Show and tell: Holsinger Portrait Project develops a more complete picture of local history with photographs of African Americans

Photos by Rufus W. Holsinger | University of Virginia Library Special Collections Photos by Rufus W. Holsinger | University of Virginia Library Special Collections

DNA. Deoxyribonucleic acid. Two chains coiling around one another, a spiral ladder of genetic material we inherit from our parents. It informs, on a biological level, who we are—how our bodies develop, both inside and out—the strength of our heart muscles and the shape of our bones, the color of our eyes, our hair, our skin.

Not long ago, DeTeasa Brown Gathers, born and raised in Charlottesville, wanted to find out more about who she is. She started piecing together her ancestry online, and she sent in her DNA for analysis with the hope that it would connect her with even more relatives of many generations, ones she didn’t grow up knowing about, and enlarge her family tree.

Then, a message appeared in Gathers’ inbox on the ancestry website. “I have a picture,” wrote Ashley Irby, who at that point was a total stranger to Gathers. It was a photo of Peggy Ragland Brown Spears, Gathers’ great-great grandmother.

When Gathers, who didn’t know much about her great-great grandmother, finally saw the photo, she saw something the DNA alone couldn’t possibly have provided. “I saw my family deep in her face,” says Gathers. “So many family members resemble her.” It made the work of researching her heritage more immediate.

A number of folks living in Charlottesville today can trace their lineage back to people in these photographs. “I saw my family deep in her face,” says DeTeasa Brown Gathers of the first time she saw this photograph of her great-great-grandmother, Peggy Ragland Brown Spears (seated, and photographed here with her second husband, Joe Spears, in July 1914). “So many family members resemble her.” | Photo by R.W. Holsinger. University of Virginia Special Collections Library

Peggy was born sometime in the 1840s, and whether she was born into slavery or freedom, Gathers isn’t sure. Peggy had at least one, maybe two or three, children by her first husband, Abram Brown, Gathers’ great-great-grandfather. Abram died and Peggy married Joe Spears, and had at least seven more children with her second husband.

In 1914, Peggy and Joe Spears, both of whom are thought to have worked at UVA hospital, had their portraits taken in the West Main Street studio of one of Charlottesville’s most well-known photographers, Rufus W. Holsinger. Holsinger photographed them together, with Joe standing behind Peggy, who was seated in a wooden chair, and also took a picture of just Peggy.

As Gathers did her research, she found one of those photos, the same one Irby had shared with her, and was surprised to learn that it lives in Charlottesville, in the University of Virginia Library collection. These portraits are just two of the 611 (known) images that Holsinger took of Charlottesville-area African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In an era in which most public portrayals of African Americans were caricatures or images that reinforced their subordinate status, these portraits, in which subjects could control how they were presented, offer a compelling counterpoint. Now a new local initiative, the Holsinger Portrait Project, is bringing them out of the UVA Library archives and into public view.

Currently, 32 of these portraits are on display on UVA Grounds, printed to vinyl and zip-tied to the chain link construction fencing surrounding the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers across the street from Bodo’s on the Corner.

Until the end of summer, passersby can happen upon the portrait of Peggy and Joe, see their faces, look into their eyes, and perhaps begin to understand a more complete, more true history of the Charlottesville area.

It’s a safe bet to say that most Charlottesvillians have seen a Rufus W. Holsinger photo. The black-and-white pictures have been used time and time again for a nostalgic look at life in and around Charlottesville from about 1891 to 1930, the years Holsinger operated his studio at 719-721 West Main St.

The Holsinger Studio Collection is an invaluable visual resource: more than 10,000 glass plate negatives and a handful of prints carefully preserved (and even digitized) by the University of Virginia Library.

Yet “this collection has never been used in the way it ought to be,” says John Edwin Mason, a UVA professor who teaches African history and the history of photography.

Most uses of the Holsinger Studio Collection (including the book Holsinger’s Charlottesville, published in 1978 and re-printed in 1995) do a “horrible job of representing the collection as a whole,” says Mason, who serves as co-director of the Holsinger Portrait Project. The photographs that have been reprinted and displayed have tended to be those that portray a very specific, very white image of Charlottesville. What has been neglected, and therefore not widely seen, are the hundreds of portraits of local African Americans, who chose the way in which Holsinger’s camera would capture them.

Those photographs, Mason says, offer “a way into the African American community here that is not defined by oppression and racism,” but instead by the ways in which these individuals chose to define themselves. In many ways, these few hundred portraits of African Americans from all walks of life speak for themselves: “Here I am,” they say.

But to further understand their effect, and why this project can be so important to re-shaping how Charlottesville tells its history, it’s helpful to have some context.

