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Visions of Progress: Portraits of Dignity, Style, and Racial Uplift [—Central Virginia, 1900-1925]

The Picture me as I am exhibition is now on display in-person at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center (JSAAHC). The title Picture me as I am is taken from Frederick Douglass’s “Lectures on Photography”. It is curated by Andrea Douglas and Jordy Yager. Galleries are open Tuesday – Friday 1-6 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. at JSAAHC.

The portraits in this exhibition invite us to see the dignity, resilience, and creativity of the African American community in Central Virginia during the early twentieth century. Community leaders and everyday people sensed that a “new spirit” energized the community locally, as it did across the nation. It was the era of the New Negro.

Paradoxically, it was also the era of Jim Crow segregation. The Black community’s opinions differed on how to “uplift the race.” Some argued that education, enterprise, and etiquette were the keys. Others emphasized protest and political engagement. Most Black people chose strategies that they believed best fit the immediate circumstances that they faced. All agreed that racial unity was essential and that securing the full rights of American citizenship was the goal.

The portraits African Americans commissioned from the Holsinger Studio reflect the spirit of the New Negro era. Many people used the photographs to assert their status as respectable citizens, fully entitled to first-class citizenship. Others emphasized their style and beauty. A few rejected middle-class standards of dress and comportment and embraced new forms of cultural expression—it was, after all, the Jazz Age.

 

