Cast in Plaster: Isaac Hathaway and Sculpture as Black Biography
Black sculptor Isaac Scott Hathaway (1872–1967) took issue with inadequate recognition of Black achievement. He dedicated his career to creating and marketing affordable plaster busts and other commemorative sculpture, literally putting Black activists, educators, ministers, and dozens of other individuals on a pedestal. These stood in stark contrast to lawn jockeys and other statuary that emphasized caricatures and stereotypes.
Plaster Plaque of George Washington Carver (1864?–1943) Cast by Isaac Scott Hathaway, 1945. / THF152082
Hathaway remembered visiting a Midwestern museum when he was nine years old (around 1881), with his father, Robert Elijah Hathaway (1842–1923). The young Hathaway wondered why museums did not include statues of Black people. His father explained that white people modeled their own, and that if Black Americans wanted to see sculptures of Black Americans, “we will have to grow our own sculptors.”
This museum visit changed Hathaway’s life, as he recalled in a 1939 Federal Writers’ Project interview and in a 1958 article in the Negro History Bulletin. He studied art during the era of the New Negro, a movement of the 1890s to 1910s that emphasized African and Black American contributions to the arts, literature, and culture. He taught school, created sculpture, and distributed his plaster casts through the Afro Art Company, which he launched after he moved to Washington, D.C., in 1907.
Hathaway moved when opportunities to further ceramics education arose. He relocated to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, by 1915 to launch ceramics education at the Branch Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). He moved his company, renamed the Isaac Hathaway Art Company, to Pine Bluff at the same time. In 1937, he joined the faculty at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, to introduce a ceramics curriculum there. In 1947, he moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to direct ceramics instruction at Alabama State College (now Alabama State University).
Plaster Cast of George Washington Carver's Hand, 1943. / THF34092
The Henry Ford has two of Hathaway’s plaster casts. Hathaway gave them to Henry Ford in December 1945, explaining that he wanted Ford to have the small plaque (shown at the beginning of this post) and “a cast … made from the hand of the late Dr. George Washington Carver” (shown above). The plaque was one of three types of casts of Carver that Hathaway made. The others included a small bust (around one foot tall) and a heroic bust, visible in this photograph of the artist at work (courtesy of the Tuskegee University Archives).
Carver’s hands attracted a lot of attention, long and strong and well-worn after years of physical labor. Based on Hathaway’s description, it appears that he made the cast of Carver’s hand after Carver died on January 5, 1943. Hathaway instructed students in techniques he used. Photographs show him instructing students in creating molds of their hands at Alabama Polytechnic University (now Auburn University) around 1947.
Hathaway’s reputation earned him a commission in 1946 to design the Booker T. Washington Memorial Half Dollar. This was the first coin designed by a Black American for the U.S. Mint, and the first coin minted that featured a Black American. You can read more about this in “Coining Liberty: The Challenge of Commemorating Black History.”
Hathaway’s plaster casts remind us of the importance of acknowledging Black accomplishments. Others followed his examples.
Benjamin Akines (c1904–?), a bricklayer and brick mason living in Jackson, Mississippi, knew of Henry Ford’s interest in and respect for Carver’s work. Akines gave Ford a bust of the Black scientist in 1941, four years before Hathaway sent his two casts to Ford.
Bust of George Washington Carver, circa 1941. / THF170783
Akines sent the plaster bust and a letter directly to Henry Ford: “Enclosed you will find a token (in the form of a bust) of one of whom I am told you esteem very highly … I trust this will mean a moment of happiness to you.” Akines claimed that he “was divinely inspired to model,” though he worked as a bricklayer. The back of the bust represents the work of a bricklayer, sculpted with a cut stone foundation with a laid brick pier. This brickwork was his signature, as Akines included bricks in other creative works. On November 10, 1931, he received a patent for an ornamental clock case in the form of a brick façade and sides (Patent Des. 85,507).
Bust of George Washington Carver, circa 1941, Cast by Benjamin Akines. / THF170784
Eager to share his efforts, Akines communicated his news to the Chicago Defender, the Black newspaper in the then second-largest U.S. city, Chicago, Illinois. It reported that “Akines, a bricklayer who indulges in sculpturing as a hobby,” gave Ford a plaster cast of Carver, and that Ford’s secretary and Carver himself acknowledged his generosity (“Bricklayer-Sculpturor [sic] is Lauded for Bust of Carver,” July 12, 1941).
