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Meet Isaac Scott Hathaway

Isaac Scott Hathaway

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is the fifth and final entry in our September series highlighting the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and several notable faculty and alumni.

Isaac Scott Hathaway was an artist and educator whose life story contains 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. Hathaway’s desire to become an artist was a result of a visit to a museum. At the museum, Hathaway noticed there were no pieces made by or depicting African Americans. At that point, he vowed to represent his people.

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.

Life mask of Booker T. Washington by Isaac S. Hathaway.

Courtesy of the Isaac Scott Hathaway Collection, University Museum and Cultural Center.

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 educational and medical uses. In his spare time, Hathaway also began to make his own pieces, most of which were sculptures. In 1907, Hathaway moved to Washington D.C. and began making sculpture busts of famous African Americans, including his personal hero, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, university president Booker T. Washington, poet Paul L. Dunbar, and scholar W.E.B. Dubois. The medium of most of his pieces was plaster, but he also made some of bronze.

His success had lasting effects. In 1915, Hathaway offered the region’s first course in ceramics at a black institution, Branch Normal College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). 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.

Left to right: Isaac Scott Hathaway, George Washington Carver, and Dr. Frederick Douglass Patterson.

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 the first African American to design a U.S. coin. During his life, Hathaway designed two U.S. coins. His first was the Booker T. Washington Memorial half dollar bearing the face of Booker T. Washington in 1946. His second was the George Washington Carver/Booker T. Washington commemorative half dollar in 1951, which featured George Washington Carver.

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. He is one of the namesakes of the Hathaway/Howard Fine Arts Center at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Hathaway died in Tuskegee in 1967.

Sources:, Wikipedia

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