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Reuben Gordon (1884-1949), who was born and died in the Greenwood district of western Albemarle County, was a life-long horseman. For over forty years, he was a stable hand, coachman, and, eventually, stable manager on the farm of Randolph and Blanche Ortman. In 1911, he married Elizabeth "Lizzie" Jones Davenport (c. 1875-1973), who worked as a housemaid, perhaps for the Ortman family. The couple had no children.
The Reverend John Osborn Seay (c. 1870-1915), pastor of a Baptist church in Albemarle County, is best known for his hymn, "City of Refuge." He was born in Buckingham County, Virginia, and married Lucy Blakey, of Albemarle County, in 1901. The couple settled in Charlottesville and raised a large family on Cox's Row, where the West Haven housing development now stands. Seay also worked as a janitor at the University of Virginia.
Susie Smith (1891-1961) was born in Albemarle County to Ferrell Smith and Annie Lee Smith. She started work as a chambermaid for a Charlottesvilles family and later became a housekeeper and cook for other families throughout the Charlottesville area. In 1912, Smith married Maryland Brown. She died in 1961 and is buried in a family cemetery in Eastham, Virginia. Susie’s portrait illustrates a sense of style and self that did not rely on white middle-class values.
Talmadge Washington (1890-1980) spent his early adulthood working on the family farm. After marrying Marcella Whindelton, of Albemarle County, the couple lived briefly in Montclair, New Jersey. By 1940, they and their five children had moved back to North Garden. Talmadge worked as a farm laborer and on highway construction crews, while Marcella was a housemaid.
It is likely that James Golden Coles (1897-1975) wanted those who saw his portrait to know that he had fully embraced the spirit of the New Negro era and the Jazz Age. The slang of the day would have described him as "sporty" and his clothes as "spruce." He seems ready for a night out with friends, dancing a two-step to ragtime played on a piano. Coles was one of at least six children born into Charlottesville to William and Addie Coles, of Charlottesville. After he married Martha Brookins, in 1920, the couple made their home in Gospel Hill. He worked for the University of Virginia most of his adult life, beginning as a janitor and later becoming a laboratory technician at University Hospital. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery.
Burnett Watson (1896-1972) was one of at least nine children born to William and Mary Watson, who lived on a farm in the Keswick district of Albemarle County. He served in the U.S. Army during World War I and was discharged after being wounded. He spent the rest of his life in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he and his wife, Marion, raised a family of at least five children. Watson worked as a waiter and, later, as the fountain manager at Fralinger's Salt Water Taffy, on the Atlantic City boardwalk. The taffy is still being made today.
LaFayette "Fayette" Johnson (1895-1957) was born in Staunton, Virginia, and lived there for most of his life. During the years just prior to World War I, he lived in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, where he worked in a Pittsburgh Plate Glass factory. He served in the United States Army during World War I. Like most Black soldiers, he would have hoped to have more opportunity and greater freedom at home after serving his country abroad. If so, he was disappointed. In the years following his return to Staunton, he worked as a general laborer and farm worker.
Hattie Williams (b. circa 1887), Maude Williams (b. circa 1901), and Annie Henderson (1896-1971), members of the same extended family, lived so close to each other in the rural Covesville district of Albemarle County that all three appear on the same sheet in the 1910 federal census. At the time, Hattie, who took in washing at home, was married to Elmo Williams, a railroad worker. Maude and Annie were not yet working outside their homes. In October 1918, the three women almost certainly traveled together to have their portraits made at the Holsinger Studio. Their poses are remarkably similar, they shared a hat, and the younger women shared an overcoat. While these small touches may have been a matter of necessity, they also served to emphasize the family connection.
Hattie Williams (b. circa 1887), Maude Williams (b. circa 1901), and Annie Henderson (1896-1971), members of the same extended family, lived so close to each other in the rural Covesville district of Albemarle County that all three appear on the same sheet in the 1910 federal census. At the time, Hattie, who took in washing at home, was married to Elmo Williams, a railroad worker. Maude and Annie were not yet working outside their homes. In October 1918, the three women almost certainly traveled together to have their portraits made at the Holsinger Studio. Their poses are remarkably similar, they shared a hat, and the younger women shared an overcoat. While these small touches may have been a matter of necessity, they also served to emphasize the family connection.
Hattie Williams (b. circa 1887), Maude Williams (b. circa 1901), and Annie Henderson (1896-1971), members of the same extended family, lived so close to each other in the rural Covesville district of Albemarle County that all three appear on the same sheet in the 1910 federal census. At the time, Hattie, who took in washing at home, was married to Elmo Williams, a railroad worker. Maude and Annie were not yet working outside their homes. In October 1918, the three women almost certainly traveled together to have their portraits made at the Holsinger Studio. Their poses are remarkably similar, they shared a hat, and the younger women shared an overcoat. While these small touches may have been a matter of necessity, they also served to emphasize the family connection.
