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Laura Wexler : Johnston's Photographs of African Americans
Laura Wexler The characteristic of Johnston's photographs, the most famous ones of Hampton, the Hampton Institute, is this amazing stillness, this quality of what Lincoln Kirsten called a "quality of a fly caught in amber." These people are caught at a very poignant moment in their lives when there's Jim Crow on the outside of this school, but there's a determination of the people who are running this school that black people shall be brought into the mainstream of American life, but they must wait. They must do it slowly. They must do it without a lot of motion. They just do it knowing their place. And Johnston's images of Hampton capture this, both the hopefulness of that moment and the insistent stillness of it, that nobody truly rock the boat. These are very different images than another person could have gotten.

Booker T. Washington. That is by manual education, by attention to Franklin-esque virtues of saving your pennies and not trying to get political power. You will eventually lift the race into the ranks of the middle class. This is not Dubois' vision at the same time, which is, you don't give manual education to an entire group of oppressed people. Those who want manual education, that's fine, but you open all the doors. You open the highest possible education for blacks. You give a classical education, if that's what it is that's an entre to power at this time. So Johnston's Hampton is a particular vision and it's a very dignified vision. It's a vision that a lot of people held, but it's not an uncontested vision.

In the generation before her there's a great movement Down South by Northern white women to join in the education of former slaves. And it's a very exciting, uplifting time for everyone, enormous. And Johnston's too young for that. But it's kind of like that gets institutionalized in schools like Hampton or Tuskegee and Johnston is there on the scene for this next stage of it.

Johnston apparently said that they thought -- when she saw these pictures, it persuaded her of what people already thought, which was that the black man's problems were over in the United States. Everything was solved. These photographs intimate that everything is solved or everything is solvable. And they're doing this at the same moment as lynchings and Jim Crow are violently and viciously putting black people back in "their place". Everything is not solved, but the people at the school, the people running the school, and Johnston hope very sincerely, hope enough to see it that way, that everything is on its way of being solved.

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