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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Families by Scurlock

It has been really fun for me to watch people’s reactions when I reveal that I spent my summer looking at pictures at the Smithsonian. Of course, it’s much more than that, but the bulk of my time was spent viewing and analyzing family portraits. Over ten weeks, I worked closely with David Haberstich in the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History. I examined portraits from the vast Scurlock Studio collection, and thoroughly enjoyed my time there.

I enjoy looking at photographs. At home and on my own time, I can spend hours going through my family’s old scrapbooks. I like to pretend to be a detective and find connections between the photographs that were not discussed or are frequently overlooked by the elders in my family. I am interested in race and class dynamics, and viewed the Scurlock Studio collection to shed light on the black middle class of Washington, D.C.

Self-portrait of the young Addison Scurlock with his future wife Mamie, ca. 1910. Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
After going through at least 100 boxes, some small and some large, of photo prints and negatives, I was very happy to come across a specific sub-collection of photos of strictly families. I spent hours viewing the photos, taking notes, and comparing them. To my surprise, for the most part, all of the family portraits looked the same. Depending on the time period, as the Scurlock Studio was open for 83 years, the backdrops were the same, the poses the same, and the clothing colors were all the same. If I used the Scurlock Studio to define the middle class based on these family portraits, I would say that the black middle class was composed of 1) stylish people, 2) Howard University graduates, and 3) nuclear families.

It is very clear that style and fashion were of major importance to the black middle class in Washington. In the earliest photographs from the collection, individuals wore elegant gowns and dapper suits. As time passed, the black middle class paid attention to fashion trends and seemed to wear their Sunday Best in the portraits. Many of the photos in this collection showed young black professionals and recent Howard University graduates with their families. The men often stood behind their wives and children, and children who recently graduated donned their graduation cap and gown. This showed the importance of education and pride in educational achievements among the black middle class. Men who served in the armed forces proudly displayed their military uniforms. Well-dressed children appear happy and privileged, having solo photo shoots with children’s toys and other props. The family portraits show the characteristics that were important to the black middle class and coincide with narratives of black middle class families in popular culture.

As I viewed these photographs, I connected their “look” to the many television shows of black families that have dominated primetime television, one of the most recognizable and influential family shows being The Cosby Show. In several instances, I could hardly differentiate the two, as the families captured by the Scurlock Studio seemed like exact replicas of TV families. Additionally, as the time period changed, I thought of other television shows such as "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," "My Wife and Kids," and "Black-ish." Many of these portraits reaffirmed these shows as portraying realistic family structures representations on television.

While I am proud to say that I awesomely spent the summer digging through family portraits and drawing the connections between them, I am now more excited to continue my research on black middle class family structures. It is clear that the Scurlocks dealt with a specific clientele in Washington, but I am interested in revealing what they did not capture. There were very few photographs in the collection of a single parent and child(ren). In these instances, because the portraits are not all labeled or dated, it is difficult to know if the parents were indeed single or if the other parent was absent. We know that the images of mothers and children that were taken for Ebony magazine "'Gold Star Wives' series" are women whose husbands were away in the military. For these clearly middle class (or even upper-middle class) women, background information is available, but unfortunately, each photograph in the collection does not have a similar description.

My archival research in the Scurlock Studio collection raised many unforeseen questions. Are the families with in-home portraits wealthier than those families with in-studio portraits? Who determined the poses? The photographer? The family? Why did some family portraits include the parents and children only, while others included grandparents and in-laws? Who made these decisions? As these photographs show what the middle class physically looked like between the periods of 1911-1994, they force me to wonder how other families who also fit middle class descriptions looked in Washington.

Aysha L. Preston, Visiting Graduate Student, Summer 2015
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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