Correcting the canon: the underexposed Thomas Askew

A self-portrait of photographer Thomas Askew. Date unknown. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
A self-portrait of photographer Thomas Askew. Date unknown. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

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18oct7:00 pm"It All Started with Thomas Askew"7:00 pm EST SCADShowDiscipline:Art + DesignType of Event:Panel Discussion

Why do not more young colored men and women take up photography as a career? The average white photographer does not know how to deal with colored skins and having neither sense of the delicate beauty of tone nor will to learn, he makes a horrible botch of portraying them.

~ W. E. B. Du Bois, The Crisis magazine, 1923

 

While walking through Oakland Cemetery there’s a sense of Atlanta’s present and past, with the city’s skyline serving as a backdrop to the more than 70,000 graves in the 48-acre Victorian-styled burial ground. Much of the city’s identity has been shaped by Oakland’s inhabitants, which include 27 city mayors, six Georgia governors, author Margaret Mitchell and golfer Bobby Jones. Beyond those “headliners” there are also many more overlooked stories that help tell a different tale about what Atlanta was like in its early generations post-Slavery, stories like that of Georgia Harris, a mammy to a white family who was buried in the family’s plot in the cemetery’s white section — with permission — and whose headstone reads: “In Loving Memory of Our Colored Mammy” and “Who — Though Born a Slave Died the Child of a King.”

Every headstone at Oakland Cemetery tells a story about what Atlanta is and has been, and some stories creep back up in ways that need further examination.

Cited as the most prominent early African-American (or Black) photographer in Atlanta, Thomas Askew’s place in the city’s historical mythology often goes overlooked, but in Oakland Cemetery, where he is buried in a family plot in the cemetery’s African American Grounds, it’s a little easier to get a sense of the life he lived and the company he kept, even now in death. While a burial at Oakland Cemetery doesn’t necessarily mean the deceased attained a certain measure of wealth, there is often at least the assumption that s/he achieved a sense of prominence in life, or at least was born into an esteemed family — so it was with Askew.

Askew’s Atlanta — a city which was busy reshaping and refashioning itself after being the most notable casualty of Sherman’s scorched earth march to Savannah during the Civil War — shares some of the same characteristics we think of now in its current iteration: a Black middle class with upward aspirations, developers leaving their thumbprint on the city’s growth, predominantly Black or white neighborhoods that separated the social strata of the races, and even a streetcar. As noted by Rebecca Burns in Rage In the Gate City: The Story of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot:

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In 1906, Atlanta’s sizable educated, middle-class black community lived in one sphere, while in another lived thousands of wealthy, educated whites. The two groups rarely intersected. Any members of the opposite race these elite Atlantans encountered were mostly likely poor or working-class — and illiterate. Against the publicized backdrop of success of Atlanta’s black and white entrepreneurs and educators, a sizable percentage of the population was still uneducated and living in barely tolerable conditions.

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Not much is known about Askew’s early life. Several sources place his birth in 1847. Though it is not known where he was a slave, we know he was one. In 1869 he married a young seamstress named Mary. According to Herman Mason’s Hidden Treasures: African-American Photographers in Atlanta, 1870-1970, Askew is listed in the 1884 city directory as an employee of the C. W. Motes Studio, where he worked as a printer. In 1896 he and his family moved to 114 Summit Avenue, which would become his home and studio. The Askews had nine children, daughters Minnie, Nellie, and Jeanette and six sons, Robert, Arthur, Walter, Everett and twins Clarence and Norman. It is believed that two of the Askew children, Norman and Jeanette, eventually moved to Michigan and Maryland, respectively, passing for white to pursue better career and social opportunities.

Thomas Askew lived through slavery, the Reconstruction Era and the beginnings of Jim Crow in the American South. As such, he lived in a particular moment of Blackness in Atlanta, and as a photographer took advantage of the opportunity to shape the visual culture around Black people and the identity of Atlanta through his perspective. His work showed Black people in various states of middle-class existence and a diversity of visual identities, and also represented a moment when Black people began to take charge of the representations of their own identity. Black people were framing their own image for public consumption.

