Francis Benjamin Johnston (1864-1952) took the above photograph at Whittier Primary School, in Hampton, Virginia. It shows a group of African American kindergartners taking part in a lesson on washing and ironing clothing. It’s really interesting to me that it is both boys and girls working on domestic pursuits, and at such a young age. Taken around 1899, this image provides a glimpse of the employment opportunities available to young African Americans. Even at such an early age, these children were expected to help their mother around the house. And around 12 or 13, the girls could employ themselves as laundresses or even maids for white families.
I don’t think this photograph is staged-maybe for the teacher it is, but the kids seem intent on their tasks. They don’t look very excited either. The classroom is extremely bare: there are no chairs for the children to sit, nor are there any sort of desks beside the two tables pressed together to make their ironing board. On the back wall, there’s a small wooden shelf as a makeshift dollhouse and an upright piano.
A little about Johnston: She was one of the earliest recognized American female photographers and photojournalists. Educated in Paris, her career as a photographer began with portraiture. She began a studio in Washington DC, photographing individuals such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Susan B. Anthony, Booker T. Washington, Andrew Carnegie, George Washington Carver, among many many others. She even became the primary photography during the Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Taft presidential terms. Throughout the late 1890s, Johnston traveled to two prominent African American institutes, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and the Hampton Institute in Virginia, in order to photograph African Americans in vocational settings. Not only did she provide great documentary evidence of African Americans in higher education, but she highlighted the continued separation between white and blacks.
If you get a chance, take a look at her beautiful images-not just the ones from the Hampton or Tuskegee series-through the Library of Congress.
Berch, Bettina. The Woman Behind the Lens: The Life and Work of Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1864-1952. University of Virginia Press, 2000. Print.