Frances Benjamin Johnston: The Hampton Album

Museum of Modern Art. May 2019. 192p. ed. by Sarah Meister. bibliog. ISBN 9781633450813. $50. PHOTOG
In 1899, photojournalist Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1962) was commissioned to record the pedagogical environment at Virginia’s Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a school for African Americans and a small number of Native Americans that operated from 1878 to 1923. The “Hampton model” was developed by white educators and espoused the preachy assimilationist idea. Booker T. Washington was a prominent alum and booster; W.E.B. DuBois eventually became its loudest detractor. Over time, critiques of its racist paternalism grew, leaving behind more Jim Crowism, even as assimilationist education was abandoned. The crisply posed photos are stodgy but poignant, and it’s impossible not to see them filtered through the history of segregation. In them, students stand stiffly in Union Army uniforms working on soon-to-be obsolescent trades such as harness-making or salute the flag. The Museum of Modern Art has republished the full project, replicating the original collection of platinum contact prints. As visual history, it’s unsurpassed.
VERDICT While the gauzy classrooms look antiquarian enough to seem anachronistic, present-day realities of American education intrude into any viewing and will encourage individual responses from readers. A fascinating side window into a tragic history, still in progress.
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