“Photographs are slippery things, and it is, in fact, not legit to try to read somebody’s mind in a photograph,” says UVA professor John Edwin Mason. There’s no telling for certain whether, say, a furrowed brow is from feelings of deep-seeded anger, a recent sneeze, or the result of some fleeting thought. One can’t make assumptions, he says, even based on things like clothing and accessories. Take, for example, this portrait of Minnie McDaniel. To look at her, you’d think she was a woman of means, wearing a patterned and expertly tailored dress so fine “it’ll knock your socks off,” says Mason. But careful research revealed that she was likely a seamstress, “a woman who really knew how to make a dress.” As for her equally fine hat? Mason thinks she may have had a hatmaker friend. | Photo by Rufus W. Holsinger. University of Virginia Special Collections Library

These images were made during the Jim Crow era of racial segregation, disenfranchisement, and hideous violence against black people in the South. It was a time when American visual culture perpetuated stereotypes against black people, which can be seen in the Holsinger collection itself, in photos of the all-male, all-white UVA Glee Club in blackface, for example, “enacting the stereotypes against which the black clients are having representations made,” says Mason. “And those images were not just images, but they were knowledge; they were a kind of knowledge about who African Americans were supposed to be. That was false knowledge, but a lot of people believed it.”

When Holsinger’s black clients entered the photography studio, these caricatures were almost certainly on their minds, says Mason, so it is very important how they chose to present themselves, how their photographs, “without being overtly political, completely contradict those kinds of images.”

African Americans, one or two generations removed from slavery, were defining themselves against these stereotypes, as “New Negroes.” Though the New Negro Movement is typically associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, the term and the ideology were in circulation after the Booker T. Washington-edited book, A New Negro for a New Century was published in 1900.

It was certainly in circulation in the Charlottesville area, says Mason, pointing to an article published in February 1921 in the Charlottesville Messenger, a local black newspaper (of which few known copies and clips survive). Written by George W. Buckner, born and raised in Charlottesville and at the time a successful businessman in St. Louis, “The New Negro: What he wants,” reflects the spirit and purpose of the movement:

“…The New Negro of Charlottesville wants: 1. Teachers’ salaries based on service not on color. 2. A four year high school. 3. Representation on City Council. 4. ‘Jim Crow’ street cars abolished 5. Representation on School Board. 6. Better street facilities in Negro districts.

“We are tax payers and law abiding citizens. We know our strength and will accept nothing short of justice!”

What’s more, says Mason, “the idea of the New Negro was not some airy-fairy thing that was only for intellectuals and activists and artists. Ordinary African American citizens felt it too.” They wanted “the kinds of things that were denied to African Americans, especially African American women: beauty and grace, style, fashion.”

“It was about self-determination and self-definition,” Mason says, “but it was also a political claim, that, ‘because we are people of dignity, strength, and respectability, you damn well better give us our rights of citizenship.’ And you can see that in these portraits. These are portraits of the New Negro.”

Mason has known about these portraits since the 1990s, when Scot French, then assistant director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at UVA, curated a small exhibition of them at Minor Hall. Mason thought about the images frequently, and what could be done with them; he knew they should be seen by more people.

William “Bill” Hurley, photographed in 1909, was the longtime coachman for former Charlottesville mayor J. Samuel McCue. In February 1905, McCue was hanged at the Old County Jail after being convicted of shooting and killing his wife, Fannie Crawford McCue, at their Park Street home. Hurley testified at the trial. Here, it appears as though Hurley is holding a lit match to light the cigarette dangling from his lips, but it’s likely Holsinger added the flame to the end of the match after the fact—a little bit of old-time Photoshop, if you will. The match would probably have burned out long before the exposure (30 seconds to one minute) would have finished. | Photo by Rufus W. Holsinger. University of Virginia Special Collections Library

Then, in 2016, Mason served on the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, the task force assembled by Charlottesville City Council to address community concerns about the statues of Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson downtown.

“[It] had me thinking about how history is often told without words, and through images,” says Mason. There are few words directly attached to the Lee and Jackson statues, and yet they tell a particular story, one that suggests that these are valorous, courageous men who are to be honored and respected for the cause for which they fought: the Confederacy. “Those statues embody that ‘Lost Cause’ interpretation of the Civil War,” says Mason, an interpretation of history the commission did not accept.

Mason and others on the commission started to ask: How do we counter that powerful visual storytelling? How do you get another story, one that tells a more inclusive history—one that not only includes but celebrates local black citizens—out into the landscape? And without bronze, granite, or other prohibitively expensive materials?

