Picturing the Promise

A couple of months ago, whilst visiting my mom in DC for her birthday, we took advantage of the Smithson endowment and museum hopped on The Mall. One notable exhibition is The Scurlock Studio and Black Washington: Picturing the Promise. A collaborative effort of the National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian’s soon-to-open National Museum of African American History and Culture, the exhibit features over 100 images from the photographic works of the Scurlock family, spanning several decades of the 20th century.

Like Harlem’s James VanDerZee and Pittsburgh’s Teenie Harris, Addison Scurlock was one of many photographic chroniclers of regional Black life. The often- unheralded documentarians of their communities, these artists have through their lenses bequeathed us a lasting record of the inspiration, aspiration, travails and triumphs of the 20th century African-American experience.

Born in Fayetteville, NC in 1883, Addison Scurlock became an apprentice to notable white portrait photographer, Moses P. Rice (President Abraham Lincoln among his subjects) when at 17; he relocated with his family to Washington, DC where his father eventually established a law practice.

By 1904, Addison had built a solid clientele of his own within the Black community having photographed renowned poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. In 1907 after having married Mamie Estelle Fearing (she would be his business manager for more than 50 years) he opened his first photographic studio in their T Street home. As the business grew, he moved the studio to a neighboring space on U Street, where he practiced his craft until the age of eighty. His sons Robert and George, who’d trained under the tutelage of their father in composition, lighting and expert, undetectable retouching, all hallmarks of the coveted “Scurlock look,” worked alongside their father for many years, established the Capitol School of Photography (one notable student, the newspaper photographer, Jacqueline Bouvier, attended before she became Mrs. John F. Kennedy) and bought the business from the elder Scurlock upon his retirement in 1963.

The Scurlock Brothers would expand the business to include custom film processing through their Custom Craft division and continue their father’s portraiture legacy until 1977 when in spite of efforts to acquire historic landmark status, the Studio at 900 U Street was razed for subway construction of the Metro Green Line. Fortunately, the Scurlock Studio Collection (thousands of images, negatives and photographic equipment) was donated to the Smithsonian Institution and forms the basis of the exhibition up through February 28, 2010. The beautiful exhibition catalogue with a foreword by Deborah Willis is available for $35 (not bad for a 225-page hardcover book)


Addison and Mamie Scurlock, c.1910’s


Howard College Dramatic Club, 1911


The Black-owned Whitelaw Hotel with 3 Cabs in Driveway, c.1920s


The Effie Moore Dancers, c.1920’s


Dunbar High School Champion Basketball Team, 1922, features a young Charles Drew, fourth from the right, before earning his place in history for his pioneering work in developing the blood bank concept.


The Murray Brothers Printing Company, 1925, was home to The Washington Tribune newspaper and steps away from the entrpreneurial F.H.M Murray’s other business, the Murray Palace Casino.


Poet Esther Popel Shaw with Daughter Patricia, 1930


Charles Drew and Red Cross Medical Team, c.1940-1941. Photographed nearly twenty years after his championship basketball season, Dr. Drew had recently been granted his doctorate and was spearheading the “Blood for Britain” program instituted in World War II to save the lives of Allied forces.


Lt. and Mrs. U.S. Ricks, c.1942-1945 curatorial commentary


Picketing “Gone With the Wind” outside the Lincoln Theatre, 1947. Rufus Byars, minstrel performer and manager of the theater is the stooped figure to the left.


Capitol School of Photography, c.1947-1952, where notable student, Jacqueline Bouvier honed her skills as “Inquiring Photographer” for the Washington Times-Herald before becoming the First Lady of the United States.


Ethical Pharmacy, 1950. Proudly African-American owned, this drug store was “ethically” run by proprietor, L.S. Terry on Florida Avenue.


Workers at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, 1951, performing what appears to be the process of tissue separating, removing the sheets of tissue placed between freshly minted paper currency.


George, Robert and Addison Scurlock Looking at Photographs, 1950

Above photographs are all from the exhibition and are featured in the catalogue.


Iconic images of Ernest E. Just and Madam C.J. Walker, both photographed by Addison Scurlock in the early 20th century have been used in the US Postal Service’s Black Heritage postage stamp series.


And on a personal note, when my parents married, the occasion was documented by another excellent DC photographer and family friend, Edward Fletcher. Upon viewing the images, my mama realized that though there were no existing “couple” photos of her beloved grandparents, one could be created from a shot in her wedding album. However, Mr. Fletcher did not retouch, nor recompose. Mom knew who did and went straight to Scurlock Studio. Not bad for the pre-Photoshop era.


9 Responses

  1. Wow! These (their) images are beautiful.

  2. You know I loooooooooooooove this. These images are like the old family pictures that I grew up with. I marvel at the beauty.
    Even when they were out protesting civil rights in 40’s and 50’s, people had beautiful suits and dresses on like they were going to church.
    This was very nice
    Thanks Sharon

  3. PS my father went to Dunbar HS in DC.

  4. ahhhh ! love this – i wanna go home :(!!

  5. Just another reminder of the beauty of us…thanks Sharon!

  6. What a beautiful article. Thank you for taking the time to post pictures. I definitely want to check it out next time I’m in DC!

  7. Sharon, you’re so boffo! Simply delightful!

    You yourself, are not half-bad as a chronicler of our times.

  8. This is an amazing post!!! I’m doing grad research on some of Scurlock’s photos. I’m also looking at Gordon Parks’ D.C. photos (they are on the loc.gov website).

  9. I took the “DC in Black” tour back in Feburary, and we pass most of the locations pictured. It was a very informative tour of Black Washington. I still love looking at them, Scurlock was such a great photographer.

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