Isaac Scott Hathaway had more than just a passion for art — he had a passion for people. As the first African-American ceramics teacher at Auburn, and the first African-American to design a coin for the U.S. Mint, he used his skill and love for people to break barriers and make changes.
Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1872, Hathaway didn’t stay put very long. For school, he went to the New England Conservatory of Music’s art department and sculpted busts of well-known African-American role models — his childhood dream. He also later attended the Cincinnati Art Academy.
Hathaway always kept his focus on art, teaching at Keene High School and opening his own art studio. By 1904, he was an established artist and was even asked to make the death mask for Cassius Marcellus Clay, the former ambassador to Russia.
Three years later, he had moved on to Washington DC, where he continued creating masks and sculptures of significant African American figures. He then bounced around from Arkansas — where he taught at Branch Normal College (University of Arkansas Pine Bluff) — and at a high school in Pine Bluff, all placing him in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1937.
After creating the ceramics department at Tuskegee University, he realized that Alabama kaolin clay could be used as a way to make sculptures. He was the first to successfully use the clay as a medium, a huge development as others had attempted to use it and failed.
In 1946, he designed the U.S. half-dollar coin with Booker T. Washington’s face on it for the Fine Arts Commission of the United States Mint. Four years later, when asked to make another coin, he designed one with George Washington Carver.
One of Hathaway’s most significant achievements, however, was beginning his own ceramics class in 1947 at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (Auburn), then an all-white school.
“Professor Hathaway gave excellent lectures in the composition and analysis of clays, slips, glazes, etc., in the development of ceramics as an art,” Marion Spidle, Dean of the School of Home Economics, wrote, “and clearly showed how well qualified he is to make his own formulas using all-Alabama clay.”
At Auburn, he taught students and was able to share his knowledge and love of sculpting without the racial barrier holding him back — a first for the school that wouldn’t see integration for another 16 years.
Auburn led him to Montgomery, where he was the director of ceramics at Alabama State College. He worked there until 1963 when he retired. He passed away on March 12, 1967 in Tuskegee.
Hathaway instilled hope in everyone he came in contact with, showing what hard work can lead to and never letting any circumstances prevent him from his many achievements.
His legacy still lives on at Auburn. In 2013, a group of eight Auburn students — with the help of Mark Wilson, director of Civic Learning Initiatives in the College of Liberal Arts — started working with the Tuskegee Human and Civil Rights Multicultural Center to put his life and work on display.
“It was fun because Audrey Ross, a student, and I were at the archives and found a letter of reference for Hathaway from Dean Marion Spidle of API, talking about his teaching and introducing ceramics in a workshop that summer, which was 16 years before the integration of Auburn,” Wilson says.
Part of the project included making activity kits for other schools and community members to use with their kids. The Auburn students even led a workshop where children could make masks and sculptures similar to Hathaway’s work.
“That really made a connection for us and for the students, that here’s someone we were working on who was a part of Auburn’s history as well as Macon County’s history.”