railroad-secret-codes/

[6] The Wikipedia description of Cayuga (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cayuga,_Ontario) states:  “One of the termini for the Underground Railway was St. Catharines, Ontario, which is about 45 minutes northeast of Cayuga.  Harriet Tubman‘s nephew Lorne Barnes was the barber in Cayuga and was held out to the still-enslaved as an example of the success to be found by escaping to Canada.”

[7] Obituary of William A. Harper, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago (1907-1951), Vol. 4, No. 1 (July 1910), p. 11.

[8] Dates from death record.  See footnote No. 1 above.

[9] 1871 Census of Canada put John’s birth about 1850.  The 1910 US Federal Census listed his birthday as 1847.  The date of death is from the Decatur, Illinois newspapers.

[10] 1871 Census of Canada.

[11] 1871 Census of Canada.

[12] 1881 Census of Canada

[13] Ontario, Canada, Marriages 1826 – 1938, https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7921/ONMS932_24-1194/2684121?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/162479921/person/172118536721/facts.  Simcoe was located about 40 miles west of Canfield.

[14] 1861 Census of Canada; Street Family Record from Betty Browne.

[15] Street Escape Account, on file with Haldimand County Museum Archive, Edinburgh Square Heritage & Cultural Centre.  Street Family Record, from Betty Browne.

[16] Existence of document courtesy of Sylvia Weaver, Canfield researcher.

[17] There is a town on Lake Erie called “Ashtibula” which may be the name intended. 

[18] 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia

[19] Hamilton Spectator, “Tiny hamlet unveils rich history of welcoming runaway slaves in the 1800s”, by Carmela Fragomeni, September 22, 2017.

[20] 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia; 1861 Census of Canada, 1871 Census of Canada; op. cit., Street Family Record.

[21] 1861 Agricultural Census for Enumeration District No.1, of the Township of North Cayuga

[22] African Hope Renewed:  Along the Grand River, by Angela E.M. Files, Brantford, ON:  Taylor Made, 2004.

[23]Ibid.  The Blacks of Halimand County, op. cit.

[24] The later 1920 US Federal Census, however lists John’s parents as having both been born in Maryland.  See discussion below.

[25] This Methodist connection may be the reason one of John’s sons (and William’s brother) was named John Wesley.

[26] Ontario, Canada, Country Marriage Registers, 1858-1869 for James Nelson Harper, December 19, 1863.

[27] Ontario, Canada, Marriages 1826 – 1938.

[28] Ontario, Canada County Marriage Registers, 1858-1869 for Ann D. Harper, June 5, 1866.

[29] Ontario, Canada, Country Marriage Registers, 1858-1869 for James Nelson Harper, December 19, 1863.

[30] Ontario, Canada County Marriage Registers, 1858-1869 for Ann D. Harper, June 5, 1866.  Also Province of Ontario Certificate of Registration of Death lf Ann Delilah (Harper) Williams dated April 2, 1934.

[31] Marriage Record of October 8, 1874 for Zachariah Harper lists his parents as John and Hannah Harper.  Ontario, Canada, Marriages, 1826-1937.

[32] 1861 Agricultural Census for Enumeration District No.3, of the Township of North Cayuga.

[33] 1920 US Census

[34] John was predeceased by both of his sons, John (1914) and William (1910).

[35] The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops: Infantry Organizations, 36th through 40th.U.S., Colored Troops Military Service Records, 1863-1865; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[36] “Black Soldiers in the Civil War”, National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/blacks-civil-war/equal-pay.html

[37] http://lestweforget.hamptonu.edu/page.cfm?uuid=9FEC3DB3-D102-3E59-BF307294B0AF60A0.

[38] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Granger

[39] https://www.britannica.com/story/juneteenth-celebrating-the-end-of-slavery

[40] “Let Freedom Ring”, Texas Highways, Michael Hurd, June 2020, p. 54. 

Family Story

Last updated July 13, 2020

Family Story

On Monday, February 7, 1876, Charity (Street) Harper died in the county of Halimand, North Cayuga, Ontario, Canada, at the age of 28 years, 10 months, 25 days of childbirth fever.[1]  She left behind her husband, John Harper, and 4 young children:  Frances age 7, John age 4, William age 2, and infant George.  By 1881, the four children were living with Charity’s mother, Lucy Street.[2]  The Canadian census for that year makes no mention of the children’s father.  This young family could easily have disappeared into the dustbin of history, particularly since the family was “colored”.  Fortunately, that was not the case.  And this is William’s story.

Canfield, Halimand County, Ontario

According to Wikipedia, the county of Halimand, Ontario, was opened for general settlement in 1832.  The land comprising Halimand County was surrendered by the Six Nations to the English Crown in an agreement that was signed in 1844.  Cayuga was incorporated in 1859, and became the county seat for Haldimand County.  William’s maternal and paternal grandparents were among the early settlers in the village of Canfield near Cayuga in Halimand County.[3]  Canfield was originally known as “Azoff”, having been named after a town in Russia.  The town was later renamed Canfield after Mr. Canfield who was a carpenter and the first post master in the village.[4]  In 1851 the census records for Cayuga (which would have included the area of Canfield) show less than 140 black residents.  The path of the Underground Railroad ran deep into Ontario, and is likely that some of William’s grandparents were “baggage”[5] on the Underground Railroad (the code word for fugitive slaves carried by the Underground Railroad).  Of the American slaves that escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad the largest group settled in Ontario.[6]  Canfield was a wilderness area that, in the early part of the nineteenth century, provided the gift of obscurity for those who needed it.

William’s Parents [Attach census records]

William A. Harper was born in or near Canfield, on December 27, 1873[7], to Charity (Street) Harper (1847 – 1876)[8] and John Harper (abt. 1847 – 1921[9]).  Both of William’s parents were born in Canada[10].  The map of “North Cayuga Township, Azoff Village From Halimand County 1879, published by H.R. Page and Co. in 1879” shows that the Street and Harper properties, where each his mother and father would have grown up, were located just outside of Canfield, and were separated by a single neighbor. [Attach map]  William’s father is listed in the 1871 census as a farmer.[11]  In 1871, William had three siblings, Frances (abt. 1869 – ?), John Wesley (1871-1914), and George (abt. 1874 – ?).[12]  Charity died when William was just over 2 years old of childbirth fever.  Childbirth fever, also known as childbed fever or puerperal fever was commonplace in the 1800’s.  There is no information regarding the fifth unnamed infant who must have died at birth or shortly thereafter with Charity.

John re-married a year and a half later.  The record of Ontario, Canada, Marriages, shows that on October 4, 1877, John married Maria Laron in the County of Norfolk, Town of Simcoe.[13]  Maria was 21, and John was 30.  John’s parents are listed as John Harper and “Onner Harper’, one of many spellings of his mother’s name.  See discussion below.

Although John re-married, he apparently did not have the care of his young children.  In the 1881 Canadian census, 8 year old William is listed with his three siblings as living with his maternal grandmother, Lucy Street, and several of her children.  Lucy is listed as a widow.  William’s father does not appear on the 1881 census, and his location at that time is unclear.  Given that William and his brother John joined his father some years later in Illinois, it is possible that he may have already immigrated to the U.S.

What happened to William’s older sister and younger brother, Frances and George, is unknown. They have not been found in the subsequent Canadian census in Cayuga, nor are they listed in available death records for Cayuga.  Similarly, no mention of either has been found in any census survey in Illinois, where their father and brothers migrated.   Moreover, neither are mentioned in any article about William, nor are they listed in his obituary, William’s father and brother John being noted as his only surviving relatives.  A possible reference to George is found in the Decatur, Illinois city directory of 1893, the year of John’s marriage in Decatur, which records a “Harper George (col’d), lab 467 W. Main”.  Additional research is needed to determine whether this is in fact brother George.  Similarly, a possible reference to Frances may be contained in an article entitled “Praise Work of Negro Artist from Decatur” in the Decatur Daily Review, dated November 25, 1927, which references Harper’s “sister” who worked as a maid for the mother of A. F. Wilson (Mrs. Harry Haines, formerly Mary Judy Wilson) in Decatur.  Given that neither census records nor newspaper articles of the time from Decatur mention a Frances Harper, and given certain other inaccuracies relative to Harper in the article, it may be that the maid discussed was in fact Harper’s sister-in-law Eliza.  Again, additional research is required to determine the identity of this “sister”.  [Continue research.]

William’s Maternal Grandparents [Attach Street Escape Account, Street Family Record, and property map]

Charity (Street) Harper’s parents were Lucy (Canada) Street (1814 – ?) and Stepney (also Stephana, Stephen) Street (1808 – 1879).[14]  They were married May 4, 1833, shortly after arriving in Canada.[15]  A written account survives, believed to have been given by Henrietta Street, the eldest daughter of Lucy and Stepney, describing her parents’ early lives in West Virginia and their escape to Canada.[16]  A copy of that account can be found in theHaldimand County Museum Archive, Edinburgh Square Heritage & Cultural Centre.  According to that account, Lucy was born in Parkers Burgh, West Virginia, and was owned by a family named “Beckweth”.  Regarding the Beckweth family, Henrietta stated:

“Mother often said that they were not treated like slaves, but she could not bear the thought of not belonging to herself, especially, we Three Children.  Our names were, as follows:  Henrietta Street, Ellen Elizabeth, and Andrew Clark…The lady was Miss. Jane Beckweth, Miss Mary and Mandy and Penelophy Beckweth and Two sons, Barnes and Albert, they were all very kind, but that did not suffice.” 

