Pop-Up Exhibit of African American Portraits Highlights Pride, Hints at History

March 16, 2022 By Anne E. Bromley, anneb@virginia.edu Anne E. Bromley, anneb@virginia.edu

Wearing a stiff hat adorned with small flowers and a fine, lacey blouse, the lone woman gazes directly into the lens – and hence at the viewer, her expression as enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s.

Her identity is currently a mystery, one of the many unknowns surrounding the subjects of about 500 portraits of local African Americans who commissioned the Holsinger Studio, owned by professional Charlottesville photographer Rufus W. Holsinger, to take their pictures in the early 20th century.

University of Virginia associate history professor John Edwin Mason and others, including scholars, students and community members, are on a mission to share these images and perhaps solve some of those mysteries via the Holsinger Portrait Project. A partnership between UVA and the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, the collaborative project is based on the Holsinger Studio Collection, held in the University’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.

A new pop-up exhibition that displays a selection of the portraits through the month of March is set up to entice the public at the Northside branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library.

Mason considers the exhibit a teaser – with just enough information to give context for those viewers who haven’t seen the images or known about the Holsinger Studio Collection.

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Three portraits and two documents hang on a wood-paneled wall
The Holsinger Studio’s portraits of African Americans were made around the same time as the New Negro movement, described in the exhibit.

Although the woman in the hat is unidentified, Mason and researchers have a suspicion about who she is, but are still trying to nail it down, he said. He hopes they can identify her and say more about her life when a more comprehensive exhibition opens in the fall.

A studio fire in 1912 destroyed the Holsinger Studio’s early business ledgers and some negatives, leaving many people in the portraits unidentified. The library collection, acquired in 1978, comprises approximately 9,000 dry-plate glass negatives and 500 celluloid negatives.

“With the Holsinger Portrait Project, we want to change the way people see our history – and I mean, see it literally and understand it,” said Mason, who is co-director of the project. “The exhibition is a way of telling history that doesn’t start with oppression, but with beauty, style, grace and dignity.”

Nowadays it’s commonplace to share selfies taken with smartphones on social media, but it was a big deal to get a photographic portrait made 100 or so years ago. The African Americans in the Holsinger Studio portraits clearly look like they wanted to show themselves in the best light, as a counterweight to the discriminatory forces leading to Jim Crow laws, restrictions and segregation, Mason said.

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Mason studies and teaches the history of photography and has focused on early 19th-century South African history and South African popular culture, including the Cape Town New Year’s Carnival. Several years ago, he served as vice chair of Charlottesville’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces. National Geographic magazine approached Mason in 2018, asking if he would help the magazine examine and acknowledge the racist coverage that predominated so much of its 130-year history.

Researching and promoting the work of photographer Rufus W. Holsinger, who moved to Charlottesville in the 1880s and lived there until his death in 1930, has been occupying Mason in recent years.

Holsinger turned his lens on Charlottesville, capturing both daily life and pivotal moments such as the burning of the Rotunda in 1895. He ran a successful studio, employing about 20 workers, including other photographers. They also took thousands of portraits, including approximately 500 portraits of African American residents in Charlottesville and the surrounding area. (His son Ralph took over the studio and ran it until retiring in 1969 and selling the business, which operated until 1977.)

Two posed black and white portraits of Black women
Individuals and families usually posed in the Holsinger Studio.

In addition to individual portraits, there are couples, small groups, families and babies. Photographs were mostly posed in the studio, but some were also staged outdoors. Everyone is dressed up in suits and ties, beautiful dresses, white blouses and sometimes jewelry or hats.

“When you look at these portraits, you don’t see oppression. You see family love, romantic love, strength, grace, dignity – despite oppression,” Mason said.

Mason wants to show that no matter how bad it got, Black people were not crushed. “With self-consciousness, they used the camera as a weapon against white supremacy,” he said.

Similarities can be found between the civil rights activism that ramped up in the 1950s and this earlier time, when activism was presented as the “New Negro” movement, according to Mason, who describes it in the exhibit.

The “New Negro” movement was a nationwide movement whose leaders, such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois, were writing and speaking out to show that Black people were part of “a new spirit,” Mason said.

“They were more assertive, standing independent on their own two feet, less afraid of white supremacy, demanding their equal share of civil rights,” he said.

University of Virginia professor John Edwin Mason smiles in front of a section of the exhibit.
John Edwin Mason, UVA associate professor of history, co-directs the Holsinger Portrait Project and curated this exhibit at Northside Library.

Around this time, African American organizations – including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP – emerged and flourished, looking for ways to fight for Black people’s rights.

“This is all happening when Jim Crow’s getting worse,” Mason said. “The Ku Klux Klan was rising and active locally by 1920, crosses are being burned, statues being erected, etc. It was front-page news in the Daily Progress. The newspaper reported on the Klan as if they were the Chamber of Commerce.”

Local activities of Black organizations were connected to national actions. The Holsinger exhibit includes commentary published by George W. Buckner, a civil rights activist and businessman who was born and raised in Charlottesville. In 1921, Buckner published a manifesto, “The New Negro: What He Wants,” in the local Black newspaper, The Messenger. It also was reprinted in the Daily Progress.

The Holsinger Studio portraits of African Americans who exemplified the virtues of the New Negro amplify Buckner’s words, Mason said.

In a tweet about the exhibit, Mason wrote, “For most of the 20th century, ‘Negro’ was the term that most African Americans preferred. That changed in the 1960s, when ‘Black,’ ‘Afro-American’ and ‘African American’ came into common usage. But early in the century, when the portraits were made, ‘Negro’ signified race pride.”

The Northside exhibit, which is free and open during the library’s regular hours, was originally planned for spring 2020, but the pandemic put it on hold. The Northside Library, located at 705 West Rio Road, is open Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Northside librarian Evan Stankovics holds a black and white portrait of a Black man in a double-breasted coat, holding a book
Evan Stankovics, adult programming and supervising reference librarian at Northside, helped set up the exhibit.

This exhibit is a preview of a more extensive exhibition being planned for later this year at the UVA Special Collections Library and next year at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

“The library exhibition is just one component of this forthcoming effort,” Holly Robertson, exhibitions coordinator of UVA’s Special Collections Library, said. “It is supported by the Jefferson Trust, the University Library, the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities and the Department of History. There will be an exhibition at the Jefferson School and a broad community engagement program with events, programs and exterior art installations.”

In addition to a Jefferson Trust grant, the Holsinger Portrait Project is supported by a 3 Cavaliers grant, which Mason shares with a pair of UVA colleagues: religious studies professor Jalane Schmidt, who directs the UVA Democracy Initiative’s Memory Project; and architectural historian Louis Nelson, vice provost for academic outreach. The grants have also helped pay for five students doing research to find out as much about the people in the portraits as possible, part of ongoing efforts to tell Charlottesville history, as well as their stories.

The fall exhibit will have more information about the portraits’ subjects and will be accompanied by a brochure with essays that contextualize local and national history, Mason said. The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities also will create a new website to go with the collection, Worthy Martin, interim director of IATH, said. The website that currently exists was created for an earlier program before the pandemic.

Environmental shot of the Holsinger exhibit in Charlottesville's Northside Library
Many of the Holsinger Studio’s portrait subjects from the early 20th century are unidentified.

They are working with community advisers and descendants to help shape the exhibit, Mason said. “We want to make sure when we display ancestors, we’re doing it respectfully and with permission, if possible.

“We’ll talk about the individuals – many had remarkable lives, and it’s important to remember them.”

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications