A well-known portrait of Henry Martin, a former slave and University of Virginia bell-ringer at the turn of the 20th Century, tells the story of the “good and happy” slave, a Lost Cause delusion that made white people comfortable following the Civil War.
The 10-foot tall portrait of Martin that hangs in the “Visions of Progress” exhibit at the UVa Albert & Shirley Small Collections Library tells a completely different story of his life and image. According to the blurb beside the portrait, Martin did not have a say in most of the photos that others took of him over the years, but he intentionally commissioned the one featured in the exhibit.
Martin’s portrait is impossible to miss among more than 600 portraits of Black people from the Charlottesville and Albermarle county areas, which were captured by the Charlottesville-based Holsinger Studio.
The towering photo glows in front of a lightbox beside a display case with the archived portraits for which Martin sat throughout his lifetime.
After over 80 years of enduring slavery, low-wage work and Jim Crow-era policies, Martin has become a historical figure at the University of Virginia.
Born into slavery at Monticello in 1828, Martin spent the first 40 years of his life working for several slaveholders, including the Carr family, the namesake of Carr’s Hill in Charlottesville.
Gaining his freedom after the Civil War, Martin worked odd jobs at UVa along with a stint as a farmhand at an Albemarle County farm. He began as a permanent janitor and bell ringer for the university in 1868.
The formerly student-run yearbook “Corks & Curls” ran a now-infamous photo of Martin ringing the bell in the Rotunda in a feature titled “Uncle Henry.”
The feature included Martin’s personal account of his life up until that point. At a time when UVa only admitted white students, the yearbook staff printed the story in a “Negro dialect,” a style that was used to mock formerly enslaved Black people. The white population at UVa became familiar with Martin and often called him “Uncle Henry.” One sentence reads, “I dun know why they named me Henry Martin. Ole Missus got it out’n a book.”
But Martin took it upon himself to have the Holsinger portrait taken when David M.R. Culbreth requested one for his biography, “Henry Martin.”
“The portrait that Martin presented to Culbreth befitted his role as a deacon at First Baptist Church,” the passage reads. “It shows no sign of his job as a janitor and bell ringer and no trace of the university. Instead, it shows Martin’s dignity and conviction that he was inferior to no one.”
Martin’s commissioned portrait embodies the spirit of the collection, which maintains that Black Central Virginians were people of class, dignity, style and panache during some of the most difficult periods to be Black in America.
In the early 20th century, the most common employment options for Black men and women involved demanding domestic work and exhausting physical labor jobs for low wages. While many in the Black community had to work to maintain white spaces while receiving barely enough money to maintain their own, these portraits do not portray that struggle.
Martin’s is just one of four large portraits featuring subjects with stories that reach far beyond their employment history.
“These are African Americans showing themselves the way they want to be seen and contrast these portraits with all the demeaning caricatures and racial stereotypes that were floating around America in this era,” said John Edwin Mason, director of the Holsinger Studio Portrait Project and a UVa employee. “These portraits were fighting against that. The portraits represent a variety of different things. They are hopes in dreams. They are, in part, what people wish to be, but they are also representative of who they are.”
Bill Hurley was a Black man who was born into slavery and worked as a coachman, manual laborer, porter and a stable hand for a wealthy white lawyer. The lawyer became the last person to be publicly hanged in Charlottesville.
In his portrait, Hurley sits with a powerful masculine presence and the potential of a budding male model.
DeTeasa Gathers, a Charlottesville native, UVa employee and co-chair of the Descendants of Enslaved Community at UVa, was able to identify her great-grandmother, Eileen Buckner, who posed beside her own grandfather in one of the portraits in the collection.
Entire families sat for portraits. While some, like the Washington family sat for individual photos over a span of six years, others sat with all generations of their unit together.
“We want to transform the way that everyone in Central Virginia sees their history,” Mason said. “When I say ‘their history,’ I mean in two different senses. I mean to see literally history when we talk about African Americans in the first decade of the 20th century.”