Lucy’s parents are listed as Arion Keneday and Milla Canada.  [More information?]

Stepney belonged to another individual, and lived about seven miles away from Lucy.  According to the account,

“His Master was about to sell him when he ran away, travelling under the name of Frank Hammond, fought his way out of the hands of the oppressor and fled to the Land of Freedom, landing in Canada, at Windsor.  Father left his Master’s about six weeks before Mother and three children followed him, her two Brothers and a fellow servant named Nero Bansom, he being so white in complexion that he could venture out to the near houses to seek aid while we lay in a hiding place while he found friends until we arrived in Astibula.” 

In Astibula[17] they boarded a schooner, landing in Point Abino, Canada.  Point Abino is located just west of Buffalo, N.Y.

According to Henrietta, they:

“settled in the neighbourhood of Bertie, then Mother advertised for Father and he came at once.  In a short time, the family moved to a farm near St. Catherines owned by one Peter Smith.  There they were converted and baptized by Elder Christian of Toronto and became members of the Zion Church in St. Catherines, so in time they moved to Grand River with the intention of making a home there, and there they found the same God that had brought them from the land of boundage and in that humble cabin they erected an altar to the Almighty God to whom they served with Four others, John Taylor, Rosana Allan, Robert Bailey and Kisie Allan.  Then at the age of Nineteen, Mother and Father were married, he was Twenty-six years old.” 

By 1851, Lucy and Stepney were living in the Township of North Cayuga with their nine children:  Henrietta, Ellen, Andrew, Eliza, George, William, Charity (William’s mother), Emelia, and David.  The 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia reports Stepney as a farmer, shows the family as Baptist, and notes their dwelling as a one story log cabin. They are marked as “Colored persons – Negroes” [18].  According to an article in the Hamilton Spectator[19], Lucy and Stepney were among the first black settlers in Cayuga.  Stepney and Lucy went on to have three more children Martha, Josephine, and Sarah (who died at birth), for a total of thirteen.[20]

Charity’s family seems to have been a family of some standing.  According to the 1861 Agricultural Census of Canada, Charity’s father, Stephey Street, owned 141 acres of land of which 35 acres were under crops, 5 acres were under pasture, and one acre was under “orchard or garden”.  The balance was “under wood or wild”.[21]  The value of the total acreage was placed at $3000, not an inconsequential amount at that time.  This property is located just outside (southwest) of Canfield, and is listed on the map of “North Cayuga Township, Azoff Village From Halimand County 1879, published by H.R. Page and Co. in 1879” with the name “Stepheney Street”.

Stepney last appears in the 1871 Canadian Census.  By the 1881 Canadian Census, Lucy is listed as a widow.

Religion played an important role in the Street lives.  The Streets held church services initially in their log cabin, but by 1857 Stepney and Lucy had donated land for the construction of a log chapel to serve specifically as the church.  The church became part of the Niagara Baptist Association, and welcomed non-blacks into the congregation.  The Streets later donated land for a brick and mortar church to replace the log chapel which opened in 1882. [22]  Stepney died before the building was completed, but Lucy was present for the opening.  Cemetery plots for Lucy and Stepney and other Street family members can be found at the site of the old church, which is now a private residence.[23]  Given that William and his siblings were living with Lucy in 1881, it may well be that he was present for the opening of this church which formed such an integral part of his grandparents’ lives.

[Information on Charity’s siblings?  See marriages on Street Family Record.]

William’s Paternal Grandparents

Searching the Canadian records in Cayuga, the only John Harper of the approximate right age to be William’s father appears in the 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.  That census shows a “John Harper”, age 6, which would mean a birth date of approximately 1845.  It is probably reasonable to assume that this John is William’s father allowing for the discrepancies in reporting created by birthdays falling early in the year vs. late in the year as relates to the timing of any given census.  

John’s father (William’s grandfather) had the same name, and is listed in that 1851 census as John Harper. age 45 (abt.1806 – ?).  That census record notes that he was born in the U.S.  (To avoid confusion, John’s father is hereinafter referred to as “Grandpa John”).  John’s siblings are listed as:  James age 10, Anne D. age 4, and Henry A. age 2, all born in Canada.  Grandpa John and the four children are marked in the 1851 census as “Colored persons – Negroes”.  John’s mother, however, was not so marked.  She is listed as Honour, age 34, and born in England (abt. 1817).  In other words, she was most likely white.[24]  Given the birth year of their eldest child James (about 1841), Grandpa John and Honour were together in Canada at least by 1841.  The family religion is listed as “Methodist African E”, and their home is noted as a one-story log cabin.[25]  John and Honour would have two more children, Zach (or Zachariah) and Owen, for a total of 6 children.

[Information on how each Honour and John got to Canada?]

By the time of the 1861 Census of Canada, Grandpa John is listed as a 58 year old widower.  The census lists the following children living with Grandpa John:  Henry age 9, Zach age 7, and Owen age 3.  Owen’s age means that Honour died sometime after 1858 when Owen was born, but before 1861.  John, who would have been 14 of 15 at the time, does not appear in that census.

James, John’s older brother, likewise does not appear in the 1861 census, but a marriage record exists recording his marriage on December 1863, to Hannah L. Smith.[26]  His parents are listed as “John Harper” and “Hannah Clothyer”. This is the first appearance of Honour’s maiden name in the records.  Honour’s name is alternatively written in Canadian records related to the family as “Onner”[27], “Honor”[28], “Hannah Clothyer”[29], “Honor Clothier” [30], and “Hannah Harper”[31]  James would go on to serve as a private for the Union in the U.S. Civil War (see section regarding James below).

The 1861 Agricultural Census for Grandpa John indicates that he owned 100 acres, of which 22 were “under crops”, 8 were “under pasture”, and 70 were “under wood or wild”.  The value of the total acreage was placed at $1,000.[32]  This property is located just outside (southwest) of Canfield, and is listed on the map of “North Cayuga Township, Azoff Village From Halimand County 1879, published by H.R. Page and Co. in 1879” with the name “J. Harper”.  Grandpa John does not appear in the 1871 census.

As if the spelling differences in Honour’s name were not confusing enough, a U.S. Census was taken in Decatur, Illinois in 1920 during the last year of John Harper’s (William’s father) life which introduces a question as to Honour’s place of birth.  That census lists John’s parents as having both been born in Maryland[33].  This may have been correct as to Grandpa John (although no corroborative evidence has been found), but the 1851 Canadian census and at least one subsequent marriage record lists Honour’s place of birth as England.  There is no indication from whom the information in the 1920 census was obtained, but it must have been either from John or his daughter-in-law, Eliza Harper[34], who also lived in Decatur at that time.

Other Family Members – William’s Uncle:  James Nelson Harper [Attach military records]

On March 9, 1865, at the age of 24, William’s uncle James Harper enlisted in the 38th U.S. Colored Infantry as a substitute for George Cummings of Rochester, N.Y, who had been previously drafted.  During the Civil War a draftee who was sufficiently wealthy and could find a willing volunteer could pay that volunteer to enlist in his place. Two legal documents accomplished that substitution:  1) a Declaration of Substitute, and 2) a Substitute Volunteer Enlistment[35]

In the Declaration of Substitute, James is described as a laborer from Haldimand, Canada, having blue eyes, dark hair, dark complexion, and being 5’ 8” tall.  The Substitute Volunteer Enlistment is signed by James, and details his obligations.  James signed on as a private for three years “unless sooner discharged by proper authority”.  He agreed to accept “such bounty, pay, rations, and clothing as are, or may be, established by law for soldiers.”  The Company Muster Roll for March and April 1865 shows under Remarks:  “Recruit amount on check book $662.49 Substitute”, which must have been the amount that Cummings paid James to take his place in the service.  The salary for a Union private was $13.00 per month, for in June of 1864, Congress had granted equal pay to the U.S. Colored troops.[36]  James first posting was in Virginia, where he was “rec’d from Depot” in Varina, Virginia on March 17, 1865

The 38th was organized in Virginia in 1864, and served in Virginia and North Carolina. On April 3, 1865, the 38th occupied Richmond, and continued there through the end of the war and into May.  It is not clear whether James saw any combat since the war officially ended on April 1, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.  At the end of May 1865, the 38th moved to Texas, where it would stay for the balance of its time of service  The unit saw duty in Brownsville and at various points on the Rio Grande, and in Brazos Santiago, Indianola and Galveston.[37].  [From internet – need to cite?]

