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  • Writer's pictureValerie Harris

Sisters Abroad: Laura Wheeler Waring and Jessie Fauset, Paris, 1914

collage of Jessie Fauset in front of Parisian cafe
Jessie Fauset,

Although Laura was now in Paris independent of her Academy classmates, she was not

alone for long. Visiting Paris at the time were two other African American women with whom she was acquainted. The future novelist, Jessie Redmon Fauset, then a 32-year-old teacher in Washington, D.C., and her older sister Helen Lanning, had arrived in England on board the SS Cedric on June 26th, only a week after Laura. Jessie taught high school French in DC and was taking a summer course at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Along with her sister and a tiny entourage, Jessie had installed herself at the Hotel de la Neva on Rue Monsigny, but soon followed Laura to “the Quarter” and Rue Brea, which offered more of a bohemian atmosphere and was closer to her school.

The sisters provided Laura with some much-needed soul company during the early part of her Paris stay. While Jessie was in class working on her French-teaching skills, Helen would often go with Laura to le Jardin du Luxembourg, where she tried, as her Academy instructors had suggested, rapid sketching of her surroundings. But Laura soon gave that up. She was not good at it and it was less her aim to sketch during this first visit to Paris than to see and record in her mind all that she observed; to soak in, to breathe in the beauty of it, and to somehow be enriched, as an artist and as a person, by the entire European experience. Upon reflection, Jessie Fauset would refer to her sister Helen as “Our Lady of Leisure” and to Laura as “The Artist.”

Laura and Jessie were a study in compatible contrasts. Jessie was assertively intelligent, proud of her academic achievements and scholarly affectations. Small boned, almost delicate with a light brown complexion, her hairstyle was becoming, but neat; her clothes fashionable but demure, her manner fastidious and somewhat imperious. Laura, on the other hand, lighter skinned and more solidly built, opted for casual dress whenever possible and needed a corset to appear as pulled together as Jessie.

Photo of W.E.B. Dubois
W.E.B. DuBois

Highly opinionated, Jessie would hold forth on a wealth of issues pertaining to literature,

culture, world politics, and of course, race and the complexities of being colored and female. Laura, too, could be an engaging conversationalist but she was an even better listener. It’s likely she heard much about Jessie’s literary aspirations and her admiration for Dr. William Edward Burghardt DuBois, a leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—the NAACP—and editor of the organization’s magazine. By this time DuBois had already published an illustration by Laura and fiction by Jessie in The Crisis.

Despite having been ignored by her classmates, Laura had enjoyed the voyage over to Europe as an Academy student, her first time crossing the Atlantic. She’d had a pleasant enough time engaging in casual and polite conversations with other passengers while exploring the faded grandeur of the ship, although it was tiresome, at times, at meals or entertainments, always finding herself, if not alone than once again the “only one.”  But that was a position she was used to occupying, a role that elite members of her race were groomed to play. They would never let their singularity stand in the way of their advancement.

Still, Laura undoubtedly enjoyed her visit to Paris much more once she hooked up with Jessie and Helen. This time she was one of three smart, sophisticated women of color--sisters abroad-- with an entire ocean between them and the prejudices and challenges of home. Putting those unpleasantries aside for now, they preferred to consider the opportunities that were also available to professional, creative women of their caliber. After all, they had made it from there to Paris.

It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the artist Laura Wheeler Waring and the novelist, Jessie Redmon Fauset.


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