Culmer Family Papers:
Harold Harcourt Culmer was a black West Indian medical doctor. He was born on March 6, 1908, and was raised on Cat Island, Nassau, Bahamas (now known as San Salvador). The 5′4″ stocky man received his Bachelor of Science degree and later medical degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. (Class of 1930 and 1935, respectively). His wife, Etta Williams Culmer, was a school teacher prior to her marriage to Harold Culmer. Born on September 18, 1914, the 5′10″ stately Etta grew up in Monroe, Union County, North Carolina. Harold and Etta met in Monroe, after Harold came there to complete his medical residency at the local black hospital. Harold Culmer and Etta Williams were married in Monroe, North Carolina, on December 24, 1942.
During World War II, the United States faced a shortage of physicians, and Texas was home to more military camps than any other state. Harold and Etta Culmer moved to Texas. Though his medical specialty was the treatment of tuberculosis. Harold Culmer established himself in the practice of Family Medicine. Unlike the East Coast, there were few black hospitals in Texas and only one existed in Dallas--Pinkston Hospital. Black hospitals were privately owned by black doctors. The doctors could not treat patients in county hospitals. Dr. Culmer, as did many black doctors, built his practice by making house calls. For the remainder of his professional career in Dallas, Dr. Harold Culmer never affiliated with a hospital. His patients were treated at home at his clinic. His first clinic was located in the Green Building in black North Dallas. His last clinic was located on Gaston Avenue, near Baylor Hospital in Dallas.
As the Culmers became more and more affluent, they travelled extensively. In 1951 they took a trip to Havana, Cuba. There they adopted a two-year old toddler, Miguel Gregorio. He was born on July 29, 1949. The child, who had been born to a black Cuban father and a white Cuban mother, had been placed in an orphanage. Miguel was educated at the all black St. Phillips Catholic School. It was located in the historic Thomas Avenue-State Street neighborhood. He attended Houston-Tillotson College and Prairie View A&M College, but eventually graduated from Dallas' Bishop College. Though the dates are uncertain, it is known that Miguel entered into three marriages. Two of the marriages ended in annulments. The third marriage was to Beverly (her maiden name is unknown). By 1993, the marriage had lasted some thirteen years, but it also (along with other matters) resulted in Miguel's estrangement from both of his parents. Miguel Gregorio was not favored in the Last Will and Testaments of Harold and Etta Culmer. Miguel won a court challenge to the provisions of the will, which heavily favored Etta Williams Culmer's relatives. Miguel survived both of his parents following their deaths in 1993. Since the death of his mother, Miguel Gregorio Culmer's whereabouts are unknown as of 1997.
The Culmer family lived at 6633 Aubrey Street, Dallas, Texas, for fifty years. The black neighborhood was referred to by some as "Elm Thicket" or "North Park," depending upon the oral history statements of old Dallas natives. The pink two-story wood frame house was located off Mockingbird Lane, one city block from the entrance to Dallas' Love Field Airport. After the death of Etta Williams Culmer, the home was purchased by a national car rental company. Court documents appraised its value in 1993 at $78,790.00. The house was demolished and was used by the company to expand its location. Much of the home's expensive furnishings--oriental rugs, an organ which Etta Williams Culmer played with great enjoyment, silver service pieces, and art work--disappeared.
The Culmers placed great value in familial relationships. Etta was the oldest of fourteen children. Harold was the eldest of three siblings--one brother and one sister, Rachel Culmer Williams. They loved pets and travelled by automobile with their chow dog.
The Culmers' interests could be divided into three categories--medical profession, civil rights, and cultural pursuits. While Harold Culmer's activities focused primarily on medical interests, the Episcopal Church and his fraternity, Alpha Pi Alpha (the oldest black men's Greek organization, established in 1906 at Howard University, Washington, D.C.), Etta's concerns were more extensive and far reaching. She was a charter member of the Dallas chapter of Links, Inc., and was historian until her death, of the oldest black women's social club in Dallas, the Priscilla Art Club established in 1911.
The Priscilla Art Club was one of the most prestigious, if not elitist clubs for African American women in Dallas, and as of 1997, remains so. The club's maximum membership was set at twenty-five. Twenty-three women of "good moral character" began to build an organization, the motto of which was, "Art and Beauty, Home and Duty." The motto has lasted eighty-six years as of this writing in 1997.