While in Texas, James would have been witness to an historic Texas event.  When the Civil War ended, General Gordon Granger was given command of the District of Texas.[38]  On June 19, 1865, shortly after the arrival of the 38th in Texas, Granger issued five general orders in Galveston establishing his authority over the state of Texas, including General Order No. 3 which began with[39]:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.  This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

A year later, in 1866, Juneteenth, the celebration of the day that news of the emancipation proclamation (which was actually effective January 1, 1873) was announced in Texas, was celebrated for the first time.[40]

James served just one year in the military.  The Company Muster Roll for the 38th states that James was discharged “by reason of expiration of term of service” on March 8, 1866.  His “Individual Muster-out Roll” states that his muster-out date was March 9, 1986 in Brazos Santiago, Texas, and that he was due U.S. $8.03.  Under “Remarks” it states, “Joined Co. as recruit March 15 1865, served as private to discharge.  He retains his knapsack, haversack, canteen and Gt. Coat.”  Transportation and sustenance were furnished to Galveston, Texas. 

[Insert family tree.]


[1] Ontario, Canada, Deaths and Deaths Overseas, 1869-1947

[2] 1881 Census of Canada

[3] The Blacks of Haldimand County, Young Canada Works, 2005 Summer Research Project for Edinburgh Square Heritage and Cultural Centre, by Tracy Vandervliet Heritage Assistant, Oral Historian, publication of the Halimand Museums.

[4] Courtesy of Sylvia Weaver, Canfield researcher.

[5] Term for fugitive slaves carried the Underground Railroad workers.  “Harriet Tubman Historical Society” – http://www.harriet-tubman.org/underground-railroad-secret-codes/

[6] The Wikipedia description of Cayuga (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cayuga,_Ontario) states:  “One of the termini for the Underground Railway was St. Catharines, Ontario, which is about 45 minutes northeast of Cayuga.  Harriet Tubman‘s nephew Lorne Barnes was the barber in Cayuga and was held out to the still-enslaved as an example of the success to be found by escaping to Canada.”

[7] Obituary of William A. Harper, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago (1907-1951), Vol. 4, No. 1 (July 1910), p. 11.

[8] Dates from death record.  See footnote No. 1 above.

[9] 1871 Census of Canada put John’s birth about 1850.  The 1910 US Federal Census listed his birthday as 1847.  The date of death is from the Decatur, Illinois newspapers.

[10] 1871 Census of Canada.

[11] 1871 Census of Canada.

[12] 1881 Census of Canada

[13] Ontario, Canada, Marriages 1826 – 1938, https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7921/ONMS932_24-1194/2684121?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/162479921/person/172118536721/facts.  Simcoe was located about 40 miles west of Canfield.

[14] 1861 Census of Canada; Street Family Record from Betty Browne.

[15] Street Escape Account, on file with Haldimand County Museum Archive, Edinburgh Square Heritage & Cultural Centre.  Street Family Record, from Betty Browne.

[16] Existence of document courtesy of Sylvia Weaver, Canfield researcher.

[17] There is a town on Lake Erie called “Ashtibula” which may be the name intended. 

[18] 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia

[19] Hamilton Spectator, “Tiny hamlet unveils rich history of welcoming runaway slaves in the 1800s”, by Carmela Fragomeni, September 22, 2017.

[20] 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia; 1861 Census of Canada, 1871 Census of Canada; op. cit., Street Family Record.

[21] 1861 Agricultural Census for Enumeration District No.1, of the Township of North Cayuga

[22] African Hope Renewed:  Along the Grand River, by Angela E.M. Files, Brantford, ON:  Taylor Made, 2004.

[23]Ibid.  The Blacks of Halimand County, op. cit.

[24] The later 1920 US Federal Census, however lists John’s parents as having both been born in Maryland.  See discussion below.

[25] This Methodist connection may be the reason one of John’s sons (and William’s brother) was named John Wesley.

[26] Ontario, Canada, Country Marriage Registers, 1858-1869 for James Nelson Harper, December 19, 1863.

[27] Ontario, Canada, Marriages 1826 – 1938.

[28] Ontario, Canada County Marriage Registers, 1858-1869 for Ann D. Harper, June 5, 1866.

[29] Ontario, Canada, Country Marriage Registers, 1858-1869 for James Nelson Harper, December 19, 1863.

[30] Ontario, Canada County Marriage Registers, 1858-1869 for Ann D. Harper, June 5, 1866.  Also Province of Ontario Certificate of Registration of Death lf Ann Delilah (Harper) Williams dated April 2, 1934.

[31] Marriage Record of October 8, 1874 for Zachariah Harper lists his parents as John and Hannah Harper.  Ontario, Canada, Marriages, 1826-1937.

[32] 1861 Agricultural Census for Enumeration District No.3, of the Township of North Cayuga.

[33] 1920 US Census

[34] John was predeceased by both of his sons, John (1914) and William (1910).

[35] The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops: Infantry Organizations, 36th through 40th.U.S., Colored Troops Military Service Records, 1863-1865; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[36] “Black Soldiers in the Civil War”, National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/blacks-civil-war/equal-pay.html

[37] http://lestweforget.hamptonu.edu/page.cfm?uuid=9FEC3DB3-D102-3E59-BF307294B0AF60A0.

[38] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Granger

[39] https://www.britannica.com/story/juneteenth-celebrating-the-end-of-slavery

[40] “Let Freedom Ring”, Texas Highways, Michael Hurd, June 2020, p. 54.  b

Final Years

1909

Harper spent 1909 in Cuernavaca, Mexico.  Although he was no longer in the U.S., he did exhibit two paintings in the Thirteenth Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists held from January 5 to January 24, 1909 at the AIC:

            54.  October in France

            55.  The mid days of autumn

His address for the catalogue is listed as “Chicago, Illinois”.  Echoing the description of Harper’s painting style in the Decatur Heald of the previous year, The Inter Ocean described the second painting as follows:

“Perhaps the most unusual handling of pigments is found in ‘The Middays of Autumn’ by William A. Harper.  The paint in heaviness and roughness of application suggest the palette knife rather than the brush.  This picture shows a very effective massing of trees to the right of a ruin of wall or monastery.”[1]

[Discuss contrast with earlier painting style.]

Likewise, Harper exhibited in the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC held from February 2 to February 28, 1909 with three paintings:

            127.  August in France                       $300

            128.  Old houses, Montreuil               $100

            129.  Late afternoon                           $250

In March, the Decatur, Illinois Daily Review announced that the Decatur Public Art League would hold an exhibition at the Y.M.C.A. of about 50 works “secured in Chicago after the annual exhibit of work by artists of Chicago and the vicinity.”[2]  A number of the contributing artists, including Charles Francis Browne, were listed, with a separate paragraph dedicated to Harper entitled “Harper to Send Work” as follows:

“William A. Harper, the colored artist who spent some time in Decatur last summer, will send some of his works.  His pictures are well thought of in Chicago and occupied good positions at the exhibit.”

The review in the same paper after the exhibition opening noted that Harper’s “Autumn in France” was “remarkable in one respect for its ‘thick’ painting’.[3]

Despite his ill health, Harper was clearly quite actively painting while convalescing in Cuernavaca.  Two, and probably all three, of the paintings that he exhibited in the Twenty-Second Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists held from October 19 to November 28, 1909, at the AIC were scenes of Mexico:

            122.  Pueblo Indians

            123.  The steps – Mexican scene

            124.  Among the hills.

The American Art News reported in December that thirteen paintings were sold from this exhibition, including “The steps – Mexican scene”.[4]  Unfortunately, no information is given as to the purchaser or the price paid.  Until this time, none of Harper’s paintings appear to have featured people.  They were strictly landscape works.  The titles of the paintings “Pueblo Indians” from the 1909 exhibition, and “The morning chat” from the 1910 exhibition discussed below suggests that when he was in Mexico he began to incorporate people into his paintings. 

Harper also succeeded in selling paintings in Cuernavaca.  According to an article following his death, several of Harper’s paintings were sold on commission at a “curio store” owned by a Mr. Wood of Mexico City.[5]  Nothing further is known about these paintings.

1910

Harper was still in Cuernavaca at the start of 1910.  Once again he exhibited at the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC held from January 4 to January 30, 1910, with the majority of his paintings clearly being scenes in Mexico:

              106.  A Mexican kitchen

              107.  Morning in the market

              108.  A Mexican landscape

              109.  The morning chat

              110.  The patio

Likewise, he exhibited at the Fourteenth, Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists held from February 8 to February 27, 1910 at the AIC with two paintings:

            50.  Autumn, French landscape

            51.  Mexican scene

Unfortunately, Harper’s trip to Mexico did not result in the health improvement that he had sought.  Around the second week of March in 1910, he was taken to the American hospital in Mexico City.  It was to that address that Wm. M.R. French sent the following letter to Harper dated March 28, 1910:

“I am very sorry to hear that you are sick and in the hospital.  I write to let you know that the sympathy and good wishes of your many friends here are with you.,  I have had so little sickness that I do not know much about it, but I can form some idea of how hard it must be to be laid aside with so many things you might do.

