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Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Scurlock Photography Studio: A Look into Black Washington during the 20th Century

Miss Lewis Johnson's wedding, 1940s
During this semester as an intern at the Archives Center, my primary task is rehousing negatives from the Scurlock Studio Records. These records consist of photographic negatives and prints, and business records. The Scurlock Studio was a family-run photographic business founded by Addison Scurlock. Born in 1883, he started his own business in 1904 at his parents’ home on Florida Avenue, Washington, D.C., and opened his studio on U Street, N.W., in 1911. His sons George and Robert continued the business after his death in 1964 until it closed in 1994.

Representing ninety years of African American history, the collection documents the studio’s operations. Most of the studio’s clients were African Americans who lived in the U Street area, and Shaw and LeDroit Park areas of Northwest Washington D.C. During the past six weeks, three of my fellow interns and I have worked on this vast and wonderful collection. We have specifically handled the numerous black-and-white and color negatives, which we rehouse in acid-free paper enclosures for long-term preservation. We then enter each client name, job and box number into an Excel spreadsheet, which I personally enjoy doing.  Recording Scurlock’s clients on the spreadsheet makes the collection more accessible to researchers.

Major Charles H. Fearing, ca. 1945

The first negatives I rehoused were black-and-white negatives dating from the 1940s and 1950s. The clients’ names are sometimes extremely hard to decipher. Much of the penmanship on the earlier negatives is in cursive and hard to read, so my fellow interns and I would look up the client’s name according to job number and date in the studio’s registries. I have developed an admiration for the different hair and fashion styles of the era. An individual looking at the negative could get a clear idea of the time period by observing styles of clothing and hair. The same thought extends to the color negatives I have handled.  These negatives start around 1960, and at this point we are rehousing negatives from the 1970s. Again, I enjoy looking at the clothes people wore during these decades. I was especially amused by the number of clients who showed off their Afro hairstyles and colorful business suits and dresses.

Scurlock not only served as a photographer of black Washington D.C. but as the official photographer for Howard University. Among the many negatives I have rehoused are images of graduates from its different schools, including the Schools of Medicine, Pharmacy, and Engineering and Architecture. I believe Scurlock was on a mission to capture the educated African American in his photographs, demonstrating to the world that blacks are an important part of society. In addition, I have seen negatives depicting the many special occasions that were photographed by the Scurlock Studio, including weddings, debutante balls, and christenings. With respect to planning a wedding, I recall a quote from an individual who knew Scurlock: “If a couple did not hire Scurlock as their photographer, they were not considered married.” This statement exemplifies how the studio evolved into a business that was very much entrenched in D.C.'s
Mrs. Ann Waller and family, 1950
African American community.

In early February, my fellow interns and I walked the U Street Heritage Tour to acquire a sense of the community Scurlock served in his studio. As we walked, we soon came across the actual Studio site, which is now a local sports bar. I noticed that the area still has some of the historic places we have come across, including the Lincoln Theatre and Lincoln Colonnade. The Lincoln Theatre served as U Street’s first movie house and hosted vaudeville acts. The Colonnade served as a public hall for social gatherings and entertainment.  
Dr. G.H. Shumate, ca. 1950
Two other places we saw were the Howard Theater and Howard University, which also provide a good representation of the African American history embedded in the community. Over the weeks of handling the collection, I can conclude that the Scurlock Studio Records reflects on the
accomplishments and affluence of D.C.’s African American community. The affluence is shown
by the variety of clientele the Scurlocks photographed, including physicians, lawyers, judges, clergymen, and college graduates. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad I stumbled across this site! Your commentary on the life and times of 1950s Washington D.C. and the Scurlock's business was terrific. I love seeing the photos of these beautiful, prominent, affluent African Americans. Hearing about your process for organizing and preserving these photos and negatives was fun, too. Many thanks for sharing this adventure of yours!