As artist Theaster Gates recently exclaimed during his “Black Spaces” lecture/slideshow in Atlanta, “He who owns the frame owns the things inside of the frame.”

Thomas Askew: "Summit Avenue Ensemble, Atlanta, Georgia" (est. date 1899 or 1900). Silver gelatin print. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
Thomas Askew: “Summit Avenue Ensemble, Atlanta, Georgia” (est. date 1899 or 1900). Silver gelatin print. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

The ability to frame and own one’s identity is no small feat; grappling with identity and perception is of historic importance among people of color, many of whom often feel misrepresented and miscast by the news media, commercial advertising and entertainment institutions. In those aforementioned areas, stereotypes are too common, nuances are missed, and representations often lack depth or authenticity. Thus, early Black photographers (and subsequent visual creators) were the early disruptors of the white-controlled visual narrative of Blackness; they were able to present their version of a Black perspective, framed by the authenticity of their experiences, understanding, eye and empathy for their subjects.

That Askew is not better known in Atlanta has to do with how we tell stories and how we remember history, and who gets to craft and control how that history is presented. Pam Henman, Oakland Cemetery’s Marketing and Public Relations Manager, believes a combination of factors contribute to a general lack of awareness of Askew’s prominence, including sparse acknowledgement related to what would have been the most popular display of his work, the American Negro Exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition, and a possible lack of intent on behalf of historians. Explains Henman, “He’s out there, but a lot of people don’t even know to look for him. Why that is, I don’t know.“ She continues:

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His work is beautiful and I think it reflects something that at the time a lot of African-Americans didn’t see. We were told that we were ugly and poor and stupid, and it may be that his work — because it didn’t reflect the status quo of what Black Americans were expected to think about themselves via white America — maybe it was intentionally buried, or lost to the ages just because no one cared enough to preserve it.

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In all that is known about Thomas Askew, from his burial in Oakland Cemetery to his photographs, including images of his own family and prominent community members, there is a strong suggestion that he was among the Atlanta Black elite. Thus, it is not surprising that he would have crossed paths with W. E. B. Du Bois, who would ultimately play a central role in how we eventually come to know more about Askew and his work.

William Edward Burghardt (W. E. B.) Du Bois came to Atlanta in 1897 and was a professor of sociology at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University) from 1897-1910, the first of his two extended stints in Atlanta. In addition to being one of the early practitioners of sociology as an academic discipline, Du Bois was also a historian, activist, author and one of the foremost scholars and public intellectuals during his lifetime. He was the first Black person to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard University, in 1895, and later was one of the co-founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Additionally, it was in Atlanta that Du Bois wrote some of his most influential works, including The Souls of Black Folk, as well as many essays appearing in journals and publications of the time. Sociology was a relatively new field at the turn of the 20th century, and Du Bois focused much his academic research in Atlanta to studies about the conditions of Black people, often with a focus on the American South.

As the 1900 Paris Exposition was approaching, Thomas Calloway, a lawyer and classmate of Du Bois from their days at Fisk University, had an idea for an exhibition that would highlight the progress of American Negroes nearly 40 years after slavery. He sent letters out to over a hundred prominent Black leaders of the day, including Booker T. Washington, who reached out to President McKinley for support. Washington’s appeal to McKinley netted fifteen thousand dollars from Congress to fund the exhibit, and armed with these funds Calloway enlisted the help of Du Bois and Daniel Murray, Assistant to the Librarian of Congress, to gather the materials needed.

Murray, the son of a freed slave, who would go on to serve the Library of Congress for over 50 years, assembled written material, including a bibliography of 1,400 titles, 200 books, and most of the 150 periodicals published by Black Americans. Du Bois was also given $2,500 and a dozen or so clerks to conduct research in Georgia for the exhibition, which was chosen “because it had the largest Negro population and because it is a leader in Southern sentiment,” according to Calloway.

