Early 20th Century African American Portraits Tell a Tale of Two Worlds

May 19, 2017

15 years ago a stash of African American photographic portraits taken in the early 1900's were discovered on a farm in the Northern Neck region of the Chesapeake Bay. And while they have not been identified, they provide clues to life in a rural, African American community 40 years after the Civil War. Now, there's an effort to put them into a permanent exhibit.

In 2002, Gayl Fowler was working with a church group to help an elderly woman turn a shed on her father's farm into a cottage.

“So, I sent the young people to go up and check the attic and they started handing me down these pictures and I immediately called a friend to come down with a camera.”

The majority of photos are of local African American men, women and children. Some are candidly posing outside, some in a studio. But it's the crayoned studio portraits that are most striking. They're enlarged to about 16 by 20 inches then enhanced by an artist. Eyes engage the observer.

“It's a crayon technique where instead of looking like a photograph he would make it look like an old-fashioned oil painting.”

Fowler is talking about the Gill brothers. Both farmers, they ran the Gill Picture Company. Marvin canvassed for clients while Zaccheus Asbury, who had only one leg, was an accomplished artist. Some of the portraits are colorized in pastel, others with charcoal. Most striking is Edwardian fashion – women don picture hats, lacy collars and pompadours. Men sport elegant suits and Bollman hats. The portraits tell a tale of two worlds lived by African Americans in the Northern Neck Region.

Kathleen Curtis Wilson is a cultural historian whose work in the Appalachian region of Virginia focuses on women's textile traditions and its relationship to community. She says very little is known about the history of African American fashion.

“We, and I'm saying that because you and I are white, we didn't see them out of servitude. We saw them as housekeepers and maids and cooks, in hotels and somehow in their working uniforms. But we didn't go to their funerals, we didn't go to their weddings. We didn't see them at the baptisms, so we had no reference.”

Wilson's work has taken her to Bath County where she draws comparisons to the Northern Neck.

“We have been fed this idea that they were all poor and struggling to make every dime. I don't mean to say that they were wealthy in what is wealth today. But they did in Bath County begin to be able to own property. And to go from slavery in a generation to a property owner was a very big deal.”

The photos now belong to the Holley Graded School. Built for and by freed slaves in Northumberland County it's now a museum and art gallery. Director Garfield Parker is making plans for a permanent exhibit of the portraits.

“It is stepping back into history, stepping back into time. Realizing that was a very proud people that came out of the Civil War and then by the 1900's took great pride in themselves. The dress and the style of clothing they wore, all this comes out in the photographs. How they valued just being a person of dignity and quality.”

The museum will be previewing some of the portraits at the Heathsville Farmer's market. 

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.