CHARLOTTESVILLE—During the Jim Crow era, when minstrel shows and racist caricatures accounted for nearly all visual representations of Black people, hundreds of Black Virginians from Charlottesville, Albemarle County and Nelson County commissioned distinguished self-portraits that shattered stereotypes.
The Holsinger Collection exhibit, titled “Visions of Progress: Portraits of Dignity, Style and Racial Uplift,” features photographs taken by well-known Charlottesville photographer Rufus Holsinger. It will be on display at the University of Virginia’s Albert and Shirley Small Collections Library through September 2023.
The collection has the power to change the historical narrative of Black life in Central Virginia during the 19th and early 20th century. The subjects in each portrait commissioned the photos from the University Studio, which was on West Main Street where Mel’s Cafe is now located.
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According to a brochure written by the organizers of The Holsinger Portrait Project, there is no evidence that Holsinger himself was a racial liberal. In fact, as a member of the Charlottesville City Council, he supported an ordinance that segregated residential areas.
“We’ve spent a lot of time learning about what the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson meant and the messages that they sent in support of white supremacy. We haven’t spent very much time learning about what the Black folks were doing,” said John Edwin Mason, a UVa professor of African history and the history of photography.
Mason is the director of the Holsinger Portrait Project.
“This exhibition is all about how Black folks not only survived, but how they, in some ways, morally and psychologically prospered during that time,” Mason said.
The entire studio collection, also stored at the Small Collections Library, includes 10,000 images with 611 portraits of Black subjects. Most of the images in the collection include names and details about who those people were, but the names were determined by who paid for the photoshoot rather than who is in the photos.
The contents of each portrait are unique. Some are of individuals. Some feature family units. Some include photo subjects in traditional early 20th Century formal clothing and others show people dressed in the latest fashions. But each contributes to the variety and diversity of Black Central Virginians at the time.
Modern-day portraits have become a habit for most school children and employees, but the images in the Holsinger Collection were a symbol of resistance to racial oppression and harmful stereotypes.
Although the portraits were taken during a time of tremendous racial injustice and violence, the people in them do not look like what they have been through.
During the early 20th century, job options for Black women were overwhelmingly confined to domestic servant positions, while most Black men worked in hard labor industries. In contrast with the other imagery of Black blue collar employees in the early 1900s, the Holsinger Collection portraits do not feature Black people in soiled work clothes.
“We know that when people imagine what African Americans looked like over 100 years ago in Central Virginia, they do not imagine these beautiful portraits of style and panache,” Mason said.
“They weren’t defined by their oppression. They weren’t defined by their jobs as housemaids or janitors. They were defined by their personal dignity and their conviction that they were equal to anybody else and deserve the full rights to citizenship.”
The research that led to the establishment of The Holsinger Portrait Project began near the end of 20th century. That’s when the late Reginald Butler, a former UVa history professor, and Scott French, the former associate director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute, mounted a small exhibition of portraits from the collection.
That display sparked the idea for The Holsinger Portrait Project, Mason says. That vision finally came to life in 2019 during the first Family Photo Day hosted by the Holsinger Studio at the Jefferson School in an effort to identify some of the photo subjects yet to be named.
The event was a chance to “connect the photographs and names of the past with the ongoing story of African Americans in the Charlottesville region,” according to the Holsinger Studio website.
Families are invited to view images in the collection and even bring family photos of their own, which could also help the studio’s search for lost names.
Family Photo Day set the precedent for The Holsinger Portrait Project’s mission to educate the Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Nelson County and Virginia communities about an untapped area of Black history.
In late 2023, after the exhibition closes at UVa, The Holsinger Portrait Project will go on tour around Virginia, starting with primary and secondary schools. It will use 500 images from the collection to educate young Virginians about the reality, prosperity and hope of the Black people in each image.
About four selected Holsinger portraits
Minnie McDaniel, June 5, 1911: 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.
Dr. George Ferguson, Feb. 22, 1917: 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.
Cora Lee Thompson Ross, June 21, 1911: When Cora Lee 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.
Everything about Cora Lee Ross’ (1884-1969) portrait suggests that she was an extraordinary woman—strong, proud, and wise. Her life story confirms that she faced the triple challenges of racism, sexism, and economic exploitation with an indomitable spirit.
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, “[t]o 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.”
Burnett Watson, Jan. 14. 1919: 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 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. Burnett worked as a waiter and, later, as the fountain manager at Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy, on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Fralinger’s taffy is still being made.
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