It was the early 1830s, in West Virginia, and enslaved African Stepney Street needed to run. According to Street’s daughter in an account later recorded by the Haldimand County Museum Archive in Ontario, Canada, “his Master was about to sell him when he ran away, travelling under the name of Frank Hammond, fought his way out of the hands of the oppressor and fled to the Land of Freedom, landing in Canada, at Windsor. Father left his Master’s about six weeks before Mother and three children followed him, her two Brothers and a fellow servant named Nero Bansom, he being so white in complexion that he could venture out to the near houses to seek aid while we lay in a hiding place…”
Married in May 1833, shortly after arriving in Canada, Stepney and wife, Lucy, were the progenitors of an established Canadian family that, 40 years later, would produce a grandson by the name of William A. Harper. Born in the village of Canfield in Ontario, Harper was only two-years-old when his mother died and Lucy—his maternal grandmother who’d escaped West Virginia with three children under the ages of 5 and walked most of the way to Canada—stepped in to raise him.
In 1885, Harper relocated to Illinois to join his father. A decade later, he attended the Art Institute of Chicago, working as a janitor to put himself through school. During summers, Harper studied painting with the Eagle’s Nest Art Colony near Oregon, Illinois under Charles Francis Browne and William Wendt. In 1901, he graduated from the Art Institute with honors, then accepted a job in Texas as a drawing instructor for “colored schools” in the Houston public school system. While teaching, Harper exhibited his work at a number of high-profile events to growing acclaim. And in March 1902, his painting, “First Show of Autumn,” was published by a prominent international art magazine in Chicago.
In 1903, Harper traveled to Europe to attend the Académie Julian in Paris. While there, he studied art at the Louvre and sketched the French countryside before returning to Chicago in 1905 and working as a night watchman to support his career. That year, Harper won the Municipal Art League prize and was elected by his artistic colleagues to one of the Juries of Selection for the prestigious Eighteenth Annual Exhibition of the Paintings and Sculpture of American Artists.
Harper returned to Europe in 1907 where he studied painting with Henry Ossawa Tanner, the legendary African American landscape artist who had relocated to France. But three years later, his health failing from tuberculosis, William A. Harper moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico where he continued to paint until his death in 1910.
In tribute, the Art Institute of Chicago put on a one-man exhibition with 60 of Harper’s paintings, commonly regarded the first major museum show for a Black artist in the United States.
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