Revolutionary Black portrait exhibition opens at UVa

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — During the Jim Crow era, when minstrel shows and racist caricatures made up nearly all visual depictions of black people, hundreds of black Virginians from Charlottesville, Albemarle County and Nelson County commissioned excellent self-portraits that challenged stereotypes shook .

The Holsinger Collection exhibit, titled Visions of Progress: Portraits of Dignity, Style and Racial Uplift, featuring photographs by noted Charlottesville photographer Rufus Holsinger, will be on view at the University of Virginia Albert and Shirley Small Collections Library through September 2023.

The collection has the power to transform the historical account of black life in central Virginia in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The people in each portrait commissioned the photographs from the university studio, which was located on West Main Street, where Mel’s Cafe is now located.

According to a pamphlet 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 a residential segregation ordinance.

“We spent a lot of time figuring out what the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson meant and what messages they sent in support of white supremacy. We didn’t spend a lot of time trying to figure out what black people were doing,” said John Edwin Mason, UVA professor of African history and history of photography.

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Mason is the director of the Holsinger Portrait Project.

“This exhibit is about how black people not only survived, but how they thrived in some ways morally and psychologically during that time,” Mason said.

The entire studio collection, also held in the Small Collections Library, contains 10,000 images with 611 portraits of black people. Most of the images in the collection include names and details of who those people were, but the names were determined by who paid for the photoshoot, not who is in the photos.

The content of each portrait is unique. Some are from individuals. Some have family units. Some feature photo subjects in traditional early 20th century formal wear and others feature people dressed in the latest fashions. But each contributes to the variety and diversity of Black Central Virginians at the time.

Modern portraiture has become the norm for most schoolchildren and staff, but the paintings in the Holsinger Collection were a symbol of resistance to racial oppression and harmful stereotypes.

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Although the portraits were taken during a time of tremendous racial injustice and violence, the people in them do not look like they went through it.

During the early 20th century, employment opportunities for black women were largely confined to domestic positions, while most black men worked in the heavy-duty industry. Unlike the other images of black workers in the early 1900s, the portraits in the Holsinger Collection do not show black people in dirty work clothes.

“We know that when people picture what African Americans looked like in central Virginia over 100 years ago, they don’t picture these beautiful portraits of style and panache,” Mason said.

“They were not defined by their oppression. They were not defined by their jobs as maids or janitors. They were distinguished by their personal dignity and their belief that they were all equal and deserved full rights to citizenship.”

The research that led to the creation of the Holsinger Portrait Project began towards the end of the 20th century. At this point, the late Reginald Butler, a former UVA history professor, and Scott French, former associate director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute, organized a small exhibition of portraits from the collection.

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This exhibition sparked the idea for the Holsinger Portrait Project, says Mason. That vision finally came to life in 2019 at the inaugural Family Photo Day hosted by Holsinger Studio at the Jefferson School to identify some of the photo subjects yet to be named.

The event was an opportunity “to connect the photos and names of the past to the ongoing history of African Americans in the Charlottesville area,” according to Holsinger Studio’s website.

Families are invited to view images in the collection and even bring their own family photos, 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 communities of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Nelson County and Virginia about an untapped area of ​​Black history.

After the exhibition opens, The Holsinger Portrait Project will tour Virginia beginning with elementary and high schools. It will use 500 images from the collection to educate young Virginians about the reality, prosperity and hope of black people in each image.

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