One answer, thought Mason, could be these Holsinger portraits. Fayett Johnson in his military uniform, photographed not long after the Armistice. A preacher holding a Bible. Susie Smith in furs. Dr. Ferguson with his two children. Lena at the window. Viola Green holding her Jefferson Colored/Graded Elementary School diploma showing that she’d completed eighth grade, the highest level of education available to black Charlottesvillians at the time. Peggy Ragland Brown Spears seated in a chair, her husband, Joe, standing behind her. A young man and woman standing side-by-side, holding hands, fingers intertwined. A man in work overalls.

Mason began talking with various folks at UVA and in the broader Charlottesville community about ways to get these images out into the immediate physical landscape while also making the digitized versions more easily accessible.

And so the Holsinger Portrait Project began. Mason co-directs the initiative with Worthy Martin, a computer scientist and director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at UVA. Martin’s been working on building out the preliminary website for the project and thinking of ways these photographs and their accompanying biographical and geographical information can be most effectively presented online.

The Holsinger Portrait Project isn’t just about the images. It’s about the people in them, their descendants, and their place in local history.

Figuring out even just the name of a sitter can be labyrinthine, says research lead Julia Munro, because “a lot of times, the history of Charlottesville erases their presence, the average [people] who lived here at the turn of the century.” Munro, an expert in the early history of photography, and others are sifting through scores of primary documents to find and verify even seemingly small details.

On March 9 of this year, the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center placed a number of the Holsinger portraits of local African Americans on public display for a “family photo day.” Those who attended the event perused the images, learned how to preserve their own family photos and accompanying stories, and even helped identify some of the individuals in the pictures, information that will help the Holsinger Portrait Project in the long-term. | Photo by Eze Amos

The Holsinger Studio ledgers are helpful, as they contain the name of the person who paid for a particular portrait, and on what date. But the person who paid for the photograph isn’t always the person depicted in that photograph—sometimes a family member, or an employer, might have footed the bill. Once they know who paid, researchers can start to suss out who the sitter might be via census records, the Charlottesville City Directory from 1914-15 (which has an asterisk next to the name of every African American person listed), records from the John F. Bell Funeral Home, which once stood in Vinegar Hill (and relocated to Starr Hill after the city razed Vinegar Hill, a thriving black neighborhood, in the mid-1960s in the name of “urban renewal”), and the archives at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center.

Andrea Douglas, the Heritage Center’s executive director, is also involved in the project, and in March, she helped organize a “Family Photo Day” event at the JSAAHC, where folks could come in and see prints of some of the photos on display. If attendees recognized anyone in the photographs—and a few people did—they jotted down notes (which are posted on the project website, and which Munro hopes to verify) on what they remembered about those people. Some folks brought in their own family photos, or information they’d gathered in researching their family trees, to see if any faces and names matched, or were somehow connected, to those in the Holsinger photos.

Charlottesville resident Melvin Flanagan Jr. leafs through one of the flip books full of portraits during Family Photo Day at the JSAAHC. | Photo by Eze Amos

“Along the way, people have been keeping records” that with some careful work can be pieced together to tell the story, says local realtor and researcher Edwina St. Rose. St. Rose is a member of the Preservers of the Daughters of Zion Cemetery, a group working to identify those people buried in the African American cemetery at the corner of First and Oak streets. She and others, including researchers Jane Smith and Bernadette Whitsett-Hammond, use resources like to find census documents as well as birth, death, and marriage certificates, and comb through newspaper archives (especially those of black newspapers like the Richmond Planet, the Washington Bee, even the New York Age) for mention of Charlottesville and its residents.

The Daughters of Zion established the two-acre cemetery in 1873 as a place to bury Charlottesville-area African Americans, a response to the segregated burial policies of nearby Oakwood Cemetery. The land was regularly used for burials in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the same era that these photographs are from, and the preservers estimate that up to 1,000 people could be buried there. As of May 2019, the group has identified 273 of those people by name. One of them is Henry Martin, who was born into slavery at Monticello in 1826, and after emancipation worked for many years as a janitor and bell ringer at UVA; one of Holsinger’s portraits of him is part of the current outdoor pop-up exhibition on Grounds.

St. Rose says that so far, they’ve figured out that 10 or so of the people buried in the cemetery were photographed by Holsinger, and she imagines there are more. In August, the group will mount an exhibit of some of the photographs at CitySpace, called “Gone But Not Forgotten.”

