Edwin Augustus Harleston was a founding member of the Charleston, SC chapter of the NAACP in 1917. He served as the chapter’s first present; by the 1920s he had also established himself as a portrait artist.
Harleston was born on March 14, 1882. He was one of eight children of Louisa Moultrie Harleston and Edwin Galliard Harleston, a prosperous former coastal schooner captain who owned the Harleston Funeral Home.
He won a scholarship to study at the local Avery Normal Institute, from which he graduated as valedictorian in 1900. He went on to study at Atlanta University, where he majored in chemistry and sociology. He and W. E. B. Du Bois took classes together and became lifelong friends.
After graduating in 1904, Harleston stayed on for a year as a teaching assistant in both sociology and chemistry while planning the next step in his education. Harleston was admitted to Harvard University, but decided to attend the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s school. While attending the Boston Museum of Fine Art’s School, he studied under the painters William McGregor Paxton and Frank Weston Benson from 1905 to 1913.
When his father fell ill, Harleston returned to South Carolina to help run the family business funeral home. He became active in local civil rights groups and in 1917 rose to be president of Charleston’s newly formed branch of the NAACP. One campaign he led succeeded in getting the local public school system to hire a black teacher.
Harleston painted in a realist style. He mostly painted portraits, often on commission, and his sitters included notables such as Grace Towns, who later became the first African-American woman elected to the Georgia General Assembly and Edward Twitchell Ware, a former president of Atlanta University. Harleston died in Charleston on May 10, 1931.