Frances Benjamin Johnston

(WOMENSENEWS)–Three important strands of our nation’s past converged in Virginia at the turn of the last century: race, education and the history of photography.

The Civil War had left an entire people legally emancipated from slavery but adrift. Educating former slaves and their descendants was a pressing issue, especially so that they would become employable members of society. Many schools sprung up in the late 19th century, but Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Va., was the jewel in the crown. By 1899, over 30 years after its founding, Hampton was famous for a curriculum that emphasized “learning by doing” and for its success in turning out a generation of black teachers. With an International Exposition scheduled to take place in Paris in 1900, Hampton was a shoo-in to be featured at the United States’ Negro Exhibit. To document the life of the school for the world to see, a photographer was hired.

Raised by a working-journalist mother and a supportive father, Frances Benjamin Johnston had never accepted the limitations of Victorian womanhood. By 1899, the 30-year-old, self-supporting, single, progressive, bohemian, modern career woman had made a name for herself as a photojournalist who shot everything from the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago to coal miners. She had her own professional studio in Washington, D.C., and was a staunch advocate for women working in the new field of photography. She was equally at ease with everyday people as with the eminences, including President Theodore Roosevelt, who sat for their portraits. A series of stunning photographs of public school life in the city of Washington, D.C., published as a booklet early in 1899, virtually assured her the Hampton commission.

Throughout December, she focused her camera on everything from the black and Native American Hampton students studying soil formation in various geological settings to a “current events” class about South Africa to female students in protective aprons working with hand drills. Unlike the work of many of her contemporaries, Johnston’s pictures entirely lacked racial stereotypes or sentimentality.

When the Hampton pictures were shown in Paris their success helped bring financial support to the school that assured its survival. Today, Hampton University is a thriving educational institution.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected].

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