Real estate developer and philanthropist William E. Harmon (1862-1928)
was one of many white Americans intrigued by the flowering of African-American
art and literature in the 1920s. In 1926, the Harmon Foundation—set
up four years earlier to aid students and the disabled—began
recognizing African-American achievements in music, the visual arts,
literature, industry, education, race relations, and science.
The foundation awarded annual cash prizes (the gold award was $400)
in each of those seven categories. An eighth honor was handed out
for distinguished accomplishment in any vocation. Recipients of Harmon
Foundation awards enjoyed an instant boost in personal prestige—and
no one in Depression-era America turned his/her nose up at the cash.
In 1928, the Harmon Foundation sponsored the first exhibition of works created
exclusively by African-American artists. Three years later, Harmon exhibits
showcasing the latest winners began touring the country.
The "Harmon Traveling Exhibition of the Work of Negro Artists"
shined a deserving spotlight on the works of poet Langston Hughes
and 148 other artists and writers in an illustrated catalogue shipped
to 50 cities. In addition to serving as a patron of the arts, the
Harmon Foundation flourished as a business that subsidized, marketed,
and profited from its sales of African-American works of art.