The Harmon Foundation




The Kennedy Center
Marco Polo
This resource was created in March 2003 by ARTSEDGE. All rights reserved.
ARTSEDGE is a project of the Education Department of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts,
and is a member of the MarcoPolo Partnership

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.


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The foundation recognized artist Augusta Savage in 1933.
Painter Aaron Douglas was honored in 1930.
Countee Cullen received the literature award for his volume of poetry, Color.
Painter Palmer Hayden was awarded in 1933.
Selma Burke received a foundation award in 1933.
Writer Claude McKay was awarded in 1928.
Charles S. Johnson was singled out for
his achievements in science and service.
Alain Locke played a behind-the-scenes role at the foundation.
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