I heartily hope we may get news that you are better.  Meanwhile, if there is anything we can do for you, do not fail to let me know.”[6]

Harper never received that letter.  He died the night before, on Sunday, March 27, 1910. 

A rough translation of the Spanish hand written death record of the “Federal District, Mexico, Civil Registration Deaths, 1861-1987”, p. 306-7[7], states that:

“In the City of Mexico at 4:15 in the afternoon, on March 28, 1910, before me, Ricardo Guerrero Garnica, an auxilary for the civil registry, appeared the citizen named Melisio Munive from Mexico, 48 years old, single, employed, and residing on San Diego St. #6, and declared that last night at 11:28 in the American Hospital, William A. Harper died of tuberculosis according to the certificate completed by Dr. R Canedo which is archived under the notations of the law.  The appearing party also added that the deceased was from Decatur, Illinois, from the United States, he was of North American nationality, 37 years old, single, artist, parents names are not known.  He was given a ticket for the Society of the Panteón Americano. Other witnesses by the name of Joaquin Gonzales and Hilario Cunacho, both from Mexico and of 33 and 40 years old respectively, both single, employed, they live in house #8 on the first street of) Florida; and the 2nd house on the La Mariscala St. number 3.”

The Panteón Americano is the American cemetery in Mexico City where Harper was buried, and is located in Cuauhtémoc Borough, Distrito Federal, Mexico.

Although the death registry notes the cause of death as tuberculosis, one later article raises a question as to his utimate cause of death is conflicting.  An article in the Decatur Daily Review, which carried numerous articles about Harper’s death and whose author clearly interviewed his brother, states that:

“William Harper did not die of tuberculosis but of dysentery.  He went there [Mexico] on account of lung trouble and the climate was so beneficial to him that in his last letter home he stated that he expected to return to the states in May.  But he was attacked by dysentery nearly a year ago and has been growing weaker since that time.”[8]

On Tuesday, March 29, 1910, the Decatur Daily Review published an article entitled “Colored Artist Dead in Mexico”:

“William Harper, perhaps the foremost colored painter in America, is dead in the City of Mexico.  At 5:40 Monday afternoon his father, John Harper, received a telegram stating that Willliam Harper had died at 11:28 Sunday night in the American hospital there.”[9]

The newspaper carried almost a full column obituary, and a photograph of Harper showing a distinguished looking man with a mustache and goatee.  A similar article appeared in the Decatur Herald[10].  The day after receiving notice of Harper’s death, his brother John Harper left on the Illinois Central train for Mexico to bring back Harper’s body.[11]   According to the Daily Review, which wrote a lengthy article about John’s trip entitled “How Work of Months Was Done In Few Days”:

“He traveled nearly 5,000 miles, going twenty-four hours out of his way each way because of his eagerness to get started, losing a day in San Antonio on account of missing train connections, and another twelve hours in Mattoon on his way back.”[12]

Unfortunately, by the time that John arrived in Mexico City, Harper had already been buried.[13]  Laws in Mexico required that the body of any person dying of tuberculosis be buried within 24 hours after death.[14]  In a later interview with the Decatur Herald:

“Mr. Harper [John] said it was his intentions to bring the body to this city for burial, but as he did not have the necessary papers it was impossible to do so.  The expense would have been about $2000 to get the body out of Mexico.  Each government officer who handles the papers charges $125 for affixing his seal, and a fee of $125 is charged for every state the body passes through.”[15]

John spent three days in Mexico City, and another two in Cuernevaca.  The Daily Review was high in its praise of John.  According to its article, 

“Without knowing a word of Spanish or having the faintest knowledge of the laws or customs of Mexico, and also without letters of administration or other authority, he settled up his brother’s affairs….”[16]

John was apparently well treated Mexico, the Daily Review saying that he:

“fell among angels in Mexico and few people had suspected that there were any.  When he reached Mexico City he went to the American hospital, where he ascertained further facts as to his death and that he had been recently buried in the American cemetery.”[17]

In Mexico City John also went to see the American consul,

“and presented letters from Judge Johns, Judge Smith, Senator Hanson and others.  These were convincing to the consul as identifying the Bearer, but they did not qualify Harper to settle up the estate of an American in Mexico.”[18]

It is impressive that John could have acquired these letters in Decatur in such short order following Harper’s death and his almost immediate departure for Mexico.  

Lack of letters of administration notwithstanding, John proceeded to Cuernavaca, seventy-five miles south of Mexico City where Harper had leased an apartment and painted for eighteen months.  In Cuernavaca, he met with a Mr. Woods, a resident of Mexico City, who owned a curio store in Cuernavaca where he had sold several paintings for Harper on commission.  At the time, Woods still had eleven other Harper paintings in his possession.  According to the Daily Review article, Woods scrupulously accounted for everything, including some pictures which had been sold but not paid for.  Because he did not have the necessary legal paperwork to take all of the remaining paintings back to the U.S., John sold the remaining paintings to Woods based on prices that Harper had marked on the paintings, less a discount of 1/3 for Woods as the dealer.  John then settled his brothers bills and other outstanding matters in Cuernavaca.

Although he could not take back to Decatur the finished paintings, John did take back an unfinished painting described as a “sketch of a house with a lot of burros in the foreground”, with no customs interference.  Subsequent to his return to Decatur, John received a letter from the woman in whose house Harper had lived advising that a number of additional sketches had been found.  The Decatur Review speculated that the sketches would be sent to Decatur, but their disposition is unknown. 

John’s trip to Mexico was certainly wearing, both emotionally and physically.  The article in the Daily Review concluded with the following:

“As a physical undertaking the trip would have worn out most men, and there are few who could have settled the business more promptly and satisfactorily.  When he reached Mattoon on his return trip, there was no train to Decatur and he had to stay there til morning.  ‘You don’t know how I wanted to get home’, he says, ‘and if it had been only ten miles or even twenty miles I certainly would have walked.”[19]

Upon his return, John was appointed administrator of Harper’s estate, with the bond set at $1,000.[20]  The Petition for Letters of Administration and inventory obtained from the Macon County Probate Court list Harper’s survivors as being his brother John W. Harper, and his father John Harper.  His estate as listed in the Petition as consisting of “one life insurance policy in Metripolitan [sic?] Life for the face value of Five Hundred Dollars, and some person effects.”  Those personal effects would have been any remaining cash brought back from Mexico from the sale of is paintings, and additional paintings in Chicago and possibly Decatur.  Apparently, there was no will.  The probate documents were signed by O. Smith, the County Judge, who was one of the Judges whose letters in support of John were presented to the American consul in Mexico City.

John also contacted the AIC regarding Harper’s paintings.  A letter to John[21] from Wm. M. R. French, the Director, dated April 18, 1910[22], reads as follows:

“I have received your letter of April 15.

Mr. N. H. Carpenter, my associate, who is the Secretary of the Art Institute, has managed Mr. William Harper’s business, and he is the proper man for you to see and to communicate with. 

We were all very friendly to your brother and are sorry for is death.”

The Antioch Baptist Church in Decatur held a memorial service on the afternoon of Sunday, May 29, 1910, presided over by Rev. J. A. Crockett of the church and Rev. J. T. Morrow of St Peter’s African Methodist Church.  Both brother and father were in attendance, and “A large number was present.”[23]

The Bulletin of the AIC ran an obituary for Harper in July of 1910, noting that:

“He was a man of the highest principles, of exceptional professional skill, and of great industry; and he united with these qualities good sense, good temper and self control, which were necessary in his difficult circumstances.”

The reference to “difficult circumstance” is an interesting recognition of the undoubted difficulties of being both poor and black in an almost wholly white profession.  The Bulletin reported that a memorial service had also been held for Harper in May at the Bethesda Baptist Church of Chicago where Harper was a member.  It is an indication of the esteem in which Harper was held at the AIC and in the Chicago art community that both Lorado Taft, the sculptor, and Wm. M.R. French, the AIC Director spoke at his funeral.[24]  The Bulletin went on to advise that a memorial exhibition of Harper’s paintings would be held at the AIC, opening July 26.


[1] “Work of Western Artists is Highly Praised at Midwinter Exhibit”, The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), January 17,  1909, p. 30.

[2]  “Art League Exhibit Best in Illinois”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), p. 8. 

[3] “Art League Exhibit Best Offered Here”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), p. 8.

[4] “Chicago”, American Art News, Vol. 8, No. 8 (December 4, 1909), p. 1-8.

[5] “How Work of Months Was Done In Few Days”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), April 17, 1990, p. 15.

[6] Letter from Wm. M. R. French, President of AIC, to William A. Harper, dated March 28, 1910, AIC archives.

[7] From Ancestry.com:  https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/60426/004976610_01391/5552589?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/162479921/person/172118536720/facts/citation/642169176701/edit/record

[8] “How Work of Months Was Done In Few Days”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), April 17, 1910, p. 15.

[9] “Colored Artist Dead in Mexico”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), March 29, 1910, p. 7.

[10] A similar article appeared in the Decatur Herald:  “Colored Artist Dies in Mexico”, The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), March 30, 1910, p. 12.

