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Portraits tell stories of Black Virginians in the early 20th century

Bill Hurley's portrait with "magic" match
UVA Holsinger collection
Bill Hurley's portrait with "magic" match

Historians call it part of the Jim Crow era, but as the 1800’s ended and the 20th century dawned, African Americans referred to the Era of the New Negro. Jazz, ragtime and blues were popular. People of color were voting, serving in government and posing for portraits.

In Charlottesville, the Holsinger Studio was the place to go. “It employed roughly 25 people," says UVA history professor John Edwin Mason. "There were photographers, there were retouch artists, there were darkroom technicians, there were retail clerks, there were bookkeepers. It was an enterprise.”

And the studio kept careful records of its customers so that, today, a team of historians and students could search old newspapers, census records, birth, death and marriage certificates to discover the stories of more than 600 African Americans photographed between 1895 and 1925.

“You look at them, presenting themselves with such dignity, with such self-possession, and they look so good, and they’re wearing such nice clothes, and they’re so fashionable that initially when I started working with this collection I thought well this is the black middle class,” Mason says.

In fact, he adds, most of those pictured belonged to the working class – like Bill Hurley, a stable hand, coach driver and jack of all trades.

“He’s wearing a really nice three-piece suit with the tie on, but what really makes it is the self-confident, almost challenging way that he’s looking into the camera’s lens, plus he’s got a cigarette in his mouth and holding a lit match up to the cigarette. This is style. This is panache. This is a kind of swaggering machismo.”

And the studio worked with him to create that image – poised with match in hand.

“It wasn’t actually lit," Mason explains, "but in the early 20th century version of photo-shopping, they were able to work on the negative itself to make it appear as if the match is lit, and the lit match is, of course, what really gives that photograph its magic.”

Lena Taylor's portrait shows a confident woman, comfortable in the photographer's studio.
UVA Holsinger collection
Lena Taylor's portrait shows a confident woman, comfortable in the photographer's studio.

Then there is Lena Taylor – a beautiful young woman wearing a lacy white blouse and an elegant white hat. Her demeanor gives no hint that she earned a living cooking for wealthy Charlottesville families.

“It’s not a challenging gaze, but it is full of self-confidence, full of poise, full of depth," says Mason. "People were not defined by their occupation at the bottom of the economic ladder, and they weren’t defined by their oppression.”

Another photo shows one of the first local ladies to cast a ballot.

“Over 100 African-American women in Charlottesville registered to vote. It was extremely hard to do, and African-Americans were voting in small numbers, but nevertheless doing it, and we have portraits of some of those women who registered to vote right after the ratification of the 19th amendment.”

Dr. Ferguson was active in Republican politics until the party threw its African-American members out.
UVA Holsinger collection
Dr. Ferguson was active in Republican politics until the party threw its African-American members out.

There’s George Ferguson, one of the first black doctors in central Virginia and his son, George Junior.

“Dr. George Ferguson, the father, was very active in the Republican Party here in Charlottesville, in Virginia and at the national level, and that was until 1920 when the Republicans essentially threw all their African-American members out.”

The boy would one day head the NAACP in Charlottesville and sue the city to integrate its schools. A hundred of these photos – some ten feet high – are on display at the Special Collections Library at UVA but a smaller number of portraits will soon hit the road, traveling to schools, churches and community centers around the state.

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Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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