Last year, artist Simone Leigh represented the U.S. at what is widely considered the world's most important exhibition of contemporary…
Exhibit spotlights portraits and stories of Black Southerners living during Jim Crow era
Amna Nawaz: On this last day of Black History Month, we feature the stories of Black Southerners during Jim Crow as told in a single frame.
The "NewsHour"'s digital anchor, Nicole Ellis visited the University of Virginia to see how historical portrait's are helping redefine a generation in its own voice and through its own lens.
It is for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Nicole Ellis: Henry Martin was a deacon and well-known member of the Charlottesville Black community.
John Edwin Mason, University of Virginia: Henry Martin, born enslaved, working all of his life either as an enslaved person or working as a menial laborer, never learned to read or write. But he was able to speak for himself through photography.
Nicole Ellis: John Edwin Mason is the curator of an exhibition of portraits like Martin's now on display at the University of Virginia's Special Collections Library.
Martin's larger-than-life portrait is featured along with historical items that contextualize it. He was a man so iconic, a poem was written about him a century later.
Rita Dove, Poet: Someone will pause to whisper, Henry, and for a moment, my name flies free.
Nicole Ellis: Martin's self-portrait contradicts and undermines how white students and alumni would portray him.
John Edwin Mason: It is a way of saying: This is who I am, this, no trace of his job as a janitor and bell ringer.
Nicole Ellis: All of the portraits featured in the exhibit were taken at the Holsinger Studio several decades after the South lost the Civil War. The people photographed were soldiers, seamstresses and stable managers.
John Edwin Mason: They are really stunning, in the way that they show dignity, respectability, style, panache among African Americans who lived in Central Virginia in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
That is a time of Jim Crow segregation. That is a time when there were lynchings in this area, and yet you could see none of that.
Nicole Ellis: The University of Virginia used at least 4,000 enslaved Black people to build and maintain the school in the 19th century. In 2020, the University of Virginia erected this memorial to enslaved laborers to honor the Black people enslaved by the school.
The Holsinger Studio Portrait Project aims to show a different side of the people enslaved and their descendants. For Henry Martin, those portraits told the story of his life through his eyes, a story still being told by those who were connected to him, like Edwina St. Rose.
Edwina St. Rose, Holsinger Studio Portrait Project: His first wife was -- would have been a great-great-aunt of mine. So, he is special to me.
John Edwin Mason: St. Rose's other family members, a great-uncle and grandfather, owned a business in Charlottesville. Their photos are also featured in the exhibit.
Edwina St. Rose: And they were operating a barbershop that their father, who would have been my great-grandfather, established in 1865.
People now understand that there is a segment of the Charlottesville society that needs to have their story told and that -- and celebrated.
John Edwin Mason: Nobody in these portraits looks oppressed. Nobody looks bedraggled. Nobody looks beaten down. And that is by design.
Nicole Ellis: For Charlottesville, like much of the country, its reckoning with racism is ongoing. There were attempted lynchings in the city as late as 1917.
In the 1960s, historic Black communities were razed to the ground by the city. In 2017, a white supremacist mob held a violent, deadly rally in response to a decision to remove a Robert E. Lee statute.
John Edwin Mason: The university has not always been a good neighbor to the African American community. We have learned the hard side of history. We have learned about oppression.
We have not learned about Black life, Black joy, Black family, Black churches, Black schools, Black politics, Black style. All of those things have been in the background. And, through these portraits, we are bringing them into the foreground.
Nicole Ellis: The exhibit also features other examples of Black self-expression, like the only known surviving copy of Charlottesville's Black newspaper from that time, The Charlottesville Messenger, and juxtaposes them with yearbooks and white media portraying racist stereotypes.
John Edwin Mason: I want to tell stories about history through this exhibition.
And the portraits said to me, we can explore a side of history through these portraits that has been not completely ignored, but has not been given its due.
Nicole Ellis: Portraits like that of Henry Martin, a bell ringer, but also a man of dignity and a story to tell, a story that would long survive him.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nicole Ellis in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Geoff Bennett: And you can see more of the University of Virginia exhibit online and find more of our stories on Black History Month, including one about how students digitizing historically Black newspapers are rediscovering forgotten histories about their hometowns.
That is at PBS.org/NewsHour.