When Anthony T. Buckner (1845-1923) died, the Daily Progress, Charlottesville's white newspaper, published his obituary on the front page, a rare distinction for a Black man. He had been born into slavery in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. By the time he commissioned this portrait of himself and his granddaughter, Eileen Buckner (1909-1985), he had become one of the most respected merchants in the city. His son, George W. Buckner, who was Eileen's father, wrote the New Negro manifesto that was published in the Charlottesville Messenger in 1921.
Florence Jackson Ward (c. 1855-1939) was born in the St. Anne's district of southern Albemarle County to Louisa Jackson, a free Black woman. Her father, Noah Jackson, a shoemaker, may have been enslaved. David J. Ward's (c. 1855-1926) mother, Jane Christmas, was the enslaved daughter of a North Carolina slave owner, Lewis Yancy Christmas, who acknowledged his children with Jane and freed them and Jane in his will. Florence and David probably met as students at Shaw University, a historically Black school in Raleigh, North Carolina. They married in 1878 in Albemarle County and eventually had 11 children. Early in the marriage, David worked as a waiter in hotels in Charlottesville and at the Homestead resort in Warm Springs, Virginia. By 1906, he had opened a laundry and clothing store in West Main Street, in downtown Charlottesville, which he operated until his death. Florence worked for a time as a private nurse.
Florence Jackson Ward (c. 1855-1939) was born in the St. Anne's district of southern Albemarle County to Louisa Jackson, a free Black woman. Her father, Noah Jackson, a shoemaker, may have been enslaved. David J. Ward's (c. 1855-1926) mother, Jane Christmas, was the enslaved daughter of a North Carolina slave owner, Lewis Yancy Christmas, who acknowledged his children with Jane and freed them and Jane in his will. Florence and David probably met as students at Shaw University, a historically Black school in Raleigh, North Carolina. They married in 1878 in Albemarle County and eventually had 11 children. Early in the marriage, David worked as a waiter in hotels in Charlottesville and at the Homestead resort in Warm Springs, Virginia. By 1906, he had opened a laundry and clothing store in West Main Street, in downtown Charlottesville, which he operated until his death. Florence worked for a time as a private nurse.
Dr. George Ferguson, Sr., (1877-1932) and George Ferguson, Jr., (1911-1993), pictured here with their daughter and sister, Louisa Ferguson (1907-1991), were among the most prominent figures in the history of Charlottesville. Dr. Ferguson was one of the first African American physicians to open a practice in Central Virginia. As a member of the Republican Party, he fought to protect the civil rights of the Black community, until the party's "lily white" movement made African American participation impossible. As president of the local branch of the NAACP, in the 1950s, George, Jr., was a key leader in the movement to desegregate the University of Virginia's hospital and the Charlottesville public schools. Louisa had a long career as a librarian in the Cleveland, Ohio, public library system. Luella Brown Ferguson (1875-1924), the wife of George, Sr., and mother of Louisa and George, Jr., is not pictured in any of the Holsinger Studio portraits.
The portrait of Minnie Anderson McDaniel (1889-1956) shows no trace of the poverty that she experienced most of her life. Indeed, her attire and pose suggest that she was a woman of means. She was born in Nelson County to Robert Anderson, who farmed and worked as a manual laborer, and Betty Jackson Anderson. She commissioned her portrait a year after her marriage to Robert McDaniel (b. 1889), a laborer from Charlottesville. The marriage soon dissolved, and, in 1917, she married George Anderson and relocated to Covington, Virginia, where she worked out of her home as a laundress. She was buried in Covington.
Louise "Lula" Fawcett Cosby (c. 1872-1945) was a Charlottesville seamstress and dressmaker for over two decades, eventually opening her own shop. She married John Cosby, a hotel waiter, in 1893. The couple was married until John's death in 1930.
The seated woman is Nelly Kennedy, born in 1895, to Wallace and Judy Kennedy, who owned a farm in northern Albemarle County. She was probably joined for this portrait by her sisters, Florence (b. 1898) and Sarah (b. 1902).
William "Bill" Hurley (1863-1948) was born into slavery and, as an adult, held the kind of low-wage jobs that racial discrimination forced most Black men to accept. Yet his sense of style and his powerful masculine presence dominate the portrait that he commissioned from the Holsinger Studio. The image demonstrates his refusal to be defined by the roles that a society had prepared for him. As a child, he lived with his mother, Julia Hurley (b. circa 1840), and two sisters in Fredericksville Parish, in northern Albemarle County. He spent most of his adult life in Charlottesville, working as a manual laborer, a porter at the Gleason Hotel, and, for many years, as a coachman and stable hand for J. Samuel McCue, a wealthy white lawyer and former mayor of the city. In 1904, McCue was tried and convicted on charges of murdering his wife, Fannie Crawford McCue. Hurley's testimony at the trial, in which he showed his familiarity with the character of both of the McCues, illustrated the close, yet strictly hierarchical, relationship that often existed between white employers and Black employees. McCue was sentenced to death and, in 1905, became the last person to be publicly hanged in Charlottesville.
Joseph Spears (b. circa 1841-after 1921) and Peggy Spears (circa 1842-1921), the parents of at least five children, owned and operated a farm in the Hickory Hills district of Albemarle County, about three miles south of the University of Virginia.
