Holsinger Project Receives Virginia Humanities Grant

September 25, 2018

Virginia Humanities has awarded $5,000 to an interdisciplinary team of UVA and Charlottesville researchers to organize a community outreach event centered on Rufus W. Holsinger’s portraits of Charlottesville-area African Americans. The project, “Family Pictures: Holsinger’s Portraits of African American Charlottesville,” is led by IATH Director Worthy Martin, and Associate Professor of History John Edwin Mason. The project team includes Andrea Douglas, Executive Director of the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and co-chair of the UVA President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation; Louis Nelson, Professor of Architectural History and Vice Provost for Academic Outreach; research lead Julia Munro; and curatorial editors Kirt von Daacke, Assistant Dean and Professor, College of Arts & Sciences, and co-chair of the UVA President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation; Maurice Wallace, Associate Professor of English and African-American and African Studies; and Niya Bates, Public Historian of Slavery and African American Life at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

The VH award is for a “Family Pictures” event at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, as part of an ongoing curatorial project to document and contextualize Holsinger’s portraits of African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Charlottesville. Project organizers are looking to local community members to help identify the subjects of these portraits and share any information about the subjects’ life stories. The event will be held on March 9, 2019, and will be announced by calls for community members to bring in their own family pictures from the same period. To encourage participation by the community, a portrait studio modeled on Holsinger’s will offer free printed family portraits, and project staff will provide guidance on preserving family photographs and tracing family histories.

The Holsinger University Studio was the area’s most prominent photography studio. Holsinger himself was a prominent citizen, and served on the City Council, was president of the Charlottesville Chamber of Commerce, and helped organize the National Bank of Charlottesville. His portraits included both locals and visiting dignitaries, and are important artifacts of the people who lived and worked in the area. This included portraits of black residents from all walks of life. “Depictions of black people in media of the time were all too often little more than a series of demeaning racial stereotypes. The portraits that African Americans commissioned from Holsinger, on the other hand, showed them as they saw themselves and were acts of self-determination,” Prof. Mason said. “They embody dignity, autonomy, and beauty.”

This work will expand the coverage of the UVA Library’s collection of Holsinger images, particularly for the period prior to 1921. “This will be extremely important in providing contextual information about the portraits, Holsinger’s studio, the history of the city, and the role this type of portraiture played in countering racist imagery,” Munro, the project’s research lead and an expert on early history of photographic portraiture, said. The new information from the community will supplement and contextualize archival research for future physical and virtual exhibitions on Holsinger and the history of the Charlottesville area. “Being able to link a photograph to an actual person, family, and place strengthens and enriches the local African American community’s understanding of and engagement with its own history,” Prof. Mason said.