Isaac Scott Hathaway was an artist and educator who created masks and busts of important African American leaders, and he was the designer of the first two U.S. coins to feature black Americans. His legacy as an educator and artist in Tuskegee and Montgomery, Alabama is significant, and the story of his life has wisdom for all generations.
On April 4, 1872, Isaac Scott Hathaway was born in Lexington, Kentucky to Reverend Robert Elijah Hathaway and Rachel Scott Hathaway. He began formal academic studies at Chandler Junior College in Lexington in 1890, followed by classes in art and dramatics at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. While in Boston he sculpted his first bust, and his subject was Bishop Richard Allen, the first bishop of the African American Episcopal Church. His first formal training in ceramics came from Cincinnati Art Academy.
Hathaway returned home to Lexington to teach at Keene High School from 1897-1902. He opened his first art studio in Lexington, where he made plaster parts of human anatomy for schools and medical uses. In 1907 Hathaway moved to Washington D.C. and began making sculpture busts, including that of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, university president Booker T. Washington, poet Paul L. Dunbar, and scholar W.E.B. Dubois. Hathaway married Ettic Ramplin of South Boston, Virginia in 1912, but she died from complications from the birth of their son Elsmer.
Hathaway offered the region’s first course in ceramics at a black institution in 1915 at Branch Normal College (now University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff), and he taught there and at a high school in Pine Bluff until 1937. He married Pine Bluff native Umer George Porter in 1926. He and Umer moved to Tuskegee, Alabama in 1937 to establish the Ceramics Department at Tuskegee University. Umer earned a degree from Tuskegee and became Isaac’s assistant.
Hathaway made an important discovery in 1945 when he developed Alabama kaolin clay as a medium, and he became the first artist on record to “make the clay behave.” The following year Hathaway was commissioned by the Fine Arts Commission of the United States Mint to design a half dollar with Booker T. Washington as the face and subject of the coin. In 1950 he was commissioned again to make another coin, this time combining both Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.
During the summer of 1947, Hathaway broke a significant racial barrier when he introduced ceramics at the all-white Auburn Polytechnic Institute (Auburn University). “Professor Hathaway gave excellent lectures in the composition and analysis of clays, slips, glazes, etc., in the development of ceramics as an art,” wrote Marion Spidle, Dean of the School of Home Economics, “and clearly showed how well qualified he is to make his own formulas using all Alabama clay.”
Hathaway moved to Montgomery in 1947 and became Director of Ceramics at Alabama State College where he worked until retirement in 1963. Throughout his life he received many awards, including honorary degrees, doctorates, or fine arts awards from various colleges and universities where he helped introduce ceramics as a field of study.
Hathaway passed away at his home in Tuskegee on March 12, 1967.
For more information:
“Isaac Scott Hathaway,” Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture