Portraits of 19th C. Black Charlottesville Show Life, Joy

Historians in the News
tags: African American history, Virginia, Charlottesville, Portraits



In the middle of the University of Virginia sits a portrait of a man with piercing eyes and a serious countenance, and a story that has long survived its main character. That man is Henry Martin.

The existing historical records about Martin, who was born enslaved in 1826 at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, remember him in a patronizing way: as a faithful servant, emphasizing his work as a janitor and bell ringer at the University of Virginia.

When photos were taken of Martin, he was positioned near a bell or wearing an apron.

But when Martin commissioned two photographs for himself, he wanted to be portrayed as a president would. In one of the images now on display in the “Holsinger Studio Portrait Project: Visions of Progress” exhibit at the university, Martin’s wearing a black suit, with no signs of the university or his job in the frame. He later gave copies of the image to white alums.

“It’s a way of saying, ‘This is who I am,’” said John Edwin Mason, chief curator of the exhibit. The photo shows “him with tremendous dignity and pride in the same way that you would show a wealthy, powerful white man.”

“It is a remarkable act of self representation,” he added.

In Charlottesville, more than 4,000 enslaved people, like Martin, were used to build Jefferson’s University of Virginia. The vision for the university’s design, done by Jefferson himself, was meant to enshrine the establishment of slavery by building high walls aimed at containing the enslaved in the heart of campus.

However, it was the vision that the Black community had of and for themselves, beyond the campus, that is the subject of the portrait exhibit.

Read entire article at PBS News Hour

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