It is difficult to know whether others who cast busts of Carver influenced Akines’ approach. For example, German-born Steffen Thomas (1906–1990) sculpted a clay model of Carver during a 1936 visit to Tuskegee. This was the model from which he cast the sculpture recognizing Carver’s 40 years of service to Tuskegee. The gift received media coverage at the time Carver received it in 1937 and appeared prominently during the dedication of the Carver Museum in 1941, given its location on a plinth outside the museum.
George Washington Carver and Austin W. Curtis, Jr., at Tuskegee Institute with Sculpture by Steffen Thomas, circa 1938. / THF213732
These last two examples indicate more recent commemorations of Black historical figures. One represents a respectful but commercial venture, and the other an exceptional recognition.
Commemorative Bust of Rosa Parks (1913–2005), designed by Sarah’s Attic, Inc., 1995. / THF98391
A popular Michigan-based figurine manufacturer, Sarah’s Attic., Inc., released a limited-edition bust of rights activist Rosa Parks in 1995. Cast of synthetic resin and hand-painted, it was one of four “Faces of Courage” in the Black Heritage Collection. The others featured abolitionist Harriet Tubman, a Buffalo Soldier, and a Tuskegee Airman. The Rosa Parks bust was one of 9,898 made and distributed through a commercial contract, with Sarah’s Attic holding the copyright and Rosa Parks holding the license.
Commemorative Bust of Detroit Lions Tight End Charlie Sanders (1946–2015), 2007. / THF165543
This cast metal bust of the Detroit Lions’ legendary tight end Charlie Sanders exists because of his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Hall commissioned Tuck Langland, an artist and retired university educator, to cast Sanders. Langland first created a bust out of clay based on photographs and a visit with Sanders. That clay statue became the model for the cast bronze bust displayed in the Hall of Fame Gallery in Canton, Ohio, and the copy presented to Sanders (and later donated to The Henry Ford).
So many variables exist in the business of commemoration.
When Isaac Scott Hathaway created respectful sculptures of Black Americans, he challenged white exceptionalism. Who decided who received recognition? Hathaway. What criteria informed his decisions? He selected subjects he respected, but as an educator, he selected people with lessons to teach, and as a businessman, he selected subjects that would sell. Disagreements over selections can derail seemingly straightforward acknowledgment.
What form should the recognition take? Hathaway mass-produced inexpensive plaster casts. Others create one-of-a-kind sculpture or mass-produce limited-edition items. Other recognition in the form of a historical marker or a street sign can draw attention to places of significance and the people who lived there.
Recognition of Black accomplishments remains important—in fact, critical—to understanding the human experience.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “The New Negro and the Black Image: From Booker T. Washington to Alain Locke.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center.
“The Hathaway Family: A Journey from Slavery to Civil Rights,” a paper compiled by scholars Yvonne Giles, Reinette Jones, Henri Linton, Brian McDade, Quantia "Key" M. Fletcher, and Mark Wilson, based in materials at these institutions: Alabama State University, Montgomery, Alabama; Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama; the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum, Lexington, Kentucky; the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, Little Rock, Arkansas; Tuskegee University Archives, Tuskegee, Alabama; the University Museum and Cultural Center, University of Arkansas Pine Bluff, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. (n.d.).
“Isaac Scott Hathaway,” a product of the Appalachian Teaching Project, Auburn University, and the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center (2012).
"Isaac Scott Hathaway: Artist and Teacher," Negro History Bulletin, vol. 21, no. 4 (January 1958), pp. 74, 78-81.
Perry, Rhussus L. Federal Writers’ Project Interview of Isaac Hathaway. February 2, 1939. Folder 60, Coll. 03709, Federal Writers' Project papers, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Register, Heather. “Isaac Scott Hathaway (1872-1967).” Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
Zinkula, Jacob. “South Bend Artist Busts His Way into Football Hall of Fame.” South Bend Tribune. 13 July 2015.
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford, and sends appreciation to Saige Jedele and Sophia Kloc for comments that strengthened this post.
teachers and teaching, education, making, George Washington Carver, Rosa Parks, by Debra A. Reid, art, African American history