We’ve run across this photograph a couple of times recently and wanted to share it with you. It neatly ties together some timely themes: Maggie Esteves’ post on Horatio Greenough’s statue of George Washington, the ongoing African American History Month, and Washington’s upcoming birthday (February 22).
Photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston took this picture in the last decade of the nineteenth century as part of a survey of Washington, DC schools. According to the Library of Congress, Johnston was one of the first American women to gain prominence as a photographer. She was a portraitist as well as a photojournalist and used her family connections to Washington’s leading politicians, including the First Family, to launch her career. This image also hints at Johnston’s later interest in garden and estate photographs and her contributions to architectural surveys.
Greenough’s statue of Washington exists at an interesting stitch in the American cultural fabric, trapped between the nineteenth century’s interest in classical iconography and its views of a beloved and idealized figure. This picture of the statue is especially interesting given Johnston’s choice to juxtapose the controversial statue and this group of well-dressed, clearly well-cared-for African American students. Immediately after the Civil War, there were efforts to educate freed enslaved people in the wake of the Civil War and include them in the political process; however, as the period of Reconstruction wound down after 1877, many of those efforts died out, Jim Crow laws became increasingly entrenched, and most white Americans consigned black Americans to what seemed to whites to be a fitting lesser existence and permanent underclass.
The above image, then, may have surprised people who wrongly assumed that all descendents of enslaved people were inherently poor, slovenly, ill-mannered, and ineducable. Here was a group of students visiting a depiction of the same Washington revered by white Americans. It also reminds viewers of the segregated schools in Washington (would black students have been able to visit a statue of Washington inside the Capitol or a museum?) while picturing black students who differed little from white students in appearance and exposure to or interest in American history (and thus perhaps hinting at the speciousness of many “reasons” for segregated education).
On an entirely different and completely fluffy note, when I was younger I so wished that we still wore clothes like these! Blame Anne of Green Gables and her puffy sleeves, my love of skirts that twirled, and a thorough ignorance of the restrictions such clothes placed on girls and women.
What do you see when you look at this picture? I wonder what those students and their teacher thought about and discussed as they viewed the statue. This photograph provides fertile ground for exploring some of the ways Americans have claimed one ideal while acting very differently in practice.