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Images of 'Black life, Black joy,' are immortalized in historic Charlottesville portraits

Correction: We incorrectly named one of the people featured in a portrait and have updated it to reflect their correct identity, Lena Taylor Barbour.

In the middle of the University of Virginia sits a portrait of a man with piercing eyes and a serious countenance, and a story that has long survived its main character. That man is Henry Martin.

The existing historical records about Martin, who was born enslaved in 1826 at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, remember him in a patronizing way: as a faithful servant, emphasizing his work as a janitor and bell ringer at the University of Virginia.

When photos were taken of Martin, he was positioned near a bell or wearing an apron.

But when Martin commissioned two photographs for himself, he wanted to be portrayed as a president would. In one of the images now on display in the "Holsinger Studio Portrait Project: Visions of Progress" exhibit at the university, Martin's wearing a black suit, with no signs of the university or his job in the frame. He later gave copies of the image to white alums.

"It's a way of saying, 'This is who I am,'" said John Edwin Mason, chief curator of the exhibit. The photo shows "him with tremendous dignity and pride in the same way that you would show a wealthy, powerful white man."

Henry Martin as captured in portraiture. Photo credit: Holsinger Studio Collection at UVA
Henry Martin as captured in portraiture. Photo credit: Holsinger Studio Collection at UVA

"It is a remarkable act of self representation," he added.

In Charlottesville, more than 4,000 enslaved people, like Martin, were used to build Jefferson's University of Virginia. The vision for the university's design, done by Jefferson himself, was meant to enshrine the establishment of slavery by building high walls aimed at containing the enslaved in the heart of campus.

However, it was the vision that the Black community had of and for themselves, beyond the campus, that is the subject of the portrait exhibit.

Martin worked at UVA from around 1868 until his retirement in 1909. His face and likeness became one of the most recognizable parts of UVA daily life, and there's now a memorial to him included next to a bell like the one he rang.

But, at the Small Special Collections library, where the Holsinger Studio exhibit is housed, the larger-than-life portrait of Martin doesn't remind visitors of his contributions to the campus, but rather, the man Martin was. The portrait, commissioned by Martin himself, is displayed among, the demeaning and patronizing accounts of his life from white students and alumni who knew him, drawing a stark contrast.

"The university has not always been a good neighbor to the African American community," said Edwin Mason. "We've learned a lot about Charlottesville, its history and the hard side of history. We've 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're bringing them into the foreground."

UVA and Charlottesville, much like the rest of the country, continue to grapple with a racist past and present. There were attempted lynchings of Black men in the city as late as 1917. The university did not fully integrate until the 1960s. That same decade, several historically Black neighborhoods in the city were razed in the name of more development. And a racist mob turned deadly in 2017 after protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

The portrait exhibit aims to show a side of the Black community, Mason said, that gives a more complete view of the people going through Jim Crow segregation in the South- and to do so from their vantage point.

"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, in the early 20th century," he said. "That's a time when there were lynchings in this area. And yet you could see none of that [in these portraits]."

All the portraits featured in this exhibit were taken at the white-owned Holsinger Studio several decades after the South lost the Civil War and during the so-called "The New Negro" movement that embodied Black self expression. The people photographed in these portraits were soldiers, seamstresses, and stable managers. Mason said there was no sign the Holsinger studio owner was "a racial liberal," but believes that more than 600 documented Black residents got their photo taken there because of the studio's ubiquity and desire to gain business.

"He wanted to make money. How do you make money? You treat your customers well. And whether your customers are African American or white, it doesn't matter. Their money is green," Mason said.

The university acquired more than 10,000 glass negatives from the studio that are very fragile, but wonderfully detailed, according to the UVA library special exhibition curator Holly Robertson. Robertson designed the exhibit so that many of the photos are lit from behind, as the slides are originally viewed in backlit archival scenarios.

Bill Hurley. Provided by the University of Virginia.
Lena Taylor Barbour, most likely. Provided by the University of Virginia.

"It was hard to pick just about 100 that are in this exhibition. But, this is a variety of all of the women, men, business owners, mothers, fathers, couples, grandparents that you see in this collection," she said.

That variety includes women like Lena Taylor Barbour, whose impeccable style is featured on the promotional materials for the exhibit. She was a seamstress and dressmaker, and Mason believes she made the extremely detailed eyelet lace dress she wore for her portrait. Bill Hurley, a stablehand and a "jack-of-all-trades" sits relaxed with his head held high, a cigarette in his mouth and a match held up in his hand. The photo, Mason said, is a great example of the studio collaborating with its subjects; the "flame" on the match would have had to be painted on the glass negative after, an early form of photo manipulation. The exhibit also features a man and his dog, several children and couples. Mason said the goal of the exhibit is also to show the context and history of the subjects of the images, rather than just the portraits themselves.

"I want to tell stories about history through this exhibition," he said. "I actually want people to also come and read, right, so that there's a little bit of work involved in coming to this exhibition because we tell stories in little chunks. It's really important to read the life stories of the people and to get a sense of the historical context of this."

Like the story of Martin, past the stereotypical and patronizing histories written about him by white students and alumni who knew only the UVA employee and not the man.

The exhibit is open now until June 2023.

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