Friday, February 13, 2009

The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise

This exhibition, The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise, curated by the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) features approximately 100 images created by one of the premiere African American photographic studios of its day. The Scurlock Studio was a Washington, D.C. black owned institution. Although I had seen many of the images in various books from time to time, to see them amassed in a single exhibition provided a positive impact to the viewer. They presented a virtual history lesson of the time, beginning around 1914 to 1980, in a clear, sharp, and exquisite presentation of black culture, racial issues, achievements, and success.

In spite of the positive images that were portrayed, I am reminded of a piece of wall text that accompanied the exhibition, "Inspirational as these images are, they reflected just a microcosm of the lives of most black District residents, suggesting progress that often was more myth than reality." That microcosm was beautifully portrayed through the images presented in all their success, accomplishments, and beauty of the sitters...many of a "single hue." As I progressed through the exhibition and reflected on the distinct Washington, D.C. residents, I was reminded of stories that abound of "old Washington," Dunbar High School, black social clubs, black businesses, and the like. It presented a beautiful story of how we survived and created our world of peace, tranquility, and success in spite of the odds and obstacles of a segregated time.

The individual portraiture of the luminaries provide a virtual history lesson of the time. How wonderful to have a piece such as this incorporated into a civic or local history class for elementary and middle schools. Those images covered some of the earliest that were done by Scurlock. Presented in this section were portraits of Mary McLeod Bethune, Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Madam C. J. Walker. Fredi Washington, Robert Todd Duncan, Madame Evanti, Duke Ellington, Jackie Robinson, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., and etc.

There was a literal who's who at Howard University presented in portraiture: Charles Hamilton Houston, Ernest Everett Just, Sterling A. Brown, E. Franklin Frazier, Alain Leroy Locke, Lucy Diggs Slowe, Ralph Bunch.... The University and the Scurlock Studio had an obvious strong working and personal relationship based on the images of the social life captured on the Howard University campus. The educational scene was just one of the aspects captured in black Washington, as reflected in images of Howard University, Dunbar High School (first high school for blacks in the nation), and Miner Teachers College.

The social and political commentary were captured on a number of fronts. Scurlock (22 years old) captured one of the most memorable images of Marian Anderson's concert at Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday on the National Mall with 75, 000 attendees. A similarly impressive image was captured by one of my neighbor's father, Gaston Devigne. The picketing, Gone with the Wind, outside of the Lincoln Theater in 1947 was a strong image (see image above). The Lincoln Theater was known as the largest and finest theater for colored people anywhere in the United States...yet another superlative for Washington, D.C. The protests were captured in the 1930s and the 1960s. The 1938/39 protest outside of Peoples Drugstore at 14th and U Streets, NW..."Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" was a campaign to change unjust practices. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (1963) and images outside of the Scurlock Studio during the Riot of 1968 documents change and turmoil of the times.

From 1886 to 1920, the number of black businesses in the U Street area rose from 15 to over 300. The images in the exhibition reflected the diversity of those businesses: the Whitelaw Hotel, Club Prudhom, Lincoln Colonnade, Underdown Delicatessen, and Murray Brothers Printing Company.

In addition, there was memorabilia from both the Scurlock Studio and of individuals and institutions included in the photographs that placed the photographs into a meaningful context and added an even more authentic feel to the environment. ...An enjoyable, exciting, and rewarding experience. For location and further detail, follow the link:

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