Nearly 200 faces of black Virginians now line the walls of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, giving visitors a personal insight into life at the height of the Jim Crow era. Running by June next year, the exhibition features portraits taken in the Holsinger studio with the aim of redefining perspectives on black history.
What’s most striking about each black-and-white portrait is the simple humanity displayed in each, says John Edwin Mason, the exhibit’s chief curator and professor of history. While the images depict people in a variety of professions — from janitor to farmhand to waiter — the portraits gave members of the black community the ability to define how they wanted to present themselves on camera.
“That’s the point – they weren’t defined by their jobs,” Mason said. “They weren’t defined by Jim Crow.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, at the height of the Jim Crow era, a period marked by the legalization discriminatory and racist practices — Charlottesville was dominated by racial segregation and white supremacy, with a asset Presence and roots of the Ku Klux Klan eugenic practices.
Rufus Holsinger established his studio in Charlottesville in the late 1880s, where Mel’s Cafe is now located on West Main St. After Rufus’ death in 1930, his son Ralph Holsinger took over the business and operated the studio until his retirement in 1969, and the studio closed in 1977.
The Holsinger Studio Collection in Special Collections comprises approximately 10,000 wet plate glass negatives, of which approximately two-thirds are portraits. For black residents, portraits were a rare opportunity and cost up to $20 in today’s dollars. More than 500 portraits were commissioned by black residents of central Virginia, many of whom were employed by the University.
“We were all interested in more than just that they looked good and that we thought of them as aesthetic objects,” Mason said. “We wanted to see them as historical objects and see history through them. We mix aesthetics with the ability to see the story in these images.
Mason stumbled on the Holsinger collection in 2014, and was immediately fascinated by them. He knew he wanted to take them to a bigger space – next to the physical exhibit is a website with biographical information on many portrait subjects, meticulously researched by students and researchers at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.
While researchers have sought to magnify the stories behind the subjects, the photographs themselves are also enhanced – each has been digitized using modern technology and given individual attention by trained photographers . Holly Robertson, curator of exhibits at the University Library and one of the exhibit’s curators, said the digitization efforts were one of the most exciting aspects of the exhibit.
“It was a really special addition for the exhibit – that we were able to not only get the images that we’ve always had, but to have such expert eyes [to] bring these images to life,” Robertson said.
In 1912, the Holsinger studio suffered a studio fire which destroyed the business records and some of the negatives, making it difficult to identify the portraits. In preparation for the exhibition, the Holsinger studio hosted family photo day March 9, where people from Charlottesville and the greater Albemarle area were asked to identify their family members in the photographs. Participants could also share their own oral histories or have their photo taken at no cost.
The exhibit, Robertson said, is unique because of these ties to the community of Charlottesville and Albemarle.
“We’re focusing on such a local community … of people who have great-grandparents and great-aunts,” Robertson said. “We learn a new story every day from someone who sees someone they recognize in their family.”
Mason hopes the exhibit will encourage attendees to see black history in a new way – both literally through the photographs and in a broader sense. Much of this, Mason said, comes from focusing on the human experience of the subjects of the portraits and providing insight into their daily lives.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about the role of slavery in shaping this country, the role of white supremacy in shaping this country, and that’s really important,” Mason said. “But what we didn’t spend a lot of time doing was thinking about what black people were doing, despite all the odds.”
Funding for the exhibit came from the Special Collections Library and the Humanities Institute for Advanced Technology. The Jefferson Trust also provided a grant of $73,000, which is widely used to support this project.
Mason said the Holsinger Portrait Project plans to expand community outreach, including traveling exhibits that travel to schools, religious institutions and community centers.
“Then using those life stories to talk about a much larger story — local, national, international story — that can be a resource for years to come,” Mason said.