An Outdoor Exhibition of Holsinger’s Photos at UVA
When conjuring mental images of Charlottesville as it was in the late 19th and early 20th century most locals will think of the photographs of Rufus W. Holsinger. However, very few of the widely circulated Holsinger images provide evidence of the African American community in Charlottesville. Holsinger’s portraits convey a certain grace and elegance, with individuals and families displaying for the camera a bear they were denied in life. “These people knew they were living in the era of Jim Crow,” UVA Corcoran Department of History Associate Professor John Edwin Mason said. “They knew they were living in a really harsh racial environment, and they knew what white people thought about them and said about them. I think that, in their minds, these people knew they were making a photograph that would show them as they wished to be seen.” Rather than portraying the oppression they felt in life, the subjects convey a quiet confidence, a sense of pride, their eyes full of stories that we may never hear.
UVA Corcoran Department of History Associate Professor John Edwin Mason and colleagues at UVA and across the Charlottesville community have several initiatives to create public presentations of these portraits of African Americans taken by Rufus Holsinger and held in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. As the team continued looking for possible locations, Sarita Herman, the Historic Preservation Project Manager at UVA Facilities, Planning, and Construction, approached Mason with an invitation to display the portraits on the temporary construction walls that encircle the work-in-process on the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers at UVA. The Memorial will provide a place for students, alumni, locals, and visitors to sit and reflect on the incredible contributions that enslaved men and women made to the creation of what is now the University of Virginia, and to recognize a complex and shameful historical legacy. However, in the interim 33 portraits from the Holsinger collection hanging on those walls offer visitors a new perspective on a largely-unseen component of early 20th century Charlottesville culture.
Earlier in the year, Mason and his colleagues held a “Family Photo Day” at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, where community members were invited to bring their own old photos as a way of displaying their own pride, and as a possible opportunity to link generations and stories only hinted at in these antique prints. “We want to know more about these people,” Mason said. “We want to know what they were like, and these are things we can only learn by discovering connections of friendship and kinship that are not obvious in the written record. The most exciting thing for us is that we might have people who look at these photographs and say, ‘That is my grandmother.’ We now have any number of descendants involved in the project.”
Inspired by the success of the almost impromptu construction site display, the project’s next phase, Mason said, involves utilizing a sizable grant from the College of Arts & Sciences and resources provided by the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities to investigate new ways of sharing the photos with the public through large outdoor installations. While plans are still in the works, Mason says he envisions mural displays in areas including downtown Charlottesville, the West Main corridor, Starr Hill, Fifeville, and what is left of the Vinegar Hill neighborhood. “Murals have extraordinary power without being expensive,” Mason said, “If you look at many major cities, like New York and Philadelphia, for example, they are often used to celebrate national heroes, or to memorialize local people gone too soon.” These mural installations, he said, could go a long way toward encouraging people to look at the history of Charlottesville in new ways. "These portraits get you literally seeing our history differently. When people think about black history in Charlottesville, they are often thinking about oppression, or discrimination, and the denial of advantages. Lately, we have been focusing on the rise of the KKK here, and our history of lynchings. Here you have a chance to see a group of people who did not allow oppression to define them, and I think that is incredibly inspiring and instructive for our whole community."