The final collection included 363 photographs compiled by Du Bois presented in albums entitled “Types of American Negroes, Georgia, U.S.A.” and “Negro Life in Georgia, U.S.A”; three albums entitled “The Black Code of Georgia, U.S.A.,” which contained transcribed Georgia state laws at the time relating to African-Americans; and 72 drawings of charts, graphs, and maps showing statistical and census data. Both Calloway and Du Bois were awarded gold medals for the exhibition — Calloway for his work in conceiving the overall exhibit, and Du Bois for his research related to Georgia.

The photographers were never identified during the exhibit, and it wasn’t until many decades later when researchers began to investigate the collection that Atlanta photographer Thomas Askew was identified as a prominent contributor. In fact, in all of his writings, W. E. B. Du Bois only wrote one sentence about the photographs in the Exposition: “There are several volumes of photographs of typical Negro faces, which hardly square with conventional American ideas.” Soon after the rediscovery of the collection the Library of Congress published a 2005 book entitled A Small Nation of People: W. E. B. Du Bois and African American Portraits of Progress with Deborah Willis, Ph.D. and Pulitzer Prize winner David Levering Lewis, which serves as the prime reference for most of what we know now about this collection and its history.

Thomas Askew: "African American girl, full-length portrait, seated on stool, facing slightly right." (est. date1899 or 1900). Silver gelatin. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.
Thomas Askew: “African American girl, full-length portrait, seated on stool, facing slightly right” (est. date 1899 or 1900). Silver gelatin. Image courtesy the Library of Congress.

The images attributed to Askew from the Paris exhibition depict community leaders, families, musicians, students and more, embodying a wide range of skin tones, hair texture and style, in addition to a sense of refinement that both challenged the perceived white exclusivity of middle-class identity and, more importantly, the notion of what Black “looks like.” By calling “Blackness” into question, these images also served to call “whiteness” into question as well. According to Willis in Small Nation of People:

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I would argue that black photographers and their subjects believed that defining their own identity was a significant step in the fight against negative representations. Photography played a role in shaping people’s ideas about identity and sense of self; it informed African American social consciousness and motivated black people by offering an “other” view of the black subject. In a sense, photography was used as what I call “subversive resistance.”

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That we even have access to some of Thomas Askew’s work today or can extrapolate his legacy into current terms is a testament to the researchers and archivists who care and preserve the culture for future generations. Auburn Avenue Research Library, which has a few original Askew photographs in its archive and is located in the same section of Atlanta that he would have likely frequented, is one of those institutions dedicated to preserving both Black culture and its importance to the city.

According to its website, the Atlanta Public Library service opened in 1902, and Blacks were excluded from service under the era’s Jim Crow laws until 1921, when the Auburn Branch of the Carnegie Library of Atlanta opened at 333 Auburn Avenue. This branch was in operation until 1959, the year the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System desegregated, and its Negro History Collection was housed at multiple library locations around the city until 1994, when the current Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History opened at 101 Auburn Avenue at the corner of Auburn Avenue and Courtland Street.

However, as much as we know, there’s so much we don’t know because of what doesn’t get preserved and is left to chance. The reasons for this vary, but family and historical photo archives often go overlooked or undocumented without understanding their possible significance to institutions interested in preserving those items for future generations. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Archivists are always looking for keys to the past and rely on donations to keep their collection relevant. According to Derek Mosley, Archivist at the Auburn Avenue Research Library:

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We collect within many different subjects. The process starts with a discussion between the potential donor and the staff here at Auburn. We discuss what types of materials are being donated. The items can range from personal documents, diaries, business records, photographs and many other items. We want to make sure that the Auburn Avenue Research Library is the best home for the collection.

