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UVA photography exhibit shatters stereotypes of black Virginians during Jim Crow

“This exhibit explains how black people not only survived, but also how they, in some ways, morally and psychologically thrived during this time,” said UVA teacher John Edwin Mason.

A collection of 10,000 stereotype-defying images documenting black life in central Virginia during the Jim Crow era will be on display at the University of Virginia through September 2023.

“Visions of Progress: Portraits of Dignity, Style and Racial Uplift,” the exhibit featuring photographs by Charlottesville photographer Rufus Holsinger, includes more than 600 self-portraits commissioned by black Virginians at the turn of the 20th century, according to the Culpepper Star-Exponent .

Some of the 600 portrait images in the Holsinger Studio Collection. (Photo by Dan Addison, University of Virginia Communications)

Images of black families and individuals posing proudly dressed in formal attire and modern 20th century styles reflect a symbol of resilience amid the endemic racial subjugation imposed on African Americans during Jim Crow, the outlet reported.

“This exhibit explains how black people not only survived, but also how they, in some ways, morally and psychologically thrived during this time,” said John Edwin Mason, professor of African history and history of photography at the UVA, as well as the director of the Holsinger Portrait Project, told the outlet.

Originally taken from the university studio, formerly located at 719 W Main Street in Charlottesville, the Holsinger Studio Collection will be temporarily housed about a mile west in the university’s Albert and Shirley Small Collections Library, according to the Culpepper Star-Exponent.

The limited occupations available to black Americans in the early 1900s often consisted of manual labor for men and domestic work for women, and many images taken at the time show black workers in uniforms, often stained or dirty , the outlet reported.

“Visions of Progress: Portraits of Dignity, Style and Racial Uplift” will be on view at the University of Virginia, pictured here, through September 2023. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Holsinger collection, however, contains visuals of “style and panache,” which Mason says differ from the stereotypical images many people associated with black people more than a century ago.

“They weren’t defined by their oppression. They weren’t defined by their jobs as maids or janitors. They were defined by their personal dignity and their belief that they were equal to everyone else and fully deserving of citizenship rights,” he told the Culpepper Star-Exponent.

After the exhibit closes in fall 2023, 500 selected photographs from the collection will be shown in elementary and high schools across Virginia, according to the outlet.

To learn more about the exhibition and view digital images from the Holsinger Studio Collection, click here.

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