The women who were the wives of businessmen, preachers, teachers, doctors, lawyers and bureaucrats in the years following Plessy v. Ferguson in Texas, sought to create a life of gentility amidst the harsher reality of life under "Jim Crow," Texas style. The women met every Tuesday afternoon promptly at 3:30 PM. They would rotate their meetings, which were always held in a member's home. (This practice subsided after 1964 when public accommodations became available via civil rights legislation). The names of some of the original members are found on buildings, school houses and educational scholarships. Initially membership was restricted to any woman of good moral character, but later was restricted to matrons only.
The club members were firmly steeped in their religious beliefs. It is presumed, therefore, that the name of the club, "Priscilla," was chosen for its association with a biblical character who was a helpmate to her husband, a tent maker and an associate of the Apostle Paul of Tarsus.
The club's activities focused on subjects of interest to married women. Their primary focus, however, centered on the quest for refinement and domesticity. The housewives held gatherings when they made quilts (called "quilting bees"). They read books and poetry, often by African American authors and poets. They created what they considered to be artistic projects, and they presented these projects once per year.
Invitations were extended to prospective members who met the criteria of being wives of excellent moral character and who were considered members of an elite social strata. As was the custom of the day, and being one or two generations removed from the bonds of slavery, social etiquette was enormously important to these women. As a result, at Priscilla meetings the women referred to each other by their formal married names. As Mrs. Ella M. Bailey explained, "The ladies of the club were very sensitive about the fact that they were often referred to as `girl' by racist whites." Referring to each other by their husband's names reinforced the legality of their status as married women (something slaves did not enjoy until Reconstruction) and reinforced their social standing as being married to men who were on parallel status (if only in name) with white society. Formality of this nature was also in keeping with the traditions of the day.
The foci of the Priscilla Art Club changed with time. Though the original members were housewives, the Industrial Revolution and two World Wars took African American women into the workplace far sooner than their white sisters. Many even became social activists. Education, women's suffrage, and children's rights became increasingly important to the members of the organization. The changes in the club's social and political consciousness took the form of financial contributions it made to various organizations, e.g. the American Bible Society, a children's day care center, the United Way, the Negro Chamber of Commerce, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Negro College Fund, and the Progressive Voters League.
The club has produced "Yearbooks" every two years since its inception. These books list the members, motto, colors (Baby Blue and Royal Purple), meeting calendar, and addresses and birthdays of its members.
Membership in the Priscilla Art Club is for a lifetime unless a member leaves the city, is absent from three or more meetings or dies.
The club does not engage in fund raising, but maintains itself only by means of dues from the members. The social events which moved from the homes to outside locations over the years included costume parties, Easter and Christmas banquets and soirees.
The Priscilla Art Club replenishes members by invitation based upon the referral of friends within the organization. The invitation is issued only after a member has died or left the city. Some members may take a sabbatical, going on inactive status thereby becoming an honorary member. All members must agree upon the acceptance of a new member.
The club makes an effort to remain true to the founders' by-laws and constitution, however, the demands of the late twentieth century have reduced the meeting times to once monthly in the evenings.
Harold and Etta Culmer were socially active and prominent in civic and religious organizations. Though Etta grew up as a Methodist in North Carolina, she became an Episcopalian to accommodate her husband's religious upbringing. They helped to establish Epiphany Episcopal Church, a small predominantlyAfrican American congregation in the Oak Cliff section of southwest Dallas.
Harold Culmer died on February 4, 1993, of heart failure. He was eighty-four years old. His wife, Etta Williams Culmer, died on September 4, 1993, after a fifteen year battle with a form of leukemia commonly referred to as "L.L.L." She was seventy-eight. Both of the funeral services for the Culmers were held at St. Matthew's Episcopal Cathedral on Ross Avenue in Dallas, Texas. Harold and Etta Culmer's remains are interred in a mausoleum located in Monroe, North Carolina. Their estate was estimated to have been valued at about $498,104.05.