[11] Brief note in The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), March 29, 1910, p. 15.

[12] The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), April 17, 1910, p. 4;

[13] “Harper’s Body is Buried in Mexico” The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), April 12, 1910, p. 4; “Arrived too Late”, The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), April 12, 1910, p. 12.

[14] The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), April 15, 1910, p. 3.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “How Work of Months Was Done In Few Days”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), April 17, 1910, p. 15.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Note in The Daily Review, April 14, 1910, p. 14.  See also Macon County Probate Court records for William A. Harper.

[21] John’s address is listed as [805 Zora] Avenue, Decatur, Illinois.

[22] AIC Archives, letter from Wm. M. R. French to John W. Harper dated April 18, 1910

[23] “Antioch Baptist”, The Decatur Herald (Decatur, Illinois), May 30, 1910, p. 4.

[24] “William A. Harper”, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Jul., 1910), p. 11.

Interim Years

Interim Years

1905

When Harper returned to Chicago after his sojourn in Europe, he brought with him paintings from both his time in Cornwall, England and his time in France.  He again submitted paintings to the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, which ran at the AIC from January 31 to February 26, 1905.  According to the catalogue from that Exhibition, 902 works were sent in, of which 276 were selected for display.  Harper had nine paintings accepted, of which seven were of scenes in Cornwall and two of scenes in Montigny, France.  According to the Exhibition catalogue, Harper’s paintings were as follows:

            100.  Morning, midsummer, Cornwall, Eng.               $150

            101.  Early afternoon, Montigny, France                    $150

            102.  The hedgerow, Cornwall, Eng.                          $100

            103.  Eventide, Cornwall, Eng.                                   $50

            104.  Banks of the Loing, Montigny, France              $100

105.  The potato field, Cornwall, Eng.                        $35

106.  Lobbs house, Cornwall, Eng.                            $35

107.  Grey day, Cornwall, Eng.                                  $35

108.  Quiet morning, Cornwall, Eng.                          $35

Harper listed his address in the catalogue as “Art Institute, Chicago”.  Of the nine above canvasses, six sold, including “Early afternoon, Montigny, France” and “Eventide, Cornwall, Eng.”.[1]  Given his past financial situation, this must have provided considerable relief to Harper.

Browne likewise exhibited, and of his seven paintings at least four were scenes in France, with three containing a Montigny, France designation.  Harper’s and Browne’s paintings of Montigny were likely the result of their spring 1904 travel in that area.

Wendt exhibited five paintings, although their names as listed in the Exhibition catalogue give no clue as to whether they might have been painted in Cornwall or elsewhere.[2]

Harper’s work received much acclaim, and the Chicago Municipal Art League awarded him a prize of $30.  The Chicago Tribune reported that this award was for a “group of pictures”[3].  The Inter-Ocean, however, reported that this award was for the painting “Early Afternoon, Montigny”.[4]   Browne would win the same award from the Municipal Art League for a “group of pictures” in 1906.[5]  The Municipal Art League was composed of various independent organizations in Chicago which worked together for the purpose of encouraging art in the city of Chicago.[6]

In 1906, Florence Lewis Bentley[7] [any more information on her?] wrote a full length article about Harper entitled “William A. Harper”, which appeared in the illustrated monthly magazine “The Voice of the Negro” [8].  A full page portrait of Harper in a white shirt and tie, wearing an artist’s smock and holding a palette and paint brushes was featured as the front piece for the magazine  with the title “Mr. William A. Harper, The Rising Negro Artist of the West”.[9]  Bentley’s article reproduced three of Harpers paintings from the 1905 Exhibition, “Early afternoon, Montigny, France” [10], “Eventide, Cornwall, Eng.”, and “The Banks of the Laing[11], Montigny, France”.  Bentley wrote that Harper’s painting “Early afternoon, Montigny, France” was “especially distinguished for beauty of color and atmospheric qualities” and richly deserving of the central position that it held in the gallery.  She went on to report that a “well known critic” had said that “It has no superior in the Exhibition, and will ever be a source of delight to the fortunate possessor.”[12]  That “fortunate possessor” would turn out to be Mr. T. E. Donnelley, of the firm of Donnelley & Sons, Chicago[13].  This painting is currently in the collection of Howard University, in Washington, D. C.[14]  Of the painting “Eventide”, Bentley wrote that it was “a beautiful English landscape rich in mellow browns and greens and bathed in the dreamy light of ending day.”[15]  Bentley went on to state that Harper’s “noticeable group of pictures was one of the sensations of last year’s exhibit and claimed as much attention as he work of men of international repute.”

Following the award from the Municipal Art League, the Decatur Review, a paper in Decatur, Illinois, where Harper’s father and brother lived, ran an article about Harper entitled “Negro Janitor, A Prize Artist”[16]  The article stated that:

“By awarding a prize to William A. Harper, a negro janitor of the Art Institute, the Chicago Municipal Art league has put itself on record against class and color distinctions when it comes to distributing honors for excellent work with the brush.”

The article described Harper’s time at the AIC as follows:

“Several years ago, Harper was appointed janitor at the institute.  When he was not scrubbing floors and washing windows, he was studying pictures and drawing.  He saved money, became a student, received a diploma in 1900, went abroad and devoted every spare minute assiduously to the canvas.  He is night watchman now from 2 o’clock til 7 in the morning.  He paints all day, goes to sleep at 6 in the evening and rises for work at 2 in the morning.”

The reference to a diploma in “1900” appears to be an error in that the AIC Circular for 1900-1901 lists Harper as still a student in the “Saturday Class – Normal”.  Nevertheless, the author of the article must have interviewed Harper for the article since it ends with one of the few quotations that we have from Harper, and one which is particularly telling:

“ ‘I think I can do my best work abroad.’ He said.  ‘There the color on one’s skin is never under any circumstances taken in to consideration.’ “

Several other newspapers recorded Harper’s award.  One article found in the Scrapbooks of the AIC dated February 6, 1905 is entitled “Colored Man Wins Position.  Paintings by W. A. Harper are admired at the Art Institute”[17].  Reporting on the AIC Exhibition, the article states:

“Inch by inch Harper has fought in his struggle to attain and succeed in his art until he has received the recognition of both the directors of the Art Institute and the management of the Municipal Art League.  With them there is no color line drawn artistic ability alone being the password by which admission is gained to these exhibitions.”

In another review of the Exhibition, the Chicago Journal wrote:

“Claiming particular attention are the nine paintings of Cornwall, and France by William A. Harper.  Among these have been counted certain ones said to be the best in the exhibition.  Mr. Harper’s painting shows maturity in selection and poetic feeling.  His landscapes have a foreign air and a certainty of grasp and expression.”[18]

Following the opening of the Exhibition, a curious discussion appeared in the Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), February 9, 1905, p. 5, under the column “The Whirl of Society” which gives interesting insight into the reaction that people had to Harper.  After rather sarcastically reviewing the society men and women attending the opening, the author wrote the following:

“I heard a Southern woman raving over the ‘works’ of William A. Harper, the handsome youth who acts as assistant about the institute while studying his art, and whose French studies this year have won him so much favorable mention from those that know.

He has studied in Paris, and his sympathies are decidedly French, which perhaps accounts for his abundance of poetry, commonly called by the women of the clubs ‘temperament’.

‘He is one of the handsomest chaps I ever saw,’ said the woman I happened to overhear, and her companion, a man of enlightenment, gravely offered to introduce the artist.  She enthused and instinctively straightened her hat.

Harper, incidentally, is a great favorite at the Eagle’s Nest in summer, where he goes each summer as ‘assistant’ in a general work sense.  ‘He is so handsome and well mannered,’ said one of the artists to me yesterday as we talked over the exhibit, ‘that we scarcely have the face to ask him for service; though, for that matter, he is perfect in manner, and never intrudes his admirable personality.  His self-effacement is a part of his personal charm.  But it is his work that has commanded our genuine admiration and respect.’ “

“Eagle’s Nest” refers to the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony in Oregon, Illinois, of which Taft and Browne where founders and Wendt a member.  See discussion under “Education”.  While the language used in describing Harper seems today rather dated and is indicative of the race divide with which Harper had to contend, it is clear that he was well liked and well respected both as an individual and as an artist.

Indeed, such was the esteem in which Harper was held that he was elected later that year as one of the six members of the Chicago Advisory Committee of Artists for the Juries of Selection for the Eighteenth Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists, held October 19 to November 26, 1905.[19]  Included among the paintings over which the juries passed judgment were those by Childe Hassan, Robert Henri, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Edmund Tarbell.  Interestingly, Harper would go on to study with Tanner in France a few years later.

