One of the many white Americans who expressed his interest in the artistic achievements of black Americans during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's, was Caucasion real estate developer, William E. Harmon (1862-1928). In 1922 he established the Harmon Foundation in New York City to recognize African American achievements, not only in the fine arts but also in business, education, farming, literature, music, race relations, religious service and science.
In 1944 the Harmon Foundation, then under the direction of Mary Beattie Brady, organized an exhibition "Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin," with the express goal of reversing racial intolerance, ignorance and bigotry by illustrating the accomplishments of contemporary African Americans. Including twenty-three portraits created by both a black and a white artist--Laura Wheeler Waring (1887-1948) and Betsy Graves Reyneau (1888-1964)--the exhibition premiered at the Smithsonian Institution on May 2 and then travelled around the United States for the next ten years. Other portraits were added to the tour during that time.
Following the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling abolishing legal segregation, the tour was discontinued on the Harmon Foundation's assumption that racial tolerance and understanding had been successfully attained. Although it is evident today that the foundation's exhibition did not eradicate racial fears and tension in America, it did successfully expose and improve the perception and recognition of African Americans' contribution to this nation.
In 1967, forty-one of the original fifty portraits in the original 1944 exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution were given to the National Portrait Gallery by the Harmon Foundation. This exhibition is drawn from that gift. To provide a sense of historical context, the portraits that were dispalyed in the original exhibition include excerpts from their original labels. As the majority of these unique testimonial labels were written by socially and politically admired personalities, they were used by the foundation to further enhance the audience's admiration of the sitters.