A new exhibition at the University of Virginia's Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, showcases portraits that African Americans in Central Virginia commissioned from the Holsinger Studio during the first decades of the twentieth century. The photographs expressed the individuality of the women and men who commissioned them, while silently yet powerfully asserting their claims to rights and equality. Open through June 24, 2023, the exhibition features studio portraits of African American residents of Charlottesville and Albemarle and Nelson counties and is the result of years of research by UVA professors, students, community members.
The Holsinger Studio Collection, held in the Small Special Collections Library, includes about 10,000 glass plate negatives taken by the Holsinger Studio of life in Charlottesville and Albemarle County from the 1890s to the 1920s. Many of the photographs were commissioned portraits and more than 600 of those portraits are of African American citizens in central Virginia. The portraits were taken during the height of the Jim Crow era, when state laws enforced racial segregation in the South and the Ku Klux Klan had local chapters in the Albemarle region.
Chief exhibition curator John Edwin Mason, a UVA associate professor of history and a documentary photographer, has directed the Holsinger Studio Portrait Project since 2015; a partnership formed with the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH) director Worthy Martin in 2018 provided the project with a web presence to share their research. The project team works to uncover stories about the portrait subjects and give a more accurate picture of African American life in early 20th century Virginia.
A significant grant from the Jefferson Trust was awarded in spring 2022 to advance the dissemination of these portraits of African Americans and the cultural context surrounding their making based on a proposal by Holly Robertson (UVA Library) John Mason (Corcoran Department of History), Sarah Wells (IATH) and Andrea Douglas (Jefferson School African American Heritage Center (JSAAH). The exhibition in the Main Gallery of the Small Special Collections Library is just one component of the community engagement program, which will also feature events; an exhibition at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center curated by Andrea Douglass; pop-up exhibitions at churches, schools, and community centers; and exterior installations mapping the lives of portrait sitters across the Central Virginia region.
Visitors to Visions of Progress: Portraits of Dignity, Style, and Racial Uplift, will view almost 100 Holsinger Studio portraits and take in the biographical information about the subjects unearthed over the past few years by the Holsinger Studio Portrait Project team. They can also learn about the "New Negro" movement that countered the Jim Crow oppression of the early 20th century, stemming from Black intellectual leaders Booker T. Washington, Alain LeRoy Locke, and Charlottesville native George W. Buckner, whose manifesto, "The New Negro," caused an uproar when the Charlottesville Messenger, the city's Black newspaper, published it in 1921. "The New Negro the country over is coming to see that his salvation is in his own hands," Buckner wrote.
Visions of Progress: Portraits of Dignity, Style, and Racial Uplift opens on September 22, 2022 and runs through June 24, 2023.