Selected excerpts from exhibition text panels and catalogue essays

In 1996, the Williams College Museum of Art invited visual artist Carrie Mae Weems to collaborate on an exhibition project dedicated to the history and legacy of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University), using Frances Benjamin Johnston’s Hampton Album of 1900 as her point of departure. Located on the Chesapeake Bay in Hampton, Virginia, Hampton was founded by Williams College alumnus Samuel Chapman Armstrong in 1868 as a school for “select Negro youth” and 10 years later, dispossessed Native Americans. The art in these two adjacent galleries bears witness to the language of photography as deftly applied to one woman’s largely documentary vision of Hampton and to another’s evocation of the Institute as a site of recollection, reflection, and hopeful redemption.

Since the late 1970s, Weems has produced art that addresses issues impacting African-American culture, focusing on the persuasive power of the visual image to identify and define perceptions of race, gender, and class. This most recent commission is shaped in part as a response to the philosophy of Hampton’s visionary founder, as well as to historical photographs of the Institute and period images of African-Americans and Native Americans. Weems looks even farther, referencing the initial contacts of Europeans and Native Americans, the Civil War, as well as the civil rights conflicts of our own century, to embrace all within a multi-layered work of elegiac significance.

I stand now where I have longed aimed to stand. I can say to any noble, aspiring, whole-souled youth, of either sex in the South, “Here you can come, ragged and poor as you are, and become the man and woman you wish to become.”

—Samuel Chapman Armstrong to Archibald Hopkins, 1868

Johnston was first and foremost a journalist and all of her school images share compositional devices that imbue them with the formal beauty which, by her own admission, she sought in her art….Almost without exception, figures are turned inward, glancing back, or inclined in parentheses to bracket the scenes. The eyes seldom look at us. They look instead at the point where Johnston wishes us to focus—at the heart of the activity. The viewer’s feeling is one of examining a carefully staged tableau not unlike those posed theatricals that became turn-of-the-century parlor entertainment….Nothing is left to chance….Nothing is spontaneous. We find Johnston’s aesthetic, if not her agenda, in the scrupulously framed scenes she has choreographed in the serenity of the white December light which she harnessed to establish intense contrasts and pictorial density. In concert, we find the heart of the Hampton Institute in the way the players have come costumed for her and in their complicity in achieving her vision.

—Constance W. Glenn, Director
The University Art Museum, California State University, Long Beach, 2000

One group of Johnston’s photographs of the Hampton Institute, ordered and titled as they may have been displayed at the Paris Exposition, was found during World War II in a Washington, D.C. bookstore by the art critic and connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein. The “old and scuffed” leather-bound album was his gift, some 20 years later, to the Museum of Modern Art. Thus in 1966, 14 years after her death, Johnston was rescued from the art world’s perimeter with the Modern’s exhibition of 44 of the 159 original platinum prints and their publication in Kirstein’s catalogue titled The Hampton Album.

The images Miss Johnston found grip us by their soft, sweet monochrome. In them, hearts beat, breath is held; time ticks. Eyelids barely flutter. Outside of Hampton there is an ogre’s world of cruel competition and insensate violence, but while we are here, all the fair words that have been spoken to the outcast and injured are true. Promises are kept. Hers is the promised land.

—Lincoln Kirstein, 1966

After their initial display at the 1900 Paris Exposition where they received international acclaim, Johnston’s Hampton pictures traveled to other expositions and were reproduced in myriad publications. The photographs however, had been created against a backdrop of increasing controversy concerning the role of Southern black education. The album persisted as an evocation of the past achievements of an institution that had now begun to struggle to survive in an increasingly inhospitable climate, suffering criticism from white Southerners and black intellectuals alike.

Hampton’s Native American program declined during this same period of virulent racism in the early 20th century. After 1900, in the absence of its founder’s sustaining energy—Armstrong had died in 1893—the Indian department experienced setbacks owing to relentless pressures from both inside and outside the Institute. Despite Armstrong’s last wish—that Hampton remain “true to the red and black races of our country”—the pioneering program of educating Native Americans ended in 1923.

The story of Hampton and its counterparts…is a story of frustrated good intentions, not of triumphant bad intentions. By the time of the “Hampton Album,” Armstrong’s school and the others had run into the wall of hostility and indifference of racist America. Hampton could not lead the people…where they did not want to go.

—Frederick Rudolph, Mark Hopkins Professor of History, Emeritus
Williams College, 2000

Johnston’s photographs invite an assessment of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, its ideologies, and its students. In examining her commissioned images, we gain some insight to the Institute’s overarching goal of assimilating African-Americans and Native Americans into white society. Current scholarship generally considers the pictures as promotional affidavits of the progress African-Americans and Native Americans could make under “the Hampton method.” But some analyses also emphasize a more political and socio-economic theme—the imaging of African-Americans and Native Americans as moral, educated, and regimented hard workers serving to assure whites of the continuing hegemony of the American (Anglo-Saxon) dream and value system. Photographs showing students performing industrial tasks reassured whites that racial status would be maintained.

And while we can understand these photographs as perpetrating African-American and Native American subordination within a white, capitalist society, we may also read them as ennobling images when set against the racial stereotyping of the time. The pictures can be seen as a positive visual representation of the two minorities in the face of stereotypes perpetuated by what historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. called “plantation fictions, blackface minstrelsy, Wild West shows, vaudeville, racist pseudo-science, and vulgar Social Darwinism.” The album has also been interpreted as a conscious effort by the photographer herself to ridicule the conventions of Victorian society.

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