Culmer Family Papers


Culmer Family Papers


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 The collection also contains historical documents about the Priscilla Art Club.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.


Culmer, Harold--Archives.
Culmer, Etta--Archives.
Priscilla Art Club (Dallas, Tex.)--Archives.
African Americans--Texas--Dallas--Archives.
Priscilla Art Club (Dallas, Tex.)--Records.


Culmer family.


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Items in the Culmer Family Papers Collection

Priscilla Art Club, Dallas; members posed outside beside a building, unidentified and no date [ca. 1950s-60s]

Priscilla Art Club, Dallas: members present plants to residents of South Dallas Nursing Home, 03/19/1980; Mrs. Frank Jordan (president), Mrs. Tiny Hawkins (admin. Of home), Mrs. James T. Bailey, Flora Christian (res. Of home), Mrs. Edmond C. Anderson

Priscilla Art Club, Dallas: members posed in living room of a home; Elanor Conrad [name on back]; no date

Priscilla Art Club, Dallas: Holiday Gala at Sheraton Dallas Hotel, Lookout Committee, 12/29/1970

Priscilla Art Club, Dallas: Mrs. R. White, E. Conrad, E. Dillard, V. Hynson, M. Dillard, R. Blackman (president),Social Committee, Soiree held at residence of Mrs. A.W. Brashear; 05/04/1969