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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

Laura Wheeler Waring and Me

Part 2. An Elite Upbringing...
Laura Wheeler Waring biography: Valerie Harris writes the at
Valerie Harris ponders Laura Wheeler Waring

Born into the black social elite Waring spent most of her adult life relatively secure, employed as an educator and choir mistress at Cheyney Teachers College (previously known as the Institute for Colored Youth; then Cheyney State College, now named Cheyney University).

Though actively painting, exhibiting, winning awards, serving on committees, and getting press, Waring was living at Cheyney, not in Harlem, during the New Negro art movement of the 1920s and gainfully employed at the school during the WPA years when other artists were doing community-focused work. I believe that these circumstances—which at the time fed her need to remain firmly entrenched in the black middle class—served to marginalize Laura Wheeler Waring in ways that she probably never expected. She was at times overtly dismissed by the cultural arbiter of her day and founder of the New Negro movement, #AlainLocke. Her work—portraiture, mostly, but also still-lifes and landscapes— was occasionally described, even in her lifetime, as conservative and passé.

The whole black elite thing—its impact on Waring’s options, choices, associations, social circle, the cultural context of a black female artist and working professional—is something I knew little about. And I admit to have harbored an initial bias against Waring because of it, though her middle-class status became part of my fascination with her, as well.

Laura Wheeler Waring's life spanned several historic and cultural eras. She grew up with the Victorian values of her parents, both of whom were college-educated by the early 1870s, an attribute that set Laura Wheeler apart at birth from the majority of African Americans. The abolitionist and social reform activities of her maternal grandparents on behalf of New York’s free colored community were well-known to her, and the newsworthy prominence of other family members was a source of pride.

Waring spent her New England childhood in the shadow of the Gilded Age, admiring the imposing mansions of local wealthy families by the name of Clemens (Mark Twain), Colt, and Stowe. As a young self-supporting country teacher in the early 1900s, Waring regularly travelled to Philadelphia and from the massive train station there made her way up stately Broad Street to that beautifully ornate cathedral of fine art instruction, the #Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. A colored woman carrying an art portfolio would have seemed an oddity at the time, when the only others of her kind in the vicinity were day laborers and domestic servants. But throughout her life Waring would continue to stand out. I would learn of her prolific career as an illustrator, starting with #The Crisis, the long-running publication of the #NAACP, which led to Waring being tapped as one of the first black illustrators by a major mainstream book publisher. During the heady days of the Harlem Renaissance, Waring became a widely recognized name when she won a highly publicized award in fine art for her breakthrough and most celebrated painting, #Portrait of Anna Washington Derry.” In the five years that the #Harmon Awards were distributed, Waring was the only woman to receive the top prize.

Waring’s participation in higher education conferences, Negro women's professional clubs, society events, and interracial activities during the 1930s and World War II years bolstered her status amongst her own society. Her name was just as often seen in the black society pages, or as a speaker at a civic event, than in reviews of art exhibitions. Though apparently on the periphery of the art “scene,” Waring, at age 56, got a career-reviving boost when she contracted with the Harmon Foundation in 1943 to produce a series of portraits of #Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin.” The series would be executed by Waring and a white female artist to exemplify Negro/white collaboration in the arts. The publicity was extensive. The resultant exhibition, beginning in 1944, travelled widely to museums and educational institutions across the country, bringing Waring’s name and work to the attention of a more general audience and a new generation of museum goers.

Following Laura....

My commitment to learning and writing about Waring has been more than rewarding. There have been many adventures in research, some of which I'll share in this blog. My quest has taken me to Waring’s birthplace of Hartford, CT; the Cheyney University Archives; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Archives; the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University; the Library of Congress; and the Smithsonian American Art and Portrait Gallery Library. It’s been my pleasure to connect with Waring’s great-niece, a retired arts commissar for the City of Chicago and art collector in her own right, who gave me access to personal papers, letters, images, and memorabilia that her late mother, a journalist in Baltimore, Maryland, had gathered in hopes of writing a biography of her favorite aunt. This family cache offered leads that have allowed me to expand upon and correct some of the erroneous information that currently exists online and in print about Waring.

My work has also opened my mind about Waring. I know she was a generous contributor to projects spearheaded by her associates, and an inspiring and dedicated teacher, greatly admired by her students. And despite her privileges she too had her challenges, confronting the same ugly shadows of racism, sexism and ageism that dogged her less advantaged sisters. Most importantly, Waring’s life, her professional experiences, the society in which she moved, belie the one-dimensional history of African Americans that many of us have been taught and which continues to be emphasized.

Moving forward, as I share the fascinating story of her life, I will drop the formalities and refer to my subject simply as, “Laura.”

I know her so much better now.

© 2023-2026 Valerie Harris. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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