St. Rose was born and raised in Charlottesville, and, like DeTeasa Gathers, has ancestors in these images. In her personal collection, she has a Holsinger Studio photograph of her great-grandparents, William L. and Harriet Brown. And in the collection at UVA Library, there is a picture of their children, William F. (St. Rose’s grandfather) and Charles H. Brown, both wearing barber coats and standing outside their father’s barber shop on what is now University Avenue.

“It’s very exciting” to see them in the collection, says St. Rose. “I’m sure they’re happy to know that people have not forgotten them.”

This research isn’t necessarily easy, but it is necessary. And it’s necessary to get it right, not just for accuracy, but out of long-overdue respect for the individuals, says Munro. Putting even just a name to a face can be a revelation.

Just ask DeTeasa Gathers.

When Gathers looks at her great-great-grandmother Peggy’s face, a flurry of thoughts floats through her mind. She thinks of her own mother, the late Charlotte Virginia Bowles Brown, a nurse who was not allowed to pursue her studies at UVA because of her race, and was granted alumni status for her service to the university—working as a nurse in both newborn and geriatric care—after her death in February 2018. She understands that perhaps Charlotte hesitated to talk about her own life and their family history because it was too painful.

She thinks of her brother, Vic Brown, who has worked for UVA for 36 years, a musician lauded for his bass chops in the Chickenhead Blues Band and the First Baptist Church band. She thinks of her sons, including DeAndre Bryant, a third-year student at UVA and an outside linebacker for the Cavaliers football team.

She thinks of her recent pilgrimages to Winneba, Ghana, and to the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. She thinks of her own career, 17 years working in medical coding and billing for the UVA Department of Surgery, and her work as the finance administrator at First Baptist Church (where her husband, Don Gathers, is a deacon). She thinks of her grandchildren, and how she can’t wait to share this family knowledge with them. She thinks of how all of this and so much more can be traced back to Peggy, and how much value Peggy brought to the community herself and through her descendants.

“There’s just so much going on around that picture, and sometimes, it all makes sense,” says Gathers.

There’s a lot of sense to be made, for many other people and for the city and the county, via these photographs.

Portrait of a young woman, thought to be Maggie Barbour, taken in 1918. | Rufus W. Holsinger. University of Virginia Special Collections Library

The pop-up exhibit at UVA is serving as a “proof of concept” for how they might display the images in longer-term, more permanent outdoor public spaces, says Mason. They’re still envisioning how this might come to fruition, but weather-resistant vinyl prints, tied to fencing or posted to walls, might work. And wouldn’t it be something, he says, if they could be painted as murals on the exterior sides of buildings.

Mason also hopes that fine prints of the portraits, as well as carefully researched descriptions of the sitters similar to the ones appearing online, could be displayed in permanent and  semi-permanent exhibitions at UVA, the Jefferson School, and other popular community gathering places.

Creating a close, personal connection to “this history that’s a hundred years old now” is one thing these portraits do really well, says Mason. “They connect us to that past, because, the people—even if we’re not related to the people in these portraits, they look like us. We can imagine them sitting across the table from us,” he says.

In a way, they are, looking out at us from their current spot on the fence, filling in gaps in Charlottesville history that have been covered up until recently, telling their descendants and their descendants’ neighbors more about who we are.

And, says Gathers, “we should all know who we are.”


A portrait of the artist

Rufus W. Holsinger | University of Virginia Special Collections Library

The Holsinger Portrait Project is also looking into how typical, or atypical, Rufus W. Holsinger was compared to other commercial photographers in the area, and of his time. Active as a commercial photographer from at least 1891 until about 1930, he photographed people from all walks of lifeblack, white, rich, poor. People wanted to look as good as possible in their portraits, notes UVA history professor John Edwin Mason, and for some, that meant jewels and furs; for others, a work shirt under an old jacket with a frayed pocket. Holsinger offered “a range of print styles that would have been priced accordingly,” from ones smaller than a playing card and mounted on ordinary board, to ones about 9-and-a-half by 7 inches in size, mounted on finely embossed and gilded boards.

It might be tempting to think, based on the fact that he took hundreds of portraits of African Americans, that Holsinger was unique, or that he was “some sort of racial liberal,” says Mason. But there’s no evidence of that; in fact, when Holsinger served on City Council, he supported an ordinance to segregate Charlottesville neighborhoods. (It was tossed out of court for infringing on property rights, though racial covenants effectively segregated many neighborhoods for generations anyway, and those effects are still felt today.) Perhaps Holsinger, who also served as the president of the Chamber of Commerce, was simply a smart businessman. “And yet, he cooperated, collaborated, with his sitters, with his customers, on creating these images that depicted them the way they wanted to be depicted,” says Mason, adding that one thing that does set Holsinger apart is the artfulness of the portraits he shot.

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