Edward Ball‘s The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family In the Segregated South, published in 2001, didn’t get the deserved attention at the time it was released. According to award winning writer and editor Mae Gentry, granddaughter of artist Edwin ‘Teddy’ Harleston and photographer Elise F. Harleston, whose union and work partnership are recounted in Sweet Hell, its author Edward Ball (Slaves in the Family) was embarking on a tour in September 2011 when the terrorist attacks occurred.
‘Teddy’ and Elise’s love story isn’t the sole focus of The Sweet Hell. There are so many great and unique stories just from one family alone that any of these could make for a great story on film. This is a book with an extensive amount of fascinating details on the rise and legacy of the black Harleston Family, which began during the late 1800’s in South Carolina. The Caucasian art critic and author was contacted by Edwina Harleston Whitlock, daughter of Edwin ‘Teddy’ and Elise Harleston. She had heard of his research on the descendants of his ancestor’s slaves, some of whom he was related to. Edwina, then well into her 80’s, said that they were also related and although not closely, they were cousins.
Ball began working with Edwina and while listening to her personal recollections, he gathered many pieces of correspondence, pictures, scrapbooks and diaries and pieced together the lives and great works of the family’s artists, musicians and pioneers in the early to mid 1900’s. But the story really begins in a dark period of American history. Edwina’s grandfather, Edwin Harleston Sr., was the offspring of white plantation owner William Harleston – who never married a white woman- and his black slave, also his “common-law” wife, Kate. William and Kate had eight children.
The story goes (follow the bouncing ball)…after the death of the white patriarch, his son Edwin “Captain” Harleston began a funeral business, – one of the very first and only black funeral business in the south during the Reconstruction period – which supported the now destitute family in the south post-Civil War. The story then begins to focus on the lives of several of Edwin Harleston’s children and relatives in the early 1900’s including Edwin “Teddy” Harleston, a pioneer painter (torn between the funeral business and his true passion for portrait painting) and civil rights leader – there were only a handful of black artists at the time (1900-1930) in the segregated south – who opened a studio with his wife Elise, a photographer greatly influenced by Teddy; and Harleston Sr.’s daughter Eloise “Ella” Harleston Jenkins, who had an affair with then-married-but-later-widowed orphanage founder Daniel Jenkins – which produced a secret daughter given up for adoption in England, whom they later reconnect with – while helping him run the Jenkins Orphanage, which housed the popular-at-the-time Jenkins Orphanage Band, some who later became black pioneers in American jazz.
You got all that? And that’s just the beginning. It’s a lot of intricate detail, and not only it is informative but all of it is captivating, especially if you are a fan of the history of Jazz, black renaissance and civil rights pioneers in the early 20th century. There are only a few degrees of separation from this family and the main players in black American history during this time, so in essence, this book revisits this era thoroughly but with enthralling and riveting personal accounts left through letters and diaries. Yet for me, the heart of the story was the very touching love story between painter Edwin “Teddy” Harleston – who was good friends with W.E.B Dubois and also key for political involvement in black female teachers becoming employed in the early 1920’s – his fight for dignified representation of black subjects in art, and his photographer wife and partner Elise.
In the following excerpt from the book, which still very much rings true today, Edwin ‘Teddy’ Harleston, who grew weary from seeing slavery and dehumanizing black American memorabilia of the time, writes to his then girlfriend Elise:
“[I want to paint] our varied lives and types with the classic technique and the truth, not caricatures,” he wrote. “To do the dignified portrait and take the picturesque composition of arrangements or scenes, showing the thousand and one interests of our group.”
There are many more picture enclosed in this book, which I highly recommend. Edwin and Elise’s granddaughter Mae Gentry replied to my e-mail regarding any options for the book. She says The Sweet Hell hasn’t been optioned that she knows of, although Ball’s earlier work Slaves in the Family was. Gentry is currently working on a book about Edwin and Elise told from Elise’s point of view. With the aid of their letters, photographs and artwork, which Ms. Gentry owns, the book will provide information not included in Sweet Hell. Ms Gentry also said in her e-mail that, “Perhaps when it’s published, someone will be interested
in film rights.”