The Hampton Album

I would like to dedicate this post to former student and colleague Stacy Williams who first introduced me to the Hampton Album and Frances Benjamin Johnston's photographs.  Also, I would like to thank student Fabienne Snowden for drawing my attention to articles on Hampton photographs by Jeannene M. Przyblyski and Ramona Austin.

When I first saw these and other pictures of blacks and Native Americans sharing classrooms at Hampton Institute at the turn of the 20th century, I knew nothing whatsoever about the photographer or where or how they were taken. Nonetheless I was immediately struck by the realization as a cultural historian that the presence of photographs as a form of historical evidence completely changed one's perspective on both literature and events.

This particular set of photographs was first widely seen as a result of an exhibition curated by John Szarkowski, Curatorial Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1966.  The source of the 60 or so featured photographs was a much larger scrapbook of 150 photographs purchased by Lincoln Kirsten in a secondhand bookstore in Washington, D.C. some time before.  It seemed very much as though the scrapbook, one of the three which were known to still exist--the other two at the Library of Congress in the Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection of Photographs and as part of the photographic collection of Hampton University--had come into being as a form of illustrating to perspective sponsors the range of programs at the institution.  Johnston charged $1000 for the services of herself and her assistant, who was apparently her mother.  She spent the month of December 1899 as well as some of January carefully executing the job, during which she extensively photographed both African American and Native American students and white instructors at Hampton.

In one photograph, which helps to give you a true sense of the scope of the project, Johnston photographs the entire student body and faculty assembled in a major hall at Hampton.  All the photographs were no doubt taken with available light and with long exposures which would have required that subjects maintain their pose for a period of time, thus accounting for the precise almost clinical angularity of many of the images.  The people in the pictures figure little as emotional individuals (causing some to read the photographs only in terms of the racism of the conditions that produced them).  Yet the youthful vigor, beauty and intelligence of the people in the pictures is superbly illustrated.  The human face and body is, itself, a form of expression virtually impossible to suppress or denature.

The exhibition catalogue was named The Hampton Album, now out-of-print but widely available in the second-hand book market online (http://www.abe.com).  These photographs we learned were taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston, a white female photographer who took many pictures of Native American and African American institutions of learning around the turn-of-the-century, as well as photographs of the Washington elite including the family of then president Theodore Roosevelt.  Later she would become better known as a photographer of architecture but around the turn of the century, her photography frequently implies particular associations with the racial politics of the period, as one can gather from the writings of a range cultural history scholars about her.

But my immediate interest is in her photographs of educational practices at the turn-of-the-century, and in particular her photographs of the Hampton Institute (the school that Booker T. Washington attended), Tuskegee (the school Washington created), and the Carlisle Indian School.  To see these photographs, to observe their quiet beauty and discipline is to partake something of the difficulties encountered by attempts to educated the children of the  former slaves.  Not only did Johnston document the programs of these institutions for all time but further, apparently her work as a photographer inspired programs in photography at both Hampton and Tuskegee.  At Hampton Johnston's presence coincided with the early activity of a group of faculty who called themselves the Hampton Camera Club, and who subsequently illustrated many issues of The Southern Workman (the house publication of Hampton) as well as several books by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a famous African American poet at the turn-of-the-century.  At Tuskegee, Johnston no doubt helped to inspire the founding of a photography program at Tuskegee.  Washington seems to have been acutely aware of the potential educational and propaganda value of photography and of black photographers.  

When we turn to the pivotal figure of WEB Du Bois, we find someone who organized a major exhibition of photography known as the "Negro Exhibition" to represent the advances and conditions of African Americans at the Paris Exposition in 1900.  He would also use photography extensively in his campaign for the dignity of African Americans as editor of The Crisis, the publication of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

"About 400 Students in Memorial Chapel" in 1900.

"John Wizi, Sioux. Son of Chief Wizi of Crow Creek, S.D." as cited in The Hampton Album.
Young Native American student (in traditional dress in other photograph) with conventional haircut and dress at Hampton 1900, Library of Congress.  

"Geography. Studying the Seasons." Hampton 1900.

Bettina Berch, The Woman behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952. Charlottesville and London: The University Press of Virginia, 2000.

Max Bennett Thrasher, Tuskegee: Its Story and Its Work (1900), North Stratford, NH: Ayer Company Publishers, Inc. Reprint Edition 2000.

James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

The Hampton Album, 44 Photographs by Frances B. Johnston from an album of Hampton Institute with an introduction and a note on the photographer by Lincoln Kirstein, The Museum of Modern Art, New York 1966.