An article published in the Decatur Review after his death indicates that Harper spent the summer of 1905 in Decatur, Illinois:

“He came to Decatur in the summer of 1905 to make his home with his father and brother on the farm northwest of Decatur, and he put in the summer painting landscapes, including some beautiful scenes along the Sangamon river and Stevens creek.  These he endeavored to sell here, but there was not so good demand for first class work then as now and he sent them to Seattle, Wash., to the Art League exhibit, and there had no trouble disposing of five of them at good prices.  Others were sold in New York and Chicago.”[20]

It should be pointed out, however, that this posthumous article seems to parrot in this area an earlier 1908 article by the Decatur Review which referenced the summer of 1906 as having been spent painting in Decatur, rather than 1905.  See below.  Given the similarity in language and activity, it is quite possible that the posthumous article copied the earlier article and wrote 1905 in error.  Or maybe Harper simply spent both summers in Decatur.  Such is the difficulty in having to rely on newspaper articles.

Although Harper resided in Chicago, he did take time to visit his family in Decatur, Illinois.  According to the Decatur Daily Herald of September 23, 1905 (p. 8),

“Mr. and Mrs. John Harper entertained a few friends at 6 o’clock dinner Thursday evening in honor of Mr. William Harper, who will leave soon for his home in Chicago.  A four course dinner was served and all spent a pleasant evening.”

The “John Harper” referenced above would have most likely have been been William’s brother.[21] 

In December, Harper exhibited one painting in the Tenth Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists[22] held at the AIC on December 5-25, 1905.[23]  HIs painting “Young Poplars and Willows” was reproduced in the Bentley article referenced above: 

“Among these excellent works, there was one small canvas which has received specially favorable comment, and which easily held its own among the leasers of this important exhibition.  ‘Young Poplars and Willows’ by William A. Harper, is a landscape full of dreamy charm and tender sentiment.  It is a work conceived by on to whom Nature seems to have revealed her most intimate secrets, and it is executed with a delicacy and sureness of brush, which is the result of an almost perfect technique.”[24]

According to Bentley, the scene depicted was from “Illinois, near Mr. Harper’s old country home”.  It is not known whether this referred to a childhood home, or the home of his father (or perhaps brother) in or near Decatur, Illinois.

No other article of the time appears to have addressed Harper in such depth, and few authors appear to have met directly with Harper, so it is worth quoting at length from such article even though the language of the day is a bit ornate by today’s standards.  Bentley wrote that:

“It has been the privilege of the writer to see some new work, which Mr. Harper is preparing for the annual exhibition of Chicago artists, which will be in progress about the time that this paper sees the light of print.  The landscapes already finished show a dignity and strength, a mobility of expression which seem to indicate a growth beyond even the recent “Young Poplars and Willows,” a development which shows itself not only in improved technique, but in a broader, deeper and more mature conception of beautiful thoughts and ideas.  It is noticeable that in all of Mr. Harper’s landscapes, trees play an important part.  ‘His handling of trees,’ says Harriet Monroe, ‘shows close and accurate study of their souls and bodies,’ and it is very true that no one could see Mr. Harper’s trees, without turning with renewed interest to these sentinels of Nature in their own places.  In fact that seems to be the most telling effect of Mr. Harper’s landscapes, they inspire us with a renewed reverence for Nature, which help us to see beauties around us which otherwise would remain hidden from untutored eyes.”

Harriet Monroe (December 23, 1860 – September 26, 1936) was an editor, scholar, literary critic, poet, patron of the arts, and eventual founding publisher and long-time editor of Poetry magazine.  She was also a freelance correspondent and art critic for the Chicago Tribune and a member of the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony in Ogle County, Illinois, where she most certainly would have met Harper.[25]

Bentley went on in similar vein to describe that Harper:

“came to Illinois and settled on a farm where [his] entire youth was spent.  It is to these early days in the country that the artist owes his deep understanding of Nature’s moods, and it is there where he formed the determination to follow the elusive Mistress Art; leaving all others to cleave only to her.  In truth and in fact, Mr. Harper has literally done just that, for his life has been a single-hearted devotion to a fixed purpose, in spite of privation and labor which would have daunted a less courageous soul.”[26]

1906

The next annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists took place at the AIC from January 30 to February 25, 1906.  According to the catalogue for that Exhibition, 927 works were sent in for examination by the juries, from which 307 were selected.  Harper had seven works accepted for the Exhibition listed in the catalogue as follows:

107.  Early evening, Cornwall, Eng.               $200

108.  Lowland pastures.                                  $250

109.  The cabbage patch.                               $200

110.  The last gleam.                                      $75

111.  The hillside                                             $50

112.  The house in the hollow.                       $40

113.  Grey day.                                               $35

Harper’s address is included as 224 Ontario Street, Chicago, the same address as he used in 1902, but without the “Care Wm. Wendt” prefix.  His painting “Lowland pastures” was one of the twelve paintings reproduced in the catalogue, perhaps explaining why it was the highest priced of his paintings.  The Inter-Oceans’ review of the Exhibition considered “Lowland pastures” the most interesting of Harper’s paintings, with “the silver blue pond to the left, as seen among the trees, possibly being the most interesting feature of the painting itself.” [27]

Not much is known about Harper’s friends, although he clearly had a good relationship with his mentors Wendt and Brown and was well thought of by the other AIC students who were with him in Paris.  An intriguing item is found, however, in the catalogue of Exhibition of Paintings by Charles Edward Hallberg of Chicago, held at the AIC March 1 to march 21, 1906.  Painting No. 36 in that Exhibition entitled “Near the shore”, was “Lent by Mr. Wm. A. Harper”.  Another painting was lent for the Exhibition by Browne.  According to the catalogue, Hallberg was born in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1855, and was a sailor from 1873 to 1890.  He settled in Chicago in 1880, and became a painter, first exhibiting at the AIC in 1890.  He was also a fellow janitor.  According to an article in The Inter Ocean in 1902 entitled “Pictures by Janitor Artist”, Hallberg had by that time been working for eight years as a janitor in a local bank.[28]  Like Harper, in 1902 Hallberg had for the first time three paintings accepted in the annual juried Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC.  Thus, there was a striking commonality between the two artists.  It is interesting to speculate as to how Harper acquired the Hallberg painting, whether by purchase, gift, or even trade.  In any event, Hallberg was sufficiently well respected that the AIC held a one-man exhibition of his works in 1906.

While Harper spent some summers early in his career working at Eagle’s Nest, by 1906 at least he appears to have been spending his summers painting in the countryside of Illinois.  An article in the Decatur, Illinois Review in 1908 states that in 1906[29] Harper,

“came to Decatur to live with his father and brother, northwest of the town.  Nearly the entire summer he spent in painting landscapes on the Wade farm.  However as there was so sale for them here and not enough opportunities for good pictures, he decided to return to Europe and study more.…. Five of the pictures which he painted here, he sent to an art exhibit in Seattle, Wash.  They were sold there.  Others were sold in New York and Chicago.”

No information is available about the location of the “Wade farm”, nor have specific paintings been linked to that venue. 

The 1908 article also states that sometime after his return from his first trip to Europe Harper was “given the commission to paint the decorations on the walls of the Chicago Normal school in Englewood”[30].  Unfortunately, the building that housed that school no longer exists.  No further information has been found regarding this commission and this is the only suggestion that Harper may have ever painted a mural.  Interestingly, in 1906 Browne and another instructor at the AIC oversaw the completion of ten murals at the Institute depicting sports.  The following year, mural decoration was added to the curriculum of the AIC.  Under the direction of Browne and the other instructor, the first mural class painted three large murals for the auditorium of the Elm Place Grammar School.[31]  Given the timing, it is interesting to speculate as to whether Browne assisted with or advised Harper on his mural project.

The article goes on to state that Harper returned to Europe in 1906.  We know that he did make a subsequent trip, but this is the only indication that he left as early as 1906.  Given that he painted in Decatur in the summer, he must have departed sometime late in the year.

In any event, at the end of 1906, Harper exhibited in the Nineteenth Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculptures by American Artists at the AIC held from October 16 to November 29.  This was the first time that Harper participated as a contributor in this particular exhibition, although he served on one of the Juries of Selection for the Eighteenth Annual Exhibition in 1905.  The catalogue notes that Harper was a member of the Chicago Society of Artists, and indicates that Harper exhibited two paintings:

151.  A bit of Lincoln Park.

152.  On a day.

This year Harper also begins to appear in the Catalogues of the Annual Exhibitions of the Society of Western Artists as an Associate Member for Chicago.[32]

1907

Harper was again represented in the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC from January 29 to February 24, 1907, with five paintings:

113.  Gray day.                                   $40

114.  The road.                                   $40

115.  Dusk                                          $200

116.  Half leafless and dry.                 $150

117.  Cornish hills.                              $150

Out of 818 works submitted to the jury for consideration, 284 were selected for the Exhibition.  Harper listed his address in the catalogue as “Secretary’s Office, Art Institute, Chicago”.  The Secretary for the AIC was Newton H. Carpenter.  A letter written by Wm M. R. French, the Director of the AIC following Harper’s death advised that Carpenter managed Harpers “business”.[33]  Presumably he would have coordinated the submission of Harper’s paintings for the various exhibitions and handled any related finances, including the sale of paintings, when he was not in Chicago.  The two appear to have been friends for many years with one early article suggesting that it was Carpenter who was responsible for Harper actually attending the AIC.[34]  See chapter entitled “Education”, p. ___. 

