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‘Picturing the Promise’ in D.C.

Look, these are the faces of freedmen. Look at our reflection, here in the capital of our country. Here. Look. See. — A.J. Verdelle, introduction to “The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise”

On a cool Easter Sunday morning in 1939, 22-year-old photographer Robert Scurlock was sent on one of his first assignments to the Lincoln Memorial to capture a performance by Marian Anderson, the world-famous black contralto. Because of her race, Anderson had been refused by the Daughters of the American Revolution use of Constitution Hall as the venue for her concert. President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, among others, intervened and secured the iconic location on the National Mall, where Anderson sang to an integrated audience of 75,000.

There have been many such moments of struggle and triumph in the nation’s capital — some legendary, some forgotten — but the family-run Scurlock Studio was there to capture a good number of them.Picnic group, Highland Beach, Md., 1931; courtesy Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

[Click here to view slide show of ‘The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise,’ narrated by curator Paul Gardullo.]

From 1911 to 1997, the Scurlocks documented Washington’s many gradations of black life. Addison Scurlock had apprenticed with a white photographer, Moses P. Rice, after moving to Washington, D.C., in 1900, but branched off in 1904, opening the studio in the city’s historic U Street corridor in 1911. The Scurlock family, including sons George and Robert, and mother Mamie, who ran the business and kept the books, created glowing portraits of national heroes and local flavor.

As curator Paul Gardullo explained to me, “The Scurlock Studio provides an incredible visual history of the 20th century through the African-American lens….This is a piece of D.C. history that is forgotten, and it’s forgotten because it’s a piece of D.C.‘s segregated history.”

The Scurlocks were the official photographers of Howard University, and often recorded events for the NAACP and its magazine, the Crisis. From portraits of Duke Ellington and W.E.B. Du Bois to sporting events, dances and trips to Maryland beaches, the Scurlocks immortalized black culture in beautiful black and white and sepia tones.Sharon Jones' Birthday Party at the Garden of Children Nursery School, 1949; courtesy Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

But the Scurlocks’ combination of business acumen and artistic talent makes it not only an important story about blacks, but a quintessentially American one as well. They documented a culture that was resilient and self-sufficient, but also fighting for a better life. “What you get sense of from [the Scurlocks’] pictures from the late 1960s is that currents of change don’t just happen on the National Mall, they happen in people’s neighborhoods.”

“The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise,” with more than 100 prints and artifacts, is the first exhibition in the African-American History Culture Gallery in of the newly renovated National Museum of American History. A National Museum of African American History will open in 2015.

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