While Charlottesville erected Confederate monuments, hundreds of African American residents were sitting for professional portraits

A black and white photograph shows a man sitting down and looking directly at the camera. He wears slacks and a jacket, a plaid waistcoat, a white shirt and tie. His left hand sits in his lap and his right hand holds a match to a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

A new exhibition showing 180 portraits of local African Americans taken during the early 20th Century opens in Charlottesville next week.

The people featured in “Visions of Progress: Portraits of Dignity, Style, and Racial Uplift” lived in Charlottesville, Albemarle County and Nelson County. They posed and paid for their portraits during the Jim Crow era, which makes the portraits contemporary with the attempted lynching of two Black men in a Charlottesville jail; with the installation of Confederate statues, including ones of generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. Jackson, in public parks; with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. 

But the portraits tell a different story. 

“What’s been slighted is the history of what Black people were doing, as they used to say, behind the veil of Jim Crow,” said John Mason, a history professor at UVA and co-director of the Holsinger Studio Portrait Project. The Jim Crow era was also the New Negro era, when African Americans of varied socio-political factions were using the phrase to describe, among other things, “a new spirit, a new energy, a new way of seeing themselves,” said Mason.

For these pictures, the subjects went to Rufus W. Holsinger’s photography studio on West Main Street after thinking carefully about the pose they would take, the expression they would make, their clothing and accessories. “They knew that they were presenting themselves to the camera as they wanted other people to see them,” Mason said.

A black and white full-length portrait shows a man standing in front of a faux-library backdrop and looking directly at the camera. He wears a well-tailored long coat, his slacks and shoes visible underneath, and holds a thick book to his torso.
The Rev. John Osborne Seay. Courtesy of Holsinger Studio Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia

For instance, Mason describes The Rev. John Osborne Seay as “magnificently dressed” for his portrait. Seay, a Charlottesville resident who served as pastor of a small Baptist church in Albemarle County, wears a fine suit and flawless, shiny shoes that Mason suspects Seay only put on once he was inside the photography studio and off the dirt roads.

But small Baptist churches in rural counties could not pay their pastors living wages, so all of those pastors had second jobs, and Seay’s was as a janitor at UVA.

“What he is radiating out to you is how he wants you to see him, to understand him, to know him. [Janitor] was merely his job, and his job is not who he was,” Mason said. Seay was a husband, a father, a preacher, a composer of hymns.

Similarly, Minnie Anderson McDaniel stood for her portrait in a boldly patterned and beautifully tailored gown. On her head, she wore an elaborate hat that, despite its size, does not obscure her face. Born in 1889 in rural Nelson County, she married Robert McDaniel, a manual laborer from Charlottesville. She worked as a laundress — she was not the woman of monetary means her photo suggests. It’s possible that she, a friend or relative, made her outfit.

Minnie Anderson McDaniel. Courtesy of Holsinger Studio Collection, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia

A Jefferson Graded School graduate posed with her diploma. Groups of Black women came in to have their portraits taken to commemorate the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and celebrate registering to vote. 

Some of the faces in “Visions of Progress” might look familiar to longtime locals — a few of the portrait subjects lived until the 1990s or 2000s, said Mason.

Read more about the Holsinger Portrait Project’s 2019 exhibition in C’ville Weekly.

Mason hopes someone will recognize the portraits, because learning about the people has been a challenge.

The Holsinger studio kept detailed logs, so matching faces to names wasn’t difficult. But libraries and archives did not preserve the stories of working-class and impoverished Black people. Mason and his team, which included seven undergraduate research assistants, poured over Census documents, birth, marriage and death certificates, military and property records to find out what they could.

Some of the photo subjects had slightly higher profiles, like William “Bill” Hurley, a longtime coachman for Charlottesville Mayor J. Samuel McCue. Hurley sat for his portrait in 1909, just a few years after McCue was accused and convicted of shooting his wife to death in their Park Street home. Hurley testified in the trial. McCue was hanged for his crime.

The images, and the stories they tell, will not be confined to the Special Collections main gallery walls, to UVA’s campus. The team is ready to create, install and present traveling exhibitions for local community centers, schools, religious centers and elsewhere.

The entire exhibition — images and wall tags — will also be online, and the website will grow as the team continues its research.

Though “Visions of Progress” is years in the making, it is not a culmination. There’s more to come, said Mason. 

But still, the effect of seeing all 180 portraits together and reading the wall tags for a glimpse into these individual lives, is “spectacular,” he said, emphasizing each syllable of the word. 

“The images will blow you away.”

“Visions of Progress” can be seen in the main gallery of the Small Special Collections Library on UVA’s central campus beginning Sept. 22. The exhibition will run through June 24, 2023, and indefinitely online.