Viola Green
June 1, 1916
from the Holsinger Studio Collection
Education was a critical issue for African Americans in the years following Emancipation and into the 1900's. Literacy had a highly charged history. By the 1850's teaching a slave to read or write was a criminal act in most southern states. In the late 1800's literacy requirements disenfranchised countless would be voters.

Education was the cornerstone of the "New Negro's" identity as it was the means of attaining other middle-class characteristics such wealth and culture. The importance of providing sons and daughters with educational opportunities, which took precedence over current material prosperity, reflected the "New Negro's" orientation toward the future.

Frances Benjamin Johnston,
The old-time cabin, 1899.
From the Collections of the Library of Congress.

Frances Benjamin Johnston,
A Hampton Graduate's home, 1899.
From the Collections of Library of Congress.

These photographs were taken by a white professional photographer, Frances Benjamin Johnston and were commissioned in 1899 by Hollis Burke Frissel, then president of the Hampton Institute. Founded by Colonel Samuel Chapman Armstrong in 1868 for recently freed slaves, its students included Native Americans by the end of the century. The Hampton Institute provided these children with an education in industrial arts and teaching. Frissel commissioned these photographs specifically for the "American Negro" exhibit in the Paris Exhibition of 1900. They reflect the promise of the Hampton Institute and, indeed, of education in general, to transform its students into members of the middle class. These two images are part of a "set of six family portraits compris[ing] a "before and after" series that demonstrate the upward class mobility of Hampton graduates. Run-down shacks turn into sparkling white mansions through the Hampton metamorphosis"1

The following images document the value placed on education.

Tuskegee, Alabama
Instructor and Three Graduates with Diplomas and Geraniums

Gelatine-Silver Print, circa 1900.

Large group of nurses posing outdoors
Gelatine-Silver Print, 1918.
from Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photography and Prints Division.

Class of 1900. Ga. State Ind. College.
Motto: Diligentia non astutia. (original caption).

Gelatin-Silver Print, 1900.
from Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photography and Prints Division.

Books used as a backdrop or a prop in studio portraits imply an education and the material wealth that it ideally brings. Books and library backdrops such as the one in the Holsinger photographs were used by many photographers at the time for clients of all races, reflecting education's importance in America, in general. The fact that these subjects (or their guardians, as in the case of the children) chose literary props as part of their pictorial representations demonstrates the value of education specifically in black America.

Portrait of a young girl holding a book.
Gelatin-Silver Print, 1900. From Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Lillie Arnett
September 19, 1914
from the Holsinger Studio Collection

Ruth Anderson
July 31, 1915
from the Holsinger Studio Collection
Emma Beak
June 29, 1914
from the Holsinger Studio Collection

Popular documentary and commercial images of blacks in the nineteenth and early twentieth century overwhelmingly show, not the educated professionals implied above, but manual laborers. The four images that follow: "Looking for a job," "Nigger in the wood pile," "Negro, the photographer's assistant" and "Pleasant dreams" were produced as postcards and prints by the Detroit Publishing Company, all between 1900 and 1920. They show people looking for work, engaged in work, and avoiding it -- common caricatures of African Americans at the time.

Looking for a job
between 1900-1906
Detroit Publishing Company
Dry plate negative

Negro, the photographer's assistant
between 1900-1910
Detroit Publishing Company
Dry plate negative

Nigger in the wood pile, 1905
Detroit Publishing Company
Dry plate negative

Pleasant dreams
between 1890-1910
Detroit Publishing Company
Dry plate negative

The Detroit Publishing Company began as the Detroit Photographic Company in the late 1890's. It was profitable until World War I, when competing companies used newer, less expensive printing technologies. It is unlikely that a commercial company would produce images unless there was a market for them. These pictures then, especially when coupled with their titles, reveal popular conceptions of African Americans at the time.

Interestingly, the Detroit Publishing Company also produced images of black schools, such as the Hampton Institute and Tuskegee University. There are ten images of such institutions that are part of the Detroit Publishing Company Collection. All ten are views of campuses. Those images that are of students, are captured at such a wide angle that their faces are indistinguishable. Of the collection's twenty-four images of laborers, however, most focus on a single individual or small group.

A Southern chain gang
between 1900-1906
Detroit Publishing Company

Stripes but no Stars
Thomas H. Lindsey (Asheville, North Carolina), circa 1892
Silver, Silver-Platinum or Platinum print, 5x8 inches

"Stripes but no Stars" was produced by the Thomas H. Lindsey Studio in North Carolina. His catalogue of photographs for sale, indicates that most of his work depicts North Carolina scenery. This image, however, belongs to a category which, "represented all kinds of characters and comic subjects"3.

Convict labor was a significant part of the Southern work-force in the post-Emancipation years. Julie Browne explains:
After the Civil War, the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery for all people except those convicted of a crime. Legally allowing any such individual to be subjected to slavery and involuntary servitude opened the door for mass criminalization: a social mechanism designed to bar the liberty and equality that was the promise of emancipation from slavery. When African Americans were no longer legally held as slaves or property, there was a tremendous increase in the number of African-American convicts... When slavery was legally abolished, the Slave Codes were rewritten as the Black Codes, a series of laws criminalizing legal activity for African Americans. Through the enforcement of these laws, acts such as standing in one area of town or walking at night, for example, became the criminal acts of "loitering" or "breaking curfew" for which African Americans were imprisoned. In the late 19th-century South, an extensive prison system was developed in the interest of maintaining the power, race, and economic relationships of slavery.4

Often, photographs of African Americans hard at work were simple records of socio-economic conditions of the time. Rufus W. Holsinger took hundreds of studio portraits of African Americans. It is highly doubtful that his black customers would have continued to patronize him if they did not like how he represented them. His sensitive and beautiful photographs attest to a respect for his black customers. Holsinger also documented life in Charlottesville, Virginia in the early 1900's. He has many photographs of downtown Charlottesville and the University of Virginia. The overwhelming majority of those photographs that include African Americans, show them performing manual or menial labor, such as this image from 1918. The overwhelming majority of his studio portraits, however, depict them in the clothing typically worn by the professional middle class. This disparity reveals the crucial distinction between studio portraits, commissioned by the subject, and documentary images, initiated and controlled by the photographer. The best documentary photographs capture people as they are. Most capture people as the photographer understands them to be. Studio portraits aim to depict people as they wish to be.

Sources and Resources