BAIA BITS: Isaac Scott Hathaway


Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art

“Professor Hathaway gave excellent lectures in the composition and analysis of clays, slips, glazes in the development of ceramics as an art,” penned Marion Spidle, Dean of the School of Home Economics at Alabama’s Auburn Polytechnic Institute—now Auburn University—in 1947.  Hathaway “clearly showed how well qualified he is to make his own formulas using all Alabama clay.”

Clearly, such glowing recognition would be high praise for any artist. But for sculptor Isaac Scott Hathaway, Spidle’s words were loaded with particular meaning. First, Hathaway was the first artist to develop the use of Alabama kaolin clay as a medium given most sculptors avoided it as it was not an easy type of clay to mold or work with. Second, with his groundbreaking 1947 lecture, the African American Hathaway broke an entrenched racial barrier through his introduction of ceramics at the all-white Auburn Polytechnic Institute.

Hathaway was born in Lexington, Kentucky on April 4, 1872 to Reverend Robert Elijah Hathaway and Rachel Scott Hathaway. After studying at Chandler Junior College in Lexington and coursework in art and drama at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, the talented artist sculpted his first bust of Richard Allen, the prominent bishop of the African American Episcopal Church. He soon began formal training in ceramics at the Cincinnati Art Academy.

In 1897, Hathaway returned to Lexington to teach at Keene High School while opening an art studio and producing plaster body parts for schools and medical facilities. A decade later, he moved to Washington D.C. where he began sculpting busts of such prominent figures as Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and W.E.B. Dubois.

In 1915, at Branch Normal College—now University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff—Hathaway instructed the region’s first course in ceramics at a Black institution. After teaching high school in Pine Bluff for over two decades, he and his wife moved to Tuskegee, Alabama in 1937 where he established the Ceramics Department at Tuskegee University.

In 1948, a year after relocating to Montgomery and becoming Director of Ceramics at Alabama State College, Hathaway was commissioned by the United States Mint to design a Booker T. Washington half dollar, making him the designer of the first United States coin to feature a Black American. In 1950, his second commission saw him design another coin featuring Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.

Hathaway worked at Alabama State until retiring in 1963. He passed away in Tuskegee on March 12, 1967.

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