Friday, July 8, 2016

African-American Portraiture

"It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity."

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

By Will Thomas

During the 19th century, systemic racism influenced the ways in which African Americans were represented in art and illustrations. They were often depicted as nameless slaves or servants and in other ways which were, as Frederick Douglass put it, "made to harmonize with the popular idea of Negro ignorance, degradation and imbecility."

However, Douglass and others realized that photography could also be a powerful tool to help change those ideas. In 1900, civil rights activist and Fisk University graduate W. E. B. Du Bois put together the “Exhibit of American Negroes” at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, France. The exhibit included hundreds of photographs of African Americans - and their homes, schools, businesses, and churches - in order to counter negative stereotypes.

Ellen Gordon and her African-American nurse, ca. 1850s. Carte de Visite Collection.

In Nashville, many of the portraits taken by Calvert Brothers Studio echo the positive portrayal of African Americans informing Du Bois' exhibit. The studio, owned by English immigrants Ebenezer and Peter Ross Calvert, did a fair amount of business with Nashville's African-American community, including many repeat customers, between 1888 and 1903.

While that does not necessarily place the Calverts at the forefront of the civil rights movement (for example, they also did portraits of minstrel show troups), it does suggest that a significant number of African Americans in Nashville felt comfortable doing business with them. The portraits of African Americans were also in no way different from or inferior to (artistically, stylistically, or technically) those produced for their European-American clientele.

By about 1910, it appears that the business the Calverts did with Nashville's African-American community had significantly dropped off. The Nashville Globe, Nashville's African-American newspaper, offers a possible explanation. The Globe heavily encouraged the patronage of African American-owned businesses, and there are several examples from 1907 of the newspaper's promoting African American-owned photography studios.

Newspaper scans, Nashville Globe. Newspaper Microfilm Collection

These are some of the African Americans photographed by the Calverts:

Buck Colbert Franklin (1879-1960)

Buck Colbert Franklin, Nashville, 1901. Calvert Brothers Studio Glass Plate Negatives.

Buck Colbert Franklin grew up in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). He began attending Roger Williams University in Nashville and, in 1903, he transferred to Atlanta Baptist College (renamed Morehouse College in 1913). Franklin became a lawyer and opened a law office in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one month before the 1921 race riot. Although his office was destroyed in the riot, he represented African Americans in lawsuits seeking compensation for the destruction of their businesses and property. He was also the father of renowned historian John Hope Franklin.

Dr. David Wellington Byrd (1886-1945)

Dr. David Wellington Byrd, Nashville, 1899. Calvert Brothers Studio Glass Plate Negatives.

Dr. David Wellington Byrd was the chair of the literary department at Central Tennessee College (CTC), which was begun by the Freedmen's Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1867. He later received a medical degree from CTC's medical department (which was split off to form Meharry Medical College in 1915). He was also president of the National Medical Association (the national organization for African-American physicians) from 1916 to 1917.

Flossie B. Jackson

Flossie B. Jackson, Nashville, 1899. Calvert Brothers Studio Glass Plate Negatives.

In 1900, Flossie B. Jackson graduated from the pharmaceutical department at Central Tennessee College, passed the examinations of the State Board of Pharmacy, and became a registered pharmacist. She was a member of the Tennessee Pharmaceutical Association and worked at Jackson's Drug Store in Memphis, which was owned by her brother, Dr. George R. Jackson.

Willie Cooper

Willie Cooper, Nashville, 1901. Calvert Brothers Studio Glass Plate Negatives.

Willie Cooper was a substitute teacher at the Merry School for the 1909-1910 and 1910-1911 school years. The Merry School was an African-American elementary school located on Springhead Street (now Andrew T. Whitmore Street), southeast of Nashville City Cemetery.

Henry Allen Boyd (1876-1959)

Henry Allen Boyd (seated on the left) and family members, Nashville, 1899. Calvert Brothers Studio Glass Plate Negatives.

Henry Allen Boyd was a founder and editor of the Nashville Globe. He became the manager of the National Baptist Publishing Board upon the death of his father, Rev. Richard Henry Boyd, in 1922. He also produced the National Jubilee Melody Song Book, one of the first hymnals that set 19th century slave spirituals to musical notation. Boyd's sister, Lula, was also a classmate and close friend of B. C. Franklin at Roger Williams University.

Dr. Robert Fulton Boyd (1855-1912)

Four African-American children photographed for Dr. Robert Fulton Boyd, Nashville, 1899. Calvert Brothers Studio Glass Plate Negatives.

Dr. Robert Fulton Boyd was born in Giles County. He graduated with honors from the medical department at Central Tennessee College in 1882. He received his degree in dentistry from there in 1887 and opened his medical practice in Nashville that same year. He rose to national prominence and became the first president of the National Medical Association.

Benjamin ("Ben") J. Carr (ca. 1875-1935)

Benjamin J. Carr, Nashville, 1899. Calvert Brothers Studio Glass Plate Negatives.

Benjamin ("Ben") J. Carr was the porter for the Tennessee Senate and Supreme Court from about 1890 to 1910. He was responsible for establishing Hadley Park, involved in the founding of Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College (now Tennessee State University), the president of the Negro Farmers Alliance in Tennessee, and, in his final years, a realtor.

A free exhibit, titled "Tennesseans Through the Lens: Portrait Photography in Tennessee," featuring these and other images, opened in May in the lobby of the Library & Archives building. Information about this exhibit can be found at:

You may also view other images from the Calvert Brothers Studio Glass Plate Negatives Collection on the Tennessee Virtual Archive (TeVA) at at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

The Tennessee State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State

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