Jeannene M. Przyblyski, "American Visions at the Paris Exposition, 1900: Another Look at Frances Benjamin Johnston's Hampton Photographs," Art Journal, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Autumn 1998), pp. 61-68. College Art Association.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/777972

Ramona Austin, "An Extraordinary Generation; The Legacy of William Henry Sheppard, The 'Black Livingstone' of Africa," Afrique & Histoire 2000 no. 4, 74-101.


This photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston taken in 1899 of a class of African American and Native American students at Hampton Institute engaged in the study of the traditional costume of a fellow classmate I have chosen to spearhead the Blues People Curriculum for this semester. It was this very photograph, which has been widely reproduced and misinterpreted by American Studies scholars, that has played a key role in the formation of my current conception of the role played by historically Black Colleges, the Blues, and the lives of such extraordinary figures as WEB Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells in creating the cultural signature of a people who had once been slaves, whose image was once reviled, but whose legacy has inspired struggles for freedom and democracy all over the world. 

Just by way of explanation of what is going on in this picture.  Hampton University had a Museum, to which were donated artifacts of African and Native American tribes, often as gifts from the students or their parents.  

In this picture I would propose that the young man in Native American costume is actually John Wizi, son of Chief Wizi of Cross Creek, South Dakota.  His presentation in the album elsewhere in Western dress and haircut suggests perhaps that he was an influential person among the students.  As is often the case, the commentary included with the pictures is unreliable and impressionistic.  In another photograph of Native American students, of which there were a great many in the original scrapbook but very few of which were used in the Album, there is a shot of the "Indian Orchestra," one of whom might also be John Wizi, in the center in the back on a large drum. 

Also, Hampton held pageants in which the native dress of Africans and Native Americans were a key aspect of the program, as described in the chapter on the Hampton Museum in ART/Artifact: African Art in Anthropology Collections, The Center for African Art & Prestel Verlag, 1989.  William Sheppard, a Hampton graduate visited the "Belgian" Congo as a missionary and ultimately devoted his important collection of Kuba art to the Hampton Museum, as well as also becoming one of the leading voices condemning King Leopold's persecution of the people of the Congo.  This is just part of the story of the connection between historically black colleges and the Congo as described by Professor Ira Dworkin in his dissertation in the English Ph.D. Program at the CUNY Graduate Center, 1999.  

1909--NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ) is founded in order to attack segregation, lynching and race riots.  Du Bois hired as Director of publications and research.  Moves to New York to found, edit and write The Crisis, the monthly magazine of the NAACP.

1910--National Urban League founded to direct migrants from the South to jobs, housing and education.

1912--Jelly Roll Morton publishes his first song, "The Jelly Roll Blues."

1913--Du Bois writes and stages The Star of Ethiopia, a pageant celebrating black history to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the emanicipation.

1914--Du Bois supports women's suffrage in CRISIS editorial.

1915--NAACP Campaigns actively against the public exhibition of THE BIRTH OF A NATION

1917--Marcus Garvey founded the UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association)

1918--Du Bois writes "Close Ranks" editorial in THE CRISIS urging black men to enlist to fight in WWI in exchange for their liberty at home.

"Let Us while this war last, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our whhite fellow citizens and the alllied nations that are fighting for democracy."
WEB Du Bois, 1917


II. Jean Toomer, Cane (1923)
The Jean Toomer Pages, University of Buffalo 1996

Visuals: James VanDerZee, Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life (1934)
Music:St. Louis Blues, dir. Dudley Murphy with Bessie Smith (1929)Louis Armstrong Collection: Dinah, On the Waterfront, Black and Blues, A Sleepy Time Down South III.

III. Langston Hughes, The Weary Blues (1926)

Yale University Beinecke Library: "Langston Hughes at 100 http:/highway49.library.yale.edu/langstonhughes/web.html

IV. Vernacular Culture Section--African American Literature/Norton Anthology, 2nd Edition

Mahalia Jackson, "Soon I Will Be Gone," on The Norton Anthology Audiotape

VI. Richard Wright, "The Man Who Lived Underground" (1941) in Eight Men


Zora Neale Hurston's Florida

In color photographs taken by Marion Wolcott and publically available at the Library of Congress, one gets to see something of how people lived in Florida in the period of her writings in Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Not that people didn't have the good times she talked about.  Just that you need to imagine this setting as you are imagining her world.  This is Belle Glade, Florida in 1944.

See also my Talking in Pictures post on Zora Neale Hurston and Marion Wolcott.