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…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 is it 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, to 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 who was also key in the movement for black female teachers becoming employed in the early 1920’s – 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 pictures enclosed in this book, which I highly recommend.
As for a film adaptation, 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.”
You can pick up a copy of the book here.