The painting “Half leafless and dry” was one of twelve paintings reproduced in the exhibition catalogue.  It was likewise reproduced in an article entitled “Exhibition of the Artists of Chicago” in the Brush and Pencil.[35]  The same painting also appears in an article entitled “The Artist Out of Doors” by James Spencer Dickerson in The World To-Day, but with the name “in Sere and Yellow Leaf”.[36]  It is not known whether this was an error by the Dickerson, or whether Harper actually renamed the painting.  This painting eventually made its way into the Evans-Tibbs Collection of Thurlow Evans Tibbs, Jr., and is currently owned by the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

As to another of Harper’s paintings from the Exhibition, Dickerson wrote that it:

“is from the brush of the young negro artist whose work is steadily growing in interest and worth.  It, with several other recent canvases, hung in the recent exhibit of the Chicago Society of Artists.  The only painting bought by the Union League Club, of Chicago, of those shown at this exhibition, was one of Mr. Harper’s.”

A review of the Catalogue of Paintings, Etchings, Engravings and Sculpture of the Union League Club of Chicago in 1907[37] shows that the painting purchased by the Union League was “Dusk”.  The Catalogue describes the painting as follows:

“Below a hilltop crowned with large trees, the country slopes to the farming lands beyond.  This picture enters the sphere of decorative painting, depending upon a rich, low-toned color scheme, and an arrangement of composition for its attractiveness, rather than upon the pictorial quality of a descriptive work of landscape painting.  It is one of those creations of the painter that win a way into the imagination and gain interest on acquaintance.”

The Union League Club sold “Dusk” in a silent auction in May of 1984.[38]  No further information on this painting is available.

Catalogue also shows that the Union League Club in 1907 owned two other paintings by Harper.  One, “In France” is described in the Catalogue as “a travel note of France during the artist’s sojourn abroad”.  According to an inquiry made of the Union League Club in 2015, this was a 5 x 7.5 inch oil painting acquired in 1904.  The other, “Over the Hills” is described as one of a group of sketches of landscape made by Harper on his foreign travels.  As of 2015, the Union Club no longer owned either of these paintings, and their dispositions are unknown. 

One further exhibition took place in 1907, but not at the AIC.  In an advertisement on page 4 of the Chicago Tribune on May 27, 1907, Marshall Field & Company announced the beginning of an “interesting exhibit” of oil paintings in its Picture Galleries from the best known works of a number of artists including Charles Francis Browne, Charles E. Hallberg, William A. Harper, Albert H. Krehbiel, and William Wendt.  No further specifics are available regarding that exhibit, but one can assume that those paintings were available for sale.

Although Harper exhibited actively in Chicago in 1907, he was for part or all of 1907 in France.  His obituary states that he was in France in 1907 and 1908, and that he “formed relations” with Henry Ossawa Tanner.[39]  Some secondary sources describe him as studying informally with Tanner.  Biographies of Tanner indicate that Tanner took an interest in assisting and mentoring young black American artists, including Harper, in Paris.[40]  Tanner had an apartment in Paris, and, as of early 1908, a villa in Trépied where he and welcomed may visitors.[41]  Trépied is within walking distance of the fishing village of Étapes which housed a popular artist colony.  We know from the Krehbiel letters that Harper was familiar with Étapes, but have no direct evidence that he ever visited or painted there.  Similarly, we have no primary material detailing Harper’s second sojourn in Paris or otherwise in France.  The titles of a number of Harper’s paintings in subsequent exhibitions in Chicago indicate that they were clearly scenes in France, with a few specifically referencing “Montreuil, France”.  But other than those titles, Harper’s second visit to France is somewhat of a mystery. 

Harper’s painting style, which was originally heavily influenced by the Barbizon school of painting, evolved over time.  By about the time of his second trip to France, his work began to take on a looser, brighter, more impressionistic style.  [More?]

Some secondary sources suggest that Harper also worked with Wendt and Browne on this second trip.  Browne apparently did make a trip to France, but since he taught at the AIC during the 1907-1908 school year,[42] he must have left after the conclusion of the school year in May or June.  Since Harper was back in Decatur, Illinois by the end of April 1908 (see below), overlapping time in Europe does not seem likely.  Likewise, Wendt does not appear to have been in France during Harper’ second trip either.  The “Chronology of the Live of William Wendt”, by Janet Blake of the Laguna Art Museum, shows that Wendt was in Los Angeles, Chicago, and the Grand Canyon in 1907 and 1908.  There is no reference to a trip to Europe during that period, and Wendt was newly married at the end of 1906.  See also the comprehensive essay by Will South from the catalogue for the exhibition “In Nature’s Temple:  The Life and Art of William Wendt”, at the Laguna Art Museum, November 9, 1908 – February 8, 2009.

1908

As was his habit, Harper exhibited in the annual Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists held at the AIC in 1908, even though he was out of the country.  The Exhibition ran from February 4, 1908 to March 1, 1908.  The works submitted for consideration by the juries numbered 986, of which 330 were selected, including two paintings by Harper:

            113.  Autumn sunshine                       $200

            114.  Old house and vines                  $150

Harper’s painting “Old house and vines”, a French scene near Boulogne[43], won a prestigious prize of $100 awarded annually by The Young Fortnightly Club.[44]  Wendt had received this prize some years earlier in 1897[45], and Browne in 1906.[46]

By May of 1908, Harper was back in the US and visiting his brother and father in Decatur, Illinois.  The Decatur Daily Review published an article on May 6 entitled “Home from Paris; Studied Art There”[47].  The article began:

            “William Harper, a colored artist, is in Decatur visiting his brother John Harper, several miles northwest of the city, and also his father John Harper, Sr., living on East Jefferson street.  Harper is one of the few colored artists in the country.  He has spent years in Europe and the United States studying under well known artists….

He went to Europe in 1906 and returned about a week ago….

After visiting here for a few weeks Harper will leave for Canada, where he expects to find great opportunities for landscape painting.  If successful he will return to Chicago in the winter and exhibit his own paintings.”

There is no further discussion about the trip to Canada, and it is interesting to speculate as to whether this trip might have included a visit to Harper’s home in the Canfield/Cayuga area. 

Harper had apparently requested, and had been hoping for, an individual exhibition at the AIC.  He must have been quite disappointed to receive the letter dated October 8, 1908[48] from William M. R. French, the Director of the AIC, which read as follows:

“My dear Harper: –

I am publishing the programme of the exhibitions of the season and I have been unable to put your name in.  We can make very few individual exhibitions.  It is possible that we might at some time let you have room 31, but perhaps you no longer want to make an exhibition.  As you know, we are very friendly to you.

Yours very truly,

Wm. M. R. French”

Although Harper did not have an individual exhibition at the AIC during this time period, he did have an individual exhibition in Decatur at the James Millikin University.  The Decatur Herald published a glowing review of the exhibition on September 8, 1908[49] which not only addressed the exhibition, but discussed in considerable detail Harper’s painting style and local connection.  The author clearly interviewed Harper, and since this is the most comprehensive article from this time period, it is worth reproducing in its entirety:

“Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition

William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers.

Decatur art lovers will be well repaid for attending the exhibition of paintings which William A. Harper, the young Chicago artist, is holding in the liberal arts hall of the James Millikin university.  The display is not large, but every picture is a finished work, and the fact that a number of them are local lanscapes [sic] and are at once recognized as such adds a special interest to the collection.  Mr. Harper has been spending the Summer as the guest of his brother near the city, and while the monotony of prairie country offers little to the landscape [sic] painter, Mr. Harper has found some charming spots, the beauty of which the artist has faithfully reproduced.

At first glance one would consider the builder of the Harper pictures less a painter than a modeler in oils.  Mr. Harper frankly says that he cannot stand a thin picture.  At the risk of trespassing on the sculptor’s field, he uses his daubing knife almost as much as his brush, and when he has completed a tree or a house, it stands out as though chiseled from a rock of variegated [sic] colors.  But in Mr. Harper’s work there is nothing suggesting coldness; his pictures are finished; indeed they are veritable portraits, but with “lift” enough to raise them from the plane of photographs, and behind and over all are color and light.  Mr. Harper loves soft blue skies, (and he thinks Illinois skies pretty near perfection) and while his earlier pictures were dark, he now leans toward light backgrounds.  A winding road through October woods, done in England, is a fine example of a typical Harper landscape.  Tall trees, nearly bare, but with here and there a patch of leaves beautiful in death, stand out against a delicate autumn sky, which lights up the whole scene.

The place of honor is given to a large oil, a landscape near Stevens creek.  Mr. Harper searched a long time before he found a hill side with trees between which he could look out across water to hills beyond.  He exercised his painter’s license in taking out a few troublesome bushes which shut off the view to the distant hills.  Mr. Harper believes with Whistler that nature’s settings are so seldom right that it is safe enough to say that they are never right, but the great tree in the foreground he did not attempt to change.  One could study that tree.  Mr. Harper transferred it to his canvass with the same care that he would use in painting a portrait.  You can almost see the flutter of the leaves and the sway of the giant limbs.  There are several other pictures painted in the vicinity of the large one.  Mr. Harper is not particular that Nature shall be in her brightest and freshest dress when he paints her.  That Summer was already waning when he secured the Stevens creek landscape is evidenced by the brown tint in the green.  But despite his fondness for light colors Mr. Harper hopes to transfer to a larger canvass a little picture of a wood scene that is all verdure, the rich green verdure of early Spring.

