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Special to the Enquirer/Lee Greene A high-quality scan of the watercolor and charcoal portrait of Caston McDaniels shows one of two confirmed images of him and the only image of his wife.

Artwork reignites interest in Hartselle history

A watercolor-on-charcoal rendering of a man and his wife from the early 1900s has led to a reignited interest in early Hartselle history after it was determined to be a portrait of Caston McDaniels. 

A popular Hartselle man and leader in education, McDaniels helped form the Rosenwald School and the Morgan County Training School, which would ultimately spark a strong tradition in education that continues today. 

Lee Greene, local business owner and vice president of the Hartselle Historical Society, said he first became aware of the portrait when a genealogist found it in a Hartselle antique shop. He said he went down to the shop and compared the portrait to the only other confirmed image of McDaniels and determined it to be a match. 

“This is the only other image of him, and the only image of his wife, that we have ever seen,” Greene said. “McDaniels was a mason; he was very influential and was an educator. We thought that he was wearing a cleric’s collar, but I think it was just a high collar worn during the turn of the century. 

“The reason we thought it seemed interesting was the frame appears to be original, and it appears to be the early 1900s timeframe,” Greene added. 

Dr. Wylheme Ragland also studies history in Morgan County and said McDaniels was passionate about education. Ragland said McDaniels spent more than 30 years working to bring educational opportunities to children of color. “Education was extremely important to him; he wanted to provide them with a solid education that would allow them to go into vocational or academic (careers),” Ragland said. “We hear a good deal about skills education now; that’s really nothing new. Professor McDaniels was really known for that.” 

Both Greene and Ragland agreed McDaniels was essential in securing funding for the Rosenwald School in Hartselle. Ragland said McDaniels even donated five acres of his own land to help make the school a reality. 

The rest of the funding was earned through the community, school board and grants from the Rosenwald Foundation, which matched the contributions from the community to provide quality education in rural areas. 

“They realized education was the only way to break the cycle of poverty,” Greene said. “The trade school turned out a tremendous number of graduates and people going on to do great things.” 

After examining the portrait of McDaniels, Greene and Ragland have determined it was most likely completed by one of his students and likely was displayed in the school. “The picture is not professionally done, and it is not a painting. It’s watercolor on charcoal,” Greene said. “It’s not signed, so it’s not professionally done; it looks like it was student done. 

“If that’s the case, and it seems to be, it was probably one of the kids in the school before the Rosenwald School or afterwards.” 

To Ragland, the portrait represents the esteem with which McDaniels was held. 

“He was well thought of in the community. He was the foundation for education, especially for people of color, not only in Hartselle but north Alabama,” Ragland said. “He had a very solid name. Hartselle has great treasures, and Professor McDaniels is one of those hidden treasures that would make Hartselle very, very proud.” 

The portrait of McDaniels will now be relocated. “It is going to hang in the Morgan County Task Force Tutoring Room so they can see their heritage and how education was fought for by their early ancestors and folks here in town,” Greene said. “It has been a very important aspect of this community ever since, and it continues to this day. It started with him; he put his own money into the school and firmly believed in it.” 

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