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The current frontier of photography has now taken us into the era of digital photography and beyond with social media, and we live in a time where individuals have more power than ever to stretch the limits of both image making and distribution, allowing for arguably more control over how they fashion their personas. However, despite this increased individuality and autonomy, the notion of framing Black identity still presents a challenge in the context of the media. The social media hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown is just one example of individuals recognizing the role photography plays in shaping the narrative of how people of color are perceived, while also providing visual counterexamples to disrupt stereotypes.

And as we move deeper into a digital future, there must be even more attention paid to the archival process in order to add to the continuum of cultural preservation, especially with respect to the “born digital” items in today’s mobile devices and digital media platforms. “We are working now to create a strategy and policies for collecting digital media,” says Mosley. “We want to be able to capture and document current events in African-American culture as well as make sure that it is accessible for future research.”

Not far from the library, back over at Oakland Cemetery, there are also efforts underway to clarify its history for present and future generations. One of the most disturbing moments in the cemetery’s past occurred in 1877, when hundreds of Black bodies — buried in what was considered prime real estate after the cemetery expanded beyond its initial six acres — were exhumed and displaced to what is now the African American Grounds. Because the African-American burial traditions of the time utilized natural markers like wood, shrubbery, or flowers, many of the grave markers in the 3.5-acre area have eroded over time.

Oakland Cemetery recently embarked upon a Ground Penetrating Radar project and surveyed every square inch of the African American Grounds, identifying nearly 900 unmarked burials. The cemetery is now figuring out the specifics of each burial and cross-referencing those findings with burial records to possibly find descendants and appropriately mark the gravesites. In this effort, Oakland Cemetery is actively seeking for input from the community to help reconcile family histories with these burial records. “We’re really relying on the public a lot to come out and learn and share their stories with us,” Henman continues, “And we want to hear those stories and hear those names and see if we can put the pieces of the puzzle together.”

Thomas Askew: "Daughter of Thomas E. Askew, head-and-shoulders portrait, seated, right hand on cheek, with open book" (est. date 1899 or 1900). Silver gelatin. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
Thomas Askew: “Daughter of Thomas E. Askew, head-and-shoulders portrait, seated, right hand on cheek, with open book” (est. date 1899 or 1900). Silver gelatin. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

Thomas Askew died on July 12, 1914, after an extended illness, and upon his death according to Mason, the local paper The Atlanta Independent described him as one of “Atlanta’s oldest and most efficient photographers.” While the life of Thomas Askew ended in 1914, his story effectively “ends” with the Great Atlanta Fire of 1917, in which his former home, studio, and all of his photographic equipment was destroyed. That fire, which destroyed more than 300 acres and 1,900 buildings and displaced over 10,000 people, forever changed the Old Fourth Ward area of the city.

More than 100 years after Askew’s death, Black visual culture of, in and from Atlanta still continues to frame important ideas of what it means to be Black in Atlanta and elsewhere, but with more nuances and platforms to present those perspectives. Sheila Pree Bright, including her award-winning Suburbia series, Carlton Mackey’s 50 Shades of Black and the work of the Sistagraphy Collective are just a few of the many examples of photographic framers of Black identity in the city, along with the important long lineage of Hip-Hop influencers (e.g. The Dungeon Family and Donald Glover) who continue to export their perspectives of Blackness and Black Atlanta throughout the world through music, videos, and television.

However, what is dramatically different about Atlanta in 2016 than in 1914 is that we now have a clear choice and a voice in how to acknowledge, preserve, and honor current Black culture and its influence. History gets archived when there is intentional recognition of the value of cultural achievements and moments of the day, combined with sincere effort and resources to tell and preserve those stories. Thus, it is up to all of us — the countless policy makers, political figures, community leaders, artists, educators, business people, city advocates and yes, even ordinary Atlanta citizens — to insist that Black culture and Black identity, past and present, are afforded a seat at the table when it comes to framing the official narratives that define our city, and that those stories and names are spoken loudly to the world and, more importantly, here at home. That’s the best way to remember Thomas Askew and honor his legacy, as well as the many others forgotten over time.

 

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