The Culmer Family Papers, in two legal size document boxes and one oversize box, are composed primarily of photographs and color slides. The collection did not contain documents, such as letters, diaries, or other forms of personal correspondence which would provide a more detailed view into the lives of the Culmer Family. There are, however, a few newspaper clippings, event programs, and subject specific newspapers. The subject of the materials is career achievements of friends and associates as opposed to current events or community news. Some of the materials are newsletters specifically on the issues of education. This interest would be consistent with Mrs. Culmer's interests as a former school teacher in her native North Carolina. In spite of materials of limited value, the record of the Culmer Family is found exclusively in the black and white and occasional color picture which comprise this collection. The collection also contains historical documents about the Priscilla Art Club. This organization is the oldest African American women's club in Dallas, formed in 1911. These materials are much more revealing about the social lives of middle to upper middle class African American women over the course of some seventy years. Finally, the oversize box contains a scrapbook and home movies transferred to a T-120 video tape. The home movies are random and of extremely poor quality. It is difficult to identify any coherent definition of subject, place or time in the home movies. There is also a guest book containing the names and addresses of guests at a Priscilla Art Club function in 1973. This book provided the means by which to interview and verify membership in the historic organization.
There are no means by which to identify the subjects, locations, or time during which the photographs were taken. The Culmers were reputed to be extremely private individuals so all that is known about them is to be found within the photographs and color slides. Interviews with old friends and acquaintances helped to provide some insight about the lives of the Culmers. Additionally, the review of public documents also contributed to definitive revelations about the Culmer family. These materials, which were not a part of the original collection, may be available upon request. The items are currently housed in the collection's holding file.
The time period which the predominantly black and white photos depict range from the 1930s to the late 1970s. They reflect the family life of an African American family (Probably in North Carolina, Cuba, Washington, D.C., and possibly Dallas). In spite of the fact that both Dr. and Mrs. Culmer came from extremely humble beginnings, they reached a pinnacle of social and economic success uncommon for many African Americans, and one which challenged the stereotypes of social descriptions of the 1960s. The Culmers realized the "American Dream" for most of their married lives, but also experienced the American family's nightmare as they struggled to handle the problems of drugs, addiction, the social unrest of the 1970s and their adopted son. It is, nevertheless, very poignant that Dr. Culmer, who became to the United States as an immigrant, succeeded in the South at a time when America was in the beginning throes of the Great Depression and at a time when America was its most segregated. Toward that end, only one white person--a priest--is seen in the color slides. The photos are of children in cowboy costumes, children with pets (a chow dog), what may be a family reunion, children riding bicycles, teenage girls in frivolous poses, parties, men in social gatherings and women in similar activities, and pictures of infants and toddlers (possibly Miguel Culmer). Harold Culmer was never a member of the United States military, but there are photographs of African American men (unidentified) in the collection, and one large group photograph of an African American army company. There are couples who appear to be romantically involved. They may be members of the Williams family as Etta Williams Culmer had twelve living brothers and sisters, of whom she was the oldest. All in all, the photographs depict happy times. The single photograph of a grave is laden with flowers. There is nothing to indicate the identity of the occupant or relationship to Harold or Etta Culmer.
The socially prominent Culmers were members of numerous civic and social service organizations. One such group, of which Mrs. Culmer was historian until her death in 1993, was the Priscilla Art Club. This portion of the collection (Box 2) is a testimony to the genteel lives of some African Americans just after the turn of the century. Moreover, this segment of the collection documents not only social mores, religious values, and aesthetic values contributing to the quality of life of blacks in a southern city at a time when the Ku Klux Klan was extremely active, but acts as a documentary of southern urban blacks who managed to create a social elite, a politically sophisticated elite, and an active elite that emerged from under the weight of "Jim Crow." It is a view of women in a domestic setting that does not center on the black woman's place in the domestic lives of southern whites. Most historical pictures see the African American woman as a crusader or domestic, but seldom as the homemaker who exclusively devotes her time and energies to the care of her own family and home. This is not to suggest that the economic conditions of African Americans were in any way equal to those of whites during the period, but it is to suggest that there was some manner of a stratified caste system among blacks similar to whites.
