William Biggars Family
Wednesday, September 6, 1916

from the Holsinger Studio Collection
Special Collections Department
University of Virginia Library
The black family was highly politicized in the years following emancipation. Bonds of matrimony, paternity and even maternity were given scant consideration under slavery. Against that historical, marriage was a political act, such as voting, in the era immediately post-Emancipation. Popular constructions of the time which characterized the black family as a morally corrupt, degenerate unit certainly heightened this politicization.









While the image below was produced as entertainment, it graphically reveals the prevailing concepts of the black family that Sundquist discusses. The home's squalid conditions, the child's disobedience, the mother's violence, the father's absence and the economic ramifications of that implied absence, are its fundamental characteristics.


Trouble Ahead, Trouble Behind
c. 1880's








Family photographs, such as the one below of the Hawkins extended family, stand out against such popular claims as: "I have never heard a [Negro] refer to his grandfather, and any reference to his parents is rare." William Biggars is the focal point of the 1916 photograph of his family. He is clearly pictured as the proud patriarch and his visual centrality refutes the claim that, "a family sense remains to be developed among the negroes."

Of course, families such as the Biggars and the Hawkins did not commission portraits of themselves as political acts, deliberately to counteract racist claims. In the context of their virulently racist times, however, these family documents are unmistakable assertions of dignity.





J.P. Hawkins Family
August 24, 1917

from the Holsinger Studio Collection
Special Collections Department
University of Virginia Library






Studio portraits are inherently family portraits as family is usually the intended audience. Photographs provided far-flung families with a way to maintain contact. The harsh economic conditions of share cropping and new jobs in the cities led to unprecedented migration in the early decades of the 1900's. Many left the rural South for good and pictures were one way they kept in touch with those they left behind. Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor observed this widespread use of photography: "On visits to my grandmother I remember seeing a studio there [in the 1100 block off Girard Avenue in Philadelphia] where on the weekend a steady stream of southern migrants came, eager to have the camera catch their likeness, to send home so everybody could see how well they were doing in the promised land"4.

These photographs do not merely document identity; they are careful constructions of a new, urban identity. Edward P. Jones sees this phenomenon reflected in this photograph of his mother, Jeanette Santana Majors. While this portrait is not dated, her clothing style puts it close to the 1930s.








Sources and Resources