“An Old House With Vines” with which Mr. Harper won a prize in a Chicago exhibit last Winter is a French scene near Boulogne where Mr. Harper spent some time painting the quaint old houses and walls.  It is just what the name suggests, and there is every where color and warmth.  Another Boulogne picture is a Summer view across a pleasant landscape in which tall poplar trees, trimmed well up the trunk are prominent in the foreground.

Mr. Harper has a few water colors that are well worth studying.  Too much color would be the off hand verdict of the critic.  And then Mr. Harper will ask how you are going to paint old French houses with their stone, their brick, and their tiling without using nearly every color.  And inspection convinces one that Mr. Harper had not misused his colors.  Everything is natural, and you would not have it changed.

Mr. Harper is meeting with the difficulties that nearly all American artists encounter.  He is competing with French artists or American artists in France, whose work is inferior to his, but who have the advantage of being located in the great art salesrooms of the world.  Sometime American millionaires will discover that it is not necessary to go to France to buy fine pictures.  There is some humor in the thought that the Stevens Creek landscape would be snapped up by a rich and somewhat homesick American in Paris, while the same man would pass it by with hardly a glance were it exhibited in Chicago.  Fortunately art connoisseurs are awaking to the fact that American artists are doing creditable work, and all exhibitions made up of the work of American artists alone, such as now are being held in may cities, deserve encouragement.  Especially are such exhibitions as Mr. Harper is giving to be encouraged.  Decatur, without an art gallery of its own, but with an art sense developed in may of its people should be grateful for any opportunity to see good paintings.

Mr. Harper’s exhibit will be open from 3 to 6 this afternoon and Wednesday afternoon.  Members of the Art League will receive, and Mr. Harper will be present.”

At the end of 1908, Harper had the honor of again being elected to the Committee of Artists for Chicago on the Juries of Selection for the Twenty-First Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists held from October 20 to November 29, 1908.  He also exhibited two paintings:

            121.  Illinois landscape

            122  Hotel de France

Harper’s address for the catalogue was “Care Art Institute, Chicago, Ills”.  The Chicago Tribune reported on the opening reception in its “News of the Society World” column, describing the gowns worn by the society matrons, and noting that among the artists present was William A. Harper.[50]

The painting “Illinois landscape” was reproduced in The Inter Ocean, on November 8, 1908, p. 33, in an article entitled “Chicago’s Annual Art Exhibition”.  The article described his other painting, “Hotel de France”, as being “an old world theme, executed with taste and skill.”  It went on to state that Harper “has recently returned from abroad, and is one of the artists in whose progress and success the people of Chicago are greatly interested.”

Harper was by this time in poor health suffering from lung problems, probably tuberculosis (also known as consumption).  Sometime after the exhibition opening in October of 1908, Harper departed for Cuernevaca, Mexico in the hope that the change of climate would enable him to regain his health.[51]


[1]  “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[2] In March, Wendt held a one-man exhibition of paintings at the AIC, at which at least two were scenes in Cornwall.  See, Catalogue of Exhibition of Paintings by William Wendt, the Art Institute of Chicago, March 2 to March 22, MDCCCCV.

[3] Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1905, p. 5; Brush and Pencil, Vol. 15, No. 3 (March 1905), p. 50.

[4] “Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists Opens”, The Inter-Ocean, February 1, 1905, p. 5.

[5] Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, January 31 to February 26, 1911, p. 39..

[6] Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists, January 31 to February 26, 1905, p. 34.

[7]  In November of 1906, Bentley would also write “Henry O. Tanner” for Voice of the Negro, Vol. 3, p. 480..

[8] “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[9] Ibid, p. 86.

[10] Bentley mis-labeled the painting in her article as “An Afternoon, Montigny”.  The name in the Exhibition catalogue was “Early afternoon, Montigny, France”.

[11] This river was spelled “Loing” in the Exhibition catalogue.

[12] “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117

[13] T.E. Donnelley (spelled “Donnelly” in the article) was the son of the founder of R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company which produced books and periodicals, and mass printed commercial and reference materials.  See:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RR_Donnelley

[14] https://myweb.uiowa.edu/fsboos/galleries/afampainting.htm  Unfortunately, this image does not appear on the Howard University

[15] Ibid.

[16] The Decatur Review, February 3, 1905, p. 3

[17] A handwritten notation indicates that it is from the Chicago News.

[18] Chicago Journal, February 9, 1905, from AIC Scrapbooks.  See additionally, American Art News, Vol. 3, No. 68 (February 25, 1905), p 6.

[19] Harper would again serve on the Chicago Advisory Committee of Artists for the Juries of Selection for the Twenty-First Annual Exhibition of Oil Paintings and Sculpture by American Artists, held October 20 to November 29, 1908.

[20] “Colored Artist Dead in Mexico”, The Daily Review (Decatur, Illinois), March 29, 1910, p. 7.

[21] It is not known whether Harper’s father, also named John, ever remarried after the death of his wife.

[22] Harper was an Associate Member of the Society of Western Artists beginning in 1906.

[23] “Tenth Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists”, by E.E. Talbot, Brush and Pencil, Vol. 17, No. 1 (January 1906), pp. 25.

[24] “William A. Harper” by Florence Lewis Bentley, Voice of the Negro, February 1906, Vol. 3, p. 117.

[25] Wikipedia:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Monroe

[26] Ibid, p. 121.

[27] “Features of the Chicago Artists’ Exhibit”, The Inter-Ocean, February 4, 1906, p. 37

[28] “Pictures by Janitor Artist”, The Inter-Ocean, October 25, 1902, p. 3.

[29] “Home from Paris; Studied Art There”, The Decatur Review, May 6, 1908, p. 7.  Note that the quality of the print for this article blurs the year that Harper lived in Decatur, but the most likely date is 1906. 

[30] Ibid.

[31] Essay on Charles Francis Browne by Melissa Wolfe and Joel S. Dryer, Illinois Historical Art Project:  https://www.illinoisart.org/charles-francis-browne.

[32] Eleventh Annual Exhibition of the Society of Western Artists held at the AIC December 6 to December 26, 1906.

[33] Letter from Wm. M. R. French, Director of AIC, to John W. Harper, dated April 18, 1910, AIC archives.

[34]  Chicago News, “Colored Man Wins Position”, February 6, 1905.  The name “George B. Carper” was probably an error, the correct name of the Secretary of the AIC at that time being Newton H. Carpenter.

[35] “Exhibition of the Artists of Chicago”, by A.G. Randolph, Brush and Pencil, Vol. 19, No. 2 (February 1907)

[36] “The Artist Out of Doors”, James Spencer Dickenson, The World Today, Volume XII, 1907, p. 512.

[37] Catalogue of Paintings, Etchings, Engravings and Sculpture of the Union League Club of Chicago, 1907, compiled by L. M. McCauley for the Art Committee of the Union League Club, p. 14..

[38] A. History of the Art Collection of the Union League Club of Chicago, by Joan G. Wagner (Chicago:  Art Committee of the Union League Club of Chicago, 2000)

[39] “William A. Harper” Obituary, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, No. 1, July 1910, p. 11.

[40] Henry Ossawa Tanner, American Artist, by Marcia M. Mathews, The University of Chicago Press, 1969, p. 132-33.

[41] Henry Ossawa Tanner, Modern Spirit, edited by Anna O. Marley, University of California Press, 2012, p. 89.

[42] [Need course catalogue from AIC to verify]

[43] “Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition; William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers”; The Decatur Herald, September 8, 1908, p. 4.

[44] “Prize Winners in Exhibit by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity”; Chicago Daily Tribune, February 4, 1908, p. 3; “Recent Exhibition of Chicago Artists”, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Apr., 1908, p. 36.

[45] “Exhibition of Works by Chicago Artists”, Art Institute of Chicago, February 1-27, 1898, p. 31.

[46] Brush and Pencil, Volume XVII, January to June 1906, p. 35.

[47] It should be pointed out that there are errors in the article, the most significant being the statement that Harper was born in Petersburg, Illinois. 

[48]  Letter in the AIC archives from William M. R. French, the Director of the AIC, to Harper in Decatur, Illinois, dated October 8, 1908.

[49] Decatur Landscape Prominent in Illinois Artist’s Exhibition; William A. Harper’s Excellent Work on Display At University Well Worth Study By Local Art Lovers; The Decatur Herald, September 8, 1908, p. 4.

[50] “News of the Society World”, Chicago Tribune, October 21, 1908, p. 9.

[51]  “William A. Harper” obituary, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago, Vol. 4, No. 1 (July 1910), p. 11.