By the time that he registered for the World War I draft, Frank W. Robertson (b. 1893) had relocated from North Garden, in Albemarle County, to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. There he worked at an attendant in a resort hotel, as did many young Black men from Central Virginia. His parents, John and Mary Robertson, a manual laborer and washwoman, owned a small farm. In the late 1910s, Frank moved to the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area, working first as a manual laborer and later as a grocery store clerk.
When Cora Lee Thompson Ross commissioned her portrait from the Holsinger Studio, she lived in Charlottesville with her husband, James Lemuel Ross, and their five children—four girls and a boy. Cora was a housemaid, and James was a manual laborer. The couple would eventually have several more children—a daughter and two sons. Cora and James remained married until his death, in 1952. By 1920, the family had moved to a farm in Albemarle County. James supplemented the family's income by working as a railroad guard. Cora assumed the duties of a farm wife and mother while also working as a housemaid. Cora returned to Charlottesville in late middle-age, living in Fifeville with two of her children. Cora's portrait befits a woman who had the strength to raise a large family while jointly running a family farm and the style of someone with cosmopolitan tastes. Nothing about it hints that she also spent much of her adult life working as a housemaid in other families' homes. That is precisely the point. As the University of Virginia historian Kevin Gaines has written, "To publicly present one's self ... as successful, dignified, and neatly attired, constituted a transgressive refusal to occupy the subordinate status prescribed for African American men and women."
Although we have not been able to find biographical information about either the man or the woman in this portrait, the unselfconscious intimacy of this portrait illustrates how photographs like this undermined racist stereotypes about Black people, even without being overtly political.
Marie S. Gordon was possibly the daughter of Dudley and Harriet Gordon of Charlottesville. She posed with her diploma from the segregated Jefferson Graded School to commemorate her graduation. It was common for young women in Central Virginia to commission such portraits, typically wearing long white dresses.
William Biggers (1892-1965) and Ellen Bowles Biggers (1891-1955) grew up on farms in the Ivy district of Albemarle County. They are pictured here with their daughters, Ellen, Julia, and Elizabeth. The Biggers married in 1910 and made their home in Ivy. William was, as his World War I draft registration put it, a "man of all work," while Ellen was a homemaker. By 1930, they had moved to Columbus, Ohio, where their combined incomes as a laborer and a laundress enabled them to buy a house. William later established his own house painting business in Columbus, allowing Ellie to stop working outside their home.
Percy Payne (1896-1986) and (probably) Josephine Bowles (1901-1990) married six years after they commissioned this portrait. Both had grown up on small farms in the Ivy district of Albemarle County. Before their marriage, Percy worked as a farm laborer and for the Bethlehem Steel Company in Steelton, Pennsylvania. He served in France during World War I as a member of the U.S. Army's 343 Service Battalion. After the war, he worked for over a decade as a butler for wealthy Albemarle County families while Josephine raised four children at home. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in the early 1940s, where Percy found work in the steel and aluminum industries.
We have not been able to learn anything definitive about Irwin Weiss.
The portrait of Margaret Lewis that Mrs. John E. Shepherd, of Charlottesville, commissioned in 1914 casts her as the devoted nursemaid of a white child. There is no reason to doubt that she was close to both the child and its mother. Lewis died in the Shepherds’ home a year after the Holsinger Studio made the portrait. Her front-page obituary in the Daily Progress identified her as an "old-time colored nurse" who was "kind, gentle, and faithful in all her duties" and "held in high esteem by all who knew her." Neither the portrait nor the obituary, however, hinted at Lewis' most significant role in the city's history. She was much more than a nurse.
Dorothy Zenobia Lias (1895-1923), or her family, probably commissioned this portrait to commemorate her graduation from Charlottesville's Jefferson Graded School. It was common for young women, both Black and white, to pose for graduation portraits in white dresses. It is possible that her mother, Fannie Lias, who was a seamstress, made the dress. Zenobia married Tyree Arthur Barbour in 1913. The couple made their home in Charlottesville's Rose Hill neighborhood. Fannie Lias is notable for having been one of the first women in Charlottesville to register to vote after the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Alice Coles Carter (1879-1936) was born in the Keswick district of Albemarle County to Isaac and Mary Coles and was the widow of Newton Carter. The Carters made their home in Keswick, where Alice was a laundress, working out of her home. Newton was a farm laborer. Late in life, Alice moved to Gospel Hill, the African American neighborhood adjoining the University of Virginia that was demolished in the 1970s and 1980s, when the University built its new hospital and expanded its medical and nursing schools. She was buried in Oakwood Cemetery.
The person in this portrait may be Minnie Dickerson (b. circa 1872), who was born in southwestern Albemarle County to Frank Dickerson, a railroad worker, and Edith Dickerson, a homemaker. The family later moved to Augusta County, Virginia, where Minnie worked in a laundry and her father, Frank, operated a truck farm.

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