The historical materials about the Priscilla Art Club are in relatively good condition. The Yearbooks, which are very informative about the club members in so far as their addresses and amenities (i.e. telephones in 1914), give some idea of the economic status of these women. Photographs, which appear to be dated from the very late 1930s to the 1980s, show faces of the women, fashion, art projects, and events. Some of the photographs were taken by famed African American photographer, R.C. Hickman. Others who documented Dallas black life were photographers Dewitt and Bell, respectively. These photographers were often invited into the homes of the members to document their luncheons, brunches, costumes parties, and photograph group shots of the members annually. There is a biography (author unknown) of one of the founders, Mrs. J. L. Patton. There are obituaries of two other founders, Mrs. Hendricks and Mrs. Dyson. Regrettably, there is no correspondence or minutes which record the "voices" of the women over the decades. There are a few financial records in the form of cancelled checks. These documents, dating from the late 1940s through the 1950s, show an interesting change in the social and political awareness of the women. They proceed from contributions to day care centers to the Progressive Voters League, later the Negro College Fund, and later yet, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The collection was originally found in a garage sale and purchased by a dealer, David Grossblatt of Dallas. The materials were eventually purchased by the University of Texas at Arlington on July 3, 1995. Prior to the demolition of the Culmer home, which was located at 6633 Aubrey Street in Dallas, the materials had gone unclaimed by the family, Culmer estate and members of the Priscilla Art Club. Photographs were loose, slides were housed in the boxes which came from the development laboratory over thirty years ago, and the 8mm (eight millimeter) home movies were in their laboratory processing canisters. Priscilla Art Club yearbooks were in highly acidic scrapbooks secured by rusting brads. Some news clippings were on adhesive backings in an oversize scrapbook. Yearbooks were beginning to deteriorate from lack of proper preservation. Financial records were sparse, inconsistent, and randomly unsecured in the box containing the collection.
All materials were arranged alphabetically by subject matter. The most significant problems with the collection were the inability to identify subjects, places or occasions; and, the lack of continuity in financial records of the Priscilla Art Club. Moreover, no part of the collection contained personal correspondence (as was earlier stated), which would provide insight or enlightenment as to the nature and personal behavior of any of the subjects. There are no written documents which provide a more detailed picture of the people. There are no early photographs of the Priscilla Art Club members contained in this collection. Also lacking are contemporary photographs of club members after the 1970s. The kinds of personal items which tell the stories defining the lives of the Culmers or members of the Priscilla Art Club are missing from the collection. Yet, the yearbooks do contain programs and other such notes which say a great deal as do the photographs of the Culmer family. From 1914 to 1993, the yearbooks provide some revelations as to the club's interests. The financial records, though sporadic and incomplete, show the evolution of the club's interests from concerning itself with the home to more sophisticated and timely issues of the day.
While the Culmer collection might be considered a small one, it does offer insight to those with the background in African American history to evaluate the materials against the stereotypes presented of African American life in the South.
Open for research.
Literary Rights Statement
Permission to publish, reproduce, distribute, or use by any and all other current or future developed methods or procedures must be obtained in writing from Special Collections, The University of Texas at Arlington Library. All rights are reserved and retained regardless of current or future development or laws that may apply to fair use standards.
Culmer Family Papers, AR395, Box Number, Folder Number, Special Collections, University of Texas at Arlington Library.
The Culmer Family Papers were purchased by the University of Texas at Arlington. Dr. Gerald Saxon, Associate Director of the Library and Director of Special Collections, received the materials from David Grossblatt, a dealer. The materials were taken possession of by the University in 1995. The collection was purchased in its entirety from the dealer.
Finding aid prepared by Marilyn A. Walton, May 16, 1997.
In processing the collection, it was necessary to organize photographs and color slides by subject category and then to alphabetize them. There was no means available by which to identify the individuals, pets, places or time periods except by clothing styles or automobile models. The photographs were placed in acid-free folders, interleaved and then placed in acid-free, lignin-free boxes. Slides and negatives were placed in acid-free polypropylene jackets and sleeves followed with placement in acid free folders, then lignin-free document boxes. The Priscilla Art Club materials were methodically preserved as well. The club's yearbooks were transferred to acid-free folders with interleaf sheets, and placed by chronology in acid-free lignin-free boxes. The same procedure was used with photographs as well. The home movies were transferred to one T-120 VHS tape. The original movies, along with the transferred VHS, and one oversize scrapbook and the odd-shaped guestbook were placed in an oversize box.