The following is an interview with Antonio Austin, who served as an Archives, History and Heritage Advanced virtual intern in the Prints & Photographs Division from February to April 2021, with a goal of recommending ways to bring historical material to a larger audience in innovative ways. Antonio is working on a PhD in history at Howard University. This is cross-posted from the original post by Melissa Lindberg on the Prints and Photographs Division blog, Picture This.
Melissa: Thanks for agreeing to talk with us! Over the past couple of months you have been working with two collections in the Prints & Photographs Division. Could you briefly describe these collections?
Antonio: Sure. The first collection is the W. E. B. Du Bois materials compiled for the 1900 Paris Exposition. This collection is composed of many images from around 1890 to 1900, including hundreds of photographs and dozens of charts, aiming to display the progression of the “Negro” post-Emancipation. In his own words, Du Bois tried to show “the history of the American Negro, his present condition, his education, and his literature.”
The second collection is Gordon Parks’ photographs taken for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and Office of War Information (OWI), specifically at the end of the Great Depression through World War II, as part of a project to document life in the United States during that time. Although the Parks images include Americans from a variety of racial backgrounds, many of his photographs reflect the experiences of Black Americans.
Melissa: In conversations with several P&P staff members you’ve noted some similarities and differences between these two collections – could you describe some of your observations?
Antonio: Even though they were made decades apart, the images from both collections were made when the United States was segregated, and Jim Crow was an everyday part of life, not just in the Deep South.
The Du Bois images represent an all Black, all African American, project, in the sense that the subjects, the compilers and the organizers of these materials for the Paris Exposition exhibit were all Black. Du Bois wanted to show the strength of Black people who were still rising at the turn of the 20th century despite a tumultuous past and present. These photos were taken about thirty-five years after the abolition of slavery, so that memory was very recent.
The following photograph, taken at Atlanta University, was made by a local photographer named Thomas E. Askew, who is the only photographer identified as producing some of these images, and who was Black. Du Bois wanted to highlight Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which were in their relative infancy at that time.
The photographer of these Morris Brown College baseball players is unknown.
The Du Bois photos were staged, and many were taken in studio environments, like this one of Bazoline Estelle Usher. One of my main observations while reviewing this collection was the regalness and pride that were exuded by the individuals in these photographs. The names of the individuals in these photographs were unfortunately not written on the images or in the albums they were presented in, so we don’t know the names of most people in the photographs – in this case we know this is Usher because she was identified by a researcher.
In contrast to the Du Bois images, Gordon Parks’ FSA/OWI photographs were not explicitly focused on race as a theme, but his portrayal of the Black experience drew me in. Since segregation was an aspect of life, you often see only white people or only Black people in a given photograph. But at the same time, you don’t see more explicit signs of segregation in his photographs, like signs denoting white and Black spaces as you do in some other FSA photos. Every generation has its burden to bear, and there are things people get embarrassed about. One of the things people talk about is the embarrassment that grandparents, great-grandparents or other ancestors may have been enslaved. I wonder if, as a Black photographer, Parks would have considered it demeaning to show the literal signs of segregation.
Parks’ photos can also reflect racial cooperation, and I was struck by a series of photos Parks took at integrated summer camps in New York state. Although some individuals in the FSA/OWI photographs are named in the captions, many are not. The photographers jotted down notes that they reworked as captions, which they then submitted to the agency offices for further editing.
Unlike the Du Bois photos, the Parks FSA/OWI photos also give more of a sense of the personalities of the people who are depicted. The FSA/OWI photos showed people in their everyday lives, and I think Parks wanted to show people as naturally or in their element as possible. When he was photographing people I do feel as though he did the same thing regardless of race: to capture the essence of these people.
Oftentimes when speaking of Black people’s experiences throughout United States history, there is a focus on resilience and overcoming adversities, without acknowledging the humanity of these individuals within the historical narrative. When browsing these images, I was really struck by the images that reflect Black joy, like this one of boys playing in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood on a summer day in 1942.
Melissa: What experiences have you had that you think have affected your perspective on these images?
Antonio: I think my curiosity is one of the main things that assisted me in being able to go through these collections. My interest in history began with an interest in genealogy. I have always wanted to illuminate the histories of people who have been erased or underrepresented. In going through these photos of nameless faces I have tried to let them speak to me.
I was also able to identify some of the people in the images who were not fully identified, like in the photo below. That was one of the most powerful aspects of my experience.
Also, being Black, with deep roots in this country that go back hundreds of years, it was like seeing the faces of people who would have been lost to history – like many of my ancestors – if they had not been photographed.
This experience has been like coming full circle, utilizing the things I know to ensure these people are not lost to history. America was built on the backs of Native and Black people who have been comparatively underrepresented in archives. Without resources like the photos in these collections, what kind of idea would we have about what life was like for them at that time? To find these photos, which are accessible online, and to play a part in making them more discoverable is meaningful. I hope I can help other people find their people.
- Explore images from the African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition, many compiled by W.E.B. Du Bois. Read previous Picture This blog posts discussing how the Du Bois used charts to show Black Americans’ experience by category over time, and providing an introduction to the the visual materials compiled by Du Bois and collaborators for display at the Paris Exposition.
- Browse images made by Gordon Parks for the Farm Security Administration and Office of War Information.